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Lt. Columbo in Prescription Murder

Richard Levinson and William Link
Middle Ground Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
(2010)

Production photo

Middle Ground Theatre Company has managed to get hold of Dirk Benedict—"The Faceman" from 80s TV show The A Team—to play a detective best-known for his portrayal on TV in the 70s by Peter Falk, Lieutenant Columbo.

Just as Steve Jobs was doing his trademark "one more thing" at the launch of the new Apple iPhone in California, the character whose catchphrase that was over three decades ago was appearing on stage in Salford. Columbo, for the uninitiated, is a disheveled police detective who always seems to work alone on murder cases, never seems to know what he is doing, but then reveals that all of his bumbling and his seemingly-irrelevent questions were part of a longer plan from the sharpest mind on the force. The other distinctive feature of Columbo the series was that the audience knew who did the murder from the start; the pleasure was in watching the detective pick up the clues and catch out the villain.

Prescription Murder was a one-off TV episode in 1960 (then called Enough Rope) before becoming a stage play in 1961, which became the first pilot episode of the series when Falk first took the role in 1968. The plot involves a middle-aged psychiatrist who strangles his wife and, with the help of his young actress girlfriend, lays a trail of false clues to make it look as though he was miles away at the time and the murder was committed by an intruder who broke into the couple's apartment. Enter Columbo, who tells stories about his wife, asks about fishing, dwells on small matters as though they were important clues and generally seems to be getting nowhere with the case, until the end.

The play is like a flabbier version of a Columbo TV episode. The set-up and the murder seem to take a long time before the hero shuffles out of the bedroom to confront the person who turns out to be the murderer, whom he proceeds to irritate and wear down for the rest of the play. The difficulty for an actor in such a role is how much to take solely from the script and how much to pander to people's expectations from the TV series. Benedict uses a lot of the gestures, the growly voice and even the raincoat that Falk attached to the character, but he also makes it his own so it is more than just an impression. Crucially, he gets across the humour in the character and the script that some of the other actors miss, and he certainly has the stage charisma.

If the play could do with a bit of tightening up, the production is even more in need of it. It isn't just the play that takes us back to the 60s, but the production seems like something from a past era as well. The set, designed by Jon Goodwin and Andy Martin, is made up from a set of hinged-together flats and period furniture, and a red curtain comes in to cover lengthy scene changes between the eight scenes (there are two intervals) and music is played that barely covers the banging and crashing onstage. The set mostly looks fine—apart from Columbo's office that appears to have been cut out of the wall of the psychiatrist's office halfway upstage—but after such a long wait you would expect something a little more spectacular to be revealed.

Patrick Ryecart is the murderous psychiatrist Dr Roy Flemming whom he plays as English to avoid the rather dubious American accents from the rest of the cast (apart from Benedict, naturally). He appears perfect for the role in many ways, but he plays some scenes at such a slow pace that they really start to drag and bits of humour in the script can be seen to pass by unused. It is difficult to see what his jealous but loving wife Claire, played by Karen Drury, sees in this grumpy and selfish man, let alone the pretty young actress Susan Hudson, played very effectively by Elizabeth Lowe.

Compared with some of the TV sitcom revivals that The Lowry has featured in recent years, Prescription Murder scores quite well, as it goes back to the beginning of the character rather than trying to resurrect or update him or to do a 'greatest hits' show. The character still comes across as funny and loveable and fascinating to watch as he pieces together bits of information that we have missed, even though we saw the murder carried out, and there were audible gasps from the audience when characters said something that they knew Columbo was going to pick up on, which must be a great feeling for the cast.

It's just a pity that there has been a rather slapdash approach to the production. The first scene is long and dull, the scene changes are far too long and, at nearly two and a half hours, this is about an hour longer than would normally be expected for a popular detective melodrama. But for fans of Columbo—and of The A Team—and of detective stories in general, this is certainly worth seeing and has much to enjoy.

To 12 June 2010, then touring to Poole, Darlington, Truro and Plymouth

Steve Burbridge reviewed this production in Darlington

Reviewer: David Chadderton