Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery?
John Partridge, for one, who is currently starring as Inspector Tanner in The Case of The Frightened Lady.
The actor, who is best known for his portrayal of Christian Clarke in long-running BBC1 soap EastEnders (and recently winning Celebrity Masterchef) has been having a ball in the adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s classic whodunnit.
When the inspector is called in to investigate a ruthless murder at Mark’s Priory, the grand ancestral home of the Lebanon family, he quickly discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. The household is controlled by the family physician, the footmen behave more like guests than servants and the secretary Isla is afraid for her life. As Tanner moves closer to the heart of the mystery he uncovers a shocking and closely guarded secret…
‘If you like a murder mystery and your Poirots or Miss Marples, this is the play for you,’ John enthuses. ‘And the audience! I love the gasps and the “oohs” and the “aahs”, it’s been absolutely wonderful.
‘You’ve got all of those classic characters - your archetypal, Lady Lebanon who rules with an iron fist, her son who’s not really interested in taking over the family mantle, myself, the detective - let’s call him mean and moody,’ he laugh, ‘you’ve got of course the frightened lady – the ingenue, you’ve got the butlers – what did the butler see? What did the butler know?
‘It’s just a great play and a great cast, who all have a real breadth of experience in many genres, from TV to straight theatre, to musical theatre and I think that’s what’s so great about this cast, everyone in it is seasoned and it shows, it brings a lot of colour and a lot of life.’
The all-star cast also includes Deborah Grant, who has starred in Not Going Out and Bergerac, and Robert Duncan, best known for Drop The Dead Donkey. Joining them is Philip Lowrie, best known for playing Dennis Tanner in Coronation Street, Matt Lacey, who is currently starring in the BBC sitcom Cuckoo, Scarlett Archer from Emmerdale, and Matt Barber from Downton Abbey.
‘I’d never worked with any of them before, but I think we’ve created something very exciting and new together, it’s been a pleasure.’
The play is directed and adapted by Roy Marsden, who should know his way around a detective story – he played PD James’s creation Adam Dalgliesh for 15 years.
‘I hadn’t worked with him before either, but I’ve found him to a be a joy – a very gracious director. It’s always interesting to work with a director who is also an actor, it is different from working with a director who hasn’t been on stage, as it were. I’d love to work with him again.’
Aside from working on the play, at the end of September John was crowned the winner of this year’s Celebrity Masterchef. When he spoke to The Guide, the final had been recorded but not yet broadcast, so couldn’t reveal that he’d won.
‘It was a great experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it’s a great programme, it’s an institution really. It’s one of those programmes everybody knows and I’m an avid watcher of cookery shows - The Food Network is probably what’s on most often in our house.
‘So it was great to be a part of that show - it’s a well-oiled machine and a joy to be included in it.’
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‘Those shows never are competitive. I think most situations like that, most actors, when you go into castings, sitting outside a room waiting to read for the same part, you develop such friendships, and this was the same.
‘It’s so supportive and inclusive and that was from every aspect - from the other contestants, the camera crew, the people in the food tech, [presenters] John and Gregg, it’s a wonderful programme to be part of, and they all know exactly what they’re doing. Plus we got to work with incredible professional chefs.
‘I learned a lot about myself and made some lifelong friends. If you can combine your working life with all of those other ingredients, it’s a win-win.’
As if all this wasn't keeping John busy enough, during the summer he made his debut at the Edinburgh Fringe with his autobiographical musical show, Stripped.
When his mum died last September, John explains: ‘It started a process for me of reevaluating where I was, although at the time that was a subconscious thing.’
Within days of her death, John quit drinking – he celebrated a year sober on October 1. And when he appeared in The Full Monty at the start of 2018, he also spoke about having had testicular cancer back in 2004 for the first time.
‘Stripped deals with all of that. It deals with my life, it was a good time for me to look back, look at where I am right now and look at where I hope to go. Losing my mum – my father died a long time ago – it sounds ridiculous as I’m a grown man, but I suddenly felt so incredibly alone and so vulnerable, that my sobriety has become my mum’s parting gift to me. And the peace of mind I’ve managed to find is overwhelming at times.
‘Stripped is the soundtrack of my life, with songs by Bush and Bowie and Buckley, there’s also original material in there. I use film and poetry and I take you through from six to 12 to 26, to 46, to hopefully 66.
‘My show, I likened it to being like a union with myself. When you get married you stand up in front of those people there present and you ask them to watch over you, you may also call on them at some time along that road. I am not so naive that I don’t think there won’t be a time when I won’t feel as strong as I do now, and me being open and honest about my past struggles is a way for me to ask for help, to let people know that I haven’t always done so well in the past.
‘But I’m pleased to say, that for me and my personal journey, I’m doing really well.
‘Stripped was a way for me to start a conversation and the amount of people that contact me now, it’s really opened a network and allowed a conversation to be kept open about addiction, on many levels. It doesn’t just have to be drink or drugs, there are many ways you can abuse yourself through shopping, food, sex, you name it. Moving forward into next year, it’s something I will be doing more of. It’s a conversation I will continue to develop.
‘Much as I think I’m really special and unique,’ he chuckles, ‘I think you’ll find I’m not!’
Whatever John does though, the shadow of his EastEnders’ character, Christian looms large. He was in the show for five years, leaving in 2012, but has made several brief returns.
‘As an actor it’s very, very, rare that you play a role for five years, and I was there for five years solid. And if you do stay in something for that period of time, it’s a different kind of acting.
‘There’s part of being an actor that is about variety and struggle, in a way – not knowing what you’re doing next year. There’s a thrill in that, as much as there’s a stress in that too!
‘I became an actor to have variety and to have the option to try different things. I loved being part of EastEnders, but it was of it’s time for me, and it was time to move on.
‘I’m grateful, and I’m very proud of Christian. It’s very difficult to tell a gay storyline at 7.30pm in the evening, even in today’s liberal society. We think we’re very liberal right now, but the reality is very different. It’s difficult to tell a gay story at that time without alienating some of your audience, and I think the brilliance of of the Christian and Syed story was that it didn’t do that – it became about the impossibilities of two people in love, regardless of sexuality or religion.
‘I love Christian, he’s someone I know very well – I know he’s very happy in Birmingham and I’m very happy to let him stay there!’
The Case of The Frightened Lady is at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth from October 29 to November 3. Tickets £22-30. Go to newtheatreroyal.com.