Fatal Encounter

Francis Durbridge
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2010)

Durbridge’s most famous creation is the writer/detective Paul Temple which he wrote in 1938 at the age of twenty six as an eight part serial for radio. It was so popular that around twenty or more shows followed until a taste for sex and violence took over and detectives became more psychologically involved. This prolific writer and astute business man was also as popular with his writing for TV and film, and has about thirty five novels to his credit, turning in later life, and equally successfully, to the theatre.

This show is not exactly a ‘murder/mystery’ - we see what happens at the beginning. The suspense is wondering why - and there are a great many ‘whys’ to keep an audience intrigued to the last. Why is Joanna so nervous and behaving strangely, did the inspector once have a beard or might he be an impostor, what is the significance of the art work on the walls, how did a stolen handbag come to be still intact outside the front door, and who is the mysterious Mrs. Clayton? Blackmail rears its ugly head too. All these - and many more - clues and false leads are woven with intricate precision into a meticulously constructed plot by this master of mystery and suspense.

Anita Harris is, as always, excellent as the nervous, frightened, worried Joanna, hugging herself for comfort and reassurance as she tries to stop trembling (or maybe she was cold) while Michael Howe (on stage throughout) as husband Howard takes charge of both her and the play as he proceeds to give instructions and, with a very commanding presence and convincing performance, tries to uncover the mystery while staying one step ahead of the villains - or is he all he seems?

Dialogue is foremost in Durbridge’s writing, the most important ingredient for radio, and this play is no exception, enunciated clearly and with expression by all performers. It is the rather tricky ‘action’ scenes of a scuffle, shooting and stabbing which falter slightly, giving the impression that they are rather under-rehearsed or not given enough attention in direction. Imagination when listening to a radio play can be so much more graphic than the visual element.

Eminent actors Neil Stacey (Howard’s End and Room with a View) and Nicholas Ball (James Hazell in the television series) are justifiably given top billing with Anita Harris, bringing life to the characters of art dealer Mark Adler and police inspector Coldwell, ably assisted by Miranda Magee, Susan Skipper, Aaron Bixley, Michael Kirk and Matthew Carrington.

There are ten scenes in two acts, all taking place in the living room of a large house in London’s Holland Park, and the curtain rose and fell between each one - somewhat unnecessarily I would have thought with the action taking place over only three days, although it did emphasise the passage of time. And here is another mystery. Who designed the most excellently detailed and attractive set and costumes? I could find no credit in the programme.

There are a few loose ends that are not explained, but, with so many complications in the plot, who would notice! The style may be dated but with such cleverly intricate plots Durbridge will never go completely out of fashion - his Paul Temple mysteries are currently being broadcast on Radio Seven. An entertaining and intriguing evening on a cold winter’s night - enough to even distract from politics and the weather.

Touring to Crewe, Darlington, Tunbridge Wells and Plymouth

Steve Burbridge reviewed this production in Darlington

Reviewer: Sheila Connor