I had the great joy of going to see Murdered to Death by Peter Gordon as performed by The Chameleon Theatre Group on Saturday 28th October. What with the Book Fair in the morning, it was a busy day but a hugely enjoyable one and the show rounded things off beautifully.
How can you tell if something is a spoof? I always look for tautology in the title! It is done for exaggeration (a great comic technique). I can’t think of any other genre where the “To Death” bit would be added. It certainly wouldn’t be in crime fiction, where murder generally is taken very seriously!
Image Credit: Liz Strevens and Marilyn Dunbar
Also many thanks to Lionel Elliott for supplying the images to Chandler’s Ford Today.
I love stories for the wide range of topics they cover, the formats they come in (it’s always good to have a choice) but with spoofs and farces, you could argue that this is where stories send up other stories! I love that.
Sure enough, in Murdered to Death every Agatha Christie cliche you could think of was in the show somewhere. It was no coincidence one character, Pierre Marceau (played by Matthew Meehan) had a Hercule Poirot moustache and twirled it regularly throughout the performance!
Likewise, a character called Miss Joan Maple (played by Sian Hayden) rang a number of very loud bells with this Agatha Christie fan too! (Favourite book by her for me is Murder on the Orient Express. Don’t know yet if I’ll see the film but I did think the David Suchet adaptation of this was excellent and an interesting take on the story.).
Another nice link is in the books the name Craddock appears as a highly efficient Inspector who has great respect for Miss Marple. In the spoof, he is the crusty military gentleman played by Geoff Dodsworth. I can only assume that was meant as an in-joke for fans of Agatha Christie.
So another common trait in spoofs then is the character send up. Sometimes it can also be a send up of bad writing (so writers beware!). Spoofs are also one of the few areas where deliberate ham acting is essential to the show. (For my money, the two major roles available to actors to ham it up, have a ball doing so and get away with it are Mr Toad in Wind of the Willows and Cruella de Ville in 101 Dalmatians. Both over the top characters calling for over the top performances).
Another common trait in spoofs is to have either joke names for the characters or a name that will raise a laugh (which is not quite the same thing). In Murdered to Death, Nick Coleman plays Inspector Pratt. Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the name Pratt of course. However, when the Inspector is a bumbling idiot, as he is in the show here, the name becomes a big part of the joke. You also don’t want to be anywhere near Inspector Pratt when he has a gun, as his sidekick, Constable Thompkins, would confirm (she was played by Fiona Winchester).
Character types are sent up in spoofs too. As mentioned already, there’s the crusty old military type (Colonel Craddock) and the upper class lady of leisure (Elizabeth Hartley-Trumpington as played by Lisa Dunbar). The lady of the house, Mildred (as played by Liz Strevens), is the murder victim and naturally her heir, Dorothy, (played by Kayleigh Fagence) comes under suspicion. Dorothy also ends up being killed.
The drunk butler, Bunting, is played by Stuart Weinberg, who managed to be incompetent yet also get away with some very sarcastic comments that went well above Mildred’s head (but not Dorothy’s).
As ever with this kind of story, it turns out everyone has a motive to murder Mildred – and we also find out what the Colonel got up to behind his wife’s back too for many years. His wife, Margaret Craddock (played by Carrie Laythorpe), is none too pleased when she finds out. I don’t want to give away who did kill Mildred and Dorothy (Ben Williams has in his excellent review!) but I didn’t see it coming. The one I did suspect was a logical choice but logic doesn’t always reign supreme, especially in a spoof.
Naturally none of the characters (bar Inspector Pratt who really is a prat) are what they seem to be but this is true for the character types like these as portrayed by the Queen of Crime herself. I believe Agatha Christie used “standard” characters as representations and these can act as shorthand for a writer. The reader will generally know the character type, the writer does not need to explain further and can get straight on to the action of the story. This is true for the spoof too.
The jokes are not complicated. Nor would the fan of the spoof want them to be. We’re after uncomplicated comedy and a good story to go with it. It is a bit ironic then that a murder mystery lends itself so well to a spoof (given the horrific nature of murder) but the fact is they do work well in this format. Why? Because nobody is taking the story seriously (unlike a real murder of course). Maybe, as well sometimes, we do need to laugh at things we know deep down are horrible. A spoof can be a good outlet for that.
The audience also got a chance to join in with the detective work. Papers were given out to everyone to write down who they thought the killer was and these had to be handed in at the interval. The prize for getting it right was free tickets to the Chameleons’ pantomime in January.
Until I started looking into some background material for this post, I hadn’t realised Inspector Pratt stars in three plays by Peter Gordon. The bumbling officer of the law also put me in mind of the greatest portrayal of this to my mind – Clouseau by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films. (Favourite of mine there: probably A Shot in the Dark).
Favourite moments of Murdered to Death? Constable Thompkins as the sensible one (and the one who really detects who the killer is, with assistance, naturally from Miss Maple) and her stoic nature despite getting shot twice by her own inspector. Being taken by surprise at who the killer was and why (this was very well thought out).
Almost every line by Inspector Pratt as they all raised a huge laugh. I’m just glad I’m unlikely to be visited by the unforgettable Inspector Pratt – once met, never forgotten, given once he’s armed he’s a menace to all.
There were some marvellous spoonerisms, which Ben picks up on in his review.
Miss Maple woefully remarking she seems to attract bad luck wherever she goes given murders seem to happen. (How many times have people made that joke of Miss Marple and St. Mary Mead, Midsomer Murders etc? Good to see it acknowledged in a production!). Miss Maple inviting herself to the dinner that is the reason for the people coming to the house and doing so without any sense of shame or embarrassment (which could not be said for her reluctant host, Mildred).
I love a good comedy and this was a fine one, very well performed (to a packed house) and highly enjoyable.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.