As The Other Palace kicks off its program specifically aimed at celebrating new musical theatre with the London premiere of LaChiusa's The Wild Party it reopens its studio space with an outing of this charming and erratic off Broadway musical 'whodunnit' hit Murder For Two. The studio space has struggled to find success with book musicals owing to its informal cabaret style seating and small playing space but in this witty and virtuosically performed production, transferred from the Watermill Newbury, it finally finds a format that works in the space and is enhanced by its intimate setting.
The two-hander offers a twist on the English country-house murder mystery placed in small-town America in which a surprise dinner party for a writer of crime fiction turns sour as the host is mysteriously killed as the lights go out ahead of the 'surprise'. It's left to wannabe detective Officer Marcus to solve the crime before his superior arrives to prove he has the mettle to step up to the plate. The clever conceit allows for the two performers to play a collection of 14 characters within the mystery, each as wacky and stereotypical as the next adding to a colourful mayhem that is pleasant in its predictability and brimming with spirited performances.
If the show tries too hard in part and undermines its own potential to be a more substantial musical it still remains likeable, if a little slight and above the surface. Luke Sheppard directs with a skilful ease allowing his two performers to take centre stage and display their boundless charm, musical skill and affable stage rapport. It's unfussy and consistently clear - the humour remains balanced and never pushed too far to the edge which is refreshing to see with this material that relies heavily on a careful humility in its performers.
Both Jeremy Legat and Ed MacArthur are accomplished musicians and performers and display an effortless charm with the audience that enhances the material above the trivial and allows it time to land and gestate. Legat in the more shape-shifting role as 'The Suspects' offers a careful dexterity that helps each character land whilst finding some truth in the caricatures. Like a younger Jefferson Mays it's all played with an appropriate wink and a nod to the audience and even the occasional smile that's inviting from the off and relaxes our expectations. MacArthur lands the earnestness but matches him in musical skill, delighting in their well worn chemistry that comes into full flight when both seated at the piano stool and the piece really begins to fly. The show's addendum is a particular highlight.
Joe Kinosian's score is pleasant and melodious brimming with a gentle sophistication that keeps it fresh and never derivative. It embraces the tone and style of the genre but is never too attached, meaning that the music consistently finds new ways to delight even in moments when the book and our attentions begins to wane. It may not quite be the most sophisticated murder mystery you'll ever see but it's the execution that provides the interest - you're unlikely to see a show of this style so impeccably delivered.
A classy and well proportioned production that's a welcome change of direction for this tricky space. The name may have changed but musical theatre continues to bristle with enthusiasm in Victoria.