first night

The Unexpected Guest

Michael Nower enjoys an Agatha Christie murder mystery as FHTC present their latest production.

An Agatha Christie murder mystery, such as An Unexpected Guest, is never particularly easy to put on well. However, despite some issues that detracted from the production, Foot of the Hill Theatre Company (FHTC) managed to produce an enjoyable evening's entertainment for both myself and the nearly full house.

From a technical point of view, St. Mary's dining hall is not the ideal venue. However, the technical team coped well with the difficulties intrinsic in such a location. There were some issues with the consistency of the lighting, with stage right much better lit than stage left, and refocusing of the house left lighting stand during setup for future performances should do much to correct this. With such a limited lighting setup it is particularly important for the cast to stand in the spotlights when they are used, as there were several instances of the cast being half in shadow, which, with the limited flexibility of the venue, is not something a technical team alone can easily solve. Sound-wise the production was well done, although one aspect the technicians needed to bear in mind was the tendency for a room full of audience members to absorb sound, which made some sound effects difficult to hear, particularly when there was intense dialogue on the stage.

Moving on to the producers’ (Elena Hofmann and assistant Immy Wilson) side of things I need to address the issue of time periods. The main drawback of the costumes and props was the lack of consistency of time period. Some costumes, such as those worn by the characters of Jan, Laura, Michael and Miss Bennett were perfect for the time period, and yet others, mainly the police officers, but also to a certain extent Angell, were very much at odds with the period setting. Props and furniture were, in the main, well selected and fitted well with the setting, with the notable exception of the revolver. For future performances it would be well worth swapping the two revolvers round so that, for the majority of the show, the audience are not watching a gun with obvious parts missing.

On the whole the performances in the production were somewhat uneven. On the one hand there were some excellent performances, even though these often only served to highlight some of the less confident performers. One of the standout performances of the evening came from Emily Georgina (Miss Bennett). Her characterisation was superb, and she injected a real subtlety into her role. Additionally, whenever she came on stage the energy levels were immediately lifted, and the other cast members seemed to ease into their roles to a greater extent than in other scenes. This was particularly noticeable in the second scene between Georgina and Will Groome (Jan Warwick). This scene was for me one of the highlights of the show and the slickness and professionalism of the scene was impressive, as was the commitment of Groome to his stutter throughout (most of) the performance. Victor So (Michael Starkwedder) had arguably one of the more difficult roles, as often the character is the driving force behind the plot progression. Although in the main this was well executed, I felt that in some of the more emotional scenes later on, a greater change in character was needed. This was also something that would benefit Izzy Sykes (Laura Warwick). Although her characterisation worked well for many scenes, there was too little variation across the course of the show. The initial scenes between her and So would also have benefitted from some more rehearsal, as a lack of confidence in both lines and blocking led to a extremely slow start to the production, which could cause the audience to disengage before some of the better performances later on in the show.

For me the main limitations in the production in acting terms were found in some of the supporting cast. Although Alice Chambers (Mrs Warwick), Henry Meech (Julian Farrar) and Martin Docherty (Henry Angell) all gave solid performances in places, this was not at all consistent and for large parts of the production their performances lacked much emotion and subtlety. In the defence of Docherty, he stepped into the role with less than two days to go, but he still needs to add emotion to large parts of the performance. Furthermore, the two police officers must consider that, despite being some of the less emotionally engaged characters, there still needs to be variation in the performances as the show progresses. Although this was less of an issue for Luke Ainscow (Sgt. Cadwallader) than for Vankshita Mishra (Inspector Thomas), it is something that they should both consider in the future. One performance in the supporting cast that was well done was that of Josh McKinnon (Richard Warwick). Given that the part was small and he too stepped into the role, he managed to inject a real energy into his performance and, although this sometimes strayed close to overacting, this suited the character well.

In general the blocking of the production was executed well, particularly for a first-time director (Stacey Cockram), and the small stage was well used. However, one slightly poor decision was to place the drinks table so far back on the stage, which drew the action away from the audience for many of the starting scenes. Another slightly confusing decision in much of the first half of the production was the many occasions where the cast would stand up for seemingly no reason and move to another chair, only to immediately sit down again. While this may have been done to inject some energy into the scenes, it was distracting as an audience member, and made it difficult to fully engage with the key dialogue. In general, the first act of the production lacked both the energy and conviction of the second act, which may have been down to first-night jitters, but is something for the cast to bear in mind for future performances.

Overall, despite some of the productions limitations, I did enjoy myself, thanks to the skill with which some of the later key scenes were done. That said, some additional rehearsing of the first half of the play, and more subtlety in some of the acting, would significantly improve the production, and ensure that audiences can enjoy both acts to the same degree.

5 March 2017

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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