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The Crimes of the Armstrongs Review: A thrilling crime-drama with a surprising horror twist.

Review by Harriet Purbrick

[contains minor spoilers]

Ejiro Raye’s original play delves into the darker side of success as siblings violently vie for their rightful share of their late father’s inheritance.

Through siblings Harry (Benjy Waldman) and Judy Armstrong (Hannah Whiteway), Raye brilliantly explores envy in their seemingly successful family. The fragility of material success, as we learn that Harry lost his money selling subprime mortgages, adds further nuance to the stereotype of wealth, and demonstrates the depth of Raye’s script.

Some of the play’s most dramatic moments occurred in the tense confrontations between Harry and Judy and is a clear testament to Waldman and Whiteway’s chemistry and flow, predicated on their strong acting abilities. Whiteway pulls off a particularly challenging feat, convincingly playing the victim of the least loved sibling and simultaneously the play’s greatest perpetrator.

All photos by Abby Swain. Judy Armstrong confronts her btrother Harry (Benjy Waldman and Hannah Whiteway).

It’s in the Armstrong family’s interactions with the metropolitan police unit that Raye posits further on the big questions. Judy and the officer April (Victoria Iliffe) discuss the issue of privilege – having money versus having a supportive family – against Judy's perceived victimhood. In fact, the play’s main character arc centres around April (Victoria Iliffe) who goes from an “under-utilised” officer – indeed, she initially appears to be a minor character against the undeniable presence of Chief Janet (Ruby Matthews) – to confidently and authoritatively leading an investigation. While the duo Tom (Morgan King) and Jerry (Tiago Ventura) at first seem to mirror the presentation of clueless cops in films like Superbad, the second act reveals a greater depth to their relationship and emphasises their acting range.

April leads the investigation (Victoria Iliffe)

Tom and Jerry (Morgan King and Tiago Ventura).

Georgia Arnold deserves a special mention for her portrayal of both Angela, Harry’s wife, and Molly, the daughter of Chief Janet, as she pulls off the most heart-wrenching scene (alongside April) in her latter role.

The greatest challenge in terms of acting fell to the villain Lou (Morgan Scriven), characterised with an undeniable eerie canny-valley feel similar to Frankenstein’s monster. While this character could have come off gimmicky, Morgan’s sincerity, highlighted not just through the eerie voice he adopted, ensured the play’s tension was predicated on a genuinely scary villain.

Villain Lou (Morgan Scriven).

In terms of production, the team (Ben Nuttal and Matthew Morton) took full advantage of the facilities at stage@leeds, employing sound effects – including to my delight: a siren with a doppler effect, as well as demonstrating an excellent control over stage lighting. Starting the performance in pitch-black with just flashing red and blue lights made the beginnings scenes among the most memorable. Similarly, the designer Saffy Wehren perfectly matched costumes and set design to the Armstrong family wealth.

Unlike in many plays, the performance was also scored – mainly with well-known classical pieces. For the majority of the time, this music aptly matched either the characters’ music-taste (in a dialectic sense) or the overall mood of the scene (in a non-diajectic sense). Silence was also utilised well to focus the audience on the dialogue in dramatic scenes. There was only one moment towards the end of the play when the scoring seemed less novel that led me to wonder if the music was just there for its own sake.

After the very-well executed crime drama of the first half, the play took an unexpected turn, starting with my personal highlight, the interlude of Little Red Riding Hood, told in a rather static mime over narration. Raye became even more experimental in his writing, twisting my understanding of the story and confidently delving into the horror genre (I’ll leave the surprise to be experienced live in theatre). And here I couldn’t help asking myself: was Raye just too ambitious? Was the increasingly fantastical horror just too different from the grounded realism of the first half?

Yet, any subjective short-comings of Raye’s script were more than made up for by his talent as a director (assisted by Lizzie Sarell and shadowed by Molly Anderson). The division of the stage was – at one point with three separate centres of action – demonstrated the directing team’s ambitious dynamism, equalled by their experimentation with the characters’ points of view. And last but by no means least, the stage violence was well executed (pun intended).

Overall, The Crimes of the Armstrongs is an excellent original piece of student theatre which sees a strong and balanced cast carry out an ambitious, genre-bending plot.

The Crimes of the Armstrongs is playing at stage@leeds until 26/2/2022. Tickets are available here.

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