Whodunnit premiered as The Case Of The Oily Levantine at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, Surrey in November 1977. This production starred George Cole, Fenella Fielding and Liza Goddard. Directed by Val May.
Two years later The Case Of The Oily Levantine opened at the Theatre Royal, Brighton on 13th August 1979 and then took to a short tour taking in Richmond, the Theatre Royal in Bath and also Norwich Theatre Royal before transferring to Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End on 13th September 1979. Directed by Patrick Dromgoole.
The production worked it's tour with good audience attandance and reviews (despite the fact that Hywell Bennett was playing both the antagonist and the detective!) but it soon hit trouble once it transferred to Her Majesty's Theatre in London. Apart from the fact that the venue was quite unsuitable for a play of this kind (the theatre is more used to housing big musicals and television variety shows) there were problems encountered on the first night. In So What Did You Expect? Shaffer recalls how on the first night some 300 seats were empty, although all tickets had been confirmed as sold by the theatre. At first suspicions were thought to be directed at a previous producer who had bought Shaffer's earlier plays but found that this was not the case. Further investigation found that it was in fact some members of the production party who had tried to scalp their own production and bought tickets they were unable to sell. Shaffer: "We sank slowly without a trace."
Three years later the play opened in the US with the new title Whodunnit. Directed by Michael Kahn, it played first in Boston then on 30th December 1982 transferred to the Biltmore Theatre, New York. It remained here until 15th May 1983.
The opening night had been planned for the 19th December but four days earlier The New York Times reported: "The Broadway opening of ''Whodunnit,'' by Anthony Shaffer, has been postponed until Dec. 30 at the Biltmore Theater. The play was supposed to have opened on Sunday, but the producers and the director, Michael Kahn, decided that it needed more work. During the final days of the tryout in Boston, George Hearn replaced Jack Weston in a leading role.
Casting had started in December 1981 but was set back when actor Victor Buono, who was cast as Andreas Capodistriou, died at the age of 42. Tragedy struck again only a few weeks before the opening night when Robert Coote, playing the Rear Admiral, also died.
Shaffer explained to the New York Times about the name change: "Whodunnit? With two n's? Perhaps we are spelling it wrong or, I should say, perhaps we are using the British rather than the American spelling. In any case, we are saddled with the two n's. The producers say that the spelling is at my request. I don't remember. I did go to the Mysterious Bookshop. They spell it with two n's. However, it was too late to change. The publicity had gone out.'' He adds: "I changed the title to 'Whodunnit' because I was assured people in the United States did not know what a Levantine is. The play is a sort of game with the audience. A puzzle game. The game is 'Who done it?' It has a mixed English and American cast, and will not be the same show that was given in London. I have done considerable rewriting for the last act. That was necessary to reorient some of the characterization and make the plot clearer.
''I would describe it as a comedy of manners, an evocation of Agatha Christie and her British society milieu. It's a slight piece, really more a comedy than a thriller. I simply say to the audience that we're going to play a game. All the facts will be given, mistakes will be made, all kinds of false clues planted. But we will play it as fair as we can.''
The New York Magazine said of it: "A torrent of merriment ... heavy with excitement, crackles with repartee, rings the bell with epigrams, and detonates depth charges of laughter ... Converts the theatre into a discotheque of explosive delight with enough riotous surprises to supply another mystery dramatist with a trunkful of plays."
Despite the initial set backs before opening night and the mixed reviews from the critics, the play kept it's place at the Biltmore Theatre where it remained for almost six months.
Late in 1986 the play saw a revival, this time keeping the title Whodunnit. Clive Hicks-Jenkins directed the cast which included Jack Douglas, Lynda Baron, John Altman, Aimi MacDonald, Su Douglas, Sandor Eles, Michael Knowles, Roy North, Nicholas Smith and Michael Sherwin.
The play toured the UK visiting most major cities and towns including Glasgow, Brighton, Cambridge, Darlington, Oxford, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Aberdeen amongst others. Director Philip Grout also directed for shows in April the following year.
John Altman (better known as Nick Cotton in the BBC series Eastenders) recalls his time with the play: "The production was good fun. During one performance the severed head of the ‘Oily Levantine’ rolled into the orchestra pit. This wasn’t meant to happen! This is the only play I have been in whereby the entire cast ‘corpsed’ at the same time."
The play takes place in the library of Orcas Champflower Manor. It is a grand 18th Century room with large bookcases which stretch to the ceiling.
The play opens with a taped message played from the murderer (voice disguised) telling the audience that what they are about to witness isn't just another murder mystery where all is revealed at the end. The voice confesses that he/she is the murderer and they are to look and listen for clues to help them solve the case.
The first act of the play is centered around Andreas Capodistriou blackmailing each of the guests who have arrived at Silas Bazeby's manor for the weekend. He starts by revealing to Perkins, the butler, that he knows he is lying about his false work references and that he has stolen from a previous employer. Capodistriou wants payment to keep quiet. He then turns his attention to the host, Silas Brazeby who is a lawyer. Capodistriou tells him he knows about his unlawful involvement concerning a trust fund. Again, he requests payment to keep quiet.
