Over the years I’ve had the distinct privilege of seeing excellent theatre productions in which a pared-down cast take on multiple roles to great success: 2016’s The 39 Steps at the New Theatre Cardiff (in which 4 actors played 150 roles between them), and, one of my favourite theatre productions ever, 2009’s Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Sherman Theatre Cardiff (in which two actors masterfully inhabited every role in that particular Shakespeare play). The Watermill Theatre’s new UK tour of the Off-Broadway smash hit Murder for Two, in which two actors play thirteen characters AND the piano, now ranks among those hallowed productions in artistry, energy and pure, no holds barred brilliance.
Murder for Two reassembles the Olivier-award winning In the Heights’ producer-director double act, Paul Taylor-Mills and Luke Sheppard, in the furtherance of a cleverly comical take on the murder mystery genre – it’s like Poirot, but with songs. With such a madcap mashup of genres and a huge burden placed on its only two actors, it’s a miracle they pull off the show at all, let alone do it so well.
Ed MacArthur (left) plays Officer Marcus Moscowicz, the hapless yet hopeful would-be detective who gets embroiled in the crazy case of a famous novelist who was murdered at his own birthday party. Jeremy Legat (right) plays, well, everyone else, infusing each of the numerous suspects with their own distinct physicality and stage presence, from speech patterns to mannerisms to a creative use of props and accessories. There’s no lull in the action or the hilarious antics on display as Moscowicz desperately tries to uncover who the killer is before time runs out.
Legat is a one-man tour-de-force who commands the stage like the manic lovechild of Martin Short, Eddie Marsan and The Hoosiers’ flicky-haired frontman Irwin Sparkes. His credits in this play alone are as numerous as the characters on a Guess Who? board, and he flips through each with the ease of changing the channel on your tellybox. MacArthur plays a commendable straight man to Legat’s rollcall of affably eccentric characters; channelling the leading likability of musical contemporaries like Aaron Tveit and Santino Fontana, MacArthur grounds the madcap antics and ably conveys that put-upon charm of someone just waiting for their chance to come. The chemistry between the two is delightful, balanced and mutually supportive, and the joy they take in playing these characters is utterly infectious – talented, hilarious AND they’re excellent pianists too? The level of skill on display here is simply stunning.
The play itself is just so much fun to watch; the audience’s responsiveness alone is a testament to that fact, genially engaging with the actors’ fourth-wall breaking interactions – and I haven’t laughed this much in a non-Mischief Theatre production for quite some time. The music is also wonderful, not only entertaining to listen to, but which also proves integral in delivering plot points and character motivations. Some standouts include Protocol Says (Moscowicz’s ode to order), A Lot Woise (a Gee, Officer Krupke!-style ditty about having seen too much too young), and the show’s first act-closing magnum opus So What? which simply has to be experienced live.
Gabriella Slade’s set design is appealingly ramshackle in a suitably Sherlockian fashion, all elegantly worn furniture and exposed brick walls gradually dissipating into the ether – the perfect amount of things with which to interact, without seeming too cluttered, and every bit of which serves the story and sets the mood. The lighting (designed by Chris Withers) and sound (co-designed by Michael Livermore and Tom Attwood, the latter of whom was also responsible for musical direction) are both innovatively intertwined into the action, and highlight the emotions of any given scene with subtlety (whilst applying appropriate bombast to a scene near the end I won’t spoil, but which involves a disco ball and lots of bubbles).
This dazzlingly dynamic production will, as the tagline promises, ‘put the laughter in manslaughter’ and bring a smile to your face. Anchored by two tremendously talented leads, this exhilaratingly excellent show never lets up for a second; it’s the Deadpool of musical theatre: a magnificent meta masterpiece that plays like a love letter to theatre in the guise of a farce. It’s at the New Theatre through to Saturday 27th October, and if it’s humanly possible for you to see this show, you absolutely should (though perhaps think twice about getting an aisle seat in the stalls…)