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Screaming Blue Murder

Written and directed by John Godber
Hull Truck at the Gala Theatre, Durham
(2004)

John Godber is one of Britain's most prolific playwrights - although not as prolific, perhaps, as Ayckbourn - so it would hardly be surprising if some of his plays are less good than others. Screaming Blue Murder has all the hallmarks of the potboiler: well-crafted but not quite hanging together as it should.

It is set in a hotel bedroom (it's called a suite in the script but it looked like a typical upmarket hotel bedroom to me) where Nick and Gill have come for a bit of the extra-maritals and a murder mystery dinner. The hotel was once an asylum and is supposed to be haunted - whatever would ghost stories do without a Lady Jane? And then there's the fact that the doctor who ran the asylum went mad himself. There's an Eastern European chambermaid who has somehow left £400 wrapped in a pair of knickers under the bed. We assume she has been -shall we say - selling herself to the previous occupant which is why we see her coming from the shower at the beginning of the play and why the room is not ready for the new occupants at three in the afternoon. Gill tells us she has some psychic talent and hears voices from the past in the room, but of course Nick doesn't. There's a chef whose idea of a joke is to send up a pig's head by room service when ham sandwiches are ordered. The hotel is run by two bothers, Ronnie, a somewhat crude bluff northerner, and Colin who is as camp as a row of tents (both played by Dicken Ashworth - Colin under the pseudonym Ken Dishworth). In the second act we learn that Nick is subject to panic attacks (or is he? Could this be some cunning ploy?) and he then starts hearing his wife at first having sex and then being hurt in the room next door, although when Colin and he investigate there is no one there. Then Gill's husband turns up at the hotel as guest speaker at yet another function, so they daren't go to the murder mystery dinner and are confined to their room. Then...

But why go on? Complication is piled upon complication, just as in a classic murder mystery, and it all culminates in a murder. The problem is that, while murder mystery complications and red herrings all have logical explanations and are part of a cunningly devised scenario, those in Screaming Blue Murder don't. And in a murder mystery there is always a motive for the killing, even though it may be concealed, whereas the murder here seems to be motiveless. Unless, of course, the murderer has been unhinged by the odd things which are happening? Or perhaps it's the psychic influence of the old asylum and the murderer's mind has been taken over by the mad doctor? Or could it be...?

The real problem with the play is we just don't know. Godber has constructed a complex edifice, using all the standard murder mystery techniques, but it just doesn't hang together and is ultimately a rather unsatisfying piece. Production values are fine: Amy Thompson, Rob Angell, Fiona Wass and Dicken Ashworth (in both his incarnations) give good performances and Pip Leckenby's hotel bedroom sets the scene very effectively: it's the play that disappoints. Definitely not vintage Godber!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan