It's A Killer, Thriller Night! 

This time of year is one of my favourites because, while many theatres are 'dark' for the summer one of our local theatres opens its doors to a month-long festival of mystery, thrills and surprises. This month the Theatre Royal in Nottingham presents it's 23rd Classic Thriller Season. 

It's something my family discovered only six or so years ago but we are so glad we did. How often do those wonderful thrillers from the likes of Francis Durbridge and Brian Clemens see the light of day in most theatrical seasons? While I'm all for promoting new talent, it seems a shame that modern audiences largely miss out on classic murder-mysteries by the writers responsible for Paul Temple and The Avengers respectively.

And variety is the theme this year. Starting off last week with Durbridge's Sweet Revenge and rounding out with Clemens' Murderous Liaisons, the classic Strangers On A Train fills week three while this week's offering is Death By Fatal Murder – an Agatha Christie spoof – and the third in Peter Gordon's Inspector Pratt trilogy (although the second at the Theatre Royal. After last year's hilarious show audiences are surely looking forward to that one.

But that's the thing, the Theatre Royal's Classic Thrillers have an enthusiastic, even cult, following. Fans book for all four plays as soon as the schedule is announced. And no audience is more enthusiastic than the Wednesday matinee crowd. Now, you might imagine that theatre going on a midweek afternoon is only for retirees, but you'd be wrong. While there is a fair sprinkling of silver-haired enthusiasts, the audience is made up of all age groups. Being in the middle of the school summer holidays, it's not unusual to see children and their parents sitting in the auditorium. And, I have to admit, there is something decidedly decadent, even when you're self employed, about 'bunking off' and watching a good old mystery. 

And for the long-standing hardcore members of the audience, there's the pleasure of seeing the same familiar faces, in the audience and on-stage, year after year. Although accomplished, none of them are famous, unless you count Nicholas Briggs, whose Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Pratt of the last few years have proved very popular. He's one of those 'you'll know him when you see him' faces, although he's better known for his voice, having been 'the voice of the Daleks' in the recent years of Doctor Who. For many of the older audience members, it's a throwback of the old days of 'weekly rep' when a provincial theatre would hire a company of actors who would perform a different play each week. It must have been very hard work. Imagine rehearsing one play whilst performing another and learning lines for a third? And it works so well – that air of familiarity with the same actors and most of the same audience members, often in the same seats, each week, summer after summer – that I wonder why more provincial theatres don't follow suit.  After all, it usually plays to packed houses.

Actors and audience really get into the spirit of it. With many of the plays set in the 1970s there's room for some wildly gawdy trouser suits, kipper ties and bad hair days and, it seems that barely a scene goes by without one character or other walking over to the drinks cabinet to partake of a scotch, or a g&t. The actors do allow themselves, even in the more serious plays, to camp it up a bit, but that's all part of the season's charm. As is the end-of-play speech by one of the cast and reminding the audience what's to come. It is an absolute joy.

2011 marks the first year that thrillers have not been produced by Colin McIntyre. Sadly, he passed away in spring and this year's shows are dedicated to him. Here's hoping that they carry on for at least another 23 seasons.