Stephen Hayter reviews Hello Is There Any Body There?

Hello Is There Any Body There?
by Ian Hornby
performed by Waterbeach Theatre Company
directed by Julie Petrucci

The last two trips to see the Waterbeach Theatre Company have found me walking the not inconsiderable distance from car park to foyer in wind, rain or both! They have a very aggressive micro-climate out Waterbeach way and the first thing, the very first thing, I thought as I arrived at the venue was... how nice that Spring has (after two years) finally arrived in this delightful location. The second thing I thought was, what an honour once again to be asked to deputise for 4 South Rep, Julie Petrucci. The Great Petrucci was directing tonight's offering, so perhaps reviewing herself might have been frowned upon. The offering in question was Hello Is There Any Body There?, a farce by the prolific Ian Hornby and an unknown to me, which is just the way I like it! So, I grabbed one of my five a day (grapes do count you know) and sank peacefully into my complimentary deep filled cushion.

It actually turned out to be a lot more than just a farce. It was in truth a surreal Am Dram introspective who-dunnit, which started a little bit Monet, and ended up completely Salvador Dali! The set ( of Technical Director and Designer, Mark Easterfield) was outstanding. The very embodiment of a country house drawing room with oak panelling, French windows (there are always French windows in a murder mystery - never patio doors!) and a delightful chaise longue to set off the decor. Lighting (operation by Mark Easterfield) was everything it needed to be with sound (Jason Docwra) very much the same. I particularly enjoyed all the background music which featured appropriately titled songs like Watching the Detectives, Murder on the Dance Floor etc, etc.... clever and well thought out. Costumes (Joy Sinclair) were mostly straightforward and pseudo-contemporary, with the exception of the maid's outfit and the butler's tails, and were all fine and dandy. Hair and Make up (Sue Barnes) hit the spot and incidental props caused me no offence whatsoever.

In retrospect, it is difficult to split this team into supporting and leading cast, as everyone seemed to get at least their five minutes of fame at some point. I am sure however that the least number of lines went to Liz Reid as Honor Page (it starts right here...) the prompt, who, in classic 'Christie' style, came into the fray rather late and did a fine job. Also a little tardy party wise was Tina Seeley as Miss Marbles (you can see where we are going with the character names) who is a relatively new name to Waterbeach having returned to the stage in the chorus of last year's (excellent) pantomime, after resting for an alleged 30 years! She didn't have much to do, but did all of it well.

The glamour was added to this production by Maeve Adair as WPC Nunnall (brace yourself...) Eve Nunnall! ... WPC Eve Nunnall! .... my favourite pun of the show, and if you haven't got it yet ... I shall not waste my time explaining it to you! Miss Adair presumably fell asleep on the bus going home to Whangarei, New Zealand and has somehow fetched up in Waterbeach. Direct from the Ann Summers county constabulary, she was fabulous and really quite sexy, which was most definitely the intention. Sam Smethhurst (Mr) is also a newcomer ... but had not come quite so far for this production. In the dual roles of Vic Timm (victim!) and DC Fickey he was solid with his lines and frenetic with his moves.

Moving up the pecking order, there was lots of good work from Rosie Wilson as DI Sides (Inspector-sides!) and the name joke worked really well thanks to some slick delivery from the cast. Mrs Wilson gave us an excellent characterisation and helped the second half comedy along nicely. I was delighted to see Caroline Blair in the cast of this production as she has impressed me greatly as Ouiser in this group's truly remarkable production of Steel Magnolias. The two roles are a lot more compatible than you might at first think with Ouiser being (in my opinion at least) the high comedy part. This time out as the maid, Mabel ... I think she was once again in the top comedy role .. although with everyone required to ham it up mercilessly is was less easy to be sure. A great performance from a fine actress.

Poor Nick Gulvin, I am sure he auditioned for all the other male parts but ... what can I say. He looked like a butler. I mean that as a compliment and will quickly reinforce that by saying ... perfect casting and a top-notch performance. In a play where no pun or gag was left unturned he managed to find a few extra laughs just by smiling. Smalls the butler was elevated to a cast position higher than would have been possible by a lesser actor. Mr Gulvin should accept the type casting and continue to deliver brilliance in his roles.

One of the most difficult (script-wise) roles in this production was that of the drunkard husband and lord of the manor, Sir Malcolm played by Paul Lockwood. Sitting in a chair asleep or drunk or both and then having to throw a single line in every fourth paragraph takes a lot of concentration. Mr Lockwood also found the time to give us a cracking characterisation and barely put a foot wrong. I was blown away in January by another newcomer Mr Gareth Atkinson. As Abanazar he was just perfection. Not surprisingly Mr Atkinson proved his consistency and versatility in this piece of silliness with a pivotal supporting performance as friend of the family, Freddy. Aside from being completely comfortable with his lines and moves, Mr Atkinson has a top-quality line in facial acting which just gave an additional 3 dimensional quality to his performance. I can't wait to find out what he will turn his hand to next.

This was absolutely an ensemble production and everyone executed their responsibilities in fine style. However, penultimate paragraph honours just have to go to the enchanting Wendy Croft. It is never easy to try to be credible in a surreal farce, but somehow she managed it. Serene springs to mind and, as the linchpin of this production, her superb acting ability and exceptional comic timing delivered a level of grounded realism that this piece really needed. I enjoyed her directorial offering with last year's The Maintenance Man ... but I absolutely loved her as Lady Amelia. There are not many who can act and direct to the same high standard.

The first thing Chris Shinn said to me after the lights came back up was "that was different" and he has probably never spoken a truer word. The script was sharper in the first half, meandering a bit in the second and third acts as the same gags were recycled. Having said that, I never lost interest and was still laughing right to the very end. My profound congratulations to Producer and Director Julie Petrucci. As with all that she does, the technical directing was flawless. She told me she had instructed the cast to keep it real, even when the script entered and ran naked through the asylum, and it was that quality that made the whole premise work. So many great performers all on top of their game and bringing home a great night's entertainment. Thank you JP, thank you Waterbeach ... can I come back again?

Stephen P. E. Hayter.
(District Representative - NODA Eastern Region - District 4 North)

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