Whodunnit? Ask Emma Thompson and her surprise super-sleuths


Show caption ‘Park theatre is a fantastically important part of the fabric of north London’ … Emma Thompson. Photograph: Yui Mok/AFP/Getty Images Theatre Whodunnit? Ask Emma Thompson and her surprise super-sleuths Ian McKellen and Sanjeev Bhaskar will also take to stage and solve a crime without rehearsal in starry fundraising drama at London theatre Mark Lawson Fri 21 Jan 2022 15.42 GMT Share on Facebook

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Actors have nightmares of going on in a play for which they haven’t been given a script. But some of Britain’s best-known performers – including Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Emma Thompson, Harry Hill and Sanjeev Bhaskar – have volunteered to endure that sweaty scenario for one night at a north London theatre.

Shortly before the play begins, that night’s surprise guest star will be taken backstage at the Park theatre and offered a choice of coats, hats, moustaches and wigs, then fitted with an earpiece to be fed the lines of a detective investigating a crime.

“It’s quite a terrifying prospect,” says Bhaskar. “But when I saw the list of people who’ve done it already, I thought: that’s a gang I want to be part of.” He is referring to the first run of Whodunnit (Unrehearsed) at the Park in 2019, which featured Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent and Matthew Broderick.

No theatre could afford so many stars, but both casts signed up for free to raise funds for the Park, which receives no regular Arts Council or local authority subsidy. Needing carefully to manage its finances since opening in 2013, the Park has, like all theatres, been destabilised by the pandemic.

Emma Thompson, one of the one-off investigators in Whodunnit (Unrehearsed) 2 in February, says that she became involved as a local theatregoer and resident. She calls the Park “a fantastically important part of the fabric of north London” and says “we’ve never needed the healing, communal experience of theatre more”.

Sir Ian McKellen, Frances Barber, Jez Bond, Miriam Margolyes, Jonathan Forbes and Sir Derek Jacobi at a performance of Madame Rubinstein at Park theatre in 2017. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Bhaskar is also motivated by being part of a cultural comeback: “I think some people thought, when theatres were closed during lockdown, it just meant a bunch of actors being out of work and they were probably used to that. But it hit electricians, carpenters and front-of-house staff. And cafes, pubs and shops around theatres that lost their custom … The impact was very far-reaching.”

Jez Bond, Park artistic director and co-writer (with Mark Cameron) of Whodunnit, suggests that, in some ways, the recovery period may be more perilous than the emergency. During lockdowns, the Park was closed but supported by furlough and Culture Recovery Fund grants. Now, it is fully open but its box office affected by a residual hesitancy among audiences about sitting indoors for two hours with strangers.

“Anecdotally, across London, immediately after the Omicron variant was revealed,” says Bond, “sales of tickets went down to around 20% of what they had been the previous day. And that’s a terrifying drop which spoke to the lack of audience confidence. And that – in combination with the lack of any further government support for theatres – makes the situation very tricky.”

Comparing the days on which booking opened, the current run took around a quarter of the cash that the 2019 Whodunnit announcement attracted. Bond stresses that the box-office take has now vastly improved. But even so: “People are more nervous about going out and spending money than three years ago, so we have to much more actively go after them.”

While those in charge of state and council funding might argue that the Park is lucky to have so many famous neighbours willing to support it, Thompson questions whether the venue should be so dependent on such charity: “One of the most important tools in the government’s hands is the funding of local, small theatres. Less expensive than West End venues, they can offer experiences that, at a time when our collective mental health has been as much attacked as our physical health, would make an enormous difference to our wellbeing.”

‘I never tell Meera anything about the plot’ … Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal in 2020. Photograph: Comic Relief/Getty Images

Guest stars are asked to turn up on their night completely unprepared. Nervous or swottish performers, I suggest to Bhaskar, could talk to colleagues who have done the show or go and watch a performance before theirs. “Either of those pieces of skulduggery is possible. I haven’t been asked not to do that; but I wouldn’t. It may be, as people say these days, ‘technically within the rules’, but, morally, it would be wrong.”

Meera Syal, who is married to Bhaskar, is also taking part in the run. “It will be an interesting dynamic in the house,” he says. “But, with Unforgotten [ITV’s cold-case psycho-drama starring Bhaskar], I never tell Meera anything about the plot, even if she asks for hints while watching. So I imagine that’s how we will do it.”

Within the general fun of the production, those interested in types and techniques of theatre get to see, unusally, a completely spontaneous performer interacting with a cast who have prepared in the usual way. (Even in the Morecambe & Wise drama, The Play What I Wrote, which uses guest celebrities, they rehearse and learn lines.)

“We rehearse it so tightly with different people playing the detective,” Bond explains. “For example, there’s a moment where, for the gag to work, we really need the guest to be at a certain point on the stage. So we make sure the permanent actors rehearse it with people going to different places, so they have to work out how to get round it.”

Bond was fascinated by the different approaches chosen by actors. Gillian Anderson went comedic, wearing a moustache, while Adrian Dunbar played the detective DCS Hastings-straight. A number of the invited cast list are comedians, perhaps professionally more likely to ad lib or add business.

One aspect is beyond the control of the volunteer. There are popular, possibly apocryphal, theatrical anecdotes about veteran actors relying on a radio earpiece to prompt forgotten dialogue and startling an audience, in the middle of Shakespeare or Chekhov, by suddenly declaiming: “Mrs Hancock, 42 Acacia Avenue to Heathrow airport asap!” Is there a risk of the Park’s guest detectives accidentally receiving taxi communications? “I know those stories, so it’s a very good question,” says Bond. “I don’t think that could happen to us. But we have changed our technology, based on the first run.”

Bhaskar, who admits that he has expressed concerns about the prompts dropping out, is reassured by the fact that his career-making series The Kumars at No 42 was “half-scripted, half-ad-libbed”. His general instinct about Whodunnit is that “you have to play it fairly straight to keep the story going. But who knows? I might find myself required to do something utterly ridiculous.”

Whodunnit (Unrehearsed) 2 is at the Park theatre, London, 9 February to 12 March