After breaking into the home of the Hailsham-Browns, a shady character is murdered. For reasons of her own, the lady of the house tries to cover up the crime, but a relentless police inspector is bound and determined to bring the truth to light. This is Spider’s Web and it is currently playing at Bellevue Little Theatre.
As an actor I understand the importance and the struggle of avoiding typecasting. Actors often yearn for the opportunity to play something different from what brought them to the table for a change of pace, the challenge, etc. In a sense, this play is Agatha Christie’s attempt to avoid being typed solely as a mystery writer.
Seeking to play a different role from the sinister characters for which she had become known, Margaret Lockwood requested Christie write a little comedy thriller for her. Christie laid a little too much into the comedy side of things. Had she brought her legendary gift for plotting into the mix, I think the show would have been better served. What we have is a comedy with just the barest trappings of a mystery.
This particular production is boosted by two things.
- Christie’s gift for unique characters remains intact.
- A cast and director who found every bit of gold in the story and elevated it based on talent and effort.
Indeed, Christopher Scott shows an extraordinary level of theatre acumen in his direction of this piece. He leans heavily into the character work and makes certain that all of his performers have well-defined characters who are grounded in reality, even with their quirks. Scott crafts some fine moments of tension and shock with the murder scene being of a particularly fine vintage. Some of my favorite moments were the slamming of drawers and the ominous sliding open of a secret passage just so I could hear the audible reactions of the audience member sitting in front of me. Scott keeps the pace up as well as could be done as this show is just crammed with dialogue, especially in the lengthy first act and has his actors lean into the comedy which helped add vitality to long stretches of dry dialogue.
There isn’t a weak tire in the cast and you’ll see some fine character performances from Dennis Stessman as a very proper butler who knows how to make an exit. At the age of 14, Lilli Westman has a sense of comfort on stage equitable to veteran adults which makes her Pippa a joy to watch. Jon Roberson serves as a beacon of normalcy as the steady Henry Hailsham-Brown. Ben Pearson brings an oily criminality to Oliver Costello. Brandon Dorsey is stalwart as Constable Jones. Jackson Newman and Randy Wallace have some extremely excellent chemistry as a comedy duo with their characters of Hugo and Rowland. Matt Karasek is superbly charming as Jeremy and can speak volumes with an expression or a look.
As Christie deviated from her normal style of writing, this show doesn’t contain a proper detective character though the Inspector comes the closest. In the hands of a less capable performer, this character could be very one dimensional, but Katie Otten adds multiple dimensions through sheer force of acting ability. With her ramrod posture and steely-eyed gaze, Otten makes it clear her Inspector is not one to be trifled with. She brings an intelligence to her character as she knowingly keeps the suspects separated so they can’t collude on stories and is able to spot the clues and make rapid fire deductions. She can also play good cop/bad cop on her lonesome as she can be ingratiating and sympathetic in one moment and then be as volatile as lightning in the next.
One always has the feeling that Sarah Dighans’ Miss Peake isn’t wrapped all that tightly. She truly lives in her own little reality as she often walks into the Hailsham-Browns’ home as if she owns it and punctuates her speech with a piercing laugh that has the others potentially looking for a straitjacket in case she starts frothing at the mouth. Miss Peake is assuredly one of the most original characters I’ve seen brought to life and Dighans’ rendition of this character is a highlight of the night.
Clarissa Hailsham-Brown has a fantasy life worthy of Snoopy. Sara Scheidies’ interpretation of this character had me sensing that she was truly bored of the life of a housewife as she enjoyed playing little jokes on her friends and loved indulging in the game of “Supposing” where she invents little fantasies to enjoy. Clearly she enjoys the game a little too much for, as she often says, people don’t believe her even when she tells the truth. Scheidies brings a real innocence to the character as her addiction to “Supposing” gives her an appalling lack of common sense as she tries to cover up the murder instead of seeking the aid of the police. Or maybe she has more crucial reasons for avoiding the police. . .
Chris Ebke has designed a lovely little country house with soft tan walls, elegant period furniture, a crystal chandelier, and a very neat secret passage that triggered memories of the old Batman TV series. Joey Lorincz has some very effective lighting tricks as he has the chandelier exude a soft blue when the lights go down so you can see just enough of what’s going on to know what’s happening, but without revealing any salient plot points. Lora Kaup has designed proper period correct clothes from the 1940s-50s with handsome suits, golf wear, and dresses.
While I prefer more mystery in my mysteries, the efforts of this cast and director turn a middling story into an enjoyable night of character work with a few shocks and surprises and elevate it into something far better.
Spider’s Web plays at Bellevue Little Theatre through Jan 29. Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased at the Box Office, at blt.simpletix.com, or calling 402-413-8945. Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.