CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD
Following some pre-show searching for a missing dog and a Duran Duran CD boxed set by stage manager Annie and board operator Trevor, Chris, the head of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society and director of tonight’s performance of The Murder at Haversham Manor, appears and welcomes the audience. Jonathan, the actor playing the deceased Charles Haversham, whose death sparks the play’s murder mystery, trips on his entrance. The characters of Thomas Colleymore and Perkins try to enter but find the door leading to the stage jammed shut. After they finally enter, Thomas tells Perkins to fetch Florence, Charles Haversham’s fiancé.
Thomas then decides to bring in Inspector Carter. Haversham’s brother Cecil arrives and, with the help of the stage manager Annie, finally manages to get the door open. After Inspector Carter, played by Chris, arrives, Perkins and Thomas attempt to carry Charles out of the room, but the canvas stretcher rips. Suddenly, Jonathan (playing Charles) rises from the floor and tries to exit the scene. Inspector Carter begins his investigation by questioning Perkins first, followed by Florence.
Toward the end of her interrogation, Thomas bursts into the room and Florence, who happened to be standing near the door, gets knocked unconscious. Suddenly, the actors are forced to try to finish the scene with an unconscious castmate. Inspector Carter is left to question Cecil while actors Robert (playing Thomas) and Jonathan attempt to remove Florence’s body by hoisting her through a window. Inspector Carter reveals to Cecil that he knows that he and Florence are having an affair, and Thomas receives a call informing him that 9,000 pounds had been stolen from his savings account. Gunshots are heard offstage, and Cecil dies. So that the play can continue, stage manager Annie comes on stage wearing Florence’s dress and reading from a script. The first act ends with the realization that the murderer must still be in the house with them.
After some assurances from director Chris that this somehow hasn’t been the worst first act Cornley University has seen, the second act begins. As Inspector Carter is off investigating the gunshots, Annie trips and scatters her script on the floor, losing her place in the scene. Despite supposedly leaving the grounds hours ago, Arthur the gardener arrives (played by Max, who also played Cecil). During the scene, Max knocks over a pillar supporting the set’s upper level, causing it to slant precariously. After Arthur reveals a handkerchief used to hold cyanide (used to murder Charles) with the initials F.C., everyone believes Florence is the murderer.
The madness progresses once Inspector Carter returns, resulting in Annie (still playing Florence) being knocked unconscious. Sandra returns briefly before once again being knocked out and stuffed inside a grandfather clock, forcing Trevor to read the role of Florence. That is, until he winds up under the tilted upper level that collapses, sending props and furniture crashing down on him. Sandra is once again conscious but now stuck inside of the clock.
Chaos reigns as everyone points fingers in the murder of Charles Haversham, and Sandra and a now conscious Annie fight over who gets to play the role. Perkins, the butler, eventually reveals that Inspector Carter himself killed Charles because Charles found out the inspector was embezzling police money. But surprise! Charles is alive and never drank the poisoned drink the inspector had left for him. Twist! Thomas Colleymore was working with the inspector, but the inspector planned to double-cross him, stealing money from Thomas’ account to run away. Thomas tries to shoot the inspector, but the gun doesn’t fire. The play ends with the walls falling around them, revealing the backstage crew and Charles offering Thomas a glass of poisoned sherry, which Thomas drinks.
(synopsis from Syracuse Stage, 2022