Writer: John Willard
Adaptor: Carl Grose
Director: Roy Marsden
Originally performed in 1922, The Cat and the Canary is billed as a comedy-thriller. And it certainly has plenty of stereotypical thriller tropes – a dark and stormy night with thunder and lightning that has a remarkable sense of timing, a creepy old hall and housekeeper, strange noises, an escaped lunatic … the list goes on. Now Carl Grose has adapted the original play for more modern times, although it is still firmly set in some sort of past version of reality where cutting phone lines will cut you off from civilisation and the idea of getting a train from Devon to London in the early hours passes without comment.
Wealthy Cyrus West hates his adult family and is quite sure they hate him too. The idea that they might inherit upsets him so much that, on his deathbed, he makes a will that cannot be read or executed for twenty years – plenty of time for the vultures of his generation to have passed on. We join the story at midnight on the twentieth anniversary of his death as the next generation gathers at his creepy mansion. He’s described as eccentric, and designer takis takes this to heart in what looks like a conventional period set, but which includes sinister motifs wherever one looks. And to underline the melodrama, there is portentous music played at times of high anxiety, provided by sound designer Don Samson.
And so the will is read and the sole heir revealed as Anabelle (Tracy Shaw). But there’s a sinister codicil – there’s a history of insanity in the family (of course!) and should the heir turn out to be insane then they are disqualified and the back-up heir will be revealed. There follows a series of incidents, including reports of an escaped lunatic on the prowl, that stretch Anabelle’s sanity – and our credulity – almost to breaking point.
Eric Carte plays the lawyer nominally in charge of proceedings as the good friend of Cyrus. He provides a reassuring voice of reason even as events pile up. Antony Costa is suitably bumbling as lovestruck and ineffectual vet, Paul, still carrying a torch for Annabelle, while the enmity between wide boy boxer Harry (Gary Webster) and over-the-top camp actor Charlie (Ben Nealon) is palpable. Britt Ekland brings a massive dose of tongue-in-cheek melodrama to proceedings as doomsayer Mrs Pleasant, talking to the spirit of Cyrus and declaring that there is evil afoot at every opportunity. Completing the lineup are Priyasasha Kumari as Cicely, the niece of Marti Webb’s Susan. Kumari pouts about the stage imperiously as she complains that a hidden West family heirloom was, in fact, stolen from India by West, while Webb brings plenty of amusement as her hopes of inheriting are dashed.
Were it not that The Cat and the Canary predates so many examples of the genre, one might almost think it was deliberately written as a parody, but this production stops just short of that point. Indeed, director Roy Marsden has wisely decided that the cast should play the whole thing straight, which serves to heighten the comedic moments as they occur – there would otherwise be a real danger of straying into pantomimic territory. There are moments that make the audience jump, but overall, the whole direction feels heavy-handed making the audience unsure as to whether the laughter they feel rise at times should be allowed free rein or stifled.
It’s not a classic and it’s certainly showing its age even after Grose’s adaptation but it is a fun night away from the TV.
Runs until 9 October 2021 and touring