Review by Giddy Pillai
The living room of Arthur Whitney, best-selling author and ‘everybody’s favourite local patriarch’, all decked out for a surprise birthday party in his honour. Whitney’s dead body in the centre of the room, surrounded by a pile of his own books. A young police officer determined to crack the case in under an hour, fuelled by a relentless ambition outweighed only by his emotional baggage. Ten larger than life suspects: eccentric, unhinged and with motive for days between them. An award-winning book and score that pay hilarious homage to old-school murder mysteries. A grand piano. And two of Australia’s fastest rising musical comedy superstars, tasked with bringing it all to life.
Hayes Theatre Co’s production of Murder for Two has all the ingredients for a damn good hour and a half of entertainment, and it overdelivers in spades. This is theatre that’s easy on its audience – there’s nothing to dissect, analyse, interrogate or navel-gaze about here, your only job is to show up, switch off your phone and laugh your guts out. To pull this off, a lot rests on the shoulders of its two stars, Gabbi Bolt and Maverick Newman.
Bolt plays Officer Marcus Moscowicz – hungry, lonely and just one promotion away from detective. Newman plays all of the suspects, a madcap bunch of Whitney’s frenemies, each with their own reason or three for wanting him dead. Between them they are responsible not only for breathing life into thirteen characters, who take the spotlight in turn in a series of laugh-out-loud cabaret-style numbers (by Kellen Blair and Joe Kinosian), but also for pulling off the orchestral level piano accompaniment that forms the musical’s score.
The show opens with a bang and proceeds at a relentless pace, leaving no room at all for fudged notes, dropped lines or energy slumps. For it all to hang together, both actors need to be phenomenal, both in their comic timing and their musicianship. Bolt and Newman do not disappoint. Newman’s portrayal of the suspects is a dazzling experience that is a sheer joy to behold. He transforms seamlessly from melodramatic widow to friendly old psychiatrist to haughty prima ballerina, to bickering old couple. All the suspects are enormous personalities who compete for attention, with Officer Moscowitz and with each other. Newman masterfully captures their gloriously chaotic collective energy, while anchoring his performance in razor-sharp precision and strong individual characterisation. Bolt’s Moscowitz is the straight man that keeps the narrative on track, but by wearing his vulnerability on his sleeve she makes it abundantly clear that he’s paddling like a duck, to hilarious effect. It’s a beautiful performance that hits its comic notes perfectly, and an impressive professional theatre debut.
Newman and Bolt are well-supported by an array of intelligent production choices. Keerthi Subramanyam’s gorgeous set oozes country manor glamour and is cleverly designed in a way that makes the small stage feel spacious. Shannon Burns’ choreography fills the space beautifully, working hand in hand with Richard Carroll’s direction to create the illusion of a crowded room with just two actors. Priyanka Martin’s lighting aids the narrative in a way that feels organic and natural.
In a director’s note, Carroll says that the creative team worked from a story-first perspective, but aimed above all to make audiences laugh until their stomachs hurt. They’ve delivered on this goal and then some. Murder for Two is one of the most delightful pieces of theatre I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, and part of the joy was the palpable sense that everyone else in the room was having just as good a time as I was. Together we belly-laughed, cheered, laughed some more and, ultimately, rose to our feet in the most instantaneous standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of. This is a 90-minute dose of pure serotonin that you don’t want to miss.
Image Credit: Phil Erbacher