Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 27, 2018

On the face of it, a young man bumping off the eight relatives that stand between him and the Earldom from which he has been disinherited may sound like a dark affair but A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a delicious comedy that has you rooting for its serial killer to get away with it.

With music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak and book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman – both newcomers to Broadway when the musical premiered there in 2013 – A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won four including Best Musical. Now The Production Company is presenting the Australian premiere – and with Mitchell Butel and Chris Ryan in the leading roles it is in very safe hands.

Mitchell Butel and Chris Ryan. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Adapted from the same 1907 novel by Roy Horniman on which the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guinness, was based, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder begins in 1909. Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro is in jail and likely to be executed for poisoning one of the D’Ysquith family. Ironically, it’s one of the fast-disappearing clan that he didn’t slay.

As he pens his memoir we discover how his mother was disowned by the well-to-do D’Ysquith family after she eloped with a Castilian – a fact she kept hidden from her son Monty, who she brought up in hard times. After her death, an old friend of hers called Miss Shingle (Nancye Hayes) appears to spill the beans, dropping into Monty’s mind the fact that only eight other relations stand between him and the current Earl of Highhurst, Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith.

Monty is in love with the pretty but socially ambitious Sibella Hallward (Alinta Chidzey) who loves Monty in return, but is still prepared to marry a dull but rich rival for his money. But what if Monty could become the Earl? Surely then Sibella would be his. And so he reaches out to the D’Ysquiths but is promptly told by the pompous dandy Asquith D’Ysquith Jr to make himself scarce and never contact them again. And so Monty decides to kill his way to the top.

The musical has the feel of an English music hall mingled with vaudeville and operetta, with patter songs that tip a lid to Gilbert and Sullivan, attractive romantic ballads, and a brief reference to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. It’s a highly engaging score that makes clever use of pastiche, with delicious, witty “stings” in arrangements that have you chuckling.

The book and lyrics are also wonderfully witty. “Has it never occurred to you to marry for love?” Monty asks Sibella. “Now you’re being cruel,” she retorts. Introducing us to  the actress Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, Monty says she “should have been slaughtered by the critics, saving me the job.” Laughs like these, and hilariously funny rhymes in the patter songs are a constant delight.

Alinta Chidzey, Chris Ryan and Genevieve Kingsford. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Roger Hodgman directs the production on a set designed by Christina Smith, resembling a cut-out toy theatre, which he uses with a nifty tongue-in-cheek touch. Effects like blood splattering as if in a comic book, a bouncing decapitated head, and the fluttering feathers from the boa of Lady Salome who has inadvertently shot herself in the head are a hoot.

Smith also makes clever use of projections on the painted backdrops. The costumes by Isaac Lummis, topped by Trent Whitmore’s parade of wigs, are sumptuous and lots of fun, while Dana Jolly’s subtle choreography works a treat.

At the heart of the musical is a tour de force role for one actor who plays all the fated D’Ysquiths, male and female. Here, Mitchell Butel seizes the opportunity and makes theatrical hay, giving a giddily fabulous performance that showcases his versatility. In a series of comic vignettes we watch him play a lisping, drunken clergyman, an indomitable female benefactress who is determined to out-do her fellow do-gooders, a camp country squire who keeps bees and thinks that life is Better With A Man, a bodybuilder, and a dreadful actress among others.

Then there’s Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith himself who takes pity on Monty after his own son dies (falling through a hole in the ice while skating with a showgirl), and offers Monty a job in the family firm. Changing costumes at a frenetic pace (the dressers must be working almost as hard as he is), Butel is a complete delight from start to finish.

Johanna Allen, Genevieve Kingsford, Chris Ryan, Alinta Chidzey, Mitchell Butel and cast. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Chris Ryan is also excellent as Monty, playing him with a matinee idol charm and a warm tenor voice, that keeps you on side with him throughout. Alinta Chidzey is perfect as the pert, pretty, pouting Sibella, singing and acting with just the right level of sweetness, while Genevieve Kingsford is a delight as Monty’s cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (who luckily for her was born after Monty and so does not come above him in the family tree) who Monty also becomes romantically involved with, and sings with a lovely soprano.

Nancye Hayes makes every comic moment count in her cameo role as Miss Shingle, while the ensemble of six offer strong support with Annie Aitken’s chorus girl Miss Evangeline Barley, and Johanna Allen’s biting Lady Eugenia D’Ysquith particularly impressive. The 12-piece orchestra under Musical Director Kellie Dickerson, brings a spry energy to the music, with song after song delighting the audience. The hilarious Better With A Man, sung by Butel and Ryan, Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying brilliantly performed by the ensemble (with terrific choreography by Jolly), and I’ve Decided to Marry You performed by Butel, Chidzey and Kingsford are just some of the many highlights.

Some of the comic moments felt slightly laboured on opening nights but this will doubtless settle quickly. All in all, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a delicious night of escapist, farcical fun.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until November 18


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