The Cat and the Canary, Theatre Royal, Bath

IF you look down a list of plays written in the 1920s, you will find quite a few successfully produced which border on the style of Grand Guignol, melodrama and horror.

Most of them – with titles like The Monster, A Man with Red Hair and the Edgar Wallace pair The Flying Squad and The Terror – have long slipped off our theatrical radar screens, but just a few, as with this 1922 play, still appeal to a modern audience.
Because of the highly successful 1939 film that was designed around comedy actor Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, The Cat and the Canary, for all the terror and thrills it sets out to generate, is predominantly thought of as a comedy thriller.

As such it is still regarded the best of the many film and TV versions of John Willard’s play.

Carl Grose, the adapter of this version has actually written a play entitled Grand Guignol, but more importantly has acted and written over the last 24 years for Kneehigh Theatre, whose productions are noted for their distinctive often off kilter  take on any given subject.

He does not go all the way down a typical Kneehigh route with this adaptation, but certainly in Act 1, laughter is not the first thing on his mind. When his thoughts do turn in that direction, as the play builds up to its climax with the unmasking of the villain, we have scenes almost farce-like in their quality.

Add to that a denouement that has more twists and turns than a handful of Agatha Christie plots and you have a mixture that does not always gel.

Director Roy Marsden took the act which introduces you to all the members of a family gathered together at midnight, in a creepy old house for the reading of their eccentric uncle’s will, plus the family solicitor and mysterious housekeeper, at the sort of brooding, even pace which he used to such good effect when playing PD James  DI Adam Dalgliesh on television. While this was wonderfully effective on the box,  on stage it left the characters and storyline developing too slowly.

The set designs by Takis captured the style of a slightly seedy old manor house, but lacked the feeling of claustrophobia where secret panels and doors could open,  allowing hands to touch the heroine and bodies fall in her lap.

As it was, apart from one scene where a necklace was snatched from Annabelle’s throat, not enough threat and terror were generated.

For all of that, Tracy Shaw (ten years as Maxine Peacock in Coronation Street) instilled a great deal of fear and foreboding into her Annabelle. She handled the three men setting their caps at marriage – after all she had just been named as the only heir to the family fortune –  with sympathetic skill.

The boisterous bruiser Harry, Gary Webster (four years as George Cole’s Minder, Ray), Ben Nealon’s slightly untrustworthy failing actor, Charlie and Mark Jordon’s (Heartbeat’s PC  Phil Bellamy) clumsily diffident Paul, all set out to protect Annabelle. Or were they in cahoots with those who were trying drive her mad or kill her?

It was strange, but enjoyable,  to find that fine player of musicals Marti Web in the role of the money-grabbing, tippling Aunt Susan, forever trying to dominate Nikki Patel’s quite innocent niece Cicily.
As the two outsiders, Eric Carte as the family lawyer Roger Crosby and Briony Rawle as the creepy housekeeper Mrs Pleasant skillfully helped to set up the implied fear of the unknown.

The role of Mrs Pleasant was to have been played by the Swedish-born Britt Ekland, and just what an actress once described as one of the world’s most beautiful women would have made of a plain middle-aged housekeeper would have been fascinating to see.

Alas, on opening night Britt was unable to play the role and Briony Rawle took over.


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