Chris Eldon Lee reviews “A Murder Has Been Arranged”, presented by Ian Dickens Plays at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 20th July 2013.
Emlyn Williams wrote some cracking plays – such as the hypnotic, psychological thriller “Night Must Fall” and the autobiographical “The Corn is Green”… both as fresh now as they ever were.
Judging by last night though, I have to say “A Murder Has Been Arranged” doesn’t wear as well.
It’s one of his earlier plays in which he was experimenting with supernatural themes and trying to perfect the art of creating fear and suspense within the modest resources a theatre could supply in 1930.
The action takes place on the stage of the St. James Theatre in London…which has been closed for a week following a mysterious death. The murder we see is a lot less mysterious. For some reason Sir Charles Jasper (played by Paul Lavers) has chosen to celebrate his 40th birthday on stage in the deserted theatre, well aware that he will inherit two million pounds if he lives till 11pm – and equally aware that his errant nephew Maurice Mullins will get the cash if he doesn’t. So there’s little doubting whose murder is being arranged. Mullins’ aim is to get the job done whilst remaining above suspicion.
Williams employed several stage tactics to disquiet his audience and producer Ian Dickens has kept faith with him; eerie noises off, ghostly legends, premonitions of death, a mysterious woman in white and a Banquo-like appearance at the dinner table.
But sadly the spookiness falls flat and the flaws in Sir Charles’ logic leave the psychological arguments un-rooted. 80 years on it’s all a bit ponderous, convoluted and unconvincing. Not for the first time this summer season, I was left questioning the choice of play.
It is, however, excellent to see Anita Harris on stage again, as elegant and statuesque as ever. She has a knack of ‘owning’ the stage, even in a relatively minor role. And I enjoyed Oliver Mellor as the devious nephew – a character who seems now to be a blue print for Danny in “Night Must Fall”, written five years later. In both cases the character is obviously the culprit, even before the event, and the acting skill is to embellish the part with charming but deadly instability.
At the curtain, I was left feeling that this was a play for the Emlyn Williams connoisseurs amongst us. Cleverly, his plot hinges on a craftily acquired suicide note. Less cleverly, I was concerned that Ian Dickens might be writing his own.
At the season launch back in May, he complained that audiences for plays were dwindling. Well, that’s not the experience of the other theatres I review – nor, I suspect, of Wolverhampton Grand generally.
Having seen all four of his summer offerings, the problem seems to be play selection. If you want to fill a theatre on a hot July night, it might be advisable to stage a play that audiences can’t resist. Otherwise you might just be arranging your own demise.
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