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An Innocent Man and Whodunnit?
The Space
17th July 2014

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for An Innocent Man/Whodunnit?

Photography provided by The Space

Less than a month ago, The Space's Script 6 festival took us into the world of modern broadcast journalism with rehearsed reading Why Should Anyone? This time stepping foot into theatre it's all about old-fashioned air waves, with Ed Hartland's double bill of new writing presenting two radio plays set in the 1950s. Both complement each other well and are crafted with a great deal of humour.

The venue may be a converted church, but the evening's entertainment is anything but holy - the cabaret-style seating brings to mind La Cage Aux Folles or the Kit Kat Klub from Cabaret. Minimal props suggest a 1950s BBC radio studio, replete with old-school microphones, some excellent period costume (especially the dress worn by Carla-Marie Metcalfe) and a brisk, increasingly harassed producer/presenter, played with mounting ire by Caryl Jones. Jones' authoritative figure keeps some semblance of order to the proceedings, introducing the housekeeping, linking the items together and frequently keeping the 'actors' in order. Her clothing offers a clever touch, a smart brown-grey suit which visually picks her out from the others.

Before the dramas begin, the period is drawn more colourfully by words from the production's sponsors (not entirely accurate if this is supposed to be the Beeb, but the pieces are so much fun we'll let it slide). The adverts are for (stereo)typical products of the era - Smokies cigarettes perhaps the most fun - including lipstick and cleaning products. These vignettes are woven throughout the night and form an increasingly hysterical counter-drama, in which the deterioration of the actors' relationships adds a domestic comedy. Jamie Coleman's Advert Actor unknowingly drifts towards the inevitable breakup the audience can spot from the beginning, which he milks for an oddly moving sense of pathos. His Hoover man demeanour seems to nod to Jim Howick's Shouty Man from Horrible Histories, though perhaps this is unintentional, and merely inherent of the era. (If it's the former, full marks!) Metcalfe's counterpart Advert Actor is increasingly hysterical, striving to repress her fury and frustration, a theme which continues after the interval with Stephanie Prior as Coleman's new counterpart.

The first play, An Innocent Man, is a traditional noir-style tale in which businessman Richard McDonagh (Oliver Geraghty-Gower) is framed for the murder of a secret agent. Sought by the police, Richard must go on the run to Scotland, where he hopes nobody will think to look. It begins with Geraghty-Gower sidling up to the microphone in his trenchcoat to narrate. He looks the part and does relax into the material, but on press night, he was clearly nervous, fluffing a few lines, missing a cue and talking far too quickly to start with - a shame, as the initial exposition needs to be heard. He is backed up however by a cast of actors playing several roles who deflect the attention and ensure the duties are more evenly shared. Jared Rogers, in particular, is highly amusing in his different parts, with the French/Glaswegian Monsieur Dejavu a lovely running joke. The laughs come thick and fast with much of the comedy very good indeed. However, several of the punchlines were lost due to their rapid delivery.

Much of the strongest writing comes when the script treads the line into meta-humour, such as the callbacks and repeated phrasing every time a gun is pulled, showing the awareness of the 'actor' that they're recording a radio drama. A lengthier example happens when Richard and Pamela (Prior) argue with Norman Bates (Rogers) in-character, trying futilely to dissuade him from bringing the character of Mother (also Prior) into the scene. His lack of awareness is as funny as their panicky protestations, and the death looks that Prior shoots him.

The lighting effects are minimal and unobtrusive, mainly simple lights up/lights down affairs. This is a cleverly subtle suggestion of the black-and-white television of the age. As for the sound, it would perhaps have been easier to use pre-recorded effects and jingles, but the decision to have the actors perform these adds to the humour. A particularly brilliant instance comes in the second play, Whodunnit?, with different kinds of footwear; Stephanie Prior lands the comedy perfectly, her mounting sense of exasperation and annoyance beautifully conveyed. A musical number with an imaginary drum kit and the world's worst trumpet player is levied by the lovely dulcets of Stephanie Prior (who would make a fantastic Kate Monster in Avenue Q).

Whodunnit? continues the line of madcap and spoof, with the classic murder-mystery taking in Hitchcock, Sherlock Holmes, The Maltese Falcon and the writings of Agatha Christie. The basic plot involves Dr Black being murdered in Baskerville Hall, with Cluedo suspects calling the police to investigate. The four detectives who arrive (all played by Elliot Thomas) are both bonkers and useless, battling problems such as cocaine addiction, internal monologue syndrome, and being blind.

Thomas is a treat in this second play, switching between detectives with gusto. His slightly flappy Hercules Parrot owes a debt to Hugh Laurie's George from Blackadder. It begs the question as to why he isn't used in the first half as well, a real shame as he provides excellent support to the rest of the company. Metcalf also shines as Miss Scarlett, striding around the manor and getting things done, against the inaction of the stuttering and repressed Colonel Mustard (Rogers).

Across the evening, the script is frequently amusing and the energy always high, but this production lacks something in its execution which would otherwise have made for four stars. Ignoring the fluffs, it all feels just a little bit too rushed, which is a pity for a script of this density as the lines are not able to land as they should.

An Innocent Man and Whodunnit ran from 15th July to 19th July at The Space. An Innocent Man transfered to the Hen and Chickens on 5th August and runs until 6th August 2014.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)



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