After a quiet couple of months, I recently went to the theatre for the first time this year. And my first venue of 2022 was the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. I’ve been there once before, when I saw A Pupil in November 2018. It’s a nice little place, and they make a lot of effort to be accessible and inclusive. They’re also a charity, but they don’t get funding from the government or the Arts Council, so they encourage people to support them in a variety of ways. That includes this special fundraising production, which finished its run today as I write this, so the ticket prices were a little bit higher than they usually charge. But it was still very cheap compared to many shows over in the West End, and it was well worth my purchase.
The show was called Whodunnit [Unrehearsed] 2, written by the theatre’s Artistic Director Jez Bond & Associate Artist Mark Cameron. It’s a comedy murder mystery play, and this is the second time they’ve put it on, after the first production in 2019. Their aim is to do this show every couple of years, with a different setting and story each time.
The run included an audio described performance, but that was on a weekday, during a traditionally busy period at work where I wouldn’t have been able to get time off, so I attended a regular show last Saturday instead. But as I’d booked early, I’d nabbed myself a good front row seat, which worked out perfectly. They have a large square stage that’s only a step up from floor level, surrounded by the audience on 3 sides, on the ground and up on balconies. So I was literally touching the stage with my feet and had a wonderfully close view. I still used my monocular to briefly look at few things close-up, but for the most part I didn’t need to use it, and I didn’t miss anything important.
In the play we meet a diverse group of characters on a luxury cruise, all of whom come under suspicion when a diamond is stolen and the captain is murdered, as they all have secrets and potential motives, which of course is typical for this kind of story. The unseen captain is voiced with a few lines recorded by Stephen Fry, while there are also brief voiceovers by Ian McKellen & Emma Thompson at other points. All the characters on stage are also played very well, and there are lots of funny gags and humour throughout.
But the most important role, of course, is the Inspector who solves the case. They’re played by a different celebrity guest in every show during the run, and you don’t know who you’re going to get until the show starts, so it’s an intriguing surprise.
And the play is a genuine mystery for the celebrity too, as this is where the “Unrehearsed” aspect of the title comes in. While all of the other actors are fully clued into the story, the celebrity guest has no rehearsal and sees no script. Instead, they’re fed their lines via an earpiece during the show, or occasionally they’re written down for them to read. Although, being a comedy, it’s not quite that simple, as various things are thrown in to the mix to see how the guest reacts.
That leap into the unknown doesn’t put people off taking part though, as it is for a good cause after all. So they’ve attracted an impressive roster of performers, including Ronan Keating, Brian Cox, Marcus Brigstocke, Tamzin Outhwaite, Tony Robinson, Daisy Ridley, Sue Perkins, Ross Kemp, Gillian Anderson, Gyles Brandreth, Caroline Quentin, Mark Gatiss, Tim McInnerny, Lee Mack, Tamsin Grieg, Maureen Lipman, David Haig, Les Dennis, Stephen Mangan, Alexei Sayle, Harry Hill, Emma Thompson (in person instead of just doing a voiceover), Jonny Vegas (whose inevitably crazy antics made it difficult for Roz Chalmers to do her dry run for the audio description script), and Gareth Malone (who starred in the actual audio described performance that I was unable to attend). Nearly all of those links point to a brief video clip of the star taking part in the show, from the theatre’s Twitter feed.
For my show, the Inspector was played by Sharon Small, who appears to be the only person in the list of guest stars who I’d never heard of beforehand! However, she’s done a lot of work in TV, radio, film and theatre, including Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Dr Brigitte Rayne in Trust Me, Inspector Elisabeth Flynn in the final episode of Law & Order: UK, Christine in the film About A Boy, Marie in the film Dear Frankie, and Polly Peachum and Jenny Diver in different stage productions of The Threepenny Opera. The only thing I might have seen her in is a 1997 episode of The Bill, in which Anita Dobson was also a guest star, but after all this time I obviously don’t remember it, if I did even see it. Beyond that, I’ve definitely never seen any of her other work.
But she was very good in any case. She clearly didn’t know what she was letting herself in for, but went along with it sportingly and enjoyed the experience. As she said in the Q&A afterwards, it was clear that both the cast and the audience were on her side, as all the guest stars will have found, so she soon settled into it, despite any nerves about what might be coming next.
