My husband has been murdered, poisoned, but by who…
It was a small audience that gathered in the bar of the Bedford Hotel in Balham at 4pm to be greeted by an auctioneer offering a grand piano at a starting price of five pounds. He was very dapper in appearance and dulcet of voice and set the tone well for the coming performance of The Killing of Charles Bravo at Theatre N16. The goods on offer were from the estate of Charles Bravo.
Mrs Florence Bravo interrupted the auction, urging part of the audience to follow her away from the ghastly scene. Others were swept away by Dr Gully and the last group by Mrs Jane Cox, the housekeeper. For the next thirty minutes they followed a trail around the upper echelons of this grand old hotel. The ballroom was the actual room used as the courtroom at the time of the trial.
The story is factual: in 1876 Charles Bravo died of a particularly nasty poison and three main suspects emerged, but none was convicted. The Times called the murder and subsequent inquest ‘the most disgusting exhibition to have been witnessed by this generation’. It caused a sensation and ruined the lives of those involved.
The play was written by Katie Gibson and directed by Sarah Chapleo and the narrative flows from site to site extremely well. It weaves the players and their audience groups in a complex pattern facilitating meetings in odd corners of the building.
For all the positive aspects of the play itself, there is much room for further development. Each of the three audience groups is given only one side of the story. The experience would have been greatly enhanced had there been more time spent with each of the suspects, hearing their version of the facts. An Agatha Christie like denouement might also have served the narrative well.
Claire Gordon played the inebriated and affected widow, Florence Bravo, with flair and charm, drawing her group into the play as her friends and confidants. What was seen of the other two suspects by this group were brief encounters, but in that time Richard Darnton impressed as the womanizing Dr Gully and Kaitlin Feeney astutely embodied the character of the tart and sharp-eyed housekeeper Jane Cox.
Tom Whalley played two more roles after opening as the beautiful auctioneer. Had the audience been more vocal at the auction, Whalley would have had more scope for improvisation. He also played a barrister at the inquest and the doctor attending Mrs Bravo in later years. Whalley is a versatile and skilled performer giving well defined characters in each role.
The roles of the maids Fanny and Mary, are played by Laura Hawkward and Saria Steel respectively. In the group led by Mrs Bravo, nothing was seen of Fanny but Mary was found in the parlour. Hawkward played the brave little maid well, improvising toward the end of that scene when a slight delay in the progress of other groups required it.
The play is very loose in its time frame, slipping intodiffering time lines frequently and the final scene is driven by the murdered man himself. Matthew Harrison plays the role of Charles Bravo, bemoaning the lack of a convicted murderer and inviting the audience to pass judgement.
The Killing of Charles Bravo is an enjoyable and unique theatrical experience. It has been scheduled at odd times to make use of the venue at a time when the many spaces are free to be used. However it is a worthwhile event if you can be free to attend the planned performances.