There are few nights at the theatre more satisfactory than a new comedy landing all its punches. There are few more painful nights than comedies that land flat. New Old Friends latest Crimes Under The Sun, opening at the Ustinov before embarking on a lengthy UK tour, is, at least so far, a night distinctly under-nourished, under-written and under-rehearsed. There are moments within which suggest that this is a work that will improve with playing, that they’re not completely flogging a dead donkey, but it needs some TLC before we get to this stage
The time seems ripe to spoof Christie. After all her Witness for the Prosecution is packing them in at the County Hall London, Branagh brought Poirot and that ripe moustache to cinema screens in an all-starMurder On The Orient Express and the BBC have cleared their Christmas schedules for the foreseeable future to bring her adaptions onto the air. In our hectic modern times, the period murder mystery is very much in vogue.
Yet pastiche and spoof need specification if they are to work their full effect. Jill Myers who plays memoirist cum-sleuth Artemis Arinae has a Belgian accent that wanders via the Estuary. As she conducts her writing on the sunny Riviera she finds herself, just like Christie’s favourite amateur sleuth Marple at the epicentre of another crime scene. A former actress, turned deep sea diver has been found dead on the beach. Was she offed by her upstanding, very British husband who we find out has killed before in a bar fight. Her American rival, now promoted to number one in the world with her death. A spiv gent on the make. A women looking to off her to steal her husband. A hard working cast of three portray all these and more and impress. They just need material that gives them more. Jokes land with a thud. Set pieces don’t come off. The script in general seems more focussed on clarifying its twisty narrative than ensuring belly laughs. Feargus Wood Dunlop, who also writes, throws himself with considerable gusto into every role he plays but for every role he nails- his delivery of a very English bar fight is top notch- there are also moments that are less defined- his voyeuristic Irish priest is very one note.
At its best director James Farrell’s production shows what could and perhaps can still be: the introduction of Jonny McClean’s brattish youngster reciting witchcraft is a real showstopper as are the three plodding policeman portrayed by Heather Westwell with little more than a stoop, a moustache and a pair of glasses. Best of all the patter routine, composed by Kathryn Lovell is a sly delight, bringing up memories of Seriol Davies’ seriously terrific How to Win against History which sent up everything in glorious anarchic form. New Old Friends production is of a more restrained vein. My advice, a bit more music, a little less plot.
Crimes Under The Sun plays at the Ustinov Studio until 24 February and then tours the UK until May