Review: The Cat and The Canary. (touring) Derby Theatre

Presented by The Classic Thriller Company, The Cat and the Cradle is a traditional and suspenseful mystery that keeps the audience guessing throughout. The production is opening at Derby Theatre until Saturday 11 September before heading off on its Autumn tour across the UK. It’s a positive start to the tour when on only its second night, suggestions, questions and solutions echo around the auditorium during the interval; it is obvious that the audience members are completely engrossed in the plot and whodunit.

Set in the opulent and eerie drawing room of Glenthorne Manor, the grandchildren of the late eccentric Dr Cyrus West gather to discover who will become the sole heir of the entire West Estate including the desolate house on the windy and isolated Bodmin Moor – a residence whose closest neighbour is an asylum housing the criminally insane…I’ll leave you to decide whether that may be relevant to the plot…

The set is beautifully designed with oak panelling and decoration that is reminiscent of a natural history museum. The flickering lights, thunder and lightning add to the tension as the gathering family await their fate. During Act 2, the set changes to a bedroom in order to move the action to a less communal place and the stage is surrounded by disconcerting images of framed eyes. The stage transitions again in Act 2 when the curtain comes down and music plays for the audience. This transition is necessary, but hopefully will become swifter as the tour progresses.

An all-star cast take to the stage to present this thriller written by John Willard in a post war Britain and adapted by Carl Grose. Even though they share the same bloodline, the characters are very different which makes for witty repartee, physical altercation and romantic tension. This is definitely a dysfunctional family with the infamous Dr Cyrus West at the head even in death…or is he , as suggested by the indomitable housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant, an evil spirit appearing on the 20th anniversary of his demise?

The audience is first introduced to the inaptly named Mrs Pleasant (Britt Ekland) as she sits alone under shadowy light with a child’s voice singing a creepy nursery rhyme all about a cat… and a canary. Mrs Pleasant is a reliable constant in a play of twists and turns and Ekland is superb in her portrayal of the loyal yet slightly dotty housemaid.

Gary Webster’s Harry Blythe, the black sheep of the family, brings a bit o’ cockney charm and brute force to the old house and contrasts well with Ben Nealon’s Charlie Wilder. There is no love lost between these two cousins and their conflict adds further tension to the plot as their true selves are revealed. The third cousin, Paul Jones (Anthony Costa) is clumsy and self-deprecating, and the audience immediately warm to him. Despite their differences, they are united in their feelings for Annabelle West (Tracey Shaw), another cousin. For this reviewer, Shaw absolutely shone. Her portrayal of Anabelle was powerful throughout her whole complicated character arc. From her initial introduction as the cheerful, beautiful author who stole the hearts of Harry and Charlie, through to her apparent declining and delicate state of mind, Shaw presented a flawed character who has gumption.

There is much comedy in this production and, completing the quintet of cousins, Susan Sillsby (Marti Webb) brings out the dry humour. Her throw-away comments cause much laughter in the audience as the character really has no filter, but underneath her brittle exterior, she has a caring heart. The biggest laughs however come when the cat is onstage; because the cat is built up to be a maniacal killer, when he does appear, the crazed costume and slinky movement make him a ridiculous figure and source of merriment rather than dread.

Juxtaposed with moments of humour, some very real and pertinent topics are explored including the very notion of fear and the impact that fear can have on the fragile mind. The context here is important as the main male characters speak briefly of their experiences in the war. Even though these mentions are brief, they are poignant as the war has clearly impacted each of the male characters. Dr Cyrus West has written books on fear and the grandchildren reference the “games” that they used to play with their eccentric grandfather. Madness is also a motif that runs through the plot both overtly and implicitly. Mrs Pleasant’s recurring references to “evil” make this chilling in places as every loud noise and every flickering light leads the heart to beat that little bit faster.

There are giggles and jumps galore, and the end of the play is fraught and a little farcical, but this is a fun production. It simply can’t take itself too seriously, despite the important topics on show. There were a few timing issues with the lib and a few fumbled lines which were quickly recovered, but this reviewer was surprised to see them in a show with such a stellar, professional cast – hopefully these will be ironed out as the tour progresses.

The Cat and the Cradle is definitely worth a watch…but don’t follow in the footsteps of this reviewer – don’t go alone. You need to have a fellow theatre goer by your side to discuss your thoughts through the interval, and the scene transition in the second Act – as well as a companion on the journey to the car.  So head on down to Derby Theatre and “let the games begin, old bean”.

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