MURDER at Checkmate Manor was the ambitious choice of play staged by The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society or F.A.H.E.T.G.D.S for short. Most drama groups will have experienced a fear of things going wrong on opening night, but fortunately, for actors and audiences alike, the very worst rarely happens. Alas, not so for the good ladies of F.A.H.E.T.G.D.S. Their production of this Agatha Christie-style drawing room murder mystery was blighted before the play even started. But, troopers that they are, the four redoubtable ladies (and one man) soldiered on, determined to provide us with a good evening out; and just in case we should get bored, threw in a film, a fashion show and a quiz too.
Sturminster Newton Amateur Dramatic Society (or S.N.A.D.S. for short)’s production at The Exchange was an entertaining affair. Even before the action commenced we were party to a little spat between Miss Farndale 1988 and the highly formidable Chair of the Townswomen’s Guild, convincingly played by Val Atkinson; in the role of Phoebe Reece she had clearly grabbed many of the best bits of the play for herself. Preparations were not going too well on stage either, for no sooner had we actually settled down in our seats than a picture fell off the wall of the set followed, moments later, by the collapse of one of the scenery flats. A repair had to be hastily undertaken only for the flat to be repositioned upside down. And all of this well within the space of five minutes! It was, as I have said, enormously enjoyable, and had this been the end of the pre-show mishaps it would have been perfect. Unfortunately though, here as elsewhere, the cacophony of errors went on a bit. The collapsing curtain rail and coffee table that followed, for example, could well have been saved for later, as there were occasions when too little was happening on stage. A few disasters to fill the gaps could well have made all the difference.
The strong cast played well over a dozen roles between them and coped admirably with the numerous different costumes and characterisations required. In the part of Lady Bishop (amongst others) Alison Mash was terrific while Tania White, switching between Pawn the butler and Colonel King, clearly enjoyed the opportunities for some real coarse acting. Missing props, of course, added to the merriment and I especially enjoyed the business with Daphne’s never-ending succession of tennis balls in the opening scene as did I the arrival of Inspector O’Reilly, who needed to stretch way up high to warm his hands by the fire, the scenery having been positioned the wrong way up. Annie Henschel (Daphne) and Bill Peat who played the policeman made a great team, and their scene where the dialogue went round and round in circles was much enjoyed by the audience as was their daft song and dance routine to “I could be happy with you” from Sandy Wilson’s The Boyfriend.
There was, of course, a huge amount of stage business to co-ordinate, and most of it worked well. Although some of the out-of-sync sound effects were lost in the general mayhem, the sound of a departing car before any of the would-be passengers had left the stage was particularly effective. More, I think, could have been made of the numerous dog barks (needless to say there was no dog to be seen) but the scene, brilliantly well-timed, involving the standard lamp and the telephone – the adjusting of the former causing the latter to ring – was a delight. It is a pity that this gag was not repeated later on in the performance as the audience clearly loved it. Death by ironing board was another touch of madness – I do not know who to credit for this, director or playwright, but it probably caused one of the biggest laughs of the night. Other “errors” went on too long however; the drawn-out moving of chairs for the reading of the will for example was just not funny enough, while the collapsing banister and business with the dodgy chair-back needed to be far slicker to be really effective.
Vanessa Dawson is to be congratulated on her directorial debut and her talented cast clearly enjoyed themselves. It is no easy thing for amateurs to portray bad am dram convincingly, but this they did. Although I might have chosen to develop the innuendo rather more, the dialogue was always audible and well paced, and on the numerous occasions when the lines had to be delivered not only badly but “one speech out” as well, there was abundant evidence of a rehearsal process where the director has shown a real eye, and ear, for detail. With luck there will be a some tightening up here and there and perhaps a greater allowance made for audience response (we can easily get confused and can’t always take in too much at once), but taken as a whole the show was great fun.