After ten years producing classic thrillers from the pen of Agatha Christie, Bill Kenwright has taken a (slightly) new direction. Rehearsal for Murder is the first production from The Classic Thriller Theatre Company; written by Murder She Wrote’s Richard Levinson and William Link, and adapted for the stage by David Rogers, there’s nonetheless a distinctly Christie-esque quality to this story of love, murder and revenge.
Playwright Alex Dennison (Alex Ferns) has started work on a new script, and gathers together his old cast, director and producer for a rehearsal. Not by coincidence, this reunion happens to take place exactly one year after Alex’s fiancée, the beautiful movie star Monica Welles (Susie Amy), fell to her death in an apparent suicide. And it soon becomes clear to the assembled group that Alex has a very specific reason for bringing them all back together; despite all the evidence to the contrary, he believes Monica was murdered – but by who…?
There’s a defined formula to this kind of mystery: a cast of suspects, each with a clear – if not always entirely imaginative – motive for the crime; a suitably spooky location (this particular story takes place in an empty theatre) from which nobody’s easily able to escape; a few red herrings; and, of course, a twist in the tale before the murderer is finally revealed. It’s also not uncommon for the first act to involve a lot of talking and not much in the way of action, as motives are established and clues worked in so as to give the audience a fighting chance of figuring out the mystery. Rehearsal for Murder is no exception. After a relatively slow start, the action kicks off in dramatic fashion in Act 2, culminating in an unexpected turn of events which, like all good twists, is only predictable with the benefit of hindsight.
Ex-Eastenders villain Alex Ferns is the heartbroken playwright; although clearly slightly unhinged, his desperation to solve the mystery of his fiancée’s death is heartfelt and it’s hard not to cheer him on in his pursuit of justice, even when he starts waving a gun about (because of course, there had to be a gun). Ferns is joined by a cast of familiar faces from TV and film, including Peak Practice actor Gary Mavers, Carry On star Anita Harris, and veteran of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, Ben Nealon, as a variety of theatrical ‘types’ – each of them with something to hide.
Rehearsal for Murder is at once comfortingly familiar and yet still original enough to surprise, with a liberal sprinkling of theatre-related humour, thanks to the choice of setting. At times the pace is a little more gentle than it needs to be, and the story does sometimes feel a bit thin – but that comes with the territory, like the way everyone knows Hercule Poirot’s a famous detective, yet they always choose to commit murder when he happens to be visiting, then seem surprised when he solves the crime. Formulaic it may be, but fans of classic murder mystery won’t be disappointed in this enjoyable and cleverly staged thriller.
Rehearsal for Murder is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th September.