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Murder in Play (tour - Stevenage, Gordon Craig Theatre)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Comedy thrillers can to be tricky to pull off. Comedy thrillers which involve a play within a play (leaving Hamlet to one side) offer even more pitfalls to an unwary director. Simon Brett's Murder in Play (aka Dead Bodies Everywhere) is typical of its genre.

We're looking at one of those country-house drawing-rooms sometimes after the end of the First World War. It's the set for a play which involves a shell-shocked war hero with a skeleton in his cupboard, his fiancée, her mother, a foreign wheeler-dealer and assorted members of the serving class. The director for this production is Boris, a sort of marginally more cuddly variation of Erich von Stroheim with an ego to match his libido.

His leading lady (playing Lady Cholmondley) is also his wife. His current squeeze is Ginette (cast as Virginia Cholmondley), with small-part player Sophie and stage manager Pat next on his to-do-over list. His professional problems are acerbated by an ageing character actor with a fondness for the bottle – and distinct amnesia as far as remembering lines is concerned – a former soap-opera star with an acid tongue and Tim, the leading man who's hopeless with props. Oh yes, and there's a vital cupboard door which keeps on opening at the wrong moment.

Murder in real life soon overtakes murder on stage. Sophie (Gemma Bissix) and Tim (Dean Gaffney) set to and play detective, as people's private lives and pasts which they had hoped had been buried in discreet oblivion pop up like so many Pepper's Ghosts from beneath the grave-traps. Bissix is very good (I liked her flounce over her original one-line part) but Gaffney was practically inaudible – an unseasonable sore throat, perhaps?

Boris is a peach of a part, and David Callister sinks his teeth into it, right down to the kernel. Poor old Harrison, lumbered with a ghastly wig to play the sinister Mr Papadapoulos (as well as a cameo from the Ministry of Funny Walks when he has to double as the detective and a running joke about Ralph Richardson anecdotes), is Richard Tate, who is very funny. Poppy Meadows plays chief suspect Ginette.

Not every stage manager is a frustrated actress, as Julia Main's Pat makes clear when Renée (Alison Mead)'s death requires a radical redistribution of parts (basically, everyone moves up a slot). Katy Manning's Christa is an interesting study of nasty ways in which the past can catch up with the present (stardom brings out the scavengers as well as the fans); you can see why she has a following even after her television series has ended.

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