Murder She Didn’t Write at the Leicester Square Theatre review ****

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Murder She Didn’t Write, Degrees of Error, Something for the Weekend

Leicester Square Theatre, 25th March 2018

Flushed with success from our previous outing to the LST for a bit of class improv, BD, LD and the Tourist slope off to see Degrees of Error and Something for the Weekend and their commended show Murder She Didn’t Write. If this was as anything like as good as Austentatious we were in with a treat (Austentatious at Leicester Square Theatre review ****).

Well, I can report, it is,  and we were. You wouldn’t think to look at kindly Agatha Christie that she could have such a devious and sly mind. For how else to explain how she re-wrote the rules on whodunnit plotting. Which delights in exposing human cruelty. Take a look at Sarah Phelps’s riveting adaptations courtesy of the BBC, Ordeal By Innocence on now, Witness For The Prosecution and And Then There Were None, if you want to see how Christie should be done.

Agatha Christie is, by some margin, the most famous product of Torbay. If the Tourist, who is similarly scion-ed, is to catch her up he needs to come up with something sharpish. This blog, with its still pitiful double digit readership, is not it. Her holiday home, Greenway House, is well worth a visit, and happens to be just down the road from the Tourist’s alma mater.

The classic Christie tropes, the grand locations, the secretive characters, the class divisions, the disguises and assumed identities, the clues and red herrings, the inspired investigator, the big reveal, are as amenable to spoofing as they are to cracking drama. So it’s not really a great surprise to see an improvisation troupe alight on Agatha as a source for its entertainment.

That is not in any way to decry the skill which Degrees of Error bring this to the stage. DoE are an improv theatre company based in Bristol and have been taking Murder She Didn’t Write to Edinburgh and on tour since 2013. So they know what they are about. Even so, as with Austentatious, improv comedy theatre on this scale, (we got around 90 minutes of action for our 15 quid each), is a tough gig. So they wisely help themselves in a number of ways. One of the company, (I think Tom Bridges but with no cribsheet I can’t be sure so forgive me if I am mistaken), plays the detective, who guides us through the “plot” with occasional interjections to give his “acting” colleagues time to pause for breath and to suggest scenarios which might add to the gag quotient. He also recruits a member of the audience to be his sidekick, Jerkins, who picks out both victim and murderer. Our cast is “colour-coded” Cluedo fashion to assist in the process. Jerkins also ultimately decides on the location and event for the murder mystery based on audience suggestions vetted by the Inspector.

All this buys a bit of time for cast to prepare and to fit the classic Christie tropes to their characters. Even so, early on, there are a few awkward diversions and cross-talking, but after the first 20 minutes or so the direction is set and the cast can settle into the flow. Then they start making it look easy. After the interval you would barely know it was improvised.

It is very, very funny. Our setting, a wine tasting, and location, a wine-glass factory worked a treat. I don’t know how much they might have squeezed in from previous improvs but nothing ever feels forced or less than spontaneous. Watching the comic ideas coalesce is delightful and seeing the cast grinning when they hit the comedy jackpot makes the whole thing even funnier. That is the shared joy of improv.

I think the cast was Peter Baker, Lizzy Skrzypiec, Tessa Gaukroger, Caitlin Campbell, Rachel Lane and John Lomas, but I can’t be sure as I say. No point singling out anyone in particular, the whole ensemble was fabulous.

If this even slightly piques your interest I strongly encourage you to take the plunge. The London gigs at the LST are at 4pm on a Sunday. What else are you going to be doing then FFS? This is one of those outings where you absolutely can take your mates along without worrying they won’t enjoy it and you will look like a tit, and there is, for a couple of hours at least, no question of FOMO or phone-withdrawal kicking in.

http://www.degreesoferror.com/tour/

 

 

Murder on the Orient Express film review ****

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Murder on the Orient Express, 27th November 2017

Stage or film, acting, managing, directing or producing, Sir Kenneth Branagh always makes sure he is right at the centre of things. Always has done. I bet he even pops out to Starbucks when it is his turn to get the lattes in. He probably even organises the on-set Secret Santa. And why not. He is bloody good at what he does and he can get things done. I confess not everything he does is entertainment gold but you can’t argue with his record. In his last eponymous season at the Garrick, (move over Davey boy), in 2015 his Leontes was immense and his physical comedy in The Painkiller belied his 55 years. And you can take your pick of his proselytising Shakespeare leads, stage or screen, (we could do with a real life version his Henry V right now I reckon). The man loves Shakespeare so as far as I am concerned he can do no wrong. The thing is that Sir Ken is an almighty show-off, which, let’s face it, is no bad thing for an actor to be.

So why shouldn’t he have some fun with Agatha C’s arguably most ingenious whodunnit. Yes it has been done to death (tee, hee), and we all know how it ends, but who cares when it is this much fun. With a couple of exceptions, (Johnny Depp, quelle surprise, as pantomime villain, and, to a lesser extent, Michelle Pfeiffer, as a cougarish, femme fatale), the stellar cast he has assembled doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to start chewing the scenery, but it is good to have them along for the ride. And Branagh himself is so mannered as Poirot, complete with risible accent, ludicrous moustache, immaculate suit and, especially at the end, bouts of preposterous philosophising, that it makes up for the under-utilisation elsewhere. Penelope Cruz gets to do buttoned up, doom laden Catholic, (Spanish obviously not the character’s original Swedish though that might have been a fun accent), William Dafoe, a BOGOF routine, with a sinister, racist Austrian before reverting to type, Judi Dench a haughty, mittel-European grunt, Derek Jacobi an Ealing-style, gor-blimey butler and Daisy Ridley an incredulous toff. The talents of, in particular, Manuel Garcia-Rolfo and Olivia Colman get less of an airing, which is a shame, but blame AC for serving up her Last Supper of suspects (a motif that is mined by KB).

Sir Ken takes a similarly selfish approach to his directorial duties coming over all Orson Welles and Wes Anderson, with his mix of angles and shots, and his exquisite set and costume staging for the “action”. He shoves in a prologue in Cairo which I adored. to show just how clever Poirot is, like a vintage OCD Belgian Bond. The camera drones get a good workout and if you like trains, which I do, you are in for a treat. It might distract a bit from the “suspense” but when you know the outcome so what? It is shot on handsome 65mm which adds to the old skool feel. 

It seems once again that Sir Ken’s confidence, which rubs off on everyone around him, has paid off. Despite the muted critical response the box office receipts are rolling in to add to the unsubtle product placement. So we will be getting a Death on the Nile, and I predict, some time ahead of Christmas 2021, an And Then There Were None. Agents of the thespian great and good, get on the phone to Sir Ken now.