The show is a new take on a classic murder mystery. When murder mystery novelist Selwyn Piper is murdered by his wife Imogen, for his large life insurance policy, she tried to frame his young new secretary Christine. The entire show takes place in one night as Christine, who finds his body, along with the help of Selwyn’s neighbor, Peter Fletcher, who heard the gunshot, try and figure out who killed him. On the same night John Douglas, Selwyn’s publisher, comes by to visit and is also roped into this mystery. As they begin to unravel who killed Selwyn, and why, it becomes clear that everyone has secrets and no one can be trusted.
A small decorated clearing at the center of the floor served as the stage, with the seating placed around the perimeter, making it so that the actors had to play to three areas. The set pieces included a mini bar, writer’s desk, book shelf, sofa, and two chairs which perfectly depicted a writer’s London flat. It was a pleasant and intimate atmosphere, but it soon became clear that this setup had some misgivings. In effort to play to every side of the thrust stage equally, the actors moves around the stage frequently. As an excuse for the constant up and down, it seemed that every character either made their own way to the mini bar to fill up their cup or moved around trying to fill up everyone else’s cup. The result was distracting and absurd, and the show began to feel more like a round of musical chairs.
Half the cast struggled with maintaining a consistent accent. In fact, in one case the dialect was entirely unrecognizable. It was only because of the context of the show that the audience could discern the characters British origin. It would have been better had the entire cast kept an American accent like Ryan Pfister, who played Douglas. The spotty accents detracted from the show, and made it difficult to follow the dialogue, when every few moments it seemed someone would either drop their accent or switch to a different one altogether.
Maybe the show could have survived these misgivings. Some actors, despite their problematic accents, gave strong performances. Branden Nelson excelled in the role of Peter Fletcher. He played a confident, quirky, smart, and outgoing young man. His first entrance into the show was him in bathrobe, and his costume later on was kilt making it quite clear his character was a proud Scotsman. Chandra Lloyd, who played Imogen Piper, also gave a stellar performance as the charming, seductive, and witty wife. Lloyd always made it seem like she was the smartest person in the room, rarely letting her guard down, even when faced with the fear of death. Her presence on stage was that of a strong and accomplished woman.
The actors may have played their roles well, but that doesn’t mean they had good roles. The script was shallow, relying mostly on plot twists and clever phrasing to keep the audience captivated, but in that it failed. There are only so many fake deaths and romances one show can keep, and Murder by the Book had one too many. Every character on the stage was, at one point, the mastermind of the night, only to be tricked by an unexpected alliance or a tall tale. By the last half hour of the show it was hard to believe what anyone said, and every new “ah-ha” moment introduced felt dry. There was too much explanation, more than once, of a scene that would turn out to be false because of hidden knowledge by another character.
The potential of Murder by the Book is easy to see. Unfortunately, the accents and cluttered blocking that permeated the entire performance combined with a mediocre script made the overall show lackluster. Yet, the strong performances by the cast and the intimate set have their value, and they may just be enough for some audience members to enjoy.