Murder in Company

(Sunnybank Theatre Group)


Editor’s note: In view of the criticisms of Act I plot revelation by the reviewer above, readers may wish to skip paragraphs 2, 3 and 6 of the following review if they wish to see the play!

Sunnybank Theatre’s latest production is all amateur theatrics. But not in a bad way. Murder in Company is a whodunnit set in an old church hall where an amateur dramatic society rehearses making it a great choice for one of the southside’s best known community theatre groups.

The first act begins with the cast of the society’s latest play arriving in dribs and drabs for the evening’s rehearsal. One by one they all encounter the new church hall caretaker Smith a wonderfully smug Ross Wilson and one by one they decide they don’t like him. Wilson leers and swaggers and makes Smith such an appealing villain it’s almost a pity to kill him off. But die he must, in order for the “whodunnit” second half to happen.

It turns out that Smith was in the process of blackmailing most of the cast. His death by electrocution thanks to a faulty coffee urn means anyone could have done it. Margaret (Deanne Scott) is having an affair with the much younger Alan (Stuart Sephton), and wants to keep it a secret from her husband Phillip (Eric Scott), who happens to be the director of the play. Phoebe (Viv Staley), has links to Smith from her mysterious past, and Ronnie (David Duncan) doesn’t like Smith’s threats.

Murder In Company works because of its characters. All of the actors give strong, individual performances, most of which belie the “amateur” status of STG. Director Chris Guyler has drawn out the emotions from the script, and with a range of ages among the actors the result are some very well-crafted characters. Particularly good were Eric Scott as the dictatorial director (a creature familiar to ALL actors!) and Duncan as the tragi-comic stage manager Ronnie. The rest of the cast were all believable, and contributed to the high standard of the production.

Lighting, sound and set design were all infinitely suitable for Sunnybank’s theatre, and were used to great effect. Murder in Company is another example of community theatres choosing material that optimises their financial and creative resources.

Ultimately any criticisms of this play take their root in the script. Philip King and John Boland’s work uses the conventions of whodunnit well enough, but does not ever reach the standards of those it tries to emulate. The suspect list is reduced from seven to five simply because Donna (Catherine Grech) and Pat (Rachel Lester) have absolutely no reason to dislike Smith apart from his general nastiness. And because Smith has only been caretaker for a week, it seems odd that he could become so despised in such a short time. Customers hastily justify letting Smith blackmail them by saying, “It would have gone on!”. Conventional whodunnits provide a variety of reasons for each person to kill the blackmailer which are simply not present here. That said, when the eventual killer is revealed, it is a surprise not as much for who, but why.

Murder In Company as a script is an attempt to transfer the grand traditions of whodunnit (i.e., rich people and the seven deadly sins) to a small dramatic society. It’s an interesting if imperfect experiment. As a production, however, it allows STG to efficiently utilise the space and resources they have, and gives director Guyler the opportunity to get strong, diverse characters and performances from his actors.

— Natalie Bochenski
(Performance seen: Thu 17th May 2001)