The Sparrow Men find humour in tragedy in 'Murder on the Pacific Diamond'


Draw a through line starting with Agatha Christie, take a detour via the Carry On films, take a turn at the choose-your-own-adventure books and if you're lucky you'll find yourself aboard Murder on the Pacific Diamond, a comic murder mystery set aboard a luxury cruise liner. All of which begs a question: is murder ever funny? Well, in the hands of Marcus Willis and Andy Balloch, collectively known as the Sparrow Men, it is.
After a brief introduction from the increasingly pissed Willis as the ship’s captain, the action comes thick and fast. Opera singer Dame Elizabeth Heinrich, the ship’s draw card entertainer, is knocked off (possibly because of superior-suite envy, the fact that murder is included on one passenger’s bucket list or because it’s all part of the job for at least two travellers). It’s the audience’s job to deduce who dunnit. The murder itself isn’t too graphic or ghastly – think more Midsomer Murders than CSI – in fact, more is made of the fact that Dame Heinrich’s gown was straining at the seams following a carbs blowout than the fact she was knifed. 
Willis and Balloch play all of the characters in this 60-minute vignette, including an ageing gay couple, a super-posh and frisky married couple who, at least on the night we saw the show, get off on the pretext of being poor, and a pair of romantic Russian spies. All characters are well drawn, fleshed out and believable, which is nothing short of a wonder given the tight time frame and the fact that Willis and Balloch play all of them.
It’s worth noting that Balloch and Willis are part of the Melbourne Improv Conspiracy ensemble, specialising in off-the-cuff, long-form comedy, and have studied at Chicago’s famed iO Theatre, which boasts Mike Myers, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as alumni. So, as you’d expect, the pair are whip smart and comfortable going off piste when it comes to the script. Suffice to say, Murder on the Pacific Diamond was absurd, funny, clever and quick.  
By Meg Crawford