Review: The Menlove Avenue Murder Mystery, Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool

Review by Nigel Smith

THIS week has seen the opening of Gerry Linford’s third play in 2 years at Liverpool’s Royal Court, following the success of Yellow Breck Road and The Miracle of Great Homer Street. The Menlove Avenue Murder Mystery is probably his most carefully thought through work to date, with a tightly fashioned storyline and a great blend of comedy and home truths.

Eddie is a lifelong devotee of classic TV detective series but, since retiring from his job at Ford’s, his interest has become an obsession. His wife Trish’s ongoing professional success as a solicitor does nothing to boost his self-confidence, and the emasculated Eddie spends his nights dozing off on the sofa in front of his DVD box sets.

When new neighbours Greta and Martin invite them in for a coffee one evening, budding sleuth Eddie sniffs out something not quite right with the loved-up couple. Things start to go rather more than just ‘bump’ in the night, and the arrival of police and an ambulance outside next-door’s house are too much for Eddie to ignore. Enter Phoebe, their daughter, and her University friend Josh, who’s studying for a degree in criminology. The mysterious Greta becomes the focus of a full-blown investigation that the whole family become rapidly embroiled in.

It’s not so much a whodunit as a who-was-it-done-to, as we try to figure out whether a crime has been committed. The story affords plenty of opportunity for slapstick comedy and wordplay, but it also lets us into the world of a man whose relationship with his wife has fallen into the doldrums. Whenever he’s in doubt, Eddie asks himself what Columbo would do in this situation. His mentor puts in occasional appearances with homilies about himself and Mrs Columbo, but it takes events closer to reality to bring Eddie to his senses and address the real issues between himself and Trish.

Paul Duckworth is Eddie, and he can turn on a sixpence between madcap comedy and genuine pathos. He’s perfectly matched with Pauline Fleming as Trish, smart, efficient and occasionally dismissive, but ultimately still very much Eddie’s soulmate. Olivia Sloyan and Michael Peace as Phoebe and Josh turn out performances that are far from just supporting roles. Both have plenty of character work written for them, and they have their fair share of the comedy too, and they really make the most of it.

Liam Tobin has form for playing multiple parts, and Linford’s text offers him an opening to roll out a sequence of different accents and even to break out of character and into song. Not only does he end up wearing a dodgy disguise as Martin, but he also finds time to slip into a shabby raincoat and shaggy wig to become Eddie’s inner-confidante Columbo.

The show-stealing performance here, however, comes from Gillian Hardie, who gives a gloriously outrageous rendering of the sex-obsessed budding artist Greta, who has apparently left a trail of deceased husbands in her torrid wake. It would certainly take a man with a strong heart to survive long meeting her demands. Hardie turns from poise and sophistication one moment to demonic eccentricity the next, and there are times when the only thing that feels missing is the appearance of Scooby-Doo and Shaggy to rush in and rip off her mask.

Under Chris Mellor’s steady-handed direction, all of this plays out on a deliciously detailed three-set design by Foxton, which once again uses the theatre’s revolving stage to keep the pace moving smoothly. The soundtrack that ranges from The Rockford Files to Romeo and Juliet underpins the action and neatly covers the scene changes.

Gerry Linford has shown that his flair for a clever narrative structure that can balance farce with family drama is in no short supply. Far from wearing thin in this third offering, he seems to be turning the formula into a fine art.

Oh, there’s just one more thing… The Menlove Avenue Murder Mystery continues at the Royal Court until 21st September.