Murder by Chocolate

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, The Edge, Auckland

21/09/2007 - 29/09/2007

BATS Theatre, Wellington

26/01/2007 - 03/02/2007

Production Details

Devised and Performed by Phil Ormsby & Alex Ellis

a FLAXWORKS production

Murder by Chocolate – Dark, rich and full of nuts!

Will Felicia Fargo romance writer and winner of seven wet pillow awards discover the truth? Find out in Murder by Chocolate, a comic tribute to not only the original murder mystery but to art, celebrities and of course, chocolate! Phil Ormsby and Alex Ellis are back! With their new show Murder by Chocolate the creators of Biscuit & Coffee once more weave together food, death and comedy to bring you a murder mystery so funny you’ll choke on your chocolates!  

In 2005/6 Phil and Alex toured Flaxworks’ first production, Biscuit & Coffee throughout New Zealand. Travelling on a shoestring budget in an ancient van affectionately dubbed the Biscuit Tin, Biscuit & Coffee played in over 35 venues nationwide. From its premiere in April 2005 it took on a life of it’s own, performing in venues as varied as the Gaiety Hall, Akaroa to the Swamp Palace, Oruru to BATS Theatre, Wellington before heading to the Herald Theatre at THE EDGE in Auckland, as part of the STAMP programme, in October/November 2006.

Their new work, Murder by Chocolate, premiered at BATS in Wellington in January and has since been performed in Whakatane, Tauranga and most recently as part of the Cadbury Chocolate Carnival in Dunedin.  

Phil Ormsby says “Murder by Chocolate still has the crafty wordplay people loved about Biscuit & Coffee but having more than one actor this time means a lot more physical comedy thrown into the mix”.

Alex Ellis plays Felicia Fargo, a disenchanted romance writer determined to reject the fluff of romance for the gritty world of crime writing. Inevitably Felicia finds herself embroiled in a bizarre series of chocolaty murders based on her own dubious crime novel. Alongside Dorian, her clueless assistant, played by Phil Ormsby, she attempts to untangle the traditional web of lies and plot twists, and discover the truth behind the murders all the while battling her own chocolate demons. In classic whodunit style the body count rises as the chocolate finger of suspicion points to…who? The TV psychic? The crime-writing policeman? Or Felicia’s own mother, the greatest celebrity chef to come out of a Balclutha bakery?

“The main thing you need to know about this show is it is fun, come along expecting loads of laughs and loads of chocolate. It’s based on the old style murder mystery movies only this time there’s a twist… it’s a chocolate rush to die for!” says Alex Ellis.

For more info go to

Lighting design - Ben Hambling
Music - Rob Ormsby
Set construction - Michael Ramsey

Theatre ,

1 hour 35 mins, no interval

Totally mad-cap murder caper

Review by Imogen Neale 25th Sep 2007

HOW TO concoct the perfect, chocolate-laced, murder:

Take one disillusioned romance writer with a Willy Wonka-worthy chocolate addiction. Add an editor cum ‘Elementary my dear Watson’ sidekick called Dorian, a dastardly mother with novel intentions, a transsexual psychic who channels all manner of dead people, a policeman with a nom-de-plume, a Darth Vader ‘Luke I am your father’ moment, a two tiered disappearing chocolate stand and, the most unlikely of murder weapons, a chocolate fish.

Mix thoroughly. Dim the lights. Sit back. Watch it set.

Murder by Chocolate is the latest offering from dynamic Flax Works duo (think Biscuit and Coffee), Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby. First performed at BATS Theatre in 2007, it’s a quirky quick-fire mix of film noir, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Bridget Jones’s Diary (minus all the tragic ‘where’s-my-mummy’ boyfriends).

