The Small Hours

‘The Small Hours’ is a first-class intricate suspense, mystery and murder play by English playwright and author, Francis Henry Durbridge. Durbridge was born in the low socio town of Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He studied English at Birmingham University where he graduated in 1933. Still aged only 21, his first book ‘Send for Paul Temple’ was picked up by the BBC and serialised on the radio from 1938. Durbridge was a leading writer of his day and wrote forty-three novels. He has been credited with the creation of the television thriller serial.

Paul Temple went on to appear in 79 episodes (20 series) and was to become a household name in most of Europe. In the Netherlands ‘Temple’ was known as Paul Vlaanderen (Dutch for ‘Flanders’). All his BBC episodes ended with a cliff-hanger, making them known in Germany as Strassenfeger (‘street-clearers’), i.e. so popular they left the streets deserted when the TV show was on. The vast majority of Durbridge’s work was for TV, with ‘Tim Frazer’ being his other main TV character, the three series attracted an incredible 80% of all TV viewers.

From 1970 he returned to play writing for the theatre. Durbridge died aged 85 in 1998, his grave is at Putney Vale Cemetery, London.

‘The Small Hours’ was Durbridge’s penultimate play, written in 1991 it was his seventh play for the stage.  This wonderful production has curtain up at 8.00 pm at the Stirling Theatre in Morris Place, Innaloo. Performances are on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights until 3rd October with a 2.00 pm matinée on Sunday 27th September.

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Stirling Theatre is one of only a few theatres (The Garrick is another) that still creates a foyer display. This one by Elaine Morgan was impressive.

The Scene:           the play’s 1980s setting has been successfully updated by the director to the present day.

The Set: Tom Brandwood’s design included two genuine Virgin Australia airline seats on a small thrust stage (an extension over the normal stage apron).

                                The main scene is the owners’ living room in a smart private hotel in Sussex. This was a most impressive set with opulent furnishings. The construction crew were Ian Wilson, Jane Wake and the Brandwoods.

Lighting:              Ian Wilson at his best. The script demanded that the room be lit for all times of the day. The patio doors opened onto a well painted countryside flat which was perfectly lit for the various times of day.

Sound:                  One or two split second cues, well handled by Fran Gordon.

Stage manager: Despite there being 10 scenes, Tom Brandwood assisted by Jane Wake, did not have many inter-scene prop changes but a great deal of entrances and exits to handle. Quick and efficient.

Frank Sinatra’s dulcet tones of ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ set the mood.

The stage lights rise to show two men taking their seats on a plane that is taking them from Australia to the UK. The enthusiastic young man, Ronnie Sheldon (Stephen Anderson) tells the older man Carl Houston (Tim Riessen) about his Australian adventures. As the flight progresses Ronnie discovers that Carl is the owner of the 30-room, Orchard Hotel in Chichester on the south coast of England. Suddenly, a terrorist causes pandemonium on a plane, Carl is knocked out and would have perished in the plane had Ronnie not dragged him to safety.

A week or two later Carl is recuperating in his hotel under the watchful eye of his wife, Vanessa (Jenni Glassford) when the hotel’s receptionist, Ruth (Helen O’Sullivan) calls into their private flat to say that Detective Inspector Westwood (Paul Anderson) has visited to discuss the air incident.

As the detective leaves, the hotel chef Bernard (Greg Hopson) is eager to discuss a new catering problem. An old friend, Millie (Lia Przymenska) and ‘auntie’ Olivia (Julie Holmshaw) pop in to see how Carl is managing, as he has had a threat on his life. Only hours later there is a death at the hotel.

This is one of Durbridge’s best plays. Superbly crafted sub-plots, several red herrings and dramatic climaxes at the end of each Act.

As well as having six Agatha Christie plays under her wing, this is director Janet Brandwood’s second Durbridge thriller. The first was in 2011, ‘A Touch of Danger’. Janet’s husband, Tom, also directed two Durbridge plays when Stirling Theatre was based in Cedric Street.

The cast were word perfect and their delivery powerful, but as it was the Friday night of a holiday weekend, I suspected that the cast must be a little tired, as the verbal chemistry between many of the actors was not quite there. Even so, the pace was good: with a whodunnit it is essential that no member of the cast gives any clue with body movement or expression as to the killer. The cast managed to keep the final reveal a tight secret until the very end.

In the UK ‘The Times’ newspaper, Francis Durbridge was described as ‘one of the best loved thriller writers that has ever put pen to paper’. A most enjoyable play by a dedicated team.