The first guest to arrive is Rear Admiral Knatchbull-Folliatt who isn't there long before Capodistriou takes him to one side and tells him how he knows about the Admirals encounter with a young boy who told all about them before committing suicide. As with the others, Capodistriou says he'll say nothing unless his payment demands are met. The next guest to be given the Capodistriou treatment is Lady Tremurrain, the wife of the Minister of War. Capodistriou reveals to her that he knows that she was caught cheating in a bridge game and was expelled from her club. He tells her he will make her secret known if she doesn't find and reveal to him some confidential war secrets about German submarines.
LADY TREMURRAIN: "He really does have a most disobliging manner. I suppose people like that can't help it.
Capodistriou turns his attentions to eccentric archaeologist Dame Edith Runcible who he accuses of stealing another archaeologist's valuable pot and claiming it as her own. Again, he demands money from her for his silence.
MR BRAZEBY: "You seem to know everybody, Mr Capodistriou"
Capodistriou reveals to Roger Dashwell that he knows he is in fact an Australian called Charles Corrigan who had been to prison in Australia. He accuses him of stealing the identity of the real Roger Dashwell when he drowned while crossing some stepping stones in the Murimbidgee River in Australia. He then took the identity bracelet of the dead man and came to England as a long lost heir. Dashwell strongly denies this until Capodistriou produces the dead man's ring. Dashwell agrees to pay Capodistriou to keep him quiet.
Lavinia Hargreaves, soon to be married to Roger Dashwell and in line to become Countess of Bathgate, is Capodistriou's final victim. We hear that Lavinia has been meeting Capodistriou secretly in an affair. Lavinia had met Capodistriou in Turkey and had a baby which died. Now, Capodistriou tells her he will reveal the details of their meetings and inform the Turkish authorities the circumstances of the infants death. He tells her he wants to meet with her again or he will tell all.
DAME EDITH RUNCIBLE: "I've been married thirty years, and you know it's a funny thing,
Perkins announces that it is time for dinner and all the guests make their way to the dining room, except Capodistriou who likes to pray alone before meals. As he kneels and prays, we see each of the guests emerging secretly from the dining room and taking a sword from the display in the library. They appear to be unaware of each other as they hide in the library. They then approach the kneeling Capodistriou and raise their swords. A flash of lighting and a crack of thunder sounds as they all bring down their swords and Capodistriou's head is cut from his body and roles across the stage.
The second act opens with Inspector Bowden and Sergeant Standish inspecting the scene of the crime. A phone call from the doctor reveals that Capodistriou's head was wearing stage make-up and, now cleaned, shows a totally different looking person underneath. Inspector Bowden assembles the guests into the library and accuses them all of being suspects.
INSPECTOR BOWDEN: "Ah! The Butler speaks - the most favourite suspect of all.
As the others protest their innocence, the Rear Admiral's moustache falls off. He tells them that he is in fact a Scottish actor who specialises in playing crusty colonels, cantankerous clerics and surly seafarers. The rest of the guests then reveal one by one, that they too are actors specialising in stereotype characters. Roger Dashwell is in fact a Gordon Grant who once played Milo Tindle in Sleuth!!
Sergeant Standish returns with the photo from the doctor and is surprised to see the guests are now different people. The Inspector shows the actors the photo of Capodistriou's head and they recognise it as Gerry Marshall - their agent. They explain how Marshall been instructed by a Mrs Bazeby to assemble a cast to stay at the manor and perform a murder mystery in front of Mr Bazeby for his birthday. They were each given a plot outline with what they had to do. They were to perform the murder and Mr Bazeby would be the person to solve the case. They would then stay with their host as guests for the weekend.
INSPECTOR BOWDEN: "Very ingenious game. Curious that in the event it should
When Mr Bazeby is questioned he tells the Inspector that he is also an actor but not a client of Marshall's. He was instructed by a Mrs Bazeby to play her husband at the manor. As the questioning goes on, it becomes clear that all the actors have a mutual hatred for their agent. Marshall had given them long contracts and claimed a high percentage of their earnings. He also kept them to this because he did in fact have damning information about each of them, just like the way he played Capodistriou earlier.
Brazeby is the only one free from this as Marshall wasn't his agent. However, Marshall had promised Brazeby's daughter a career in acting, only to lure her into the world of sleaze, drink and drugs which eventually caused her death. Although a strong motive to kill Marshall, Brazeby denies doing it.
Inspector Bowden gets the actors to re-enact the murder scene and has the Sergeant play the victim. One by one the actors show how they took a sword and approached the victim and tapped him lightly on the head with the sword. Suddenly, Mr Brazeby falls forward with a knife in his back. After the initial panic that the murderer is among them, the Inspector calms them and apologises for failing to find the murderer. They are stunned as he tells them that he has failed in his duties because he was treating the case as a sleuth detective from a murder novel and not as his real self. If he had acted in his normal manner Brazeby wouldn't be dead and the case would be solved. He apologises and exits. The actors are astounded and also frightened as they realise that there is a murderer among them.
The taped voice of the murderer is played to the audience giving them the answers to the clues they should have seen and heard during the play. He then reveals who he really is...