Review: A Murder is Announced at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to review the Middle Theatre Company Ltd’s latest production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced on its opening night of a five-night run at the wonderful Orchard Theatre in Dartford.

While young Agatha Christie’s husband was away fighting in the First World War, she worked in the dispensary of the University College Hospital, London, where surrounded by poisons the idea of writing her first detective story was conceived. Her elder sister Madge was an avid supporter of the idea, so Agatha rose to the challenge, and the rest as they say is history.

Mrs Christie was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1971 to honour her many literary works. Known as The Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha penned thirteen novels in the  Miss Marple series. A Murder is Announced is a firm favourite amongst fans of the series.

As Act One of A Murder is Announced opens, the audience are invited into Letitia Blacklock’s drawing room at Little Paddocks, her typically Victorian home in Chipping Cleghorn.

Within minutes of the opening the audience are gripped by the storytelling (adapted for stage by Leslie Darbon) when Dora Bunner, the delightfully dizzy and slightly senile Bunny reads an article from the local paper which reads:

“A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October the twenty-ninth, at Little Paddocks – at six thirty p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.”

The residents are thrown into an excitable turmoil, not sure whether to be thrilled by the excitement in this unexpected event for a sleepy country village or scared by the threat to them. Is it a practical joker taking things a step too far, or is the threat real and the residents should be in fear of their lives…?

Not wanting to spoil the surprise and give the plot away, I’ll just say that the second half of the investigation into the running order of events at Little Paddocks after 6.30pm on that evening is methodically unraveled by Inspector Craddock, along with Sergeant Mellors.

Local resident – and in Inspector Craddock’s view the interfering – Miss Marple (Louise Jameson) decides to get involved and make her own discoveries about the order of events.

It is a small cast of just twelve, but you’ll be thrilled with the star studded line up from Janet Dibley (Fat Friends and Eastenders) as Letitia Blacklock, Louise Jameson (Bergerac and Tenko) as Miss Marple, Tom Butcher (The Bill and Emmerdale) as Inspector Craddock and Dean Smith (Waterloo Road and Last Tango in Halifax) as Edmund Swettenham, to name just a few that you’ll recognise.

There are comic interludes when the wonderful Hungarian housemaid Mitzi (Lydia Piechowiak) takes to the stage, which lighten the audience’s mood amongst the more serious elements of the story.

A Murder is Announced plays at the Orchard from 15th to 19th August. Grab your ticket while you still can to find out whodunnit!

Review: Little Shop of Horrors (Summer Youth Project) at the Orchard Theatre

For a second year running, the Dartford Summer Youth Project has selected a show that’s new to me. Following last year’s brilliant Bugsy Malone, this summer they’re back with Little Shop of Horrors, the classic horror comedy about a man-eating plant by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, in a production that brings together a community cast of young Dartfordians aged between 9 and 19. The story follows shop boy Seymour, who finds himself in possession of a “strange and interesting” plant that makes him rich and famous – but at what cost…?

The show might be considered a bit gory for kids (it does, after all, involve an abusive relationship, murder, dismemberment and a psychotic dentist) and it had to be sanitised a little for this production. But the horror is all very tongue-in-cheek, and the jokes are pitched so that a lot of the humour can be appreciated by adults whilst sailing over younger heads. There’s also a valuable lesson for all ages to be taken from this cautionary tale about the dangers of putting personal gain ahead of moral values.

I have two main conclusions from this evening’s opening night performance. First, I’ll be keeping a much closer eye on my plants from now on. Second, director Sean Hollands and the rest of the SYP team have pulled off another triumph. After just two weeks of rehearsal, Little Shop of Horrors is slick, professional and features several young performers who could easily give seasoned stars a serious run for their money.

This is particularly true of the principal leads – Ethan Oswald, Olivia Hallett, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens – who all look and sound like they’ve been on stage for years. Each of them has at least one big musical number, and absolutely nails it, with my personal highlights Mikey Stevens’ hilariously deranged Dentist! and Olivia Hallett and Ethan Oswald’s gorgeous duet, Suddenly Seymour. There’s also some brilliant voice acting from Thomas Bassett, the voice of Audrey II, who succeeds in giving us the shivers without once appearing on stage, and impressive vocals from the chorus of glamorous Ronettes.

The principals lead a huge company of over 100 children, all of whom get to be involved throughout the show as they pop up frequently in aisles and on balconies performing dance routines choreographed by Mel Simpson. This sometimes messes with the audience’s view of the stage a bit – but it’s hard to mind that too much when the children are obviously having such an amazing time.

