‘Death by Design’ was witty.
Footlights Theatrical brings this eccentric play to life on the unassuming stage of the Belmont Services Bowls Club, unleashing the incredibly witty script on audiences this winter. ‘Death by Design’ tells the rather batty story of a murder mystery play within a play, told by a cast of eclectic and hilariously offbeat characters, or should that be suspects. Set in the living room of a 1932 English country manor, the story has the right amount of dark humour and quick wit.
With the character of Walter Pearce being murdered by seemingly everyone in the room, the audience is taken on the journey of investigating his untimely “death” in a very well put together show. ‘Death by Design’ mixes the wit of Noel Coward with the dark and enthralling styling of an Agatha Christie novel and is told with a small cast of eight actors. This being the case, there is no real line drawn between lead or ensemble roles, as in the true spirit of Christie – everyone is a suspect. ‘Death by Design’ originated in Houston, Texas in 2011, making it a rather young production for something so well-orchestrated and timeless. A parody of murder mystery held together by the acid-tongued playwright Edward Bennett and boosted by the different but equally batty co-stars Sorrell, Victoria, Jack and Eric, ‘Death by Design’ addresses issues such as murder, lust, adultery and the great divide between the classes of 1932 England. There are several references to the government funding of arts and performance, bringing this antiquated piece into full relevance in 2021.
‘Death by Design’ begins with a lovely upbeat back and forth between Jack (Isaac Tibbs) and Bridgit (Fiona Buchanan). The two servants of the house discuss their simple pleasures and display their wholesome yet flirty relationship. Next, we meet the charmingly odd Edward Bennett (William Boyd) and his somewhat unhinged wife Sorrell Bennett (Aimee Monement). The two engage in an incredibly well-timed volley, which immediately shows the audience the unhealthy yet endearing and downright crazy dynamic of their marriage. We then meet the soon to be “murdered” Walter Pearce (Trea Thomas) and discover he does not appease the other characters in the slightest. Characters such as Eric (Harley Roy), Alice (Hilary Flynn) and Victoria (Jermia Turner) are thrown into the mix of reprobates that make up this cast and the audience discovers that everyone has reason to wish Walter Pearce dead. Once Mr Pearce meets his untimely death at the end of Act 1, the audience is then thrown into unravelling the investigation, led by maid Bridgit (Fiona Buchanan), who fancies herself a detective. Finally, each character has their motives questioned in the murder in a wonderfully unhinged banter between all cast members. The play ends with the mystery solved and another sweet interaction between Jack and Bridgit, just as it began.
Given the small, intimate venue, sound and lighting choices were made in order to immerse the audience into the old English living room, where the entire production takes place. Period lamps were used to light the set, adding to the stiff yet homely atmosphere of a large English manor filled with people unknown to one another. A fine venue for a play such as this, requiring no serious set changes or major props with the entire cast on stage for the vast majority of the show. The few songs that are part of the story were sung by Sorrell (Monement) and Edward (Boyd) with the accompaniment of backing tracks, while both actors hilariously “played” the beautiful antique piano that sat stage left. Where other shows may have suffered from this obvious disregard for live accompaniment, it blended perfectly with the slapstick and oddball nature of the show. It also added to the comedic effect of people pretending to be much more talented and refined than they really are. Act 2 slowed a little bit from the fast-paced banter of Act 1, which felt quite polished. The linking between Act 1 and Act 2 was comical and clever.
There is a thin veil placed over the fourth wall that is flirted with for the entirety of the show. While there is no outright break of the fourth wall or interaction with the audience, there is a sense of acknowledgment throughout the cast that they are performing not just to one another but outwardly to anyone who will listen. This creates a fun, intimate atmosphere which is clearly demonstrated through the belly laughs and squeals of enjoyment that can be heard from the audience for the entire show. The story is satirical and astonishingly relevant despite the setting and time period.
The set design and costuming give themselves well to the time of the play and are perfectly polarising without dating the play too much. Each character is well dressed, with an added flair to each that enhances the individuality of their character. Notably, Edward’s pink nightdress over the top of his otherwise sharp, tailored attire was well received by the audience upon his entrance. Similarly, Sorrel’s unwavering affinity for extravagant hats perfectly accompanies her characters’ love for all things wealth and status.
Ashleigh Mairi-Joy Cates’ direction shows a promising talent for piecing together a show that relies solely on the blocking, timing and presentation of the entire cast at once. No easy feat for any director, balancing a cast of crazy, eccentric individuals while giving each their own voice and time to add to the hilarity of an incredibly well-written script.
While it is clear that all characters are integral to the story and how it is told, it must be noted that Boyd’s performance as Edward feels like the glue that binds the entire piece together. His incredibly sharp comedic timing, mixed with his total commitment to his character had the audience in stitches. Lines that could be so easily lost were delivered clearly and with the strong wit, his character demands. He sat comfortably in the role of a wild-eyed and eccentric creative and his quick comments were well placed to break up what would otherwise be a lengthy scene.
Similarly, Monement’s performance as the unhinged and pretentious Sorrell Bennett was hilarious and just the right amount of overdramatic. Her poisonous and sarcastic lack of empathy is somehow endearing and remains clear throughout the production. Monement shows excellent diction in a rather wordy script and her flowing and unabashed delivery completely embodies the character of Sorrell, notably in her delightful butchering of a piano performance in Act 1.
In mentioning these two actors, it should be noted that their chemistry is wonderful and they swing wildly between pure hatred for one another to fiery passion at the drop of a hat.
Another standout performance is that of Turner as Victoria Van Roth. She commanded the stage with strength from the moment her character entered and remained in character as the wonderfully arrogant female throughout. Her voice and delivery perfectly lend themselves to the pretentious and somewhat insufferable artist character who demands everyone appreciate her every move. The commitment to her ‘’choreography’’ was perfectly macabre and ridiculous.
In the supporting roles, Tibbs gave a lovely performance as chauffeur Jack. He had great comedic timing and cool and calm delivery. At times, his character seemed the only one without questionable sanity and this elevated his character as a charming ladies man with a sweet disposition. His levelled and well-timed one-liners added to the overall comedy of the piece. Roy was a great fit for the young, outspoken and passionate Eric. His moral compass pointing due north for (almost) the entirety of the show is a nice contrast to the other characters. Thomas’ performance of Pearce was refined but difficult as his character, whilst being the victim, is overshadowed by the eccentricities of each other cast member. Flynn was fitting for the disenfranchised and somewhat hysterical part of Alice, but at times it felt she was a little hesitant in her role.
The cast was mostly well balanced, with good dynamics and synergy. There were some noticeable stumbled over or slightly misquoted lines, which took away from the sharp wit of the script at times. This story has a fun and playful throughline and a well-crafted plot. Overall, ‘Death by Design’ is a playful and funny show and manages to make themes such as murder and deceit feel light-hearted and fun. It was well directed with a great tone and atmosphere.
‘Death by Design’ performed two shows from Friday, 4 June 2021 at the Hibiscus Room of the Belmont Services Bowls Club. For more information on future productions visit the Footlights Theatrical website.