Which is just as well, as she was kept on her toes throughout. The guy talking to her through her earpiece, Robert Blackwood, was able to have a lot of fun for a start. Often he would tell her to address a particular character, or refer to a particular prop or part of the set, and she would have to spin around to figure out where she should be facing. Or he would deliberately delay lines for comic effect – for instance, a character would start to run away but then suddenly pause mid-step, and a few seconds later Sharon would command them not to move. And naturally she had to say silly things sometimes, which included doing a David Attenborough impression at the start of the second half, commentating on a ridiculous pair of animals played by actors in costumes. And talking of animals, they even had her doing an elephant impression too!
Sharon wasn’t always given instructions via the earpiece either. There was one moment where she was suddenly put on the spot to improvise something to entertain everyone, who all sat down eagerly to watch. And she was about to sing a bit of a song from a previous play she had done, when she remembered hearing that one of the theatre staff, Heather, was celebrating her birthday. So she got Heather on stage, and we all sang Happy Birthday to her instead. So that effectively gave her a ‘get out of jail free’ card from improvising, but she was later persuaded to sing a few lines of the song she had in mind in the Q&A session, so we still got to hear it.
There was also a point where she was put in a Mastermind style scenario, sitting in a chair with a spotlight on her. She had to answer a few questions about her career, and also a few silly questions too (e.g. Is Chris Whitty? Was Glenn Close? Could Harrison Ford Focus?). And there was a big scene where the cast broke into an entertainingly elaborate musical number, and she had to dance along with them, sing a little bit and play on a drum kit they wheeled on stage.
In addition, there were a few moments where members of the audience got involved too. And because of that possibility we needed to to take a lateral flow test before attending to be on the safe side, which surprisingly is the first time I’ve ever had to do one. It was quite easy to order a pack of tests online though, and it was delivered early the following day. It’s fiddly to do, but with the aid of the demo video and the large print guide I managed it first time, and it was thankfully negative. Reporting the result online was easy enough too, and it was handy that I could scan the QR code to register the test number. There is help available for those who need assistance doing the tests though, including the ability to connect with NHS advisors via the Be My Eyes app for people with sight loss. I’m not sure how well that works if you have to handle the different parts of the test kit and your phone at the same time, but I hope there are people who have been finding it useful.
But I digress. Back to the play, and one audience member had won the raffle, which was another fundraising element of the show, to have a cameo role on stage. So she was brought on in the guise of a former belly dancer, in a shiny costume, to deliver a few lines and have a little bit of a dance with Sharon. But she wasn’t the only person who got roped in to do something. A man was also invited up on stage at one point, when a character said he looked like someone from her past, so he had to tell us a bit about what he gets up to in his home of Reigate, and then make a few decisions on how another character should deliver her lines, who was rehearsing for how to plead innocence to the Inspector. And another guy in the audience was given some confetti to throw on stage when prompted – which turned out to be for a representation of stormy winds, but his lacklustre throw didn’t give that impression, resulting in some humorous heckling from the actor on stage!
Those strong winds, incidentally, came about when one of the characters opened a set of double doors. Not the physical doors at the back of the set that were also used regularly, but a pair of invisible “musically appropriate” doors that the characters pretended to open, along a walkway off one corner of the stage. Whenever these imaginary doors were opened, a relevant piece of music or a sound effect would play, often with an accompanying gag. At another point during the storm, for instance, the song Riders On The Storm played, which led to another character to exclaim “Not The Doors!”, referring to the name of the band. Similarly, Message In A Bottle was played when the police were coming, with a Sting song shortly after to signify a sting operation. And an extract from Take On Me was played before the guest Inspector had a thought and exclaimed “A-Ha!”. So there were various silly jokes like that. And there were one or two topical gags slipped in during the show as well, including references to Prince Andrew’s inability to sweat and the government’s Partygate scandal.
At the end of the show the theatre’s Artistic Director Jez Bond came on stage and talked about how important theatre is, the workshops and community work they do in addition to shows, and how important their fundraising is. Then he got Sharon Small, and the other writer Mark Cameron, back on stage with him for a nice little Q&A about how the show came together and how Sharon found the experience. And then they held an auction, where people could bid to meet Sharon for a drink and a chat backstage. It ultimately came down to 2 couples who were clearly both keen, so they let them both have it for the same price – £350 each. So that was a cool £700 raised in addition to the ticket and raffle sales! If it had been a celebrity I’m familiar with and a big fan of, I would have got involved in the bidding, but I naturally stayed out in this case.
So all in all, I really enjoyed the show. It was very funny, Sharon got into it well and had a good time, and it was a great distraction from everything going on in the world right now. It’s certainly good to be getting back into theatres again, and I’m looking forward to my next show later this month.