Hidden in obscurity since its cancelled 1931 premiere, the Secret of Chimneys makes its Australian debut nearly a century later in a rather more subdued 20s era. From the prolific crime writer Agatha Christie, this tale features stolen jewels, mistaken identities, political intrigue, and, of course, murder.
Chimneys is well-known as a political middle ground, used to negotiate political deals and network between Europe’s heavy-hitters in relative safety from the British press. But three years ago a famous jewel thief hid a string of precious diamonds from Herzoslovakia on the property, besmirching the reputation of Chimneys and leaving the affair uneasily open-ended. Now all Lady Caterham (Sandra Bass) wants is peace and quiet, not the likes of George Lomax (Victor Moore) negotiating business deals with oil magnate Herman Banks (Thomas Southwell) and inviting all his associates along, too. Not to mention the interruption of strangers like Anthony Cade (Patrick Tangye) with access to embarrassing documents about the Caterham family. The cherry on top of this terrible inconvenience is the murder of a stranger (Hamish MacDonald) right in Lady Caterham’s house.
Molly Haddon’s rendition of this little-known mystery mixes all the charm of a classic British who-dun-it with a clean, consistent cast and a contemporary sensibility that keeps the action well-paced. The elaborate set design with panelled walls, a full fireplace, and an inviting garden terrace, ideal for eavesdropping, evoked the aristocratic atmosphere well. Susan Carveth’s costume design was equally impressive for her wide range of fabrics and period cuts, which kept up a visual interest amongst the static staging.
The characterisation of the cast was a particular success for the variety of tones each actor was able to bring to the narrative. Tangye as the central figure, and prime suspect, Anthony Cade was commanding and leant towards overly-confident which muddled his proclamations of innocence interestingly. David Stewart-Hunter as Superintendent Battle, then, provided a cool, even temper that spoke to the traditional police-procedural tone and balanced out Cade’s flamboyance. Speaking of flamboyant, Moore’s excitable George Lomax was wonderful comic relief but Jack Elliot Mitchell shined as an audience favourite for his odd Monsieur Lemoine. In particular, Mitchell’s use of physical comedy and exaggeration loosened up any residual stuffiness from being in an aristocratic Christie play. Special note should also be made of Bass’s superb comic timing as the nosy, but easily bored, lady of the house.
Everybody loves a little puzzle to chew over and Christie is the master of mystery, throwing in red herrings and misdirections to disrupt all of your assumptions. The Secret of Chimneys must appeal for its obscurity and it is well worth viewing the Genesian’s well-executed Australian premiere.
The Secret of Chimneys is running at the Genesian Theatre from March 6th – April 17th
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