Lt Columbo in Prescription Murder

By Richard Levinson and William Link
Middle Ground Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Lt Columbo in Prescription Murder publicity photo

Fans of Columbo, and there are many, will recognise the familiar trademarks. It is a prescription that has worked well since 1960 when the bumbling detective first appeared in a TV drama, later adapted into a stage play before beginning a very successful television series which is still been aired today on afternoon TV. Middle Ground have brought it back to the stage and, true to form, the crime is committed first, right in front of us, so we know from the beginning who did it. The entertainment and amusement come from watching this dishevelled, absent-minded, loquacious detective working through the clues, putting his suspects at their ease before, to their surprise and dismay, finally nailing them. There is a feeling of satisfaction all round when the smug perpetrator is brought to justice having believed he has just committed the perfect crime.

The action takes place in 1968 Los Angeles and the story follows the familiar formula. Eminent psychiatrist Roy Fleming lives a lavish lifestyle mostly due to his wife’s wealth, while carrying on an affair with his leggy, young, blonde mistress. Divorce is impossible; his wife said she will be with him for the rest of his life and “She meant it!” No prizes for guessing who gets bumped off.

Fleming is played by Brian Capron who is best known for his role in Coronation Street, winning an amazing five ‘Soap Awards’ for Best Actor and Best Villain, and a more cold-blooded and cold-hearted villain you would not wish to meet. My first impression as he kissed his mistress Susan (Elizabeth Lowe) was that there was no feeling, no emotion and certainly no passion in the embrace on either side, but as the story later revealed this was probably intentional. Capron has a habit of gazing into the middle distance as if separating himself from the action. He is, however, very good at hiding evidence behind his back – be it black leather gloves or an incriminating whisky glass.

A stage murder is much more difficult to achieve than on film and despite the extensive struggles it was rather unconvincing, but there she is dead on the floor and the comprehensive and complicated plan to cover up the crime begins.

It is half an hour into the play before Columbo appears, backwards and already looking for clues, raising a laugh before uttering a word, and then the play really takes off. John Guerrasio slightly over- exaggerates the Columbo characteristics, the stoop a little too bent, the shambling gait slightly too pronounced and the dishevelled appearance overstated. If director Michael Lunney pulled him back just a little then the performance would be perfect. As it is he is he is very near perfection and everything is there in true Columbo style, from the enormous cigar to his habit of almost leaving the room with the suspect breathing a sigh of relief, before “Oh, before I forget”, “Just a little detail” or “Just one more thing”, the latter phrase included due to a mistake. Having written too short a scene the writers avoided doing it all again by having the detective turn back as if a stray thought has just occurred. It became the hit of the show and has been included ever since raising a laugh every time.

Extending a half hour TV show to around two hours is a risk, but, mixing crime with comedy, this becomes a very entertaining and enjoyable evening.

Touring to Eastbourne, Harrogate, Cheltenham and Buxton.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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