Alex Ellis does a brilliant job with protagonist Felicia Fargo – a disenchanted romance writer who’s decided that literary redemption (least she be forever know as the winner of the most ‘Wet Pillow’ awards) lies in the creation of a truly crafty – and chocolaty – crime novel. Indeed in a scene that sees Felicity getting crawl-on-the-floor drunk on chocolate (having popped her two-tiered chocolate stand up out of her desk) Alex’s acting is pure genius. She flops, she laughs too long and too loud, she gets weak at the knees, she thinks anything and everything is both hilarious and entirely plausible. And, she does it all without causing you to reach that cringe point where you think ‘right. We get it, you’re totally drunk. You can move on now.’

The other characters – Felicia’s haughty mother Margot Fargo, made-for-television psychic Madam Vulnavia, Constable the Policeman, Fesley the embattled publisher and Dorian, Felicia’s right hand man – are all played by Phil Ormsby. Such a diverse catalogue of characters should be a very daunting task – all those different voices, ways of moving, idiosyncratic facial expressions – but Ormsby makes it look effortless. Seamless. To the point that, like the Indian Ink Company’s Krishna’s Dairy, you’re convinced that if you were to venture backstage you’d see all the other characters there, ready and waiting in the wings.

The performance does lag a little in the beginning. Primarily because it spends too long developing Felicia’s predicament – her writing, her chocolate addiction and her very strained relationship with her mother. But once her novel (and thus the murder mystery) is underway, well the best description I can think of is ‘totally mad-cap.’ So much so that before you know it the curtain is falling (so to speak) and the murderer has been served their just desserts.

Aided (and abetted) by clever, very purposeful lighting and a well crafted, flexible, set, Murder by Chocolate is a highly entertaining murder caper that confirms Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby have talent to burn.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


Make a comment

Black Comedy Gâteaux

Review by Nik Smythe 23rd Sep 2007

It was nice to be presented with a box of superfine dark chocolates upon entry to the auditorium.  With the decadent delights displayed and devoured through the course of the show, it would be an insidious act of torture not to have, so I’m hoping the free chocolate wasn’t just an opening night feature.

As the title may lead you to suspect, the story takes the form of a classic whodunnit.  Alex Ellis is Felicia Fargo, a successful but lonely romance writer who loves chocolate (too much) and hates her job.  Phil Ormsby plays all the other characters, all of whom are potential suspects, apart from the gruff, hard bitten publishing tycoon Fesley, given he’s the first victim.

The cleverly conceived and often hilarious script is resplendent with every imaginable detective story cliché – the crime, the suspects, the motives, the predictable turns and surprise twists –  bound together with a decadent concoction of satire, farce, absurdism, clever puns, terrible puns, mixed metaphors, slapstick and so on, all wickedly interlaced with a genuine first love for chocolate and associated confectionaries. 

It’s clear the opportunity to serenade and consume chocolate and (hopefully) get paid for it was a major driving force for writer/performers Ellis and Ormsby, and more power to ’em.

Ormsby also composed the music, which enhances the play just as it ought to.  The opening music is a quietly sinister, slithery, funky promise of what’s to came.  I don’t normally say this, but given the genre I feel the musical score could be incorporated more than it was throughout the piece.

Theatrically, their performances don’t match the accomplishment of their writing.  While it is of course a comedy and as such not to be taken seriously, it’s disconcerting when the actors seem to not so much own their roles as evoke superficial diagrams of well-known archetypes – the tortured writer, the self-centred overbearing mother, the doddery policeman, the kooky psychic celebrity and of course mean cynical old bugger Fesley, of whose murder everyone is a potential suspect.

There are many likeable elements to both actors’ respective turns.  Ellis’ Felicia is highly strung and intensely passionate, sometimes convincingly but otherwise pitching in a similar range most of the time.  Her most believable moments are the ones where she’s high on chocolate.  By contrast, Ormsby’s eclectic array of distinct personae (three men and two women), impressively portrayed without the aid of costumes or props, have more levels yet are still mainly diagrammatic.  Rather than really inhabiting his characters he relies on old-school gesticulations and double takes.

