Vienna’s English Theatre revives the Francis Durbridge thriller, Suddenly at Home

Jody Elen Machin, Clive Moore and Penelope Tasker in Francis Durbridge’s Suddenly at Home at the English Theatre | Photo: Reinhard Reidinger

Are you old enough to remember Emma Peel? Perry Mason? The Saint?  Then you may also remember Paul Temple, a character created by the writer Francis Durbridge in the late 30s, who, like these other fictional detectives and avengers of crime, went on to enjoy great success in the swinging sixties on what was termed at the time the telly.

The new offering at Vienna’s English Theatre resuscitates, if not the hero Temple himself, at least more than a whiff of those glorious days of bouffant hairstyles, smart little handbags and the cocktail party in a production of a Durbridge play rather curiously entitled Suddenly at Home.

It is, as the director Paul Tomlinson coyly declares in the programme notes, not so much a whodunit as a “will he get away with it?” There you have the crafty little plot in a nutshell – philandering husband does away with rich wife – suffocates her on stage, no less, to the muffled cries of horror from a Vienna society audience not used to such strong stuff in the skin, as it were (on the telly we see such scenes nightly, of course).

There are some nice unexpected turns both in the wily weavings of the main protagonist and also in attempts by others to force his hand, call his bluff and generally give the blighter a couple of nasty moments. All this keeps us moderately interested until the end when we do, I can reassure you, find out whether he gets away with it or whether an avenger wins out.

The weakness of the play, viz its time-encapsulated plot mechanics and characters, is also its strength. We have been beamed into a time warp, and it was probably a very clever decision on the part of both Tomlinson and the designer, Jacqueline Gunn, to leave the play in its original setting of 1971, to put it, as it were, in quotation marks. As one member of the first-night audience put it, having expressed how much she thoroughly enjoyed the evening, it was exactly what one liked to watch at that time. Precisely. And the play will probably have a good run for that very reason.

There is nothing not to like, although occasionally one felt it could have been taken at a somewhat faster and tighter pace. The cast all slipped uniformly well into their stereotype roles of either the light-hearted, “give me another drink before I must be off to the gallery” female or the Priestley/Christie “I am Detective Inspector So and So, Sir, and can you tell me exactly at what time you left the house on the evening of the 23rd?” male.

However, it would be right to single out Jody Elen Machin whose convincing portrayal of Sheila made her into a believable person for whom we felt genuine sympathy.

All in all, if you have nothing better to do one evening, this will while away a couple of hours in an amusing and undemanding way. Sometimes that is exactly what we need. And the bar at the theatre serves good sandwiches and is now non-smoking. Thank you.

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