Seeing as it was officially the beginning of Christmas, I took to the theatre to see a festive, comedic, murder mystery play at the long running Wollongong Workshop Theatre. Written by UK playwright, Peter Gordon, Sleighed to Death is the prequel to Gordon’s Agatha Christie inspired “Inspector Pratt” spoof trilogy. The result? It made for a few good belly laughs to welcome in the festive season.
Peter Gordon, with a largely comedic repertoire of plays under his writing belt, created “The Inspector Pratt” trilogy as a means to spoof the traditional Agatha Christie classics, much like Mischief Theatre has successfully done with their smash-hit The Play That Goes Wrong. The Workshop Theatre in Wollongong have so far staged each part of the trilogy (Murdered to Death, Secondary Cause of Death and Death by Fatal Murder) and now have decided to stage the prequel, Sleighed to Death. What makes each of these performances unique is that they have had the same Inspector Pratt for all four plays. Which to me, is quite appealing in its consistency.
Walking into the relatively small and rather intimate theatre space of Workshop, we were greeted with a simple, yet ergonomic set designed by the production team of the show. Complete with a lit up Christmas Tree and crackling fireplace, this seemed the perfect setup for a murder mystery to unfold in.
The play itself did not require a large cast, eight characters in all, and a variety of accents to bring the setting of the play effectively into the mid-1930’s English country home of Sir Walton Gates.
Director Michael Connor clearly worked with his cast closely in order to build each individual archetype and fit them into their place of the world of the play. Whether it be the cheek wobbling Sir Walton Gates, the typical stern elderly Scottish house “assistant”, the upper-class debonair snob or the bumbling fool of Pratt himself. Each character was consistent and clear in their intent and their place within the mystery of the play.
“The play trod along at a usual pace for any murder mystery…but the show really came to life when its titular character entered the scene.”
As Sir Walton Gates, Lajos Hamers was perfect as the chortling, somewhat clueless lord of the house. Although at times he stumbled over his words making it hard to understand what was being said, his characterisation confidently held itself on stage and his cheek-wobbling, flabbergasted looks got many laughs from the audience.
Playing Walton’s second (younger) wife Grace Gates, Melanie Ringer played the snarky, devious evil step-mother stereotype, her connection with James Washington (played by James Turnbull) added to the red herrings for the audience to follow. Turnbull’s apt portrayal of the dashing James Washington was consistent throughout and he certainly knew how to project his character in the small theatre, although at times this felt more forced than was necessary.
As the rather irritably childish Emma Gates, Sophie Bentley worked her way through Emma’s tantrums and upset upper-class persona throughout the play. What I was unsure of was the character’s speech impediment and way of speaking (pronouncing R’s as W’s) and I was contemplating if this was necessary to the play as it was only used as a punchline once in the entirety of the script.
The last of the Gates’, Sir Walton Gates brother, Archie Gates, was portrayed by Tim Collins. Having been sent away by his father at a young age to Australia, it was hilarious to see Collins play an extroverted Australian stereotype and I had many chuckles over the Australian slurs and colloquial phrases from his portrayal of the character.
Rounding out the usual suspects was Susie Hamers as the stern, cold, Morag McKay. I couldn’t fault Hamer’s Scottish accent and her characterisation never skipped a beat or dropped once, a clear sign of an experienced performer.
The play trod along at a usual pace for any murder mystery, and at times it was in danger of going into Agatha Christie territory, but the show really came to life when its titular character entered the scene.
Sergeant Pratt (later given the title ‘Inspector’) is the typical bumbling fool of a police officer, one we’ve become more than accustomed to throughout the genesis of British comedy – Pratt’s self-declaration of being a “master of delusion” a prime example. Less of a physical comedy piece of theatre and more reliant on its witty language and repartee, Sleighed to Death‘s protagonist continuously using the incorrect idioms and turn of phrase in his dialogue. Many of these hit home with the audience, causing much laughter, others fell flat on their face. I found this more of an issue in the writing itself, rather than the production or the acting. Sometimes too much of a good thing doesn’t always mean the most effective outcome.
In saying this, Ben Verdon’s portrayal of Sergeant Pratt and Gemma Parson’s Constable Mary Potter were clearly the standouts and the highlights of this production. Their time on stage when it was simply the two of them were captivating and sometimes got the biggest laughs. Verdon, having played Pratt thrice before, indulged in his character throughout the entire performance. Every mispronunciation, every wrongly used idiom and his physicality of the character were flawless and, most of the time, effortless. His use of vocal work and his comedic timing were a joy to watch and one that I could see fit into professional productions.
Gemma Parson, as the more able Constable Potter, nailed her accent every line she spoke and her reactions and interactions with each character were always in sync with her characterisations. Her work as Potter helped to consolidate the setting of the play and took it from Australians doing accents, to something more grounded and provided more verisimilitude in the play itself.
Sleighed to Death was, in its essence, an enjoyable night at theatre and a rather hilarious way to kick of the season of giving. As I left, I felt more intrigued to see the original trilogy now and only hoped that I would have a performer as adept as this production’s Pratt and Potter to create many laughs for its audiences.
Stin’s Final Thought: Whenever I see something in the style of a murder mystery, I just can’t help but picture ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, seriously people, it’s just THAT funny. Follow Mischief Theatre to keep up to date with all their latest news!
Sleighed to Death was playing at the Wollongong Workshop Theatre. Their new joint-production Thark opens Friday 14th December. Tickets, as well as info on their 2019 season, can be found in the links below.https://www.facebook.com/WollongongWorkshopTheatre/ https://www.eventbrite.com.au/o/wollongong-workshop-theatre-16376967882?fbclid=IwAR2WiihtsVSfTcYPHcOLxl6QS-K0wwSM11ZWpSEpdQLHqqtFg3v0pnlJ0dU