22nd November 2017
Blackburn Drama Club
Thwaites Empire Theatre
Type of Production
Author: David Slater
Cards on the table; I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie and so I was very much looking forward to this production at the Thwaites Empire Theatre. ‘Spider’s Web’ was written by the Queen of Crime in 1954 at the behest of the actress, Margaret Lockwood (I’m a big fan of her too!) who requested a tailor-made role in a stage work from the biggest name in crime fiction. ‘The Mousetrap’ had opened two years earlier - and is famously still going strong - and Christie’s reputation as the best of the best in the realm of detective fiction remains unsurpassed. ‘Spider’s Web’ is a little more lighthearted than much of Christie’s work - geared as it is to suit the sparky persona of Margaret Lockwood - but retains the conventions of the stage thriller in every other respect. Writing a detailed show report of a play such as this is always tricky as it is incumbent upon those who know ‘whodunnit’ to keep the fact to themselves without spoiling the denouement for anyone else: a fact nicely illustrated at the end of the play as the cast urged the audience not to give away the ending. This pleasantly old fashioned touch rounded off a thoroughly traditional take on a well loved theatrical genre and the whole experience was a thoroughly cosy and pleasant one.
The action takes place in the drawing room of Copplestone Court over the course of an evening and takes us through a series of typically tricksy twists and turns until the culprit is unmasked before the final curtain. The stage was well appointed and some care had gone into creating a set which really looked the part, secret passage included. David Batterby and Steve Cook established the tone of evening immediately as Sir Rowland Delahaye and Hugo Birch respectively, Steve in particular really giving a very solid performance which captured the correct ‘feel’ of the character and his place in the drama. Dominic Dwyer was every inch the would-be ladies man, bouncing in and out of the French windows with aplomb as Jeremy.
Central to the events on stage is the role originally tailored to Margaret Lockwood, Clarissa Hailsham-Brown. Clarissa is a playful character who injects a mischievous spirit into the Christie world of murder and blackmail and Anita Shaw twinkled on stage throughout in a very dreamy performance. Almost other-worldly at times, Anita really brought Clarissa to life on stage in a way which defined her quite distinctly from a Margaret Lockwood ‘impersonation’ which was all to the good. Clarissa’s daughter Pippa was a sparky creation from Madison Ashton and gave a very confident performance indeed: the double casting of this young role meant that I didn’t see Niamh Robertson’s take on the character but I believe she was also assured and confident on stage. Mildred Peake, the household gardener with a shady past (and a rather shadowy present!) was a technicolour creation from Shirley Watson: a certain amount of overacting was eventually excused as we found out more about this particular character but I’ll refrain from going into details for fear of spoiling the plot! I have to admit to being slightly baffled by Keith Walmsley as Elgin, the butler however: his was a peculiarly mannered approach to the character which I assumed would be explained away in a final twist which never came. Clarissa’s husband, Henry had a similar combination of straightforward plain speaking coupled with an air of detached vagueness in the hands of Simon Hall so perhaps Elgin had picked this tendency up from his master. Both characters reflected the period setting rather well as a result. In contrast, I could have done with perhaps a little more Latin venom from Martin Cottam’s drug-dealing lothario, Oliver Costello but he made a rather marvellous dead body so perhaps one shouldn’t complain too much.
The boys in blue were marvellously represented by Roy Washington and Ben Ashworth as Inspector Lord and Constable Jones. Roy was a solid and reassuring presence as the Inspector, taking the audience with him as he worked through the tangled web of bluff and double bluff and the necessarily wordy interviewing scenes were dealt with smoothly and skilfully, with Constable Jones’ amusingly helpful interjections always providing a chuckle along the way.
Director Jonathan Mallinson adopted just the right approach with this production. It’s too easy with plays of this sort to consider them too old fashioned and therefore ripe for pastiche (the recent ITV Miss Marple series being a case in point) which then undermines the playfully dark conventions which hold the genre together. Jonathan wisely let the material find its own level and made no apologies for producing a good old fashioned whodunnit (not to mention a whydunnit, howdunnit, whendunnit and wheredunnit all rolled into one!) I did find the overall pace of the production was a little slow, with scenes having a tendency to ramble along at a rather funereal pace. This wasn’t helped by the rather too generous ‘kid glove’ treatment afforded to much of the dialogue, holding things back rather than moving the narrative along. The odd prompt here and there didn’t help either but as I attended on opening night, I expect things picked up as the performers grew in confidence. Technical support was first rate with faultless sound and lighting (that said, I wasn’t keen on Costello’s rather 21st Century torch which looked out of place in the 1950s, but that’s probably just needless nit picking on my part) and costumes were of a good standard across the board, suggesting the period very well. The audience was invited to play along and put suggestions forward at the interval for the guilty party: taken altogether, as an evening of good old fashioned skullduggery, it was hard to beat. My thanks to everyone at the Drama Club for a warm welcome and a great evening of classic Christie.