The prime critical question raised by Richard Harris's predictable thriller is whether it goes quite far enough over the top to attract a camp following. Dead Guilty claims to dignify its main strand of Machiavellian villainy with an exploration of notions of guilt and responsibility, but its protestations are risibly in vain.
As Julia, haunted by ideas that she somehow caused the fatal heart attack of her married lover, Jenny Seagrove does not hit the right note until too late. Her moves seem sluggish and over-articulated, as if she were acting under water. Only in later scenes, when Julia is woozy from medication, does Seagrove's style come into its own.
When Hayley Mills's Margaret – the widow of the adulterous deceased – arrives, it is at once plain that she is a force of darkness: no-one in a thriller is ever this nice unless unfolding a devious and evil scheme. Mills is magnificent: a fussy, precise smiler with the knife, sporting an accent like a cut-glass stiletto. For a while one suspects that she might truly intend to kill Julia with kindness, as if Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? had been recast with Nanette Newman in the Bette Davis role.
For several scenes Harris provides comedy of awkwardness: stilted remarks which flop short of sustaining the vapid chatter, forced jokelets that expire before they have left the teller's lips. Gradually, however, it becomes apparent that all is not well in Julia's house. Someone has been stealing wine and money, hiding upstairs, even planting exotic shrubs in her back garden with malice aforethought. Thanks to the combined horror of this faceless prowler and the unbearable sugariness of Margaret, tension rises after the fashion of who-cares bourgeois crisis epitomised in the BBC's doomed "middle-class soap opera" Castles.
Alfred Hitchcock declared that what frightens is not a bang itself but the inexorable lead-up to it. After two hours, Mills's Margaret reveals her true colours not with a bang, but with a simper. The air of anti-climax to this Tale of the Long-Expected is palpable, but to her credit Mills continues to play in character, twittering about credit-card bills and insurance policies as if she were trying to cancel a petty debt rather than a life.
Throughout both Harris's script for Dead Guilty and Auriol Smith's production you can, so to speak, see the strings. It is pleasant to imagine groups of hard-core aficionados turning up to see it time and again and showering the stage, Rocky Horror-style, with sleeping pills and elastic bands, but the reality is more likely to be a brief run and another medium-sized write-off for producer Bill Kenwright.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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