15 MARCH 1975, Page 25



Peter Cotes on the theatre's wave of murder plays

It has been said not without some truth, that everyone loves a nice juicy murder. The popular Sunday press and the dramatist have for long vied with each other in recreating the bizarre business of murder for the benefit of large audiences. In Fleet Street it is generally true that the biggest crime coverage gets the biggest readership; and in the West End theatre, the longest runner of all time is a thriller which starts with a murder in the dark and proceeds to an .attempted murder in the light. This week sees yet another play in Which 'the crime of Cain is the Principal ingredient. Murderer, by Anthony Shaffer, follows up the same writer's Sleuth, still running in the West End after several years. Next week a revival of Emlyn Williams's Night Must Fall, dealing with the exploits of a charming, vicious young perpetrator of a Particularly nasty murder, reenters the West End lists to help feed what seems to be an evergrowing public appetite for the thriller that chills. The fatal fascination of murder in the theatre still holds, even in an age of real-life violence. Crime Plays have seldom been in such demand, with results at the box office that justify their staging. Playgoers seem strangely to want to escape from the violence of the streets into the violence of the theatre.

For not all thrillers have been chillers, and some successes revolving around murder have been tame affairs in comparison

with some of the horrors we have known since the emergence of those trend-setting murder plays of the 'twenties and 'thirties — both British (many by Edgar Wallace), and American: The Thirteenth Chair, The Bat, Crime, The Trial of Mary Dugan and The Cat and the Canary. The last-named was an especially big hit in its day (1922) when it played in London at the old Shaftesbury simultaneously with its Broadway run; it was subsequently filmed three times, finishing up with a comic version starring Bob Hope.

• Nearer our own times America has been sending over a more suspenseful type of piece, and The Man (1952) triumphantly occupied the stages of Her Majesty's and later the St Martin's. Here, however, the murder committed offstage could not attempt to compete in sheer horror with the baby:ina-pram murder depicted on-stage in the home-grown production of Edward Bond's Saved at the Royal Court some years later.

There are, in fact, many positive links between murder in real life and murder on the stage. Several well-known players have been seen as notorious murderers on the English stage: Paul Scofield as Seddon, Ann Todd as Madeleine Smith, Charles Laughton as both Crippen and Al Capone, Joan Miller as Edith Thompson, Frank Vosper as Patrick Mahon are examples; while some of those tried but acquitted of murder, such as Elvira Barney, Harold Greenwood and Alma Rattenbury, inspired plays by Sydney Box (Murder Trial), .Edward Percy (The Man Who Was Acquitted) and Francis James (Belle View), respectively. Emlyn Williams has acknowledged that the writing of Night Must Fall was triggered off by a press report he 'had seen of the Brighton Trunk Murder, in which Tony Mancini was acquitted, and an earlier case in the 'twenties in which Sidney Harry Fox was found guilty of murdering his mother in a. Southend hotel. Ludovic Kennedy's Murder Story was based upon the Craig and Bentley case. Whispering Gallery, The Crime of Margaret Foley and To What Red Hell all had real-life murder associations, as did, Ten Minute Alibi and Dial `M' for Murder; and there have been other dramatisations of real-life murders in such pieces as Payment Deferred, Ladies in Retirement, The Field, Kind Lady, Wanted for Murder and Charlie Peace. The late Patrick Hamilton admitted to having based Rope on. the American murder of schoolboy Bobbie Franks by Leopold and Loeb, from which of course Compulsion was also derived.

It was probably my friend, the late F. Tennyson Jesse, author of A Pin to see the Peepshow (based on the Thompson-Bywaters case) and "onlie true begetter" of that notable real-life thriller series, Murder and its Motives, who got to the heart of the matter when she said: "The person to whom the word 'murder' does not give a certain not unpleasing thrill is so rare that he may be ruled out for the purpose of discussion, and the rest of the world may be divided into two classes — that in which people frankly admit a vivid interest in murder as the most curious of the phenomena of human nature, and that in which are those who, while secretly thrilled, disclaim any such interest and condemn it as 'morbid.' To the student of the way of humanity nothing is morbid, as long as due balance and proportion be kept in the studying of it, and anyone who eliminates, as an object of interest, the most strange of all the phenomena of social life, is ruling out his chance of developing a comprehensive view of that life."

The Mousetrap (St Martin's), Jack the Ripper (Cambridge), The Pay Off (Comedy), The Gentle Hook (Piccadilly), Sleuth (Fortune), Murderer (Garrick), Night Must Fall (Shaw) . . . and still they come. If it could be argued that in real-life there are no known murders in which the reward is not paltry compared with the risk run, it is true to say that in the world of the theatre, despite soaring production costs, the gamble in launching murder plays, while not paltry, can produce box office bonanzas far beyond the average manager's dreams.

Peter Cotes was the original director of The Mousetrap and has directed many other murder plays, as well as being a keen criminologist