What happens when you get a group of wealthy, posh Brits sequestered in a cozy country estate for a weekend? The answer: a whole lot of lies, betrayals, and seriously intricate revelations, if J. B. Priestley's Dangerous Corner is anything to go by. Nominally a thriller in the vein of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, Priestly's play dares to go further than Dame Christie ever didDangerous Corner is more about motivations behind a person's actions, rather than the actions themselves. In the hands of Vertigo Theatre, Calgary's one and only self-dedicated mystery theatre, the tale of murder, deception, betrayal, greed, and lust is an intriguing look into the human psyche.
The play takes place over the course of an evening at the country estate of Robert and Freda Chatfield (a powerful coupling of Kevin Rothery and Lindsay Burns). Joining the Chatfields are a host of characters, including Freda's brother Gordon (Cody Thompson) and his charming young wife Betty (Vanessa Sabourin); Charles Stanton (Andy Curtis), the business partner of Robert and Gordon; and family friend Olwen Peel (Esther Purves Smith). Rounding out this list of socialites is the mysterious novelist Maud Mockridge (Kathryn Kerbes). Mockridge is a bit of a plot device; she is there as the revelations begin, and then quietly exits, only to re-appear near the end of the play, pen and notebook in hand and a sly and sardonic grin on her face. Mockridge, it seems, calls the shots ... but to explain any more would be a definite spoiler.
Over the course of the evening, these characters unveil layer upon layer of secrets, lies, and deceptions they have hidden away from one another, all somewhat related to the apparent suicide of Robert's brother, Martin. By the end of the evening, what is left is a group of emotionally infantile, volatile, and extremely unhappy people. Indeed, the only person who seems to have escaped is Robert's dead brotherafter all, he's dead, he needn't live with the weight of the revelations unveiled throughout the evening.
That is precisely where Priestley's script veers away from the norm in the murder mystery genre; it is less about whodunit and more about 'why-they-dun-it,' which ends up being far more disturbing (and, ultimately, satisfying). The 'dangerous corner' of the title could have so many meanings: how we act when we are cornered, perhaps; or the dark corners of our minds where we store our deepest secrets; or that dangerous corner we risk turning when we pry too deeply into matters that should be left alone. Priestley was not afraid to spend time on characters and their interactions, rather than jumping to the next plausible theory or plot twist. He also knew exactly how long to carry a thread of an idea before moving on. The second act is remarkable for its psychoanalytical look at our wants and needs; considering this play was written in 1932, it is impressive how many social issues are tackled in this scripthomosexual desires, marital infidelities, suicide, drug addiction ... the list goes on. Remarkably, all of these issues develop organically throughout the evening, and none seem tacked on for the sheer shock value.
What is quite exceptional about Vertigo's production is that, despite the endless name dropping and continual revelations of truth, the pace never slows. Jan Alexandra Smith, the director, allows the story to unfold organically, and trusts Priestley's text. She never feels the need to resort to over-the-top histrionics, and the cast respond with performances of nuance and variety. Everyone in the cast is perfectly suited to their roles, and opening night was an almost flawless evening of theatre. The only drawback on that evening were a number of noticeably flubbed lines, which drew me out of the proceedings for a moment. Overall, however, it is a thoroughly satisfying affair.
Along with Smith, kudos must be given Scott Reid, the Set and Lighting Designer, for his evocative and interesting set design. Reid's set conjures up the height of 1930s art deco style, sumptuous, tasteful, yet brooding in its mostly black and white palette. Similarly, the costume design of Deitra Kalyn deserves a nod. The outfits are exquisite, yet somehow display a certain fragility, which is surely a metaphor for the era itself, and for these characters specifically.
Dangerous Corner runs through October 9, 2011, at the Vertigo Theatre in Calgary. For tickets, phone 1-403-221-3708 or visit Vertigo Theatre online at www.vertigotheatre.com.