The Classic Thriller Theatre Company (formerly the Agatha Christie Theatre Company) is the brainchild of Bill Kenwright, the all-powerful West End impresario - the Binkie Beaumont of the day. Obviously not all of their productions are going to be top notch despite reasonably starry casts and when it comes to hit and miss, Edgar Wallace’s ever-popular whodunit THE CASE OF THE FRIGHTENED LADY veers closer to the latter.

The company in question appears to use quite a number of the same performers on a regular basis (rather like the Actor/Managers did in the past). Actor/director Roy Marsden (Adam Dalgiesh in the P.D. James TV series) has directed several productions for this comparatively recently formed company and has scored some success. So what went wrong here? Well, for a start Anthony Lampard (also a stalwart of this company) has re-written Edgar Wallace's original play (filmed as far back as 1940). The original had two sets though here (due to economy?) we only have one set and no chairs (except for a stone niche in the ancient baronial hall. So no one hardly ever sits down and as soon as one character leaves the stage another appears (unceasingly and quite irritatingly).
As for the plot: Cheeky chauffeur Studd (Joshua Wichard) has been murdered with a thuggee cord during a fancy dress party at Mark’s Priory – the splendid ancestral home of the Lebanon clan. Chief Superintendent Tanner (Gray O'Brien, a CTC regular) and Detective Sergeant Totti (Charlie Clemens) are on their way to investigate. Here we encounter Lady Lebanon (Rula Lenska) who rules everything with tradition and an iron fist, her son Lord Lebanon (Ben Nealon, another CTC favourite), the amorous and slippery old Dr. Amersham (Dennis Lill), butler Kelver (Philip Lowrie), footmen Gilder (Glenn Carter) and Brook (Callum Coates), maid Mrs. Tilling (Rosie Thomson) and new arrival Isla Crane (April Pearson), officially the ‘secretary’ but whose sole purpose at the behest of her Ladyship is to marry the cocky young Lord and bear him a son to continue the noble Lebanon line. Love rarely comes into it in such cases and Ms. Crane is as opposed to the marriage as is Lord Lebanon. Alas, Ms. Crane comes from an unfortunate background shall we say and Lady Lebanon’s generous cheques to her mother and her sisters prohibit her from calling the looming wedding off.

In Wallace's original the character of Totti supplied the comic relief - here we have none and Totti and his superior Tanner may just as well be one person. Their investigations are hampered by Lord and Lady Lebanon’s refusal to cooperate and slowly but surely our detectives come to realize that masters and servants know more than they care to reveal, in fact the footmen always seem to hide in a corner and listen into ongoing conversations (an ongoing joke throughout the play). Dark secrets are beginning to emerge which turn Isla Crane into the frightened lady of the title. It isn't long before another murder is committed just before the curtain goes down for the first act. Marsden's almost static direction (or was this 'a studied exercise’ in restrained performance?) doesn't do the overall pace any favours. None of the characters have any real backbone. Old doc Dennis Lill does his best in a not overly difficult part. Rula Lenska IS upper class but think what an actress of Coral Browne’s caliber could have done with the Lady Lebanon part! At the other end of the scale, Owen Oldroyd as cuckolded gamekeeper Tilling makes his presence felt strongly in this relatively small role. Ben Nealon is not altogether convincing as a member of the pre-WW2 aristocracy… Lord Peter Wimsey he is not (especially in view of the play still being set in 1932). Lampard has not updated the piece despite the detectives’ latter day clothing. A pity they couldn't have got Ray Winstone in to play footman Gilder (Glenn Carter sporting a way too modern pigtail). A table, a couple of chairs and just a few witty one-liners may have helped this production more than the unnecessarily exaggerated screams.

(THE CASE OF THE FRIGHTENED LADY runs until Sat. 31st March)



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