A Brief Study of The Cat and The Canary, and A Review of the 2020 Production.

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John Willard’s (28th November 1885 – 30th August 1942) The Cat and the Canary (1922) is a classic from the ‘dark house mystery’ genre. The traditional theme of a ‘dark house mystery’ is a combination of a whodunit and comedy, where a group of strangers, friends or distant relatives spends a stormy and dark night in a mansion or castle with secret passageways with a madman and in some cases, a gorilla is on the loose. As the plot unravels, skeletons from the key characters come out of the cupboard, as the story twists and turns.

Immensely popular with the general public in the early 1920s, USA, with New York’s Broadway is the theatre district to spawn the big three plays of this genre; Crane Wilbur’s The Monster, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s The Bat(Based on Rinehart’s novel, The Circular Staircase, 1908) and Willard’s The Cat and Canary.

With the birth of the cinema, and the silent era during this decade at its creative peak, it was only natural that these plays would transfer over to the silver screen; The Monster in 1925, starring the then huge box office star and ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’, Lon Chaney, The Bat in 1926, The Cat and The Canary in 1927. Directed by Paul Leni and regarded as ‘the cornerstone of Universal (films) school of horror’. The 1939’s sound adaption of The Bat, The Bat Whispers was the inspiration for Bob Kane in creating Batman. Crane Wilbur would direct the modernised adaptation of The Bat in 1959, starring Vincent Price, who was already regarded as an iconic horror actor, as he still is rightfully so today.

vincent price the bat

There was a 1930 adaption of The Cat and The Canary, entitled The Cat Creeps, regarded as Universal’s first sound horror film, yet sadly it is now deemed as a ‘lost film’. A comical version followed nine years later, starring the late and great comedian Bob Hope, who utters the classic line, ‘ I'm so scared, even my goose pimples have goose pimples’, directed by Elliott Nugent, and seen as one of the inspirations for Walt Disney to create the attraction the Haunted Mansion, which itself became the basis for a film in 2003, starring Eddie Murphy.

A handful of editions followed that were loosely based on Willard’s play, including an hour-long version produced in 1960 by NBC, forgiven by the American public for rigging game shows in the 1950s, but that is another story altogether. The first colour, and yet final film version to date, is the 1979 British adaptation with a stellar cast of cinema and television icons, Honor Blackman, Carol Lynley, Edward Fox, Olivia Hussey, Wilfred Hyde-White, Wendy Hiller and a few more. Directed by Radley Metzger, a director more renowned for being a pioneer of ‘erotic’ cinema, than horror and suspense films.

The three-act play of The Cat and The Canary follows the rules of the ‘dark house mystery’ to a tee. Eccentric, resentful and recluse millionaire, Cyrus West, who stated in his life, ‘that have watched my wealth as if they were cats, and I — a canary’, requests for his last will and testament to be read by his lawyer Roger Crosby to the last remaining members of his family on the 20th anniversary of his death in the library of his isolated and now supposedly haunted country mansion, originally Glencliff Manor on the Hudson River, at the stroke of midnight. The next of kin, waiting to see if they will leave West’s abode, a wealthy person, are six distant cousins; Annabelle West, Charles (Charlie) Wilder, Susan Sillsby, Cecily Sillsby, Harry and Paul Jones, all under the watchful eye of the loyal to the deceased and superstitious housekeeper Mamma Pleasant. After the stroke of midnight, Annabelle West learns that she is the sole heir to West’s estate and money, including the lost West’s diamond necklace. Annabelle retires to her new bedroom, happier and richer. Leaving the remaining and unfortunate cousins to argue over family feuds, they soon learn that a homicidal madman, called The Cat has escaped from a nearby asylum, when a doctor, Hendrick, from the sanctuary, arrives at the mansion to tell them this terrifying news, as well as instructing them that no one is to leave….

ZANI Laura LaPlante iin The Cat and the Canary 1927 a haunted house thriller from Hollywoods

In the original production, premiered 7th February 1922, The National Theatre, New York, now called The Nederlander Theatre, Harry was played by the playwright himself, John Willard and Paul Jones was played by the future first werewolf of the Silver screen, Henry Hull, who starred 13 years later in Universal’s Werewolf of London. Furthermore, the stock characters and their characteristics have changed with several adaptions over the years. For instance, in the 1979 British version, Roger Crosby became Allison Crosby (Wendy Hiller), it was not because the director and producer wanted to balance the genders in terms of leading roles, it is because original choice James Mason wasn’t available.

The Cat and The Canary has remained a much respected and loved ‘dark house mystery’. Therefore, it is enigmatic why there has not been a film adaptation since 1979, over 40 years ago and no record of a major theatrical production in the UK for as many years. Clearly, Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Theatre Company formed in 2015, after the success for many years for Kenwright’s The Agatha Christie Theatre Company, felt the same and the desire to take Wilder’s play to the British public.

the cat and the canary 2020 poster

Adapted by Carl Grose and directed by Roy Marsden with an exemplary and talented cast. Britt Ekland (Films: The Wicker Man, Get Carter. Britt has been treading the boards since 1978), as the loyal and sinister Mrs Pleasant, with a performance that pays homage to the mystery and suspense films of the 1930s and 1940s. Mark Jordan (TV: Emmerdale, Heartbeat. Theatre: All in Good Time, Spring and Port Wine) as the fumbling and accident-prone vet Paul Jones, who adds a wonderful comic element to the play.

