The Watermill at Newbury is one of those small gems, a producing house that turns out great theatre in a small space for a loyal audience base. Every visit to the old mill sees the stage transformed into a different space as a setting for the productions. On this occasion we are transported to a dark chaotic detective’s office in which we meet the detective and a host of suspects.
The musical was written as parody, Raymond Chandler meets Cluedo. What sets this production as different from the normal murder mystery genre is that all the suspects are played by one actor played by Jeremy Legat and he interacts with the aspiring detective played by Ed MacArthur. Much of this interaction takes place around the upright piano they both play which faces upstage and the story unfolds with a limited number of props, a door to set the room and hats to distinguish characters.
This has been done before with multiple characters played in quick succession by the same actors. The outstanding “39 Steps” executes this with just four actors to great effect and the recent “Ben Hur” production at the Tricycle Theatre and Watermill tried the same model. It requires a staging, props and direction that assist the hard working actors in conveying the location and characters. In “Murder for two” the two excellent actors are let down by a restrictive setting and inadequate direction to make the show work as slickly as it needs to succeed. There are too many suspects and they are not distinctive enough or given enough time to be established.
The placing of TV screens on the set showing the keyboard almost recognisesthe limitation created by the placing of the piano, requiring the actors to lean back and look over their shoulders to engage the audience. The music, 11 original songs by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, is fun and amusing but the playing of it by the actors is not additive in the way successful productions of “Sunset Boulevard” or “Once” have incorporated instruments played by actors.
Having said that Jeremy Legat and Ed MacArthur work very hard with great energy and enjoyment and still create plenty of laughs and it feels like work in progress that could yet be transformed into another “39 steps”.
The play transfers to The Other Place for a short run on 2nd March.