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The Mill at Sonning - Spider's Web

6th July to 26th August 2017.

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Christie's web of deceit

1954 mystery thriller directed Brian Blessed-style

Spider's Web, at the Mill at Sonning, from Thursday, July 6, to Saturday, August 26

You might think that Spider's Web was written for director Brian Blessed – a comedy thriller with plenty of scope for additional jokes and put-ons.

In actual fact, it was written for movie star Margaret Lockwood, who requested from Agatha Christie a play suitable for her first appearance in the West End, with a part for her friend Wilfred Hyde-White and her young daughter Julia. Cynics might suspect that Lockwood thought Christie owed her a favour or two…

As it went, Hyde-White turned it down, but Lockwood had a big success as Clarissa. Four years after the 1954 London premiere, a very young Brian Blessed, in his first job as an ASM, was seeking props for a production at the respected Nottingham Playhouse and was being helped by the author herself.

In 2017, BB was not going to miss an opportunity to enhance the 50s comedy thriller in his own style. His voice was heard over the sound system before act I, scene 1, reciting rhymes about bogeymen and such during the performance and even signing off after the final curtain call, asking in his best Alfred Hitchcock- style voice not to reveal the ending as "we've only got one".

The plot was cobbled together from four earlier Christie pieces, telling the tale of Clarissa and her Foreign Office husband Sir Henry, played by Nick Barclay, who rent a country house at a fraction of the usual cost from criminals, intent on placing someone named Brown in the house.

They have to settle for Hailsham-Brown – Henry and Clarissa's name – but when she discovers a body in the living room, everything starts to get very complicated – as it does with Christie plays. No doubt aided and abetted by their director, most of the cast began to ham it up merrily.

Joanna Brookes, as Mildred the eccentric gardener, is so full of expansive gestures and booming voice that at first I thought she might be BB in drag. Eric Carte, Hugo Birch, Tim Faulkner and Luke Barton all latched on to bits of comedy business in the course of gradually unmasking the murderer.

Esme Seber was convincing in the Julia Lockwood role, as the daughter of the house, and Alexander Neal had a fine old time as Constable Jones... or was it Pc Plod? Three central characters played it straight and this helped make the play work… sort of.

Melanie Gutteridge gave a nicely- paced performance as Clarissa, matched by George Telfer – very believable as Uncle Roily, as was Noel White's police inspector and everything was – amazingly – properly resolved at the end.

And sitting on the end of the back row of the stalls, a certain Mr Blessed looked quite content.