When you’ve made a show five times, it’s no wonder you get quite good at it. New Old Friends make murder mystery romps, their Crimes… series following the exploits of Artemis Arinae: famed Belgian detective. In this instalment, Artemis is on a cruise holiday to Egypt – but she’s soon back to work, which can only be expected when you put a business magnate, quarrelling lovers, a German doctor and an erotic fiction writer on a boat together.
Now, I can’t pretend I was totally following the plot. Four actors play 12 characters, so there’s a bit of figuring out who’s who in relation to who to do to know who’s done and doing what, where and why (it probably requires about as much concentration as it does to get your head round that sentence). Someone used go out with someone else who hired a gardener who I think now goes out with the first person but there’s also a fourth lover and one of them has invested in the steel business which is important somehow… which I know because it was the Scottish steel guy who dunnit. Y’know, for reasons. I’d guessed as much cos he was being all sycophantic with Artemis and you know who’d be exactly the kind of person to fanboy over a detective’s work? A MURDERER.
But the plot’s hardly the point; the delight of these shows is in their exuberant, farcical theatricality. There are ingredients I recognise from the other Crimes… show I’ve seen – running gags (someone repeatedly hitting their head on a door frame is always going to be a winner), speed-of-light costume changes (with well-rehearsed slip-ups), puns, double entendre and linguistic flourishes (these characters are particularly fond of alliteration), actors dashing around the stage trying to play 10 characters at the same time. In Crimes on the Nile, though, there are bolder choices, it’s markedly more polished, and on a larger scale. Connie Watson’s set provides windows and doors for the cast to play with – most satisfyingly in a scene between three characters all played by Hannah Westwell – and there are big set pieces in the form of a camel race and a close encounter with a crocodile.
There’s a danger at times of the gag-a-minute rhythm feeling a little laboured, the show’s structure formulaic – the latter of which is undoubtedly true. But that’s rather the point. I’d been worried it might all feel uncomfortably dated, this comedy-caper business, but really, by modelling itself on the likes of Agatha Christie and Noël Coward, it’s more… drenched in nostalgia: a distinction which feels important to me, and one which has to do with self-awareness. New Old Friends are a company clearly interested in entertainment, in the craft of producing crowd-pleasers. I’m imagining the way film studio executives in the ’30s talk (in the movies) – ‘this picture, we have an ingénue, she meets an Eastern prince…’ – all stock types and tropes, the business of it (it’s worth noting though, that New Old Friends wisely steer clear of the racism). And while film and book series are ubiquitous, I can’t think where else I’ve seen a set of five universe-consistent theatre shows. There’s something very appealing about that – evidently so, as Crimes on the Nile prepares to go out on its four-month 22-venue tour. It’s a proper Good Night Out, cannily conceived and impeccably made.
Crimes on the Nile plays at the Ustinov, Bath until 27th January, then tours UK-wide until 4th May. More info here.