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Watermill Theatre - Murder For Two

26th January to 25th February 2017.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

Not being a great fan of modern musicals, I wasn’t sure what I’d make of Murder For Two, the murder mystery musical by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair. I wasn’t reassured at the start when Jeremy Legat and Ed MacArthur, in mime, remove assorted objects from a box (model house, handcuffs, pistol, …) while inviting Ooh!s and Aah!s through the fourth wall. But then the action started for real, and I was hooked.

Officer Marcus (Ed MacArthur) is a wannabe detective and gets his chance, with his unseen partner Lou, at the house of Arthur Witney who’s just been murdered. All the suspects are there, Agatha Christie style, and are played by Jeremy Legat, distinguishing them by hats, glasses, posture, accent and body language. I counted ten characters: four women, three men and three boys. It’s a mammoth task, but Legat does it brilliantly – we always know who’s who – with seemingly effortless quick-fire swaps between characters. He has most fun with the awful Dahlia, widow of the deceased; the mysterious ballet dancer Miss Lewis; and Steph, the needy niece who turns the head of Marcus.

Marcus has to interrogate the suspects, all of whom seem likely murderers, interspersed with songs and the two taking it in turns (and sometimes together) at playing the piano. Oh yes, the piano: the main prop in the weird set, designed by Gabriella Slade. It’s a shabby, messy office and looks very impressive, but why? Almost all the action takes place in the (presumably quite posh) house of the Witneys, and the office setting seems completely wrong.

The songs are fantastic. Very clever and funny words, set to good tunes and delivered with great aplomb. Think Tom Lehrer meets Flanders and Swann.

Apart from the set, the only thing that didn’t work for me was the unseen Lou, presumably in the room with Marcus, but he seemed to be shouting to Lou up in the gallery. That aside, the pace is amazing and the action frenetic. It must be exhausting for the two actors who were dripping with sweat by the end.

Not quite two actors. At one point a member of the audience is pressganged into taking the part of a dying suspect, and earned a well-deserved round of applause for his acting skills.

Director Luke Sheppard has delivered a great show, very funny and with bravura performances from Legat and MacArthur.

PAUL SHAVE

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Murder for two or three or more…

Fast and furious double-hander at The Watermill

Murder for Two, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, February 25

Shows performed by actor/ musicians are always firm favourites at The Watermill, but usually there are more in the cast than in Murder For Two.

It must have been quite a moment when Jeremy Legat was handed the lengthy script and told he was playing all the suspects, including a ballerina, trainee criminologist, doctor, husband and wife (occasionally played by an umbrella), wife of the victim – and the piano.

Ed MacArthur as would-be detective Officer Marcus, desperately trying to solve the crime before his superior officer arrives, gets off rather more lightly, but only in comparison to his colleague, for the dialogue and action, enhanced by clever lighting, is fast and furious with piano-playing to match.

The set is a muddled office with little space to spare. What room there is on the floor is soon taken up by the imaginary body of novelist Arthur Whitney, who has been shot through the head. The various characters are careful throughout to step around the deceased, whose killer has scattered books around the body. Could the murderer be someone who has featured in one of the author's books? And another thing. Who has stolen the ice cream?

With the aid of a natty revolving office door and a few hats, Legat achieves all the suspects brilliantly, including the gruff doctor, the too-keen trainee Steph, ballerina Miss Lewis (several poses), the schoolboy and the wonderful Mrs Whitney, played with a touch of the Mrs Overalls mixed with a smidgeon of menace. Could this dear old lady with her home-brewed tea really be the killer?

Between them, MacArthur and Legat rattle the show along, breaking into song and often swapping places at the piano as they thunder out the music. The puns come thick and fast and, as I heard someone say afterwards, "there's a lot to giggle at".

It takes a few minutes to adjust to the torrent of action, words and music coming from the stage, but once in the zone Murder For Two by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, directed here by Luke Sheppard, is a lively treat not to be missed.

Whodunit? Go and enjoy finding out. Agatha Christie was never like this.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

Review from British Theatre Guide.

The highly successful Watermill Theatre is celebrating its 50th year and this golden anniversary season opens with the British stage première of Murder for Two by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair.

This splendid musical is homage to the whodunit murder mystery genre, impressively performed by two highly talented actors.

The atmospheric set by Gabriella Slade creates the American small-town mansion of crime novelist Arthur Whitney with a piano centre stage.

Ed MacArthur astutely plays the local cop Marcus Moscowicz, who has high ambitions to become a detective.

So when Whitney is discovered lying dead on the floor having been shot in the head at his surprise birthday party, Marcus seizes the opportunity to try and solve the crime before the real detective arrives and make a big impression to further his career.

Jeremy Legat plays all twelve of the suspects with alacrity using nothing more than a pair of glasses, a hat, changes in voice and gesture to breathtakingly create the different characters with aplomb.

They include the now widowed vivacious Dahlia who is hoping to make a comeback in musical theatre and her enthusiastic sweet niece Steph, who is studying for a masters degree in criminology. Then there is a feisty old couple Murray and his wife Barb who live nearby.

Particularly effective is the portrayal of the ballet dancer Barette with a seductive English accent and Henry Vivaldi, the proud Italian firefighter.

Then there is the zany psychiatrist Dr Griff and three nine-year-old choirboys who are recovering from a camping disaster.

All of the suspects have a motive for committing the murder as Whitney has included them in his various novels and not particularly kindly.

The actors are also accomplished pianists, accompanying themselves on the piano or playing a virtuoso duet.

Murder for Two is a madcap, funny romp filled with cracking one-liners as the plot twists and turns as Marcus follows the “police protocol” to solve the murder with hilarious results.

The music and the lyrics are witty and director Luke Sheppard, returning to the Watermill following his highly successful 2015 production of Oliver, ensures that the pace is frenetic and creates a hugely enjoyable production.

It transfers to London’s The Other Place Studio from 2 to 18 March.

ROBIN STRAPP

Review from The Guardian.

three stars
Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair’s neatly conceived if over-egged musical is a jokey whodunnit performed by two actors who not only take on all 14 characters but also play the score on the piano. It’s a smart idea and particularly appropriate for the lovely Watermill, which in its glory days pioneered a contemporary approach to actor-musicianship with John Doyle’s brilliant musical revivals, including a killer Sweeney Todd.

Like Sondheim’s musical, Murder for Two has plenty of gore. However, this is far too lightweight a confection to really slay an audience. It’s a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, but would retain far greater momentum without an interval that it would do well to dispense with when it moves to London’s Other Palace in March.

While the score and lyrics often display a jaunty wit, the scenario that transposes the English country-house mystery to small-town America is lame. The show constantly undercuts its own potential for sly humour by trying far too hard and laying on the facetiousness and metatheatre knowingness.

The saving grace is the natural charm and considerable skill of the performers, Ed MacArthur and Jeremy Legat. MacArthur – who works a lot with the company DugOut Theatre, which is also taking a new approach to comedy musical theatre – plays the bumbling Officer Marcus who has his heart broken by a murderous femme fatale and harbours ambitions to be a detective. Marcus seizes his big opportunity to solve a murder when a renowned writer, Arthur Witney, is shot in the head as he arrives for a birthday party that really is a surprise.

Legat plays all the suspects, from Witney’s discontented wife Dahlia, who longs for a comeback in musical theatre, to his mistress, the winsome dancer Barette. The writing often leans towards female stereotypes, particularly in the portrayal of Steph, Witney’s niece who is writing a PhD on small-town murders. But Legat is convincing as Griff, the psychiatrist who turns out to be treating everyone present, and he also portrays three nine-year-old choir members, the sole survivors of a dreadful camping catastrophe.

This could be a camp catastrophe all of its own, but Legat, MacArthur and director Luke Sheppard – who staged Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton musical, In the Heights, with such panache – keep it all under control. If the evening never delivers on the claim that it melds Agatha Christie with the Marx Brothers, it suggests that Kinosian and Blair may yet do more than mildly amuse.

LYN GARDNER

Review from The Daily Telegraph.

four stars
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, exhausted with keeping up with the latest Trump news, and I will point them towards the welcoming sanctuary space of the Watermill Theatre, beginning its 50th anniversary year in high style with this dippy and zippy American musical comedy whodunnit.

First staged in 2011 in Chicago, and now receiving its UK premiere at the hands of Luke Sheppard (a rising star, having brought Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights over here too), the salient artistic clue is in the title. Just two actors are tasked with relaying a murder-mystery that wheels in a bus-load of characters, all crammed into one room of a remote New Orleans mansion, where pulp-fiction writer Arthur Whitney is lying on the floor with his brains blown out – the victim of a surprise birthday party with a macabre twist.

Drawing the long or the short straw, depending on your point of view, is actor Jeremy Legat, who must incarnate the deceased’s flamboyantly unflustered spouse Dahlia, the couple’s intensely eager niece, their bickering neighbours, a sensuous ballet dancer, a “friendly local psychiatrist” oh, yes, and a trio of gormless boy-choristers. Legat’s partner in theatrical insanity is Ed MacArthur, who plays Marcus, the investigating detective (or is he?). But there’s no downtime for him either; there are songs to be sung and the Forties-styled pair must dash across the noir-effect set, complete with standalone frosted-glass door, to an old piano to supply the accompaniment – their fingers steeple-chasing over the ivories in mad-cap duets.

Composer Joe Kinosian and lyricist Kellen Blair dial V for virtuosity and that call is handsomely answered. Legat – using simple props and 101 varieties of camp – is a human conjuring act, gender-switching in the bat of an eyelid. MacArthur, straight-backed and deadpan, has talent in Sam Spades too. 

Are the tunes faintly forgettable? Guilty as charged. Is the piece a borderline exercise in showing-off? Ditto. But the spectacle of youth having its spoofing way remains one of theatre’s highest pleasures, and the script plies on the wisecracks as the red herrings pile up. Sample gag: “What about these books Mrs Whitney? There has to be at least twenty of them scattered around the body. Including a first edition of Scattered Around the Body.” If you need a break from doom and gloom like a hole in the head, steer well clear. Otherwise, enjoy.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

Review from The Times.

two stars
This is a murder-mystery miniature musical that features just two men and a piano. It’s clever, too clever really, and the stage is kitted out like a pastiche Sam Spade office, including a stand-alone door that flips around, so you can see them coming and going.

One man is Officer Marcus, played by Ed MacArthur, a wannabe detective who is desperate to solve a crime in the small New England town where he lives. He’s in luck because the local famous novelist has just been shot and he arrives to find 12 suspects all in the same room, all played by the other man, Jeremy Legat.

And the piano? Well, frankly, it’s the star. Both men play with aplomb. There’s a lot of Marx Brothers-type music to keep us going and to fill in any gaps, of which there are more than a few.

I think the definitive description of this mini-musical might be “madcap”. There’s a lot of frenetic running around and slamming of doors. I am quite sure that Agatha Christie herself, so precise, so punctilious in her creations, would often be flummoxed by it all.

It is the creation, in 2011, of the Americans Joe Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) and played in America to some acclaim. This is the European premiere, but while you can’t help but admire the craft, the musicianship and the banter, it did feel quite slight, as if the “plot” had been cobbled together as an excuse for the skits. Basically, it’s a zany song and dance routine, with a gun.

Things whip along in the first half, with murder suspects (a ballerina, a psychiatrist, a grumpy guy who lives near by) flashing by like cars breaking the speed limit. Indeed, the whole production, directed by Luke Sheppard, feels a bit like a tribute group having an identity crisis; it references the Marx Brothers, Agatha Christie, vaudeville, Bogart and, oh, really, just form a queue.

This does not mean that it is not, at times, amusing and fun. The set, by Gabriella Slade, is atmospheric, a shambolic musical noir. There are, however, moments of pure am-dram and it does dwindle, with the second act far less convincing. Whodunnit? By the end, you don’t care.

ANN TRENEMAN

There are reviews from WhatsOnStage ("Luke Sheppard directs with pinpoint precision, so that every transition, every tiny movement is flawlessly slick" - 4 stars), The Stage ("frequently frenetic and occasionally hilarious... slight but likeable murder musical played with ebullient enthusiasm" - 3 stars), ReviewsHub ("the chemistry between the two performers is an absolute joy... a fast paced and fun musical... a delight for audiences young and old" - 4 stars), Musical Theatre Review ("madcap energy... vibrant energy and zany humour from opening to close" - 4 stars), Theatre Cat (Libby Purves) ("a daft detective double-act... the performers are superb, not least as pianists" - 3 stars), The Daily Mail ("the show is exceedingly — excessively — clever... irksomely self-knowing and silly" - 2 stars).