Secondary Cause of Death
by Peter Gordon
Talking Scarlet production
Directed by Patric Kearns
Poole Lighthouse, Friday 12th February 2016, 19.45
Lady Isadora Pollock – Michelle Morris
Count Puchlik of Puszcykowo- David Janson
Colonel Charles Craddock – Jeffrey Holland
Henrietta Woolmer-Cardington – Liz Garland
Cynthia Maple- Judy Buxton
Cardew Longfellow – Alfred John Fley
Martha Armstrong – Megan Terry
Lily Tuthill – Polly Smith
Inspector Pratt – David Callister
Nurse Ann Parsley- Melissa Clements
A Tale of Two Christies …
This came to Poole a couple of weeks before the fabled The Mousetrap comes to town. Last year’s Mousetrap tour saw tickets at Top West End prices, or three times the going rate for the provinces. This year they’ve calmed down to a 50% hike. But after seeing this wonderfully hilarious spoof, The Mousetrap is in real trouble. I’d hate to follow this pastiche Agatha Christie (Miss Maple anyone?) with the genuine article. I fear people will be laughing in all the wrong places when The Mousetrap comes into town.
L to R: The captain, the crime specialist, the cook, the copper and the colonel
Peter Gordon was an unknown quantity to me. His plays have had 1400 productions worldwide, both professional and amateur, and Secondary Cause of Death is the second play in his “Inspector Pratt” trilogy. Plays beloved of amateurs is a genre in itself … headed by An Inspector Calls, and The Importance of Being Earnest. When I was a teenager at the local Youth Club we did a thriller a year, all of which seemed to be designed for that sort of production … French windows at the back, a Colonel, a vicar, a detective, a siren, a clever older lady, the whole Cluedo board in effect. Where Peter Gordon has refined the genre is writing for six women and three men, which is much more aligned to the talents of the average amateur company.
Talking Scarlet’s professional production puts first-rate established comedy actors in the roles, and the genre to compare it with is not straight murder mystery thrillers, but rather send-ups like The Play That Went Wrong or Noises Off. I was fascinated in the interval – in the ice cream line, by the bar, everyone was double checking who they thought the victims, assailants etc were.
The Polish Count (David Janson) and Lady Isadora (Michelle Morris)
It’s the Spring of 1939, and we’re in the library of Colonel Craddock’s house. I’m not going to explain the plot, because it’s part of the fun, as no one is who they seem to be, they all have some kind of double role. Briefly, the Colonel has engaged the formidable Miss Maple (Judy Buxton) to run a Murder Mystery evening (just as country house hotels now run Murder Mystery Weekends). Miss Maple has engaged the services of thespian Cardew Longfellow because he looks identical to the Colonel, and this will be part of her plot. At this point refer to the cast list, and count. Three men … six women … but there are four men. Look at the names Jeffrey Holland and Alfred John Fley and apply your crossword skills.
Inspector Pratt (David Callister) and Lily the cook (Polly Smith)
Inspector Pratt arrives on the scene, the ultimate in incompetent detectives, though Pratt himself would prefer incontinent detectives, because he muddles up words with alarming regularity and always amusingly, allowing him to say Miss Marple, but as a mistake. We took a ten and twelve year old with us, knew this aspect was in the play and wondered if it would be difficult for them. They loved it. We learn a little backstory, which is from the first Inspector Pratt play, at the end of which the Colonel’s murderous wife was confined to an asylum. She has escaped. The bodies pile higher and higher. Pratt draws all the wrong conclusions about every one of the murders. His word play is compounded by the jolly hockey sticks woman army captain, Henrietta (my companion says she has never seen a woman sit so inelegantly in a skirt since her last grammar school English lesson). Henrietta (played by Liz Garland) has a soft r, so her r becomes w, which also gets used to devastatingly funny effect. Any attempt to further explain the plot would spoil it for those who haven’t seen it.
Inspector Pratt and the Colonel … or possibly the thespian (Jeffrey Holland)
Inspector Pratt is a towering creation. You’ve seen funny ineffective detectives, I’m sure, but you ain’t seen nothing yet. One of his early lines was “I see you’ve got the bloodstains out of the carpet” which refers to the earlier Inspector Pratt play, Murdered To Death, but even though we didn’t know the first play, that casual line broke us up. I’m sure David Callister is going to be remembered next December when I draw up my “Best Performances of The Year” list. This level of high energy physical comedy coupled with the non-stop flow of crossed vocabulary is a feat. You have to try doing comedy to realize how hard it is to do stuff like this. Then he’s got two wonderful comedy actors alongside him. Jeffrey Holland – I thought this was the third time I’ve seen him, but it must be the fifth, counting the Dad’s Army and Hi-de-hi stage shows years ago – has the role of switching between the classic elderly colonel and the Great Thespian Cardew Longfellow, made even more complex later in the play where they have the same costume too. David Janson’s Polish count (who is definitely not what he seems to be) has two foreign accents and a very high-energy revelation. However, one of the funniest bits of the whole play was him sitting silently bemused on the sofa in shock with torn clothes, covered in gunpowder residue amid the mayhem. I won’t say how or why.
The Polish Count (David Janson)
The whole cast has spot-on comedy timing, and most have the fun of double roles, or in Michelle Morris’s case triple roles. When they’re enacting Miss Maple’s murder mystery she, as Lady Isadora, has to play an over-the-top American actress (gorgeous gestures) before playing a third level. We were genuinely surprised when the rural, bent and aged cook suddenly switches. Then Lily inadvertently borrows the nurse’s cape. Outside the snow is deep, meaning no one gets out of here alive can leave …
It’s one to catch. A first-rate team, all highly-skilled in comedy. It’s a fun evening’s entertainment. Peter Gordon’s name is now one to look out for.
A programme you can read clearly in a theatre! Large format, clear layout. Do not miss the biography of Alfred John Fley, the, er, fourth man. The play is part two of the trilogy. We had no knowledge of part one, but it is explained sufficiently on stage. I wondered about a four or five line account of Murdered To Death but it’s probably not necessary.
I can’t understand the conservatism of a two day run in Poole. The audience buzz going out was “delighted.” Had it been running on the Saturday, I would have e-mailed or called half a dozen people and said, ‘Don’t miss it!’ It would have great word-of-mouth. In fact the Lighthouse Theatre is dark on the Saturday, and the company resume at Hastings next week.
Mind you, I will give my local theatre one accolade. The theatre and larger concert hall share the same foyer, which means not one set of extensive loos, but two (with another two sets downstairs). As the concert hall was dark on this Friday, it means the most amply supplied theatre in the land.