House Guest

November 2000

by Francis Durbridge, directed by James Stonall


Vivien Norwood - Charlotte Benson

Jane Mercer - Louise Morin

Stella Drury - Helen Turner

Robert Drury - John Palmer

Crozier - Peter King

Inspector Burford - Gordon Halliday

Sergeant Clayton - Daniel Simon

Dorothy Medway - Margaret Butt

Philip Henderson - Ralph J Moen

Production Team:

Director - James Stonall

Stage Manager - Sheila Wall

Lighting - Stuart Yerrell

Sound - Ron Murray

Costumes - Isla Morgan

Props - Jean Halliday

Set Design - Philip Keen

Set Construction - Philip Keen, Brian Bowker & Cass Thorne

Front of House - Mary Jones

Publicity - Helga Stephenson

Poster - Philip Keen

Prompt - Holly Shakespeare


From Estuary News:

...Gordon Halliday is always so convincing in each role he takes on....

For an historian of advancing years, as I can now claim to be, one of the characteristics of 'The Middle Ages' is the increasing number of times I am reminded that I have lived through a sizeable chunk of history in the making.

This was borne out by the feeling of nostalgia that swept over me during my attendance of the Estuary Players' production of House Guest. As soon as the familiar strains of 'The Coronation Scot' signature-tune hit my ears, I was immediately transported back through time to the family home in South Wales and the certain knowledge that we were about to be treated to the latest Paul Temple radio mystery play written, as always, by that master of detective writers - Francis Durbridge.

Of Paul Temple himself, I must confess that I remember relatively little - apart from his impressive power of deduction in unravelling the most complicated of mysteries. It was the burbly, deep-throated tones of his fictional wife - 'Steve' - that attracted my susceptible teenage attention and, if I am completely honest, have remained with me as a fond memory down through the intervening years. There is no denying the fact that Marjorie Westbury, the radio actress playing the role of Steve was my first big star 'crush'! Much later, when I saw Miss Westbury herself - in her rather considerable flesh - the crush eased off rather quickly, as most teenage infatuations tend to do! The memory must have lingered on. Friday night at Matthews Hall revived all the old excitement and anticipation as soon as the introductory music started - but with one significant change. Whereas the boy had been attracted by the sexy and sonorous tones of a skilled seductress, it was the intricate workings of Mr Durbridge's plot and the talented acting of the Estuary Players that held the [one would hope] more discriminating attention of the grown man last Friday night.

House Guest was a new venture for the Estuary Players, celebrating their 40th show with a traditional detective mystery play. The director, James Stonall, is new to the Company and had worked on this play before. The two act setting was basic and straightforward - a 'one room' play, involving a relatively small cast of 8 people. Mr Durbridge's fame as a radio playwright was, I felt, rather evident in the 'wordiness' of the plot-line and almost in the tradition of classical tragedy, obeyed most of 'The Unities' within the controlled limits of time, place and basic situation in a seemingly simple plot - the kidnapping of a child.

To continue the link with classical tragedy further, most of the main scenes of violent action were described as having taken place off-stage, although one stabbing, one shooting and one throttling on stage, in full view of the audience, went a long way to redress the balance - as did the many twists and complexities of the plot - a recognisable technique to those familiar with Mr Durbridge's work.

As Francis Durbridge's plays go, it had many of the characteristic trademarks - a deliberately confusing plot, with a number of twists, shock tactics and deceptive sleights of hand. 'Nothing is as it seems', we were warned in the programme's introduction - and how right the warning turned out to be. Hours after my attendance at the performance, I was still not completely at ease with the denouement - 'Was it me?' I kept asking myself, or were there doubts in other minds as well? Did the first, described murder of the young man actually happen? If so, why did the family visitor not notice any trace of a messy stabbing? What was the point of scattering the little boy's clothes? Shouldn't the householders have been more upset by two rigid [if not yet actually decomposing] house guests upstairs? Again, surely someone who had been beaten senseless and left tied up in an off-stage summer-house should not have re-appeared on stage so soon afterwards with not a single sign of distress or disfigurement?

Although the programme helpfully prompted us that the time was 'the present', somehow I never felt that it was that, or that the production really intended it to be. There was [and I feel, rightly] a distinct 1940s Saturday Night Theatre air about the piece. With the one exception of the robot toy, the atmosphere of the play, the main characters and even the admirably simple setting - designed and constructed by Philip Keen and his team - suggested a time in advance of the present. Without any intended rudeness on my part, there was a sort of mid-century Budleigh Salterton cosiness about it all - a select setting where Midsomer murders have a more shocking impact because of the unexpected placing.

To emphasise the point - the two main characters, Stella and Robert Drury - she in pink, pan-velvet suit or white, be-ribboned nightie, he in a white linen suit - were never totally convincing as present-day international heartthrobs. Is this what Cruise and Kidman wear in off moments? Are these the household status symbols we see scattered around in the glossy pages of 'Hello'? Surely not! The entire play, as it was written, designed and acted, was of an earlier genre. It was the programme and not the performance that was wrong.

This is not an unfair criticism on my part. I came away from the Hall having enjoyed the performance. It may merely be a sign that I am getting older and more demanding as far as credibility goes. Whereas once, Francis Durbridge was the epitome of the thinking man's detective writer, maybe the age of Colin Dexter and PD James has spoilt us for the old subtle magic to be able to be wilder and delight us to the same degree as of yore.

Estuary Players were represented by an experienced cast of regular actors who performed with the gusto that such a light play demanded. Gordon Halliday is always so convincing in each role he takes on that one feels almost indignant when he portrays a character of such total duplicity. Similarly, Margaret Butt is obviously a good actress in our eyes to be able to portray such a butterfly-brained character on stage with such utter conviction. John Palmer, on whom so much of the plot-line depended, had a formidable task to keep the play together in the second act. He did very well indeed, helped by his own acting ability and Holly Shakespeare's make-up.

Although the 8 actors divided equally between the sexes, it would appear from this play that Francis Durbridge writes more generously for men rather than for women. The male roles were far meatier that those of the women. The female reactions to on-stage situations were more traditional - much as one might have expected of mid-century writing. Strong, assertive statement and reaction was invariably left in capable, chauvinist male hands. Apart from the thrown contents of a whisky glass by one of the women - rather a mild reaction, I felt, to ward off an attempted rape - the females came off badly as a positive, assertive contribution to the plot.

Despite all this, Estuary Players - men and women alike - invariably hit a high standard of performance. For them, this was an easy (that is not to say undemanding) home game - solid, traditional and very enjoyable. It was obvious from the packed audience on a Friday night that this is what wrests people away from a warm sitting-room and the small screen, on a damp winter evening. In the very same week as the demise of the great, all-conquering Inspector Morse it says a lot for the talent and appeal of Estuary Players that they had the foresight to recognise this fact and continue to do it to such a high standard.

- Reviewed by: Gryff Thomas