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The Case of the Frightened Lady

by on 13 November 2018

Tradition and the Irreverent Talent

The Case of the Frightened Lady

by Edgar Wallace

The Classic Thriller Theatre Company at Richmond Theatre until 17th November

Review by Matthew Grierson

Pitched carefully and capably between the comic and the dramatic, tonight’s revival of an interwar thriller knows just how far to take the laughs before it treads back into darkness. Far from sending up the genre, the humour is staged in such a way as to help the audience connect with the characters, humanising them rather than letting them lapse into the stereotypes they could so easily have become.

Fright Lady PR1

The scene is the early 1930s – but you’d be forgiven for thinking it were much earlier, given that the curtain rises on a cast tumbling across the splendidly realised hallway of Marks Priory in a boisterous pageant of medieval costume. So it is apparent even before she speaks a word that Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant in formidable form) is preoccupied by heritage, heraldry and hierarchy. Her Ladyship’s concern to perpetuate the family line is itself the through-line of the play, although not always in the ways we would expect. It is at least the main reason that her several times removed cousin Isla (Scarlett Archer), the titular frightened lady, remains in this tremulous state throughout: Lady Lebanon intends that the young woman will marry her jaunty, Bertie Woosterish son, in the person of the tremendous Matt Barber, who embodies William in a close resemblance of his current regal namesake. Barber is a hoot, swanking about the place with riding crop or billiard cue, at one point even using the latter to mime a shot behind a departing servant as though potting him offstage.

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He’s not the only character to treat Lady L’s cherished tradition with irreverence. Robert Duncan gives a well-oiled turn as the caddish Dr Amersham, oozing between slimy insinuation and veiled threats, and is one of a number of participants in the opening round of flirtations and connivances between family, friends and staff that set out various possible motivations for murder. The whirligig of entrances, exits, couplings and uncouplings into which these are choreographed also gives an indication of energy with which this production will continue to speed through its revelations and red herrings, keeping things pacey enough for this period piece to feel sprightly instead of antiquated. Roy Marsden, himself no stranger to the exposition of murder, directs in a way that surefootedly wrongfoots us, giving a comic beat hot on the heels of some fresh terror, or producing new scares that jolt us out of laughter.

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An index of this blend of comedy and chills are the repeated moments when certain characters (hush now, no spoilers) will suddenly stop mid-dialogue and look out over the stalls and whisper, hauntedly, ‘Someone’s listening!’ Then the sinister footmen slip into view and the audience laughs, a little relieved. But the moment, teetering on the brink of breaking the fourth wall, remains unnerving each time. Barber proves particularly effective in making these volte-faces from buffoonery to terror and back, much to the play’s benefit, while as Isla, Archer gives us a Lady Macbeth without the homicidal intent. Or does she … ? Her screams, like the thunderclaps that punctuate the play, prove that the production is equally adept at using stock sound simply but effectively to terrorise the audience.

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Someone who must have missed the memo to keep things lively and lifelike, however, is John Partridge in the role of Superintendent Tanner. Superintendent Mannered would be more on the mark, such is his arch delivery – viz. his reference to the ‘Lord Lou Tenant’ rather than ‘Lord Lieutenant’ – and proclivity for standing stock still then prowling the stage with no seeming purpose. Perhaps a hangover from his role in Cats?

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As Tanner’s sergeant, Totti, Matt Lacey is much more agreeable, exhibiting the people skills necessary to police work in his unassuming interviews with suspects and his low-key flirtation with Isla. But while the relationship between the two policemen is written to be that of surrogate father and son, Tanner having worked with the late Totti Sr, the two actors are too close in age to sell this set-up, losing any residual authority the script may furnish the super’ with.

Given the tone of this production, it’s difficult to know quite how seriously a 1931 audience would have taken the original staging; but with characters called ‘Studd’ and ‘Totti’ there is a hint that Wallace had his tongue in his cheek even then, and this means the evening has a flavour of Carry On Christie. With the family also calling off repeatedly for ‘Gilder’, I was half-expecting a Rita Hayworth-alike to join them onstage. Sadly, the character thus named is a footman, so Scarlett Archer as Isla monopolises the fabulous frocks.

 

It is also intriguing to speculate how far the modern sensibilities of the piece are Wallace’s own and how far they are part of Antony Lampard’s adaptation. Certainly Lady L’s preoccupation with the dynasty is presented as an outmoded way of thinking even for its time, despite support from her reliable retainer Kelver (Philip Lowrie); so her son scores with the audience by professing himself ‘a bit of a democrat’ at point. Nevertheless, Grant’s performance as the matriarch is as a force to be reckoned with, and, of the below-stairs contingent, Rosie Thomson as Mrs Tilling also gives as good as she gets. One gets the sense of a rounded character willing to stand by her ill-tempered husband, the bluff gamekeeper (Gwynfor Jones), without actually loving him.

In another respect, though, this adaptation has missed a trick; without giving too much away, the story draws on the shared military background of several characters on the subcontinent, but there is not an Indian character among them. In a play that already has numerous character dynamics to explore, this may have been considered one too many. As it is, with the varied ingredients he has Marsden almost manages to keep the pot boiling right to the very end. The denouement when it comes is sudden and surprising, but at this point the direction bubbles over somewhat: no sooner is the culprit revealed than the policemen are reading them the litany of their rights and the curtain falls, giving us little time to savour what has up till then been a lip-smacking evening.

Matthew Grierson
November 2018

Photography by Pamela Raith

From → Drama, Reviews

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