Review: The Case of the Frightened Lady
By Jono Oates, Features Writer
Lichfield Garrick Main Theatre
Monday 15 October 2018
If you love watching a couple of hours of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot or Inspector Adam Dalgleish on the TV on a Sunday afternoon then you will love this production of The Case of the Frightened Lady at the Garrick this week.
It is the classic whodunit mystery thriller and with an impressive cast, which features stars from the stage and TV, an enjoyable and intriguing storyline, a killer to identify (guess!) and the ominous crash of thunder, gunshots and ladies’ screams in the background, it is a perfect way to spend an autumnal evening.
The story revolves around a murder in the stately home of the Lebanon family, who can trace their roots back to the Battle of Agincourt and beyond. The family line rests firmly on the shoulders of the only son and heir, William, who is under great pressure from his domineering widowed mother, Lady Lebanon, to marry his niece, Isla Crane, so that the family name can continue for generations to come.
William and Isla are not star-crossed lovers however and neither wants to take part in this marriage of convenience. Lady Lebanon is not someone who can easily be put off and she believes that true love is much less important than preserving the family’s ancient heritage.
William is protected by two butlers and the head of the household staff, who look after his every whim and top up his whisky tumbler at every opportunity. Despite this, William is not happy to be molly-coddled and believes that they are spying on him rather than caring for him.
The family doctor, Amersham, also has a rather unhealthy interest in William’s affairs and we discover that both men knew each other out in India. Doctor Amersham clearly knows some family secrets and wants to bring them out of the cupboard, but not all of the family members are happy to stand by and watch this happen.
Gamekeeper Jim Tilling, whose wife works as a maid for the family, is jealous of his wife’s flirting with both the amorous doctor and the handsome chauffeur, who has the appropriate name of Studd.
At a party in the grand halls of the estate, Mark’s Priory, as the loyal family servants, guests and close friends gather round to help the family celebrate, a grisly murder is committed using a weighted knotted silk scarf with references to the murder weapon used in India.
In true classic murder thriller style the next doorbell we hear announces the arrival of the inspector, in this case, Detective Inspector William Tanner with, of course, a faithful sergeant in tow, the wonderfully named Sergeant Totti (from an Italian family!). However before the inspector has a chance to investigate the murder another shocking murder takes place. With the body count rising the inspector’s patience is pushed to the limits as the Lebanon family, and loyal staff, close ranks and refuse to help him with his enquiries.
As the first act comes to a close the audience takes on the role of amateur detectives during the interval as they consider all of the suspects and come up with their own theories as to ‘whodunit’.
The second act finally reveals all in an exciting and pulsating end as the murderer is finally brought to justice – but who is the killer, what is the secret of the storage room that is always locked and, with so many to choose from, in this case surely the butler must have done it?
This production is by the suitably named Classic Thriller Theatre Company, whose producer is Bill Kenwright, and has been on tour around the country. The play was written by Edgar Wallace, who was a prolific writer and widely regarded as one of the best crime thriller writers of his era.
The cast have a wealth of experience of stage and TV behind them. Inspector Tanner is played by John Partridge, who starred as Christian Clarke on Eastenders, Deborah Grant who plays Lady Lebanon, has had a variety of TV roles including Bergerac while Robert Duncan, one of the stars of the cult comedy Drop the Dead Donkey, is the rogueish Doctor Amersham.
The play is directed by Roy Marsden who starred in the long running Adam Dalgliesh series on TV, playing a police commander and based on the novels of P.D.James. There are definitely echoes of Dalgliesh’s style in John Partridge’s precise and studied portrayal of Inspector Tanner, a detective with a very thoughtful, intelligent, logical mind but also quite prepared to stand up to the dominance of the Lebanon matriarch and the over protective butlers.
Deborah Grant is superb as the snobbish and superior Lady Lebanon, as she defiantly refuses to give up the Lebanon blood line without a fight and is a true embodiment of an upper class head of a family dynasty, as she throws out withering put-downs and ‘pull-yourself together’ remarks.
Matt Barber, one of the stars of Downton Abbey, plays the son and heir Lord Lebanon. Tall and charming, he is excellent as he moves from the foppish hooray-henry to the anguished reluctant heir with the whole weight of the Lebanon family history on his shoulders.
Robert Duncan plays the oily, philandering, can’t-keep-his-hands-to-himself Doctor Amersham with aplomb, with lecherous looks at every turn and providing the ideal caricature of the doctor with a very unhealthy bedside manner.
Scarlett Archer, who has previously starred in Emmerdale, is pretty and engaging as Isla, the reluctant bride to be and has a very nice line in piercing screams and floods of tears although she also displays a steely side as she is not afraid to stand up to her (potential) mother in law.
Matt Lacey, who stars as Ben in the Lichfield based comedy Cuckoo, plays the dutiful Sergeant Totti with easy charm and there is some nice one-liners between his character and the rather foreboding Chief Inspector.
Robert Lowrie, star of yet another of the TV soaps, Coronation Street, is the head of household staff Kelver and Simon Desborough and Angus Brown are the two butlers, Gilder and Brook. This trio of front of house staff are excellent as they play their roles of subservient servants but with an element of ‘don’t mess with me just because you are upper class and I am lower class’. They know their place but they are also prepared to ruffle the feathers of the aristocracy at any opportunity. They spar with the upper classes and it is hard to work out if they are protecting their masters or plotting to overthrow them. At one stage the inspector askes them about their own family’s and Brook replies ‘The Lebanon’s are our family’ which tells us much about the relationship between the servants and the masters in 1920’s England. Strong support also comes from Rosie Thomas and Gwnfor Jones as Mr and Mrs Tilling, and Joshua Wichard as the chauffeur Studd.
As well as being an excellent period crime thriller The Frightened Lady with murders, red herrings, plot twists, screams and gunshots this is also a lovely view of a former time, of Edwardian etiquette and manners, of the class system divide between the masters and servants and also the ending of that particular era, as the great Victorian family dynasties started to die out. This is what I liked about this play, in the same way that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot take you back to another, forgotten and perhaps more glamorous era, this play also takes you back to that time.
The Box Office have told me that tickets are nearly all gone for Friday and Saturday evening performances, I would definitely recommend that you book for the remaining night’s (or the Saturday matinee) as the Case of the Frightened Lady will have you on the edge of your seats and live theatre with an exceptional cast is a much better way to see a classic murder mystery than an hour of Poirot on the TV!
The Case of the Frightened Lady runs nightly, at 7.30pm, at the Lichfield Garrick Garrick Main Studio, until Saturday 20 October with a 2.30pm matinee on Saturday.
Ticket prices start at £24 per person and are available from the Garrick Box Office, ring 01543 412121, or book online at: www.lichfieldgarrick.com