It’s not often you get to start a review of a murder mystery by revealing whodunnit, but here goes: it was Scarlett, in the cattery, with a seatless unicycle (I’ll leave the gory details to your imagination). And I can tell you all this with a clear conscience because Murder, She Didn’t Write from Bristol-based improv company Degrees of Error is, by its very nature, different every time. It’s also extremely silly, slightly nonsensical and very, very funny.
Going in, the cast know as much as we do – that someone’s about to die, and that someone else dunnit. The details of where and how are provided by the audience at the start of the show, while the identities of killer and victim are surreptitiously selected by “Jerkins”, a.k.a. an unsuspecting member of the audience drafted in to play Detective Genevieve Foxcroft’s incompetent assistant. (Nothing to be alarmed about if you’re averse to a bit of audience participation – it’s a crucial but not particularly demanding role.)
Equipped with the bare bones, the cast of six (on this occasion Peter Baker, Lizzy Skrzypiec, Tessa Gaukroger, Tom Bridges, Caitlin Campbell and Rachael Procter-Lane – accompanied by musical director Sara Garrard on piano) spend the next couple of hours working their magic live on stage, rapidly pulling out of the hat a convoluted tale about some clowns and a taxidermist who are, naturally, invited to celebrate a cat’s birthday. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it’s not like anybody’s there looking for a coherent plot. What we want – and what we get – is to see a talented cast of comedy actors adapting to every bizarre new twist, whilst doing their best to put each other off their stride at every possible opportunity.
Unsurprisingly, there’s no shortage of running jokes, particularly inspired at this show by the helpful audience suggestion of a cat’s birthday, which proved to be the source of exactly as much innuendo as you might imagine. We also got recurring gags about the dubious merits of being French, an extremely flimsy broom cupboard, the correct way to pronounce Bicester, and the ever-increasing age of two of the characters (who certainly didn’t look like they were in their eighties…) Some lines work better than others, but that’s to be expected and forgiven in a show of this kind; besides, the pace of the show is such that any awkward moments are quickly forgotten, and/or plunged into darkness with expert comic timing by lighting designer Alex Hoyle.
Like any ingenious magic trick, you can’t help but wonder from time to time just how they do it. But there are no smoke and mirrors here; although we have to assume some kind of framework exists before the show begins, the crowd-pleasing success of Murder, She Didn’t Write lies with the quick thinking of a clever and extraordinarily versatile cast.
And Jerkins, obviously.