AGATHA Christie’s Spider’s Web opens at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre tonight in the first of three Rowntree Players’ productions in four months after the long pandemic hiatus.
Coming next, from December 4 to 11, will be Howard Ella and Andy Welch’s pantomime Dick Whittington, followed by the January 27 to 29 world premiere of The Missing Peace, adapted by director Gemma McDonald from York author, musician and public speaker Ian Donaghy’s book on bereavement and life after death.
Howard Ella, who has taken up a director of productions role for original Netflix series in the UK, is somehow finding time to direct Christie’s murder mystery.
What happens? Diplomat’s wife Clarissa Hailsham-Brown is adept at spinning tales of adventure, but when a murder takes place in her drawing room, she finds live drama much harder to cope with.
Desperate to dispose of the body before husband Henry arrives with an important politician, she enlists the help of her guests.
“In a conscious parody of the detective thriller, Christie delivers a unique blend of suspense and humour,” says Howard. “There is tension and laughter in equal parts in an intricate plot of murder, police, hidden doorways and secret drawers.”
Explaining the choice of play for Rowntree Players’ return to the stage, Howard says: “For a few years we’ve talked about doing a murder mystery, having done Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and John Godber plays.
“For me, I need a comic bent to find my way through a play, and because Spider’s Web has an element of tongue in cheek about it, you could almost argue that Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong is based on Spider’s Web and not on The Mousetrap.
“It’s funny, it’s heightened drama; it does the mystery bit that it brings out with a smile, and it lets Rowntree Players find our feet again after two years, with a cast of 11 taking part, some of them new to the Players.
“It’s also a proper set-build for us, now we have a roof back on our store and all our kit has been replaced after the fire that tore through our sets and props at Moor Farm in Murton in January 2020.”
The fire destroyed half of Rowntree Players’ stock. “Smoke and water damage made most of the rest of it useless, and then because of the Covid lockdowns, it took eight months to get the roof back on,” says Howard.
“That Biblical plague meant no-one could achieve anything for a year; it was such a crazy year, where you could not imagine a worldwide pandemic would stop everything in its tracks for so long.”
The 2020 Rowntree Players’ pantomime fell by the wayside and The Missing Peace premiere was put on hold, but the Players are returning at “hopefully full pelt”.
“Andy Welch and I wrote the Dick Whittington panto script for last year, so we’re a year ahead of ourselves!” says Howard. “We’ve done a read-through to road-test it, having written it remotely, with screen shares for me and Andy.
“That was challenging to do, never hearing it out loud, so we got together in my garden once we were allowed to do so, to give it a run, and we’ve since done a couple of tweaks.
“We’re hoping to be able to do the show as we always would have done it, with children and a chorus, but we’ll react to any Covid restrictions if we have to.”
The Missing Peace premiere will complete the trilogy of Rowntree Players’ comeback shows in the form of one play with 15 endings. “I’ve picked out 15 of the monologues from Ian Donaghy’s book, putting them together to be told on a station platform in a collective narrative, with piano accompaniment, maybe a busker” says director Gemma McDonald.
“The play is a series of talking head-style monologues that have been brought together to explore life after death, with each character stepping out to tell their tale. It’s not a play about death, it’s a play about life, so there’ll be moments of laughter, sadness and reflection throughout.”
Out of necessity, Gemma is adapting the monologues anew because some of the original cast members have headed off to university, while others have moved on from York.
Looking ahead, Gemma says: “We would love to have the publicity of doing an extra show at York Theatre Royal, if the run goes well and we raise the money. If that could come off, it would raise the profile of Rowntree Players and we’d have more people coming to our plays.”
Howard adds: “We have to plan for bankrolling plays through our pantomimes, which always sell out, and that allows us to do plays that people have not always heard of.”
Or indeed are new, like The Missing Peace.
Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web will be performed at 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday. For tickets for Rowntree Players’ productions, ring 01904 501935 or book online at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Who’s who in the Rowntree Players cast for Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web:
Sir Rowland Delahaye: played by Martyn Hunter;
Hugo Birch: Graham Smith;
Jeremy Warrender: Andrew Roberts;
Clarissa Hailsham-Brown: Gemma McDonald;
Pippa Hailsham-Brown: Katelyn Banks;
Mildred Peake: Jeanette Hunter;
Elgin: Craig Kirby;
Oliver Costello: Jake Botterell;
Henry Hailsham-Brown: Rory Mulvihill;
Inspector Lord: Mark McDonald;
Constable Jones: Sara Howlett.