Death by punchlines

Murdered to Death

Wolverhampton Grand

****

TAKE a 1930s country house party with a widowed owner and her niece, who inherits the pile if the old girl pops her green wellies, add for guests a retired Colonel and his fearsome wife, a dodgy French art dealer with an ‘Allo ‘Allo accent and his equally dodgy lady friend and throw in the unfaithful old family retainer and the stage is set for mystery.

And once Miss Maple arrives, like a literary Angel of Death,  you know someone is not going to make it to the next act alive, still nothing like a good murder or so for giving everyone a good laugh.

Peter Gordon's spoof of an Agatha Christie mystery, written in 1993, is a delightful romp and the first in the Inspector Pratt trilogy. Pratt, the name is a clue, is the bungling detective, a sort of Home Counties Clouseau who not so much mixes up his words as puts them through a blender.

He is played with great fun by Norman Pace in a superb cast of 10 in this Ian Dickens production. The part is not an easy one as Pratt speaks in a fractured language that bears little more than a passing acquaintance to English and at the same time it has to be kept fresh and funny to avoid becoming a tedious overlong joke and Pace manages it on all counts.

DANGEROUS OCCUPATION

He is assisted by PC Thomkins (Christopher Elderwood) who finds working with Pratt is a very dangerous occupation. Particularly in a reconstitution, as Pratt would have it, which uses the loaded murder weapon with the constable playing the part of the target . . . sorry victim.

Among the guests Roland Oliver excels as Colonel Craddock, old chap, the gin-soaked ex-Army desk soldier who now spends much of his time at his gentleman's club while his battle-axe of a wife, Margaret, old girl, played by Sandra Dickinson  doesn't suffer fools gladly. She is obviously going to get on really well with Pratt.

The Colonel might have no motive for murder until there has been a murder but then he has a motive for the murder after the first murder if you see what I mean . . . oh just go and see it.

Darren Machin as Pierre Marceau, the French art connoisseur could have stepped right out of Rene's cafe with an accent as authentic as French fries. He has a dark, and still rather tacky, secret which makes him a prime suspect when the assembled characters start dropping like flies.

Inspector Pratt (Norman Pace) battles his sheer incompetence to find the killer with Dorothy (Chloe Newsome) his chief suspect

The women by comparison are almost normal with Mildred (Erin Geraghty)  who owns the house just trying to be a good host and providing a victim we won't miss too much. Her niece Dorothy (Chloe Newsome)  meanwhile sees her role as looking after the guests and looking after her aunt's interests. The fact she is the main beneficiary of Mildred's will puts her in the frame for the first demise while the fact she knows Pierre's secret puts her in danger of becoming the second corpse.

Elizabeth Hartley-Trumpington (Michelle Hardwick) comes over as a bit dodgy though. Upper class with barbs which is not a good combination and she is good for any death around the place.

Everything would have been fine except for Miss Maple (Elizabeth Williams) turning up - you would hardly be surprised to find she is a Miss Marple character - then everyone needs to check the script to see how many pages their character have left.

Considering that if Miss JoanMaple goes to the village newsagents someone invariably ends up dead by the  shootin' ‘n fishin'  mags it is surprising anyone ever lets her over their doorsteps but Mildred did and that was her undoing.

Bumbling through it all is the wonderful Victor Spinetti as Bunting, the butler with a taste for the sherry, the brandy . . . whatever the cork reveals. He shuffles, scowls and slurps his insolent way through, even managing a celebration for his good fortune from the will - making him a suspect as well.

CHRISTMAS CRACKERS

Some of the jokes are a bit old, some could have come straight from Christmas crackers, but there are so many of them and they come so fast delivered so well by an excellent cast that you hardly notice and what makes Murdered to Death so clever is the fact it is a spoof with plenty of laughs but still retains that element of a murder mystery in that you still want to know whodunit.

As ever in an Ian Dickens production the set is a solid, believable affair although there were a couple of times when the geography of Bagshot House seems to go awry with people leaving through the door to the kitchen and dining room and reappearing moments later on the other side of the stage from the hall.

This is the final play in the Grand's successful four week Ian Dickens rep season which is finishing with a laugh. Directed by Giles Watling it runs to 31-07-10.

Roger Clarke 

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