THE BUSINESS OF MURDER
Middle Ground Theatre Company at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford
A mild-mannered man, just the wrong side of middle age. His modest one-bed flat in the suburbs. A police detective - “clever, clever copper” and a woman who's had some success as a writer of police dramas for the television.
Such are the ingredients for Richard Harris's intricately plotted thriller. In the tradition of Sleuth or Deathtrap, our author has his characters playing games with each other as he plays games with his audience. It's all rather self-consciously meta-theatrical, with regular references to actors and scripts. Why are whodunnits so popular ? An eye on the box office… And it's one of Dee's tv plays that provides a spur to revenge in the festering mind of the master manipulator.
There's not a lot of action. There is a lot of talking, and after the interval the stakes, the tension and the voices are raised, before the double twist in the last ten minutes: there's a satisfying feeling of closure as the curtain falls, before we realise that the final twist of the knife depends on something that could never have been known for certain, a violent reaction which plays into his devious hands … “We must always have a dramatic ending !”
The characters – not always terribly convincing – are well cast. Paul Opacic makes a great 80s television cop, rough and ready, with his raincoat and his hat. Joanna Higson is the ambitious writer who uses him for research purposes. And Robert Gwilym is a delight as dotty “Mr Stone”, with his manic little giggle and his chilling mood swings. “People don't behave like me – or only in plays.” His obsessive, meticulous plotting and scheming, his consummate theatrical deceptions are redeeming features of an otherwise uninspiring drama.
Michael Lunney's production is impressively staged. Set in 1981, when the piece was written, it boasts a lovely period set: brown furniture, brown sauce on the coffee table, and an evocative street scene backdrop. There are references to Barlow and Watt, and Dunn & Co. The characters smoke indoors. Maybe thirty years ago audiences were held by this kind of wordy cat-and-mouse – it did have a long West End run back then, with Francis Matthews the original Stone - but I'm not convinced it's worth reviving today.this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews