The Case of the Frightened Lady: Fails to Thrill

Monday 9th July 2018 at the Grand Opera House, York.

⭐️⭐️

This touring production of Edgar Wallace’s page turner The Case of the Frightened Lady doesn’t quite deliver the goods. Under the direction of Roy Marsden, there’s certainly some mystery, some red herrings and some unforeseen revelations which might provide the golden seal for any production selling itself as a thriller, but the production is static and poorly crafted when it comes to putting the ‘thrill’ into ‘thriller’. There are some commendable performances amongst the twelve strong cast and despite some obtuse, state-the-obvious scripting (adaption by Antony Lampard), there’s an enjoyable puzzle here. Unfortunately, when seeing a thriller live on stage, I can’t help but feel that my likening the experience to an enjoyably engaging board game or jigsaw puzzle doesn’t quite capture what the creators are going for…

Set in 1932, just as big houses and towering lineages really began to crumble and lose power, Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant) throws a party. At this party, a murder takes place and the rest of the play sets about discerning the culprit. Chief Superintendent Tanner (Gray O’Brien) naturally arrives to investigate the kerfuffle at the local mansion along with eager Detective Sergeant Totti (Oliver Phelps). Together they mull over the options and question the servants as they bump into them – O’Brien takes to an authoritarian role well enough but the character hasn’t been given many teeth to really put suspects on edge. He’s generally more of a local friendly bobby than a justice-hungry hunter of criminals. Likewise, Phelps gives an earnest portrayal of the relatively young prodigy, but everything is more of a chat than a challenge.

In this grand house in which there are always ‘listeners’ lurking in the shadows, Gilder (Simon Desborough) and Brook (Callum Coates) take up the mantle of a running joke duo. Lurch-like, they traipse across the stage constantly and when they’re not going about their unspoken business, they’re just around the corner, awaiting discovery. I’m not sure how useful the comic element is to a show already lacking in tension or suspense, but this audience appeared to enjoy a titter. To counter this, we have the exceedingly upright Butler Kelver (Philip Lowrie), who respects traditions and status yet carries airs when it comes to his pride in serving – akin to Downton’s Carson, I’m sure many will have noticed.  Aamira Challenger gives a solid performance as the wronged maid Mrs Tilling who is, naturally, harbouring secrets, while her husband and groundsman is played as the recognisable rugged man of few words by Owen Oldroyd. Lecherous family doctor Dr Amersham is a strong and unlikeable force thanks to Dennis Lill and he provides space for a plethora of possibilities concerning motives and culprits.

But it is the Lebanon family which is designed to intrigue here. Deborah Grant gives a commanding performance full of force and indestructible self-assurance as the head of the family. Having lost her husband, she has set about securing a future for the family line. Her pride makes her powerful and more than a little scathing, but she represents a bygone era of good names, good breeding and respectability. The young, sensitive Isla Crane (April Pearson) is secretary to this stoic lady of the house and if the lady has her way, Isla will soon be a bride – preferably via giving her hand to the boyish and over-exuberant son, Lord Lebanon (Ben Nealon). Nealon’s Lord Lebanon is entitled but lays claim to diplomacy and liberalism despite his evident status and the towering force of his traditionalist mother. Isla is our eponymous frightened lady, and she has much to fear it seems, yet however unfairly, the distinct lack of purposefulness across the production undermines the well shaped character Pearson has created. Within the confines of a stilted staging, Pearson’s characterisation swerves dangerously close to overdone, yet if the production were to really invest in the drama and thrill of a truly great murder mystery, Pearson’s performance would be seen for what it is: a well observed portrayal of a classic damsel.

As the bodies pile up as the narrative develops, the suspect list grows, and in that respect, this production does well to capture the central appeal of whodunnit thrillers. Yet things remain problematic as the staging is generally static and lacking in any real sense of drama or edge-of-your-seat suspense. Julie Godfrey’s stage design captures the solidity of great houses with an imposing sandstone facade enveloping the whole stage space. The core problem is that despite the well constructed and imposing set, the whole piece plays out in that one place: the great lobby. So everyone stands around talking, questioning, leering or spying in one specific setting, milling about the place constantly, with precisely three opportunities to perch on the seat of an alcove. This means that for most of the performance, characters are quite literally left standing around – I t’s also a silent, empty space, and not in the perfect-for-suspense way. What’s more, every suspect is questioned as they pass through – they’re never tracked down or caught unawares elsewhere and consequently their gentle interrogations appear more coincidental than aggressively probing as you might expect in a murder investigation.

The strong set and costume designs from Godfrey highlight another issue: when it comes to production values, the set and costumes are the whole kit and kaboodle; despite the headline of thriller, lighting from Chris Davey is not notable save for the flickering lights to accompany a predictable storm. There’s a blackout too, but no atmospheric designs to capture that thrill an audience is seeking. In the same vein, Dan Samson’s sound design is an untapped fountain – there’s a little thunder and a couple of jump-scares, but there are almost no manipulative orchestrations in the first act which is somewhat remedied through a welcome prominence of this vital defining feature of a period thriller in the second act. I’m still searching the files in my brain for the reason behind light and sound being almost forgotten in a production and within a genre which so distinctively uses such things as cornerstones for even the most simply staged thrillers.

For me, the best things about The Case of the Frightened Lady are Godfrey’s designs and the impressively regal, dismissive portrayal of a great lady from Deborah Grant. I’ll own that there are tropes of a thriller very evident here, but with so little suspense and with a final revelation too recognisably contemporary in nature to be truly shocking, this is a thriller which intrigued well enough but thoroughly failed to thrill.

The Case of the Frightened Lady is presented by Bill Kenwright and The Classic Thriller Theatre Company. It plays at the Grand Opera House, York until July 14th 2018 and you can find tickets here. The production tours until November 17th 2018 and you can find more information about venues and tickets here.

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