Cards on the Table – Reviewed
Douglas Gibbs sees some success in Collingwood’s production.
A word of warning. If you plan to see this play, don’t read the Wikipedia article on it. From the first scene, I knew who did it, and this did rather dampen my enthusiasm – completely my own fault, I might add, rather than the production’s. Sitting in the bar with a group of friends at the interval, we still had great fun making guesses and placing odds on each of the potential suspects, and this really is the spirit of Cards on the Table. It's a good, fun bit of light drama.
However, right from the outset, the production suffers from a lack of pace. Gareth Davies, in his short lived role as Mr Shaitana provided a great deal of energy in the opening, but with his departure (don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler) the play dropped slightly. In a historical setting so socially confined, it is difficult to keep everything moving along briskly, and despite some cast members’ best efforts, several of the scenes fall flat. This was personified by Jamie Kitson in the leading role of Superintendent Battle. It is a difficult kind of part – cool and charismatic but bursting with intelligence. Kitson delivers a physically strong performance let down vocally by a lack of volume and enunciation.
He is not the only one. Collingwood's Dining Hall has a difficult acoustic, which could have been dealt with better, and in a play that relies so heavily on the words – every couple of minutes a new piece of evidence seems to be tossed to the audience – this is quite a difficulty. Although I followed the evidence through to the final conclusion, I often felt like I had missed some important detail because of a sudden bout of mumbling. Rather than being led by the hand through every stage of the investigation, I was struggling to catch everything, so that some conclusions seemed mystifying.
This may be to do the production a disservice, however. Where the cast are good, they are very good. Elissa Churchill, Harriet Tarpy, and Sian Green all gave excellent performances, and Henry Morris should be commended for giving some meaning to an apparently superfluous character. I did wonder what the cast had been directed to do though. More often than not, they are on the right side of caricature, portraying an archetype of middle to upper class society, but occasionally the energy dips and an air of solemnity descends. Suddenly, we are no longer watching Midsummer Murders, but something approximating The Killing, only without the tension. This wasn’t a major problem, but occasionally it jars, and seems to be the cause of the drops in energy that the show often experienced.
The blocking is also awkward at times, with actors delivering their lines to the audience for an extended period of time in some scenes, before diving back into a more naturalistic discussion again. This does tend to feel stagy and artificial. At its best, however, the show was engaging and exciting. There were more than a few gasps from the audience when major plot twists were revealed. I feel that I should mention the design, because it is very good. The costumes are excellent – far above what one would normally expect from a college show, whose budgets are normally extremely tight.
The set is more clearly low budget, but it is, on the whole, functional and attractive, if cramped. The actors seem to occasionally have to squeeze through gaps in furniture about as wide as a pencil. One thing it would have benefitted from is music, or faster scene changing. The set is designed well enough not to require any major changes except between acts 1 and 2, with different scenes taking place on different levels of the stage. I didn’t quite understand why, then, there was often a gap between scenes, despite the apparent ease with which it could have happened. Alternatively, the use of some period music to soften the gaps, or indeed even be played during some scenes, could have added a great deal of atmosphere to the production.
I have been quite critical, but I don’t want this to detract too much from what is essentially a good show. Ultimately the production is a success. With tighter direction and a more unified style, the show would have been very good indeed. The audience all seemed to come out with a smile on their face, discussing the outcome, which does rather suggest that it hit the mark. For a college theatre company (and I appreciate this sounds patronising, but the usual combination of a small pool of auditionees and low budgets present a unique challenge to college theatre), the Woodplayers have produced an engaging production that is as good as many shows with fewer constraints.