For the offering of their latest amateur production the Masque Theatre has joined forces with the Cape Town Theatre Company to present THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD. It's a rather ambitious and ironic staging of a play within a play, the setting being Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of only two Poirot plays. The production runs until 18 November 2023.
In THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, a fictional amateur drama society do their best to stage Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Attempt being the key here, for things don't really go as planned. It lures audiences in with the promise of great comedy through the ensuing chaos.
What gives the production at the Masque Theatre a level of charm is that here it is indeed a true amateur drama society, the Cape Town Theatre Company, staging the play about a fictional amateur drama society trying to stage a Christie murder mystery. While it’s a play within a play for the production company, perhaps for the audience THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD is more a play within a play within a play… Perhaps it goes just that ambitious one play too far.
I never measure amdram productions at the same level as professional productions (it would not be fair to either side of the theatrical sphere), and much is forgiven as long as a show brings the goods as far as entertainment is concerned. So measured, I have in the past seen many amdram production that I have thoroughly enjoyed, usually because of the exuberant commitment of the performers. Sadly, this time around, I walked away feeling somewhat underwhelmed by it all.
While Agatha Christie is known for hiding her plot secrets in plain sight, the amateur dramatic society in the spotlight of THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD intentionally place the fumbles of the actors in plain sight. The effort of the performers in doing so do not go unnoticed or unappreciated, but due to the structure of this specific production that effort alone doesn’t fully translate into the required energy to bring a comedy of this farcical nature to life.
There is however two performances that create real moments amidst all the misplayed opportunities. The standout being that of Darren Moore as the legendary Hercule Poirot. He undoubtedly has great stage presence and understands the role of his character in bringing the story together. It is clear that Moore tries his utmost to keep the pace and the performance standard high, but one man does not an ensemble make. He has one committed partner though in Bronwyn Harvey with her performance as Caroline Sheppard. Her natural comedic timing offers up amusing interludes.
Unfortunately, that’s where the entertainment value stops for me this time around. The problem with devising a show-within-a-show that plays so close to what hit productions such as The Play That Goes Wrong do exceptionally well is that you then open yourself up to the risk of comparison. To pull off a show of that nature the players must have clear direction as to how and when to play up the getting-it-wrong moments. That understanding, along with the requirement that performances must be really overplayed at times, is key to turn idea into comedy. THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD didn't play into into that farcical requirement with any real gusto.
With THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD the collective performances never truly reach that heightened sense of theatricality. Part of it could be the fact that most of the action is staged as far away from the audience as the space seems to allow. Understandably, that choice of staging could possibly be to allow for the use of items dropping from the ceiling (we see your clever nod to the Phantom’s chandelier there, and hats off), but in the greater scheme of things I don’t know if that is rationale enough to jeopardise your casts’ connection with the audience.
Also, a big part of the impact of The Play That Goes Wrong is that the audience does not absolutely comprehend the degree to which the stage will literally fall apart until it happens. The element of surprise can therefore add to the impact of the comedy. However, in THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD the odd directing choice has been made to have the walls 'announce' the imminent doom by rattling in self-destruct anticipation. I was left perplexed as to why you would give away such a trump card in a performance where most everything that goes wrong is so clearly predictable.
That being said, it takes a lot of courage to put oneself out there in front of an audience and to perform your heart out, as the cast of THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF RODGER ACKROYD so clearly does. For that I salute them all.
THE MURDER OF THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD is onstage at the Masque Theatre until 18 November 2023, with tickets available online through Quicket.