Touring – reviewed at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Reliable performances by a host of crowd-pleasing big TV names cannot quite redeem the disappointing script of The Case of the Frightened Lady.
The company formed by Bill Kenwright as the Agatha Christie Theatre Company has been the Classic Thriller Theatre Company for a couple of years now. While this means they have access to wider range of touring material – and have certainly brought some enjoyable productions to Edinburgh in recent years – this one is neither a classic nor particularly thrilling.
Edgar Wallace was a hugely popular name in the mid-20th century, with his publicists once claiming that he had written a quarter of all books being read in Britain, but has largely fallen from view. Even in an adaptation by Antony Lampard, this by-numbers whodunnit is short on suspense.
The set-up – the new Lord Lebanon, the mother who seeks to marry him off for dynastic reasons, and their various hangers-on, servants and generally rum coves – is a familiar one, as is the country house setting. So far, so promising, but it signally fails to go anywhere.
The ending fails to make sense of many things that have previously happened and the whole thing is profoundly unsatisfying. Even the title disappoints – horribly unwieldy and forgettable, and of little apparent relevance to the plot.
Furthermore, it is all terribly static, with most of the action offstage, and consists largely of an over-sized cast standing around repeating things. In the tradition of modern horror movies, there is a reliance on jump-scares (in this case provided by sudden, irrelevant loud noises) to provide interest.
Director Roy Marsden seeks to inject some much-needed pace, but the constant entrances and exits – sometimes with the characters saying or doing nothing in between – give it the air of a rather stately farce. At times in the first half it is difficult to know how seriously to take it all.
The cast, many instantly recognisable from television, certainly do their best to project an air of commitment. Gray O’Brien (Tony Gordon from Coronation Street) gives Chief Superintendent Tanner huge amounts of brooding energy, perhaps to compensate for the fact that the character is on stage so long without doing any actual detecting.
Charlie Clements (Bradley Branning in EastEnders) has an even tougher job as Det Sgt Totti, who is only there to give Tanner someone to talk to, and should be congratulated for making the character so likeable.
Rula Lenska gives the breeding-obsessed Lady Lebanon a hauteur and presence, while Denis Lill (veteran of countless TV programmes, but probably best known for The Royal) gives Dr Amersham a lip-smacking lasciviousness that is horribly compelling.
Denis Lill and Rula Lenska. Pic: Pamela Raith Photography
Ben (Soldier, Soldier) Nealon’s Lord Lebanon has an expansive charm, while Isla Crane (presumably the frightened lady of the title) is given winsome life by April Pearson from Skins.
The rest of the cast consists of a large number of domestic servants, few of which seem well-defined or even necessary, but all are discharged with considerable grace. Glenn Carter and Callum Coates give the two mysterious footmen genuine appeal, while Rosie Thomson’s maid Mrs Tilling has a commendable amount of life.
Philip Lowrie’s butler Kelver has a lugubrious dignity. The danger of a cast studded with such recognisable faces is demonstrated, however, when constant references to the police officer as ‘Mr Tanner’ instantly bring to mind Lowrie’s best-known role as Dennis of that name in Coronation Street.
Julie Godfrey’s beautifully solid-looking set and Alex Stewart’s costumes (particularly in the opening fancy-dress ball) are top class, and the whole production wants for nothing in time, money and effort spent on it. Unfortunately, the source material simply does not stand up, and the normally reliable Classic Thriller Theatre Company have come a little unstuck on this one.