The writing does get away on itself just a little bit. The musical number about sneaky detective work misses the mark for me, as does the odd scene where they suddenly begin speaking in rhyme, the reason for which I fail to catch, if there is one.  Essentially though it’s a strong script and it could be very interesting to see it performed by actors less personally connected to the text. 

There is no (credited) director either – always a controversial way to go – and in this case I believe the show falls short of it’s considerable potential as a result.  Nonetheless, if it’s a theatrical gâteaux of light-hearted dark comedy with lashings of indulgent wit that you crave, Murder by Chocolate can certainly go some way to fill the gap.  


Make a comment

A little long

Review by Lynn Freeman 03rd Feb 2007

Murder mysteries are made for sending up and that’s exactly what Murder by Chocolate sets out to do.  The list of suspects dwindles as the body count rises.  A chocoholic romantic author seeking a change of genre finds fact and fiction melting together like two bars of chocolate left in the sun.

Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby last collaborated on another comedy based on another addiction – coffee.  This is more ambitious and much longer – great to see ambition, pity about the length.  With a good 20 minutes sliced off, it would be a tastier, tauter and much funnier piece of work. The set-up takes far too long – the best material starts half way in, and from then on it’s a wild old ride.  By the end your head is spinning (in a good way) with clues and corpses and chocolates all over the place.

Felicia Fargo has both a chocolate issue and a mother issue, her mother being a celebrity chocolate pudding chef.  Ellis has a good time as Fargo, though she doesn’t really get to show her comic gift until, as mentioned earlier, about half way through the play when she can stop being po-faced and shouty and start being out and out funny. Which she is.  Phil Ormsby has much more opportunity to show his comedic side with a whole range of offsider roles, from the campy aide to the obnoxious mother to the sleazy agent.

The set is nifty too, with a desk that holds all kinds of surprises, including the most devine looking chocolate treats.


Make a comment

Undercooked spoof

Review by Michael Wray 30th Jan 2007

Having built a whole show around the substance of coffee in 2006, the creators of Biscuit and Coffee have returned to tackle chocolate with a slapstick comedy that combines the whodunit genre with scenes from the food channel. During the course of the show, so much chocolate is consumed that one fears Alex Ellis will suffer the same addictive, intoxicating, allergic reaction to the substance as her character.

Alex Ellis plays Felicia Fargo, the daughter of international celebrity chef, Margo Fargo. Felicia is a romance novelist with many successful novels published under the pseudonym Dorothy Doyle. Appalled at finding a self-penned parody of her own work accepted as representative of her style, she yearns to write something more credible – like a murder mystery. Despite the objections of her more famous mother, on yet another comeback quest, Felicia wants to publish under her own name. Her research assistant, Dorian, advises against it. So does her publisher, Fesley. Crime writing requires absolute detail, he says – an unusual gimmick, something different yet credible.

Felicia’s first draft appears promising, though rival writer Nicole Sergeant is to assist with procedural details. It appears Felicia might get her wish, until people start meeting their deaths in circumstances alarmingly similar to various chapters within the book. Suspicion naturally falls on her, but various people could have seen the manuscript – the publisher, the research assistant, the rival writer, her mother, even the ambitious policeman … In time honoured fashion, Felicia must solve the mystery herself to prove her innocence, all while fighting her addiction to chocolate.

Phil Ormsby plays the entire supporting cast. Using only accents and mannerisms, he successfully brings to life Dorian the research assistant, Fesley the bronchial publisher, Margo the overbearing mother, Detective Inspector Constable, and Madame Volnavier the famous television psychic. Between the visits of Phil’s one man multi-cast, we are faced by Alex at her desk, working on her novel, typing on a laptop keyboard, voicing her inner thoughts in a kind of mock Phillip Marlowe voiceover.

If the play sounds like a recipe for a successful spoof, it is – but it is not perfectly cooked. There are many times when it feels laboured. The first half of the show, as the main plot is being established, seems too long. The laptop voiceover device feels tired after the first few times, adding little information to advance the plot, and most of the jokes fail to produce any laughs from the audience. When we enter the second half of the play, the pace of the plot accelerates and either the jokes improve or the audience became more responsive.

