House Guest by the Lichfield Players
Lichfield Garrick Studio Theatre
Wednesday 29 January 2020
By theatre reviewer Jono Oates
Please Dad…please can we have a colour TV? No – it’s a passing fad son, they won’t last. But please Dad – I’m the only one in my class whose house hasn’t got a colour TV. They’re too expensive lad – we’ll wait 12 months until they come down in price…
So it was that we gathered round an old 12 inch black and white TV to watch our daily fix of 1970s TV shows while every other house in the street was bathed in glorious technicolour rainbow TVs. But somehow it didn’t seem to matter when the imperious Morecambe and Wise appeared at 8pm on a Saturday night when they were brilliant in either full colour or monochrome. One of their regular guest stars was the very smooth Francis Matthews who was the star of the hit TV show Paul Temple about a private detective. In typical fashion every time Matthews appeared Eric mischievously ‘renamed’ his character as Paul Pimple, becoming a running gag.
Paul Temple was written by another Francis, this time France Durbridge who was a prolific writer for the screen and stage and also wrote other 40 books. He usual genre was murder mysteries and he was responsible for writing the latest production from the Lichfield Players – House Guest.
House Guest is classic Durbridge but is also typical of the classic murder mystery, whodunnit, suspense thrillers which were common place in the 1970s when, whether in colour or black and white, the whole family would sit in front of the telly and try to work out who the killer was before the final credits rolled.
The plot has the usual mix of ‘is he a goody or is he a baddy’ characters, red herrings, cross and double-cross, misunderstandings and twist in the tail endings.
Set in the Drury family home in a fashionable area of London, Stella Drury is chatting to the family’s secretary when her husband, Roger, returns home from an overseas trip to Italy with disturbing and terrifying news. During the trip their young son, Mike, was kidnapped by a shadowy and mysterious gang led by a man called Crozier. Roger is a very well known, and wealthy, actor however the gang are not demanding a ransom for the young boy but instead are using him as a pawn in an attempt to blackmail Roger to take part in a scam that will bring them a much bigger financial prize.
When the menacing Crozier arrives at the house shortly afterwards he promises the terrified parents that he will safely return their son if they go along with the scam – and if they will allow him to stay in their home for the next two days therefore becoming the most unwelcome and unwanted…House Guest.
To complicate matters further Police Inspector Burford, along with burly Sergeant Clayton, soon make an appearance who are hot on the heels of bad guy Crozier, followed later by an East End bruiser, Philip Henderson who also bears an uncanny resemblance to Roger Drury. As the Drury’s become more and more panic stricken, and they start to receive mumbled phone calls supposedly from their kidnapped son Mike, complications set in, good guys reveal themselves as bad guys and murder is definitely on the menu. But…will the Drury’s get to see their kidnapped son again, will the real baddies be unmasked…and will any of them get their hands on the ill-gotten gains?
This performance by the Lichfield Players group is an excellent recreation of a murder mystery that the Oates family would have witnessed gathered round the old black and white telly on a Saturday night in 1971, watching Durbridge’s Paul Temple . There is no attempt here, quite rightly, to drag the time period in to the 2020s, it is set very firmly in the 1970s, with the appropriate stage set, costume and props – including one of the classic slimline rotary dial Trimphones which seemed to be so chic and modern back in the day!
The exasperated and increasingly desperate Robert Drury is played by Richard Bannister and his near hysterical partner Stella by Nicola Peace, both showing the emotions of a husband and wife in torment over the potential fate of their only son. Stephen Brunton as Crozier, Bryn Fowler as ‘Sergeant’ Clayton and Peter Carrington-Porter as the malevolent and cunning Burford all bring simmering threats and menace to their roles and Bernard Christian as Philip Henderson is convincing as the stereotypical East End thug, all Michael Caine glasses, chunky gold bracelet and Ray Winstone fur-collared coat.
Secretary Jane Mercer is played by Adrienne Swallow and Hannah Weaver is Vivien Norwood who is a journalist sent to interview Roger Drury…or so it seems. Pauline Fowler has great fun playing family friend ‘dotty’ Dorothy Medway with a delightful cameo performance.
Directed by Dickie Bannister-Lowe in an easy and uncomplicated style, his cast are clearly enjoying themselves on stage, despite the murder and mayhem, and cover up one or two small glitches with clever ad-libs that made the actors, as well as the audience, smile.
Although this a classic, dark, murder mystery, with screams in the night and some realistic acts of violence, it also contains some delightfully dark humour and several clever one-liners which definitely raised a laugh from the audience.
In the days of CGI and animation, of gizmos and hi-tech it was a pleasure to sit and watch a ‘proper’ stage play, with an enthusiastic and dedicated cast, a superbly crafted script from a prolific writer, and an ending that kept you guessing right up to the close.
The Studio theatre was a sell out on Wednesday night and, for the duration of the play, it kept everyone’s full attention which is testament to the success of the performance. The only murmurings were heard when the lights went down between set changes and I could hear the whispered conservations of the couples around me who were convinced they knew whodunnit…’It’s definitely Roger who’s the baddy..’…’No, no it can’t be…I think it’s the secretary…there isn’t a butler…so it must be her…’. This is a true sign that everyone was engaged and fully involved in the performance.
As I sat watching House Guest it took me back, right back to my 1970s childhood…watching The Generation Game with Brucie on Saturday night while enjoying a rare Chinese takeaway ‘treat’ followed by an Elephant’s Foot cream cake from Hindley’s, then laughing ourselves silly at the antics of Morecambe and Wise as Eric taunted France Matthew’s about Durbridge’s Paul ‘Pimple’ one more time. Happy days and happy memories.
House Guest is the perfect way to bring back those memories of the 1970s golden era of the classic TV and stage murder mystery and, even if you’re too young to remember them, it will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat and trying to guess the outcome in true Poirot, or Miss Marple, style.
House Guest by the Lichfield Players plays in the Studio Theatre at the Lichfield Garrick until Saturday 1 February. Performances start at 7.45pm and there is an afternoon matinee starting at 2.45pm on Saturday.
Tickets start at £13 and are available from the Garrick Box Office on Castle Dyke, ring 01543 412121, or visit: www.lichfieldgarrick.com