Jessie Wallace

Jessie Wallace as Joan. Pictures: Honeybunn Photography

The Perfect Murder

Coventry Belgrade

****

OF COURSE there’s no such thing as the perfect murder. Some tell-tale clue, the smallest hint of DNA, blood on the carpet, a trace of poison, the outline of a shoeprint, a smidgeon of green paint, a faint discolouration, cruelly planted by an Agatha Christie or Conon Doyle, will inevitably lead Miss Marple or Poirot or Sherlock Holmes himself to unravel what seemed like an unsolveable mystery - and spoil the fun.

There’s a lot of fun and entertainment in The Perfect Murder, crafted as a novel by celebrated crime writer Peter James and now recast as a stage play by adapter Shaun McKenna. It even features a prototype version of James’s famed Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, transformed back into a young constable - not even a detective, and no way near being an inspector - who puts his finger on the pulse and steers us to what seems to be a satisfactory conclusion.

But The Perfect Murder scores heavily by being just that: you have the impression, perhaps the certainty, thanks to a glorious twist near the end, that this one will be got away with. 

First things first. Benjamin Wilkin turns in a calm, conscientious, careful performance as Grace, the young PC whose gentle probing and clever ear for detail spots the tiniest - or most obvious - inconsistency, trapping what becomes his chief murder suspect, the ingratiating but easily flappable Joan Smiley, into a series of ropy answers. 

Why is the gold watch on the sideboard? When did she call her absent husband’s mobile? What is that white van on the tarmac; and just who is the supposedly deaf young man working in the garage on joints and lead piping? 

Wilkin‘s calm is an important feature in enabling the truth - the supposed truth - to emerge ever so gradually. Another is the calm and rather touching way in which he deals in an upper room with the ever so gentle prostitute Kamila (Simona Armstrong, managing an accent that’s East Europeant to the hilt). Armstrong gives a lovely, tender, winning performance, as loyal to the truth - mostly - as she is to her customers, and it is she whose shocked discoveries set the whole ball rolling for the discovery of malpractice in a suburban street.

So what of the main event? The Perfect Murder is blessed with a cleverly thought out set (Michael Holt) - a little cheap, even amateur, in carved-out look but artfully designed to enclose a good size drawing room, an open passageway, a kitchen, an outdoor yard and two upstairs rooms, bedrooms of differejoan and nt hue (family; prostitute’s). That’s not bad for variety, and it works very well, providing plenty of options for the director (Ian Talbot).

The love triangle (actually a quartet) round whom things focus are a fairly staple group: infuriating but infuriated husband (Victor Smiley: Shane Richie) who is actually a decent kind of tyke, even when dreaming (as we see it) of absconding with Kamila, whom he visits each week, or speculating (how can we believe him?) that he’d like to polish off his missus to make that possible.

Joan and Victor Smiley,  Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie

The moments in the living room when wife Joan (the utterly splendid Jessie Wallace) is prattling on, the gloves are off and his visions of doing her in come to the fore are among many very amusing, and well-acted, touches which lend this kind of film noir its black comedy moments.

Those help the play early on, and in some ways it’s as well, for the script feels at times rather lax, and deploys far too many mild play-to-the-audience touches (‘Benedict Cucumberbatch’; ‘Younger than Joan Collins’; ‘Real men have dicks that work’, ‘mini kievs’ and a stream of rather too obvious rhyming cockney) to satisfy: one wants the action to intensify, not to fall flat, diverted with cheap and idle laughs.

No, the joy of The Perfect Murder is not in drippier attempts at quick-fire comedy, but in the overall conceit. For Jessie Wallace, giving the performance of the evening (much of it rests on her, and she is the most polished and accomplished of an enjoyable team), turns the tables and - yes - bumps off her husband who was contemplating finishing her off himself.

Joined by her rather wastrel younger sexmate, Don, she turns the conclusion of Act I into a marvellous, hilarious, fast-driven and deliciously shambolic climax as she bonks husband Victor with a hammer and send him, as they think, to the happy hunting ground.

The sheer visual hoot of watching them attempting to swathe him in black bin bags and sticky tape, tugging him this way and that, then lumber him over to the freezer and dump him there, was an absolute classic of Brian Rix-like visual comedy.

Just the business - for Victor - of being bundled up must have been quite an experience. Shane Richie’s unusual skill in acting the passive victim, bloodied and manhandled, provided a large part of the fun: amusing, for if you’re pulling off what you think is the perfect murder, there has to be something incongruous about it. Act I certainly ended with a bang and a half.

But it is Jessie Wallace’s even more entertaining behaviour as the guilty party which latterly takes even further her hilarious series of pulled faces, tiny knowing smirks and gloriously smug, know-it-all gestures, that are amplified to give us much of the treat that is Act 2.

She laughs, shrieks, sniffles, purses her lips, shrugs, yelps, gulps, giggles helplessly, in so many cleverly understated (and more outrageous) ways, both on her own - when she is always a delight to watch in action - and when faced by an increasingly suspicious police questioning, that held the audience and gave it such pleasure, as evidenced by their massive applause at the end.

‘Yes, I’ve got a while serial killer kit in my handbag’. But what she hasn’t got is persuasive answers, and watching her defence unravel before our eyes is one of the great bits of fun in later stages of this play.

Stephen Fletcher offers an Joan and Victoragreeable oik of a lover in Don Kirk, who rather unquestioningly joins in the murder and then, when Joan is up before the court, a scene of which we only hear, is utterly shafted by her and left to serve the full sentence for a killing to which she drove him, and not vice-versa. He sort of turns up, screws and kills - his arrival seemed one of the weaker bits of the script. But his sheer naivety helps serve the plot. More importantly, it leaves her to walk free.

Marriage breakdown can be fatal for Joan and Victor

But how free? All through the play, you feel you’ve been party to murder; but not, patently, the perfect murder, unless you think her fitting her lover up is the perfect bit. Something is missing.

Only at the close does one nagging suspicion return to haunt us. When poor old, put-upon Victor was bundled into the freezer, was he dead? The thought has crossed the perpetrators’ minds too, as one of the funny scenes is when they struggle, amidst fears, to check there is still a body in black bags in the freezer, shows. And there is. So what’s wrong?

It’s only when Shane Richies’s Victor, in many respects another fine and appetising performance, first spooks her upstairs (is it a ghost?) and then in reality seems to return (not for real, surely?) to the room of his ‘murder’, that you discover it is not she, but he, who will execute the perfect murder. Having explained how he survived, escaped from the freezer, inserted a hapless other, extracted a written confession from her so her death will read like suicide and finally fed her mouthfuls of cyanide to put the final boot in, he escapes with his innamorata on a motorcycle - a perfectly devised ending.

Keen-witted, punchy and exquisitely turning the knife, this whodunit with a difference was a roaring hit with the audience, and one could see why. All reservations aside, a very, very sharp piece of theatre in popular vein. And another hit in the Belgrade’s visiting homicide series, which will surge ahead later with Roy Marsden’s production for the Classic Thriller Theatre Company of Rehearsal for Murder, which will hit Coventry from 9-14 May. To 02-04-16

Roderic Dunnett

29-03-16 

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