It’s an ambitious task to take the complexity of a murder mystery and contain it to the stage, but it’s one that Charlotte Naylor handles adeptly in Black Blood. It covers a striking range of characters, locations and chronologies, all within (roughly) two hours and all while retaining cohesion. Particularly as a piece of new writing, that’s impressive.
The premise is relatively simple: the Holmes family (yes, like Sherlock) are found murdered in their house, with the youngest child missing. Cue detective Roman and his assistant Optime to solve the case. We follow them through the process of cracking the case, with plenty of clues and discoveries along the way, of course. The whodunnit itself doesn’t get hugely more complicated than that. The plot resolves itself fairly neatly and there isn’t the usual large array of suspects you might expect, nor the grand conclusory confrontation scene that’s become a staple of the genre.
All this is not to say that the play lacks intrigue, however, nor that it necessarily suffers from its departure from convention. The most interesting elements of the play are the characters themselves, and their relationships outside the murder plot. Undoubtedly the most developed characters are those of the detectives, Roman and Optime, and the play hugely benefited from the assured performances of Lam Guan Xiong and Bridget Harrington respectively. Each individually held the stage, but their chemistry together was particularly entertaining. After a particularly vehement shouting match between the two, one audience member even shouted “rawr”. The insertion in the second half of Roman’s husband, Jamie, into their relationship was also enjoyably messy, thanks in part to a great performance by Carys Howell. The play does, however, slightly overstretch itself character-wise. There are characters introduced in the first scene never to be introduced again, and the doubling up (or even tripling up) of roles adds to the difficulty of following what is already a complex play.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the play is funny. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and with a strong ensemble performance, it rattles along at a satisfying pace. Admittedly, it loses most of the suspense you might expect or hope of crime fiction, but the payoff is worth it: it’s far more enjoyable, for example, to laugh at Mr Holmes (Kian Moghaddas) shout “attagirl!” to his wife and call her a “hussy” than to witness the cruelty he’s presumed to have inflicted. The delightfully creepy character of Matthew leans in a similar direction, with a great performance by Man Shun merging the sinister and the hilarious. Kate Harkness was also excellent as the conniving Agatha. Few productions I’ve been to have generated such an animated response from the audience, who were laughing and gasping throughout.
The production really made the most of the versatility of the stage. With minimal scene transitions, and the stage becomes a liminal space in which different sections can act as an office, a murder scene, a restaurant, a street and a bar, among others. It can also span temporal boundaries, with flashbacks to the murder itself punctuating the detective process. In a particularly satisfying scene, Roman walks into the space of the unfolding murder to watch it, having finally cracked the case. This staging is certainly effective, but it does remove you somewhat from its believability at points. Combined with parodic sound effects and self-professed anachronism (is it Victorian? Is it modern day?), the play does become increasingly detached from reality. If you’re hoping for a consistent logic and a plot rooted in reality, this play might not be for you. But if you’re looking for a hugely enjoyable, sensationalist comedy incorporating the fun of a whodunnit, then it may well be.