The Dead Secrets: Hickory Dickory Murder

The Dead Secrets present an improvised, comedic murder mystery based entirely on audience suggestions and inspired by classic sleuthing stories.
The Old Fire Station, 40 George St, Oxford OX1 2AQ, Monthly.

May 1, 2019
The absurdity increases just as quickly as the body count

Arts at the Old Fire Station, Wed 1st May 2019

I’ve never been very good at Cluedo. I partly blame that on the premise – as if a man of the cloth such as Reverend Green could commit such a gruesome act, and what self-respecting owner of a manor house leaves lead piping lying around the ballroom when entertaining? Mainly though, I realised early on that while I love a good whodunnit, I’m less Hercule Poirot and more Inspector Clouseau. But imagine trying to play the classic game on a Monopoly board instead, without all the pieces, and with barely any idea of the rules. Surely the result would be absolute chaos?

That’s much like the concept behind The Dead Secrets’ Hickory Dickory Murder – an improv murder mystery show where even the cast members don’t know what plot twists may lie ahead. We all set off together on a journey to discover who was in the library with the revolver (or on this occasion in the Valley of the Kings with the poisoned darts).

The joy of improv is witnessing the little grey cells whirring in the actors’ minds as wild suggestions are hurled at them from the audience and are then somehow woven into a story arc with multiple characters, intrigue, drama and of course a lot of laughs along the way. The crowd at the Old Fire Station were hardly in a forgiving mood with some of the details offered to the cast to work with, including a string of extravagant suspects such as a travelling sand salesman, a snake-charming medium, a fearless explorer and a bridge-playing tomb raider. All are drawn to the desert for different reasons but united by murder!

In true Agatha Christie fashion, our cunning killer hides among them and it is down to our host and narrator, Mr D Tective, to follow the clues and track down the culprit of the murder most foul. The ensuing hour-and-a-half is a riotous journey with absolutely no map or compass, with genuinely eye-wateringly funny results.

We were treated to an eerie pet seance, the steamiest sauna scene seen this side of Sweden, and a strangely poignant moment between a poison emporium owner and a rather lost chinchilla.

You’d imagine with such challenges thrown at them, the Dead Secrets would try to help each other out, but instead great delight is had in seemingly stitching the others up as much as possible, daring them to break character and succumb to the giggles cracking through their faltering straight faces as the absurdity increases just as quickly as the body count. This only adds to the enjoyment as every stumble is mercilessly mocked by their quick-witted companions or used to add more mayhem to the proceedings.

The fact so many of the highly satisfied audience had watched Hickory Dickory Murder before (several times) demonstrated not only how much fun the night is but also how the Dead Secrets are able to come up with something uniquely brilliant every time.

Hickory Dickory Murder is on monthly at The Old Fire Station, George Street, Oxford.

June 23, 2016
Hysterical whodunnit fun from The Dead Secrets

Magdalen College School, Wed 22 June 2016

Murder is not easy. Well, not the improvised detective comedy sort, anyway. That is what I learned from tonight's not-play, not-show, but soiree, performed by Nathan, Chris, Jen, Phil and Ida of The Dead Secrets.

If the words 'audience participation' make you shudder, don't worry: the AP here was the most introvert-friendly I've seen. We were asked to write down suggestions for characters who, in the end, distilled from the collective wit and wisdom of Oxford's finest theatregoers, were: a Hollywood starlet, a long lost politician, a blacksmith, and a magician. These four would be the stalwarts of a mystery that would unfold and be solved over the next two hours. Sitting with my pen and paper, in a rectangular hall with neat rows of chairs parked on wooden floors, I wondered whether the pupils took their exams here. Looking again at my paper I realised I had misread the question: 'suggest typical Golden Age mystery characters', it said. So my offerings of 'TV chef' and 'professional dogwalker' would surely have scored a D minus.

I shouldn't have been quite so concerned, however, as anachronisms flew like the work of a knife thrower, as did dodgy accents and moments of utter chaos. But this was all very much part of the fun, and with healthy aliquots of self-deprecation the show had its audience in hysterics. The only thing I would have changed was a hideous dead animal/fur pelt, complete with face, draped around the neck of the Hollywood starlet; regardless of whether or not it was tasteful, I sincerely hope it was fake.

The venue was lovely: no tiered seating or anything, but good access, well organised and plenty of parking arranged, which was thoughtful. The paper tickets were beautiful, with Oxford sketched on them in pink, and the prices were very reasonable. I honestly haven't laughed this much in ages. To encapsulate the evening: The Dead Secrets are like spiders spinning fragile threads of plot, character, and comedy into an intricate web of side-splitting whodunnit, to which the audience, like flies, can only surrender.

June 4, 2014

St Aldate's Tavern, Wed 4 - Thu 5 June 2014

The Dead Secrets are dead good. As part of Oxford Fringe they presented Hickory Dickory Murder - an improvised murder mystery solved (and indeed told) with ingenuity, quick thinking, a large assortment of hats, and some unhelpful suggestions from the audience.

Raymond Chandler, in his famous essay The Simple Art of Murder, railed against the fact British detective fiction was stuck in its Golden Age (a combination of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie). He would have gnashed his teeth last night as at least three quarters of us suggested retired military men with handlebar moustaches as our stock characters! The Colonel indeed went on to play a major part in the ensuing story (first host, then victim). But there were other ideas too, and swiftly a cast of suspicious characters were chosen: a French professor, a dodgy bookmaker, a radio gameshow host and a glamorous opera singer. (You'll need to know this so if you go to the second performance you can invent something else!) Having the audience make their suggestions on paper was not only a lovely way of breaking the ice but also less intimidating than having to shout out, especially for improv newbies like me.

The narrator coordinated the scenes, breaking in and out of flashbacks and interrupting the action with knocks at the door. Cue a first half of crazy relationships, false accents, and creating enough loose ends to weave a Moroccan carpet. Before we knew it the Colonel had been found head down in the flowerbed, and the police summoned, and suddenly it was the interval. In the second half all the crazy subplots and secondary characters dashed about, another body was discovered and the time-travelling butler ushered in the denouement (with everyone gathered in the billiard room, of course).

I'd love to know how much the actors were able to predict what might be said, whether they have tropes they like to work in, or activities that are so much fun to act they always find a way to include them. But I suspect that's a trade Secret. In any case it doesn't really matter. It's a cert that if you go again to the second performance (and I'm seriously tempted) that you'd get a different set of characters, motives, nonsensical mimes, clever additions, foreign accents, red herrings, and those silly moments where an actor dressed as one of his characters is suddenly needed over the other side of the stage in his other costume. In short it I wished I could not just go again, but join in - oh to be handed non-existent iron bars and be struck by a sudden inspiration to twist them into... a doggie!

Oh and the venue was perfect - St Aldate's Tavern have an airy upstairs room with its own bar, that's big enough for acting in and small enough to provide an intimate venue. They also do rather good food (being run, we hear, by the original Turl St Kitchen chef).

There's an art to creating a satisfying explanation out of chaos, even for mystery writers who have time to plan what they're doing. The Dead Secrets didn't just make it look effortless - they made it look fun.

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