Last Saturday, against the St Andrews staple of Welly Ball, On the Rocks presented us with something a little different from the usual event: Death in the Quad. Advertised as a ‘murder mystery dinner’, the evening combined theatre and dining with the audience invited to guess the murderer at the end.
There was a real sense of anticipation as we waited to be shown to our tables in Lower College Hall. Many guests, like me, had no idea what to expect.
Before it had even begun, Death in the Quad had already scored a success, namely the unbeatable venue. What better setting for a murder mystery than the gothic architecture of St Salvator’s Quad? Writer and director Gabriele Uboldi took full advantage of this, having the actors mingle with us in character under the chapel’s cloisters as we waited to be taken to our seats. Although the black-tie dress code had seemed a little formal on the invitation, it was the right call for what it added to the atmosphere.
Upon entering Lower College Hall, we were greeted by an elegantly decorated room and in an excellent touch, live piano music. Name cards had been placed at every seat and the catering went off without a hitch. It is this attention to detail and smooth organisation that helps to get an audience on side, and the care put in by the organisers was a major component of the evening’s success. The premise that we were attending the graduation party of a wealthy, pretentious bunch of students was easy to buy into when every element had obviously been planned with this vision in mind.
As for the mystery itself, credit must first go to Uboldi’s script for deciding not to take things too seriously. The main worry for an event like this is that it will fall flat by asking the audience to take the murder seriously, devolving into an awkward game of fancy dress. Fortunately, Uboldi realised that the best way to put your audience at ease was to embrace the silliness and make them laugh. Setting the mystery in St Andrews and having it revolve around a PhD thesis on Patrick Hamilton was particularly effective as it gave the audience a familiarity and provided an opportunity for plenty of local jokes. The best examples of these were given to the completely clueless Melania, played by Evey Salehi, who referred to Patrick Hamilton as the protagonist of her favourite musical and boasted of being one of the few students to graduate with a degree in Great Ideas. It wasn’t long before the audience was completely won over, providing gasps of mock horror when required. The writing was also well paced throughout the evening, woven smoothly into the meal itself and providing lots of little twists to keep us guessing while saving the biggest revelations for the end.
Direction must be no easy task either when your audience is diffused around the room at dinner tables, all facing in opposite directions. This was largely overcome by the decision to have the cast mingle with the audience between scenes and have them carefully distributed around the room. Never did I feel I was unable to see or hear a crucial moment in the play. The full length of Lower College Hall was utilised, with our attention often being drawn to one end of the room only to have a character suddenly appear at the other.
As for the actors, all of them felt assured in their roles, and I had a clear sense of who they were from the start. They were all distinct from each other but crucially for a whodunnit, each actor was able to give off the impression that they were holding something back. Whilst perhaps not as flashy a role as his co-stars, I was deeply impressed by Finn Doyle as Edward, the evening’s victim. After being seemingly poisoned before dinner had started, Doyle remained slumped in his chair for the entire main course. While everyone else was tucking into their chicken, or vegetarian equivalent, Doyle sat motionless.
Another highlight was Harrison Roberts’ hopeless detective. From the second Roberts burst into the room bellowing ‘I object’ (he thought it was a wedding), Roberts never stopped being funny. Interrogating the suspects with the classic swagger and gravelly voice of the hardboiled detective, Roberts proceeded to get hopelessly side-tracked and forget everyone’s names. For me the highlight of the night was when he suddenly produced a banana and began to chomp on it thoughtfully as he tried to untangle the mystery.
The only slight hindrance to the slickness of the play were the brief improvised sections. The hesitation from the actors at points could momentarily break the suspension of disbelief, but they always recovered swiftly and calmly, as good actors do.
The only real sticking point of such an entertaining and well organised night was the price of a ticket, at £40. While nothing about the evening can really be faulted, the price tag places it in direct comparison with some of St Andrews’ most popular balls. While the food was good, there were only two courses and the portions were not the most generous. I can’t help but think if there had just been an extra course or one more element to the evening it would have helped to justify the expense. If On the Rocks are ever able to recreate the professional and immensely fun evening delivered by Uboldi and his cast last Saturday, but at a slightly lower price, I would be urging everyone to go.