Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder, Bristol Old Vic

VERY often you can get the flavour of a show from the audience. Arriving for a matinee performance of this musical whodunnit from the Olivier Award-winning team responsible for Fleabag and Baby Reindeer, and thinking of the response to their success at the Edinburgh fringe festival, I was surprised that the majority of the audience was in the 50-plus age range.

The quirky distinctive humour that runs throughout this show and Matthew Floyd James’ high powered music, with lyrics supplied by him and co-director Jon Brittain, should, on the face of it, appeal far more to a younger audience.

To quote two old proverbs – never judge a book by its cover, never judge a sausage by its skin – both apply in this case because, from the outset, this audience was finely tuned to the style of comedy, which bubbles along at pace through the first act. Things became a little more thoughtful in act two, but the audience readily responded to the predominantly musical presentation.

The storyline is as much about the personal relationship between Kathy and Stella, from schoolgirls to not exactly successful podcasting adults, as it is about their investigation into who murdered their favourite thriller writer. There were moments as Bronte Barbe (Kathy) and Rebekah Hinds (Stella) dominated the action, swivelling around in their office chairs like two well-choreographed dancers, when visions of a young French and Saunders hove into view. Not that they were making any attempt to copy the personalities in that great partnership, but the way in which Barbe and Hinds bounced words and actions off one another had a similar feel.

This however was not just a two-women show. Jodie Jacobs, playing all the dead author’s family, proved an excellent foil. When given the opportunity, she took centre stage, demonstrating that she could match the others vocally and in personality. Among his list of characters, TJ Lloyd produced a lugubrious, matter-of-fact mortician, who not only drew every drop of comedy from the role, but added some more serious moments, particularly when tempting Stella away from Kathy. Rounding off the team was Imelda Warren-Green, whose over-excited fan pushed the bounds of comedy to the limit, easing off just before the character became a caricature.

With the band tucked away either side of the stage, almost out of sight but never out of mind, a simple backdrop and, apart from the swivel chairs, very few significant props, it was up to the actors to keep the audience’s attention. With a mixture of driving the sparse dialogue and clever lyrics with pace and vigour, and the ability to slow the action down to produce, when needed, a more thoughtful atmosphere, they consistently gave the audience something to laugh at or think about.

You could just look at this show as a piece of zany comedy, but if you look beyond that shallow surface there is a great deal more to ponder, and this company is more than capable of using their comedic skills to make a frame work for some deeper thoughts about personal relationships and society in general.


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