A luxurious whodunnit aboard a unique train.

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MATILDA THE MUSICAL Announces West End Extension; See New Footage From the Show!It’s 1951 and, as the nation prepares itself for the Festival of Britain, a heinous crime has been committed. After a murder most foul, ten suspects, a killer hiding in plain sight and around two hundred passengers-cum-amateur detectives find themselves all aboard the same train. It’s fair to say that Dead On Time knows how to set a scene even before we step aboard.

Whodunnits have had something of a fillip in recent years. Daniel Craig’s turn as Benoit Blanc in the Knives Out movies and Natasha Lyonne's Columbo-esque Charlie Cale in Poker Face (both from auteur Rian Johnson) have been critically acclaimed. Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap continues to break records and, after 70 years in the West End, will take its Broadway bow later this year. The pandemic lockdowns created a new generation of armchair detectives and true crime enthusiasts looking for the next murder to solve and, with the rebirth of the live theatre scene, an increasing number of productions are coming out to meet this demand.

Written and directed by Neil Kelso and produced by Adam Blackwood at Private Drama Events, this immersive murder mystery adventure takes place on the British Pullman and its historic carriages. Each has their own name and claim to fame: Perseus was part of Winston Churchill’s command train during World War Two and carried him to his funeral in 1965; Laurence Olivier had his breakfast in Audrey when travelling to London from Brighton; auteur Wes Anderson recently redesigned Cygnus; and the Queen Mum was rather partial to Phoenix (maybe there’s a leftover hidden gin stash somewhere). As well as their intriguing backstories, there are specific designs too and each carriage has its own particular personality from the colour schemes to the bathroom mosaics.

Kelso has riffed off this defining aspect of the British Pullman by calling the ten characters after one of the carriages. Sat on a plush armchair in Phoenix, we first meet Eddie Phoenix, a small-time criminal who is looking for his partner Kim Minerva, not realising she was found dead the previous night. Does he know more than he’s letting on? Where was Eddie this morning before he got onto the train? We get the chance to ask a few questions to discern possible motives and opportunities before he moves on to the next carriage.

The other suspects walk through one by one and are subject to our interrogations. If matters of the heart are the primary motive, does this put Eddie’s ex-wife Felicity Gwen or his secret lover Danny Zena in the picture? Did Kim’s witchcraft practices get her into trouble with philanthropist Gordon Vera? Or was her job as in the planning department too much of an obstacle to the ambitions of local industrialist Ivan Perseus? And so it goes on until we have met everyone twice and seen some revealing meetings between them.

There’s plenty of time to solve the mystery. The train journey lasts over four hours, leaving Victoria Station at 11am before going on a roundtrip through the English countryside. Once we leave South London, there are some magnificent views over Kent, Surrey and the Thames estuary as the stewards bring out an elegant five-course meal care of chef Jon Freeman. Vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free diets are catered for and the ingredients are locally sourced as far as possible, keeping in style with the prevailing mood of an early-Fifties England where rationing was still in force.

When not chomping or chatting, there’s a chance to recline and read the handy Luxury LocoMotives Magazine inspired by the Festival of Britain’s South Bank Exhibition Guide. It contains background information on this motley crew of possible murderers, a page to collate your thoughts and, if you look closely, more than a few clues to decode.

The amount of plotting and actor preparation that has gone into this is impressive. Each individual character moves through their own dramatic journey, delivering a different stage of the story from their own perspectives and in their own styles as they move down the train. In the first carriage, they are (or appear to be…) unaware of the murder; as they go on, they are primed to reveal the circumstances of the death, hand over police reports, point the finger at other suspects and introduce more of the plot.

The characters have their own mannerisms and flourishes: Dr Bobby Cygnus tries hard to impress us with her new wonder pill called Capebol, astrologist Julie Ibis suggests that the murderer’s identity may be in the stars while Perseus’ executive assistant Angela Lucille is more than happy to point the finger at anyone but herself. This could end up being a lazy version of Rashomon on rails, but a tight script and a bevy of twists and turns keep us guessing to the end.

Kelso is well known in cabaret circles as a professional pianist (appearing recently in The Miss Betsy Rose's Beguiling Hour at Crazy Coqs) and magician. He describes mystery thrillers as being akin to magic tricks but in reverse. "A magic trick begins in normality, with the universe functioning in accordance with the laws of nature and normality," he says. "Then we follow a series of unforeseeable, and often bizarre, but seemingly rational steps and, before we know it, we are metaphorically very far from home." Meanwhile, a mystery thriller is the opposite. "It begins when we find ourselves in a shocking or impossible place where rules have inexplicably been broken (perhaps in the form of an impossible heist or a grim murder). We are compelled to hunt for steps towards a place of resolution or safety." 

He's no doubt thought deep and hard about not just mystery thrillers but the time and space which Dead On Time inhabits. Layers of meaning become apparent the more we converse with his creations. Obvious inspirations like Sherlock Holmes gain more relevance - the Baker Street detective's increased popularity in 1951 was marked by his first TV serial - while there are more subtle references to the Festival of Britain, the upcoming coronation and Dennis Wheatley, an author who wrote a series of bestselling occult-based thrillers and published mysteries in the form of fictional "crime dossiers" containing documents and items of evidence like pills.

London is not short on immersive shows but, even in this crowded market, Dead On Time stands out. Its relaxed approach, rich human interactions, layered storytelling and unique setting make this a truly luxurious and memorable experience.

With thanks to Chief Steward Thomas Legg and his team for looking after us.

Photo credit: The Other Richard


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