The Double Axe Murders: one would be more than enough

Rusticate Theatre is presenting The Double Axe Murders at the Gateway Theatre.

All dressed up for the potential bloodbath. (Photo of Ashley O’Connell and Yoshié Bancroft by Kayla Isomura)

I think The Double Axe Murders wants to be atmospheric but, in this production at least, it’s not.

In the story, which is based on real murders that happened in Newfoundland in 1809, Sarah Singleton has come looking for her fiancé and her brother, who have disappeared while tending to their traplines in the middle of winter. Singleton works as a housekeeper for John Payne, and Payne has hiked into the bush with her to help.

When we meet them, Payne is carrying the delirious Singleton into the trapline cabin of Sarah’s fiancé Joe. Singleton is half-mad from exposure and the cabin is already occupied by another trapper, John Pelly, a slack-jawed, rifle-toting bag of anger who immediately starts to creep on Singleton.

Berni Stapleton’s script does not qualify as a whodunnit: the answer is obvious from the beginning, so the only surprise — if you can call it that — is that there is none.

The hole where the whodunnit might have been left me wondering what I was supposed to be watching — and I never came up with a satisfactory answer. There are some revelations about the characters and their histories, but nothing that made me invest in them or care, really, who was going to make it out of the story alive.

Stapleton adds a hallucinatory layer. Singleton talks a lot about banshees (all of the characters are of Irish extraction), and she hears a ghostly voice in the wind that’s calling her name. All three of them hear ominous rumblings, scrapings, and thuds in the storm outside. At first, they ascribe these sounds mostly to trees brushing against the cabin, but then they remember all of the trees have been cleared away. They’re going in and out the cabin all the time: they know there are no trees; this is dumb. Later, Singleton summons ghosts to terrify Pelly. But, as written, none of this is credible or resonant so none of it matters.

Elements of this production further weaken the script. Even though all of the action takes place during one winter night in a cabin that’s lit only by one candle and one oil lamp, lighting designer Celeste English blasts lumens into the place as if it were a Shoppers Drug Mart. And, although Curtis Tweedie’s sound design, which he created with Matthew McDonald Bain, contains some cool effects, they never get loud enough or weird enough to be unsettling.

And the production only ramps up the script’s lack of verisimilitude. In the script, Singleton is raving when she’s carried in from the icy hell outside and perks up far too quickly. And, although Singleton tells us that she’s in agony when the blood starts to return to her feet, Yoshié Bancroft, who’s playing the part, never embodies that pain. Under Tamara McCarthy’s direction, not even going in and out of the door is credible. Every now and then, one of the actors will remember to put their head down and do a little icy acting when they venture into the yard but, most of the time, it looks like none of the performers has ever experienced a real winter.

Fortunately, most of the acting is better than this. Probably the most gratifying thing about Stapleton’s script is that Singleton is its most heroic character — she’s not waiting for any man to save her — and, without overstating it, Bancroft brings an authentic sense of grit and defiance to the part. The male characters are less interesting, but Ashley O’Connell as Payne and Zac Scott, who’s playing Pelly, both do fine work.

That said, as I watched this trio of actors intently creating their shared reality, I was aware of the chasm between their investment in it and mine.

The story of the murders from 1809 is an intriguing one. It’s still waiting to be well told.

THE DOUBLE AXE MURDERS By Berni Stapleton. Directed by Tamara McCarthy. A Rusticate Theatre production. In Studio B at the Gateway Theatre on Friday, November 15. Continues until November 23. Tickets.

NEVER MISS A REVIEW: To get links to my reviews plus the best of international theatre coverage, sign up for FRESH SHEET, my free weekly e-newsletter.

And, if you want to keep independent criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page. Newspapers are dying and arts journalism is often the first thing they cut. Fight back!

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!