Review: Flycatcher at The Hope Theatre

Gregg Masuak’s Flycatcher is unsettling from the start, kicking off with an eery, monotonous chorus of “nobody likes me, everybody hates me…” led by Emily Arden’s unblinking Madelaine, while the rest of the cast emerge from the corners, where they’ve been frozen like waxworks since we entered.

From there, things get increasingly disturbing and bewildering as awkward waitress Madelaine becomes obsessed with Bing, an idealistic young life insurance salesman. Unfortunately, he in turn is obsessed – though in a (slightly) less creepy way – with Olive, a gallery owner who reminds him of his idol Grace Kelly and is herself trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man. When Madelaine befriends Olive, you just know it isn’t going to end well… Meanwhile a seemingly unrelated subplot involving Madelaine’s grandmother Mae, growing old disgracefully in a desperate bid for attention, circles back in the play’s shocking final moments to complete the intricate web connecting all the characters to each other.

It’s a bizarre play, part thriller, part comedy and made up of a lot of very short scenes – some literally a few seconds – that keep the cast of eight moving constantly on and off stage. Though the action predominantly revolves around the four main characters, the other actors (Nathan Plant, Susanna Wolff, Bruce Kitchener and Melissa Dalton) work just as hard, in a variety of eccentric and distinct supporting roles that intersect with the central characters at different points. This structure could have resulted in a very stop-start production, but under the direction of writer Gregg Masuak everything flows smoothly, and the actors – who frequently retire to the corners of the space to prepare for their next scene – never miss a beat. There’s still a lot to take in from one minute to the next, but it’s difficult to fault the way the snapshot scenes are presented.

Emily Arden is genuinely quite scary as Madelaine as she weaves her web of deceit around Bing and Olive, glowering all the while at a world that’s never accepted her (though her rare attempts at a smile are even more frightening), and visibly growing in stature and confidence as she puts her plan into action. She makes an unlikely pairing with Alex Shenton’s Bing, a charming salesman who wins over his customers by selling them a dream of a better world; one of the biggest tragedies of the play is seeing him lose the puppy dog eagerness with which he pursues Olive, played by Amy Newton. Their relationship progresses very naturally through the awkward flirting stage into something resembling stability, but is equally convincing as both it and they begin to fall apart. Completing the core cast as Mae, Fiz Marcus offers some light relief, although her vulnerability and desperate need for someone – anyone – to listen to her is heartbreaking; she spends most of the play talking into a void as all the other characters avoid or scorn her.

There are elements of the story that are strange and confusing, and I’d be surprised if anybody left feeling they understood everything they’d just seen. However, the performances, design (I really loved the simple effectiveness of Anna Kezia Williams’ spiderweb set) and direction combine to create an atmosphere of foreboding and drama that keeps us engaged even when we don’t really know what’s happening. A distinctly odd evening, and the style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is undeniably an excellent production.


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Review: A Judgement in Stone at the Orchard Theatre

Ruth Rendell was once described in The Sunday Times as “the best woman crime writer since Christie” – so it seems fitting that Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Company, having presumably run out of Agatha Christie stories to stage, has chosen one of Rendell’s most famous works for their latest production. A Judgement in Stone unpicks the story of a grisly mass shooting, but despite commendable performances from an impressive cast of household names, it doesn’t quite succeed in blowing its audience away.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Largely, I think this is simply because it’s not Agatha Christie. Her stories work on stage because often they take place in one location, so focusing all the action in a single room doesn’t feel limiting, and because they build to a big reveal of a shocking, clever twist based on clues that have been liberally scattered throughout the play. Rendell’s novel opens by revealing both murderer and motive; it wasn’t really intended as a murder mystery so much as an exploration of social class divisions in the 1970s. Simon Brett and Antony Lampard’s adaptation forces the story into the classic whodunnit mould, meaning a lot of that subtlety is lost, and we spend the whole evening waiting for a twist that, unfortunately, never comes.

