It’s 1925 and John Hartsby, owner of an illegal New York drinking den, has been found dead. The smell of bitter almonds lingers around his body. Was he poisoned? Or was his galloping diabetes the cause of his sudden demise?
Hartsby, it turns out, wasn’t just a peddler of illicit hooch, but a career blackmailer. Chief among the suspects is his widow Rose, an accomplished jazz singer (played in fine voice by Alice Corrigan), who now inherits the business. But what of the shady stockbroker Nick Cartaway, played with gusto by the ebullient Chris J Railton? His firm has deep links with the speakeasy, and newspaper reports suggest shady goings-on between the two. Then there’s the ditzy receptionist Daisy – a sparkling performance from Lauren Shotton – whose regular presence at the club raises eyebrows. And what are we to make of the newly-employed bartender James Ratney (Richard Delroy), whose cocktail skills are surprisingly lacking?
As one of an unfeasibly large coterie of detectives you’re led through the investigation by upper-class British investigator Inspector Rutherford, played by Sam Emmerson. He welcomes you to the venue, arms you with a notepad and pen, introduces you to the four suspects, and nudges you towards your conclusion.
The action is spread through five rooms over two floors in the former William IV pub near Elephant and Castle, and you’re encouraged to wander at will through the location as you search for clues, interrogate the cast and piece together your reasoning.
Well-versed in their characters, the four suspects field your interrogation, deflecting and dissembling as you tease the truth out of them. They’re all adept at improvisation, the Minnie Mouse-voiced Lauren Shotton in particular infusing her responses with wit and an inventive imagination.
You’ll need greater detective skills than merely teasing responses from suspects. In the basement you’ll find notes on all Ratsby’s blackmail victims, which you have to piece together to uncover the secret code that unlocks his strongbox. A sprinkling of handwritten notes help you towards your goal.
The interactive murder mystery is not a new concept, and it’s been presented many times by a varied selection of theatre companies. The location, the home of immersive theatre specialists Colab, is an immaculate period reconstruction that does much to engage you with the scenario.
But there are issues with this production. Reading the notes in the basement is hampered by the inconveniently low lighting, which left many guests struggling to decipher the text. Several of the clues are just too abstruse, the plot over-complicated, and the cast too unwilling to give you a helping steer when you’re clearly struggling. It’s a telling sign when, at the end, the murderer is revealed, none of the audience are able to supply the means or the motive.
The main issue, though, is that the audience is twice as large as the venue can cope with. Colab’s own shows here have a limit of about 16; but here more than 30 people crammed into the space makes it unnecessarily crowded.
On the night I visited there were two large groups in the audience, whose desire for a fun night out overshadowed their interest in the proceedings. The fact that the bar remains open throughout didn’t help to subdue their revelry. You can’t blame the cast for the behaviour of a boisterous audience, but Sam Emmerson, as the diffident master of ceremonies – more Bertie Wooster than Sherlock Holmes – struggles to contain the enthusiasm of a rowdy crowd whose incessant interjections are less amusing than they imagine. A more pugnacious, commanding approach is needed in order to keep hecklers in order.
It’s an intricately plotted mystery, with a well-drilled cast who comfortably inhabit their characters. But too much of your time is spent wandering aimlessly about wondering what to do next.
Written by Moonstone Murder Mysteries
Directed by Sam Emmerson
Cyanide in the Speakeasy plays until 15 April. Further information and bookings can be found here.