Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Opened 22 October, 1997

A whodunnit set in a hair salon. The annoying pianist upstairs is murdered; was it the camp stylist, the too-caring assistant, the upper-class lady in a hurry or the quiet bloke sitting at the side? So far, so conventional (personally, I strongly suspected the so-called detective constable The Mousetrap has a lot to answer for).

But at this point Scissor Happy adapted by Neil Mullarkey, Lee Simpson and Jim Sweeney from Shear Madness by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, which is itself a version of Scherenschnitt by Paul Pörtner (I hope you're taking notes) comes into its own. The adaptors, experienced as they are in improvising comedy on stage, television and radio, turn matters over to the audience. We get to question the suspects and pull them up short when they fib during the reconstruction of events. (Highlights from the press night included, in reply to "How would you describe Tony [the stylist]'s emotional state?" "Bitter old queen!", and the girl at the front who incisively wanted to know where assistant Barbara had bought her top.)

It is a marginally more dignified version of the "He's behind you!" pantomime routine, but marshalled well by detective inspector Lee Simpson, who has years of experience as a straight man to everyone from Phelim McDermott to Julian Clary. Jim Sweeney enjoys baiting the audience, Paul Clayton is... well, a bitter old queen... and Gaye Brown as Mrs Fitzcarrington burbles inanely (the single lines which float out of the suspects' room are gloriously bizarre) and walks like a John Smith's penguin.

But the selling point of Scissor Happy is also the one which torpedoes its credibility as a mystery. Pörtner wrote his original to show how people misperceive and misremember events. Equipping this version with three alternative endings makes it quite arbitrary which events in the first act really are significant and which are red herrings not even the performers can know at the time, since the variant to be played on a given evening is only decided later. In fact, the decision depends on an audience vote to select a chief suspect. Weirdly, this is a situation in which the customer is always right or at least the majority of them are. But when did you last see or read a whodunnit where most people picked the correct candidate? Where would be the excitement or ingenuity in that?

Of course, this point is not revealed in advance and I hope I have not breached the critics' code of honour about giving away a culprit's identity by mentioning it, but this is a somewhat unusual case. Nevertheless, take away the mystery and what remains is a thin, flexible plot and an hour or so of impro which, although not bad at all, is really rather constrained by its format. On the other hand, if we were to assemble a claque to attend on a particular evening and insist on voting for DC Bradshaw...!

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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