Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Opened 17 November, 2004

Playwright Peter Shaffer, in an interview given to publicise his new edition of this 1974 play by his late twin brother Anthony, lamented that entire genres such as the courtroom drama and even the thriller are scarcely performed and not at all written these days. In such a climate it's hard to know what to make of a piece like this, still more when it's seen in a fringe venue which next year will host a residency by new-writing company Paines Plough. It's not that we repudiate this kind of work, just that it's odd to see it in such modern surroundings, like a woolly mammoth in the back garden.

Like Anthony Shaffer's greatest hit Sleuth, his follow-up Murderer involves the planning of the perfect murder and its error-ridden execution. Sleuth's protagonist was a writer of detective fiction, Murderer's has the bizarre hobby of re-enacting famous killings. And, of course, there are generous doses of black humour and several twists in the two-hour tale.

The opening phase brings two major surprises. First is the complete lack of dialogue as we see a murder being carried out (or do we?) entirely wordlessly, with only an insistent and inventive soundscape for accompaniment. The first words we hear are 15 minutes in, and they're on the radio in an episode of The Archers; only several minutes later still does anyone onstage speak. The other opening jolt is the man playing the "villain". Les Dennis's programme biography takes pains to establish his acting credentials as well as the comedy and TV presenting for which he is principally known, but it's still fairly mind-boggling to see him onstage in a converted chocolate factory, strangling his fictional mistress.

It's also a little hard to tell whether it's Dennis's performance that is slightly stilted, or whether the artificial idiom in which Shaffer wrote his dialogue elicits this kind of mannerism. I think the latter: the accomplished Caroline Langrishe as Dennis's character's wife is scarcely more naturalistic, which suggests that Adam Speers is directing with a consciousness that this is a genre in which people casually use phrases such as "formed the intention" or even "au fond".

One always tries to guess what the upsets are going to be; it wasn't hard to predict the first two major switcheroos, and even the climactic twist is a solid each-way bet. But, for all the oddity of seeing such a show in such a milieu, it succeeds in being both amusing and gripping.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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