Genuine tension with a “truly gripping climax”

Death Toll at Devonshire Park Theatre
Death Toll at Devonshire Park Theatre

New writing at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, as the Talking Scarlet company continues its successful Murder in the Park season with James Cawood’s Death Toll.

Murder is easy, remarks one of the characters in Death Toll: it is getting away with it that’s tricky. By much the same token, writing a thriller is not so difficult, but convincing your audience is the real task. That balance between realistic and improbable is a fine one, and too often audiences are asked to stretch their belief.

Death Toll gets the balance about right. A clever, skilfully woven plot has just the right degree of surprise, and a second half of genuine tension - with a truly gripping climax - sent Tuesday night’s audience home well satisfied.

Yet again, in this summer season, we are transported from the comfortable Devonshire Park stalls to a desolate location. Isolated islands, cut-off country houses. Grisly murder plots - thankfully - never seem to be hatched in 1970s semis at Langney Point... This time it is the remote Scottish Highlands, where thriller writer (sic) Henry and his wife Evelyn tread a fractious and fractured relationship.

London is far away on the West Coast mainline, but their previous life in the Smoke has left painful scars, both physical and psychological. Young actor Jack is a late-night arrival off the last train, ostensibly to audition for Henry’s newly written play. But of course, it is never so simple...

By the interval, there have been revelations of betrayal and subterfuge, and if I tell you that the fourth character, arriving at the start of Act Two, is a detective inspector, you might just guess that the body count is rising.

Most of James Cawood’s writing is tight, with several genuinely frightening moments, although the early scenes could possibly trim a few minutes off the script, and David Jensen’s whole production is enhanced by atmospheric lighting and sound on a solidly convincing set. There is at least one nod to Hitchcock, and none the worse for that.

The acting is led superbly by Corinne Wicks, with a fine performance as fragile, torn and vulnerable wife Evelyn. She is nuanced, believable and full of angst without ever slipping into melodrama. Tom Butcher as Henry is dealt a tougher hand by the author, with whole batches of unmemorable lines which must have been a nightmare to nail down. The plot requires Tom to walk with a stick and a limp, but his perambulations around the set are a bit distracting. But the creepy, unsympathetic characterisation is very skilful and spot-on.

Mark Martin draws plenty of depth from the superficially simple part of the young actor, and Jolyon Young is a forceful and rather likeable Chief Inspector - the swiftest promotion in police history, by the way, for in last week’s production Jolyon was a mere local bobby!

The play premiered in Windsor only a fortnight ago and, with just a little brisking up, it should have a decent future in the murder mystery pantheon. Well done to Patric Kearns and Talking Scarlet for spotting it. By Kevin Anderson.

June 28 - July 2

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