Death by Design

Date 20th October 2021
Society St Peters Hill Players
Venue The Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham
Type of Production Play
Director Rosemary Gibson


Author: Jules Jones

If playwrights Agatha Christie and Noel Coward had joined forces sometime in the 1930s or ’40s combining their styles and talents, the result might have resembled this witty play.  Entitled “Death by Design”, this fairly recent script by Rob Urbinati, with its setting in 1932, leaves little doubt as to its inspiration, merging Christie’s lengthy periods of exposition and list of contrasting suspects with Coward’s sophisticated, laugh-inducing prose. Seasoned playgoers will easily recognize elements of both artists in the St Peter’s Hill Players production directed by Rosemary Gibson.


There’s the customary gathering of disparate personalities at an English country home (and yes, the telephone has been cut off), a murder in which all survivors are suspects, and the witty repartee between two theatrical personalities. A suitable recipe for comedic satire.  Like most plays of this genre, the long journey to the meaty portion often is tedious, which applies pressure on the leading characters — the playwright (Gary Cadwallader) and his actress wife (Jacqueline Dowse) — to juice things up playing characters inspired by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence.   The other charismatic partnering is the cockney chauffeur (Andy Antony) and the surly maid (Victoria Aves).  The latter grudgingly supplied refreshments, perking up when she gets the opportunity to play a sleuth in the second act.


Other familiar satirical targets include the stuffy member of Parliament (Tony Hine), the Bohemian artiste (Briony Sparrow), the radical Bolshevik type (Nate McAlpine), and an unexpected guest packing heat (Rachel Armitage). Death by Design is a comedy, peopled with vivid, fascinating characters. It merges wit, sophistication and even pratfalls into a medley of humour and fun. Playwright Rob Urbinati must have had as much fun writing this comedy as the audience has in savouring it.


The stage set, a 1930 country house with attention to detail, including pictures, and furniture of the period was very well done.  The costumes were lavish, period appropriate and described the characters with subtle colours and movement all of which enhanced the action. I loved the attention to detail in the large hats, the handmade dress for Sorel and suit for Alice.  The lighting and sound effects were ideal, particularly the delicate exterior moon light and stairwell during the murder scene.


Some of the acting was a little stilted at times.  Perhaps first night nerves played a part, yet I would offer a few hints.  Eric, played by Nate McAlpine was written as a radical youth, fiery and emphatic. Nate's acting choices, body language and annunciation came across as timid, nervy and more ‘stroppy teenager’ than extremist.  For instance, he held his hands and arms close to his chest and was a little hunched, I would have preferred a more open posture, a slowing down of lines and perhaps a haughty look.  Nate did lose his lines (a lot), again first night nerves perhaps, yet reliance on the prompt for any production can sometimes allow the actor to have more confident in the prompt than their own memory.   On a very positive note, his words were heard clearly, and volume was excellent.  His energy on the stage was cleverly used and his timing and delivery added to the comedic elements of his character.


Walter Pearce played by Tony Hine was stiff and pedantic as written.  His scenes were a little lacking in pace, a slight pause where there shouldn’t have been or waiting for action before lines were said, seemed to draw these parts out.  What might have been light, and pun-filled became low energy and stiff.  I recognised the challenge of remaining on stage, still and lifeless, whilst the action rages around you and this was soundly done.  Very believable.  (I did sympathise during the moment when the action required the body to be moved, always a tricky undertaking, yet smartly managed.) Tony presented political zeal and world-weary woes with aplomb.


Yet when Briony, playing Victoria Van Roth made an entrance, everyone seemed to perk up, the confidence was boosted and the audience seemed to relax and the laughs then flowed more easily.  Briony (Brainy in the programme!!) played the role with elegance.  Her portrayal of a bohemian artist was very believable.  Her dance and movement, her costume, her ease on stage, all added up to an excellent performance.  She was a believable drunk using physical comedy to seem as a teetotaller who gets more blotto as the evening wears on and executing a dramatic fall which induced sympathy for the character from the audience.


Gary’s Edward was pompous, overbearing and vain in contrast to Jacqueline’s Sorel which was certainly daffy but also lots of fun.  The chemistry between these actors was easy, generous and during the more loving moments, very believable.  Gary stole the scene so often with just a look, or in one memorable moment a hat, that I found myself laughing out loud.  I felt the energy of these two dwindled towards the end of the second act, yet apart from a few dropped lines (again, over-reliance on the prompt), I could hear every word as the diction and volume level were excellent.  As always pace and energy need to be sustained.  I can understand that with amateur productions those on stage are often the same people who are building sets, designing lighting and sound effects, and running around probably right up to the point the show starts.  Was this the case here? Something perhaps to think about for future productions.  


Victoria Aves played Bridget the Irish, crabby maid.  I felt her performance had lots of highlights, her chemistry with Andy Antony playing the cheeky lothario chauffeur was smashing.  Their light-hearted yet warm relationship, their reliance on each other and their power play within the home was acted very well.  I enjoyed the opening scene with their cosy domesticity in contrast to the combative nature of the Bennetts' relationship.  Yet the competitive quality never diminished, and this held the audience’s attention throughout. With both these actors the accents ebbed and flowed. Lack of rehearsal perhaps, yet I feel more attention in this element of the performance was required. Jack and Bridget made a very good team including lots of work with unwilling props and doors, at certain points.  Overall very good performances.


Newcomer Rachel Armitage playing Alice was a total delight.  Her agonising cries and quests for vengeance contrasted with her lack of visual acuity and surprise revelations of who she is and where she comes from. This slightly over-plotted role was ably acted and Rachel really warmed up the stage bringing a gentle confidence and good diction. She came across as both firmly committed yet shy and sweet at the same time.  


My first outing to the theatre for a long time and well worth the 60 miles trip.  I was met by Manager Lucy Kelley and enjoyed the fact that the front of house people wore 1930’s style outfits and warmly welcomed us into the auditorium.  A program was provided (shame about the spelling mistakes), raffle tickets and refreshments were all on offer. For a first night and in these particularly challenging times a good audience turned out.  There was not an announcement to remind people to turn mobiles off and subsequently some disturbances were heard but luckily did not disrupt the players.  Perhaps audiences have forgotten the etiquette of the theatre after the 18 month imposed break.  I also felt a warning about the loud sound effects that occurred during the performance might have been provided, a minor detail, yet helpful for those who need it.


So overall I did enjoy my night with St Peter’s Hill Players, I felt welcomed and safe at the Guildhall Arts Centre Grantham. On top of that the set, costumes, lighting and sound all combined to generate a good atmosphere.  I felt the play was spoiled by the players not knowing their lines as well as they should and lacked pace in some parts.  I hope these were improved through the rest of the run. Well done to Rosemary Gibson, Lesley Sparrow and Tony Hines and whole production team for bringing Rob Urbinati’s play Death by Design to the amateur stage.  Thank you for indulging me on Thursday night, delaying your get away, so I could meet you, find out what you were experiencing and offer my immediate impressions.  The positives I took away, were that I heard every word, the costumes and set were very detailed and warm welcome offered.  Some very good performances and an enjoyable evening of theatre.  Thank you.