A Murder Has Been Arranged

(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


By Emlyn Williams

Amateur production

At the risk of offending all my friends at the Brisbane Arts Theatre, I have to say that their latest production, Emlyn Williams’ creaky old masterpiece A Murder has been Arranged, is at once the worst and possibly the funniest production I’ve seen in yonks.

So bad is it, I’m glad to say, that it deserves to become a cult theatrical experience in its own right. So if you’re already bored with the federal election and “The Chaser”‘s coverage thereof, give yourself a treat and toddle along to Petrie Terrace, preferably with a few glasses of something convivial under your belt, a group of like-minded friends and a few packets of Maltesers, and prepare to be entertained by default.

You may or may not know the plot, but briefly, imagine a murder mystery (except that it’s not a mystery, because we all know whodunit, or at least who’s about to do it) with a ghostly twist. Imagine Sir Charles Jasper (why am I reminded of that naughty “Do not touch me” song?) and his neurotic wife Lady J, who comes with the baggage of a sour mother and a secret lust for Billy North, who pretends to be a newspaper reporter masquerading as a gentleman. (The two professions were mutually incompatible in late 1920s London, and possibly still are today). The giveaway, which I suspect is unintentional, is that he wears the two bottom buttons of his suit jacket buttoned up but leaves the upper two undone, a social shibboleth if ever I saw one.

Imagine an evil cousin who will inherit Sir Charles’ $2 million fortune if Sir C fails to live beyond 11pm on his fortieth birthday, and a party for that same fortieth birthday held on the stage of the empty St James Theatre in London, where a murder has been committed just the year before. Somehow or other this has some relevance to the choice of venue, but if you can work out why, please don’t bother to email me.

Imagine Sir C’s pouting secretary, Miss Groze, who is unofficially married (now there’s a euphemism if ever I heard one) to Maurice Mullins, the evil cousin, and the thot starts to plicken. And when you add a caricature of an elderly cook with an excruciating working-class accent; a mysterious retainer called Cavendish who disappears after the first act and doesn’t take the curtain call (singular); and A Nameless Woman who drifts in and out of the drawing room looking like well, words fail me here and is taken by all concerened, including some of the audience, to be the fabled ghost, you have a recipe for hilarious disaster.

I couldn’t make head nor tail of what we were supposed to believe and what was meant to be serious. Did Sir C really die when the wicked Maurice Mullins poisoned his drink and tried to make it look like suicide? Was he really resurrected just in the nick of time so that he survived the 11pm deadline, or did his about-to-be-faithless wife just prop him up at the dining table to trick the wicked MM into confessing so that she could get the filthy lucre and run away with her lover? Why was her mother wearing a fright wig when she came in fancy dress as Marie Antoinette? And was that shiny grey make-up that Sir C acquired between his murder and his reappearance meant to look as if the Monster from the Black Lagoon had been creeping all over him, or does he just need a few lessons in the use of Max Factor? And why, after the final curtain came down, was there a blood-curdling and forever unexplained scream from the stage?

I dunno, and I don’t care much, for it was very funny, and I disgraced myself on more than one occasion by shrieking with laughter when I suspect I shouldn’t have.

I’m not going to name the cast members, because I think they took themselves a little more seriously than I did and I don’t want to embarrass them, but a more incompetent bunch of dedicated amateurs, straight from the Stunned Mullet School of Stage Performance, it has never been my pleasure to witness. But I did like their all-white come-as-the-ghost-of-your-choice dress-up costumes in the third act, although which of the gels was Joan of Arc, which Lady Jane Grey or one of those other unfortunate Tudor queens, and which Little Bo Peep I still can’t work out. And I loved the blood-red doublet and hose of the villain when he came dressed as another unforgettable Tudor murderer whose name for the moment escapes me, and I loved the aforesaid Billy North in a yet another doublet and hose (perhaps they got them as a job lot), but white this time, with big Gold Coast white patent leather shoes that made him look like an anorexic Skimbleshanks.

This was a wonderful show. Do yourself a favour and go and see it, but take some of your more frivolous friends with you, and leave your spit-and-polish expectations behind. After all, how much fun can you have for $10 an hour?

Director: Philip Carney

Playing Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm until 15 December; Sunday matinee 2pm

Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 9th November 2007)