Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Spider’s Web - Darlington Civic Theatre

Spider's Web
Writer: Agatha Christie
Director: Joe Harmston
Reviewer: Ian Cain

‘Spider’s Web’ was Agatha Christie’s first wholly original theatre script – and something of a departure from her usual writing style, too. Although renowned for her murder mysteries, here she consummately demonstrated that she was equally capable of writing a full-on comedy.

Apparently, Peter Saunders, producer of ‘The Mousetrap’, asked Christie to come up with a new play to be staged in the West End. Christie agreed and suggested casting Margaret Lockwood in the lead role. But, when the idea was put to Lockwood she revealed that she was afraid of becoming typecast as the vampy femme-fatale and asked Christie to consider writing the part as a comic heroine instead. Christie seized the challenge and the rest, as they say, is history.

When Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Melanie Gutteridge) discovers a dead body in her drawing room, she tries to dispose of it before her Foreign Office diplomat husband Henry (Lucas Hare) returns home with a government VIP guest in tow. Equipped with an over active imagination, Clarissa finds ‘real life’ murder a little harder to handle than her fantasy games. And having persuaded her house guests to become embroiled in helping her, it soon becomes apparent that the dead man, Oliver Costello (Matthew Hebden), was not unknown to everyone amongst them. As the web of deceit begins to unravel, Clarissa pulls her friends into a desperate race to unveil the murderer and solve the mystery before the police discover the felony and arrest her as their prime suspect.

The production could best be described as a typical ‘Whitehall farce.’ The term arose from a series of stage plays staged at the Whitehall Theatre, London, during the 1930s and 1940s, in which the entertainment was derived from situations involving a chaotic and unlikely series of accidents or events that caused drama and panic for the characters involved but amusement for the audience. Christie’s bold experiment was made even more daring by the fact that she seemed to be playfully spoofing the genre in which she set most of her more serious work. The script sparkles like crystal as the witty one-liners come one after another and there are moments of genuine hilarity that have the audience guffawing.

The performances from the cast completely do justice to the quality of the piece and director Joe Harmston is to be thoroughly commended for gathering together a group of actors who each suit their roles perfectly. Melanie Gutteridge, as Clarissa, delivers a no-holds-barred, tour-de-force performance that is worth the admission price in itself. She earned herself a spontaneous round of applause for the scene in which Clarissa animatedly provides the police with three differing versions of the same incident. A fellow reviewer and I were also struck by her resemblance, both physically and in mannerisms, to Helena Bonham-Carter.

Bruce Montague, as Sir Rowland Delahaye, and Mark Wynter, as Hugo Birch, made a great double act and nailed their characters with precision and perfection. Catherine Shipton, as gardener Mildred Peake mugged so energetically and brilliantly that I would not be surprised if she was slapped with an acting ASBO by the performance police! Supporting roles were portrayed by Dennis Lill as the dogged detective, Inspector Lord, Ben Nealon as Jeremy Warrender, Karen Elliot as the precocious Pippa, Michael Gabe as Elgin, the butler (who, incidentally, didn’t do it!) and Mark Rose as rookie Constable Jones.

Special mention must also be made of Simon Scullion’s stunning set which was a joy to behold and utilised to great effect, Mark Howett’s atmospheric lighting design and Brigid Guy’s authentic costume designs. All in all, ‘Spider’s Web’ is a rip-roaring romp that intrigues, entertains and delights in equal measure.

runs until Saturday 3rd October 2009.
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