Tracy Shaw (Coronation Street legend, and theatre roles that include The Blue Room and Mum’s the Word) as a successful author and future heir to the West estate, Annabelle West. Shaw’s performance is multi-layered starting off as a confident character, then descending into fear and uncertainty only to find the inner strength to overcome the brutal obstacles. Powerfully accomplished by Shaw. National treasure Marti Webb (the original 1978 Evita, Blood Brothers) as the embittered yet pleasant to your face, Susan Sillsby. Webb gives a convincing portrayal of that narcissistic relative, that as you get older you start to realise how resentful they really are. Gary Webster (TV: Family Affairs and the man that successfully replaced Dennis Waterman in Minder, and more recently appearing in the hit play Thunder Cats) as wide boy and lovable rogue Harry Bltyhe. Webster brings a matinee hero feel to the play, with his swagger and sharp dress sense, and equally sharp dialogue, just like Stanley Baker and Richard Burton.

Ben Nealon (2012 OBE winner for his work for Pump Aid, and seasoned performer of The Agatha Christie Theatre Company, and now The Classic Thriller Theatre Company), as the self-obsessed and arrogant actor, Charlie Wilder. Like Annabelle West, Charlie Wilder at the start appears to have it all, yet due to Nealon’s clear understanding of the character, his vulnerability surfaces in abundance as the play develops. Nikki Patel (again from Coronation Street and with many theatre roles under her belt; Romeo and Juliet, Trojan Horse) as the naïve yet cunning Cicily Sillsby. Patel is intelligent in her interpretation of Cicily, being the person, she believes people want her to be, yet clearly has her own agenda, which is not that of a sinister nature. Patel took a supporting role yet added a complexity to it. Eric Carte (TV: Bouquet of Barbed Wire, New Tricks and West End appearances in Mrs Warren’s Profession, Underground) as the no-nonsense lawyer Roger Crosby. Carte is strong and confident as he commands a strong presence when he enters the stage to deliver his dialogue.

Cat and the Canary tracy shaw britt ekland

Martin Carroll (The Classic  Thriller Theatre Company regular, as well as playing Count Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing in a Singapore tour of Dracula) as the bearer of bad news and the rather aggressive Hendricks. Carroll is robust and convincing that makes the audience feel unsettled. As Hendrick’s announcement of a madman on the loose towards the end of act one takes The Cat and The Canary from being a character-driven play to a suspenseful piece of theatre. Hendricks is more than a supporting role; he is the bridge into the unknown. And not forgetting Jack Taylor (Recent graduate of Mountview, and recent tours of Hamlet and The Canterville Ghost) as the policeman, clearly enjoying his role, with certainly a bright future ahead of him.

Set in the early 1950s, at Glenthorne Manor, this time on Bodmin Moor Cornwall, with a spellbinding and memorising set from Takis, who have created a living and breathing ‘old dark mystery’ library for scene one. Laced in dark wood with African shields, voodoo straw dolls, skulls, druid relics, and taxidermized animals, with leather-bound books on the shelves about magic, ghosts, spells, and psychology. A big bay window sits at the back, as the eerie moon shines through. Whilst scene two, is simple and effective, Annabelle West’s new bedroom, surrounded by framed images of the human eye. I would presume that the eyes are to illustrate to the audience, that Annabelle is being watched, and the curse of insanity that is rife with the West bloodline, as the characters seem oblivious to these images. The set of scene two reminded me in a way of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, only with eyes, not watches.

Insanity is a major theme of The Cat and The Canary, as well as being a study of a dysfunctional and greedy family, made more unsettling that the cousins, distant as they may be, are romantically linked, as it transpires that Annabelle has been amorously involved with Charlie and Harry, and Paul is head over heels over her. In 1922 when the play was first performed, cousins’ relationships and marriages were illegal in the New York State and most of the USA. This is not a family; you would wish to part off.

Yet throughout this classic ‘dark house mystery’ with a disturbing depiction of a wealthy family, there are many laughs, and the conclusion is full of many twists and turns. If you are a lover of the classical horror film genre, especially from Universal Films, then if The Cat and The Canary with this cast do the tour again, then this play is certainly worth a view. I hope I haven’t spoilt the plot too much for you, as I tried to keep to the original theatre program request from 1922, which is still honoured nearly 100 years later, ‘If you like this play please tell your friends. But pray don’t tell them how it ends’.

22 web Cat the Canary 6568 hi res

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Read 325 times Last modified on Wednesday, 01 April 2020 13:17
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