Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Columbo, Prescription Murder, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne

'Prescription Murder'
Devonshire Park Theatre

29 Mar - 2 April 2011

Performance seen 29 March

 (appearance order)

Miss Petrie - Karen Winchester
Doctor Ray Flemming - Brian Capron
Claire Flemming - Alexandra Boyd
Susan Hudson - Elizabeth Lowe
Lieutenant Columbo - John Guerrasio
Dave Gordon - Richard Walsh
Delivery Man/ Detective - Kasper Michaels

Columbo Prescription Murder - Where is Miss Petrie?

TV to stage 'conversions' have become quite the fashion in the last few years. And why not? If you get a popular programme and do a good job of the production it may just get many people into the theatre who are normally professional couch potatoes.

Getting it right though is the difficult part. The characters we relate to on our TV screens become so familiar, their mannerisms so etched in our minds, that you expect any actor to replicate them flawlessly.

No she's not Mrs Columbo ... but who cares? Dad's Army, Dinner Ladies, Last Of The Summer Wine, Inspector Morse - just a few examples of recent noble attempts at recreating iconic series. They got close, but no cigar..... bringing us appropriately onto our cigar loving detective and his appearance of a member of the 'dirty mac brigade' - lieutenant Columbo.

My wife and I may not watch much TV but we do like 'the old favourites' Columbo being one of them. We have watched every programme from every series umpteen times including the spin off movies and the pilot episode on which this show, Prescription Murder is based.

Just to be really picky we made a point of watching the TV version 24 hours before this performance.

We couldn't see how this was going to work. Especially with this episode having a variety of locations including an airport, on board a plane, Acapulco, Universal Studios, the Flemmings' apartment, the police station and Susan Hudson's home with its pool.

But that was a minor concern the main one being how was anybody going to do justice to a role played so distinctively by the one and only Peter Falk. Demonstrating comical aspects of the character, yet retaining the ability to switch to 'bad cop' mode, the scruffy appearance, the facial expressions, cigar smoking, bad eating habits, odd manners and the numerous other quirks that any fan knows and loves.

Anybody familiar with Columbo looking to enjoy this theatrical edition of Prescription Murder is not going to accept anything less than brilliance.

When the Middle Ground Theatre Company first toured this production Dirk Benedict starred as the lieutenant. Whilst reviews were extremely favourable many thought that Dirk could have made more use of the stage and opportunities to demonstrate Columbo's quirks and mannerisms.

Just one more thing..... John Guerrasio supports GOSH Enter stage left .... John Guerrasio. From the moment Guerrasio appears you know how much research he must have put in to study Peter Falk's actions. The appearance is brilliant - the tousled hair, the badly buttoned raincoat, the voice, even John's face resembles Falk's, he's also of similar stature. You have the feeling that if Falk told you John was his brother in real life you would believe it.

I read a tweet on Twitter the other day which said something along the lines of "Who is this John Guerrasio bloke playing Columbo? I would have rather have seen Dirk Benedict when he was in it!" My answer would be "Don't knock it if you haven't seen it!"

Acccomplished actor John Guerrasio may not be the well known  'household name' that Benedict is but I would rather watch a lesser known actor who can do the job 100% rather than a well known one who is nearly there.

So how does the Prescription Murder plot and script get carried over to the stage and how do we cope with all those locations? With some of the most clever scriptwriting is the answer together with some brilliant additional actions mainly from Guerrasio.

Because of this extremely clever adaptation we can make do with a very functional 3 location set. The locations being the Flemmings' apartment, Dr Flemmings office and reception area and Columbo's interrogation room. That's it.

Brian Capron he's lethal with spades and supporting GOSH So we've lost several key locations but does it affect the story or the enjoyment of it? Not in the slightest. Instead of Dr Flemming and Miss Hudson flying off to Acapulco where he is to dump the 'stolen goods' on a fishing trip spoken references are made for plans of a trip 'up north' to drop them in a lake on a fishing trip. The same goes for Flemmings and Hudson's staged argument on the plane. The plans are made clear but you don't need to see it happen to keep up with the plot. In fact references are left in which could easily have been taken out. Whilst we don't see 'Tommy' who falsely admits to the crime the subject is raised with Flemming whilst Columbo is with the doctor in his apartment, the script from the show perfect in it's transition.

