Grace Nalty embarks on a musical murder mystery
When Charles Dickens was writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1870, he died a somewhat inconveniently timed death, with the end of the novel still unfinished. With regard to writing murder mystery novels, this was pretty bad practice, but for the musical theatre community it allowed for something fresh and engaging: viewer participation. Many will see these words and recoil from the screen in dread, actively trying to avoid eye contact with anyone; the intrinsic nature of our London existence evolves around ignoring one another, throwing an occasional sorry to those we push past in the streets or encounter in a doorway. This world doesn’t exist inside the Shaw Theatre, the newest substitute Bloomsbury, where all are encouraged to… engage.
It’s obvious from the outset that Edwin Drood (Heather Barnish) is going to be murdered, with the cast snaking through the audience as they file in, making their characters known and explaining the voting system that will take part in Act 2. The amount of names being thrown about – character names, stage names, real names – creates a confusing twist that is only fully understood when the production starts. The musical has a certain self-awareness. It is a musical production of a musical production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with actors playing actors playing characters. It makes for a confusing but frankly quite entertaining set-up, with the Chairman (Sam Pryce) holding the show fantastically, and characters flitting in and out of their character/actor duality.
The story constantly drops clues here and there as to who the possible murderer of Drood could be, with characters such as Rosa Bud (Suriyah Rashid), the sweet betrothal of Drood’s, even being suspect. However it is Drood’s uncle, John Jasper (William Quinn), who is the real and most obvious villain – he creepily lusts after Rosa, regularly “medicates” with opium, and has a repertoire of evil-esque arm movements (think of a bat ready to take flight? Weird but strangely accurate analogy). It is up to the audience to decide who will be the murderer, and there are a few clues (or red herrings) here and there to consider. When it came to the vote, the production ultimately had some pantomime vibes, which isn’t to say it was at all childish or “bad”. The audience engagement didn’t feel too forced, and it was exciting to know that a single vote could change the whole outcome of the play. My favourite part was voting for the love interests, with Princess Puffer (April Stanhope) deservedly winning centre stage. It would have been great to have seen all the endings, and to an extent there feels like a lack of finality with not knowing the actual outcome (thanks Dickens).
The cast of this production were great, they really engaged with their characters which had to tipple in between serious murderers and comedians. Yes, the humour can be cheesy, but in terms of originality, it’s a winner. And the most important thing that I took away from eavesdropping around me was that the audience had fun, and at dark, stressful times like these, isn’t that the most important thing?
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Image Credits: UCLU Musical Theatre Society