Michael Lunney

A Murder is Announced

03/05/22

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

‘Cosy mystery’ is a strange genre. The body count is high but the blood loss is minimal; an alarming number of its denizens have murder in mind, but we’re not witness to any physical brutality. Death occurs courtesy of a fast-acting poison or a single, well-placed blow to the head; killers tend to be well-to-do, well-spoken, suburban types, fond of chintz and regular cups of tea – oh, and there’s usually a domestic servant or two.

If the genre has a queen, Agatha Christie wears the crown. And of her prodigious output, the Miss Marple stories are the cosiest of all. Jane Marple looks like a cliché: a nosy, soberly dressed spinster of independent means, living modestly in a sleepy village. But Miss Marple is shrewdly intelligent, and her prying has a purpose: she’s a dab hand at uncovering criminals, and the local constabulary often find her help invaluable.

A Murder is Announced is a classic Miss Marple mystery. It opens with an unlikely premise: someone posts an ad in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, announcing that there will be a murder at 6.30pm that night at Little Paddocks, home to Letitia Blacklock (Barbara Wilshere). Letitia is a kindly soul, and she’s opened Little Paddocks to a whole host of friends and relatives, so there’s a raft of potential victims – and killers. Her impoverished old school pal, Bunny (Karen Drury), has lived there for years, and – more recently – Lettie’s second cousins, Julia (Lucy Evans) and Patrick (Will Huntington), have appeared. They’ve been living abroad, but now they’re back in the UK and need somewhere to stay. In addition, Lettie has taken pity on Philippa (Emma Fernell), and invited the young widow to reside in her home too. Housekeeper Mitzi (Lydia Piechowiak) is kept very busy!

And, at 6.30pm that night, a murder does indeed occur. What’s going on? Luckily, a certain Miss Marple (Sarah Thomas) is in the vicinity, visiting her nephew, the local vicar, so Inspector Craddock (Tom Butcher) doesn’t have to figure it out alone…

Despite the convoluted and unlikely plot, there are no surprises here. But that’s part of the appeal, I guess: we know what we’re getting – hence the term ‘cosy.’ Middle Ground Theatre Company’s production is competently done: director Michael Lunney successfully corrals the twelve-strong cast’s tortuous backstories into a comprehensible tale, and the actors deliver solid performances.

I’m a little confused by the lowering of the curtain for an extended period at the end of each scene. The first time, I’m expecting a complex set change, but, when the curtain rises again, only minor adjustments are apparent. A plate of sandwiches has been removed; a newspaper folded. I can’t help feeling this could be achieved a little more dynamically.

In the end, there’s nothing striking here – either good or bad. A Murder is Announced just does what it says on the tin, and there’s no denying its popularity; the theatre is bustling. There are worse ways to spend an evening, but I’d love one day to see new life breathed into this old form.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Verdict

30/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The Verdict might have started life as a novel by Barry Reed, but it’s David Mamet’s 1982 film adaptation that lingers in the public memory. With five Oscar nominations, this courtroom tale was a startling success, so it’s little wonder that it’s become part of the reviving-old-movies-into-plays phenomenon.

Director Michael Lunney (who also appears as Irish barman, Eugene Meehan) has created a slick production, which holds the audience’s attention despite its wordiness. The moral dilemma at the story’s heart is compelling and, despite the fact that we are rooting throughout for Frank (Ian Kelsey), we can still retain some sympathy for the defendants in the case. They’re doctors, accused of negligence; a young mother lies in a persistent vegetative state after (allegedly) being administered the wrong anaesthetic. But, while they’re clearly positioned as ‘the bad guys’, we are also invited to understand how easily an accident might happen; it’s the shameless cover-up that exposes their villainy, not their original mistake.

This is definitely Frank’s play, and Kelsey does a good job of portraying the dissolute lawyer, a borderline alcoholic, with just enough vestiges of morality to take on such a daunting case. He’s tempted by an early offer to settle out of court – he needs the money badly – but he knows that this time he has to do the right thing.

There’s a large cast (almost too large; surely it would make sense for some of these actors to multi-role?), and the characters are deftly drawn, creating a real impression of the community in which Frank lives and the circumstances in which he works. Josephine Rogers shines as mysterious barmaid, Donna St Laurent, and Denis Lill is marvellous as Moe Katz, Frank’e erstwhile mentor and proto-parent, and perhaps the production’s most sympathetic character.

The set is hyper-realistic, with a photographic backdrop and detailed interiors. In fact, if I’ve a criticism, that’s it: I don’t think this piece is theatrical enough. It feels like a film performed on a stage; it hasn’t really been adapted to the form. No one’s having fun here, experimenting with the possibilities of theatre, exploiting the advantages of live performance. There’s a moment when Frank addresses the jury, speaking out to the audience, which hints at how much more inclusive this whole experience could have been, but it’s fleeting, and then we’re back to watching something framed and distant, as if it’s behind glass.

Still, I can’t deny that I’m engrossed throughout, and this is a snappy, engaging piece of work. Courtrooms and theatres aren’t so very different, after all.

4 stars

Susan Singfield