Arts & Culture

Murder mystery brings Newfoundland to the West Coast

By Hannah Scott

Published 10:27 PST, Mon November 18, 2019

Last Updated: 10:59 PST, Tue December 3, 2019

Caught in a massive snowstorm and unable to feel her toes, housekeeper Sarah Singleton (Yoshié Bancroft) searches for her brother Richard and fiancé Joe.

She and her employer, John Payne (Ashley O’Connell), stumble upon Joe’s cabin, currently occupied by the immediately suspicious John Pelly (Zac Scott).

This is the basis for Berni Stapleton’s play The Double Axe Murders, currently playing at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre. Based on a pair of 1809 murders, the story feels like it’s constantly waiting for its climax.

While not my favourite play of the season, the acting here is excellent and the setting draws audiences into the Newfoundland winter. 

There are many moments of escalation, each setting up for a dramatic conflict, but this energy never comes to a head–although the escalation adds suspense.

Once I realized that the early clues were sitting right in front of me, I waited for the resolution. The truth crept in slowly and chillingly, rather than exploding in a single dramatic moment.

While contrary to the murder mystery nature of the play, this felt more like a kind of whodunit, allowing the audience to follow the clues along with Sarah.

The first half of the play is a little slow-paced, mostly setting up for the more eventful second half.

Stephanie Wong and Alex Kirkpatrick’s set is rustic and effective, and Celeste English’s lighting helps bring the cabin to life.

When asked to describe the setting, Bancroft says “It's a freezing, stormy night, in a draughty cabin. The wind is howling, and the air is thick with cabin fever. In (Gateway’s) intimate Studio Theatre, perhaps the audience will feel it too. 

Sound design by Curtis Tweedie and Matthew MacDonald-Bain is positively eerie, providing lots of additional suspense.

Several audience members mentioned that they found the actors’ Newfoundland accents difficult to understand. Irish actor O’Connell is the most comprehensible, but overall I thought these accents impeded the actors’ fantastic performances.

Scott is slippery and sneaky at first, but later becomes more vulnerable and unstable. O’Connell is firm, conscientious and responsible.

The small Studio B space adds to the intimacy of the show. Bancroft says she loves playing in small theatres: “It’s a more intimate and immediate experience.”

In addition to being intimate, the room was also very warm – a cooler space would have added to the show’s hair-raising qualities. 

The show’s most magnetic moment, I think, is the second act’s dancing scene. Bancroft in particular shines during this scene, where the stakes and intensity are at their peak.

Of her role, Bancroft says: “There have been two roles in my life that have really pushed me, and this is one of them. It’s such a privilege to be truly challenged in a role.”

The intensity of the script is its key feature, but there are also moments of humour. Toward the end of the show, the audience fell entirely silent awaiting Sarah’s decisions.

As with Gateway’s last show, the opening night of The Double Axe Murders was sponsored by Trail Appliances. Snacks were provided by the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel and Harold’s Kitchen & Bar, with delicious cake from Anna’s Cake House. 

This play was first produced in Vancouver in 2017. The cast reprise their roles at Gateway, eager to bring more Western Canadian attention to Stapleton’s Newfoundland-based play.

Bancroft says “Berni Stapleton’s work is rarely produced outside Newfoundland, maybe because of the misconception that her work is thematically specific to Newfoundland. I think it’s safe to say that stories about isolation are universal.”

The Double Axe Murders is at Gateway Theatre through Nov. 23, with many special performances. Wheelchair accessible seating is available. Book tickets by calling 604-270-1812 or at tickets.gatewaytheatre.com

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