When the end comes and the murderer exposed, it is done in a slightly ambiguous fashion. Within the group with whom I attended the show, we actually disagreed about who the murderer was, with lots of "if…. then… but… why…" discussions on the way home. This is not a criticism; many whodunits leave us debating the details and objections of their resolutions, so why should a spoof of the genre be any different?


Make a comment

After Dinner Mint theatre

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 29th Jan 2007

Like Birdboot, the theatre critic in Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound (a spoof of Christie murder mysteries), I wish I had had a box of Black Magic to get me through the endless chatter of Murder by Chocolate, an overlong comedy (90 minutes without an interval) in which the first murder doesn’t occur until a very long hour has passed during which we have learnt that a romance writer (Alex Ellis) wants to be taken seriously by  the Readers and Writers Festival crowd so she turns to writing crime novels and that various characters (all played by Phil Ormsby) have a motive for murder.

With Murder by Chocolate we are into After Dinner Mint theatre, but it is a comedy drowning in words, though, ironically, the funniest moment was a brief scene of wordless, physical comedy.


Make a comment

Too much of a good thing

Review by John Smythe 27th Jan 2007

Once more a welter of words is the weapon choice for this new Flaxworks production: a relentless flow of dense, rich comedy, more bitter than sweet, that proves how more can be less entertaining.

In my Fringe 06 review of their first show, Biscuit & Coffee written and directed by Phil Ormsby, I admired the wired, caffeine-fuelled solo performance of Alex Ellis and bemoaned the self-defeating lack of dramatic purpose in the densely written text. “It’s like being trapped with a compulsive raconteur who just opens her mouth and goes for it without doing anything to enrol her listeners in the course – and its many tributaries – her flow of words embarks upon.”

“Hopefully,” I concluded, “the promised sequel, on chocolate, will be more inviting.”

In Murder by Chocolate Felecia Fargo (Alex Ellis) reveals how her life story has been “written in chocolate”. Desperate to leave her romantic fiction-writing alter ego Dorothy Doyle behind and create literary art about the state of the world, she has turned to the murder mystery genre …

Demanding the support of her partner Dorian (Phil Ormsby) in defying the intransigence of her publisher Fezlier (Ormsby) while trying to step free of the shadow of celebrity dessert chef mother Margo Fargo (Ormsby), not to mention her own chocolate addiction, Felecia’s life soon imitates the ‘art’ she aspires to create.

The murder-riddled plot also involves celebrity psychic Mme Volnavia and her spirit guide companions, crime writer Nicole Sergeant, and Detective Inspector Colin Constable – all made manifest by Ormsby without recourse to costume changes.

The episodic scenes of largely expository dialogue and mostly verbal gags flow thick and fast at a high energy level that rarely lets up, despite being punctuated with narrative links from Felicia at her laptop, often repeating what we already know. The entry of a different character also leads, too often, to the repetition of story elements.

Ormsby and Ellis are clearly clever – there are some standout performance moments – but admiring cleverness is a small part of what constitutes good entertainment. No matter how nutty, comedy relies on our recognising some kernel of truth and relating to it, intuitively. Even the circus nowadays can’t get by on a mere display of skills. Good theatre in any form requires much more that that.

While Ellis’s relentless intensity is contrasted by Ormsby’s relaxed demeanour, always pitched at the same level, Murder by Chocolate – directed by Caitlin Dullard – lacks light and shade. The story, the characters and especially the jokes need room to breathe; they need to invite their audience in to empathise, wonder, worry, surmise, suspect, discover, be surprised …

It’s one thing to savour the assorted flavours and textures in a box of chocolates, and quite another to devalue the subtler qualities of the contents with a binge that reduces it to formless mush.

Given this is the premiere season of Murder by Chocolate and Flaxworks likes to tour their shows, I trust they will take the time to cut the text considerably and re-pace the production to give their audience greater access to its entertainment potential.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council