The murder mystery genre is a popular, and well-trodden path. An unseen villain, a scrutinizing hero, a femme fatale…these are characters we know, and love: characters we have seen hundreds of times. Therefore, the appeal of Murder by the Book, presented by Metro Theatre, comes from the play’s ability to adhere to the structure of a classic whodunit, while peppering the plot with sprinkles of absurdity. The result is a fun little show that, while firmly rooted in its genre, has a few twists that keep the audience interested to the end.
The plot follows a small cast of characters, comprised of a dotty secretary (Heather Billington), a vengeful wannabe ex-wife (Emma Greenlagh), a hapless publisher (Michael Jones), a flamboyant fan of mystery novels (Dovreshin MacRae), and a smarmy author (Samuel B. Barnes). The latter has just been killed. It happens in the second scene. We hear the motive, and see the murderer. It seems at first like we already know the end of this story. However, as the play unravels, it soon becomes clear that in this strange world, everyone is two steps ahead of the next person, while the audience is three steps behind them all.
Being a murder mystery with very little murder, and no apparent initial mystery, Murder By The Book is at its funniest when it is at its most subversive. Humour both farcical and deadpan live side by side in this script, which reads like a mashup of Oscar Wilde and Agatha Christie. Upon discovering the corpse, Billington pauses briefly in her hysterics to calmly hang her coat up at the door. A bug-eyed MacRae flips between stoic analysis and histrionic accusations with goofy gusto. These moments provoke honest laughter, as we see the cliches of British melodrama being exaggerated and satirized. Even the old-fashioned jokes and timing resonate well with a modern audience. There are certain “gags” that ring with slight cultural insensitivity, and perhaps should have been cut, but they don’t detract too much from the main experience. The rest of the show is a mix of comfortable zaniness: witty patter, complex machinations, snide dramatic irony…All elements that are familiar, yet still very enjoyable.
However, it is only near the end of the show that the charm begins to wear thin. There’s a climax of sorts halfway through the second act that has all the characters onstage, where it seems like the true mastermind is revealed. Then the play spins it’s wheels for the remaining half hour, launching into a long parade of twists, fake-outs, and double-crosses. It’s fun to listen to, but not as fun to watch; one wishes they would simply drink from the poisoned cup, instead of debating each other as to whether or not it is actually poisoned.
All this said, Murder by the Book is a diverting little show, and one that should satisfy any lover of the mystery genre. It’s the theatrical experience of listening to an older relative telling the family one of their famous stories: a story that everyone knows well, and yet is being told with a few more flourishes than the last time. Full of dense plotting, hammy performances, and a few splashes of quirky insanity, it is a show that offers a slightly fresh take on a tried and true formula. Just like the murder plots it contains, Murder By The Book is funny, engaging, and (mostly) harmless.
Murder by the Book runs until February 10th at the Metro Theatre. Tickets can be found here.