Three stars for the price of one

Just one more thing: Columbo (Dirk Benedict, right) just wants to clear up one small point with his suspect Dr Flemming (Patrick Ryecart)

Prescription: murder

Wolverhampton Grand

****

IF anything is going to pack ‘em in then this should - three times over. As murder tales go this one staring Dirk Benedict should appeal to A-Team fans with Face, Battlestar Galactica fans with Starbuck and fans of Columbo, the fumbling, bumbling detective who always found a last thing he needed to clear up.

Benedict is the good lieutenant and manages the mannerisms Peter Falk made so famous, ruffling his hair, playing with his cigar, dressed like a not very successful  Big Issue seller and meandering through every case never quite believing what appears to have happened.

Yet Benedict does not turn this into a Peter Falk tribute show, he isn't doing impressions and is believable in his own right as the detective.

Pitting wits against him is psychiatrist Dr Roy Flemming, played by  TV regular Patrick Ryecart who enlists his bit on the side, actress Susan Hudson, to help him knock off  his wife  in an elaborate plot designed to give Fleming a cast iron, rock solid alibi.

We all know though that the dishevelled, disorganised Columbo will give the doc enough rope to hang himself.

The plot and murder take up most of the first of the three acts so we all know exactly what has happened and that gives Columbo the rest of the evening to break Fleming's story down.

EASY AIR AND CHARM

Benedict has that easy air and charm of a seasoned actor. He is Columbo and such is the affection of the audience for both the actor and the character that he gets a round of applause when he first enters and every word and mannerism seems to generate a laugh or a reaction from the crowd.

Ryecart's Fleming, by contrast, seems a little ill at ease, never quite at home in his apartment or office, never quite still, always waiting for the next line ready to counter punch. It makes the doctor difficult to like or dislike and somewhere you need to have some feelings for the baddy if you are to  care what happens.

His wife played by Karen Drury, who won a best actress award as Susannah Farnham in Brookside, brightened up the stage for her all too brief appearance before she became the “vic” as they say in TV detective parlance while Elizabeth Lowe as the bimbo actress took the part as far as she reasonably could in an accomplished performance. 

Manning the phones Karen Winchester as Miss Petrie, the receptionist, manages to convey her disdain beautifully with just an inflection of the voice. 

Actress Susan Hudson (Elizabeth Lowe) digs herself deeper into trouble as the accomplice of murdering Doctor Flemming ( Patrick Ryecart)

The play has two intervals which causes some consternation in the audience many of whom were expecting one so when the lights came on for the second break there was a baffled silence with a few undoubtedly thinking this was a play with a really strange ending.

It also has some long pauses between the eight scenes as the set is changed from office to apartment to police station and so on all to the accompaniment of music  that sounds like it has escaped from a lost episode of Frost.

The pauses tend to slow down what is already a play that never reaches beyond decent walking pace.

It starts slowly as the scene is set and then ambles at the pace of Columbo as he sets about solving the crime and to be honest it all seems to take a little longer than it should, which is a pity, particularly as the end seems a little bit rushed. 

It is not that the play lacks pace, Columbo has never worked with the urgency of other TV detectives. He doesn't do chases or fights and gentle mind games drift rather than dart through the evening.

But perhaps a little judicious trimming here and there earlier on might tighten things up a little without losing momentum or plot.

That being said it was an enjoyable evening with a good plot and excellent cast and even if you have never seen the A-Team, Battlestar Galactica or Columbo you will still be left with a clever detective story which in the hands of Benedict is a joy to watch. To 29-05-10. 

 

The play itself by Richard Levinson and William Link is a bit of a novelty. It is billed as the very first episode of the Columbo series, the pilot from 1968, which it was but it had started life six years earlier as an episode called Enough Rope in the US TV series The Chevy Mystery Show with Bert Freed, a prolific American TV and film actor as Columbo.

In an early example of recycling from there it grew into a stage play, Prescription: Murder ,with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. Mitchell, who had won an Oscar as Doc Boone in Stagecoach and, incidentally, was the first person to win an Oscar, Emmy and Tony - the acting triple crown - was 70 though. The play had received lukewarm reviews but was loved by audiences and was heading for New York but after a 25 week tour the veteran Mitchell fell ill and died at the end of 1962 and the play never made its planned debut on Broadway.

Ironically it was Dr Flemming who was perceived as the star of the show by the writers and producers and with Joseph Cotten in the role they had someone of sufficient stature to carry the mantle. By the end of the run though it was obvious that the real star was the scruffy detective.  The directions specified he should wear an old suit, topcoat and shabby hat and the description of his character in the script was “A rumpled police detective of indeterminate age.  He seems to be bumbling and vague, with an overly apologetic, almost deferential manner.  This masks an innate shrewdness, however, a foxy knowledge of human nature."  That's Columbo.

A few years later Levinson and Link heard Universal were looking for TV movies and Prescription: Murder was dusted off and sent off for recycling yet again, this time to Hollywood and in 1968 the legend of Columbo was born.

Sadly Peter Falk, who is 82, and made the detective a household name, is suffering from advanced Alzheimer's Disease and can no longer even remember Columbo.

Roger Clarke

Just one more thing . . .

****

IT'S a fair cop! American actor Dirk Benedict gives a brilliant performance as the unorthodox detective Lieutenant Columbo in the Middle Ground Theatre Company's production of a fascinating murder story.

Famous for his roles in The A Team and Battlestar Galactica, he was a ringer for the rather scruffy policeman....the voice was right, the way he smoked those huge cigars, scratched his head pretending to be a little bemused, and even the way he wore that biscuit-coloured trench coat.

As soon as he stepped on stage on opening night Benedict received a warm welcome from the audience, and he had them chuckling with amusement as he coaxed information from his suspects, using those classic, laid back Columbo tricks.

It is Peter Falk at his best in what was the first ever Columbo outing as he probed the murder of a prominent psychiatrist's wife in Los Angeles.

Patrick Ryecart is convincing as Dr Roy Flemming who is having an affair with a young, leggy blonde woman listed as one of his patients and seems to have masterminded the perfect crime, but the final showdown contains the weakest part of the story when the psychiatrist gets over confident and, needled by Columbo, says too much in front of a key witness.

The sets for the action are good, but required two intervals to cope with switches from Dr Flemming's office to his comfortable home.

Directed by Michael Lunney, the play runs to Saturday night 29.05.10

Paul Marston 

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