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Fatal Encounter (tour – Stevenage)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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There's mileage in listing the professions most likely to be followed by murderers in well-plotted thrillers. Especially those of that master-craftsman in the genre Francis Durbridge. Fatal Encounter is set in the living-room of one of those large houses in the Holland Park area of London. It's the home of a well-to-do publisher. He and his wife also have a country cottage and a taste for art. His secretary is married to an MP and his colleague is divorced from a bar-owner in Ibiza.

Enough red herrings are dragged across the ten scenes as the drama unfolds to stock a Kensington delicatessen. Handbags go missing (and are mysteriously returned), pictures may suggest more than they show, off-stage muggings are not always what they seem – the plot twists and turns most satisfactorily.

This Ian Dickens production is strongly cast with Anita Harris dithering her way through Joanna's mishaps while her husband (Michael Howe) tries to get a grip on everyone else's machinations. Howe makes Howard credible as a man more used to plots on the page than in real life. The police inspector who comes to call is played by Nicholas Ball with authority and no hint of being otherwise than in complete control.

Grace is a fellow member of the publishing house, one whose personal difficulties begin to outweigh her professional duties. This elicits an interesting performance from Susan Skipper, balanced by that of Aaron Bixley as her former husband. I'm not sure that I would care to patronise Mark Adler's gallery – Neil Stacy makes him just a tad too creepy from the start – but there's a smart cameo by Michael Kirk of Rex, the little dogsbody who can never have justified the name his paernts bestowed on him.

One fault in the production is a tendency for the characters to talk at, rather than to, each other. A door malfunction on the opening night loosened the tension at a critical moment but the uncredited set suggests the location – including the rooms and garden offstage – more than adequately. The action is set in the present, though one in which the mobile phone has yet to appear. But Durbridge's plotting is so skilful that such things stay out of mind until after the curtain has fallen.


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