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Cold nights and murder mysteries go together well, and Ladies in Retirement has many of the traditional ingredients: a lonely, marsh-surrounded house, money, a dodgy-looking intruder, bitter squabbles and a conspicuous motive.
The possibility of murder hangs over everything that happens, but there is little mystery because the crime and the perpetrator are so easy to predict.
The story, set on the Thames Estuary, is interesting enough: kind-hearted Leonora invites her housekeeper's sisters to come for a holiday, only to find the sisters disappointingly (but, for the audience, entertainingly) troublesome. Lacking a home of their own, they adore the house and are soon dreaming of permanent occupation. Older sister, Ellen, is quickly ensnared in conflicting loyalties to her genuinely needy siblings and Leonora.
Jocelyn Le Petit, as Leonora, conveys her character's good nature, but on opening night occasionally seemed to lose her place in the script. Brenda Jones, as Ellen, treads a fine path between sympathetic and villainous, and Elsa May and Ellie Swann make a splendid duo, stealing the show as Louisa and Emily, the disruptive, childish sisters. The cast is completed by Imogen Duncan as maid Lucy, and Ashley Stewart as the male intruder.
A lovely, detailed set, complete with drawing-room clutter, carpets and piano, depicts the living area of a comfortable home in 1885. Costumes by Sharon Young and Jill Moore also give the audience plenty to admire.
Edward Percy and Reginald Denham's play began life as a Broadway hit in 1940 and was filmed in 1941. It is still performed occasionally, and under Natalie Ellis' capable direction it is an enjoyable evening's entertainment, but the plot is so obvious and creaky that I couldn't help wondering if the play itself might be overdue for retirement.
-By Barbara Frame