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Deadly Murder

David Foley
The Mill at Sonning

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Act One of David Foley's Deadly Murder is the Mill at Sonning at its best.

It's got everything you associate with the venerable dinner theatre's thriller oeuvre - recognisable faces in the cast, a high standard of realism in the set design, guns and knives in the props cupboard, and blackmail, murder, cross and double cross aplenty in the script.

What's more, all the usual drawbacks - overacting, twists justifiable only in spite of established characterisation, Bond-villain stereotypes - are conspicuous by their absence.

Rula Lenska is Camille Dargus, a wealthy jewellery designer taken hostage in her opulent Manhattan penthouse by Billy (Steven Clarke), a handsome young waiter she picked up at a society party. Speculation over Billy's motives drives the first act: is he a dimwitted would-be blackmailer or a prodigious manipulator, and what does he actually want from Camille?

Lenska and Clarke (in his professional stage debut) dominate proceedings, pitting her dry gallows humour against his threatening, cocksure unpredictability. Like all the best villains, Billy has an unpleasant but nigglingly persuasive worldview: have a plan, however amoral, for every conceivable eventuality, and the odds will always be stacked in your favour.

Tony O'Callaghan's security guard Ted, the third of the three-hander, is a mere hapless gull to both parties, acting more as a lever with which each can attempt to dislodge the other from their position of power than as a plot-driver in his own right.

Similarly, O'Callaghan and Clarke are unable to compete with Lenska's faultless American accent, which cannot help but expose the flaws in both their more obviously strenuous efforts. But in Act One you feel you can forgive the cast the odd slip - and in Act Two accents are the least of your worries.

Act Two is where all the Mill's usual drawbacks show up. Not to drop too big a spoiler, the interval cliffhanger deprives the second act of the play's driving force and its most enjoyable interactions (literally) in a single blow; from there on the pace sags noticeably, with only the story's core mystery left to sustain interest.

It's downhill from there, with much of the act given over to tracts of backstory masquerading as further twists in the tale - though at least Foley ensures there's always a convincing justification for the characters not to simply walk away or contact the authorities.

Deadly Murder is still one of the best thrillers the Mill has staged in recent years. It's just a shame to see the theatre doing its thing to such a high standard, only to slip back into bad habits with the curtain line already in sight.

Until 31 May

Reviewer: Matt Boothman