MURDERER

 

 

Murderer was premiered at the Brighton Theatre Royal on 11th February 1975 - the same theatre Sleuth was premiered at five years earlier. It then made it's way to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 24th February and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh on 3rd March. A week or so later, it transferred to the Garrick Theatre in the West End on 12th March 1975, where it remained for the rest of the year. Directing the play was Clifford Williams, who had also directed the original stage version of Sleuth.

Shaffer's new dark, twisiting comedy was, like Sleuth, based on a pit of wits, games playing, deceit and murder. Shaffer had pushed the boundaries in Murderer by creating a memorable, lengthy, graphic opening sequence of a body being dismembered in a bath. Samuel French, the theatre publishers warn that the play is for "...the connoiseurs of murder only!"

 

 

 

CAST

NORMAN BARTHOLOMEW…………Robert Stephens
MILLIE SYKES………………………...Patricia Quinn
SERGEANT STENNING……………...Warren Clarke
ELIZABETH BARTHOLOMEW………Caroline Blakiston

 

 

 

Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in his diaries about his observations of Shaffer's new play:

14th February 1975: Murderer is a play with one brilliantly grisly gimmick – a silent twenty-minute opening sequence in which Robert Stephens apparently strangles a girl and chops her body up into fragments. Unfortunately the rest of the play doesn’t work. I closet myself with Clifford Williams and we try to doctor the plot so that it will work. At present it’s all hook and no fish.

15th February 1975: Lunch with Michael (White) Clifford (Williams) and Tony Shaffer to discuss my suggested improvements. Not all are accepted, but Tony – not the most energetic of rewriters – at least realises that radical revision is necessary.

 

 

Shaffer recalls in his memoirs that the production was often a troubled one, and wasn't sure if he had got the formula right with the plot, though John Barber, writing for the Daily Telegraph reported: "Mr Shaffer is so diabolicaly ingenious and so adept at hoaxing and double crossing we hardly ever believe our eyes.” The Evening Standard's Milton Shulman also gave praise by writing: “The plot leaves you breathless by the audacity of its hair-raising twists and turns.”

Patricia Quinn, who was also filming her role of Magenta in Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the same time, spoke later about her romantic involment with Murderer's leading man Robert Stephens, who she would later marry. It's believed that Stephens had been quoted as saying: “As soon as Pat knew I was in the running that knocked the others clean out of the competition.”

Murderer's protagonist, Norman Bartholomew, is reminiscent of Terence Germayne, the character from Withered Murder (the murder mystery novel written by the Shaffer brothers in 1955) who is also a failed artist and is having trouble with his ex-wife. Also, the characters of Elizabeth and Millie in Murderer might also have been the discarded sexpot mistress and the nagging wife female characters that Shaffer had originaly planned for Sleuth.

In the theatre programme for the Garrick Theatre production, there is a list of infamous murderers dating back to 1725. Among the likes of Jack the Ripper, Dr Crippen and Cristie is an entry for 1975 – Norman Cresswell Bartholomew “The Wolf, Wolf Murderer.”

 

 

Shaffer made a number of revisions to his script over the years, sometimes making major changes to both the dialogue and plot. An earlier revision, re-titled Cry Wolf, was written in 1981 and is based on the original version from 1975, though has an alternative ending where Norman goes to check on the body of Millie, who he has accidentaly drowned. As he peers over the bath at her lifeless body, Millie suddenly jumps up and grabs him, pulling him in to the water and drowning him!

In December 1987, Shaffer spoke about a possible new production of his play being staged in June 1988 in New York. Shaffer: "I've rewritten it. 'It's now 100 percent better. I can't remember being so excited about a project." Talking about the original West End production, Shaffer believed Murderer might well have worked before, had he not been persuaded by his producer, Michael White (who also produced Sleuth), to tone it down. "He convinced me we had gone over the top with the blood and effects in the opening scene," said Shaffer. "At the time there was a big campaign going on about violence. And I listened to him. Stupidly, I think. I cut down the length of the murder scene. The result was the play didn't work so well. And I tell you - it's bugged me for years, allowing myself to be overridden like that. So last year I said to my wife 'I'm going to rewrite it.' And I did. Now it's so much better. I'm hoping for great things from it next year."

