| The wood panelled library in a remote, snow bound mansion somewhere in New York State is the setting for this black farce. Within seconds of the opening scene the body count starts as a shadowy figure (the Slasher) emerges from behind a curtain to bump off the first cast member before you can even say “character development”.
The play’s author the late John Bishop was noted for exploring the dark side of human nature within his comedy writing. He had a long and prominent career, going on to write Elmer Gantry and in later years directing Beverly Hills Cop III. Bishop knew old Hollywood and this comedy reeks of it, which is all to the good as long as those nuances can be properly interpreted. A tall order for any theatre group this side of the pond.
The basic set up is the ‘old dark house’ thriller but this is more Abbott and Costello than Agatha Christie, send-up and homage all in one package. A group of showbiz types are convening at the said mansion in order to run some auditions for a new musical production. The host is Elsa Von Grossenkneuten a slightly nutty German aristo with a penchant for theatrical types. As the unseen snow relentlessly falls outside the cast of oddballs begin to arrive.
Without exception the cast did a fine job of characterisation; Margaret Simpson fitted the bill perfectly as Elsa Von G….blithely sailing through the comic carnage unperturbed. Donna Harrison made a superb debut as Helsa the bolshie house maid showing sparky confidence and comic presence. Robin Sanger, well known for his bravura performances, here produced a subtly understated turn as the inept undercover cop Michael Kelly. Gordon Ritchie, another new performer, was superbly malevolent as the mysterious O’Reilly. he managed to pull off the difficult, technical trick of speaking in top o’ the morning ‘oirish’ that occasionally lapsed into zer stage Nazi accent. It’s very hard, you try it.
The play’s director, Peter Melia, turns up in the play as… a director, the air kissingly fey Ken de la Maize purring out catty put downs and name dropping Hollywood greats in equal measure. Maize though was out-camped by Roger Hopewell, the show within a show’s musical composer, played here with scene stealing alacrity by Haxby Player’s stalwart David Hudson as a razor tongued, flouncy old queen. Further loopy characters emerge, Marjorie Baverstock (Sheila Barnett) a woman from the deep south who has somehow reassigned some of the vowel sounds in the English language to create her own words was simply devoone. While Bernice Roth (Perri Barley) a bohemian drama queen provided the screams…… ear splitting screams, as well as some good laughs.
Newcomers Zoe Roberts and Tim Creasy provided the love interest as Nikki Crandall and Eddie McCuen respectively. Zoe brought a touching authenticity to Nikki, the wide eyed, would-be showgirl. Eddie is a movie comedian, a dyed in the wool gag-man and Tim Creasy came over as the real deal, from the wise-guy tilt of his trilby to the spot-on vaudevillian swagger. You could believe he’d walked straight out of “Hellzapoppin” he had the delivery, comic poise and timing so resonant of that era. The chemistry between these two that sparked from the old fashioned B-movie dialogue provided a nice counterpoint to the murder and mayhem, and certainly won the audience over.
There is a danger with this kind of comedy of things becoming too “zany “or shrill but Peter Melia has generally managed to keep the pace up without losing the plot. Although that did suffer slightly in the opening scenes when some lines emphasising the significance of a deceased dancer’s note book were slightly lost amid the establishing dialogue. I think the choreography and pacing should have been a little more sedate at this point, as there was a lot for the audience to keep up with.
The music chosen to underpin a couple of short rehearsal numbers didn’t quite chime with the carefully rendered 1940s atmosphere. I heard a Beatles tune in there as well as some pan pipes music on the radio. The devil is in the detail when suspending the audience’s disbelief and music is so evocative it has to be right.
Those are small quibbles, however. This is a complicated piece of theatre involving a big cast on a small, technically difficult set (three sliding, swivelling, and hinged secret panels plus closet and two entrances). The comedy percolated beautifully throughout and the cast really gained confidence in Act 2. The new young players shone and the old stagers revelled. It was as corny as it was meant to be and done with real gusto and commitment by an excellent cast. A lovely evening’s entertainment.
Audience comment :-
"What a cracking good show it was, (I'm still puzzling over Helga), surefire acting, and brilliant technical wizardry. How many doors? My head's still spinning, how did you get them revolving so effortlessly ? All in all thoroughly good entertainment!"
Action took place in the Library.