And that’s the genius of the Summer Youth Project. Yes, this is a fantastic production that showcases some outstanding young talent, but more importantly it’s giving each and every one of the children on stage an experience they’ll never forget – the chance to be part of a production led by a professional creative team, performing for a huge audience of friends, family and strangers in a proper theatre. But it’s not just a treat for the kids; their enthusiasm and delight is infectious, and you don’t have to be a parent or even know anyone involved to feel proud of what they’ve all achieved, or to appreciate the hard work they’ve put in. This is something that’s easy to take for granted when watching a professional company for whom it’s just another day at work, and sometimes we need a reminder of why we go to the theatre in the first place: to be entertained. And on that score, Little Shop of Horrors more than delivers.

Little Shop of Horrors continues at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 12th August.

Interview: Juan Echenique, Red Button

“It’s out of this world!” says actor and writer Juan Echenique. “I’ve seen nothing close to what we are doing. We have so many elements, working together in harmony: drama, social commentary, live music, physical comedy, dark humour, sharp wit, science fiction, cloned kittens, pansexual au pairs, radio dramas, and… well… the red button that destroys the world. It’s a 60-minute adrenaline ride, where there’s little time to breathe or blink. Daring, out there, and incredibly energetic.”

He’s talking about Horatio Theatre’s play Red Button, a science fiction comedy about love and the end of the world: “It’s about a young couple, who are mostly bored with their lives. They decide to apply to a charity programme, thinking they will be given the task of taking care of adorable kittens and puppies, but instead they receive the red button that destroys the world. All of this is framed within a futuristic world, where TV and films are forbidden, and the only radio station blasts news, commercials, and propaganda everywhere, and at every minute.

“It’s a story about love and rebellion, about people who make the strangest decisions based on the ones they love, and their desire to be free. Love involves compromise, as well as struggle, sacrifice, altruism and egotism. It could be argued that the red button – that terrifying object that would end it all – represents parenthood, as it can be seen as the end of childhood. The fun fact here is that the play was originally written as a gift; born out of love, all about love, full of dark humour. The peak of cheesiness for the lactose intolerant.”

Juan co-founded Horatio Theatre with director and producer Fumi Gomez, with whom he’s worked since 2009. Their goal is to produce new writing and original storytelling, with a particular focus on using the language of science fiction to discuss social issues.  “Science fiction has often been regarded as a genre made for film and literature,” he says. “The preeminence of movies where special effects are the real protagonists gives us a somehow misleading picture of what this genre can achieve. However, when talking about science fiction, you are talking about imaginary worlds, about a future that could be, and about how history is doomed to repeat itself. Talking about the world around us from the perspective of an imaginary future, gives us the chance of tackling social issues that would be incredibly dry and off putting if discussed in a different way. In other words, science fiction allows us to make some sharp social commentary, while still making unique and entertaining shows.”

Red Button, which opens on 14th August at Edinburgh’s theSpace on North Bridge, has been going through various stages of development since 2014: “The play was originally written as a three hander; two leads and another actor playing several roles. It evolved into a much more complex and layered story, for a cast of seven, when it was ‘scratched’ at the Cockpit Theatre. Its next incarnation was last year in a much more compact and concise format: six actors, 90 minutes. It was performed at the Lion and Unicorn as part of the Camden Fringe.

“The version we are taking to Edinburgh is a huge leap forward from that point. The cast has been reduced to four, and it’s only 60 minutes now. It is a nice compromise between the original script and all the new material, keeping the best and getting rid of all the superfluous passages.”

Juan and the team are excited to share this new version of the show with Edinburgh audiences: “Being a part of the Fringe is a fantastic reward in itself. We really want to share what we are doing with as many people as possible. So far, all audiences have been amazed, and we believe we have something worth showing.

“On top of that, we really want to enjoy the whole festival vibe. So many incredibly talented artists, gathered in the same city for a month… so many amazing shows to watch, and fascinating people to meet… It’s the true fantasy of any self respecting theatre maker. The show SCI-FI? by Sleeping Trees sounds like something we are going to enjoy a lot. It’s very hard to choose. There are so many things going on at the same time… We are just over the moon with anticipation!”

And as for the future? “Red Button is moving forward and up. After the Fringe we’ll move towards doing a full run in London and, potentially, touring. As the cast and the story is quite international, we are already trying to find ways of showcasing it overseas. Performing Red Button in international festivals would be a dream come true.”

Red Button is at theSpace on North Bridge (Venue 36) from 14th-19th August.

Review: A Different Way Home at Canal Cafe Theatre

They say there are two sides to every story. That’s certainly the case in Jimmie Chinn’s A Different Way Home, in which two members of the same family each share their viewpoint on a feud that’s kept brother and sister apart for years. While each believes they’re in the right, the play ultimately reveals that had they only talked to instead of about each other, life could have worked out very differently. Though its structure and staging are relatively simple, the play is a cleverly composed lesson in the dangers of taking character narration at face value, poignantly performed by Steven Mann and Sarah-Jane Vincent of the Unusual Theatre Company.


