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Catching the Black Widow details Helen Milner's downfall

Sunday Theatre: Catching the Black Widow.

After her brother’s untimely death, a suspicious sister uncovers details that help to crack the case wide open.

A great central performance from Aidee Walker anchors the final dramatisation in the Sunday Theatre season, Catching the Black Widow, a dark and dastardly tale of suburban murder.

Walker plays Lee-Anne Cartier, sister of Phil Nisbet , an ordinary Christchurch bloke who was poisoned by his wife, Helen Milner, in 2009. Largely thanks to the perseverance and hard work of Cartier, Milner was finally arrested for the killing in 2013.

Cartier first realised Milner was lying about Nisbet ’s death after she produced a typed suicide note with a fake signature. Later, Milner turned over to police a different note with no signature.

Catching the Black Widow builds a convincing and creepy picture of Milner’s lies versus Cartier’s single-mindedness. Just a few weeks after the funeral, Cartier flew over from Australia for a 21st birthday and was staying with Milner when the suicide note appeared. Realising that it couldn’t have been written by her brother, Cartier becomes spooked, barricades her bedroom door and lies awake all night.

From then on, it doesn’t take much to discover Milner’s orchestrated litany of lies: the location of the suicide note changes; she claims that Phil was seeing other women; that he was working as a male escort; that he beat her up; that he accumulated debts; and that he had discovered his son from his first marriage was not biologically his.

In addition, Milner has a new bloke, an ex, installed in the marital bed. More to the point, she is trying to claim Phil’s life insurance.

Cartier keeps digging and discovers that Milner has been fired from her job for theft. It was her workmates who dubbed her the Black Widow when she claimed that Phil was trying to kill her by putting too much sugar in her food (she is diabetic) and joked about buying rat poison.

Cartier took her findings to the Christchurch police, and was also aided by Nisbet ’s first wife, but didn’t make much headway until the inquest, where the family had the chance to question Milner. When the coroner did not rule suicide, the CIB started to take the case more seriously.

In addition to Walker, there’s an excellent performance from Katherine McRae, whose Milner is opaque and subtly threatening. The telefeature is written and directed by Thomas Robins, who won an International Emmy in 2010 for teen series Reservoir Hill and co-produced last year’s Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses.

Watch Catching the Black Widow on TVNZ OnDemand.

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.