Writer: John Willard
Adaptation: Carl Grose
Director: Roy Marsden
Matters surrounding The Cat and the Canary ask as many questions as the actual text which makes us puzzle over who is the villain, who the victim, where the natural ends and the supernatural begins and – most pertinently of all –what crime is actually being committed. Around the play the questions centre on the receding presence of John Willard. He was the American playwright who came up with a humdinger of a hit on Broadway in 1922, but found it then had a life of its own in various transformations. In 1939 the most famous of various film adaptations had Bob Hope wisecracking his way through a “strictly for laughs” version set in the swamps of Louisiana; this new version by Carl Grose, being toured by the Classic Thriller Theatre Company, transports the action to that home of haunted manor houses, Bodmin Moor.
The result is that we feel ourselves immediately in Christieland, that timeless country where convicts and lunatics roam loose, thunderstorms arrive on cue and sweet old ladies discover that other sweet old ladies are murderers. The characters are British stereotypes, but in fact it’s a different sort of play from the classic British mysteries. The red herrings are no more than kippers and what matters are the horrors, the terrors and – even without Bob Hope’s wisecracks – the sly insertion of tongue in cheek.
The family – widespread, not all knowing each other – is summoned to appear at Glenthorne Manor to hear the reading of the fabulously wealthy Mr. West’s will 20 years after his death. His devoted housekeeper Mrs. Pleasant (Britt Ekland, kindly, yet somehow menacing), a firm believer in ghosts and in the Evil that lurks in the house, ushers in the lawyer Roger Crosby (Eric Carte, to the manner born) and the prospective heirs. East End Jack the Lad Harry (Gary Webster) can’t stand flamboyant actor Charlie (Ben Nealon) and both are devoted to Annabelle (Tracy Shaw) as is the gauche and indecisive vet Paul (Antony Costa). The teetotal Susan Sillsby (Marti Webb, demure sober, acid when she takes to drink) is accompanied by her adoptive niece Cicily (Priyasasha Kumari), really an Indian princess whose family jewels have been stolen by West – The Moonstone meets The Mousetrap!
The clichés pile up, but the overall effect is more polished and more enjoyable than that suggests. Designer takis’ manor house library is a splendid setting and for much of the play the frissons of fright owe more to the booms, bangs and flashes of Chris Davey (lighting) and Dan Samson (sound) than to the characters. But, in Roy Marsden’s traditional production, the performances gradually establish a subtle self-parody, Shaw the poised heroine when not letting off screams like a demented air raid siren, Nealon and Webster more real (especially in scenes with Shaw) than their opening posturing suggests, Costa – best of all – managing to underplay very successfully the scenes in between the pratfalls and the terrified yells.
It’s all nonsense, of course, but by the time the multiple twists screw the audience to the sticking point it’s fun, with a fair few frights. Roy Marsden’s production, despite some awkward blocking, very democratically gives all the main actors their moments in the sun.
Apparently the Broadway production was the first to ask audiences not to reveal how it ended; we glow with virtue for not even revealing who the first heir(ess) is – yes, there’s more than one!
Runs until 27th November 2021