They Call it Murder: April 2014

murderReview by Gill Lambourn

I thought I’d try and start like previous reviewers with a deep analysis of the play/author but as you know I’m far too lightweight for that! However I did look in my French’s guide to see what else (if anything) she wrote and all were murder based and some billed as comedy by far the majority are set in amateur theatre companies. I thought from the choice of setting and quality of her dialogue that maybe she was an am-dram person (no offence I’m one myself.) So today I googled her and this is the entry:

Bettine Manktelow has been in theatrical ventures either professional of amateur all her life, starting off as a repertory actress at the age of fifteen. Her first play, which was not published, was presented in Singapore to an audience of sophisticated ex-pats. as it was a kitchen-sink Drama it was greeted with hoots of laughter. At the time Bettine did not realise she had a flare for comedy! Subsequent plays, however, even when Dramatic or thrilling always managed to have international comical lines and/or comical characters. Her career as a playwright did not take off until the 1970s when she was directing for an amateur company in Ramsgate, Kent. By sheer luck one of her plays was taken up by a professional company in Folkestone and a director from French’s was there to see it. He liked it, and it was published. This was “they Call it Murder.” Since then Bettine has written and had published twenty plays, mostly published by Samuel French but also by Jasper Publishing. She now lives in Deal and continues to write and direct a new play on an annual basis”

So I’ve done my research and also confirmed my suspicions so ticked all the boxes. Now I can just start on my own thing!

I think I am writing this review from a unique and privileged position as I have so much more insight into what went into the performance both on and off stage than the average stranger. Many times I’ve listened to crits both as an actor and director and been annoyed at comments that place praise or blame where it is not due or show total lack of understanding regarding the challenges involved so I will try to be understanding and helpful whilst giving you my honest opinion of the production – that’s the best I can offer, I hope it works!

Firstly can I say I love the new programme cover and Carrie’s lovely artwork – it is a big improvement, although I would have liked to see the artwork specific to the production included as the first page inside rather than go just go straight to text. Not having it there meant I haven’t seen the poster design at all which seems a shame – sure it was good. Just a thought….

I also liked the idea of the atmospheric photography playing on the walls before the opening. I did notice this said Manchester Docks so wondered why there was no mention of the area or any Lancashire accents in the play even though you had a local in the cast to help – but I discovered in later conversation that it had been a case of what photographs could be found and used that worked properly and that these just happened to include the name Manchester. So I’ve removed that query from my crit.

I was impressed with the set – it looked suitable and solid and I loved the brickwork effect over the fireplace – very of it’s era I thought. It worked well for the action and seemed to give actors plenty of space so all in all a find in young Hannah – whom I gather we’ve got thanks to her connections to the Millinger family – ie: Jonny. She did a good job, a real keeper if she’s interested to do more. I was impressed to hear cast had real door to use too.

It was lit well throughout with no black holes – to be honest I would expect nothing less from Alastair Joel and yes Alastair I did notice the light bouncing off the mirror! I did very much like the final lighting effect though so thanks Alastair and Rachel who naturally ran the lighting with quiet efficiency on Saturday when I was there and I’m sure all week through.

Stephen Millinger too did all that was required when required and in a play where sound is not too complex no one can ask for more. I was slightly thrown by the passing traffic at the opening of Act two as we’d never heard any cars previously, but it was clarified when the awaited people appeared. A couple of observations on that though. For me we got the sounds whilst the stage was silent and then the dialogue that explained them. It may well be that the script has it written that way but I think it would seem more natural if sounds were more overlapping the dialogue – if that makes sense. And the second thing for me is a classic faux pas, the car drew up and almost before we had heard the door slam the actors entered. Now maybe if they’d all been Jamaican sprinters they’d have got there that quickly but …. again it’s either start the effect sooner, during previous dialogue so they can enter without a pause or take just a count of two before door opens – bit of background voices then enter – just makes all more believable for boring pedants like me! This comment also came to mind a couple of times with Steve’s off stage lines – I loved the coughs in the background early on and throughout but I did think that sometimes the actresses could have overlapped with him rather than waiting for his line before continuing theirs. In my opinion conversation never comes to a halt both before and all through people shouting from another room and certainly not some old codger who in the main they weren’t that interested in as he was saying things he said every day…..Just a thought. Let the odd line be thrown away rather than give all the same value.

The three sisters were well cast in looks, ages and voices and worked well and naturally together which was nice. The costumes were exactly right throughout and all looked good- I especially loved Babs slippers which Sophie told me were her own – not sure it that was true or windup but anyway they were good. The colours were all suitable to the characters and circumstances so well thought out Chantal and/or director and actors involved. The movement worked well in the main although there were occasions when I felt there was rather more pacing up and down than I liked – one place that springs to mind was when Peggy was reading the will. I thought more likely stunned stillness or sinking down on chair with shock that walking around getting agitated but then every director sees things differently and she was a nervy type. There were several instances where I felt people moved away and returned to each other sort of for the sake of not being static – do some people watching, it will show you that that rarely happens except for a good reason.