He also wrote a special version of the play for the opening night of The Karnak Playhouse in August 1992 which starred John Stanton as Norman Bartholomew in a production directed by Diane Cilento.

 

Murderer saw a brief revival when it was staged at The Menier Theatre in Southwark, London from 10th November 2004 until 22nd January 2005. This version, directed by Adam Speers, was based closer to the original 1975 plot but with sections brought in from the other versions to create a new piece. Assisting with these changes was Peter Shaffer who was happy to promote the play. He told The Times in November 2004: “It’s nice to be of assistance, I’m here if they need me.”

 

CAST

 

 

 

A surprising choice to play the lead role was former comedian and gameshow host Les Dennis who, after a rather public split with ex-wife Amanda Holden, was turning to a new career in acting. Although a lot of the tabloids picked up on the star's troubled private life (especially with the story of the play being about a man planning to murder his wife) many of the critics remained focused on Dennis' new image.

Speaking on Channel 4's The Paul O'Grady show in May 2006, Les Dennis told the host: "I strangle the girl, chop her up in the bathroom and put the bits of her body in sacks and throw them in the fire. For twenty minutes people just sat staring in silence thinking ‘that’s not Les Dennis’!”

The Daily Mail described Les Dennis as "a rather good and convincing Norman Bartholomew" and "Anthony Shaffer's play has a clever twist and stretches absurdity to its full elastic." Not all reviews were so kind. Victoria Segal writing in an article titled "Murder Most Foul" for The Sunday Times was less kind: "In a thriller without thrills, the real mystery is why anybody thought it timely to exhume this decayed period piece." She goes on to add: "Its sleight of hand is too slight, its suspense distinctly slack. It's a play that aims to thrill and dazzle, but ultimately has all the crackle of an Agatha Christie novel that's been dropped in the bath too many times."

A reviewer for the UK Theatre Web described the play as: "Anthony Shaffer's Murderer is a lovely little thriller. An evening of wondering who done it, what they done and who is going to do what to whom next. Last seen in London in the early 1970's this play has sat in the shadow of its more famous brother 'Sleuth' which it resembles in a number of ways, not least in the way the author finds ever more twists and turns to keep you guessing." It adds: "I was actually suprised at just how creepy Mr Dennis can be, a really convincing performance with excellent counterpoint from Ms Kay. "

 

 

 

 

 

SYNOPSIS

This synopsis is for the revised version of Murderer which was written in 1987 and is published by Samuel French. The play is longer in length and there are several plot changes which bring about a different ending to the play.

The play is set in Norman Bartholomew's living room in his cottage in Dorset. The first 30 minutes until Sgt Stenning arrives are acted out in silence.

We see Norman Bartholomew standing at an easel painting. His subject is Millie Sykes who is sitting on the sofa reading a magazine. Norman pours them both a drink and returns to his painting. A moment later Millie collapses. Norman goes to her, ties a scarf around her neck and strangles her. Satisfied that she is dead, he removes her teeth with pliers, strips her naked and carries her upstairs where he drops the body in to the bath. He then strips to his shorts and we watch him take a knife, saw and sacks and take these to the bathroom. He proceeds to dismember the body limb by limb throwing each part in a pot bellied stove in the living room. During the course of this action, Norman pauses to read a newspaper, make a sandwich and watch some television. When Norman has finally finished disposing of Millie's body, he cleans the bathroom thoroughly, washes himself and puts on some fresh clothes.

Sgt Stenning arrives acting on information received by Norman's neighbour who had witnessed him drugging, stripping and taking the body upstairs. Norman denies the allegations and rouses the sergeant's suspicions by acting oddly and making jokes.

