SIDMOUTH – SIDMOUTH SUMMER PLAY FESTIVAL
MANOR PAVILION THEATRE
2 hours 35 minutes – 1 interval
Manor Pavilion Theatre Box Office – 01395 514413
REVIEW – CORMAC RICHARDS – 26 AUGUST 2021
The Occult, mental health issues and drug addiction. Not your usual subject matters for a comic thriller or, indeed, for a work by Agatha Christie, but they all feature in ‘Spider’s Web’.
Margaret Lockwood was a luminescent British film star of the 1940s and 1950s; in films like ‘The Wicked Lady’ and ‘The Man in Grey’ she was cast as the villain which she portrayed with relish. Feeling she had become typecast she reached out to Agatha Christie – of whose work she was a fan – to write a role for her which might gain her more sympathy and offer comic relief. For ‘The Queen of Crime’ this was something of a challenge; not used to creating parts for specific actors ‘Spider’s Web’ would also be unusual for not being based on one of her own novels. Lockwood, as Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, opened the play in 1954 and stayed with it for 15 months – it was a success and continued with new actors and, subsequently, a film with Glynis Johns in the lead.
As ever, with Christie, the plotting is intricate and, in this play, particularly unfathomable, but there is a different, aforementioned, element in the deliberate comic approach. In this production, director, Andrew Beckett, has taken his cast on a journey through the theatrical genres; the murder mystery, drama, comedy, melodrama, farce, pantomime, tragedy…..you can tick them off and the blend works like a dream. This is first-rate production of a play which does creak a little, but, with this assured cast, it is thoroughly enjoyable.
Stephanie Willson as Clarissa has an absolute ball. She is perfect as the popular and lovable hostess who is prone to fantasy and story-telling; her final confession of the ‘truth’ of what happened in her house on the night in question, is a melodramatic tour-de-force and very funny to boot. James Pellow wears the role of Clarissa’s guardian, Sir Rowland, like a comfortable cardigan; acting of great ease and assurance. Paul Cleveland imbues Hugo Birch with shades of Nigel Bruce – the actor best known as Dr Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes – he doesn’t miss a chance to bring out comedy in word or deed. Likewise, there is a touch of Terry-Thomas about Matthew Hartley’s Jeremy Warrender – a highly entertaining ‘silly ass’. Sarah Dearlove creates a quite wonderful Mrs Peak and uses her loud and irritating laugh to great effect. Mark Laverty is wonderfully obtuse as the butler, Elgin and Josh Coley gives Costello just the right amount of sleaze while Lexi Powell is extremely convincing as the young step-daughter of Clarissa.
Trying to separate fabrication from fact, Christopher Lyne as Inspector Lord, doesn’t miss a chance to elicit comedy from the role – he uses the pause with great skill. Dominic McChesney plays two roles – Clarissa’s husband and Constable Jones – though it is almost impossible to tell it is the same actor. His note taking during Clarissa’s description of events is an exquisite scene-stealer.
This is an ensemble who are all pulling in the same direction with their tongues firmly placed in their cheeks. This is the perfect way to perform this particular work, it isn’t trying to send it up, but to squeeze every ounce of humour and entertainment out of it.
The production is played at some pace, but some of the longeurs in the script do make you want the writer to get on with it. A small niggle.
Andrew Beckett designs all the sets at the Summer Season and this is another excellent one, but it is his direction which really stands out here.
It was wonderful to see the Manor Pavilion Theatre with its largest audience of the Season; let us hope people continue to return to support this theatrical treat.
SIR ROWLAND DELAHAYE – JAMES PELLOW
HUGO BIRCH – PAUL CLEVELAND
JEREMY WARRENDER – MATTHEW HARTLEY
CLARISSA HAILSHAM-BROWN – STEPHANIE WILLSON
PIPPA HAILSHAM-BROWN – LEXI POWELL
MILDRED PEAK – SARAH DEARLOVE
ELGIN – MARK LAVERTY
OLIVER COSTELLO – JOSH COLEY
HENRY HAILSHAM-BROWN – DOMINIC McCHESNEY
INSPECTOR LORD – CHRISTOPHER LYNE
CONSTABLE JONES – DOMINIC McCHESNEY
WRITER – AGATHA CHRISTIE
DIRECTOR – ANDREW BECKETT
DESIGN – ANDREW BECKETT
LIGHTING & SOUND OPERATION & DESIGN – STAGE TECHNICAL SERVICES LTD.
COSTUME SUPERVISOR – JANET HUCKLE
SEASON PRODUCER – PAUL TAYLOR-MILLS