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Agatha Crusty and the Village Hall Murders

by on 30 October 2019

‘Murder generally isn’t funny’

Agatha Crusty and the Village Hall Murders

by Derek Webb

Theatre West Four at the Questors Studio, Ealing, until 2 November

Review by Matthew Grierson

Why is Agatha Crusty so hung up about her surname? Expressing something not unlike Hyacinth Bucket’s disdain, she insists that it should instead be pronounced ‘Crewstay’. Surely she can’t share the opinion of the PM (at the time of writing) that ‘Crusty’ is an insult? In any case, Agatha Crusty and the Village Hall Murders is more hoary than crusty … but no less fun for all that.

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The premise of the plot – well, I say ‘plot’, it’s more of an excuse for a string of themed scenes – is that the titular crime writer (Judy Ramjeet), whoever she’s based on, happens to be spending a few days in the country when a string of themed murders takes place, and she is pitted against the dimwittedly literal DI Twigg (Alex Molloy as the plod who thinks ‘metaphorically speaking’ means talking about the weather) in trying to resolve them, with hilarious consequences.

If you thought that sentence meandered, then maybe this play isn’t for you. In keeping with the fictive rural setting of Chortleby, it takes a relaxed pace to life, and for that matter death – nothing will stave off the terror of multiple homicides like carrying on with knit club, or cookery club, or rehearsing the panto. For all of these serve as the basis of successive scenes in which the village hall committee attempts to keep calm and carry on, only to be capped with another grisly offstage death. Thank heavens there are so many Godots to bump off; in fact when we do see our first corpse of the evening (Julian Young), it takes a moment to register.

Were it not so far-fetched, I’d be tempted to say that play serves as a harrowing depiction of a community’s worsening trauma as it is compelled to repeat the same conventional inanities in the face of mass murder. Yvonne Austin, who gives a perfect performance as strait-laced committee chair Miss Wagstaff, could sum this up when DI Twigg asks whether a shotgun accident ended in death: ‘I should think so!’ she replies haughtily, as though it would have been poor form to remain alive in such circumstances.

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Yet the fact that the murderer, once eventually revealed, is given such a convincing – and convincingly played – motivation gives it an unexpected grounding in the horrors of actual human experience rather than those of Christieland pastiche. The dénouement is thus the only moment in the play to follow the exhortation of caretaker Harry Nott (Jonathan Simmons) to Agatha to be more ‘realistic’ in her novels, when he mansplains the ground rules of crime writing to her in the opening scene.

The village’s relaxed attitude to murder extends beyond the fiction to some of the technical discipline of the production: a number of times actors stumble into or talk over their pick-ups, or step into view only to hurry back into the wings to await their cue. Similarly, the lighting can’t make its mind up whether it wants to be late or early, with the deliberately stilted scene-ends, à la Police Squad!, strung out longer than necessary to make the joke, or the house lights coming up before the cast has cleared the stage at the interval.

This all makes the script’s attempts at self-awareness – ‘I haven’t done any drama since school!’, ‘He’s murdered a few scripts in his time,’ etc. – a bit risky. But it would be unfair to put too much emphasis on this, because in truth I found myself as relaxed as the cast, and enjoying proceedings as much as they clearly were.

So what if Mick Cawson has failed to complete his switch from Oliver to Olivia between scenes and has to tie his headscarf over an obvious wig while upstaging the rest of the cast? His/her hair flicks just add to the general mirth. And Ashley Brown’s turn as the Rev. Bishop, a christening milked in his interview with the untwigging Twigg, is a particular hoot. Brown’s blend of commanding and camp in his performance, as is clear, respectively, in his confrontations with the dullard DI and flirtations with the ladies of the parish, always livens things up. To write in the spirit of the script, he makes for an arch Bishop.

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Elsewhere, the cast are engaging and generally manage to strike the right comic note. As Agatha, Ramjeet is properly prim and preening about her reputation, but, never fazed by the absurdities of village life, sees her way through them to solve all the crimes in one fell swoop. In her practical approach, she is ably supported  by her local contact Natalia Sirotkina as Alice Fogg, who keeps things grounded throughout. Meanwhile, Molloy’s leaden copper deadpans to excellent effect from the start; who would have thought a character so blunt would make such a good foil?

But props in particular to Veeda Ray as artist’s model Mandy, who makes a couple of scene-stealing cameos. She is subbed late into the village panto as Snow White (a strangely compelling scene already, with Austin giving free rein to her wicked stepmother) to demonstrate excellent comic timing in refusing a gift of fruit – ‘I don’t like apples’ – before hamming it up with the rest of them when she eventually succumbs to the poison.

And despite the hit-and-miss timing elsewhere, the jokes are not lacking in rhythm. They are strung through the script so liberally that there’s no chance you’re going to go a minute or two without chortling, or even guffawing, as we found ourselves doing. And yes, you may not like wordplay, and you’d be entitled to your opinion; but you’d be wrong.

For so cold-blooded a set-up, Agatha Crusty manages to be a warm-hearted production whose shortcomings are as nothing to the charm and enthusiasm that overcomes them.

Matthew Grierson
October 2019

Photography by Ellie Hopkins

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