Image Credits: Some images created in Book Brush using screenshots and/or Pixabay photos. A huge thanks to The Chameleon Theatre Group for kind permission to use their photos.
It is always a pleasure to see the latest Chameleon Theatre Group production. This one was particularly nice as it was the first time our esteemed CFT editor, Janet Williams, and I have had what is effectively a Chandler’s Ford Today “works outing” since before the lockdowns. And I adore a spoof. So win-win here.
Murder with Ghosts is written by Simon Brett (a big tick in the box) and the plot has more than a nod to an Agatha Christie whodunnit (a HUGE tick in the box here. The first series of books I collected, which I still have, were the Odhams red leather hardbacks of almost all of the Agatha Christie series and novels).
So a spoof written by a renowned crime writer and based on the structure so often used by the Queen of Crime has got to be a winner, yes?
Murder with Ghosts is based in Quittendon Manor which is owned by Lady Cholmondley. She hires the Honourable Peregrine Villiers, a private investigator, as she has been convinced by a medium she will be murdered during a weekend house party Lady C is about to host. Naturally she doesn’t fancy that fate and asks Villiers to protect her.
Now a classic trope of this kind of story is that all of the characters in the play will have at least one reason to murder the intended victim. That happens here too (as it so often does with the Christie stories). To make matters worse, Lady C cannot trust her own domestic staff. So yes, there is the potential set up here where the butler might well do the intended killing.
Things take a turn for the worst when the first victim is the private investigator, Villiers, who is shot. However Villiers comes back to the stage as a ghost though it takes him a while to realise it. He is also none too impressed by what he finds he now can’t do. None of the other characters can see or hear him but he can communicate with them (though it is one-way traffic only) and does so to try to prevent further murders.
Alas! Other relatives, guests, and staff are killed off one by one and join Villiers on the Other Side, all visible to the audience but not to the living characters on the stage. Incidentally it must have been difficult for Lady C, played by Carrie Laythorpe, to ignore the other actors on the stage with her and to somehow not see them and avoid walking into them etc.
The story line was a wonderful cross between the wit of P.G. Wodehouse and the country house crime stories of Agatha Christie. With a reference to logic made by the amateur sleuth, who naturally was more competent than the local constabulary (another genre tradition), there was a nod to Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes too.
As Lady C’s guests fell like flies, the humour increased as the ghosts realised who was responsible for their fates. Lady C blithely continues with all attempts to kill her failing. Though as her guests diminish in number, even Lady C’s sang-froid starts to crack.
Another nod to Wodehouse came via the medium who warned Lady C she was in danger. Naturally the medium is a fraud (and Wodehouse’s excellent stories are full of imposters. These are usually after jewellery in the country house concerned and that element came into play here too as there were those in the house only interested in Lady C’s emeralds.).
There was so much to enjoy here and it was the perfect entertainment after what has been a grim time. Spoofs like this cheer me up immensely and that is a major part of what they are meant to do. This particular one also gave me a most enjoyable trip down memory lane. Why?
I suspect many of you like me will remember the great TV show Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). The original stars of this were Mike Pratt, Annette Andre, and Kenneth Cope. Hopkirk (played by Cope) is murdered in Episode 1 and investigates his own killing.
The only one who can see him is Randall (played by Pratt) and this can make for awkward and sometimes comic moments to say the least as Hopkirk’s widow, Jeannie (played by Andre) cannot see or hear her husband and wonders who on earth Randall can be talking to when it cannot be her and there is nobody else around. The series then continues with further investigations and has one of the most iconic TV theme tunes. See clip.
A successful spoof conjures up fond memories, acts as a tribute to the genres it is spoofing, and still has a storyline you want to follow. Murder With Ghosts manages all of that with ease.
I realised a long time ago when someone makes something look easy, whether it is writing a play or performing it, that same someone has worked hard for years to get to that point. The Chameleons put a lot of work into this and it paid off beautifully. It was a case of blink and you’ll miss something as the witty lines came thick and fast and revealed more of who the characters really were.
Did I guess the ending? No. Though I was right about the solicitor being up to no good – I did guess that. I was wrong about something else though. My initial thought was that Lady C was behind it all for nefarious purposes of her own.
