Review: A stylish, crafted and enjoyable piece of theatre

The Case Of The Frightened Lady at Devonshire Park Theatre SUS-180606-101701001
The Case Of The Frightened Lady at Devonshire Park Theatre SUS-180606-101701001

Stylish, solidly crafted and rather enjoyable – but not quite a fright night. Devonshire Park Theatre audiences this week are invited to solve The Case Of The Frightened Lady.

The Classic Thriller Theatre Company, built on a merited reputation for some fine Agatha Christie adaptations, turns its hand here to Edgar Wallace, with his tale of fear and lurking violence in an English country mansion.

Written and set in the early 1930s, this Antony Lampard adaptation is faithful rather than imaginative. The plot keeps us interested and often intrigued, and there are moments to make the audience jump.

All the action unfolds in the impressive baronial hall of Marks Priory, ruled by the iron rod of the dowager Lady Lebanon – a convincing Deborah Grant. It is bare of furniture, and literally nobody ever sits down. The set has four entrances, but no doors, and you never quite know who might be listening, silent and sinister and just out of sight: a clever device.

I did say all the action, but it would be more accurate to say all the dialogue. Characters, as the Bard sayeth, have their exits and their entrances: they tell the next bit of the story and move off again, while all the explosive moments happen off-stage. In one ludicrous moment, our young heroine is heard screaming in terror from her bedroom, but the onstage detective, busy with his notebook, does not even go to investigate. Heresy to say it of the distinguished Roy Marsden, but there is lazy directing here.

Oliver Phelps, best known as one of the twins from the Harry Potter films, makes an accomplished stage debut as the eager detective down from Cambridge. With his gaffer, Gray O’Brien as the chief superintendent, they inch their way towards solving at least one murder – sorry, no spoilers – as the other protagonists slowly reveal some murky back-stories.

There are butlers and chauffeurs, housekeepers and gamekeepers, but nothing is quite as it seems. Glenn Carter and Callum Coates are sinister and controlling servants who threaten to invert the hierarchy of this household, while you would not trust Dennis Lill’s charlatan family doctor to diagnose an ingrowing toenail.

The story actually opens with a bright and garish fancy dress ball, but that is as jolly as it gets. Otherwise, virtually every character is tetchy or aggressive or glum, and you have to feel for the only sympathetic character, young secretary Isla – engagingly played by April Pearson – who has evidently been lured under false pretences as a marriage candidate for Ben Nealon’s Lord Lebanon, the moody and arrogant heir to the Lebanon estate.

With a full cast of 13 actors, Bill Kenwright and his company deliver a solid night of theatre. The action ticks along and the plot has genuine intrigue. This reviewer, usually hopeless at spotting the denouement of thrillers, nearly got the ending right, but it did keep us guessing. A solid, four-square production which does justice to Edgar Wallace, but never quite finds an extra dimension. By Kevin Anderson.