Ensemble Theatre, December 7


Sam O’Sullivan and Jamie Oxenbould. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Even the shriek of nails on a blackboard is preferable to the mannered flourishes and dry-mouthed woodenness that passes for acting in the worst amateur theatricals. By contrast, we not only forgive bad drawing and painting, we stick the stuff to our fridges when our children do it. Weekend wonders with three chords, half a voice and a backbeat can entertain us as long as the transaction includes some beer, and we routinely accept bad writing, because we so seldom encounter the other sort. But truly dire theatre makes you want to curl up foetus-like under your seat and sing nursery rhymes in your head.

Midnight Murder at Hamlington Hall is a play about such a show: one where the lighting and sound-effects cues are early, late or don’t arrive at all; where the actors drop a line, and lose themselves in a dialogue loop from which there’s no escape. Written by Mark Kilmurry and Jamie Oxenbould, it’s directed by the former and stars the latter.

The pay-off after the interval is worth the investment in the longwinded setup. This has most of the amateur cast for the opening night of a murder mystery stricken with illness, so the director, stage manager and two surviving troupers must assume a dozen extra roles between them – sometimes obliging them to play two characters in one scene.

Sam O’Sullivan, Eloise Snape, Jamie Oxenbould and Ariadne Sgouros. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Sam O’Sullivan admirably plays Shane, the earnest, caring, banker-by-day director. Oxenbould’s Barney and Eloise Snape’s Phillipa are those odd creatures who populate amateur theatricals, with their loony pre-show rituals and a swollen sense of their own thespian skills. Ariadne Sgouros’ Karen exemplifies the peculiarly Nazi breed of stage manager that haunts such groups – in this case fulfilling the community service requirements of her sentence for some offence that was probably violent in nature. Recruited to tread the boards for the night, she’s underwhelmed: “It’s acting, right?,” she says. “It’s just like lying.”

Some of this first act reeks of needing to clock up sufficient stage-time to justify an interval before we’re treated to the play-within-the-play. Nonetheless, the send-up of the dreaded “intimacy training” is a hoot, while thickening the plot is the fact that the local council is contemplating taking the hall away from the Middling Cove Players to give it to – gasp – a fitness company.

Sam O’Sullivan and Jamie Oxenbould. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Proving the theatre gods have a sense of humour, a post-interval technical glitch delayed the start of the play-within-a-play about a show in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Everyone – presumably other than the poor sod trying to solve the problem – saw the funny side, and the issue was swiftly left behind when we got underway, and the laughter dam burst. What happened in the next 70 minutes (which really should have been trimmed to 60), was often so funny that the structural integrity of the Ensemble’s seating must have been in some jeopardy as so many people shook with laughter.

Leading the charge in this regard was Oxenbould with his brilliant physical comedy, and his Barney furiously swapping characters and forgetting who he was or had to become, while smoothing the troubled waters of characterisation with the liberal use of his hipflask. Running gags, sight gags, slapstick and puns abound, with just the odd moment when the laughs dry up, or the show borders on being as excruciating as that which it satirizes. But then the dam bursts once more, and ultimately the hilarity sweeps all before it.

Until January 14.