Question: When is a thriller also a chiller? Answer: When it’s a murder story set in a Victorian theatre. The play in question is Emlyn Williams’ first success A Murder Has Been Arranged, originally staged in 1930 and now revived for the Queen’s Theatre, Hormchurch resident cut to the chase… company by the theatre’s artistic director Bob Carlton.
There’s an art to bringing the stage area of a heritage theatre to credible life in one of the 1970s. Designer Norman Coates does it with elements of a set for Romeo and Juliet which ladles on the Gothick with a definite terminal”k”. There’s no front curtain, so we’re confronted by this other world from the moment we come into the auditorium. Williams’ script is cleverly constrained by the three unities – time, place and action – and is littered with references to plays and playwrights; not all of these were captured by the first night audience. There’s even mention of the title and title character of the Scottish play; you probably know what disasters naming these is supposed to bring in its wake.
Director and cast play straight with the story of a man due to inherit millions if he survives to reach 40 years of age. His birthday party is being held on the stage of the theatre where his younger wife gave he final performance as Juliet. Enter a former boy-friend of the wife, her overbearing mother, her former dresser, her husband’s secretary and a distant cousin. Oh yes, and a strange woman who may (or may not) be the ghost of a woman who died in the theatre, many years before.
Being an actor as well as a playwright, Williams provided seven of the eight roles with almost equal weight. Lucy Thackeray is Miss Groze, the apparently prim secretary with a past which oozes its way to the fore. Her first encounter is with a rather dim reporter, only that’s not what he really is. Elliot Harper plays North as a likeable young man with a slight tendency to fall in with other people’s not-too-bright suggestions. His foil is the dapper Maurice Mullins (Marcus Webb) who drifts into the action and proceeds to dominate it. No surprises that, when the birthday party guests dress up, he chooses the costume for Tybalt.
Elegant in her cocktail dress and vulnerable once she assumes Juliet’s diaphanous draperies, Karen Fisher-Pollard makes Beatrice the pivot of the action as her past returns to haunt her even before the supernatural elements of the theatre’s past close in. Helen Watson is a dragon of a matron, even before she dons the headdress and velvet gown of Lady Capulet. The 1920s and 30s did not always deal sympathetically on stage with people who worked for a living; Mrs Wragg is on such stereotype. Jane Milligan accepts the constrictions of the part and creates a sympathetic character. Sarah Scowen is the shadowy woman in red and Simon Jessup is Sir Charles, whose life crumbles in the face of imagined as well as actual poisoned chalices.
All those athletic sword fights familiar from period adventure movies are conjured in Nicholas Hall’s direction of the Tybalt-Mercutio combat. This, of course, doesn’t end quite in the way you might expect. But then, we are in a haunted theatre after all. One in which an actor playing Romeo has already died on stage. Of course, such things couldn’t possibly happen in the Queen’s. Or could they?