Pater Falk’s performance as Lieutenant Frank Columbo is so memorable that it is surprising to find that he inherited, rather than created, the role. Nevertheless the audience would feel cheated if the interpretation regarded as definitive was not reflected in the stage show.
Luckily for them, all of the mannerisms that make Columbo so vulnerable and appealing are present and correct in Dirk Benedict’s performance. The dishevelled appearance (including the raincoat), the distracted air and the bumbling attitude all appear. Benedict fits perfectly the description of an ‘elf’ made by his adversary. It is a shame that he does not use the freedom of the stage to show more of the detective that lies beneath the confused exterior. Instead he exaggerates the external features even more – fumbling with his tie in the style of Stan Laurel. It is a perfectly valid, but not very imaginative, interpretation of the role.
The script by Richard Levinson and William Link is a marvel of economy. It conveys motive in a few concise sentences and gets on with the plot with no time lost. In the style of the classic Dial M for Murder the crime and culprit are known from the start and the fun for the audience lies in watching the battle of wits as the apparently out-matched Columbo tries to bring the murderer to justice.
Patrick Ryecart is a splendid villain. Alone among the cast, he does not attempt an American accent and this adds to the aloof air of arrogance that makes Doctor Roy Flemming such a good match for the humble Columbo – you long to see him cut down to size. Although Flemming’s motives are spelt out in the script Karen Drury’s needy passive-aggressive performance as the victim, Claire Flemming, adds a degree of ambiguity to the plot suggesting that the murder may have had an element of desperation as well as simple greed.
Director Michael Lunney pays tribute to the master of the genre. Rob Gibby and Mat Larkin’s background music for the murder scene brings to mind Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho. Lunney is, however, more comfortable with the comedic than the thriller elements of the script. Moments that should bring the audience to the edge of their seat (the killers leave a clue in open view) are wasted. His pacing is poor, resulting in an over-long show with too many intervals and long scene changes that allow the tension to vanish.
Jon Goodwin and Andy Martin’s set reflects the 1970s period in which the play is set but looks much too neat and clean to convince as real. As well as taking ages to change, the set has an annoying flicker on the lighting of the outside sky that makes you think that night is constantly drawing in and then receding.
Prescription Murder is a good reminder of an excellent TV show and for nostalgic purposes does entertain. It is a shame, however, that the ambitions of the producers do not extend beyond this paint by numbers approach to give us a more original and daring idea of the character of Columbo.