BWW Review: THE GAME'S AFOOT at Howick Little Theatre, Auckland
Reviewed by Glenda Pearce
"The Game's Afoot" or "Holmes for the Holidays"
By Ken Ludwig
Life is a game....of life and death
'The game is afoot' means 'the process is underway' -Shakespeare's King Henry IV
For fans of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes and period comedic farce, this play will entirely engage, delight, and entertain. Intelligently and creatively directed by Andrew Gordon, it provides everything you love about live theatre: extravagant characters with underlying motives, a mystery thriller with many characters who could "have done it", superb comic timing, an eerie atmosphere conveyed through creative lighting and sound, authentic costumes, dramatic irony, and a clearly articulated Sherlock Holmes style. Set in a superbly appointed castle interior in Connecticut, in 1936, the play cleverly unfolds through literary layers of plot twists and turns, in a classic Sherlock Homes "whodunnit" fashion. The play was written by Ken Ludwig, prolific master writer of many genres, and premiered in 2011, and won the Best Play 2012 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allen Poe Awards.
The opening Act I scene 1 (The Palace Theatre, New York 1895) is a "play within a play" - which serves two purposes. Firstly, it establishes the characters we are to meet for the rest of the play, are all actors, all part of the company led by acclaimed actor William Gillette, who are performing a production of Sherlock Holmes. Their behaviour for the rest of the play will be larger than real life, theatrical and spiked with lines from the various plays they have performed. They are "men and women....merely players" (Shakespeare).
Secondly, just as Shakespeare uses the convention of "a play within a play", this is significant not just for the plot progression. It is also significant because, symbolically, the "acting" of the players foreshadows and hints that the "acting" that will unfold when William Gillette, Christmas 1936, invites his fellow cast members to his Connecticut mansion for a weekend of festivities, may be full of other performances. People are not who they seem - as an audience, we will need to be aware of what is underneath their smiling exteriors. When one of the guests is stabbed to death, Gillette assumes the persona of his beloved Holmes, to track down the killer.
The atmosphere of a "whodunnit" and the paranormal is created immediately as the audience enters the theatre. There is a shimmering haze and the superb set (designed by David Gifford, décor by Laurie Mills) is Art Deco in concept, coloured a rich burgundy that hints at wealth, intrigue and drama; its meticulous 1930s detail, conveniently decorated with lethal weapons of many kinds, is full of "space" opportunities for the farce that will unfold. We have the many doors and entrances, the levels of the staircase, windows that can be jumped through, and French doors backlit. A highlight is the well-used inner room, the bar, that masquerades behind the bookcase. As the beautiful Aggie Wheeler (Rosheen Leslie) comments when she enters, "This looks like a place in which murder could take place".The characters are superbly brought to life (Judy Rankin, Jewels Annabell) in lush gorgeous 1930's authentic period gowns and suits, and Sherlock Holmes attire. The atmospheric lighting effects (Team: Hanneke Beets, Vic Leilua, David Inglis) and sound elements (Design: Michael Sharp) are vital components to the success of this play and effectively capture on and off-stage events with expert skill and credibility. No opening night problems here!
Not only superbly directed, with effective and varied stage positioning, and expertly visually created, this play was well cast and the interactions between them are effective and vocally tight. Judy Rankin, as Martha Gillette, the sweet but fierce mother, is entirely convincing; and her best line had to be "I took the liberty of cancelling the taxi. I figured she wouldn't be needing it when she's dead." Rosheen Leslie is Aggie Wheeler, beautiful, vibrant, and she credibly develops from the femme fatale the men all seem to love, to the hitherto unknown wealthy widow, to the fast-moving unsuspected murderess. Likewise, the ambitious, energetic and overly enthusiastic juvenile lead, Simon Bright, is well portrayed by James Calverley. The neck massage is suitably sinister, especially after we have learned his delight at being rich, after marrying the millionairess. The diva manner of the former leading lady, Madge Geisel is well captured by Christy Quilliam, and her "death" at the séance is superbly and humorously handled.
The conflict of the play lifts significantly with the entrance of Daria Chase, caustic theatre critic and self-made woman. From her opening lines, Deborah Lind moves with passionate elegance and sinuous charm, spiking her comments with well-articulated venom. She has dirt on everyone so surely everyone present will want to silence her. The laughter begins in earnest as the plot approaches the end of Act One - with superbly timed farce and well-enacted dramatic irony of lines "I need a doctor".... "back". and movement, as Daria desperately tries to make her(so appropriate) knife in her back predicament clear to Gillette. Matthew Diesch as Felix Geisel is suitably sarcastic, melodramatic, flamboyant and superbly copes with the farcical demands of the fast-moving action, and comic timing, such as the inventive hiding of her corpse, when the police arrive. Female Inspector Goring, (a rarity for this time period) is smart, insightful and sharp, and Dominique Pritchard conveys this effectively. The audience could appreciate her motivated movement and her often close proximity to the murder weapon!
And of course, William Gillette, the successful dashing actor with a lively mind and fanciful imagination. Mark Madden-Scott has the skills to bring this wealthy and ego-centric character to life: the poise and the booming, resonant voice of an actor who made his fortune playing Sherlock Holmes. Rarely off stage, Mark Madden-Scott kept the pace of the play moving, and the action of the plot unfolding, and Act Two is a delight, with a plethora of plot twists and turns, detailed and well-timed action, which enthusiastically and completely engages the audience.
This is another top quality, imaginatively directed, well-executed - and fun - Howick Little Theatre production not to be missed.
On 9 - 30 November
Howick Little Theatre
Bookings: https://www.iticket.co.nz/events/2019/nov/the-games-afoot or 09 361 1000