Arts Theatre

PreVue: Becoming Sharp stirs the pulp-murder pot

A thriller that circles the writing of a thriller 
// Mat Busby photography
A thriller that circles the writing of a thriller // Mat Busby photography

“Never underestimate a woman who plans murders for a living.”

The twisted psychology of writers is always a fertile source of drama, and David Belke’s Becoming Sharp plumbs the depths of the literary mind.

The comic thriller focuses on a pair of novelists. One is well-established, with a best-selling series of murder mysteries and a crafty guile of her own. One is new to the game, eager to see her words in print.

The play begins with the prolific author hiring the young ingenue as a ghostwriter to pen the latest instalment in her acclaimed series of novels. But what seems at first to be a dream job for the up-and-coming writer turns into a drama greater than that of the book she’s writing.

With the author’s Mrs Danvers-esque housekeeper lurking around and stirring the pot, the agreement between the two writers soon comes crashing down around their ears.

“Three extraordinary women are placed into extraordinary circumstances,” Belke says. He notes that audiences can expect “an evening that is a full emotional banquet—some shocks and some laughs, secret conspiracies, plots and schemes.”

Becoming Sharp’s famous novelist says she wants a vacation from her gruelling writing schedule. But the motives of the author, like those of the characters in her juicy potboilers, are more than they seem. Still, her protégée can’t refuse such an offer, even if it means toiling away in secret.

“We’re talking about 1962 in North America,” Belke notes. “These kinds of opportunities didn’t come up for women.”

The playwright drew inspiration from pulp serials like Doc Savage and the Hardy Boys, whose many writers cranked out their work under shared pseudonyms.

“Back in the ’30s, the writers of pulp fiction would be writing literally a novel every month,” Belke says. “Twelve books a year for decades. You have to admire the sheer fecundity of it all.”

But this mad pace comes at a cost, and when you’re writing a thriller, that blurring of lines can have disastrous consequences.   

“When you’re writing so much, the fictional world entwines with your real life.”

Until Sun, May 17 (7:30 pm; 2 pm Sunday matinees)
Directed by John Hudson
Backstage Theatre, $16 – $27

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