Note: This review of The Cat and the Canary is for the 2021 UK tour.
“Twenty years after the death of Mr. West, his descendants gather to learn who will inherit his vast wealth and the hidden family jewels. Within moments, the heritage hunters turn into prey. Walls crack open, shadows loom, and dark secrets are revealed.”
On a suitably dark and rainy Monday evening, we sat down at the Alexandra Theatre to watch the latest show from The Classic Thriller Theatre Company with their production of 1920s murder mystery The Cat and the Canary.
The original play, written by John Willard, opened on Broadway almost a century ago and has since spawned three movie adaptations. The plot utilises that classic whodunnit setup and setting; assembling an ensemble cast in an ancestral mansion on a dark, stormy night, just in time for things to start going awry when a homicidal maniac escapes from a nearby asylum. Adapted for a modern audience by Carl Grose, and directed by Roy Marsden, the play offers up all the twists and turns you would expect from the genre, along with some tongue-in-cheek humour and, of course, plenty of scares!
The show boasts an impressive number of big names in its ensemble cast too, with Bond girl legend Britt Ekland (The Man with The Golden Gun, The Wicker Man, Get Carter) who is returning to the production, Tracy Shaw (Coronation Street), West End leading lady Marti Webb (Evita, Tell Me on A Sunday), Blue’s Antony Costa, Gary Webster (Family Affairs, Minder), Ben Nealon (Soldier Soldier) and Eric Carte (Bouquet of Barbed Wire). The cast is completed by Priyasasha Kumari, Martin Carroll, Jack Taylor and Clara Darcy.
I loved the character development as the play progresses, particularly with the ongoing clashes between Gary Webster as brash cockney Harry, Ben Nealon as the self-righteous Charlie and Antony Costa’s sweet and loveable Paul as they fight for the affections of Tracy Shaw’s beautiful and innocent Annabelle. With Marti Webb’s dry humour as Susan Sillsby and one liners from Britt Ekland as staunch housekeeper Mrs Pleasant, the cast are clearly all having a great time, throwing themselves into their roles and the story and seemingly revelling in the opportunity to live out a real-life Cluedo. Despite this, nobody crosses over into ‘hammy’ territory, just managing to stay on the right side of the line but never losing sight of their aim of entertaining the audience and each performer brought something valuable to the production.
It’s a slick production, with a beautiful set and great use of lighting and sounds effects to add to the growing tension as the play progresses, and the audience was clearly invested with audible gasps as the (several) plot twists were revealed at the end.
As such, The Cat and the Canary could be seen as a classic murder mystery, in the vain of the quintessential Agatha Christie stories that became the standard format of the genre, but the show is definitely a black comedy – never taking itself too seriously. Rather than avoid the typical genre clichés, this show fully embraces them, unafraid to poke fun at itself, which in turn adds to its charm. In particular, there are some great moments of meta comedy as the characters reflect on the ridiculousness of the plot with a knowing glint in their eye.
The Cat and the Canary is a really enjoyable homage to the classic murder mystery genre (and the original 1922 play), that will make you laugh and jump in equal measure!
Disclaimer: We were given complimentary tickets to the show, but were under no obligation to provide a positive review.