On the subject of the script it impressed me greatly. Just how much of the original was able to be lifted and transferred word for word into this show is an outstanding achievement. Mind you I am also aware that Prescription Murder was penned as a play 'Enough Rope' before the TV pilot show was made. The writers were Richard Levinson and William Dunk. This earlier writing could explain some other small but otherwise curious changes from the pilot TV show. Burt Gordon becomes Dave Gordon in this performance. Carol Flemming becomes Claire. They are so trivial these changes do not affect enjoyment in the slightest, they just leave me curious.

John Guerrasio has mastered Peter Falk's art of being able to switch from an apparently bumbling, meddling, cop to harsh interrogator. He also adds so many classic actions which were not demonstrated by Falk in the TV version, but which were truly typical of the character. I won't spoil them as it will detract from your enjoyment of the show. What I do know is that John inserted many of these actions himself, they were not scripted, but they give polish to what is already a first class performance.

So the lead character is great but how do his fellow actors match up? I'll go in programme order.

Miss Petrie, Doctor Flemming's secretary, is impressively played by Karren Winchester. I like the way that Petrie's character has been made a light hearted, somewhat eccentric character in this production. It works. In fact Karens role seems to be the one role which probably has more to do in this play than it did in the actual TV show. This is especially vital in the end scene. Whilst I won't ruin the ending it was clearly impossible to have a house and swimming pool on stage. But the alternative ending, same outcome different location, keeps Miss Petrie involved.

The role of Dr Roy Flemming was played on screen by Gene Barry. It needs an actor who can do cold, calculated, devious, smug, selfish, self-centred and some would even say slimy. The perfect job in fact for Coronation Street's serial killer Richard Hillman and that's why he has the part!

The last time Brian was at the Devonshire Park Theatre he was a funny bumbling idiot learning to dance in Stepping Out.

999 and you get London's Burning star Richard Walsh supporting GOSH In Prescription Murder he's doing what he does so brilliantly - killing again! Nobody does creepy and chilling better than Capron. However, fortunately his off screen and stage persona is much, much nicer. This always very friendly actor brought wife Jacqueline and son Louis along to see this great production and to attend the first night reception. I think all could see that Brian is very proud indeed of his family. I always find him a pleasure to talk to. I find it so funny how 'murderers' can so often turn out to be friendlier than comedians!

Alexandra Boyd (another ex Corrie Star) plays Claire Flemming whilst it may be a short-lived appearance she does her death completely justice. It was also good to see that unlike the corpse in The Black Veil she stayed still in death!

I thought Elizabeth Lowe did an incredible job as mistress Susan Hudson. She had the characteristics of Hudson just right. The glamorous babe. The woman so incredibly in love with 'her man' she is oblivious to the fact she is being used. The woman who gives the impression she is confident in her accomplice role yet inside is gradually having doubts and feeling insecure. I think this is the one role which could so easily have been "over-acted" but Lowe  does just what is needed to be viewed as 'the other woman' leaving the audience to concentrate on the developments between Columbo and the murderer.

Those of us who are old enough will remember Richard Walsh fondly for his long term role in TV's London's Burning as "Sicknote". Here in Prescription Murder Richard is given the task of playing Dave Gordon. Gordon is a friend of Flemming's and he helps by pulling a few strings with a view to getting Columbo pulled off the case.

It isn't the most involved role by any means but Walsh does a mighty fine job of the crucial scenes he does appear in. Leaving such a pivotal role out of this production would not have worked.

Columbo Prescription Murder the petrie dish? Last but not least is Kasper Michaels who has a couple of key appearances as laundry delivery man and a detective. Again they may not be the most involved roles , however but for the plot to work on stage they are vital.

I must thank Kasper for his interesting facts on the history of this production after the performance. Not having read the programme at that stage I wondered why this episode had been chosen over so many others which may have been easier to produce based on locations required. It was Kasper that explained that Prescription Murder was a play originally and then it made sense.

It's rare I give any play 5/5, even long established favourites, so to give it to a 'TV adaptation' is especially unusual.

A superb production all round. Great sets, excellent cast, fine acting and John Guerrasio's take on Columbo is sublime.

It is such a tragedy and great shame that Peter Falk has suffered from Alzheimer's since a series of dental operations in 2007 and that he can no longer even remember playing the iconic role of Columbo. I think even the great man himself would be impressed by John Guerrasio's portrayal of him.

Incidentally the usual applies if you are interested in any of the signed celebrity playing cards in support of Great Ormond Street Hospital for children. Click any 'card' image to get further details from my photo description on Flickr

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