Each week, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to tell us a bit about themselves and their writing. This week, playwright Derek Webb paints a fascinating picture of how he creates murder mystery comedies for performance.
A funny way to solve a murder (or two)
To be honest, I was amazed when I was asked if I’d like to join the Crime Writers’ Association a couple of years ago. After all, at the time, I hadn’t written a single crime novel. What I had written was a series of murder mystery comedies and they, it seemed, were my entry ticket. The comedies feature a crime novelist called Agatha Crusty – who, inevitably, is also pretty adept at solving crimes. She first appeared in a full length comedy called Agatha Crusty and the Village Hall Murders, which premiered in 2013 and has since gone on to have had many hundreds of performances all over the UK, in Australia and the US. This has now been followed by three other plays, Agatha Crusty and the Murder Mystery Dinner, Agatha Crusty and the Health Spa Murders and Agatha Crusty and the Pantomime Murders.
The first Agatha Crusty was in fact commissioned by a local theatre company. They had had considerable success with a stage version of ‘Allo, ‘Allo and said could I write something similar. I assumed they weren’t wanting a French resistance play, but something which would have popular appeal. I reasoned that their audiences weren’t necessarily frequent theatre goers and their point of reference was more likely to be television – hence the success of ‘Allo, ‘Allo. Consequently I spent a long while going through possible concepts and came up with a shortlist of ideas, reality TV shows, a variation on ‘Strictly’, soaps and more. I also thought about the more over the top detective programmes like Midsummer Murders and Death in Paradise – and then of course there were the perennial and ever popular characters such as Poirot and Miss Marple – any Agatha Christie in fact. It was then the name Agatha Crusty popped out of nowhere into my brain, and I knew I had it!
The play went on to quickly gain many dozens of productions, including one in Australia and another in the USA with Santa Clara Players of California, a company that seems to specialise in doing very ‘British’ plays. And the American audience, like the UK ones lapped it up.
This is a short clip from one scene in the play.
‘Village Hall Murders’ revolves around the mysterious bumping off of members of the Chortleby Village Hall committee – a plot perhaps suggested by real life, having at the time recently resigned from a committee which contained several members I would dearly loved to have strangled!
The play abounds with very funny scenes and wordplay. For example, this is when DI Twigg – the Detective Inspector sent to investigate the first murder – interviews his first witness, the vicar:
TWIGG: Some basic information first. Let’s start with your name – Reverend…?
TWIGG: Sorry… Bishop. (Beat.) Your name is…?
TOBY: That is my name.
TWIGG: Bishop Toby?
TOBY: No, Toby Bishop. The Reverend Toby Bishop.
TWIGG: Ah… I’m glad we’ve got that settled. It’s difficult not knowing who you are.
TOBY: I’m well aware of who I am, Inspector.
TWIGG: Of course. Of course. And you live in the vicarage I understand?
TOBY: Yes… I’m the Vicar. It goes with the job.
Feedback from those who performed it was universally positive. Ron Smith of Masham Players in Yorkshire says: “Fantastic script. A very funny play. Had a problem stopping the cast from laughing.” Leslie Traill, Woolgatherers of Heswall, says “We have had more fun with this play than any other we have done.” Some companies have even done it twice. Paul Holtom who directed the play for Phoenix Players in Stratford-upon-Avon, moved to Hall Green Little Theatre in Birmingham and directed it again, managing 100% attendance on each of the eight nights of the run!
Many innovative ways of promoting the play have also been used, including lovely ‘teaser’ videos – and some great tag lines. Forum Players of Bourne End, near High Wycombe, for example used: ‘More murders than Midsomer, as clueless as Clouseau’, which was particularly apt.
All the Agatha Crusty plays are published by Stagescripts who also handle the performing rights for these and my other one-act and full length plays and comedies. With Covid of course, most performances were put on hold, but happily several 2020 productions which were postponed have now been reinstated, and 2022 is starting to look healthy. The year in lockdown was put into good use though. I not only finished a new full length comedy about Handel, Scarlatti and Bach called Baroque ‘n’ Roll, but wrote a couple of crime novels too. One set in Powys about a quasi-religious community where people inexplicably disappear is called The Onion – and the other features a police sergeant from Cardigan, Hedley Rees, who is on vacation in a holiday village which replicates life (and death) in the 1960s. Stagescripts needless to say aren’t interested in handling either of them, so if anyone can recommend a good agent or publisher, please let me know!