Not so much a ‘whodunit’ as a guilty cover-up, R.C. Sheriff’s stuffy old mystery A Shred of Evidence plays like a trip back in time to quaint 1950s England.
Sheriff begins with a small action — the switching on of a radio — that completely alters the course of his central character’s life. A morning news report of a nearby fatal hit-and-run accident becomes more than just shocking as Richard Medway struggles to remember the events of the previous night.
A successful executive businessman, Richard (played well by David Hunt Stafford) finds himself embroiled in a nightmare as evidence mounts that he killed a cyclist while driving home drunk late one night. But Richard was so intoxicated that he has no memory of the previous night’s events.
Yet numerous facts start to fit together and point towards his guilt. The dent and swipe of green paint on his car’s fender. A missing strip of metal. His vague whereabouts… An honest and upstanding man, Richard cannot recall being involved in an accident, but the evidence is incriminating. Is he the killer? What’s his next move?
To deepen the play’s moral quagmire, Sheriff sets it up so there is a lot at stake for our protagonist. Not only is Richard in line for an important promotion, the new position includes a pay increase. The money represents a welcome windfall that he immediately allocates as tuition for his industrious daughter Pamela (Katy Yoder), who is applying for graduate studies at Oxford University. His liberty, his new directorship appointment, the dreams of his daughter, and the education of his son — not to forget his family’s upstanding reputation — are all suddenly under threat if this scandal becomes public and if Richard is charged with the crime.
Richard confides his fearful shame to his devoted wife Laura (Alison Blanchard) and even seeks advice from his solicitor friend, John (John Wallace Combs). Richard’s lawyer, believing him to be innocent, wants to brush the whole affair off as a non-event. He even advises Richard to ignore threats of blackmail from the man he had driven home just prior to the accident. Without really knowing what transpired, Richard puts some efforts into covering his tracks and eliminating anything incriminating, and his wife seems to be a willing co-conspirator. The tension builds in the Medway household until the play’s unexpected denouement.
Theatre 40 is known for staging old-fashioned dramas and creaky comedies. Under the direction of Jules Aaron, the cast seemed to be having a grand time replicating the (mostly) plummy British accents from the play’s mid-20th century era. Suspense is manufactured towards the end of each scene with the fade up of one of Bernard Herrmann’s distinctive music cues from Hitchcock’s movies Vertigo and North by Northwest. Sound design is by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski.
But the tense music isn’t enough to make the theatrical experience sufficiently thrilling. With a duration of close to two and a half hours, the three acts of A Shred of Evidence progress at a leisurely pace, much like an old farmer and his mare clip-clopping along a quiet country road. Mildly diverting, Sherriff’s play doesn’t really hold that much urgency and relevance for modern audiences. This production, however, might appeal to those nostalgic for the gentle and procedural plotting of an Agatha Christie thriller.