"Very flat, Norfolk," sneers Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives. She'd probably say the same about this dreary thriller, set in an isolated Norfolk cottage where things go thump in the attic and you can't get a mobile phone signal for love or money.
Coronation Street writer Martin Sterling tries to contemporise his creaky pot boiler with references to Harry Potter, online dating and the Friends Reunited website (called 'Classmates Reunified' here, just in case their lawyers are reading). But it's little more than window dressing in a fusty meller that would have seemed old-fashioned in Agatha Christie's day.
"It's been a bit of a drama, my life," sighs Judy (EastEnders' Lucy Benjamin). She's not kidding. In a few short years she's seen her abusive husband sent down for drug-dealing, watched the boyfriend who replaced him be pushed under a tube train, undergone psychiatric counselling and developed a secret addiction to pills.
All things considered, it's probably not the best time to spend a quiet weekend away with Sam (Vincenzo Pellegrino), a total stranger she recently met over the internet. Especially as the cottage she's been lent by workmate Ann (Sarah Berger) is haunted by the ghost of an RAF pilot who was found dead on the lawn some years earlier...
With the lights flickering out at inopportune moments, a surly handyman (Graham Kent) shooting rabbits in the garden and witchcraft-related corn dollies lying around with their throats cut, Judy is soon popping pills like there's no tomorrow. Indeed, there may well not be if that ouija board is to be believed. "'Trust no one.' What does that mean?" she ponders aloud after one psychic board game. Well, let's figure it out. Maybe - and we're just guessing here - you should... trust... no one! Least of all Sam, who's suspiciously quick to blame his girlfriend's suspicions on an overactive imagination. ("We're in the middle of a Stephen King novel!" he scoffs. If only...)
Framed is the kind of haunted house mystery they don't make any more - and with good reason. Clunkily staged, predictably plotted and full of dialogue that makes EastEnders look like Shakespeare, it's two hours of tired clichés topped off with a twist you can see coming from the lobby.
You really have to feel for Benjamin, who surely never dreamed when she left Albert Square she'd be reduced to this. To add insult to injury, she's saddled with a co-star in Pellegrino who's a good two feet taller than she is. Oh well: perhaps that crick in her neck will take her mind off the yawning audience.
- Neil Smith (reviewed at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley)