Emlyn Williams's 1953 psychological thriller is something of a curio on today's stage. The great fictional English murder is rooted in a middle class whose sayings and doings often strike a modern audience as more than faintly comic. The finest examples of the genre deploy humour to rack up the suspense: a little genteel incomprehension here, a touch of plebeian gaucherie there, can cause an exquisite delay in the climactic revelations. This is Williams's method, and in the latter acts it still largely comes off.
The Ealingery of the first act – Mr and Mrs Nedlow all bourgeois social veneer, their adopted son Martin a surly (though not outright angry) young man – is played a little too hard for laughs, as if the actors think themselves above the outdated characterisations. These reservations dissipate as the layers are peeled away à la a more macabre An Inspector Calls; by the final agonising act, laughter at the intrusion of a couple of lower-clahss stereotypes has taken on a distinct edginess. Without disclosing any vital plot secrets: the private tutor engaged to coach Martin turns out to be the father of his best friend, recently executed for a murder committed in the Nedlows' town apartment. The two uncover the identity of the true murderer and embark on a scheme of appropriately fatal revenge.
An initial air of Tintin and Professor Calculus plotting the perfect murder is gradually dispelled as tutor Fenn's obsession becomes all-consuming. David Allister's portrayal burns with a cold fire; progressing from shocked discovery to cracked, implacable lust for retribution. He treads doggedly past the occasional stylistic clunkinesses (do we really need another chess metaphor?), rightly trusting in the power of his performance to carry the audience with him as Fenn carries his less resolute "lieutenant" Martin – Thomas Russell, who successfully transcends the role of sidekick.
Williams's fascination with crime and the mentality behind it led him to superimpose upon the basic narrative will-they-won't-they switchback an attentive study of the minds involved in such an enterprise. The plot is so well fashioned that it emits a little over-polished squeak if touched too hard, but is sustained by the force of the characters at its centre. Although it will not usher in a redisocvery of the genre, Peter Leslie Wild's craftsmanlike production comfortably achieves its aims of entertainment and thoughtfulness.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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