CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
images © Darlington Hippodrome.
It is a post-COVID (or ‘living with COVID’, to be governmentally precise) time we live in. The dolphins and whales have departed the Hudson. Queuing for groceries and limited head counts in shopping centres are no more. And, as the great post-pandemic reset continues its reparative march onwards, it seems we have reached the ‘murderous marital thriller’ ebb for touring and regional theatre.
Prior to the tumult of 2020, it wasn’t uncommon to glance over touring theatre schedules and find, peppered amidst the myriad musicals, revivals and am-dram offerings, a healthy smattering of Patterson-esque psychological thrillers, more often than not seemingly anchored around that most terrifying concept of all; stagnating matrimony.
One need only glance at Birmingham’s Alexandra theatre, this week’s home for Catch Me If You Can, to see that within the past few weeks it played host to Eastenders alumni Adam Woodyatt and Laurie Brett playing, you guessed it, a married couple, wrapped up in Peter James tension and mystery in the suitably spookily-monikered Looking Good Dead.
In some ways, Catch Me ticks a good number of boxes, and one could go in expecting a formulaic whodunnit or mystery with similarly familiar trimmings (trappings?). Former Dallas favourite Patrick Duffy serves as this show’s television star name check, and an elevator pitch for its story – man’s new wife goes missing, only to ‘return’ a few days later albeit seemingly a completely different woman, quite literally – would seem to posit us in typically James-ian fare.
It’s quite delicious then, to have in Catch Me If You Can, a show that not only offers its own, fairly longstanding pedigree, penned as it was by Tony award-winners Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert some six decades ago, but indeed a surprisingly funny and disarming romp of a show that breezes through a whirlwind of twists, turns and surprises, to form a whole that quite deservedly can be labelled equal parts comedy, thriller and mystery.
Make no mistakes, Weinstock and Gilbert’s book does the heaviest of lifting here, and it manages to bandy tonally between everything from Hitchcock to borderline Frayn without ever sacrificing the compelling sense of peril and suspicion at its heart.
It’s all helped tremendously in this production, though, by a very winning and capable company, nowhere more so than with its wonderful quartet of leads. The aforementioned Duffy is a hugely likeable and endearing presence as newlywed Daniel Corban who, wracked with worry and concern over his missing wife, becomes equally discombobulated when she returns in the form of Linda Purl, a woman he decidedly does not recognise. There’s a naturalistic charm and understatement to Duffy’s work here, which is ably met by Purl’s more animated and colourful energy. Both are great, and so convincing are they each in their initial dilemma that it makes the show’s central impossible conundrum immediately fascinating.
Caught in the hullabaloo of accusations and matrimonial un-bliss are Gray O’Brien’s wise-cracking, sarcastic Inspector Levine, and Ben Nealon’s peppy Father Kelleher.
To delve too deeply into the revelations and about-turns of Catch Me’s roster or characters and genuinely gripping tale would undercut so much of what makes it work; let’s just say it is genuinely refreshing to have a mystery that becomes only more intriguing and unpredictable, even as it gets sillier and more shocking. Just as you think you may have comfortably aligned the little grey cells to figure it all out, a new character or development will be just around the corner to throw a spanner in your cognitive works.
“…it is genuinely refreshing to have a mystery that becomes only more intriguing and unpredictable, even as it gets sillier and more shocking.”
And as is practically gospel for such a show, all of Catch Me‘s various acts and entanglements transpire in a single location; here a summer cottage in the Catskill Mountains range of New York over the US’ Labour Day holiday in September. It offers more than a soupçon of Christie and classic murder mystery lore in its singular locale trappings, but designer Julie Godfrey nourishes in its period finishings and geographical nods, a sense of character and uniqueness; a fitting yet distinctive enough arena for the suspicions and motives to fester and do battle.
The closing quips for a positive review of a show called Catch Me If You Can practically write themselves. It’s a compelling, PR-friendly title, for sure, albeit one slightly muddied by posters and a marketing campaign that seem to somewhat standardise it as your typical stage thriller fare. It’s reductive and simplistic to simply regard (or even disregard) Catch Me as your run-of-the-mill stage mystery; for here is a classily performed, frequently funny and genuinely surprising bricolage of elements that shouldn’t harmonise quite so well as they do. Even more than that though, it’s just an effortlessly enjoyable, frequently gripping night of theatregoing.
As the great cultural catch-up continues, it is the unexpected surprises of shows such as this which really shine a light on what theatregoers have been missing out on over the past couple of years. Whether you’re a budding Poirot or simply a purveyor of gripping, well-executed storytelling on the stage, you know what you have to do.
Don’t make me say it.
Taut, gripping, funny, surprising, with a splendid cast to boot, in an age of cookie-cutter thrills, this is precisely the kind of classy stage mystery audiences deserve.