 

That said, it’s an entertaining enough production, and director Roy Marsden certainly succeeds in ramping up the suspense, particularly in Act 2. The play opens some weeks after the murders of the wealthy Coverdale family, as a detective from London – called in by someone important in the Government – arrives to help the local police solve the crime. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, beginning when Eunice first joins the family and building up to the night of the murder nine months later. In between, the two police detectives interview various suspects (at the murder scene, rather bizarrely) on their way to solving the crime, which eventually happens more by luck than judgement; there’s certainly no Poirot-esque flash of inspiration that suddenly makes sense of everything, and this also contributes to the play’s rather subdued conclusion.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

The cast do a good job with some slightly sketchy roles (apart from one brief exchange about family life and fish paste sandwiches, for instance, we learn next to nothing about Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon’s police detectives, who only really seem to be there to set up the next flashback). Sophie Ward is great as the awkward, slightly eccentric housekeeper Eunice, while Deborah Grant has perhaps a bit too much fun as her religious fanatic best friend Joan, and there’s a solid performance from Blue’s Antony Costa as Rodger Meadows, the family’s gardener with a dodgy past.

Having seen and enjoyed several productions from the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which work so well on stage, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with this latest offering. But here’s a twist: I do now want to read Ruth Rendell’s novel. Although I don’t feel it entirely works as a play, the story and characters have enough potential that I’m intrigued to find out everything the stage version didn’t tell me. And fans of Ruth Rendell’s novels, who already know how the story ends, may enjoy this fresh take on a favourite.

A Judgement in Stone is at the Orchard Theatre until 30th September.

Review: Eyes Closed, Ears Covered at The Bunker

In Alex Gwyther’s thriller Eyes Closed, Ears Covered, two teenage boys bunk off school and go on an adventure to Brighton. It’s obvious from the start that the two friends have a complex and potentially unhealthy relationship – and when something terrible happens on the beach, it falls to two frustrated police officers to try and make sense of the day’s events.

Much like the officers, the audience must piece together the clues to work out the real story behind Aaron and Seb’s day trip – and when the final piece of the jigsaw slots into place moments before the play ends, the truth turns out to be as shocking as it is satisfying. I love a well-written thriller that really keeps you guessing, and this play definitely falls into that category.

Photo credit: Anton Belmonté of 176 Flamingo Lane

Many of the characters in Derek Anderson’s production feature only as Big Brother-esque voiceovers, which means all our attention is focused on the story’s three leads. Danny-Boy Hatchard takes control in the first act as Aaron, who’s the mastermind behind the adventure. Outgoing and often very funny, he can also be unpredictable and aggressive when things don’t go his way… and he wields a disturbing amount of power over the naive and socially awkward Seb.

Act 2 abandons the police station and is carried by the excellent Joe Idris-Roberts, who takes us back in time to explore the tender relationship between ten-year-old Seb and his mother Lily, played by Phoebe Thomas. As well as answering a lot of the questions posed by Act 1, this part of the play also leads us into increasingly dark territory (there’s very little laughter to be heard after the interval), touching on themes of domestic violence and mental health as it paves the way for the story’s dramatic conclusion.

A simple set proves no obstacle to the storytelling, with some impeccably timed movement (directed by Jonnie Riordan) helping to build a picture of the characters’ surroundings, and Norvydas Genys’ lighting design keeping the action moving between locations, as well as back and forth in time. There’s also a great moment at the beginning of Act 2, when Lily replaces a photo of herself, appearing on stage as if by magic.

Photo credit: Anton Belmonté of 176 Flamingo Lane

There’s just one niggle for me about the play, namely the decision to set it in the 1980s. This isn’t particularly borne out by the story (I remember just one popular culture reference to Tom Selleck as a relevant movie star), and putting 30 years between the events of the play and its audience suggests they have no relevance today – when in fact the opposite is true.

That said, this is without doubt a compelling and well executed piece of theatre, which grabs our attention from the start and never loses its intensity. With three brilliant performances and a dramatic twist ending, this dark thriller is well worth a visit.


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Review: She Wears Scented Rose at Theatro Technis

Razor Sharp Productions promise “original plays designed to keep an audience gripped to the end”. She Wears Scented Rose, a new thriller written and directed by Yasir Senna, delivers on this promise up to a point, but could use a little tightening up in places to make the most of a strong and intriguing plot.

