I turned up slightly early to the performance – and just as well. Seats were already mostly filled and the atmosphere was alive. For the first time in at least three years, Foot of the Hill Theatre Company had taken in actors from other colleges, and the support was certainly all there. Amidst the hustle and bustle, I had a chance to take in the staging used. Mary’s Dining Hall was a setting which worked surprisingly well. Newspapers lining the windows made the seating area look like it was part of the set, whilst also producing a holistic ‘whodunit’ theme that even reached the audience. The décor was plain but artful; the stage’s centrepiece was a low backed gentleman’s settee, in burgundy and gnarled leather, which set the perfect tone for a twenties style drama. Overall, it was well laid out.
Then it began. Lights went down and two characters appeared on stage in perfect unity. Whilst still dark, they took their positions and began their freeze frame. Neither of them even blinked; not when the light slowly filled the stage, not even when Michael Starkwedder (Victor So) came onto the stage and had begun to talk. The freeze frame was sustained very impressively indeed. The corpse (Josh McKinnon) did a fantastic job; in his flashback moments, he was fabulous. Whilst it was a caricature-like rendition, it seemed to work and the change of mood was also quick and rapid. I was impressed. Later I was told that the director, Stacey Cockram, had redistributed lines so he could have a chance of speaking and she warrants credit for this gracious (and successful) attempt to give her actors the stage time they deserve.
Victor So was notable also. His lines were fluent and conversational and he gave an effortless performance. Unfortunately, Laura Warwick, played by Izzy Sykes, wasn’t as dynamic. Her immediate portrayal as anxious, shaken would-be killer was sound. Fragmented speech complimented Victor’s easy-going character and she was convincingly disturbed. However, later on, the complexity in her character wasn’t fully exploited which was a little disappointing. Her scenes with Major Farrar (Henry Meech) weren’t hugely convincing – though that could have been a lack of believability on his part also.
The interval included an online poll – with the possibility of winning a prize if you voted correctly, which was a lovely touch. Everyone, including the more elderly members of the audience, discussed the possibility of ‘whodunit’ which added some audience interaction. This worked well and added something a little different to the performance. Perhaps The Unexpected Guest was not as starkly professional as a top-quality West End production, but there was nevertheless a charm to it, reflected by elements like this poll.
The interval ended and the Second Act commenced. Whilst it took a while to get going, it gradually became more and more exciting. Characters such as Angel (Martin Docherty), Mrs Warwick Sr. (Alice Chambers), Miss Bennett (Emily McLean) and, at times, Jan (Will Groome) really came into their own. I was told shortly before the play began that Martin Docherty had taken on the role of Angel on Thursday, owing to the illness of a different actor. He should be greatly commended for taking on the role and performing it so well. Whilst in the first half, Angel was mostly silent, there were some rather extended scenes in the second half that Docherty performed well and Angel’s slimy character was convincing. Special notability should be given to Alice Chambers for her fantastic facial expressions and her excellent maintenance of body language; it was a shame her voice was still so young, as that would’ve led to a truly all-round performance, but this didn’t hugely take away from an otherwise sound portrayal.
Miss Bennett was another character that shone. Her piercing accent and continuous sour expression were fabulous. Her character interaction was excellent and her scene with Jan at the end had others questioning their view as to who the killer was. This was aided by Jan who, at times, was incredibly convincing in his disturbed disposition.
A further point of notability was Inspector Thomas (Vankshita Mishra) who was a staple of the play – her maintenance of character was brilliant and the good cop/bad cop repartee with fellow police officer (played by Luke Ainscow) was very funny.
All in all, this classic ‘whodunit’ was a light-hearted depiction of a classic. For the most part convincing, it took its audience on numerous twists and turns until finally arriving at its conclusion. One final plot twist gave a real flourish to the ending. I was kept guessing right until the end, the sign of a well-done murder mystery.
‘The Unexpected Guest’ will be performed in St. Mary’s Dining Hall from Saturday, 4th March to Sunday, 5th March at 20:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Foot of the Hill Theatre Company