In ‘The Case of the Frightened Lady’, adapted for theatre by Antony Lampard from Edgar Wallace’s hugely popular 20th century novel, we are transported to Mark’s Priory, the vast and luxurious seat of the Lebanon dynasty in 1932 rural England. The story lays bare piece by piece the mystery of a violent murder that takes place at one of the manor’s famed fancy dress balls. The heart of the drama unfolds in an ornate and beautifully designed set which depicts the servant’s quarters in the grounds of the Lebanon family home.
The opening scene portrays an extravagant fancy dress party and provides an opportunity to flaunt Alex Stewart’s fantastic work designing the costumes for the show. The whole village attends the festivities, and this paves the way for the whodunnit framework of the rest of the play. A murder occurs, and the saga ensues as Chief Superintendent Tanner is called to the manor to investigate the crime. As he delves deeper into the perplexing goings on between the Lebanon’s and their shifty servants, accompanied by his partner Detective Sergeant Totti, he moves closer to the epicentre of the mystery. Eventually the pair unveil a scandalous secret guarded fiercely by the ruler of the house, Lady Lebanon. Rula Lenska provides a commanding performance as the lofty, breeding- obsessed guarder of the Lebanon dynasty.
The lighting was a highlight of the play, accentuating and mirroring the shadows of suspicion and doubt cast by the array of shady characters who skulk throughout the manor. Gray O’brien delivers an impressive performance as Chief Superintendent Tanner. He appears at first as if as an apparition: as a shadow framed by light streaming in through the stained- glass window behind him, and this proved to be a peak of the well thought- out technical effects of the production. Julie Godfrey’s lavish set design is superb, and the action being centred into one space allows for the audience to focus on the gossip- fuelled dialogue of the cast who weave in and out of the quarters. This focus is detracted from at times by the sheer size of the cast: the volume of characters moving in and out of the action, often with little to add, can sometimes give a static nature to the story. Roy Marsden’s direction attempts to give pace to the storyline in this sense, but it can result in a sensory overload. The high turnover of characters present does however assist the gradual building of suspicion surrounding the enigmatic goings on of a corrupt underworld within the seemingly virtuous establishment. Glen Carter and Callum Coates as the elusive and omnipresent butlers embody their sneaky characters with grace, although the jokes surrounding their persistent eavesdropping become a little overdone as the plot moves forward.
The production succeeds in delivering what it sets out to do: provide harmless, family fun, that ends up being more comedic in its farcical melodrama than thrilling, as in the style of its source material. The loud gunshot noises and weather effects add to the theatrical, rather than scary, feel of the performance. The ending of the play, whilst revealing and buoyed by enigmatic performances from Gray O’brien and Rula Lenska, fails to answer many of the unanswered questions of the convoluted plot. There were, however, several compelling performances by well- known actors in the cast; April Pearson proved adept as a terrified Isla (the secretary of the house), and Dennis Lill serves to embody the lascivious Dr. Amersham with grace. These performances result in an ultimately enjoyable and engaging show. It is, as always, subject to opinion: for some, the hyperbole will add to the fun of this overall entertaining and humorous production.
Guest Reviewer: Vikki Stephenson