Rehearsal for Murder (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Rehearsal for Murder (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, July 16th)

A good old-fashioned thriller, with some great twists and turns, is the perfect way to launch The Classic Thriller Theatre Company, and is bound to leave even the keenest amateur sleuths wrong-footed.

After ten years of taking Agatha Christie plays out on the road, Bill Kenwright’s first class creative team is beginning its new chapter with a new name so it can get its hands on some other thriller gems. The first very worthy offering is Rehearsal for Murder, which brings back some familiar faces for an entertaining and often nail-biting production.

The writers of the whodunit, William Link and Richard Levinson, have been called the Mr. Rolls and Mr. Royce of American television (having penned such familiar series as Columbo and Murder, She Wrote) and while this play might not quite be vintage, it’s certainly a quality model that’s worth the ride.

The piece started life in 1982 as a TV Movie starring Robert Preston and Lynn Redgrave. The stage version – originally called Killing Jessica, and produced in the West End 30 years ago starring Patrick Macnee – was adapted by Broadway playwright David Rogers, who made the most of theatrical devices and clichés for neat light relief as well as to rack up the tension.  There’s also plenty of well-aimed potshots at theatre types, critics, and whodunit conventions.

It’s odd that it hasn’t been seen much since. The London production at the Savoy had a respectable run, and in the hands of a quality cast, as here, it’s a far from creaky drama that manages to leave its audience guessing right up till the denouement.

One year on from the fateful night when a famous film actress apparently kills herself after getting bad reviews for a new play, her playwright fiancé tries to uncover the truth, suspecting that she has, in fact, been murdered.

Alex Ferns is strong as the writer, Alex Dennison, who tries to prove his suspicions by writing a murder mystery play featuring all those who could just have been responsible for the death. Ferns has a wonderful veneer of calm, which only thinly veils a manic desire for justice.

As always with this company, the production is a well-crafted ensemble piece in which every performer is solid and contributes their own strengths to the whole. Susie Amy is perfect as the glamorous Monica, whose heart of steel might have led to her demise; Mark Wynter raises some titters as the old ham whose whole life seems to be one long twinkling melodrama; Gary Mavers  is likeable as the down to earth director; and Ben Nealon and Lauren Drummond make the very best of their sparky relationship on and off the stage.

If one performer deserves special mention then Anita Harris scores very well indeed as the anxious theatre producer with an eye on the finances as well as on the reviews. We get to see her acting all too rarely so let’s hope she’ll be a regular with this new-look company.

Roy Marsden directs with a gentleness the play deserves and demands, capturing all of the energy and emotions which gel to create such a suspenseful and taut atmosphere.

It may all be a bit on the mild side for some, but whodunit fans will love the way the story builds up and the twists are delivered. All in all, a very good start for a company which we hope will bring us plenty more of the same in the future.

 Picture: Leeds Grand Theatre