Spiders Web – Genesian Theatre and cheery misunderstandings. (Theatre Review)
The Genesian Theatre
When Agatha Christie wrote Spiders Web, is was to satisfy the artistic desires of Margaret Lockwood who wanted to appear in a West End play in a role specifically written for her. Over lunch, the famous actress stretched the request to include an instance that her part not be sinister and that the play be a comedy /suspense/thriller kind of show. Agatha Christie is probably the only writer who ever lived who could take such a request and create the eternally marvellous Clarissa Hailsham-Brown out of what at first appearance would be completely contrary perspectives. Margaret Lockwood was famous more for films at the time, and for playing rather wicked, and often downright malevolent women, so the challenge was a mighty one, and yet one Christie was happy to take on. The result was Spiders Web, a play about a murder that occurs because of a series of misunderstandings that primarily occur around a woman famous for her tall tales and therefore never believed, even when she tried with all her might to tell the truth. It’s a clever play, far too clever for the critics who were expecting another play like The Mousetrap or The Hollow at the time, playing with the tropes of the very medium Christie virtually set up single-handedly. Spiders Web is filled with the delights of language and its story-telling power, the ability we have to fool ourselves and the gleeful errors lines taken out of context can evoke.
Genesian Theatre is providing lucky Sydney-siders with the chance to see the remarkably timeless 1954 play in a fresh new production directed by first time director Ylaria Rogers that is filled with the same verve and enthusiasm as that original at the twenty-seventh of September 1954 first airing. Rogers paces this production of Spiders Web carefully, keeping the attention on the delightful dialogue, ever mindful that Christie writes fecund sentences filled with long meandering nuance. Spiders Web is a dense play that enjoys its own dialogue, playing with the words and the characters to the degree that plot is almost subverted on behalf of these elements. Unlike Christie’s other mystery/detective focused works, Spiders Web plays with tropes of the genre, such as making the ‘twist’ the same as the ‘truth’ (no one believes Clarissa’s truth when she tells it) the ‘bumbling constabulary’ wily in their own way, and ‘the locked room’ a hiding place for the corpse rather than a riddle in itself. The golden age of detective fiction was a time for turning tropes on their end anyway, and Agatha Christie, one of the queens of the practice.
Clever, complex plays like Spiders Web are of no use to anyone unless a production of some quality bring them to the stage, and the Genesian’s current efforts are precisely that. Ylaria Rogers, as noted above, moves her cast around carefully ensuring nothing of the convoluted story line is missed. Standout on the night I attended was Julia Kennedy Scott as the all important Clarrisa Hailsham Brown, the central character for Spiders Web and the point around which the plot and many of the clever word play rotate. Kennedy Scott is a charming Clarissa, beautifully spoken, with superb projection so that we miss none of her all important lines. She brings her own flamboyance to the role of Clarissa, completely making the character her own. It’s a pleasure to watch and one of the key’s to the success of this production.
However, Clarissa is not the only character in Spiders Web and very often an enthusiastic, cheerful cast makes a great play, and that is certainly the case in this current production. Dominique Nesbitt plays a wonderful Pippa Hailsham-Brown completely convincing as a ten-year old girl, and a delight whenever she is on the stage. David Stewart-Hunter is a dignified and witty Sir Rowland, another one of the crucial roles of the play, and one in which the audience isn’t let down. Stweart-Hunter plays him with a reserve that still manages to maintain its warmth, endearing the audience to his character and to Clarissa when we’re not sure which way we should turn. Susan Farrell is a witty and fascinating Mildred Peake, keeping the audience guessing in all the right ways, just as the other ‘house-help’ Elgin the butler, Danny Nercessian, has us all in stitches every time he is on the stage.
Christopher Butel is a delightfully charming Jeremy Warrender, deliciously flirtatious and disarmingly sweet, carrying the twists and turns of the plot on his able shoulders admirably. Michael Hemming is a convincingly dark Oliver Costello appropriately creepy, also carrying twist and turns of the plot on his shoulders well. The darker side characters are well-balanced against Vincent O’Neill’s Hugo Birch who is a funny, sweet addition, Christie using the character to balance off against the darkness of murder mysteries and Birch taking the joy of that lightness and running with it. No murder mystery is complete without the local constabulary, and these roles are embraced by Martin Searles as Inspector Lord and the funny Isabelle Kohout as Constable Jones. The pair work well together, entering the production at a crucial point where change in proceedings affects the entire play, and they handle this transition with warmth and skill, evoking a sense of relief in the hope that rationality will prevail over the top of the endless, circular stories that form the crux of Agatha Christie’s point in Spiders Web. Rounding out the cast is a rock solid Tommy Deckard as Henry Hailsham-Brown, performing his satellite role with the solid warmth and affection required. Together with a great set and an up to the task crew, Ylaria Rogers has come up with a competent debut that will give many Sydney-siders a relaxed, fun night at the theatre.