SERGEANT STENNING: "Your neighbour, Mrs Ramage, called the station a few minutes ago, and said she saw
you through that window acting in a highly suspicious manner."
NORMAN: "Suspicious manner?"
SERGEANT STENNING: "Criminal would be nearer the mark."
NORMAN: "Bomb-making or buggery?"

Sgt Stenning starts a search of the house, examining the knives, etc while questioning Norman about the whereabouts of his wife Elizabeth Bartholomew. Norman tells him that she's away on business, which only adds to the sergeant's suspicions. Sgt Stenning returns to Norman in the living room and notices a smell coming from the pot bellied stove. He opens it up and pulls out a smouldering head which he drops to the floor. Norman starts babbling and crying almost hysterical, telling him that he had to do it, that she was always on at him and was making him a laughing stock, etc. Sgt Stenning takes a closer look at the head and Norman starts to laugh. The head is not real.

Sgt Stenning is furious to find that Norman has been playing a game with him and brought him round under false pretences. Norman explains that he likes to re-enact famous murder cases from the past and wanted to know how it actually felt when the police called to investigate and question a suspect. He tells the baffled sergeant about the lengths he's gone to in the past in order to carry out his hobby. Sgt Stenning notices the magazine in the painting is the same as the one on the table and rushes to the bathroom to find Millie hidden in a sauna, unconscious. Norman brings her round and, to the frustration of Sgt Stenning, is also in on the games playing. Norman and Millie proceed to anger Sgt Stenning even further by re-enacting a sexual scene of a woman poisoning her lover with meringues. The sergeant, failing to reason with them to stop these games, leaves in anger, slamming the door behind him.

Norman and Millie are pleased with themselves and laugh at the way the Sgt Stenning was fooled. Norman then tells her about the real reason for the games. He plans to kill his wife Elizabeth in front of the neighbour and when she calls the police, they will tell her it's just one of his games. He goes on to explain that he has to kill her, not just so he can be with Millie, but also because he has to go further with the games.

NORMAN: "To Uxoricide!"
MILLIE: "It sounds like a venereal disease."
NORMAN: "It means to wife murder."
MILLIE: "To wife murder!"

As they are celebrating Norman's plan to rid himself of his wife, Elizabeth enters unexpectedly. She is quite the opposite of what Norman has been telling Millie about her and is aware of their affair. She also knows about his games of murder and how bored she is of them. She firmly puts Norman down by telling Millie some truths about him and mocks his manhood. Millie, hurt by Norman's lies and taken in by what Elizabeth is telling her, leaves telling him it's over.

Norman starts of thinking of ways of doing away with Elizabeth and gets ready for an evening out at a dinner. He returns later, drunk, and makes his way upstairs. We see that Elizabeth is having a bath. Norman sees an electric fire on the landing and goes to throw it in to the bath, but the flex is too short and the fire crashes to the floor.

Norman and Elizabeth sit and talk about their relationship and his falings as an artist. They go on to the murder games that Norman plays and Elizabeth even offers to play one with him. He is reluctant at first, but then agrees to set one up. They start the game which looks like Norman might use to actually kill Elizabeth for real, but she starts to laugh at the crucial moment of her death. Norman loses his temper and goes to her with a knife, but doesn't carry it through.

NORMAN: "What kind of game is this! I haven't killed yet...Don't you see I have to kill...
Why can't you take it seriously? You take it seriously enough in your trade. I'm sure of that...
Don't think I don't know when one of your patients dies under your knife.
You never talk about it...oh no...you doctors are all the same, closing ranks,
and pretending nothing's happened, but I know..."

Elizabeth calms him down and returns to her bath while Norman makes a start at playing Crippen by digging a hole in the cellar. He is still angry with Elizabeth and his poor attempt at murdering her. In the bath, Elizabeth calls for a drink which gives Norman the idea of playing George Joseph Smith - the Brides In The Bath Murderer. Norman rushes up the stairs and pushes Elizabeth's head under the water. She struggles and kicks but to no avail. The movements stop and Norman dances around the room with delight. He thinks of phoning Millie to tell her but decides not to as she might only fill the house with remorse and spoil it. Norman decides to bury Elizabeth in the hole he's just dug in the cellar and use quicklime to melt her remains.

