To say that Murder She Didn’t Write, from Degrees of Error, is a slick production is an understatement. Set design is masterful; Caitlin Campbell, the host today, is charming and engaging. From the performers’ commitment to character down to the very threads of their period costumes, Murder She Didn’t Write has all the makings of a four- or five-star show. Unfortunately, the thrill of improvisation—its unpredictability and almost infinite possibilities—is also its Achilles’ Heel, and some days you get unlucky. Through a combination of narrative misfires and questionable tech choices, this show wasn’t their best. But it’s clear, even in its lesser moments, that as far as the murder mystery game goes, Murder She Didn’t Write is the biggest player.
As far as the murder mystery game goes, Murder She Didn’t Write is the biggest player
Playing to an absolutely crammed Pleasance crowd, Campbell, in full detective regalia, enlists a member of the audience to the make the final call on the suggestions of the day: the case here being the first female pilot, involving a purple apricot. The performers then establish the characters—a particular highlight being the cocky lothario aviator Francois Homme d’Homme—before the very same member of the audience is asked to decide both the murder victim and the killer through colour-coded cards, the choices unknown to the rest of the audience and indeed in this show to the decisionmaker himself, who simply shuffled and returned his selection. In a stroke of bad luck for the show, Homme d’Homme was killed, his plane crashing, its brakes having been cut. This constituted the first missed opportunity. Not only was Homme d’Homme an amusing character with a markedly different status to the others and with much more to contribute (only the best characters die young), but it’s easy to imagine a different show where the cause of death and exact insidious method are an intriguing mystery. No Machiavellian schemes are required to snip some brake wires. The surviving characters then bounce around from scene to scene, finding clues and establishing motives. Ultimately Campbell steps in, sifts through the accumulated evidence, and identifies the killer.
As a format, it’s tried-and-true. Unfortunately for today’s show, its weaknesses became apparent. It’s a natural instinct for good improvisers to make as many offers and to drop as many clues as possible, and these are clearly great improvisers, but the number of clues and motives meant that the identity of the murderer became meaningless. The fun is in the journey for improv, but the best part of any murder mystery is the solve. The killer confesses, and explains through a flashback how the murder took place. Again, in this case, the scene simply showed him cutting the brakes. It also didn’t help that in the Poirot-style explanation of the evidence that the fluid covering a seat was slyly changed from brake fluid (as had been established earlier) to vomit in order to grease the wheels of the narrative with a character specific tic.
Murder She Didn’t Write employs some of the harshest scene-ending techniques I’ve seen in a long-form improv show. Much of the responsibility is given to the lighting technicians to go to a blackout, and this happens frequently. In many of the scenes, there was only time to turn over a chair or make a strange noise before the stage went dark and the show continued at pace. This led to some hilariously absurd moments, but led the show further away from the murder mystery itch it aims to scratch; surely part of the fun of murder mysteries is a forensic understanding of the details, both of the crime scene and the suspects. And, while it’s true that the fun of improv is mostly in pratting about, the abruptness of these scenes often fails to develop the characters in a satisfactory way.
It comes as no pleasure to give a middling grade to a show that on any other day would have surely excelled, but there is also the responsibility of a reviewer to judge the show that they see on the day. Devising a comedic and satisfying murder mystery is truly a Herculean effort, but today Poirot couldn’t quite perfect it.