Writer and Director: John Goodrun
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
‘Gentleman thief’ Arthur J. Raffles was introduced in a collection of short stories by E. W. Hornung in the late Victorian period, not long after the world first became acquainted with the work of Hornung’s brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
Although Raffles has not matched the continued impact of Holmes on future generations, the character featured in occasional film and television adaptations throughout the 20th Century.
The theatre has held fewer appearances for the classic character; however, with this new play by writer John Goodrum reuniting Raffles with his sidekick Bunny Manders on the stage for the first time in over 100 years.
Goodrum blends four of Hornung’s original short stories into one new adventure and the idea is promising. Unfortunately, the concept is let down in its execution and the new narrative feels disjointed, never quite flowing together into a compelling plot in its own right.
Taking place after the events of Hornung’s A Gift of the Emperor, in which Raffles is presumed drowned after being exposed during the attempted theft of a precious pearl, the play opens with Harry ‘Bunny’ Manders’ release from prison and his receipt of a telegram suggesting he attend an interview for a position in the home of the mysterious Mr Maturin (as featured in the short storyNo Sinecure). What follows has all the hallmarks of a classic thriller; disguises, secret identities, jewel thefts, murder. Alas, any sense of mystery or excitement is absent as the plot unfolds in a series of monologues and expository voiceovers that drain the scenes of the tension that could have been created by following that old rule of writing; ‘show, don’t tell’.
In fact, the audience are shown very little of the main events throughout. The tale of Raffles’ former love, Faustina, is relayed entirely as one long speech, with occasional sound effects and exaggerated Italian accents. Although billed as a ‘sparkling whodunnit’, the whodunnit element lasts barely 10 seconds before the culprit is revealed and the predictable conclusion suffers from there being such a small cast of characters.
Nicholas Gilbrook is suitably suave as the title character and David Gilbrook channels Fagin in an enjoyable turn as Jock Baird. Although Bunny was always written as the more naive of the duo, from Ian Sharrock’s performance he appears rather dimwitted. It is difficult to imagine this Bunny as a journalist and the chronicler of Raffles’ exploits, a conceit introduced in the opening scene at a typewriter but quickly forgotten.
Goodrum uses much of Hornung’s original dialogue and, as such, the play may be best enjoyed by those familiar with the original works and interested to see how the stories translate to the stage.
There is the potential for a more interesting radio drama but, as a piece of theatre, it is disappointing and lacks the dramatic tension or thrills one expects from a show billing itself as a ‘mystery’. The only real mystery is how such tales of murder and thievery could hold such little action.
Runs until 6 September 2016, then touring | Image: Contributed