Norman continues digging the hole and acting out the scene of Crippen's trial when, unknown to him, Sgt Stenning enters. He calls out for Norman, who obviously can't hear him due to the noise of the shovel hitting the stone and the re-enactment. Sgt Stenning startles Norman when he emerges from the cellar. Norman, knowing that Elizabeth's dead body is still in the bath upstairs, is anxious to have the sergeant leave, but Sgt Stenning has just finished and was on his way home when he called round to see Norman. He stays for quite some time, talking about police work and the murder games Norman plays. He has a large glass of beer which he downs quickly and helps himself to another which he is in no rush to finish.

When Sgt Stenning does finally decided to leave he quickly makes for the bathroom to use the toilet. Norman quickly stops him and, making excuses, suggests he uses the garden. The sergeant goes outside. Norman is momentarily excited by the fact that he was almost caught out for real, but then horrified to hear Elizabeth singing from the bathroom. She emerges and reveals that Norman has in fact killed Millie. He looks in the bath and sees Millie lying lifeless in the water. She tells him how she lured Millie to the house and drugged her and placed her in the bath when Norman was playing Crippen in the cellar. She explains why she did it and that her game is better than anything Norman has played.

Sgt Stenning comes back into the house and is surprised to see Elizabeth home. She confesses to him that she has killed Millie. Sgt Stenning goes up to the bathroom to investigate the scene and Norman quizzes Elizabeth's motives for doing this. She explains that she's taking revenge on him for ruining her life with his fantasies of becoming a great murderer. She says he's ruined it emotionally and professionally. She also tells him that she's looking forward to the trial and how all eyes will be on her as she stands in the dock, giving details of the murder.

ELIZABETH: "Yes, believe me my own dearest Norman, I will have what you have always wanted -
a true and abiding notoriety. Elizabeth Jane Bartholomew...! What a marvellous name for a great murderess."

Norman gives an agonized cry and tells her it's his murder. Sgt Stenning returns and arrests Elizabeth, ignoring Norman's pleas that he's the one who should be arrested as it was he who killed Millie. Sgt Stenning takes no notice, putting it down to the fact that Norman is just trying to defend his wife. Sgt Stenning and Elizabeth exit. Norman ponders for a moment, defeated by his own wife at his own game. He goes to the bathroom and is startled by Millie as she leaps up from the bath. At that point Sgt Stenning and Elizabeth enter and Millie reveals to Norman how they had set him up. Millie had used a concealed pipe in which to breathe through while submerged in the water. Elizabeth had set it up to cure him of his disease of games playing and Sgt Stenning explains that he had agreed to help out in order to teach him a lesson.

Norman listens to their explanations but then starts to turn things his way. He tells the sergeant that it was in fact he who had set this new game up which Elizabeth was a part of. The sergeant is not happy to hear this and Elizabeth denies that there was any such game. Millie tells him its nonsense. Sgt Stenning refuses to listen to them any more and leaves with Millie, telling Norman and Elizabeth that they deserve each other and nothing would get him back to their house again.

SERGEANT STENNING: "You don't know the game you're playing at all well. Stop in time!"

When Sgt Stenning and Millie exit, Elizabeth turns to Norman and questions his actions for taking the credit for the game. Norman tells her that the sergeant will never return to the house as he is held tighter in the "Cry Wolf" syndrome. This leaves it open for him to kill her anyway he likes in front of the neighbours. He starts by tickling Elizabeth who laughs, then hugging her and playfully gnawing at her. The lights dim gradually as Norman's actions become more serious and he laughs with his hands held firmly around her neck.

Elizabeth's laughter becomes something else - an amorous chuckle - a kiss - or a fight for air?