The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen

Fri 10th – Mon 27th August 2012

reviews

Imogen O'Sullivan

at 01:46 on 19th Aug 2012

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As Philip Dunster utters the line "a little improvisation makes a well-prepared man", his gun fails to work and ‘The Three Faces of Dr Crippen’ finds one of its best moments of comedy in the opportunity for freeform improvisation that its three leading men obviously thrive upon. The audience is left wondering if that had been scripted. Painful awareness that they are presenting their version of Dr Crippen to an audience becomes the fodder for a series of meta-textual jokes - "you are not supposed to speak to the public, that is my job" - which cleverly evokes a sense of Crippen’s own crippling self-awareness, but occasionally threatens to smother the moments of dramatic variation this piece also has to offer.

The Freudian exploration of three parts of a man’s psyche allows for the three male leads to hide behind one tone without variation; towards the end Dunster’s vocalisation becomes a little too shouty, but his visceral physical explosions continue to make up for moments of static physicality in ensemble scenes. Alexander Stutt appears to channel Green Wing’s Dr Statham in his deployment of toe-curling, belly-crawling sycophancy; "as flies are drawn to honey, so I am drawn to you", whilst James Blake-Butler’s strengths lie in the subtle beauty of his naturalism which sadly is often over-shadowed, sometimes literally, by the flailing limbs of his Pythonesque cohorts. Blake-Butler, whilst oddly reminiscent of Basil the Mouse Detective, is sweet and compelling as Crippen in love, which, alongside Jessica Webber’s sensitive portrayal, breaks from self-conscious japery to explore the poignant problem of a young woman pregnant out of wedlock – the closest this piece comes to exonerating its protagonist. Compelling physical performances complement each other as Stutt’s socially upright tension exaggerates Dunster’s volatile body – whilst attention is drawn by one Dr Crippen to the ambiguity of ‘commitment’ in association with both marriage and insanity, commitment in this piece means the beads of sweat visibly dripping from the lead actors.

Ensemble actors are utilised well, with their performances competent but rarely exceptional. Mitch Whitehead is powerful and hilarious, shining in both small roles he portrays, however, Inspector Dew (Chris Memmott) had problems with his diction, occasionally stumbling on fast-paced dialogue, but did show promise with his comic timing. The facial distortions of the Ladies Guild are a comic highlight, with the cosy hearths of middle-class society parodying the stormy heaths of Shakespeare, as the infiltration of rhyming into the script weaves subtle moments of textual magic. Emily Spetch is a laudable Cora Crippen, the transition from coy sighs to growling bile indicating strong comic timing; however, occasionally her vocal performance seemed to lack the full-throated commitment of her three husbands. More convincing overall is Jessica Webber as Ethel Le Neve. Webber’s Ethel is a beautifully nuanced and clever performance; convincing, subtle and loveable, with a perfectly played Machiavellian twist.

Unfortunately, the audience is never really allowed to engage with the emotional possibilities of this piece - the moment when a perceptive and sensitive turn by Blake-Butler ends with the actor swept away by a boisterous shout of "melancholy bastard", is a telling microcosm of the piece as a whole. However, the chemistry between the likeable leading trio is undeniable and their charisma carries this piece, well-supported on the backs of the rest of their company. Whilst they may not have rewritten history in their exploration of the story of Dr Crippen, they did shed new light onto the tired Jekyll and Hyde formula - if Jekyll and Hyde were banter-swapping, bowler-wearing chums.

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Rivkah Brown

at 09:57 on 19th Aug 2012

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I knew ‘The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen’ was destined to walk the tightrope between fiction and reality, but being greeted by three bowler-hatted Crippens (played by James Blake-Butler, Alexander Stutt and Philip Dunster) upon arrival somewhat surpassed my expectations. This preamble was convenient in allowing the trio to settle into character, as well as to poke fun at the audience, and themselves ("The bits that are scripted are a bit funnier", Dunster cheekily concedes).

The play recounts the bizarre lifestory of infamous wife-murdering physician Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, whom the play ingeniously divides into three bizarre personae; however these were not entirely clear cut. Re-examining the cast list only confused me further. What I thought were ‘Hawley’, ‘Harvey’ and ‘Crippen’ turned out to be the rather imaginatively-named ‘Private Crippen’, ‘Public Crippen’ and ‘Fantasy Crippen’, the latter of whom sounds too much like a Pokémon character to be taken seriously.

Apart from this technical confusion, the production is well-executed and swift; even for Edinburgh, the production squeezes a formidable amount of material into an hour. This is largely thanks to the threefold protagonist, with constant bickering and witty ripostes helping the play surge forward to its bloody conclusion. The only caveat to this is that the audience is occasionally left with two awkwardly useless-looking Crippens twiddling their thumbs, to allow one of their troupe to take centre stage. Not only time but space is innovatively maximised: minimal yet well-selected props (kudos to Josh Breeze and and Alex Mullard) are evocative, without feeling overcrowded.

The three Crippens (often quite literally) bounced off one another, using their respective strengths to work the greatest comic or tragic potential out of a scene. When comedy is needed, Dunster steps in (though this did create a rather large imbalance of good lines in his favour - see above). Stutt, meanwhile, is a twitching prig reminiscent of ‘Green Wing’’s Dr. Statham. The understated star of the show, however, is Blake-Butler, whose mousy shyness matures into poignancy in his well-matched, utterly credible romance with Jessica Webber’s Ethel Le Neve, the nervous typist-cum-conspirator. This plot thread far outshines, in fact, the more central affair between Crippen and his wife, although Emily Spetch gives a venomous Cora Crippen.

There is some inconsistency in the quality of the rest of the ensemble - whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the raucousness of the Ladies Guild (Lucille Balinska, Isabel Brodie and Katharine Doheny-Adams), I wasn’t blown away by either Chris Memmott or David Seth Veniar, who could have swept the production to a more gripping climax. Indeed, the ending itself is a bit of a damp squib - in particular, Webber’s parting kiss to each of the three Crippens (rather than just her ‘favourite’, Private Crippen) seems unnecessary, and actually quite discomfiting. However, this goes no way at all to deflating the rest of the performance, which on the whole is buoyant. ‘Doctor Crippen’ delivers a large dollop of fiery wit, yet with just a pinch, as Blake-Butler starry-eyedly put it, of "deeper stuff".

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