You know when summer has properly arrived in Eastbourne. The weather perks up, the tennis trucks are unloading their scaffolding - and the Murder in the Park season opens at the Devonshire Park Theatre.
Eastbourne has not had a resident repertory company since the halcyon days of Charles Vance but Talking Scarlet is the nearest thing. Patric Kearns and his company consistently bring resourceful, accessible productions to the Devonshire Park.
This is a title new to Eastbourne: A Party to Murder dates back 20 years or so, but is not often performed.
It is Halloween 1988, and writer Charles has invited four friends to his lonely cottage on a lake-bound island, for a murder mystery party. Needless to say, it is dark and stormy, and shutters will bang regularly to echo the shocks as the story unwinds.
The first half does require a little patience, as the actors wade through some stodgy dialogue...But hold on, and you will be richly repaid when Act Two takes you on a lurching ride of suspense and surprises.
It is a Russian doll of a plot: lift one painted layer, and there is another beneath. And in a second half of utterly unexpected developments, you never know whether you have reached the final enigmatic face. There is intrigue, darkish humour and genuine tension. A Party to Murder is not momentous theatre but it’s really good entertainment...the plot twists had Tuesday’s opening night audience gasping until the very final line.
Inevitably, it is something of a triumph of plot over characterisation. The six excellent actors do their best to create three dimensions out of two, and the product is a bunch of rather unsympathetic characters, none of whom you would shed tears for, if they happened to be the next murder victim. Ben Roddy holds the stage as the host and John Hester is an odious, controlling business magnate. Michelle Morris flutters delightfully as his moll, while Natasha Gray and Polly Smith have excellent chemistry as unsisterly siblings. Oliver Mellor is quite the matinee idol as a wheelchair-bound football star. And if Natasha’s character Valerie does recover from one scary moment with the line - “I’m okay - I just can’t quite believe it!” - then the audience, in the best possible sense, know exactly how she feels....By Kevin Anderson.