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There's been a murder...

And someone's making a killing. Well, not exactly. David Newnham unravels the mystery of the headteacher, the PTA and a staffroom full of suspects

The head of a small private school in the south of England has been under pressure. His school is struggling, and, in his effort to put things right, Bartholomew Rex has made enemies. But who was angry enough to kill him?

Was it Helen, the secretary who has been getting rather too personal of late? Or Judy, his jealous wife? Perhaps it was James, the inept school caretaker, or Barbara, the eccentric head of English. Prime suspect has to be Brian, the ambitious deputy head who makes no secret of his desire to take the top job. But how to decide? And how to plot a true course through a veritable shoal of red herrings?

That is what parents, staff and students up and down the country have been asking themselves ever since Chris Martin began selling copies of his murder mystery play Who Killed the Headmaster? two years ago.

It all began when Mr Martin, who is head of drama at Thornleigh Salesian college in Bolton, was asked to organise an evening's entertainment for the school's parent teacher association. "We got hold of a murder mystery play, but then I thought, 'I could do better than this, and write something that's more relevant to a school'," he says.

Having previously worked for a theatre company, he knew the procedure. The murder takes place at the end of Act I, and in Act II a detective questions the suspects while the audience takes notes. Working in teams, people write down their conclusions during the second interval, and hand them in for "marking". In Act III, all is revealed. Throw in refreshments, a quiz and plenty of in-jokes and the result is an evening's entertainment that's not only a lot of fun but is also a painless way of raising money for PTA funds.

That's certainly how it was when staff at Mr Martin's school put on Who Killed the Headmaster?, and since then the author has written a string of scripts which he offers to other PTAs for a fee of pound;55. And they are selling like hot dogs in a theatre foyer. "I sold 16 in the first year," he says, "and another 27 since last June. In fact they are now selling at a rate of more than one a week, so it's beginning to take off."

One of the keys to their popularity is the ease with which the plays can be produced, he says. The price includes scripts, question sheets and full instructions, and actors are encouraged to read their lines, which removes the need for a lot of memory work while ensuring accuracy of delivery.

"The plays are so intricately written, with clues coming thick and fast, that if someone missed out a couple of lines, it could be crucial," says Mr Martin. "Audiences adapt very quickly to the idea that the actors are reading, and it means that, basically, they don't really need to rehearse until the week of the show. And that's good for teachers, who don't have a lot of spare time."

Other titles available now include Who Killed the Caretaker?, about an opinionated and unpopular member of staff at a seaside comprehensive; Who Killed the Director?, in which the murder takes place on-stage during an amateur dramatics production; and Who Killed the Hotel Manager?, a comedy which Mr Martin describes as "Fawlty Towers meets murder mystery".

His latest play, Who Killed the Football Manager? is a satirical piece about a retired England footballer, Bob Baxter, who has chosen teaching for a quiet life. Needless to say, his past catches up with him with tragic but intriguing consequences. Mr Martin ensures that all the plays are suitable for children as well as adults. "In fact we have a student taking part in Who Killed the Caretaker?, although the part can be played by an adult pretending to be student, which is good fun."

To cater for primary school audiences, he has written Who's Been Eating My Porridge?, a parody of fairy stories in which no murder takes place, but Goldilocks, Prince Charming, Simple Simon, Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio and the Fairy Godmother are all suspected of mounting a raid on the three bears' cottage.

With their audience participation and local references (users are free to adapt names and places), the plays have an element of pantomime about them, and some PTAs have already used them instead of a panto. "We use the plays as a way of getting kids to come to school for a night out to see the teachers messing about," says Mr Martin. "It's not necessarily about making a profit, although if PTAs charge pound;3 for a ticket, they only need 15 people to cover the cost. After that, they can make quite a lot of money."

For more information, visit www.murderplays. com, or email chris_and_june@hotmail.com to request an order form

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