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Blackmail, The Mercury Theatre - Colchester

This is a rewrite by Mark Ravenhill of an old play by Charles Bennett and probably best known from the 1929 film of the same name directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The storyline itself shows a great insight into how far our lives have changed since the 1920's and yet in others hardly at all.

On entering the Auditorium at the Mercury, we were faced with a fantastic set of the back of the Jarvis Shop. As always, the sets at the Mercury are so well devised and give a marvelous backdrop for the action. I always love the attention to detail I every aspect.

Blackmail is essentially a four character play and all the actors gave very believable and honest performances. Jesse Hills as Alice Jarvis, Gabriel Akuwudike as Alice’s fiancé, Harold Webber, the policeman and Lucy Speed as Ada Jarvis, Alice’s mother; all set up the story of Alice, assaulted by a bohemian artist, Peter Hewitt after a disagreement with fiancé Harold, which resulted in the artists Murder. 16 hours later the missing Alice returns home to her mother and Harold. It transpires that Alice’s gloves were left at the murder scene but were removed by Harold to protect her and the question of what happens next is the key to the play.

To be honest, I found the first half of the play a little slow and it didn’t initially capture my interest. This was also backed by some poor sight lines, bad diction, and some weak direction. It was difficult to understand sections of the play when the characters were poorly positioned on stage and from our side of the auditorium we saw little of Gabriel’s face in Act One, only the side and back of his head which meant we were unable to resonate with the character, this was something that I also overheard in the interval from other audience members on the other side of the auditorium, who were complaining they couldn’t see the faces of either Jessie or Lucy.

However, the tempo picked up dramatically when Patrick Walshe McBride as Ian Tracy arrived to blackmail the couple. McBride had an energy onstage like a coiled spring and this was an energy the piece desperately needed. His sly and unbalanced characterisation gave a new twist to the plot, and it felt like he gave the other actors something to play against. In fact Act Two was a huge improvement on Act One with a much better pace and stronger performances.

I always look forward to all the productions staged at the Mercury Theatre, we are lucky locally to have such a great centre for the arts. However on this occasion, I left the theatre feeling disappointed. This was an average play, which some clearly talented and strong actors worked hard to deliver but were let down by both the piece itself and the direction. Sadly, I felt it was not to the high standard we usually see at the Mercury Theatre.

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