Touring – reviewed at Milton Keynes Theatre
I had only been watching The Case of The Frightened Lady for just a few minutes when I scribbled in my notebook “sociopath” and “misdirection”. And that just about tells you everything you need to know about this quaint, old-fashioned whodunit which is strictly for fans of the genre.
Writer Edgar Wallace was known, in his heyday, as the king of the crime thriller and I’m sure that back in the 1930s when Frightened Lady was first performed, this three-corpse murder-mystery kept its audiences enthralled and in suspense. But time has moved on. We now expect sophistication, intrigue and innovation.
To modern audiences, the plays of 70-80 years ago are shockingly badly plotted, grossly overacted, and time-worn to the point where theatre-goers are sniggering rather than being gripped. They end up a pastiche of a crime thriller.
It doesn’t matter how hard producer Bill Kenwright tries to resurrect these musty old thrillers – firstly through his Agatha Christie Theatre Company and now, in its latest reincarnation as The Classic Thriller Theatre Company – there comes a time in the life of every detective, private investigator and long-dead playwright, when they must grasp the nettle and retire.
Where are their modern successors? Why aren’t young, vibrant playwrights writing whodunits anymore? The only person I can think of, who has taken the plunge in the last five years, is Peter James and even his work occasionally resorts to cliché.
The added drawback to using rep theatre companies for a string of productions is, if you’re a regular theatre-goer, a pattern emerges with certain actors almost always playing the villain.
In Frightened lady former award-winning Corrie bad boy, Gray O’Brien (sadly dropping his seductive Scottish accent for an English one), plays Chief Supt Tanner of Scotland Yard, who is charged with finding a killer in a posh country house filled with stereotypes.
His sidekick, Sgt Totti, is one half of the Harry Potter Weaseley twins, Oliver Phelps, which, last night, was causing great excitement among the young female staff at MK Theatre.
The grand house, home to Lady Lebanon and her son, is holding its annual fancy dress bash when a body is found, strangled using a method favoured by the thugees of India.
Was it the butler? He’s favourite isn’t he? Or the obnoxious, slimy doctor who is always groping the ladies, or the two mysterious footmen? Or the insanely jealous gamekeeper?
And what of the frightened lady who sleepwalks at night?
There’s more red herrings than can be found at Billingsgate, plus another two bodies, and a complete lack of co-operation from the grande dame of the house, Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant, looking like Joan Collins and with a cut glass accent so extreme that there is a danger of her self-harming).
The cast are all Kenwright and TV favourites. Fellow ex-Coronation Street actor, Philip Lowrie, The Royal’s Denis Lill, Skins’ April Pearson, Ben Nealon from Doctors and Soldier, Soldier plus Glenn Carter (the best Jesus Christ Superstar ever to grace the West End stage).
They do the business in this formulaic thriller but it is hardly a stretch of anyone’s acting skills.
You’ll have fun trying to work out the identity of the killer but remember my two keywords and you won’t go far wrong.
The Case of The Frightened Lady runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday before continuing its UK tour.
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Remaining tour dates.
June 4 – 9, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
June 11 – 16, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
June 18 – 23, Southend Palace Theatre
June 25 – 30, Theatre Royal, Brighton
July 2 – 8, Swansea Grand Theatre
July 9 – 14, Grand Opera House York
July 16 – 21, Malvern Theatre
July 23 – 28, Leeds Grand Theatre
July 30 – August 4, Bury St Edmonds, Theatre Royal
Sept 10 – 15, Torquay Princess Theatre
Sept 17 – 22, Derby Theatre
Sept 24 – 29, Eden Court, Inverness
Oct 2 – 6, Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Oct 8 – 13, Connaught Theatre, Worthing
Oct 15 – 20 Garrick Theatre, Lichfield
Oct 22 – 27, Buxton Opera House
Oct 29 – Nov 3, New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Nov 5 – 10, Orchard Theatre, Dartford
Nov 12 – 17, Richmond Theatre.
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