Using Ghosts and Why Limits Make Sense
So the device of using a ghost is not new then. Neither is it new to use one as an investigator. But it makes huge sense to limit what a ghost can do. After all, if everyone could see and hear the ghost there would be no story or play. It would be wrapped up in a minute or so after the spirit turned up! (Think what a difference that would have made to Hamlet!).
Also a lot of comedy comes from misunderstandings so you don’t actually want the ghost explaining everything. There wouldn’t be anything to misunderstand then.
But you can use a ghost to show things to the audience, to bring in an “other worldly” element, to literally be spooky and heighten the tension in the story. In the case of Murder with Ghosts, the spectres brought in humour, especially since they all saw through the fake medium. It was funny seeing how they were trying to get through to her. She didn’t sense a thing which, of course, she should’ve done!
The Performance and Set
As ever, the performance by The Chameleons was excellent and the timing of this play was spot on – in time for Halloween! it was clear the cast were thoroughly enjoying the play and I’m not surprised. It must have been a joy to perform such wonderful funny lines. There was an excellent use of music to help set (a) ambience and (b) the era in which the story is set. Get the music right and a lot of the hard work of setting the scene is done.
The characters ranged from Lady C and her niece to Villiers to a Count to a medium to the family solicitor Lady C kept firmly in his place. It was made crystal clear he was not part of the official guest list. He was there to do her bidding. Again as with the Agatha Christie stories, you have people from various backgrounds connected to the central character, all of whom have great reasons to loathe said central character.
It didn’t help Villiers had an excellent motive for bumping off his client. She was the obstacle to him pursuing a relationship with Lady C’s niece though Villiers and the niece found out a great deal about each other after they both went to the Other Side. Disillusionment is a terrible thing!
The set was amazing. The main room was a library (wonderfully painted backdrop of books). There was a door out to the gardens. There was a further door off to Lady C’s study. She spent a lot of time in there changing her will every five minutes as those originally in her will got bumped off.
Her solicitor kept trying to get Lady C to leave a bequest to a dog’s charity (not the well known ones naturally. Guess who was the genius behind this dog’s charity – that’s right, the solicitor!). Naturally the furniture – a chaise longue – was so appropriate for Lady C. Little touches like that make all the difference to how well a set works.
Lady C revealed so much about her character when the statue of Diana, located behind the chaise longue, with bow and arrow at the ready was apparently based on her when she was a young woman. She was happy to stop her niece’s love life (there was no way she would let her niece get involved with someone like the private investigator, even though he was an Honourable, simply not good enough for her family) but more of Lady C’s past came out as the play went on.
The medium tried to use it to pass off a false daughter on Lady C, who, horror of horrors, was the maid Lady C bossed around horrendously. Lady C couldn’t dismiss it out of hand which was interesting. Did the maid get to benefit from her new relationship with her boss? Course not. She was bumped off too.
Huge laughs came from when the Count (there is always a villainous Count in spoofs) hid in a secret compartment and slid his rifle out through the not-at-all-well-concealed “secret” rifle slot!
And there was a butler with a dodgy past played by Nick Coleman. Think Jeeves with a criminal past! He also knew who the dodgy Count was. Villiers knew who the Count and butler were too, not that he could do anything about it by this stage. Though there was a grim satisfaction when they ended up joining him on the Other Side. The butler’s demise was a classic farce moment too, having triggered the Chinese Chair of Death placed on the chaise longue for Lady C by the dodgy Count. The butler had known it was there too!
Absolutely loved this. Great fun. Can’t single out individual performances. They were all great and a spoof like this has to be an ensemble piece for it to work but then that’s part of the joy of it (and I am sure it must be for The Chameleons too).
Also good to see The Chameleons raising funds again for the Hampshire Air Ambulance. Raffle sales were brisk on the night Janet and I went so I hope they’ve raised a good amount here. Support your local theatre here also equals supporting an excellent charitable cause – another win-win.
The next Chameleons production will be the The Dragon of Wantley in January. Panto time again so that should be fun. Is it too early to think of panto time? Oh no it isn’t… I’ll leave you to fill in the rest!
If you get a chance to see The Chameleons, take it. You’ll have a wonderful evening’s entertainment. Murder with Ghosts was not a play I’d heard of but my only regret (due to lack of time on my part) was not getting to see it a second time as you usually pick up more details seeing something like this again. And I’d have loved to have heard and seen those wonderful lines being performed again.
Well done, Chameleons. Hope to be back at the panto in January.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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