If this is your first “Farndale” play and you have a love/hate or even indifferent relationship with the politics and incompetencies of community theatre, you're in for a treat!
After the roaring success of their 2023 production of The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of "Macbeth", the Lane Cove Theatre Company has now unapologetically hurled itself into the madcap antics of The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery (one of the ongoing jokes is the ridiculously long title) Everyone obviously relished the challenge of defying sacred stagecraft rules and surrendering to every theatre faux pas you can think of with gusto.
The Farndale Series precedes more well known and similar farces like “The Play That Goes Wrong” and “Noises Off” but is a distinctly loving homage to everything that can and unfortunately does, go wrong during an evening of amateur theatre. The brilliance of this play lies in its intentional missteps and comedic mishaps. Every scene is riddled with missed cues, line drops, and hilariously botched attempts at dramatic tension. It's all wonderfully, deliciously, terrible.
A play highlighting the ironic joys of shoddy theatre is refreshing and may seem deceptively easy to rehearse and perform, but takes careful blocking, tone and intention in order to pull off the blithe naivety it demands. Director Andrew Castle expertly wrings every laugh possible from a complex script and cleverly under-directs to create an authentic vibe. The cast do a stellar job of maintaining their utter bewilderment and total obliviousness of how truly awful their performances are.
Armed with a crocodile handbag and clipboard, Michelle Bellamy reprises her role of matriarch Mrs Reece with zeal. She commands the stage and makes it clear who’s in charge of the show, half time raffle and the oddly random fashion show. With a slightly malevolent twinkle in her eye, Bellamy makes the most of casually stirring up the chaos and luxuriates in possibly the longest and most dramatic death scene in history of murder mysteries, which manages to upstage everyone, including the finale of the 1812 overture.
Pauline Gardner is hysterical as the perpetually vague Dawn, who tackles many kooky characters while doggedly sticking to the ever increasingly jumbled script. Gardner plays this as the ‘straight man’ which brilliantly accentuates the situational comedy.
Chevaun Williams is the poe faced Felicity who ends up earnestly playing nearly all the male bit parts that can never be cast in community theatre. Williams is nicely understated in these roles and you genuinely empathise with the fact that she desperately wants the show (and her renegade moustache) to work so she can finally enjoy her much anticipated centre stage moment.
Victoria Brown (who shares her role with Jennifer Farrrell) revels in constantly attempting to steal the spotlight, swinging from one extreme to the other by dropping out of character to redirect the scenes and then suddenly over-emote, deluded in thinking that mimicking daytime soap operas is great theatre training. She’s an example of so bad it's good.
Oliver Wilson is very funny as the poor hapless Gordan, who is roped into being the understudy, the only man on stage. He miraculously knows his lines but refuses to invest or deliver them with anything but deadpan delivery. You can tell he just wants to get to the end of the play and down several drinks at the opening night party as soon as possible.
Jannette Chambers is Thelma, the perennial diva always seemed to be attached to every amateur society, who believes she still can get away with playing the fresh young love interest by donning blonde wig, looking coy and flouncing around a lot. Her corny and mimed lovers duet with Wilson and 80’s lycra jazzercise routine was wonderfully awkward and droll.
Hats off to Stage Manager Susan Jack who must be exhausted with the daunting task of wrangling the multitude of props, costume changes and flimsy set pieces that go wrong, go missing or are hilariously misused, but must be put in the right wrong place so that everything goes wrong at the right time. I’m confused just writing that and it sums the evening up perfectly.
If you have ever seen or participated in an amateur theatre production clawing its way through rehearsals towards opening night by the skin of its teeth, you will feel equally relieved you weren't part of the debacle falling apart in front of your eyes while also experiencing butt clenching, second-hand embarrassment. Most of all you will laugh, sometimes with schadenfreude, other times in gob smacked delight.
This play just goes there, and you’ll be so very relieved that it's all done on purpose with tongues firmly in cheek, that the actors were terrific at acting badly and thank goodness The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society doesn't actually exist.
4 pretend doors out of 5
The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery plays until February 25th
Photos provided by Jim Crew and Robert Schaverien.