Edgar Wallace was known as the “King of the detective thriller” and rivals Agatha Christie as a writer of thrillers and mysteries. Producer Bill Kenwright has had enormous success with The Agatha Christie Company and following on from that success, has formed The Classic Thriller Company. The Case Of The Frightened Lady is their second production which debuted last week in Windsor and after its run this week at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley, it will tour the country between now and October.
When the curtain rises, we are in the large, baronial hall of the ancestral home of the Lebanon family. A fancy-dress party is in full swing and everything seems normal until as in all good thrillers, someone is murdered. The police are called and it’s obvious to them that things are not what they seem. Not long after a second murder is committed and everyone in the house from Lord and Lady Lebanon to their various servants are under suspicion.
The play is set in 1932 and last night I felt that a time machine had whisked me back to the time where actors declaimed rather than acted and every line could be clearly heard in the back row of the balcony. Even when the characters were talking to each other normally, the lines were shouted, rather than just spoken. At one stage I thought we were attending a master-class in how actors performed before the war – naturalistic in 21st-Century acting terms, it certainly wasn’t!
Apart from shouting at each other, the characters hardly ever stood still, walking on and off the set through the various doors – often for no reason at all! On a number of occasions, a character would walk on through one door and exit through another without saying a word. I can only think they were on a mission to do their daily Fitbit target of 10000 steps – all in one evening! I hope they’re given more than one pair of shoes as they’ll be worn out come the end of the tour. There were more coming and goings during the near two hours running time than Waterloo Station at rush hour!
This is one of those touring productions that relies on well-known television names to put bums on seats. In the twelve-strong cast amongst others are Gray O’Brien (Coronation Street, Casualty) etc. who plays Chief Superintendent Tanner, Rula Lenska (Dr Who, Eastenders etc.) who is Lady Lebanon and Phillip Lowrie (Dennis Tanner from Coronation Street) as Kelver the butler. In their defence, they have some really clunky material to work with and unfortunately, Roy Marsden’s old-fashioned direction doesn’t help give the production any life or pizazz.
The problem with The Case Of The Frightened Lady is there isn’t any tension and the characters walking on and off stage for no reason really doesn’t help. At one point I thought the plot had some psychic undertones as a number of characters suddenly say at the end of a piece of dialogue “There’s somebody listening” and as they say it, one of the servants suddenly appears from behind a wall but this was never followed up so I’m not sure of the reason for it being repeated. The other thing you hope from a piece like this is an unexpected twist at the end as in The Mousetrap for example. In this play (spoiler alert), there isn’t one and the ending is very limp indeed.
The whole piece lacks any energy, suspense and, as its billed as a thriller, any thrills. There are a couple of loud claps of thunder and after one, the lady sitting behind me was heard to say, “Well at least that woke me up”! As I said this production is incredibly old-fashioned and is so creaky that all the WD40 in the world wouldn’t be enough to stop it.
I really don’t know why the producers chose this play in particular to revive. Even back in 1940 when a film version was released, one newspaper said “The old shocker has lost most of its punch. There are several reasons why The Case of the Frightened Lady doesn’t come off as it should. One is that director George King has not evidenced any regard for suspense, the other is that the performances, on the whole, are uninspired. But perhaps the real reason is that the story itself is outmoded.” Unfortunately, those same mistakes have been repeated all these years later and if it was outmoded in 1940, it certainly is nearly 80 years later.
Review by Alan Fitter
When Inspector Tanner is called in to investigate a ruthless murder at Mark’s Priory, the grand ancestral home of the Lebanon family, he quickly discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. As Tanner moves closer to the heart of the mystery he uncovers a shocking and closely guarded secret.
The star cast includes Gray O’Brien, one of TV’s most popular actors, known for his memorable roles in The Loch, Peak Practice, Casualty and as Tony Gordon in Coronation Street; Rula Lenska, one of Britain’s best-loved actresses, who since her breakthrough in Rock Follies has starred in iconic shows Doctor Who, One Foot In The Grave, EastEnders and Take A Letter Mr Jones; Denis Lill from long-running drama The Royal and Only Fools and Horses; Charlie Clements, who played the much-loved character of Bradley Branning in EastEnders; Philip Lowrie, best known for playing Dennis Tanner in Coronation Street; April Pearson, star of award-winning drama Skins; Agatha Christie Company stalwart Ben Nealon from the popular series Soldier Soldier, and Glenn Carter, widely recognised as the definitive Jesus in the hit musical and film of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Running Time Approximately: 2 hours 50 minutes (including interval)
23rd to 25th January 2018
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