Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Strictly Murder

Brian Clemens
An Ian Dickens production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2009)

Production photo

Ian Dickens is a very busy man. The list of shows he has produced and directed covers two very closely written pages of the programme, with around nine this year. Perhaps he ought to slow down a little, step back and take stock. Giving a little more attention to each production could produce something really excellent and entertaining while avoiding the audience reaction of spontaneous laughter in the wrong place which must be very disconcerting for the cast.

That said, the cast certainly created their characters well and very credibly. The frenetic rushing about the stage in the first act by the lead character, which seemed very overdone at the beginning, makes perfect sense as the play develops and the reason for his agitation and panic is gradually revealed, and at this point there is plenty of intrigue and suspense to keep the audience involved.

Clemens, creator of The Avengers and The Professionals, has written an intricate, interesting and enigmatic story. Set in Provence just before World War Two, a young unmarried couple are living in a rural cottage frequently visited by a strangely disturbing, yet seemingly simple-minded man in ragged clothing who constantly carries a rifle. There is little money, but they are happy enough with the wages from her work at a hotel and his paintings, mostly of poppies, sometimes sell to the tourists. Then along comes an English gentleman in a smart business suit who 'just happens to be passing' and before long we're onto the first murder and the mystery of this nice young man who just might turn out to be a brutal murderer who killed both his wife and their unborn child.

Almost every one of the characters is not who they first appear to be and the most interesting and fun aspect of the show is the guessing game - who are they really? What secrets are they hiding - and why? There are clues - mostly misleading - and several twists and turns among the plot, with the background of the impending war adding to the atmosphere, particularly when Hitler's voice comes over the radio - as chilling now, seventy years later, as it was then.

Nick Waring is the frantically energetic Peter Meredith with some dark secrets, and his superb interpretation gets to the heart of the character, his expression watchful and wary as well it might be with the dangers he faces, and a sudden burst of fury at the mention of barbed wire. Kim Tiddy is girlfriend Suzy Hinchcliffe, anxious to be married, especially in view of her pregnancy, and unable to understand his reluctance.

Giles Watling manages to die twice as Ross (both twins) - and switches easily and swiftly from smooth talking patronising English gentleman to menacing, violent and aggressive. His pretentious knowledge of a fine wine had the audience giggling as he could "taste the blackcurrant, but there's something else" and we all knew what the 'something else' was. His first death was prolonged and expertly accomplished, but the second less realistic probably because it was anticipated - not his fault. There was rather a lot of 'blood' - he even had to lick some from his fingers at curtain call.

Of the final two characters, Sabina Franklyn is commanding as 'the woman in charge' when the two officers set a trap for their quarry, and Ben Roberts is delightfully dotty (with reason) as Josef with the rifle.

Entertaining and intriguing fun, but it is the ending which falls a bit flat in spite of the expertise of the writer.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor