"Heaps of good English fun," says The Oregonian about Spider's Web

01/16/2010

Smart, thorough direction from Don Alder, who enhances Christie's humor with a very able cast.

"Spider's Web at Lakewood Theatre:

  Heaps of good English fun. Posted by OregonLive Jan. 16, 2010

If you don't mind an Agatha Christie play that can't decide if it's a comedy or a whodunit, you'll find "Spider's Web" heaps of good English fun. Despite a lot of verbal explanation more suited to a Christie novel than a play with living, breathing characters, "Web" weaves a spell, thanks to smart, thorough direction from Don Alder, who enhances Christie's humor, and a very able cast.
 
The piece was written in the wake of Christie's success on the London theater circuit with other, better-known plays, such as "Witness for the Prosecution" and "The Mousetrap," supposedly the world's longest-running drama. She wrote "Web" in 1953 expressly for British film star Margaret Lockwood, who had been playing a string of wicked women on the screen and was tired of them: She longed for a role in a comedy thriller.

For Lockwood, Christie created Clarissa, the central figure in "Spider's Web" and an imaginative young wife of a foreign-office diplomat. She likes to fantasize various scenarios involving murder and intrigue, then tries to solve them. When a real dead body materializes in Clarissa's living room, she's in her element, even confessing to the police that she was the killer, to protect her step-daughter Pippa, who may or may not be involved.
 
It's a fabrication, of course. After the plot twists and turns in convoluted confusion a la Christie, we're rewarded with the real villain's identity as all the pertinent facts surface in the final scene. The show's only real flaw lies with Christie's exposition: There's too much dialogue describing events, which are much better handled in a book or a film version that could show instead of tell.

Lauren Bair, with her sparkling dark eyes, luxuriant mane of hair and crisp British accent, dives into the role of glamorous Clarissa with style and gusto. She's the fulcrum of the action, one of Christie's strongest female characters (except for Miss Marple, of course), despite being an amalgam of 1950s stereotypes of the perfect woman: a loving stepmother, a supportive wife who takes good care of her flurried husband (a thankless role neatly sketched by Garland Lyons) and the cherished ward of her elderly guardian Sir Rowland Delahaye (Scott Parker).

Clarissa's upper-class drawing room in post-war Kent has a priest hole, or hidden room, behind the bookcase -- a perfect place to hide a corpse and a great focal spot of attention for the stage action. Did Clarissa's stepdaughter Pippa (a first-rate performance by Amber Mitchell, a Honeysuckle Weeks look-alike) hit someone over the head and kill him? If it's true, Clarissa is willing to protect Pippa by confessing to the deed herself.

But there's more to the story, as eccentric gardener Mildred Peake (Jamie M. Rea) lets on. She catches Clarissa's enthusiasm, gets happily excited about foiling the police even further and single-handedly hides the corpse under a bed bolster. She later reveals her true identity, which sheds new light on what's going on.

"Spider's Web" was unfavorably reviewed when it first opened in London in 1954. Critics were confused by the combination of genres, the hybrid mix of mystery and humor.

Today, comic mysteries abound in books, films and on stage. No big deal. In fact, some of the best mysteries are infused with humor, and some of the most thoughtful comedies contain a mystery. Director Alder celebrates the hybrid with attention to every detail in both areas, and Jeff Seats' set elegantly captures the subdued glamour of a British post-war drawing room. 

-- Holly Johnson, The Oregonian

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