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York
The Frightened Lady In York
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
photo by Pamela Raith Photography
Producer Bill Kenwright’s Agatha Christie Company has been on to an absolute winner with a succession of the Queen of Crime’s mysteries, playing to packed houses around the UK and gaining rave reviews. Rebranded as the Classic Thriller Company, their current touring production, now showing at York Grand Opera House, is a staging of Edgar Wallace’s 1931 thriller The Case of the Frightened Lady.

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There is something immensely solidly baronial about Julie Godfrey’s set, the entrance hall of Marks Priory, the grand house of one of England’s most noble families.

It’s an eminently solid cast, putting in eminently solid performances. The plot, on reflection, is solidly constructed with all the bizarrely disparate and unconnected happenings eventually making complete sense once the cat is out of the bag. So why does the whole thing seem to be built on such shaky ground?

Part of the problem is that the play itself has not aged well and director Roy Marsden has done nothing to give it a modern vitality or relevance. There was a time when the prolific Edgar Wallace - creator of King Kong - was synonymous with the well-wrought mystery, pacy, tension-filled edge of the seat stuff. Long after he died, in 1932, his books were in print, his plays on stage. There were long-running t.v. series of films of his mysteries on British and German television that thrilled contemporary audiences.

Anthony Lampard’s adaptation slavishly conforms to an outmoded form of melodrama. In fact, it appears almost to be an adaptation of a 1940’s radio play. We see none of the actual action.

The unspeakable goings-on take place off stage and are reported to us in ineffably wooden dialogue. The more we are kept up to speed by sound effects, screams heralding the latest murder, rain, wind and thunder cranking up the tension, setting the desperate scene outside, the more static everything seems.

The principals either stroll or dash through the hall, depending on the exigencies of the moment, whilst a pair of servants, Brook (Callum Coates) and Gilder (Simon Desborough), hover menacingly, voyeuristically, creepily. They almost always emerge, to polite laughter from the audience, after a character has expressed a fear of being overheard.

photo by Pamela Raith Photography
Maddeningly, we are never allowed to form our own opinion of who might have done what because suspects are not so much interrogated as allowed to wander off as they please.

Former Coronation Street actor Gray O’Brien flits in and out of the proceedings, as the Chief Superintendent tasked with getting to the bottom of an escalating mystery somehow connected with past deeds in India and the preservation of the lineage of the ancient family of Lebanon.

Here, beyond a light Scottish accent, is a detective with no real colour, possessing none of the endearing mannerism of the rich galaxy of amateur sleuths we know so well, Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey, for example. He has none of the dash and the panache of a Paul Temple or a Dick Barton. Neither is he the prototype of the modern school of thoughtful, heedful inspectors, Morse, Dalgleish, Rebus et al.

We might expect more brio, too, from his sidekick of Italian extraction, the splendidly named Sergeant Totti, played straight by Oliver Phelps.

photo by Pamela Raith Photography
The eponymous character appears to be the pretty young thing, Isla, played by April Pearson, a remote cousin of the family who is being blackmailed into marrying the young Lord Lebanon, done with some becoming vigour by Ben Nealon.

Equally, however, you might say his mother, Lady Lebanon, has more to be frightened about since her knowledge of the sheer scale of what it’s all about is greater. The splendid Deborah Grant contrives a nice blend of hauteur and vulnerability in her portrayal of the grande dame.

We cannot share either woman’s fear, alas, or experience it through their eyes because this is a production that does not allow psychological insight. Our chief suspect, the womanising charlatan, Dr Amersham, is eliminated from suspicion far too early – which is a pity because veteran actor Denis Lill contrives to make him the most interesting.

The sad truth is that there are no real shocks in this old shocker, and no redeeming terminal twist.

The Case of The Frightened Lady, by Edgar Wallace, is at the Grand Opera House, York from 9th to 14th July.

The Frightened Lady In York, 10th July 2018, 18:03 PM