Event review: Shirley Players presents Curtain Up On Murder

By - Tuesday 30th May, 2017

This am dram thank you ma’am left me with a very big grin on my face

Photo author’s own.

With two productions a year, each one just two performances but to packed-out audiences at Shirley Parish Hall, the Shirley Players is one of local theatre’s success stories. I rarely miss its shows, and I always enjoy them. There is no pretence that this is ‘community theatre’: this is pure unadulterated am-dram, thank you ma’am. This is village hall players with audible prompts and the names of the ladies serving the interval tea and biscuits credited in the single sheet photocopied programme. And at £7.50 per ticket, the price is all too right.

The most recent production was Curtain Up On Murder. Personally, I consider the murder mystery spoof to be the lowest form of play. A well-written straight murder mystery always delivers bigger laughs when they are put in the right place, as a counterbalance to the drama. This play, however, does have much working in its favour.

The story sees a bunch of amateur actors rehearsing a play on the stage of a theatre on a seaside pier. Although the odd seagull sound effect or even the sound of the sea might have helped, it was easy to imagine the hall could be the theatre in question, not so modern but with adequate lighting rig and decent sized stage, and with some of the actors entering from the back of the hall down the side of the audience. When these thespians discover that they have been accidently locked in by the caretaker, the company’s director, Martin (played all aloof and with delusions of grandeur by David Sanders) decides that they shall rehearse, rehearse and rehearse all night long, until they are freed the following day.

Nothing wrong with taking vintage Scooby Doo as your inspiration

This goes to pot, however, when one by one the cast’s members are murdered – with the occasional appearance of a ghostly figure to boot. Along the way there is bickering, and romance, with Martin’s wife Sylvia (Maddie Warren) having an affair with young actor Alex, played superbly with a slipperiness and urgency by Liam Fretwell. Added drama comes from Alex’s partner Linda crashing the rehearsal, discovering his cheating and then finding herself trapped in this deadly situation. She is played by Shirley Players’ newcomer Charlotte Leonard, who excels as she shows her contempt at the whole bunch of luvvies with their publicity hungry attitudes and self-congratulatory ways, with Jo Ridge also creating a wonderful character in Moppet, very much the dotty old lady of the company. Completing this cast within a cast are teen actors Rachael Wadsworth (just thirteen years old) as Ginny and Eden Harvey as Sandra, who turns out to be the murderer, aided by the theatre’s caretaker, Harry (who turns out to be Sandra’s father), played by Shirley Players’ heavyweight, Chris Bartlett.

Yep, it was the caretaker all along, with his accomplice pretending to be a ghost by literally putting a white sheet over her head. Nothing wrong with taking vintage Scooby Doo as your inspiration (but only vintage Scooby Doo. I can’t get along with these modern ones).

Written in the days when mobile phones were rare, many of the problems the characters face could have been solved by phoning for help. So the play’s director, Carla Harvey, has taken the decision to set the play even further back, in the nineteen sixties, though really I only discovered this when one of the cast told me afterwards. Not all of the costumes seemed very retro, and I thought it was all just set in some sort of never era, but if anyone else thought the same, it doesn’t really matter.

A backdrop of oohs! and aahs!

Some aspects of the play don’t quite add up. For starters, there is supposedly a trap door with a thirty foot drop onto concrete, but isn’t this theatre on a pier? If so, then that’s quite some structure. Then we are expected to believe that Martin can dive into the sea from a window at that height, and not only survive but climb back up the pier and the building itself and in through the window to save the day – well, save Sylvia and leave a grovelling Alex to his fate as mad Harry starts a bonfire under the stage. And then there’s Harry and Sandra’s mad motive for vengeance, which sees the death of two innocents in both Ginny and Linda. It is perhaps for all of these reasons, along with the writer not really knowing how to end their play, that they opted for the ‘it was all a dream’ ending as, mid-climax, an actor playing a director shouts out to stop the action and walks on stage with the whole cast, prompt, wardrobe lady and stage manager to say “job well done”. What we have here is actors playing actors playing actors. This conceit left me with a very big grin on my face as the curtain came down on Curtain Up On Murder, and the same could certainly be said for the rest of the audience.

Carla has directed a very silly play brought to life by some very impressive players, all to the joy and delight of the company’s loyal followers, many of them senior citizens, whose “oohs”, “aahs” and “oh it’s him!“s all add to the experience. I have a feeling that one hundred years from now, the Shirley Players will still be providing good times to just as loyal a following.

Rob Preston

Rob Preston

Rob was a co-host on Croydon Radio's Encyclopaedia Croydonia, and hosts the popular bi-monthly tribute nights at The Oval Tavern on Oval Road. As a writer / photographer his work has been published in Doctor Who Magazine, Dreamwatch, Auton, Dog's Breakfast, Bulletin Your Head and SoHo Life & Technology Today. His short stories have been read at Tales of Croydonia at The Oval Tavern, and he is currently working on two anthologies of his own short stories, one crime, the other horror. He has written and directed seven plays at various Croydon venues, and survives today as a jobbing actor.

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