We all enjoy a heartwarming murder mystery. Trying to spot the clues as they are laid out for us, or in some cases watching as the detective pieces everything together, can be a thrilling adventure. As part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, audiences have the opportunity to commit their own slice of murder with an improvised homage to Agatha Christie in Murder Village: An Improvised Whodunnit, a show presented by Dave Massingham and the iconic The Butterfly Club.
Massingham's love for the perfect murder stemmed from a childhood of watching them enacted on stage, TV and in board games. "Ever since I was a kid I loved the cozy murder mystery. Agatha Christie was a perennial favourite. Cluedo was always my preferred board game. I even remember watching episodes of Inspector Morse and Jonathan Creek with my family," he recalls. "When I became interested in improv comedy I knew that I would love to one day develop a classic British whodunnit format. In 2009 I came up with a show structure called Agatha Holmes and put it on with my old Brisbane improv troupe ImproMafia. That would be the bones that would eventually become Murder Village."
While the show is completely improvised, there are some rules and structures in place for the performers so that they are able to focus on creating a genuine mystery for the audience. "We have a set format that puts a couple of things in place but the plot, character interactions and chicanery is improvised by our group of comedians," Massingham explains. "As the audience prepares to enter the theatre, the performers will present them with a few choices and cast a blind ballot to nominate a victim and a killer from amongst our pre-determined set of characters. They can suggest a murder weapon and a telltale clue. A minute before the show starts, most of the cast will get together, tally the votes and work out who’s killing who. Then we improvise our way to that point, and the audience can still have the fun of trying to work it all out. To make things that little bit hairier, the improviser playing our little old Miss Marple-type detective, Amberly Cull, doesn’t get to be privy to that vote tally session, so she really is trying to ferret out the murderer along with the audience."
Setting the show in a small, eccentric British village has been met with some challenges, but all that the cast have openly embraced. "The show strives to keep the tricksy plotting and very English world of Agatha Christie at the forefront, but a part of that is the enjoyment of watching characters with frivolous and cavalier attitudes to murder. There’s an undeniable element of camp fun that runs under the surface of Murder Village. If it looks like the performers are enjoying themselves as much as the audience, that’s because we are."
The success of a show like Murder Village requires its audience to be ready for murder most comedic and to get into the spirit of things with their suggestions and decisions. The highly popular 2018 Melbourne Fringe Festival season of the show gave the performers some very creative ways on how to cut someone's life short in a most devilish manner. "People really think through their offers, and we get some very era-appropriate ones. We had clues like a rare Black Penny stamp, and murder weapons that included a stuffed fox and a garrotte made from piano wire. Getting the chance to improvise a story that included a bona fide death-by-plummeting-grand-piano is pretty hard to beat though," Massingham recalls.
Even though improvisation requires everything be made up on the spot, there is still plenty of rehearsing that goes on to ensure the characters and the environment presented in Murder Village are as authentic as possible. "For a format like this, we develop some set characters in our rehearsals. We want to give the sense of a living, breathing village filled with unusual characters; we even have a village population sign that audiences can examine, containing all the characters from across the season. We cross off the names of the victims as they are dispatched. It all means that if people turn up more than one night, you’ll get to meet different denizens of this little village," Massingham tells me. "There have been some amazing improvised murder mysteries that no one will ever get to see that we left in the rehearsal room. While it's a bit of a shame, it makes us even more excited to see what we trot out on stage for audiences to experience!"
1. Comedy is familiarity and surprise.
2. If you had to name your child after a vegetable what would it be?
3. Which reality TV show would you most like to appear/compete on?
Survivor. This is not a difficult question; I’ve actually applied twice before. Survivor is my sport.
4. How long would you survive in a zombie apocalypse?
Don’t fancy my chances, I’ve got to say.
5. I will stay sane during MICF by performing nearly every night with Murder Village, The Big HOO-HAA! and my solo sketch comedy show Little Sketch Book of Horrors. Wait, did you say sane or insane?
Venue: The Butterfly Club, 5 Carson Place, Melbourne
Season: 12 - 21 April, 8:30pm
Length: 60 minutes
Tickets: $34 Full | $30 Conc | $27 Tightarse Tuesday
Bookings: MICF website
Main image credit: Mark Gambino