TAMWORTH — It isn’t summer in Tamworth without an Agatha Christie production from The Barnstormers Theatre. This year, the company is presenting a first for them: “Spider’s Web.”
“Spider’s Web,” which opened Thursday with performances through Aug. 17, was written in 1953, upon the request of actor Margaret Lockwood, who wanted to appear in a play on London’s West End that was against her usual sinister or wicked type.
The resulting play used many of Christie’s familiar tropes but worked more as a comedy thriller than a straight murder mystery. In many respects, Christie is parodying herself and even makes a direct reference to “And Then There Were None.”
Madeleine Maby stars as Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, a woman known for telling tales, or as she calls it “supposing,” as in “supposing I were to murder someone” or “supposing I were to run off with Jeremy (Buddy Haardt).” As such, when she does tell the truth, people have a hard time believing her.
This skill proves both useful and problematic when a body inevitably shows up. She is able to come up with a clever scheme to dispose of the body, but when she does tell the truth, the inspector (Robert St. Laurence) doesn’t believe it. For him, the fiction seems more plausible than the reality.
Clarissa is married to Henry (Jordan Reeves) and is helping to raise his daughter Pippa (Maggie Hamel). Pippa’s mother Miranda became a drug addict under the influence of Oliver Costello (a perfectly detestable John Long). Miranda divorced Henry and married Costello.
The dead body belongs to Costello, who was bludgeoned when snooping through a desk looking for a mysterious, unknown valuable item. Pippa believes she accidentally killed him.
Clarissa goes into mama-bear mode and calls in her uncle Sir Rowland Delahaye (Robert Bates) and friends Hugo Birch (Blair Hundertmark) and Jeremy Warrender to help move the body before Henry returns home to host an important meeting. Things become further complicated when an inspector shows up after getting a call about a murder.
While there’s an inevitable twist ending revealing who the killer was, this is less a whodunit and more of a how-to-get-out-of-it. Instead of building suspense, the play creates comedic tension as Clarissa and her cohorts tell increasingly elaborate, yet surprisingly convincing, lies.
Director Clayton Phillips keeps the action moving at just the right pace and draws performances from the actors that are funny without being over-the-top. The cast, many returning to the world of Christie, feel at ease in the 1930s setting and are clearly relishing ripping into Christie’s deliciously clever dialogue.
The play unfolds in a beautiful set designed by Emily Nichols and is enhanced by the lighting design by Kevin Dunn. The lighting gives a warm glow to the proceedings which makes it clear this is a lighter mystery than traditional Christie fare.
Despite the dour circumstances, Clarissa remains a bright, vibrant character. Maby captures the playfulness of the role but also makes it clear that Clarissa’s motivation is to protect Pippa. Her scenes with Hamel feel genuine and heartfelt. Hamel has a nice stage presence, and is a good little thespian in the making.
As was true in Barnstormers’ last production “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” Haardt is immensely appealing and has assured comedic timing. Hundertmark is not afraid to go big with his reactions to the escalating situation, which often yields big laughs. Bates, who projects dignity and intellect, once again plays the character that figures everything out.
Laurence and William R. Johnson as his constable have fun playing variations on Christie’s typical investigators. It would be overstating it to call Laurence’s Inspector Lord incompetent as he does notice key clues, but unlike Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, he isn’t the smartest person in the room.
Penny Purcell as an eccentric gardner is a scene stealer. Her antics bring to mind Julie Walters’ work in the “Harry Potter” and “Paddington” franchises.
Barnstormers always does good work, but the company feels particularly in its element when performing Christie. “Spider’s Web” is no exception.
For more information or tickets, go to barnstormerstheatre.org or call (603) 323-8500.