Old-fashioned pleasures in revival of classic whodunnit on Portsmouth stage

The Case Of The Frightened Lady by Edgar Wallace, Portsmouth's New Theatre Royal from October 29-November 3.

Monday, 29th October 2018, 11:05 pm
Updated Tuesday, 30th October 2018, 4:17 am
The Case Of The Frightened Lady
The Case Of The Frightened Lady

At the peak of his writing career, one of Edgar Wallace’s publishers apparently claimed that a quarter of all the books being read in England at that time had been written by Wallace.

Odd then that he has slumped into such total obscurity, not much more than a name you’ve vaguely heard of. You’d struggle to find anyone who could reel off the title of… well, even one of his 175 or so novels.

But with their revival of The Case Of The Frightened Lady, The Classic Thriller Company make a skilled and persuasive case for his resurrection as a playwright at the very least.

The piece gets off to the oddest and most frenetic of starts, a merry-go-round of fancy-dressed characters whom we do no know yet, passing quickly and bewilderingly before our eyes. If the director is making a point, it’s difficult to tell what it is.

But then, with the play’s first murder and the appearance of the excellent John Partridge as our detective for the night, everything settles down into a conventionally-enjoyable tightening of tensions as motives are heaped up, dark secrets are hinted at and blackguardly behaviour is implied.

A cast of servants is seemingly everywhere and all-seeing; the twittish heir (Matt Barber as Lord Lebanon) doesn’t seem to be taking it all anywhere near as seriously as he ought to; and the matriarch Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant) is rather overly fixated on the family’s succession.

Caught in the middle of it all and with every reason to scream regularly is poor Isla (Scarlett Archer).

The company cleverly conjure a sense of foreboding, and it’s not long before there’s another victim (and fair enough – this one most definitely had it coming).

It’s all very nicely done, with perhaps the greatest satisfaction the fact that the pleasures are all so reassuringly old-fashioned.

If the play creaks, it creaks most welcomingly. How lovely not to be watching a high-tech thriller with constant computer tracking and endless texting. Here it is purely human interaction which draws us in, inching us into the heart of the blackest of secrets.

Directed by Roy Marsden, The Case Of The Frightened Lady is a thriller founded on good old-fashioned craftmanship – which is precisely why it works so well.