Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Jazz Club Murder

It is sadly appropriate that I am reading the assembled criticism of Kenneth Tynan in the same week that I have seen Oran Mor’s The Jazz Club Murder.  While the Murder has the well-mannered aplomb of a mildly ironic drawing room drama – despite the setting, the detective-vicar never loses his Oxbridge charm – it subscribes to a set of values that would, no doubt, have had Tynan plotting to become the first man to say ‘fuck’ on the BBC, thereby setting a bomb under post-war civil society.

There’s some fine trumpet-playing by George Drennan – a man given to whipping out his horn at any excuse, even when playing a pantomime baddie, a winning performance from Paul Dodds as the heroic priest, and even a sexy dual turn from Frances Thorburn, who plays the seductive American singer and teasing society mademoiselle with equal restraint. But from its structure  - mild investigation followed by almost dramatic revelation – to its underlying morality (vengeance corrupts the soul), Mr Runcie’s drama is comfortingly predictable.

To complain that it sentimentalises an era – the 1950s – is to miss the point: the drama depends on stock characters rubbing along happily. The murderer is barely glimpsed before the final scenes – preventing any possible shock or sympathy – allowing the play’s wit to rest on the vicar’s flirtations with the toothsome twosome. Undeniably, it goes for the easy path to the audience’s affection – the packed crowd laughed willingly at the strained jokes stolen from Mae West.

Yet the light irony it beings to its depiction of a London of jazz clubs and underworld villainy lacks any satirical bite: Murder is an entertainment, a light one, that ignores the tragedy of an innocent killed before her time or the journey of her killer from loyal son to condemned criminal. It signifies a past long forgotten, evoking the era more through the mannered conversations and the simplicities of plot: it rarely threatens to reveal the depth of the characters, even preferring to have fun at the expense of the cast’s changes of role.

Moments of fun abound – aside from an unfortunate misuse of the word ‘ball’ (is the jazz singer really asking the vicar to have sex with her, because that is what the word means. Ask Little Richard…), and the repeated phrase ‘catching the milk train back to Cambridge’ which sounds suspiciously like a euphemism after the heroic vicar has spent the evening with two different women – there’s a lively humour in the vicar’s commentary on events. Slight missteps in tone – some of the jazz numbers have a little too much of the Whitney Houston hysteria to convince – are quickly absorbed into a straightforward, facile plot. Drennan, although given little to do, is always charismatic: Doodad wins over the audience and acts both as plucky protagonist and obedient narrator.

But even by PPP’s conservative standards, Murder is whimsical. It seems churlish to attack so slight a piece of theatre (and this is neither tragedy, nor drama), especially since it aims to entertain. Yet Tynan’s ghost haunts me: like Aristotle, like Plato, he recognised the power of theatre as a moral force, as disruptive, as challenging. There’s nothing wrong with The Jazz Club Murder, beyond the occasional dodgy accent. But it isn’t enough.

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