Murder by Starlight

As the curtains parted and the spotlight came on, it was obvious that Starlight was going to be an interesting experience.

The first play for Stage Fright Productions, written by Mariam Viriani, and co-directed by Virani and Ali Junejo, Starlight is set in the early 19th century and is a murder mystery. The tagline of the play states, "They all had the motive but only one had the drive to kill." So who is that one?

Starlight starts off with the basics. We discover the premise; Starlight is a club owned by Jaselle Castillo (Fatima Hasan) who also sings at the club regularly. Jaselle is also the murder victim and the suspects are all connected to her in one way or another. The stake being not only the Club itself but also a vast fortune that Jaselle recently inherited. A special aspect of her character is that although she dies in the first act, we get to see Jaselle in flashbacks with regards to the suspects. And it is in these flashbacks that Fatima explores the complexities of her character's relations with the others.

Enter the suspects.

The club is managed by Victor Lemur (Nadir Siddiqui), who is clearly uptight and displays an almost rude attitude towards everyone—except for Jaselle. But that doesn't mean he didn't have a motive to kill her. Nadir is at ease in this role, though at times it seems his character has nothing to do, but when he does do something the moment is hardly dull.

Ronald Wong (Chaudry Talat Mazhar) plays the bartender of Starlight. Quirky yet shady, Wong is likable from the start thanks to Mazhar's unique approach to the character. Whereas others would have gone with an "over the top" approach, Mazhar balances his acting with both zany and lucid aspects. To the shock of the audience, we discover the shocking connection between his character and Jaselle, a connection that indicates an apparent motive and instability of Ronald.

Cornelius Farriera (Adeel Azim Siddiqui) is a regular customer at Starlight, all because of his undying love for Jaselle. It is because of that same love that he surrenders all of his wealth to Jaselle and ultimate gets into trouble with his wife, Vivian Farriera (Sania Jamal). The chemistry between Cornelius and Vivian (Adeel and Sania) is quite clear, though at times quite straining, nevertheless quite entertaining. Cornelius is torn between his love for Jaselle and his wife Vivian, and Adeel's expressions of angst and heartache come through perfectly. Vivian is a character that could have been explored much more as simply the wife of Cornelius. Her moments at the bar, especially her interactions with its other visitors are a delight to watch.

Brute Piero (Osama Tahir) is a known thug and gang member who has made his desire to own Starlight no secret. Although Osama fits the role well with his costume, his character could have had more vocal opportunities throughout the play instead of looking angry around the stage.

Detective Vincent (Ali Junejo) and his assistant Harold (Raza Virani) are hot on the trail of the murder that occurs right before their eyes at the Starlight club. Being the lead character, Vincent carries the play through seamlessly through his narration before each act. His monologues fill in audience with the story and even – through a clever flashback sequence – backstory of the murder and Jaselle. Ali's hard work has paid off as the lead, but it is Harold and Raza that often steal the show. Through Vincent and Harold, we discover the motives of each of the suspects and their connections to the deceased.

Though this was murder mystery, thanks to characters like Harold and Ronald the audience wasn't bored for a moment. And it shows a clear balance on the part of Mariam Virani, the first time writer and co-director of the play. Though the first few acts seemed to drag on for a bit, once the murder occurs there's no stopping the ball from rolling.

Speaking about her inspiration for the play she said, "I was always inspired by Agatha Christie stories and that's how I wrote this." For Mariam, whose previous association with plays was only helping out backstage, her efforts and her inspirations have paid off. And already she's working towards her next project. "I'm working on my next play now, and it'll come out hopefully in later in the year."

Co-director and lead Ali Junejo is no stranger to plays. Having participated in 5 previous Mythos productions, he spoke of co-directing the play with Mariam. "It was an awesome experience, and I think it's important that we were on the same wavelength as far as this play was concerned, which took it forward."

And all of this culminated in a special twist at the end. Though all the suspects had the intentions and motives to kill Jaselle, none of them did. We learn that Vincent has been playing the role of the detective and as well as the unreliable narrator. And the audience erupted with applause as it is revealed that it was him and Jaselle that had orchestrated such an event at Starlight. So technically, there was never a murder in the first place.

Starlight proved to be an interesting and thoughtful play with minor faults, overlookable considering the big twist and payoff in the end.

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