Businessman Mark (Craig Karpel) is on his way home late one night when he’s attacked and stabbed several times, the victim of a suspected carjacking. But when he wakes up in hospital, police officer DI Kane (Rosalie Carn) is waiting with questions, and it turns out all may not be quite as it seems… Twists and turns take us on an emotional rollercoaster ride, culminating in¬†a truly shocking – and very effectively staged – conclusion.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Like any crime drama, the key is in the detail, and She Wears Scented Rose is packed with these; looking back afterwards you realise the intricacy of the plot, and that all the clues were there all along to piece together the truth. Senna has obviously done his research, and has in particular created a complex and well-drawn central figure in the silver-tongued Mark, played brilliantly by Craig Karpel. He has strong support from Niki Mylonas as his loving wife Verity, who has a secret of her own, and Rosalie Carn as an attractive French¬†police officer with some unorthodox investigation methods. Simon Ryerson, meanwhile, is a sympathetic figure as Mark’s nice but dim best mate Dave, who in contrast to¬†his friend is driven by his heart rather than his head. The acting on the whole is solid, although there are a couple of scenes¬†that start to edge¬†towards the melodramatic and could perhaps be reined in a little.

While the story is certainly gripping and holds our interest throughout, the script in places needs¬†a bit of a trim to make more of an impact. There are some parts of the play that start out well but could be snappier – the most obvious¬†of these being¬†the final scene, which takes a frustratingly long time¬†to reach its dramatic¬†climax. In addition, there are a lot of scene changes, which while¬†executed smoothly by a well-oiled stage crew, inevitably interrupt the action and don’t always feel completely necessary.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

We all love a good mystery, and She Wears Scented Rose is definitely that; the plot is well-crafted and keeps us guessing throughout so that even if we succeed in¬†figuring out one bit, there’s always another twist waiting round the corner to catch us off guard. The characters are relatable enough that¬†we grow to care about them (and in one case, really really dislike) so that when everything starts to kick off in Act 2, we can sympathise with what they’re going through. And I know I keep going on about it, but that ending does make a huge¬†impact, with one particular image¬†lingering in my memory¬†– and not in a good way.

There’s already¬†an enjoyable show here, but¬†with a few tweaks to script and staging to ramp up the intensity, there’s potential for an excellent¬†and even more memorable production.


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Review: Not Dead Enough at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Mandy Southgate

Prolific author Peter James requires no introduction to the stage. Adaptations of his books The Perfect Murder and Dead Simple were sell-out successes in the West End and toured around the UK. Not Dead Enough is the latest of his books to become a play and we are promised an evening of thrilling suspense and mystery.

Three murders. One suspect. No proof.

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace returns with a crime that will test him to the limits. On the night his wife is murdered, Brian Bishop claims to be sixty miles away, asleep in his bed. No matter how much DS Grace likes him for the crime, he simply can’t pin it on Bishop. Meanwhile, DS Grace is still dealing with the disappearance of his own wife. Could the two cases be related?


Directed by Olivier Award-winner Ian Talbot and starring Shane Richie as DS Roy Grace, Not Dead Enough begins its national tour at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford before moving to Milton Keynes and Woking.

Not Dead Enough is a lot of fun. It is quick-paced, full of suspense and the audience has to pay careful attention in order to sort through the plethora of clues and red herrings. If it is any indication, by the final minutes of the first half, I was balancing precariously on the edge of my seat, eyes fixed firmly on the stage. Just remember that you can’t always believe what your own eyes are telling you and sometimes it is a case of not looking closely enough.

Despite the serious subject matter, Not Dead Enough is very funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Then again, with the harrowing crimes being committed on stage, it may just be that the audience‚Äôs mirth was more nervous laughter than anything else. 

Not Dead Enough is small, with just nine people (ten if you include a dead body). Shane Richie is joined on stage by Michael Quartey as DS Glenn Branson. Where DS Grace is focused and often desperate, DS Branson is irreverent and daring. Laura Whitmore plays Cleo Morey, the chief mortician and love interest to DS Grace.

Stephen Billington, best known for playing the dastardly Greg Kelly in Coronation Street, plays Brian Bishop. It is only after the big reveal at the end of the play that you realise just how good his performance was and how he had been giving the audience very subtle clues as to the real story the whole time.

One of the most interesting aspects of any stage production is the set design and use of space. The stage design for Not Dead Enough was simple and static, dividing the stage into the mortuary, office, interview room and street. This clever design allowed the story to switch seamlessly between scenes, allowing a pace and dynamic more often seen in television productions than stage. It was very impressive.

I enjoyed Not Dead Enough and look forward to future plays in the Peter James DS Roy Grace franchise.

Not Dead Enough is running at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford until Saturday 28 January 2017. Visit Peter James’s website for details on future dates.