The question in this nimble murder-mystery spoof is not so much whodunnit as just how do they do that? Two actors play a dozen or so characters, while taking turns on the piano, in a fun production with an irresistible sense of invention. Its finely synchronised stars, Lee O’Reilly and Sam Denia, have a strong comic rapport and come across as partners in crime, with the former portraying an ambitious sleuth and the latter quick-changing through roles as a lineup of suspects.
Bryan Hodgson’s production relocates Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair’s American musical from New England to Gloucestershire, with local references for this Cotswolds audience and a blizzard of other accents, including a Wirral boys’ choir (performed, on his knees, by Denia). The setting is the country mansion of novelist Arthur Whitney, who gets bumped off at his own birthday party. Was it one of his bickering neighbours, Barb and Murray? His own wife, Dahlia? Or did prima ballerina Barrette fire the pistol pointe-blank?
Kinosian and Blair intended the musical to be staged with minimal, if any, production elements – presumably to showcase the ingenuity of the performances. Here, it’s told within the extra setting of a film studio’s prop store. Denia and O’Reilly first appear as janitors who pull a dust sheet off back-to-back pianos. Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s lighting design gives a comic flourish to a set by Justin Williams that is crammed with canny touches, including lyrics and stage directions written out on props and enough weapons for a game of Cluedo.
A vivid sense of the mansion is lost within this framework, which never fully amplifies the way several characters harbour thwarted showbiz dreams. The musical has an awareness of its own transportive art form – the officer coaxes one suspect into a duet to get him to confess and another betrays herself while lost mid-song – so it’s a shame the tunes themselves never achieve a deliriously giddy effect.
The show unfolds at a brisk pace, in just about real time, and would work better without its interval. Some of the repetitive gags about the titles of, and clues in, Whitney’s novels could be jettisoned and sometimes simply too much is happening at once to savour Blair’s often witty lyrics. But perhaps striving to keep up is part of the fun, and you’re never more than a couple of minutes away from a clever touch.
Unlike, say, the high-concept mystery musical City of Angels, it never quite adds up to more than the sum of its parts. However, it’s a delight to see performers give it such welly. O’Reilly and Denia prove both deft and daft as each wrings as much as they can from this daffy murder mystery with a constant risk of corpsing.