Reviews of “At the Sign of the Crippled Harlequin”

Review by BFame

“The Crippled Harlequin”, once an old coaching inn but now renamed “Peak Lodge”, is a small boarding house in the Peak District. Guests are arriving in the deep winter snow for a short but restful Christmas break, but it is far from restful as the proprietors, Sally and Bryan Lockwood, are soon to find out. The guests from hell have arrived in the form of Joan and Lionel Reece. One of the guests is found dead in suspicious circumstances, and Derek Tyndale, a regular to Peak Lodge, swears he saw the ghost of a harlequin ​commit a murder! The story is rich with shocks as well as laughs, twists and turns, accusations and vengeance. All following in swift succession leaving the audience entangled in an enormous spider’s web of intrigue and wild guesswork until the final curtain reveals all! Set in the present time, the whole of the action took place in the lounge of the guest house over a period of six hours. The set was very impressive, with an entrance/exit stage left leading to the rest of the house and a large window back stage through which could be seen the snow-covered countryside. Costume and make-up were first-rate and the set was well dressed with some good props. Rachel Waters directed the play, and along with a superb, well-balanced cast and a tight stage management team made sure that everything passed off smoothly. This was an admirable production that entertained the audience leaving them in suspense right up to the end.


Review by Behind the Arras ****

What could be more festive . . . a warm, cosy, historic guest house in the Peak district, good food and drink – as long as you don’t want dry sherry – snow falling gently and a Christmas tree in the corner. Idyllic . . . if you can ignore the rising body count that is.

That’s the problem with thrillers, they never leave you in peace, happy and contented, always throwing in another twist and turn for you to follow, or a dead end to reach or a red herring to swallow – and writer Norman Robbins gives you a job lot to choose from.

We are in the Peak Lodge guest house, just outside Buxton. Nobody – owners, guests or stranded traveller – is quite what they seem; they all have their little secrets, little surprises that appear slowly, like water from a dripping tap.

It all starts with a case of mistaken identity initiated by Joan Reece in a magical performance by Joanne James. Joan is a blousy, opinionated, gobby, know-it all, who makes bulls in china shops look dainty when it comes to tact, common as muck but has fallen into wealth and wants everyone to know it.

She is there with her equally forthright and often forthwrong husband Lionel, played by Chris Waters, who has a similar vein in tact, gives wealth a bad name – even trying for a discount for the disturbance when a guest is found dead in a pool of blood. His marriage is very much a case of it’s my money not yours, darlin’ – and don’t you forget it. But is he all he seems, and is she really as familiar with the high life as she infers . . .

They are there because Joan wanted, probably demanded, Christmas in a country house, not realising that the country meant not being in a town, and house means four walls not four wings. She was expecting, she tells us, Gosford Park, hobnobbing with the upper classes, and she makes sure everyone is aware of her resentment at ending up in a converted coaching inn up a farm track with guests plucked from the common people.

Then there is Pamela, played with a sort of mild jolly hockey sticks earnestness by Michelle Dawes. Pamela is a regular guest who spends her time hiking around the hills. Efficient, matter of fact and with her own secret, which is somehow linked to Isobel Clarke, played by Leanne Brown who gives us first the victim then a harder version as we start to find out her secret and her nefarious link to Pam – its existence being one of the jolting moments in the plot.

She is there only because her 4×4 has gone in a ditch nearby in the snow and is stranded until the morning.

Then we have another linked pair, except the link is thanks to Joan Reece, who is never wrong even when proved otherwise. There is Derek, played with a sort of mummy’s boy air by Les Wilkes. He seems harmless enough and has been coming to Peak Lodge for years with his mother. She died two years ago but he still comes, says it makes him feel close to her. Think I should mention here that he talks to his mother and, well, she talks to him, so perhaps a hint there, methinks, that his grasp on reality might not be the strongest, in fact, one suspects, beneath his rather harmless exterior, he is only on nodding terms with reality.

His mother’s death is the key here, and it’s link to Marjory Pike, a rather sweet old dear played by Lynne Young, and a character you are sure could have become the Miss Marple of the piece . . . had she not become instead the first victim.

Which was a pity really as she was probably the only one not trying to be something she wasn’t. Everyone has a past, even you, dear reader, but most pasts are simply history, times gone, rather than shady dealings, and such a past was hers, above board and noble even.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

The owners of the guest house, Bryan and Sally Lockwood, played by Rob Meehan and Christina Peak, saw their guests as friends, as indeed many had become.  Christina’s Sally fussed around them like a mother hen, more carer than landlady, while Rob’s Bryan was the chef, handyman and everything else. They are much loved by guests but not, it seems, by their bank manager as they struggle to keep heads above water.

The mistaken identity at the start opens up a jumbo size can of worms and we even have a ghost thrown in – not that we see him.

The inn was once owned by a music hall star who had broken his back playing Harlequin in panto at Buxton Opera House. He retired, paralysed, to the inn, which he renamed The Crippled Harlequin, only to be swindled by his brother,

That’s another tale, but we learn enough to know that spirits are a possibility, especially after Harlequin is seen battering poor Mrs Pike to death, or is he . . .?

Then there is the missing bottle of pills left by an American couple who have just cancelled a return visit. Pills which are dangerous and can be fatal with certain food and drink – told you there were a lot of twists and turns.

Throw in an expose that would put at least one of the guests in jail, the looming insolvency and  Derek’s mother was out for revenge – despite being dead – and there are motives a plenty for the steadily rising body count and, just to top it all, there is a delightful twist at the end to bring a communal gasp from the audience.

Its not all doom and gloom though. There are plenty of laughs along the way with Joan Reece having some of the best lines as she holds court, while her obnoxious husband garners quite a few laughs of embarrassment as he turns crassness into an art form.

Norman Robbins (1938-2016) was, and indeed still is a popular playwright on the amateur stage, a long association which has produced plays which are easy to stage, needing no elaborate sets or complicated technicals, relying instead on the plot and story.

They might be easy to stage, but that is not the same as easy to stage well and director Rachel Waters has done a fine job here. The pace is gentle, as you would expect as guest arrive, gradually quickening as Christmas starts to look less merry by the minute, and she builds the tension nicely with each revelation coming as a little shock.

She also designed the set which gave us a sitting room and a snowy view of a distant church through the window with a door off to the rest of the guest house. Simple, but effective.

It is not the best known of plays – it was my first time – but don’t let that deter you. The characters are well defined, the revelations are well handled, and, although not that damning in themselves, do manage to implicate the steadily diminishing survivors by giving everyone motives for murder.

There are laughs and an intricate plot with plenty of pointers but precious few clues, so it is a challenge to decide whodunit – all singing to the tune of a nicely built tension. It’s an entertaining evening of guessing games with a real sting in the tail. To 01-12-18

Roger Clarke

22-11-18

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