Theatre Company: Toads Theatre Company
Cast: Roger Matthews, Adele Reynolds, Helen Gould, Laura Rugg, Dawn Western, Alec Stokes, Stephen Aldridge, Anna Reynolds, Susie Stubbs and Lisa Fletcher
Plot: A new manager’s position opens up rivalries and arguments in a Regent street clothes shop, accumulating in the murder of one of the staff.
Murder mysteries work surprisingly well in theatre. There is something inviting about introducing an audience to a set group of characters, the 1930s English setting adding to the ‘larger than life’ caricatures we are gifted with in Toads’ latest production, Death in High Heels. We spend the first act wondering which one of the characters will get killed off, the dim-witted assistant who eavesdrops too much, the heartless brown-noser vying for the promotion or the manager of the business, who has a thing for the ladies. When the dead body shows up, we are then left scrabbling for our own clues on who, how and why? Suddenly everyone gets the spotlight thrown on them, clouding them in suspicion, and it is good fun trying to work out who the killer is. What this does mean is that the first act does start particularly slowly. Its job is to make us get used to the various suspects, so the story drifts from conversation piece to conversation piece, killing time as we figure out who’s who in this particular murder mystery. As we are introduced to the staff at this local high end clothes shop, before anyone has keeled over murdered, it is hard to shake the fact that there isn’t much to grip the audience. Sure, there are something interesting characters to explore, but on the whole, watching a play about a group of people gossiping about an upcoming promotion isn’t particularly worthy of the theatre. It is only the promise of a murder-to-come that keeps us invested in what we are watching on stage. This is where the performances come in handy. Lisa Fletcher gets to play the strict bully of the workplace. Alec Stokes has fun as the fussy member of the team, filling an atmosphere with his amusing dialogue. The fan favourite is easily Laura Rugg’s Aileen, who has the freedom of playing the comic relief character, free, for the most part, from the bitchy nature of her colleagues and simply loving life. She steals the best lines (watch out when the police detectives ask her what her position is in the store – innuendo at its finest), and Rugg simply has a blast, tearing into the script. While the rest of the first act struggles with the fact everyone wishes it was going by that little bit faster, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for to spend a play witnessing what antics Aileen is getting up to.
Still, we are undeniably grateful when the second act kicks in and gives us something to sink our teeth into. Roger Matthews enters the play as the Detective in charge of figuring out how the killer among the cast is. While some might argue the structure of the story is a tad too workmanlike (Matthews literally interrogates each cast member one by one in front of the audience, so we get a slow build-up of everyone’s motives and feelings to the other characters), it does work well to keep everyone in the loop. As each new interrogation plays out, interceded with the musings of the two detectives on the case, a new layer of story is added to give us food for thought. Was the victim the intended target? Was the victim’s conversation about suicide a hint that they were going to take their own life? What was the real connection between Suspect A and B? It is a satisfyingly tough riddle to dissect and as the story looks under each rock, it gets more and more difficult to figure out who the killer really is. When the answer is finally revealed, the story is satisfyingly concluded, although a few characters are understandably left in the shadows, sadly little more than red herrings it would appear.
Final Verdict: Death in High Heels starts slow, but finishes strong, even if its murder mystery tale is a little reliant on structure.