There's nothing like an ancestral manor, marooned between London's go-getting bustle and the still-unspoiled countryside, as the setting for a murder mystery. Frederick Knott's thriller was originally produced in 1961 at a New York Theatre.
The post-war, seemingly very English location and the social mix of characters on- and off-stage must have had an aura of exotic nostalgia for that first audience. Time past melting into time present. In 2009 we, of course, are a little more hard-headed. Land grabs in advance of major developments, past deference having to give way to present deficits, getting rich through not being overburdened with scruples – these are everyday facts as well as the stuff of fiction.
When Write Me a Murder begins, the death of the elderly Lord Rodingham is imminent. When it ends, the death of the last Lord Rodingham is also imminent. In between the estate is sold, two people fall in love and write stories and two more meet untimely ends. Fiction is the only true winner.
The two Rodingham brothers are well contrasted by Christopher Villiers as the younger, David and Paul Opacic as Clive, who will inherit on his father's death. At first you feel sorrier for David, who lives on a houseboat and writes for a living than for Clive, who is good at spending money and has found a Texas heiress to support his habit. But in their different ways they're both greedy men and it's a strength of Ian Dickens' production that neither actor plays overmuch for our sympathy.
By contrast, Julie is a pawn in the power games played by men. But Maxine Gregory gives her integrity and you can believe that she does have a talent for writing, albeit one which need careful nurturing, as well as for surmounting social obstacles. Pawn at the beginning, yes. But by the end of the play she has reached the other side of the board and put on a queen piece's flexibility.
Leslie Grantham seems born to play really disagreeable men and Charles Sturrock is a thorough-going piece of nastiness if ever there was one. He bullies his wife, rides rough-shod over any man he sees as weaker than himself and therefore vulnerable, and you keep on expecting him to materialise through one or other of the doors with which David North's set is so liberally endowed all through the second act.
The other main character is the family doctor, Elizabeth Woolley. Helen Weir ensures that she lives up to her name only partially. The story unravels over some fourteen months with heard but not seen telephone conversations bridging the time gaps in a rather stuttering fashion. It does rather let the tension slacken, though necessary for costume and set dressing reasons. 2009 is perhaps in many ways a slicker time than 1961.