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An Absolute Farce of a Murder Mystery

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but shows now come with trigger warnings. Now, whatever your opinion of this, it’s always interesting to read what the warnings are to give you some sort of feel for the production. So when I saw the following “Trigger & Content Warnings: flickering lights – murder – death – mean people – antagonistic patriarchal behaviour – sibling rivalry – attitudes consistent with 1930’s Daily Mail readers – an implied disdain for socialism – comedy enslavement – occasional breaking of the 4th wall – theatrical irreverence.” I knew I wanted to attend the world premiere of An Absolute Farce of a Murder Mystery at the Drayton Arms Theatre.

An Absolute Farce of a Murder Mystery. Photo by Jakub Bachleda-Wala.
An Absolute Farce of a Murder Mystery. Photo by Jakub Bachleda-Wala.

As the lights come up on the drawing room of Garbadale Manor, we are greeted by the butler Manning (Christian Ballantyne) who tells us it is the year of our Lord Nineteen-Hundred & Agatha Christie. Acting as a narrator, despite some heated argument with Lord Sebastian Hardcastle (Peter Rae), Manning introduces us to the various inhabitants of the Manor. The family is headed by a Monstrous Patriarch (Toby Wynn-Davies) who rules his two children Lady Honoria (Rosalind Blessed) and Sir Percy (Duncan Wilkins) with a rod of iron. As well as Lord Sebastian there is another guest at the manor for dinner tonight in the form of Lady Susan Bloom (Helen Bang), a strange lady with psychic powers. Making up the household staff, along with Manning, is the Maid (Holly Ashman) who are ready to serve dinner to the family and their guests when suddenly the quiet of the manor is broken by a banshee-like wail and scream and Lady Honoria bursts in with news that Sir Cecil has been murdered. In the style of many an amateur sleuth before him, Lord Sebastian sets out to find the murderer. The puzzle is difficult with many questions to answer. Where was everyone when the murder was committed? What are the secrets everyone is hiding from each other? Who or what is the mysterious Phillip (Zuzana Spacirova) and do they even exist? The plot thickens.

For those that don’t know, according to Wikipedia™, “Farce is a comedy that seeks to entertain an audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable involving the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense; satire, parody, and mockery of real-life situations, people, events, and interactions; unlikely and humorous instances of miscommunication; ludicrous, improbable, and exaggerated characters; and broadly stylized performances. By any definition, An Absolute Farce of a Murder Mystery is a very welcome addition to the genre and writer Peter Rae has produced a classic of the style. Without going into too much detail and giving secrets away, the show has all the required elements and the two forty-five-minute acts really keep the audience on their toes, having fun and trying to make sense of everything.

The story is a glorious mixture of Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers as the amateur detective tries to solve a murder in a house full of secrets, including his own. There are red herrings aplenty and by the second act, everything falls to pieces as a combination of a not-too-bright maid, and a sudden need to confess all via letter, lead to even more confusion and, my favourite element, people coming in and out of the room at a great pace.

Unfortunately what was missing here were physical doors which would really have added to the experience, but as a movement device, it worked. Thanks to the work of Director Helen Bang, we are able to keep track of everyone or so we think as the truth starts to appear.

They say the important part of comedy is for the actor to play it deadly serious, and this is taken to an extreme in a farce and, I have to say, the cast really delivers. In the great tradition of the genre, they really jump into their roles with completely over-the-top performances that, in any other circumstance would be too much, but here fit perfectly.

Full credit to everyone in the cast. With a look, a nod or a special tick, every character was wonderfully drawn and brought to life. This is especially true of Helen Bang’s physic Lady Susan. You could almost believe that Bang was a psychic who was channelling the energy of that great theatrical medium Madame Arcati. Also, have to mention Holly Ashman’s Maid who, especially in the first act, somehow managed to speak the most marvellous gobbledegook in such a way that the audience – if not any of the other characters – understood her perfectly.

Lizzie Maria Thompson’s costume designs felt very appropriate and when Manning first appeared in his butler attire, my first thought was that Carson from Downton Abbey would approve. The same is true of the other costumes and again Lady Susan’s really stood out for me.

Overall, I really enjoyed An Absolute Farce of a Murder Mystery. It was fun, entertaining and totally mad from start to finish.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

In the year of our Lord Nineteen-Hundred & Agatha, the inhabitants and guests of Garbadale Manor have their evening rudely interrupted by the untimely death of Sir Cecil.

Join the Usual Tired Old Tropes, ahem, Dynamic and Electrifying List of Suspects: the Monstrous
Patriarch, the Drunken Son; the Maid with a Secret; the Butler with a Past, the Celebrated Psychic, the Longful Daughter; the Ostensibly Objective Rake; a Ghost-like Thing: all collide and commune in a raucous take on the stylings of Agatha Christie – with added Ghost. Or is there?”

So, there you have it… lost loves, hidden identities, twists and turns and comic misunderstandings – and you’ll be pleased to hear, no incest.

Cast:
Holly Ashman
Christian Ballantyne
Helen Bang
Rosalind Blessed
Peter Rae
Zuzana Spacirova
Toby Wynn-Davies
Duncan Wilkins

Creative Team:
Director: Helen Bang
Costume Designer: Lizzie Maria Thompson
Lighting Designer: Roel Fox
Movement Director: Kirsten Westdal
Company Stage Manager: Oettie Devriese
Art Design: Tim Jones
Publicity: Kevin Wilson for KWPR
Produced by Canonbie Productions

Trigger & Content Warnings:
flickering lights – murder – death – mean people – antagonistic patriarchal behaviour –
sibling rivalry – attitudes consistent with 1930’s Daily Mail readers – an implied disdain for socialism – comedy enslavement – occasional breaking of the 4th wall – theatrical irreverence.

The world première of
‘An Absolute Farce of a Murder Mystery’
by Peter Rae
directed by Helen Bang
The Drayton Arms Theatre
28 February – 11 March 2023
https://www.thedraytonarmstheatre.co.uk/

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