The Murder Game
King's Head Theatre, Islington
James Farwell is, first and foremost, an attorney and political consultant. The Murder Game is his first foray into playwriting and he's sticking to what he knows: the legal community of his native New Orleans.
The plot is pure farce. There's a criminal on the loose with a murderous vendetta against Katherine Kelly (Josefina Gabrielle), the judge that put him away. Her unfaithful husband Randall (Michael Praed) orders a hit on her too, for a variety of apparently justifiable reasons, so she orders one back in self-defence.
At the same time Katherine's on the rebound with Brazilian ex-footballer turned crime writer Pito Pinto (Ben Jones), and her prosecutor friend Melvin (Patrick Clancy) is running up gambling debts on her office phone.
It's a promising set-up for a farce. The stakes are certainly high. Lives are on the line, and both Katherine and Randall are public figures - he's running for District Attorney - with a lot to lose should their questionably legal behaviour come to light.
The problem is that Farwell hasn't written a farce, despite having a great scenario for one. All the onstage characters are in on it, so instead of hiding their sordid affairs from one another, they're all united in concealing them from the impersonal, unseen (and therefore unthreatening) threat of The Media.
Perhaps Farwell didn't set out to write a farce. Fair enough. But as the pressure mounts, his characters act with the escalating idiocy of farce characters, without the frantic pace the genre uses to excuse it. Farwell's characters have time to consider, and they still act stupidly.
Chalk that one up to inexperience with the venerable old modes of theatre, perhaps. But the play has other, less easily excusable flaws, not least of which is a tendency to tell, not show - breaking one of the cardinal rules of playwriting.
Rather than demonstrate their flaws, vices and virtues through action, characters are exhaustively described by one another. Randall reels off Katherine's character crib sheet as an explanation for his infidelity. Melvin describes Pito's every facet to Randall and proceeds to explain precisely his influence on Katherine's behaviour. It makes for unexciting, static staging.
Jones, Clancy and Matt Healy as hitman Clyde all have a grasp on the kind of play The Murder Game is trying to be, and play accordingly for laughs. Melvin is high (though thankfully not screaming) camp, and Pito is the stereotypical Latin loverboy. The two leads are scripted a little more in earnest, though their behaviour is no less outrageous, so Gabrielle and Praed have a harder time reconciling their performances with the play's muddled tone.
In fact, Praed is a little too convincing. With a charming, trustworthy smile and uninflected delivery, he sounds like a politician reading his lines off an autocue.
Frequent video interludes - showcasing parodied but worryingly still realistic campaign ads - can't keep the play from feeling dated. The second act dinner party in particular is a long-abandoned theatrical tradition.
You can't fault Farwell's legal knowledge, which is used but not overused; but a little more knowledge of theatre history could have helped frame The Murder Game in a format better befitting its content.
Until 19th April
Reviewer: Matt Boothman