Murder She Writes

Craig Hepworth, Stuart Reeve

Vertigo Theatre Productions

King's Arms Salford

From 05 May 2016 to 11 May 2016

Review by Andrew Edwards

Murder She Writes is a fast-paced comedy thriller with original songs parodying '70s US detective shows and soaps. It is heavily influenced by Twin Peaks but also references Murder She Wrote, Columbo, Baywatch and a whole host of others from Dynasty to Quincy along the way.

Set in Cabot Cove, the fictional home of TV’s Jessica Fletcher, this romp has a motley assortment of the sort of over-the-top characters we’ve come to love from Vertigo Theatre productions. They are all recognisable types from detective and soap genres: the ageing male hunk, the ditzy sexpot, the ineffectual police chief and the apparently squeaky clean young lovers who turn out to be anything but.

At the start, Jessica Fletcher has been locked away for some years leaving the other members of the town to vie for position of top detecting dog. She returns to take up her place at the top again just as Paula Lamer has turned up dead, rolled in cellophane, on the town’s beach.

This is of course a mash-up of Twin Peaks and Murder She Wrote. For no apparent reason, Lieutenant Columbo, Mitch from Baywatch and Knight Rider aka David Hassellhoff are also there, there is a competition among the three to solve this one.

It's all great fun. There are also original and very tuneful songs which are belted out with gusto from all of the cast. Perhaps the most successful number is the duet between Colombo and Mitch where they miss their old heydays before DNA and the newer scientific techniques left them behind. The canes and song and dance steps are very well done.

There is also the quartet which is a sort of a detecting tango, which has very good choreography that uses the small playing area very effectively with most of the players onstage as a dancing chorus.

The first half ends with a bravura set piece where a character is rescued from the sea, represented by a silk waved in front of the actors. Both halves run for 70 minutes which feels the right length but the music level was too loud and, in the first half particularly, drowned out many of the witty lyrics, which was a great pity.

The humour is broad and bawdy throughout, for example where Jessica Fletcher unconsciously and outrageously wields a phallus as in her absence her house has become a brothel. Various characters have lusty clinches and one character, Bud the Stud, aptly demonstrates why he is so-called.

The performances are all very well judged within the adult pantomimic playing style. There is a sustained level of comic frenzy on the part of all the players. The cast is on the large side with 11 performers, all giving fine comic performances with most doubling up. Particular kudos is due however to the four principals who drive the production.

Dale Vicker gives a superbly controlled comic drag performance as Jessica Fletcher. His costumes and his facial expressions are a joy to behold. He has the best comic timing of all the performers.

Richard Allen has the right blend of mock macho hunk energy and huge dollops of goofiness. Stuart Reeve reminds us of his whiny Gramma Frank character from an earlier Vertigo romp and it’s a welcome grotesque reprise right down to his beauty spot. Ash Preston as Detective Columbo has the appropriate down-at-heel sense fused with earnestness that Peter Falk always manifested.

Natalie-Ann Stanley, a Vertigo newcomer making her professional debut, brings a sassy gusto and strong sense of the off-kilter to her performance of Donna. She looks like Velma from Scooby Doo but is not as goody-goody. Nic Grundison, another Vertigo debutante, makes a fine fist of the feisty Loretta and also turns in a spectacular cartwheel in a dance sequence.

Special mention also to Paul Worrall who composed the melodic music for the production and makes a big impact as the send-up of porn males, Bud the Stud. Final plaudit to Sean Roberts who makes an unforgettable Wendy Jo who at one point is doing yoga postures and seems in a world of his own most of the time. His stage presence is extraordinary.

The open playing area is well utilised, although sometimes it feels a bit crowded when all players are in a scene. The back-projection is also very well done and the captions nicely send up the links from old detective shows. It was also very pleasing to see the credit sequences from many favourite shows.

The sustained comic energy and inventiveness in this production make it huge fun from start to finish. You will recognise most of your favourite US detective shows from the '70s and '80s plus nods to recent hit Orange is the New Black. This reviewer's favourite moment is when Richard Allen’s self-obsessed character Mitch apologises for his momentary lapse but he’s been startled by his reflection in the sea.