Stone Cold Murder, an ‘Excellent Entertainment’

Superbly crafted tension and top theatrical performances in a world premiere by British newcomer James Cawood

On The Town | David Warren | April 2011

At last they can relax. After a strenuous first season running a dilapidated hotel in the British Lake District, finally the summer is over and Robert and Olivia Chappell can enjoy an evening with their feet up in front of the stove, stiff drink in hand. Yet, something is amiss with Olivia, who try as she might to enjoy the pleasures of English country house life – afternoon ‘naps’ with her husband and Radio 4, followed by whisky sodas in front of a roaring fire – just can’t relax. She seems troubled by a problematic past, and one, her jumpiness apparently suggests, that continues to haunt her.

Before the couple can even refill their glasses, there is a knock at the door: a mountain walker looking for a bed for the night. If only the Chappell’s problems finished there!

Stone Cold Murder is young British playwright James Cawood’s first work, and it provides excellent entertainment: tense, gripping and intricately crafted. Moreover, its success as a piece is heightened by the skill of this first ever production – Sue Mayes’s magnificent set, deftly choreographed movement by Philip d’Orleans and adroit direction by Andy de la Tour along with an extremely able quartet of young British actors.

Cawood’s play is a tremendously absorbing thriller, whose tensions from the first rely on the plausible and unsettling situation of being stuck in an isolated old manor house on a stormy night with an at once jittery, but also secretive partner. From there, the author works his characters with precision, so that while together they may create an atmosphere of incredible suspense, none of them ever do anything that even faintly stretches their credibility. Cawood also knows when and how thickly to lay on the terror; from the few unsettling incidents that unnervingly punctuate the heavy atmosphere of the first act, to the scintillating action, incessant drama and revelation of the second as the pace of the drama escalates.

Here, the play is performed inside Mayes’ wonderful take on the drawing room of a 19th century mansion. Grand, and slightly run down, the vague menace of its exposed stone walls and neo-Gothic ribs provides an ideal backdrop to this thriller where we are never quite sure what to expect and where even moments of calm heighten our unease.

Brilliant direction and choreography similarly bolster Cawood’s already strong material. With only four cast members, director de la Tour nevertheless conjures up sustained magnetism, leaving the audience spellbound through a consistently shifting – although never confusing – dialectic of animosity and reconciliation, relaxation and panic. On a different level, the director reinforces tension by making superb use of music and other sound effects, while avoiding the temptation to open the box of tricks too often.

More critically perhaps, de la Tour brings out the very best of his fine young cast. It is clear from the opening scene between Olivia (Fliss Walton) and Robert (William Findley) that we are in for a treat. Walton superbly represents the hidden shame and half-suppressed lustiness of the bad girl made good, veering unsettlingly between the house wife’s domesticity, the neurotic’s angst and the secretiveness of the shamed. And Findley plays the perfect foil to such a woman, wet and weak-spiritedly complacent. Later on, he will show remarkable versatility as an actor – but enough, as to say more could reveal some of the plot and spoil your pleasure!

Matthew Rutherford as the mountaineer who gatecrashes Olivia and Robert’s repose is excellent on every level as this rather shady, charismatic outsider, whose heavy charm can’t quite conceal an air of mystery. His character’s sheer magnetism – now we know why all the girls fall for such roguish types! – overwhelms Olivia and Robert’s domestic tranquility, and Findley helps make the point explicit by supplicating and sniveling up to the new man who his wife can’t take her eyes off.

Lastly we come to David Partridge who, in his role as the cockney thug Sam Stone, brings some blokish grit to an otherwise rather bourgeois ensemble. Partridge excels as this low-budget gangster spiraling out of control as he subtly weaves the threads of this complex character capable of flicking from menace to tenderness, from rage to rationality.

It is then hard to find any flaw with this thoroughly excellent production. The script is crisp, the direction astute and the cast multi-dimensional. Stone Cold Murder is captivating from start to finish, grabbing one’s concentration and refusing to let go. For those of you who are already wondering how Olivia and Richard’s evening of domesticity morphs into a thriller worthy of the name, I can only urge a visit to Vienna’s English Theatre to find out for yourself.

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