Murderer*** (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

Posted: March 19, 2014 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Almost 30 minutes pass before the first word is spoken in Anthony Shaffer’s play, which is part thriller, part black comedy. It is almost as if the main part of Norman Bartholemew had been written with Jaques Tati in mind to play it. Exactly what transpires cannot be told, but the opening is an acting (or rather miming) and directorial tour de force, made all the more effective by the close proximity of the audience to the action in this small space. Shaffer’s biggest hit, Sleuth, first appeared in 1970, this play coming five years later and, in between, he collaborated on a film with Alfred Hitchcock. Clear touches of Hitchcock’s macabre sense of humour are evident throughout Murderer, but particularly during the opening scene, with every gruesome deed being enacted with meticulous attention to detail. Hitchcock also shared Shaffer’s love for playing around with dramatic conventions, so the idea of a play in which over a quarter is silent would surely have gained the approval of the Master of Suspense. Sadly, after the first word has been spoken, it is mostly downhill. Norman is an artist who has a fascination for murderers and their techniques. As he also has a loveless marriage and a mistress, little more needs to be said of a plot in which the twists and turns are as see-through as the bathroom wall in Philip Lindley’s nicely detailed 1970s set. Like all plot- driven dramas, when the plot stalls, the play stalls and, on the many occasions when this happens, Shaffer bides time with a great deal of pretentious and not very gripping dialogue. Playing Norman as a vain, capricious and childlike anti-hero, Bradley Clarkson carries most of the evening. He looks none too comfortable in a polo neck sweater and tight fitting flares, but he is great fun to watch as he revives a style of flamboyant acting rarely seen in the last 40 years. Abby Forknall and Zoe Teverson as Norman’s two women are both effective, whilst Andrew Ashford is highly amusing as the obligatory slow-witted uniformed police sergeant, a man who can down two pints of Newcastle Brown Ale in a couple of swigs, but is incapable of spotting what could be a corpse. As he lies in nearby Highgate Cemetery, perhaps Anthony Shaffer will give a smile of satisfaction at Tim Frost’s production which extracts as much entertainment as possible out of his now very dated play. He was a dramatist who excelled in confounding audience expectations and it is fitting that, when most murder thrillers are noted for their final denouements, he has left us with one that is chiefly memorable for its opening.

Performance date: 18 March 2014

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