Written by Harriet Cummings.
Described as a comedy thriller, The Cat and the Canary did what it said on the tin: I laughed and jumped with fear, simultaneously, on many occasions.
The twenty years deceased Cyrus West asks his remaining six heirs to re-unite at the stroke of midnight for the long-awaited reading of his will. The play is set in Glencliff Manor, one of the fortunes received by the chosen heir, as well a clue to where a precious necklace is hidden.
Originally a play written by John Willard in 1922, it has since been adapted at least four times; a silent movie being its first film representation in 1927. I had never come across this play before but after reading through a synopsis of the post-World War One plot, I was excited to watch how a story about familial deceit and an escaped serial killer may unfold.
The play was almost too funny; I found any suspense to be dissolved by humour. I wasn’t always sure whether the comedy was intentional but nevertheless quick-witted lines timed perfectly by the stars of the cast.
In particular, Mrs Pleasant (played by acclaimed Bond girl Britt Ekland) and Aunt Susan (played by West End star Marti Webb) evoked frequent laughs from the audience.
I jumped at the sudden sound effects that dramatized the more thrilling moments. But I was quickly pulled back into laughs by the obviously rubber and faux furred hand of the play’s villain, approaching its victims from behind comically slow.
The adaptation certainly captured the age of the drama in its methods of ‘horror’, surely failing to raise the hairs on the back of anyone’s neck in a contemporary audience; even one so easily unnerved as I. However, the interpretation’s textbook approach to provoking fear and suspense mirrored a comforting past.
Modern standards would consider the plot and setting cliché, a spooky house with an obvious clause in a testament standing between a desperate lairr and grand fortune; someone is bound to pay for it.
But, remembering that Willard’s scene was one of the original plays to take on the classic ‘haunted house’ frame made me respect the apprehensible moments as the roots of inspirations to the familiar favourites of the horror world.
It’s heartening that this funny and slightly odd play was the foundation for classic tropes of horrors/thrillers loved today.
The play does feature an underlying moral lesson to the consequences of deception and greed. No spoilers, but the guilty parties are rumbled in the end, and our female protagonist seems to resist being driven to insanity unlike her later ancestor Mr West.
A background note of empowering femininity, perhaps. As Princess Sicily poses: “No one was ever frightened to death”, but the ending scene does leave us pondering whether Annabelle has truly overcome her trauma.
Overall, an entertaining evening out, perfect for the spooky season.
The Cat and The Canary continues its UK tour throughout 2021.