THE traditional antidote to the joy and happiness of Christmas is a good old ghost story, perhaps some MR James, or a little Gothic Poe, or even some Dickens, so it seems highly appropriate for Helen Watts to bring her directorial talent to a more recent work, the thriller Stone Cold Murder, by James Cawood, who has established himself over the past ten years or so as a modern master of the genre, most recently with Death Toll, at Windsor’s Theatre Royal. This work was written for the English Theatre in Vienna in 2011 and has since become a favourite of regional theatre, professional and amateur, with its single set and small cast helping with budget.
The play is very clever, set in a remote country house hotel in the North, and with a strong plot which is twisted and warped over the course of our two hours traffic, reminiscent of such classics as Sleuth and Deathtrap, as we are drawn in to each character’s tale of their involvement with young troubled Olivia and a certain piece of jewellery. It was a delight during the interval to hear members of the audience attempting to work out the truth, something that was impossible only half way through the action, but they were clearly caught up in it all and wanting to know the outcome. The twists keep coming through the second half, right to the very end, but not before plenty of excitement, thrill and ever-unravelling of the plot.
In her first professional role Imogen Irving is completely secure as Olivia, newly-married but with a troublesome past, which at the very beginning was perhaps a little too realistic as we acclimatised to the nerves of the character rather than those of the very accomplished actor. If she had not mentioned it in her biography I would have had no idea this was her first paid job, such is her talent, and she should be very pleased with her performance. Her new husband Robert is played with honesty and reassuring strength by Joseph Chance, bringing great sensitivity to his early role which makes his transformation later in the play all the more devastating. As mountain climbing explorer Ramsay, Michael Dixon seems a little odd at first, which is even mentioned by Olivia, but all is revealed later in the play, showing that this actor is playing with us, almost, but not quite, slipping into caricature, almost a young Brian Blessed perhaps, bringing an extra layer of humour to proceedings and gaining our sympathy.
The final member of the cast is Olivia’s ex, Sam, a nonchalant and slightly slimy man of the world who knows what he wants and thinks he knows how to get it. Leon Ockenden, best known to many for his role in Coronation Street, but more recently to me from his excellent work touring in Ayckbourn’s How The Other Half Loves, would be the “big name” in this show were it being produced by a larger house, but this is Dorset Corset, known for direct, intimate, and thoroughly entertaining theatre. Ockendon is not a star, or even the biggest part, he is one of four extremely talented actors working together with director Watts to tell the story, using every part of their voices to create the mood, and devices as basic as slamming doors and volume of music to increase tension. In the beautiful setting of the foyer of the splendid Victorian town hall of this county town we are on the stage, sitting on chairs that are part of the action, and on the magnificent staircase used by characters to “exit upstairs”. The thrill is increased as we cannot always see what is happening, but we can always hear it, and Eamonn O’Dwyer’s soundtrack, with wind constantly howling and light musical themes coming and going, added to the overall effect perfectly.
Each part of this performance, from choice of venue, furniture and costume, to the simple lighting and completely accurate sound cues, was crafted by those at the top of their game, and it was a delight, indeed a thrill, in every sense of the word, to be part of it. Trowbridge is very lucky indeed to have had Dorset Corset residing in their Town Hall this week.