The Cat And The Canary by John Willard,

Theatre Royal, Windsor

The presence of a post-panto murder mystery has become as much of a tradition at the Theatre Royal as the pantomime itself WRITES TIM COLE.

For what is better than being chilled to the core by deathly events on stage on a cold January night.

And there’s nothing to get the heart pumping quite like a marvellous psychological thriller set in a ghostly old house on Bodmin Moor, with the threat of an escaped lunatic from a nearby asylum looming large over proceedings.

Britt Ekland puts in a gripping performance as Mrs Pleasant, the housekeeper, with talk of ghosts, spirits and evil in the building, where six potential heirs to a fortune have gathered to hear the reading of a will, 20 years after the house’s owner has died.

The six comprise three men – an egotistical actor, an angry boxer, and a bumbling vet – and three women – a glamourous author, a young Indian princess, and her slightly dippy aunt.

The three men are all in love with the author and that theme provides interludes for the surrounding terror, while the princess and her aunt provide some light relief.

Tracy Shaw, as the author, seems to live every twist and turn of the plot, providing the focal point around which the tale revolves.

The cornerstone of the story is that the will states that the sole beneficiary of the fortune must be of sound mind, otherwise the inheritance will pass to one of the remaining five.

It is a lovely premise for any thriller and the tension was palpable throughout.

For a decade Windsor had fabulous productions in this genre from The Agatha Christie Theatre Company, presenting some of the author’s masterpieces including And Then There Were None, Witness For The Prosecution and Murder On The Nile.

The production team then morphed into The Classic Thriller Company and has presented the four more gems, Rehearsal For Murder, A Judgement In Stone, The Frightened Lady, and The Lady Vanishes.

Like its four predecessors, The Cat And The Canary, is directed for Bill Kenwright by Roy Marsden, with this new adaptation by Carl Grose set in the 1950s.

The play was originally presented on Broadway in 1922, with the author taking on the role of pugilist Harry Blythe, and has been through several film versions, with the last remake in 1979 being the first done in colour.

Roy Marsden must have been pleased by the way the opening night’s preview looked and by the reaction of an audience that was clearly spooked at all the right moments.

The cast were utterly convincing, with enough clues being carefully dropped to let you work out key parts of the plot, but never enough to anticipate the climactic ending.

Beautiful staging, a wonderful lighting plot and, above all, terrific music and sound effects meant that you pretty much knew when every frightening moment was due to arrive, but the manner was still a surprise to make you jolt.

The Cat And The Canary is on until Saturday January 25, with performances starting at 8pm and additional matinee performances on Saturdays at 4.45pm, and Thursday at 2.30pm.