In 1990 I received a boxed murder-mystery game for Christmas. Over New Year I was staying with a group of friends in a spooky old mansion house in the Lake District in the North West of England. It was a perfect setting to play the game.
I was inspired and decided to write my own murder mystery which I called ‘The Curse of the Pharaohs’. I assembled a large cast, found a venue and ran the show over two nights in late 1991. Never mind that we had more cast than guests, the seed was sown!As time went on, we pruned the cast, refined the stories, attracted larger audiences and started to develop a business. A business partner joined the team and we worked together over the following years. Drawing on everything we had learnt, the next show we put on – and one that continued to be a regular feature of our line-up of shows – was ‘A Dinner to Die For’.
How did this very British show reach our shores?
I’d been living in Australia for about four years when I attended a party in the Carringbush Room at the Retreat Hotel in Abbotsford. It’s a charming room with a period feel and I was inspired to dust off one of my favourite shows – ‘A Dinner to Die For’ – from the UK. With a cast of friends and an audience of their friends, the show had its
Australian premier in August 2008. I had envisaged it as a one-off bit of fun, but we received such incredible feedback that I was encouraged to develop it into something bigger. As a result, one of the cast and I set up a small company to be a part of the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Bare Elements Productions was born. To our relief we got great reviews and the rest, as they say, is history. This year we took part in our fifth Melbourne International Comedy Festival and now offer private and office parties, our unique blend of dinner shows and hosted games.
What was the inspiration for the story and the characters?
I grew up reading Agatha Christie novels and watching 1970s comedy sit-coms such as ‘Are you Being Served’. I also used to love the Carry-on films. I reckon those things became part of my cultural heritage and fed into my imagination to inspire ‘A Dinner to Die For’. It’s got some of the classic ingredients: a farce set in a ‘good old’ English manor house with the usual characters such as The Lord of the Manor surrounded by various other family members, friends and general ‘hangers-on’. For Uncle Bernie and Nanny, my two alter egos, I drew on the genius of Barry Humphries and his two world-renowned characters Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna. The rest of the characters make up the landscape, all larger than life, and all offer lots of potential for comic exaggeration.
Which is your favourite character? Why?
Nanny has to be my favourite. After all, she is the mastermind who brings a ‘sensibly brown-shoed’ approach to sorting out the chaos. She can get away with saying some quite risqué things. Most guests seem to love Nanny, plus she gets to solve the mystery. Gwendella is another of my favourites; she’s so full of life and colour, and always lifts the energy when she arrives on stage.
So you juggle your role as actor, producer and director with your day job? Is it easy to juggle your day job with your creative work?
It can be a challenge when both areas of my life are busy at the same time. I have to be very good at multi-tasking. I do, however, love the variety that my ‘mixed portfolio’ presents. There truly never is a dull moment.
What do you love about directing and performing?
This may sound like a total cliché but I love to entertain people! When entertaining friends at home, I have this innate desire to make sure everyone is having fun. So I think my love of writing and producing shows is an extension of that and is the way that I create a place where grown-ups can play and have fun.
When did you first ‘stage’ the show and how did it go down?
It would have been around 1993/4 and was in a hotel in Leeds in Yorkshire. As the show takes place on Christmas Eve 1928, we ran it in the lead up to Christmas and played to various Christmas party office groups. It went down a storm.
Does the show evolve? As it’s interactive, is there’s a certain amount of improvisation?
I’d say about 70 per cent of the show is scripted and the rest improvised. So it’s ALWAYS different. We keep to the main storyline but we never know what direction the improvisations and audience participation will lead us in. That’s what I most love about the show.
How do you connect with the audience and get them to play along?
I think the cast develops a sixth sense. You quickly spot the guests who want to play along and engage and those who’d prefer to sit back and watch. We provide each guest with a brief character description before the show so they have the opportunity to really get into the role and dress up appropriately. Those that do so are usually keen to play their character and give us a run for our money. I reckon that playing a character can be a bit like an invisibility cloak that gives people the courage to let go of their real selves. It never ceases to amaze me what people will do, when they are disguised as someone else!
Share with us some of the stand-out highlights and lowlights
If we’re talking lowlights, it’s normally when a guest has had too much to drink and spoils the enjoyment of others guests. We’ve always been able to handle it but it can be a challenge as we have to remain in character at all times!
But the highlights are endless; whenever the cast, past or present, get together we share and reminisce about the highlights of past shows. The funniest memories are when a cast member ‘corpses’ – something happens that makes them want to laugh at the wrong time, so they try desperately hard to stifle the laughter which makes it all the worse!
How did it feel when ADTDF had its first Comedy Festival performance?
We were all very nervous. It was our first public show in Australia and I really wasn’t sure if the comedy would translate. A show for friends had gone down well but they hadn’t paid for the ticket. But I’m happy to say it did translate and here we are in our 6th year.
What next? Where to from here
I’d love to find a residency somewhere where ‘A Dinner to Die For’ and our other shows could become a regular fixture and we could sell tickets all year round.