Melbourne University Chinese Theatre Group’s production of A Party to Murder is a homage to possibly the world’s most famous detective writer, Agatha Christie. As I enter the theatre on the production’s closing night I am torn between excitement and apprehension – as an avid Christie fan I’m a sucker for a good mystery, but I’ve also seen a few too many twee repertory productions of The Mousetrap to not be a little sceptical.
The play’s plot will ring a bell with anyone familiar with her work. Six people – some friends, some strangers – are invited to play a murder mystery game on a secluded island one Halloween. As the similarities with and references to Christie’s And Then There Were None predict, events swiftly take a dark turn, and the characters must find the murderer amongst them before they all fall victim.
A Party to Murder is dialogue heavy play; dramatic, and constantly shifting in tone. As such it demands much from a small cast of six, many of whom are onstage for almost all the show. CTG’s ensemble cast copes extremely well with this – there is convincing rapport between all characters, and the dialogue is approached with consideration and careful timing. Ultimately the cast doesn’t miss a beat. There are, however, moments in which excessive emotion slips into melodrama, with a few too many anguished slammings of fists and pained, faraway stares to really engage the audience’s compassion. But this is an emotionally demanding script, and I suspect some of the melodrama is the fault of the original play rather than the production itself. Within the ensemble cast there are a couple of standouts – Cui Dingwen is noteworthy as McKenzie, carrying herself with composure throughout, and approaching even the most dramatic scenes with a restraint that renders her performance particularly believable. Similarly, Zhou Chuxiong as Charles is a grounding force throughout the show, bringing measure and a kind of firm calmness to his scenes. This is so much so that the scenes during his brief absence feel somewhat unstable.
The play is similarly demanding of its set, with tricks, falling photos, opening doors and floating tables occurring throughout the play. Nonetheless, set designer Emma Ke managed to create a set which pulled all this off without a hitch. The set is furnished appropriately, and although I can’t help but find some of the stereotypical Halloween decorations a little out of place, it ultimately sets the ‘haunted-house’ scene very successfully. This is additionally helped by Zena Wang’s lighting design, which is precise, extremely detailed and enhances the action on stage. The lighting is definitely on the dramatic side, but this is the kind of show in which you can get away with dramatics.
Director Peng Peng has done well to cohere several individually demanding elements into one unified production. The play’s meta-theatrical elements are entertaining and particularly relevant to celebrate CTG’s 25thanniversary, with references to and photos of previous productions worked into the story. The subtle references to the characters’ playing Western roles are similarly clever and allude to the position CTG has held in the Melbourne University theatres scene for this past quarter century. The simultaneously light-hearted and eerie spirit of the Christie murder mystery is clearly captured, and while some elements are definitely on the kitschy side, these are likely hallmarks of the original play itself. After all, perhaps it wouldn’t really be a Christie-inspired-amateur-theatre-murder-mystery without a little bit of kitsch.
A Party to Murder is a fun production that keeps the most avid mystery fans guessing until the end. While I don’t think the play itself quite lives up to the work of the Queen of Crime, CTG’s production is charming and entertaining, with a strong ensemble cast and impeccable set design working to successfully fool and thrill its audience. Its awareness of both itself and the overly Westernised, stereotypical tropes it plays into avoids the dull tweeness that so many Christie homages fall prey to. A Party To Murder is ultimately a suitably self-aware and accomplished celebration of CTG’s achievements over the past 25 years.
Melbourne University Chinese Theatre Group’s production of A Party to Murder ran from the 18th-20th of October in the Union Theatre.