The Game’s Afoot a fun night at the theatre with holiday flavour

Ken Ludwig is a master playwright with a number of well-known plays to his credit and his skill with words is evident in Vertigo Theatre’s The Game’s Afoot. A comic murder mystery with a holiday flavour this script won Ludwig an Edgar Award the most prestigious honour for mystery writing in North America.

The Game’s Afoot is in the style of Agatha Christie though I venture to say it’s faster paced than those penned by the grand dame of the murder-mystery genre. Ludwig in fact winks quite a bit at Christie throughout the play from the characters to the remote setting to the stormy eve during which the action unfolds. In fact be prepared for plenty of “in jokes” relating to the theatre the only aspect of the script that I found rather tired.

The play’s central character is one William Gillette (Blair Williams) a real-life American actor director and playwright of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. He was famous for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes which stretched over a 30-year span. Apart from the name and profession and the fact the real-life Gillette did build a mansion in Connecticut there is nothing biographical about the Gillette character Ludwig has created.

The Game’s Afoot opens as the curtain comes down on the production of a Sherlock Holmes play starring Gillette as the famed detective. As the actors are taking their bows Gillette is shot — but not killed — by someone in the audience. And so the mystery begins.

The action then transfers to Gillette’s Connecticut mansion where he’s recuperating from his injury in the company of his mother Martha (Maureen Thomas). It’s Christmas Eve in 1936 and his fellow cast members are coming over to celebrate the holiday… or so they think. Gillette who envisions himself something of a real-life Sherlock Holmes — and whose home is outfitted with gadgets that would impress an early era James Bond —plans to try and “out” the person behind his attempted murder.

The guests include Simon Bright (Tyrell Crews) a young actor with a simple air; Bright’s new wife Aggie Wheeler (Anna Cummer) an innocent young thing who already has one dead husband behind her; Felix Geisel (Kevin Rothery) Gillette’s longtime friend; and Geisel’s wife Madge (Natascha Girgis) who may know more about the party’s purpose than she lets on. Enter into the intimate crowd of friends a surprise guest: theatre critic and columnist Daria Chase (Jan Alexandra Smith) a woman who knows each person’s secrets.

Throw in a séance a character who ends up with a knife in the back a sick dog and the arrival of a somewhat incompetent detective Inspector Goring (Karen Johnson Diamond) and you’ve got a sense of the pandemonium that ensues.

The cast is delightful. Each character is distinct and well developed and the actors are mostly successful in walking that fine line between comedy and suspense without falling into the territory of spoof. Perhaps I don’t have the mind of an armchair detective but I did get involved in the mystery and was often surprised by the plot’s twists and turns.

The set is decorated with precision and detail; it provided plenty to examine when the action started to lag during the second act and the large Christmas tree upstage lent an undeniable holiday charm to the production. In fact even though murder is on the show’s menu I left The Game’s Afoot feeling particularly festive.

The Game’s Afoot runs until December 7 at Vertigo Theatre.