6th November 2023
Come Eurovision week and across from the action at the arena, in Hope Street Theatre it was less Murder on the Dancefloor and more Murder at Cadberry Manor. Sab Muthusamy’s latest, a hybrid comedy/murder-mystery, with a dash of something sweet, took audience members to an elite country house with a freshly-perished proprietor, popping us out for just long enough to vote on ‘whodunnit?’ via QR code. The only golden rule of this guessing game? Be ultra wary of anything labelled ‘eat me’.
Things began with a carefully crafted news flash. The tongue-in-cheek bulletin, which suggested that the cheesy music-loving hordes would abandon the 67th Eurovision Song Content in Liverpool’s M&S Bank arena in favour of 4 AM Production’s most recent offering firmly set the tone for the show to follow. Here was a play which did not take itself too seriously.
This light-heartedness also shone through as we were introduced to the cast of characters (read: potential suspects) – one of which was played by Muthusamy himself. All gathered as host Toby Le Rone (director Phil Halfpenny) prepared to host a celebratory gala dinner in his luxurious home and all sported the names of popular chocolate and confectionery brands. These ranged from the vaguely plausible (a Lord and Lady Thornton, played by Alan Kenny and Lisa Morgan, respectively) to the downright laughable: a quasi-French (not Maltese) and flirtatious maid called Malte(a)ser (Lily Almond) and a quack doctor called Whispa/er (Adam Titchmarsh). As someone who loves a good pun, the play’s naming strategies certainly hit a sweet spot.
Less sweet, however, was the poisoning of host Toby with a cup of his own hot cocoa during the first scene. This meant the arrival of the (to my mind) wittiest-named character of them all: Detective Harriet ‘Harri’ Bo’, played by Rafaela Dias. Over the ensuing two acts (and two hours, charted by the grandfather clock looming ominously at the corner of the stage), alibis were offered, motives were questioned and back-stories were explored. As a North West End reviewer has put it, the result was ‘almost like a real-life Cluedo with chocolate puns’.
What the show does take seriously are issues of diversity and inclusion. Actor-adapter Muthusamy has spoken elsewhere of his desire to broaden representation in the theatre industry, believing Liverpool to be the ideal base for this, away from London’s clique-y stage scene. As he notes of his company 4 AM Productions: “We’re very progressive and believe that people from all backgrounds and walks of life can bring something to the table”.
This applies not only to racial diversity among the 15-strong cast but also to LGBT+ representation and a fair gender split (the role of detective inspector has been adapted for a female lead from the original ‘Harry’ of Mike Bell’s 2008 script). Alongside this, the play has provided a platform for actors with anxiety and autism, as well as those who have struggled to find roles over recent years. A case in point is lead Rafaela Dias, once a child television star in her native Portugal, whose later credits include the cult classic Game of Thrones and programmes on the Disney Channel. She accredits playing her part in Murder at Cadberry Manor with restoring her confidence after years spent in the hospitality sector, unable to find acting work.
Considering the stated aim of inclusivity, the portrayal of bumbling clergyman Friar Tuckshop (Tristan Harper) was somewhat surprising. The revelation that he enjoyed a spot of cross-dressing in his spare time – that he had once played the role of Maid Marian, rather than Friar Tuck – was played for laughs, not really in keeping with the production company’s vision. I could not help feeling that this might have made any trans audience members slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps future productions would do best to tweak the script in this regard.
Changes have clearly already been made to the original 2008 book, with several contemporary references – on topics from politics to pop culture – much appreciated by the audience. I particularly enjoyed the (somewhat risque) line: ‘Worse than a Love Island cast during an outbreak of syphilis’. The comparison of one character’s unusual mind to a Rubik’s cube was another nice, quirky touch.
Unfortunately, however, some elements felt a little forced. The shoehorning of a Eurovision-related storyline – with an Italian contestant repeatedly stumbling into Cadberry Manor rather than the M&S Bank arena – did not make sense and fell flat. Two ladies behind me were especially disappointed that the sequin-spangled signor did not even get the chance to sing!
These interruptions also distracted from the interrogation at hand – though perhaps that was the point. However, with the large cast and negligible set changes (most of the play takes place inside Cadberry Manor’s dining room) things did at times become confusing. Everyone had a back story they wished to share and this generated a lot of content for the audience to process. This is likely why I found myself most engaged with the butler Bournville (Jasmine Oates), who frequently broke the fourth wall to explain crucial plot points. Her glossing of a flashback scene was particularly funny: meta-theatre definitely worked to make this play better.
If the point of the at-times content overload was clue-burying and misdirection, it didn’t seem to work for my companion, who guessed the killer of old Toby Le Rone correctly, though I’m ashamed to admit that I was not so astute! The opportunity for audience members to vote via QR code on the culprit was one of the show’s great strengths: an innovation that generated interval debates and made the entire theatre experience much more immersive. Getting back to live theatre after the ravages of the pandemic put everything online doesn’t mean we can’t all still benefit from the digital. What an in-person setting did allow for was a handwritten note and a Quality Street sweet left on each audience member’s seat (below). Though you’d think that after what happened to poor old poisoned Toby with that hot chocolate people would be more watchful…
Overall, this chocolate-centred play is a little like a bag of Revels. There are the parts everyone enjoys (the toffees, those orange cremes), alongside the bits we would rather be removed (yes: we’re looking at you, coffee!). Nonetheless, after this latest run of four sell-out shows (and during Eurovision week, no less), I am curious to see what 4 AM Productions will do next. Or maybe that should be QRious…
Murder at Cadberry Manor ran from 10 May to 13 May 2023 at Liverpool’s Hope Street Theatre. For more information, visit hopestreettheatre.com.