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Review by Carla Melaco.
I will set the scene. The year is 1978, the setting is the Coverdale’s family home. All four of them lay dead; it is the job of detectives Vetch and Challoner to find the killer. Was it Eva Baalham, the cook and maid? Or Rodger Meadows, the ex-convict turner gardener, who had a fancy for Melinda Coverdale? Perhaps it was Joan Smith, ex-prostitute, accused of opening the Coverdales’ post? Or could it be the unsuspecting Eunice Parchman, their new housekeeper?
The mystery was gripping; however, it was easy to look beyond the murder mystery and detective plot, and further into the characters on stage.
It played with religious ideas, with Joan Smith (the local post office owner and general gossip) praising the Lord for her redemption. Her all-singing, all-dancing musical number was a spectacular end to the first half. It provided much-needed comic relief against a backdrop of serious tones.
However, beneath the comedic representation of strongly religious figures lay an underlying sense of morality. It questioned whether religion could really bring repentance or whether it was a superficial belief; that by going to church and repeating its teachings one becomes a better, more moral individual.
One particularly interesting character was the son of the Coverdales – Giles. Played by the young Joshua Price, he was extremely quiet; almost an outcast of the family. He certainly did not seem to exhibit the ostentatious nature of the other family members. Perhaps it was this lack of vanity, this lack of comprehension of the class system, which made him such an intriguing character. Personally, I would have loved to see his character developed further.
As for subplots, although they did at times detract from the main plot, the careful interweaving of storyline made it into more than a murder mystery. Rather, it played on the role of gossip, class struggles and tensions between individuals. The play was written and set in the 1970s, at a time where class divides – which originated from pre-Victorian, ‘upstairs-downstairs’ tensions – were still evident. However, it begged the question; is this class system still evident today? Could this play – written over 40 years ago – still provide a reflection on our modern ideas and attitudes towards class?
In fact, one could say it was a microcosm of our own society. Reminiscent of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, the characters included a maid, an ex-convict and a middle class family. Completely at odds with each other in terms of educational and socio-economic status, the characters were polar opposites, which in itself was enough to cause underlying resentment and antipathy. In fact, Priestley’s post-World War II play employs very similar thematic and technical devices. Both focus upon an intimate family setting, allowing a look into the private thoughts and lives of the individuals represented on stage. Meanwhile, both use a detective plot to unravel the mystery of a death, introducing ideas about justice and morality.
All the scenes take place within the family home, with the action slipping between the present (the detectives discussing the events at the scene of the crime) and the past (the events leading up to the murder, replayed in a flashback-style manner). This seamless interweaving of time added to the rising tension of the play; constantly dropping clues for the audiences to pick up on.
The venue – Theatre Royal, Newcastle – provided the ideal backdrop for the elegance and grandeur of the set design. With a set composed of a grand family home, complete with floor-to-ceiling mahogany cabinets, it was certainly in keeping with the traditional design of Newcastle’s oldest theatre.
In all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable night with the audience transported back to 40 years ago, whilst the themes presented on stage still managed to ring true today.