Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Tim Frost
That the audience take their seats to Eye Level, the theme of vintage TV cop show Van Der Valk and later exit to Morecambe and Wise’s Bring Me Sunshine, suggests that Tim Frost's staging of Anthony Shaffer’s Murderer is rooted firmly in the kitsch cultural whirpool that was the 1970’s.
Intended as a comedy thriller (Shaffer had already penned Sleuth and The Wicker Man), the play is a curious combination of farce and suspense that is centered around Dorset painter Norman Bartholomew. With a morbid fascination for famous murderers of old, Bartholomew is up to his neck in a steamy but clichéd affair and dreams of the perfect way to murder his wife.
The performances in this 4-hander are often outstanding. Bradley Clarkson is Bartholomew and that the first twenty minutes of act one are dialogue free is a tribute to his remarkable craft. We witness him apparently drug, murder and dismember a victim, set to background music that along with wonderful hair, costume and mannerisms, date the production perfectly. Also on form is Andrew Ashford as village policeman Sgt Stenning, getting the balance just right between would-be sleuth and bungling parish bobby. When Stenning consumes, on stage and for real, two pints of booze in a moment that echoes the West End’s current hit Urinetown, he develops an urgent need to pee. The audience know all along that there’s a body in the bath and there follows a performance of sublime comic timing between the copper, busting to go and hopping from foot to foot and the agitated Bartholomew, anxious to have the PC relieve himself anywhere but the bathroom. Elsewhere, Zoe Teverson convinces as the much put-upon Mrs Bartholomew, whilst Abby Forknall plays a scantily clad victim with aplomb.
But whilst costumes and fabulous performance seal the illusion of the 40 year time shift, unfortunately so too does Shaffer’s writing. Writing in the programme, Frost hopefully suggests that we can “love the characters’ idiosyncracies”. It's a tall request. The plot, whilst conjuring up occasional moments of genuine surprise, stretches credibility to breaking point, with the tale largely revolving around a dated and disgracefully misogynist conceit that treats the apparent on-stage murders of three women as light entertainment. There’s a line towards the play’s end, “mediocrity my darling has no...status”. Shaffer could well have been writing about his own work.
A nod to Philip Lindley’s set which is of the usual Gatehouse classy standard with Kirsty Gillmore’s sound design going a long way to scene and atmosphere creation. But Murderer is very much a period piece, probably best enjoyed by those with a fondness for the style and attitudes of an England from 40 years ago.
Runs until 20th April 2014