Set in 1986, the play’s presented as two monologues. The first of these comes from Leslie, who stayed in the family home to take care of his elderly mother while his three siblings moved away. Two of them started a new life on the other side of the world – yet for some reason Leslie’s particular wrath is reserved for Maureen, the youngest, who married a Jewish man and moved just around the corner. His moving, meandering account of the day his mother died is peppered with detours down memory lane, but returns again and again to vicious recriminations against his sister for her rejection of their family.

Fade to black; Leslie’s gone and in his place is Maureen. At first glance, it seems his depiction of her was accurate, as she turns up her nose at the state of the old house and shares juicy gossip about her childhood friends, who still live next door. But as she turns to the subject of her brother, it becomes clear he isn’t exactly perfect either, and that Maureen’s decision to distance herself from the rest of the family may not have been as one-sided as we’ve been led to believe. Ultimately, as she fills in the gaps left by Leslie in the family history, we realise that the pointless disagreement between these two flawed and stubborn characters hinges almost entirely on a simple failure to communicate.

The influence of Jimmie Chinn’s literary hero Alan Bennett is obvious in the play’s direct, conversational style (though it’s never completely clear who Leslie’s addressing; his obvious loneliness seems to suggest a casual visitor is unlikely) and northern setting. Originally written as a short radio play, the plot is driven by script and character – the only props in Val Collins’ production being a battered armchair and a hankie – and therefore demands two compelling performances in order to hold the audience’s attention throughout. Steven Mann is particularly strong as the grief-stricken Leslie; even when he’s saying nothing at all, we can see the pain of his mother’s loss etched on his face. Both he and Sarah-Jane Vincent have a very natural, chatty delivery that works well in a small space, the only downside to this being that those furthest from the stage may have to strain to hear some of the more confessional moments.

A Different Way Home is a poignant and at times quietly humorous study of grief, isolation and family relationships – a story that will speak to us all in some way, and may well make you want to get straight on the phone to your loved ones, if only to say hi.

A Different Way Home is at Canal Cafe Theatre until 30th July, then at Greenside @ Infirmary Street, Edinburgh from 4th-26th August.

Interview: Josie Underwood, Follow Suit

Silent Faces was founded at Goldsmiths in 2015 by Josie Underwood, Cordelia Stevenson and Jay Wakely, with the aim of making brave, ridiculous, unique and challenging theatre. Their show Follow Suit was nominated for the Brighton Fringe Award for Best Young Production in 2016, and now heads north to Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard.

“People should see Follow Suit because it’s ridiculous and funny, with a bit of liberal rage thrown in,” says co-founder Josie. “It’s a darkly comic take on the morally neglectful world of high finance, four clowns in an office distracting themselves in the most ridiculous ways possible from the skeletons in their stationery cupboard.

“We wanted to make a show that tackled a big issue like corporate responsibility, through clown and comedy. It seems a bizarre idea to smash together clowning with corporations, but it was a challenge we were excited to undertake! We love clown and physical theatre, but also want to make work that challenges, all the while entertaining its audience.”

With just a few days to go until their Edinburgh debut, Silent Faces are looking forward to the experience, and particularly seeing audiences’ reactions to the show. “We’ve worked on this production for so long, and we are incredibly excited to share it with the wonderful audiences that flock to Edinburgh Fringe,” says Josie. 

“And there are so many other shows that we’re excited to see this year: Superbolt’s two shows, Mental by Kane Power Theatre, Gecko, Different Party and Trygve vs a Baby, and so much more. We’re also gutted that we won’t be able to see Not I by Touretteshero – which looks right up our street and we will definitely be encouraging everyone to see!”

Silent Faces aim to make their work accessible to as many people as possible, and Follow Suit was recently included in a round-up of Disability Arts International’s picks of the Fringe 2017. It does come with a bit of a health warning for younger audience members, though: “It’s not for kids, because it does get a bit gruesome, but we think anyone would enjoy Follow Suit,” says Josie. “As an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled artists, we were really keen to make work that is accessible to all adult audiences – and as a show that relies mainly on comedy and physicality, Follow Suit is accessible to an international audience.

“Above all else, we hope audiences will be entertained. While the content is in essence political, we don’t want to stand on a soap box and shove our views down our audiences’ throats. Instead we want them to enjoy the comedy, the silliness and the journey that our clowns go on.”

Follow Suit is at Pleasance Courtyard (venue 33) from 2nd-28th August (not 9th, 14th, 15th, 21st) at 12.45pm.