Christmas Buffet Roulette – Starring Simon Fisher-Becker, Alexandra Thie, Margaret Ashley, Alex Bagosy & Becca Marcus & Written by GB Williams. Directed by Andrew Creak (Third Time Lucky Productions)
Third Time Lucky is a new audio company, born out of the Doctor Who fan-audio project, On Fleak. It’s launching its attempt to move from fan-audio to original commissioned drama and comedy with a bit of festive grand guignol in Christmas Buffet Roulette, by G B Williams.
Williams has form in the art of murder – she has three contemporary, gritty-as-hell novels of crime, death and intrigue being reprinted in 2020, and another series of steampunk crime novels, also set for re-release with a new publisher soon. This is her first foray into audio drama, so it’s all change at Third Time Lucky, giving Christmas Buffet Roulette both an eager energy and a sense of expectation, a feeling of being a landmark release on which to judge how to view whatever comes next.
Christmas Buffet Roulette is a comical take on the gothic country house murder party – a family of venal ingrates gather at Christmas to see what they’ll inherit from the ailing Lord Owen as he coughs his way out of this vale of tears in an upstairs bedroom. The initial question then is who will get what and how foul they will play to increase their stake. And from there, things get…interesting.
The story treads an interesting line. On the one hand, everyone listening to it will identify on some level – round about hour eight of Christmas with the family, with the air full of turkey farts and ‘I’m not racist, but-’ on the lips of that Uncle, the fake-pleasure of the ‘What the ever-loving hell did you get me this for?’ presents, the ghastly jumpers, the Queen (‘Yep, still here – have you seen my sons lately?’), the Eastenders Christmas special and the prospect of days more simmering tension about that thing Aunty Dot said in 1997 and why it was wrong, actually… everyone kiiiiind of has the fantasy of taking a claw-hammer to their nearest and dearest just to get them to shut the hell up…
Ahem. But on the other hand, Lord Owen’s family make yours look like the freakin’ Moomins. This is Christmas with the Borgias, or Kind Hearts and Coronets if every single member of the D’Ascoyne family was aiming to exterminate their way to the title. Actually, that’s it – this is Kind Hearts And Coronets meets Mad Max in a fight to the last mince pie.
There’s an uncle in an…arrangement with one niece, while stringing another along. The stringee was responsible for destroying the uncle’s business, and is out to scandalise her parents to death. There’s a married couple that might as well have fangs, so naked is their vampiric intent. There’s a cast of daughters, nieces and the like, some after almost incestuous sex, some after increasingly juicy piles of cash. And then there’s the outsider, the newly-discovered legitimate son of the rake who would normally have been the chief heir, the Louis Mazzini in this family of deadly D’Ascoynes, young Nicholas – who has devious plans of his own.
So – Game on! Who’s not up for family feuding, implacable tension, cynical raunch and gallons of slaughter at Christmas? Within that set-up, there’s plenty to latch on to – the alliances are interesting, if in some cases slightly under-explored, the degree to which there’s chicanery and murderous intent around the house is impressive given the relatively short run-time of the story – it’s barely a whisker over half an hour, so it’s more of a stocking-filler than your main present – and Third Time Lucky has pulled in some impressive acting talent to give its debut story some realism, of which the most impressive and well-known is Simon Fisher-Becker as Lord Owen. Fisher-Becker manages to turn Lord Owen, who left in the hands of a lesser performer could be little more than a coughing nuisance, into an arch-vizier of well-practiced malevolence at the heart of his nauseating family’s machinations, and casting an almost immediate question into the production – when there’s an imminent legacy to carve up, are the guests the butchers, or are they merely flies in the web of a spider they’ve chronically underestimated.
Is Christmas Buffet Roulette a perfect listen? Not quite – it’s a story that’s about two-thirds as long as it needs to be. At the moment, the first fifteen minutes is heavy on exposition, explaining the motives of each family-member to kill one another, or at least to kill particular stumbling blocks who stand between them and the big prize, and the second fifteen minutes is an almost slapstick conveyor-belt of murders, accidents and actuarial adjustments. With a third fifteen minutes, the characters could have been deepened, so that the voices were more distinct, which in turn would allow the listener to care more about each individual corpse-to-be, whereas at the moment, there’s sometimes literally no breathing space between one death and another, and not quite enough description of the movements and actions between scenes. Once the dying starts, you have to listen harder than you should, to keep track of what’s happening, and to whom.
So, more time to deliver development of quite a number of characters, more effective pacing across the run-time so that more of the characters engage the listener before they’re dead, and in some moments of high tension, a slightly brisker audio edit would give Christmas Buffet Roulette more oomph and more Christmas punch. But there’s certainly a high entertainment value in this half hour, which evolves as the run-time goes on and certain characters in particular emerge as the front runners to survive till morning. It takes a certain self-confident swing to stand up to the likes of Simon Fisher-Becker’s commanding performance, but the Brad (yes, just Brad – it’s a style thing) as Nicholas, Alex Bagosy as Arthur (the uncle of mutual niece-interest), and Becca Marcus as Gina blend well and deepen our interest as the action develops. The rest of the cast bring some seriously heavyweight acting clout to the party and absolutely elevate this production above its characterisation and time-limitation issues. Margaret Ashley as Carrie, Alex De-Gunchy as Ben, Alexandra Thiee as Judy, Louise Franklin as Sarah and Tom Hanratty as Kevin make you believe in the world of the Owens, and in their unbridled, vituperative self-interest, doing lots of heavy character lifting, giving flesh and bone to the rapidly sketched motives of each member of the family. That gives Third Time Lucky’s debut story a sense of ‘Shame about the length, but damn it, feel the quality.’ It should be longer, it should be more deeply characterised in the script and slightly more tightly edited in both the script and the audio, but the quality of the cast, a certain zingy sharpness in some of Williams’ lines and choices of execution, and a satisfyingly cyclic resolution make Christmas Buffet Roulette a cathartic pleasure for anyone stuck with appalling relatives over the festive season. It also bodes well for future releases from Third Time Lucky – the company’s script editing process may need a little finessing, but its ambition is strong, and its determination to hire talented people to create its worlds promises good things to come.
Christmas Buffet Roulette is a cracking half-hour of dark giggles, a Clue-style romp with more believable human evil in its heart, and a promising initial release for a new audio company. Give it a listen – see if you survive. David Kirby