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Review: The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery at St Aidan's Church

Review by Scott Whitmont

Much can go wrong on opening night of a community theatre production. In the case of the Lane Cove Theatre Company’s new production of The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery EVERYTHING does…but absolutely intentionally. In the spirit of the Broadway classic Noises Off, playwrights David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr. highlight the crucial importance of props, cues, appropriate set construction and line delivery, sound effects and timing. Ignoring one or more of any of the above (let alone all of them) can quickly spell disaster for a production.

In the hands of Director Andrew Castle and the Lane Cove Theatre Company’s ensemble cast, however, the assured and intentional mayhem which ensues is pure slapstick gold, guaranteeing audience members a delicious evening of utmost hilarity and mirth.

This play-within-a-play opens with the overly-enthusiastic and garrulous Mrs. Reece (Michelle Bellamy) greeting the audience, introducing us to the Farndale Ladies and their community dramatic society, explaining some of the challenges of mounting their annual production.  Our setting is ‘Checkmate Manor’ where the extended Bishop and Knight family (and their retainers) gather for the reading of their recently departed patriarch’s will. In quick succession, many of them succumb to the dastardly plan of our mystery murderer, determined to reduce the too-large pool of potential beneficiaries. 

Pauline Gardner as the widowed Dawn Bishop stares beyond the audience and gives a deadpan and sometimes flummoxed delivery which is often side-splittingly funny. Her daughter, Daphne (wonderfully performed by Janette Chambers) is our ’young’ ingénue, described as “trembling on the brink of womanhoodthough she is clearly an actress well into middle-age. Daphne’s would-be love interest, Inspector Gordon Pugh (Oliver Wilson) holds his own as the only male cast member, sometimes delivering lines in expressionless monotone and (in the show's musical number) brilliantly failing at lip-synching and remembering his lyrics. 

Along the way, the production does not go according to plan….in every way possible!

- Props are misused or misplaced meaning (for example) that a would-be knife murder weapon is not available for a plot crucial stabbing, leaving the cast floundering for a substitute killing tool;

- Set backdrops fall down and are reafixed upside down; 

- A telephone (which is not plugged into the wall) is answered…and subsequently rings;

- Script stage directions are erroneously vocalised (“Snort”);

- Actors playing multiple roles, appear on stage in the wrong character’s costumes;

- Lines are delivered out of order, missed altogether or misspoken/learned (“Look out, she has a gnu”), making an already absurd plot which stretches credulity even more ridiculous.

Throughout the show, sight gags, overblown actions and acting histrionics (especially the denouement final death scene) could not be more excessive.

Of course all of the above is carefully calculated and deliberate, highlighting the crucial part detail plays in community (or professional) theatre, as well as the critical role of the crew. In the process of doing so, the audience’s belly laughs and delight are pretty constant from beginning to end. What’s more, they are treated to a post-intermission ‘play quiz’ (with prize) and an unexpected and riotous, amateur fashion show.

In these not-so-easy times, nothing could be more welcome than such a charming, funny and lighthearted evening’s entertainment. At the top of their game, in the hands of the capable six-strong cast and clearly masterful crew of the Lane Cove Theatre Company, this is guaranteed.

Image Credit: Jim Crew


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