A Sting in the Tale

(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


The local theatre landscape is particularly bleak in January. Queenslanders look enviously at the bountiful choice enjoyed by their Sydney cousins, who can pick from a raft of professional and amateur plays, operas, musicals and dance, much of it under the umbrella of the Sydney Festival. Why does the performing arts industry in Queensland take its holidays just when people have the time on their hands for cultural pursuits (not to mention a predilection for finding airconditioned refuges)?

A beacon in this gloomy interval is the Brisbane Arts Theatre, which has made a tradition of opening its season starter on New Year’s Eve and running it four nights a week throughout January. The amateur cast and crew who give up their Christmas holidays for rehearsal deserve applause.

A Sting in the Tale is an amusing diversion, particularly if you’re an aficionado of the detective genre. The play is not so much littered with corpses as with references to the 20th Century’s better-known theatrical murder mysteries, which two down-and-out writers hope to emulate to restore their financial fortunes. Their plot-in-progress of a sympathetic murderer and unlikeable victim is transformed into a plan of action to rid the world of a nagging wife and claim insurance money. The two use their dramaturgical wits in laying a trail of clues to divert the investigating detective. Inevitably all is not as it seems, and there are twists and turns aplenty (with ever-decreasing credibility).

The program notes tell us the play is set in “the present”, but the setting is clearly a generation earlier, as it must be when a typewriter becomes an important prop.

The cast do a good job and work well together, but need to lift the pace in the first act. Jude Eakin’s languid writer Nigel is perhaps too diffident. Sandra Harman as his wife Anne is believably strangleable, if only for the garish sequined vests she sports, but should be more affected by the gallons of gin she quaffs. Judith Barbeler’s Jill could have been dressed somewhat more sexily. Paul Careless as writer Max communicates the excitability and nervous tension of his character: a highlight is his explosion of stifled passion and confusion when the victim of his bullet is revealed under the gaze of the detective. (This sequence also shows a deft directorial hand.) Veteran Peter Settle revels in the role of a policeman who is himself an amateur thespian dedicated to murder mysteries: he is splendid at representing a detective shifting constantly between doing his job and playing at being a detective.

For a play where much of the plot centres on the consequences of total darkness, it was a pity that the belated drawing of the french windows curtain during a scene change permitted backlighting to steal the surprise from the subsequent scene, as the actors’ changes of position were revealed. No doubt this glitch sparked some drama backstage but not, we hope, a murder.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Tue 8th January 2002)