Sutton Arts produce several productions a year. Inevitably that swallows up the well- known plays at a rate of knots. So a pleasing by-product of their prolific performance schedule is that they have to unearth lesser known plays from time to time to keep the production line rolling. “Death by Design” is one such show.
Written by Massachusetts born, and America resident, playwright Rob Urbanati, the author’s Anglophilia is manifested by this pastiche of great British crime writer Agatha Christie, and great British gentleman, Noel Coward. “Death by Design” was premiered in Houston, Texas, in 2011 but the ending was rewritten in 2013, so it is a pretty contemporaneous homage.
The drama is set in 1932 in Cookham, England, the country home of playwright Edward Bennett (Richard Clarke) and his, flighty, man-eating, actress wife, Sorel (Hellie England). It is a volatile marriage in which barbed badinage and missiles are equal weapons of choice.
Co-Directors Hazel Evans and Mavis Atkinson took on the responsibility after the original director became unavailable, and have done a first-rate job at bringing it to the stage, bringing their considerable, and formidable, experience to bear. Fortunately they have a strong cast to work with.
Anne Dempsey as Maid Bridget, and George Wyton, as Chauffeur Jack, make a fine double act and open proceedings on a well- dressed, single set, stage, which is a credit to Colin Edge and his Set team. Anne Dempsey is a delight as the Maid who doesn’t want to clean, make tea, take guest’s coats, or undertake any maid’s duties whatsoever, even resorting to growling to deter any such impertinent requests. Yet her knowledge of poisonous plants and murder seems positively encyclopaedic George Wyton’s convinces as a charming jack- the- lad with a heart.
The other double act are Mr & Mrs Bennett. Richard Clarke’s care worn, urbane, characterisation is the perfect foil for Hellie England, who has by far the most fun. Looking stunning in a full length, sleeveless, halter neck amethyst evening gown, she preened and pouted, and even snapped a cocktail glass stork in her dedication to the cause.
Allen Lane played sleazy, adulterer, Tory Politician Walter Pearce with unctuous ease, wooing Sorel Bennett in the first half, and laying dead for the second. His opposite, socialist guest Eric ( Nick Shelton), made the best of a slightly underwritten part. Anne Deakin (Victoria Van Roth) by contrast had more to do, growing more inebriated, and funny, as the evening progressed, without losing her accuracy in any way when throwing the dregs of her drink at her host while demanding a refill. The appearance of Libby Allport, as Alice, was a nice plot twist.
The cast consistently raised laughter with some good lines, and enthusiastic character acting making for an enjoyable night out. Urbanati’s “Death by Design” does not reach the heights of those whom he wishes to parody. But who does beat Christie for murder plots, or Coward for playing with the foibles of the British Upper class? Hazel Evans and Mavis Atkinson have done a sterling job to squeeze the very best out of the script, as have the cast. “Death by Design” runs to Saturday 6th February.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.