Props were good and correct and well done Doris for producing so many new Wills, it must have been a pain. The set was well dressed without being fussy and overall we as an audience didn’t notice the props which is as it should be. Sadly true that in general if they’re commented on they’re wrong! The curlers were just right but harking back to the movement that was definitely and occasion when I was somewhat irritated by her doing one roller then moving away to speak to people for no particular reason before doing the other – in my experience and I admit I haven’t used curlers a lot! – If you’re looking in the mirror to put them in you stay there ‘til it’s done. Mirrors are great for talking to other cast members through without needing to turn around or move away. I’m being picky only because I think these sort of small things are worth thinking about and help the audience be convinced it’s real life. The direction overall was good and the staging as to where scenes were played on the stage worked well. No one got stranded behind either the sofa or the table which is difficult to avoid and in general even though the entrances were all upstage, action was bought down in natural moves.

I did have a small query why Babs went off stage left to her bath but emerged after it when she was dressed again from the back – I guessed it was a house where one could circle around up the backstairs and down the front – or was it a bungalow? That’s always a slight problem with upstage sound due to locations of speakers – I think it was a house but Dad slept downstairs a he couldn’t walk – or just possibly Babs exited through the wrong door? Who knows, I was probably the only person who noticed!

Another small observation when Natalie/Peggy opened the sideboard to get something out or put it away (I can’t remember which came first) it would have been more convincing if there had been a few other things in there – it was flat on to our view and so very obvious that the only thing in it was the item she used – Now maybe they owned very little or had no junk in their house but I know no one who has luxury of empty cupboards – any old rubbish would just have made it look more convincing.

I felt Howard was slightly upstaged by his suit in Act 1. He didn’t seem quite his usual relaxed self on stage but he did tell me later that he was supposed to be ill at ease so guess he was actually acting that emotion well! I’m not quite sure why he was, not at least before he’d been found out chatting up another woman – but I’m sure if I’d read the script more I’d know the justification. Certainly he was landed with a very frigid fiancée – although Natalie did convince me that she could or would have been more loving if she hadn’t had to keep it all under control all those years – ah the strain of living in an era when sex before marriage was heavily frowned upon!

Katharine was perfect in her role of the daily help. Dialogue clear and good pace and accent just right. I’m sure it was part she enjoyed performing. She created the correct sense of honestly rather than ignorance and interest in her employers (although a bit unobservant when it came to dead bodies!) whilst still having her own family as the priority. By the way whatever you did to your hair, keep doing it, it looked great.

This was a part Peter revelled in I think, he did a terrific job being both camp and sinister not an easy combination and there were just a few occasions when the campness slightly disappeared under the nasty blackmailing persona but overall one of the best things I’ve seen him do as much against type which often brings the best out in actors. I liked his first costume very much but wasn’t totally convinced by the later one which looked slightly random but it wasn’t wrong or silly and I know how hard it is to get the best one can within reasonable time/money constraints so no problem.

Steve also must had had fun in a strange way – at least pretty relaxing role on the line learning front, but as I’ve said he made his presence well felt with coughs and general noises off and when he appeared was exactly what I was expecting. His makeup was scarily realistic due entirely to Caroline’s expertise I gather and she did a terrific job. Feel you have taken aging up about as far as you should now though Steve and a more active younger role should call you soon. Sorry that woman who often played your wife or lover no longer seems to be around but sure you could partner other actresses equally well if not better! Dying twice on stage is enough – someone give him a part with more life next time please!

Having said the sisters were all well cast I’ll give a little more about each. I was impressed with Carrie who is really maturing in her performance and becoming a nice young actress. I’m sure more parts will be coming your way after this which continued the progress shown in Sack Race. Well done.

Sophie got all she could out of Babs and created a nicely rounded character and typical middle sister. She is very relaxed on stage which is nice for the audience who relax and enjoy it with her. Nice one Soph.

Howard had in way the least interesting role as his character isn’t very well drawn by the author so leaving the actor little to work with. But then parts like Richard or Stanley don’t come along every day and he made the most of a slightly lesser role. His later scenes with Natalie when we learnt a bit more about him and their relationship were good and well paced and he portrayed an essentially decent man who despite finding life and love pretty disappointing continued to do his duty. Lucky for him really that she did herself in and let him off the hook! Sure he was out enjoying himself with the blonde older woman in no time and well deserved after all those years of abstinence.

And finally, Natalie. Nat is a very, very watchable actress she is more than capable of showing the depths of emotion, anger and frustration Peggy felt. There were just one or two occasions when I thought quietness could have given us a more interesting take on the situation than nervous movement but it’s quite possible that was the director’s choice which is fair enough. The scenes with Peter were particularly strong and the death was well played. Look forward to seeing you on stage with SP again soon.

This was a production that gave us a good evening’s theatre from a less than brilliant script so I commend everyone involved, with a less capable group it could have been one when you’d consider not staying ‘til the end. And I would say in my opinion one of this lady’s plays is enough. As ever I recommend everyone and especially those who enjoy directing to go to see as much theatre as possible or failing that to read scripts and find plays that excite and enthral. Try to keep abreast of how theatre is evolving in staging, lighting, sets, direction and performance. This was an enjoyable evening and I hope my comments will be taken in the manner in which they’re meant – it’s just a personal opinion and a few ideas that you may find useful but are welcome to disregard.

Well done – and PS, Robert your prompting was quick, clear and well taken by those concerned. Would have preferred not to hear you but I lay the blame with the author – it’s always easier to learn good dialogue. Box office, front of house etc as ever efficient and friendly and I heard Louis did a brilliant job as Stage Manager always important so well done.

I hope you’ll ask me again, I’ve enjoyed it.

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