Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

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Sandra Haynes as Audrey as the widow Lady Doreen Bishop, Denise Phillips as Phoebe as French maid Régine and Pippa Oliver as Thelma as Daphne, Lady Bishop's daughter. Pictures: Emily White.

The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate
Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society
Murder Mystery

Highbury Theatre Centre


With mortgages needed to pay gas and electric bills, bogof becoming more bog off when it comes to soaring prices and picket lines the only growth industry as we become world leaders in strikes, anything that makes you forget the real world and have a laugh is worth its weight in . . . well IOUs actually, which is all that’s left in the coffers.

It’s a bit embarrassing though to laugh at The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society, or TFAHETGDS for short, a bit like mocking the afflicted as Francis Howerd would have said. They are to Thespianism what Ann Widdecombe is to ballroom dancing. Mediocrity is merely a distant ambition while to describe them as merely bad would be a huge compliment.

If there is a fault, which is a bit like saying if there was a grain of sand on Blackpool beach, the well-choreographed musical chairs episode, which reminded me a little of Mr Pastry’s lancers sketch for some reason, could have been shorter but as the audience rolled about with increasing laughter, what do I know, and it did lead to a funny final scene as the will is read – or would have been read if Mrs Reece as the solicitor had remembered to bring it on stage . . .

The will is the crux of what might laughingly be referred to as the plot, and yes, there is one, with any rival beneficiary being disposed of one by one.

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Daphne and Lady Bishop with Felicity as the butler Pawn, played by Becky Higgs and Dave Douglas as Gordon who is in turn playing Insp O'Reilly

But to get back to faults . . . unlike Frank Sinatra’s regrets, there are perhaps too many to mention, and the glorious thing is that over the years I have seen the endless litany of disasters, large and small, in real productions; the scenery with a mind of its own, entrances missed or wrong, doors that don’t open, sound effects late or early, prompts too soon, late, quiet or loud or not at all . . . all part of the wonder of live theatre.

We even had a leap in storyline by missing out five pages of script, which meant the character of Gladys Knight was missed out completely, which probably gave her the pip. (Gladys Knight, pip? All right, please yourself).

That might seem unlikely except I once saw the premiere of a new play, a professional production which starred a young man making his professional debut and proving incontrovertibly that he had chosen the wrong profession, and an actress with two main attributes in that she was stunningly attractive, and, more importantly, she inadvertently missed out six pages of script.

Afterwards the author was both distraught and incandescent with rage and the actress was ever so apologetic, while the audience had not noticed half the play was missing and those at the after show reception were merely grateful the turgid offering had finished six pages earlier than planned and would have been even happier if she had missed out even more.

But back to TFAHETGDS and their murder mystery set in Checkmate Manor with all the characters with telling names, Bishop, King, Rook etc  the clues being found in the names of the disappearing pieces on a chess board, or they would have been had the table not collapsed disappearing all the chess pieces all over the floor.

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Pawn the Butler, to keep the chess piece names theme going, who has the misfortune to have a name that sounds like porn, with Denise Phillips as Phoebe playing US film star Letitia Bishop . . . who knows

Oh, and perhaps I should mention we also get the bonus of a film show of holiday slides, missed out at the last TFAHETGDS meeting, and a quiz run by the afore mentioned self-important president of the society, Mrs Reece, Phoebe, played by Denise Phillips who also provides us with a load of other characters.

To say the production is short staffed would be an understatement. Between them the cast of four, plus the stage manager, manage some 14 characters, all different and all played with the same air of unbridled incompetence.

There is Audrey, the rather shy and timid one, played by Sandra Haynes, Felicity, who says lines as if seeing them for the first time, played by Becky Higgs, Thelma, the loud one, who fancies herself, played by Pippa Oliver and, helping out at the last minute after a leading(ish) lady mishap, stage manager Gordon whose acting ability is similar to that of a tailor’s dummy, played by Dave Douglas.

As for the characters, we have corpses that talk, complain about lying down dead and come back to life or get missed out (see Gladys Knight) and numerous guests arriving with their luggage – the same luggage each time incidentally - sound effects for every event but not necessarily in the right order as Eric Morecambe might have put it and indeed, not even in the right act in one case.

Agatha Christie fans, or at least those not last seen running for the exit, might be working out the mass murderer’s identity but to no avail as Felicity has to deal with a family crisis and Mrs Reece, playing the murdered French maid comes back from the dead with a rewritten ending which has her as the attractive, romantic lead who shoots herself tragically rather than be caught – or she would have if she hadn’t shot herself accidentally leading to a death scene to rival Tony Hancock’s Joshua in The Bowmans.

It’s all great, laugh out loud fun, full of jokes with all the innocence of Donald McGill postcards, as well as complete recipes for lemon soufflés and crab balls, two balls each being the advice!

We all know there are bad actors around, some even getting paid. It comes naturally to them, a gift of sorts, and they are brilliant at it.


Pippa Olivers as Thelma playing Rose Bishop  being pushed by Sandra Haynes' Audrey playing Violet, Lady Bishop's t'spinster aunts like, sithee in the dark of Midnight

But playing a bad actor, that is another thing entirely, and it takes some considerable skill to act badly well, if you see what I mean, and this quintet do it with aplomb.

Denise Phillips pops up in a different over the top role every few minutes while it all seems a bit too much for Sandra Haynes who never seems to quite get on top of any of her characters, at times almost apologetic that they are there at all.

Becky Higgs as the butler delivers her lines as if remembering them only at the point she says them when she is not Colonel King, with his migrating moustache – but let’s not dwell on him/her as him/her and his missus, Haynes again, will soon be dead.

Dave Douglas’s Gordon walks in a determined way, as if his knees and hips have stiffened up and locked and delivers has monotonal words at snail like pace.

One of the added delights is watching Pippa Oliver as the daughter, spinster aunt in a wheelchair, etc etc whose facial expressions whether involved in a scene or not, tell a story all on their own. She adds a hint of outgoing sex appeal, a lot of volume, especially from her northern wheelchair, and at times an overbearing presence as well as love interest – not that anyone was remotely interested – with Insp whatever his name.

It is a strange thing that this level of mayhem needs much more precise timing than any average play. There are complex sound and lighting plots, stage manager Nicki White has to have all the missing props in the right place at the right time, and the endless high speed costume changes need costumes to be at the ready.

The whole sorry affair is directed by Rob Phillips and it is not an easy task making sure it all goes wrong right . . . although he was presumably told what to do by bossy Mrs Reece, who also happens to be Mrs Phillips.

If Malcolm Robertshaw’s dodgy set with pretend doors and loose walls doesn’t fall completely apart, Andrew Birkbeck’s lighting lets you see at least some of what’s going on and Tony Reynold’s sound design gets the effects somewhere near the relevant action the disaster should manage to limp on for another week or so.

That is of course if the actors, a word used here in its loosest terms, can remember to turn up, have no more mishaps and nothing else breaks.

So, if you want to forget all the troubles around you, sit back, smile, chuckle, laugh out loud and be royally entertained for a couple of hours, this is the perfect medicine to cheer you up. The TFAHETGDS debacle will be put out of its misery on 11-02-23.

Roger Clarke


Highbury Theatre Centre

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