The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery

31st January to 11th February 2023

David McGillivray & Walter Zerlin Jr | Highbury Theatre | Directed by Rob Phillips

How I have been an avid theatregoer for decades and never come across the fictional Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society is a mystery. I’d never even heard of it before being kindly invited along to see the latest production at Sutton Coldfield’s Highbury Theatre, directed by Rob Phillips. It’s a hoot. A farcical evening of high jinks delivered with a knowing nod to the sheer ridiculousness of staging a play.

I was delighted to learn that the ‘FAHETGDS Murder Mystery’ is part of a series. In this play a hapless cast of five attempt to stage ‘Murder at Checkmate Manor’ (there are some cracking chess puns), an Agatha Christie-style 1930s detective play. After witnessing the hilarious chaos of their attempt to put on this ‘play within a play’, I’d love to see how they fare with Macbeth or The Mikado.

The plot, as far as they manage to stick to one, revolves around various members of the Bishop family being killed off one by one to secure an inheritance. Sadly, the ambition of the townswomen is not matched by their talent. They have certainly bitten off more than they can chew, attempting to cover the fourteen roles between four of them.

Playing bad actors is not easy: there’s a thin line between a poor performance and a convincing impression of a poor performance. Thankfully, the whole talented cast manage to convince us of their lack of talent from the first botched line to the final ridiculous denouement.

Denise Phillips plays Phoebe, the President of the Society who proudly introduces us to a profoundly amateur performance of ‘Murder at Checkmate Manor’. As Phoebe she is confident and engaging but she excels in her various roles in the world of Checkmate Manor: a restless corpse, a forgetful solicitor and a French maid.

Sandra Haynes plays Audrey, a rather stage-frightened and timid member of the Society. She captures the nervousness of the amateur actor nicely in her various roles from widow to spinster aunt and her giggling fits are convincing. Gordon, played by Dave Douglas, is the stage manager who nobly (or foolishly) steps in at the last minute to ‘save’ the production. His wooden, stilted delivery perfectly captures the impact of what many actors will recognise: nerves. It takes talent to convincingly convey such a monumental lack of talent.

Adding to the anxious and untalented cast of the Society is Felicity, played by Becky Higgs. The monotone delivery of her lines as Pawn, butler to the Bishop family, adds to the hilarity and general sense that ‘Murder at Checkmate Manor’ is a serious contender for the most amateur amateur production ever staged. Pippa Olliver completes the talentless cast in style: her ineptness as Thelma knows no bounds. The most deluded member of the whole company, her misplaced confidence is brilliantly captured in a highlight moment when she forgets to sit her wheelchair and has to execute a less than subtle swap with her fellow actor.

The success of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, the longest running comedy in the West End and still playing in London, clearly shows that there is great public interest in the ‘spoof stage play farce’ format. It even spawned two television specials (Peter Pan Goes Wrong and A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong) and a TV series. Writers David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr were there years earlier: The FAHETGDS Murder Mystery premiered in 1980. Victoria Wood fans will love the set mishaps and hammy acting: I was reminded of Acorn Antiques on more than one occasion.

I loved it. Giggles guaranteed in this highly recommended comedy production.

The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery is running at the Highbury Theatre in Sutton Coldfield until 11th February 2023.

Farndale Avenue