When you think murder mystery, stock characters and settings generally race to mind – the rich old heiress, the disgruntled butler, a mysterious seductress, a bullish male quick to take charge and a sprawling estate for the mystery to unfold within.
In the Spirit of Murder offers none of that.
It’s quite a refreshing take on the genre and with its farcical elements unapologetically amplified to 11; it’s less Agatha Christie and more murder mystery meets The Moodys.
The latest offering from Townsville Little Theatre, written and directed by Townsville’s Teri Galea-Thorne, opens on mishap-prone trouble-makers Ruby (Rylie Hansen) and Stanley (Damien Moston) as they break into a large suburban home to score (although they each have their own interpretation of what exactly constitutes ‘a big score’). Unbeknownst to Ruby and Stanley, the home has recently been purchased by Ruby’s father Albert (Eric Blyth) as a 40th wedding anniversary present for his wife Estelle (Kaye Hinds) and they soon show up. Estelle is less than impressed that Albert has replaced all of her personal belongings – from their home to her cook book – and reveals that it’s Albert’s attempt to wash them clean of an alleged fair Estelle had had, and which she flatly denies. Rounding out the dysfunctional family is Albert and Estelle’s elder daughter Claire (Jacinta Ryan) and her former cop husband Damien (David Brooke-Taylor), who are also dealing with their own marital woes. Just as family tensions begin to reach their peak, the discovery and disappearance of a body in the kitchen throws a spanner in the works and the drama bubbles over.
This is a quickfire show with fast-paced dialogue and physicality performed very well by the cast. They certainly brought to life a dysfunctional family of odd-ball characters who were well practiced at hurling imaginative insults at one another and their terrific use of a well-designed set effectively delivered the type of comedic and chaotic coming-and-going I suspect Teri was after. Despite a few lost lines, the pacing was tremendous, and I’m certain this will only build and build as the run continues and the cast becomes more ‘at home’ within their space.
As Stanley, Damien Moston was highly entertaining. Damien certainly threw his entire body into this performance; bending, falling and flailing with gusto. His vast array of facial expressions matched the rest of his limbs, making it easy to believe he was a hopeless thief and perhaps an even more hopeless ladies’ man.
Damien’s energy was matched brilliantly by Rylie Hansen. Although I think she was probably a little young for this character (a simple tweak to the timelines hinted at in the script would have easily remedied this), Rylie brought a feistiness and strength of conviction to Ruby that made it easy for the audience to understand why she may have been exiled from her family.
Likewise, Eric Blyth’s short-fused and a-little-dotty portrayal of Albert quickly created a character the audience could genuinely believe would replace all his wife’s possessions without consulting her, in equal parts romantic gesture and possessive envy. Even in a catatonic state, Eric maintained his wonderful stage presence and I’ll admit my eyes kept being pulled away from the action at the end of Act One to see whether his slack-jawed shock would falter. It did not.
If Eric brought dotty, Kaye Hinds caught it like the chicken pox. Kaye gave us a truly entertaining performance as Estelle who wandered between exasperated wife of 40 years and an elderly woman starting to lose her marbles. I didn’t immediately grasp what was happening with Estelle and found the character rather frustrating while watching her, but upon reflecting I think many of us would have witnessed an elderly relative or friend slip in and out of lucidness the way that Estelle did.
Jacinta Ryan started with a strong entrance, blustering in as a flustered wife, and just got better as she went on. After seeing Jacinta in a much more straight-laced role earlier this year, I really enjoyed this shift of gears for her. As Claire, she was strong and quite imposing when she needed to keep her husband under her thumb but laugh-inducingly funny as her will softened to Stanley’s advances and she formulated a plot.
Rounding out the cast was David Brooke-Taylor as Damien. David is committed to every word he says and every move he makes. He has a flair for doing things in a way that people wouldn’t expect, making a simple action like blocking a doorway interesting to watch.
Together, the cast created this larger than life family that nobody would want to share a bloodline with.
For me, some of this show’s abundance of detail is where the wheels start a wobble a little. Teri has developed a very ambitious story structure, with all six characters having a complex backstory, intricate relationships and amusing motives. While this did mean that we had a departure from stock standard characters, it also created a lot of strands for the audience to follow, some of which were a little too conveniently resolved and others which I didn’t feel were resolved at all. Similarly, there were some character traits that I feel could have been more consistently heightened throughout the show to raise the stakes higher, and the lack of concern among the household at the mounting number of misfortunes was a real bug-bear for me personally.
However, In the Spirit of Murder does abound in laughs and, if you’re not too concerned with connecting all the dots, delivers a fun evening of light entertainment in a way you wouldn’t expect and with a twist you won’t see coming.
Catch Townsville Little Theatre’s In the Spirit of Murder at PIMPAC until 8 December. Book tickets here.