The Case of the Frightened Lady/Malvern Theatres

IT’S not hard to understand the appeal of the ‘civilised murder’ mystery during the inter-war period of the last century.

After four years of the real thing on a mass scale during the First World War, perhaps all that 1930s theatregoers wanted was fantasy homicide where nobody got hurt, there was no blood, and the deed was rarely seen being committed.

Agatha Christie and the author of this play, Edgar Wallace, realised what the public wanted, and produced such dramas on an industrial scale.

So here we once again find ourselves in a stately pile, complete with hooray Henry aristocrat, a couple of sullen footmen, a snooty mistress of the house… and the discovery of the first corpse, strangled in the manner favoured by the dreaded thuggirs of India.

A London policeman and his sergeant are sent to investigate, and the plot soon thickens faster than the congealed blood of the next few victims, improbably meeting their ends while the coppers are under the same roof.

Gray O’Brien makes for a wonderful, chisel-jawed chief superintendent Tanner, seamlessly switching from good cop to bad cop as he relentlessly probes for the truth.

Continually hindered by obstructive upper class posturing, he deftly swats away Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant) who is intent on playing the dismissive posh person card at every turn.

She’s supported by her waster of a son (Ben Nealon) who treats Tanner and his sidekick with a mixture of arrogance and studied aloofness.

The hallmark of the traditional whodunit is, of course, the sowing of endless confusion and false leads to take the audience up any number of blind alleys.

Denis Lill’s dastardly doctor Amersham certainly helps in this vital process, trying to make us reach the wrong diagnoses. And despite a succession of piercing screams, thunderclaps and the occasional pistol shot echoing into the night, butler Kelver (Philip Lowrie) magnificently maintains his servile cool.

This production by the Classic Thriller Company proves that there’s still an insatiable appetite for the cosy murder mystery, where we snuggle up under the metaphorical duvet and play guess-the-villain.

It runs until Saturday (July 21).

John Phillpott