The Case of the Frightened Lady

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 18 June

Edgar Wallace’s 1931 play was an early example of those which have an investigative policeman at the heart of the action. His Chief Superintendent Tanner, as Gray O’Brien makes clear from his first entrance, is not a man to be trifled with.

His assistant Detective Sergeant Totti (Oliver Phelps in his stage début) is no mere sidekick but an active contributor to unravelling the murderous mess in which they become involved.

It all begins with a fancy-dress party at the home of the autocratic dowager Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant). Her son (Ben Nealon) may have inherited the centuries-old title and the heavily restored family seat, but balks at settling down to responsibility.

That includes marrying his attractive but impoverished cousin Isla Crane (April Pearson), the title character. He is also at odds with most of his mother’s staff. They, to put it mildly, are an odd bunch.

Gilder (Glenn Carter), butler Kelver (Philip Lowrie) and housekeeper Mrs Tilling (Rosie Thomson) have their own spiky variations on one-upmanship. Denis Lill’s Dr Amersham is not quite the genial friendly practitioner initial impressions might suggest.

So it goes on in violence. Adapter Antony Lampard and director Roy Marsden keep the action flowing with scenes of activity intercut with personal verbal exchanges. The trouble is that we in the audience are so busy following the plot that we end up thoroughly bemused.

The transitions are akin to those in a novel or even a film. Lighting designer Chris Davey uses subtle shifts of light to indicate them but even so doesn’t really clarify anything. It’s all of its inter-war period but tries too hard for 21st century relevance.

Costume changes proliferate, with some neat touches to indicate status and seniority. Wallace knew his craft and perhaps it should simply have been taken as he wrote it. You can’t fault the actors; everyone takes it at proper face value. But it just doesn’t work.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Case of the Frightened Lady continues at the Palace Theatre Westcliff until 23 June with matinées on 21 and 23 June. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 30 July and 4 August.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

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