Alongside his 175 novels, numerous short stories and hundreds of articles, Edgar Wallace also found time to pen 24 plays, including The Case of the Frightened Lady. A cross between Downton Abbey and the 1970’s TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, the entire play takes place in one room of the terrifically grand Marks Priory, ancestral seat of the Lebanon family.
Julie Godfrey’s set design leaves the stage wide open to allow plenty of room for the dozen strong cast to enter and leave easily – which they do with frightening frequency. Throughout the performance characters walk on through one door, only to exit immediately through another – without ever saying a word.
As well as their numerous unnecessary traverses of the stage, the menacing footmen, Gilder and Brook (Glenn Carter and Callum Coates) also spend a lot of time eavesdropping the many conversations that happen in act one, as we learn more about the family and servants who live in the house.
A fancy dress party provides the setting for the first of the murders, announced by the offstage screams of April Pearson who plays Isla Crane, secretary to the Lady of the House and, probably, the Frightened Lady featured in the title. The family Chauffeur, the rather aptly named Studd (Joshua Wichard), has been strangled so, to avoid too much local gossip, Chief Superintendent Tanner (Gray O’Brien) and his sidekick Detective Sergeant Totti (Charlie Clements) are drafted in to interview the reluctant household.
During the investigation we learn the back stories of the housekeeper Mrs Tilling (Rosie Thomson) whose loveless marriage to her jealous husband, and the estate’s gamekeeper, played by Owen Oldroyd, sees her on the giving and receiving end of a lot of flirting. Some of that flirting comes from Doctor Amersham (Denis Lill), a man who is so secretive and scheming that he begins to look like a serious candidate for the murderer.
Rula Lenska plays Lady Lebanon, the family matriarch, with Ben Nealon as her son, the present Lord Lebanon (following the demise of his father a few years ago). Both work well with the material they are given which, sadly, continually indicates that prolific writing and good writing are not mutually assured!
Overall this is a satisfactory adaptation of a fairly run-of-the-mill murder mystery which works well as an introduction to the genre, as I found out by having my nine year old along to see his first ever thriller.
*** Three Stars