Agatha Christie

Love From a Stranger

05/06/08

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Agatha Christie is often paid a huge disservice in stage adaptations of her work. More often than not, directors decide to spoof the content, playing up the high camp aspects of her stories for laughs and, in the process, sacrificing the suspense. Luckily this production by Fiery Angel and Royal & Derngate, directed by Lucy Bailey, opts to play things reassuringly straight, transposing the original setting to the late 1950s and basing its look around Michael Powell’s infamous murder mystery film, Peeping Tom. This results in a sprightly, sure-footed version of the story that plays to Christie’s narrative strengths.

Incidentally, originally adapted by Frank Vosper in the 1930s from a Christie short story, Philomel Cottage, the play was a hit both in the UK and in New York, but had it’s own Christie-like twist, when Vosper managed to fall off a cruise ship on his way back from the states and drown. An open verdict was returned.

Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) is arranging the sale of her Wimbledon flat while she awaits the arrival of nice-but-dull fiancé, Michael (Justin Avoth), from the Sudan, where he’s been working for the past few years. The general idea is for the couple to marry on his return, but a recent sizeable win on a sweepstake has kindled in her a desire for a little adventure. So when handsome American Bruce Lovell (Sam French) turns up to view the flat, she’s quickly swept off her feet by his tales of reckless adventure around the world and his alluring invitation to join her for lunch.

Almost before she knows what’s happening, she’s married Bruce and the two of them have moved to Philomel Cottage, deep in the heart of the country, where he sets about dissuading Cecily from seeing any of her friends from London. He spends a lot of his time in the cellar, which he’s converted into a dark room, in which he pursues his passion for photography. But there are mysteries that seem to lack any rational explanation. Why, for instance, does the gardener, Hodgson (Gareth Williams), keep finding empty bottles of hydrogen peroxide buried in the herbaceous border? Why does he seem to think that the asking price for the cottage was hundreds of pounds lower than the sum Cecily actually ended up paying of it? And why has Bruce torn a page from one of those true life crime magazines he’s so fond of studying?

Bradbury and French deliver convincing performances in the lead roles and the ingenious sliding set design, that puts me in mind of a set of Chinese puzzle boxes, keeps giving the audience a slightly different view of the stage, revealing areas we have previously had to imagine. If the play’s great revelation doesn’t turn out to be that much of a surprise, nevertheless, this is an assured production that holds my interest from start to finish – and its worth seeing this just for Nicola Sanderson’s priceless turn as the snobby ‘Auntie Lulu’.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Murder on the Orient Express

03/11/17

Let’s face it, we know what we are going to get with this one. Agatha Christie’s story is a classic of its kind, and Poirot’s style of detection a thing of wide repute. The trailer makes it clear that this incarnation doesn’t stray far from the cosy murder-as-family-entertainment tradition, so we settle in for a glossy, star-studded slice of nostalgia; we know it won’t be challenging but we think it might be fun.

And it is fun, to a point. It’s handsomely done, with glorious vistas, and the opening scenes in Istanbul are wonderfully vibrant, teeming with life and energy. Kenneth Branagh is convincing as Poirot, as pedantic and idiosyncratic as Christie paints him in her books. And the unthinking decadence of the upper classes is beautifully clear, their sumptuous surroundings barely noted, the train’s luxury accepted and dismissed.

It’s a shame, then, that we never feel any sense of claustrophobia, even when the train breaks down, and everyone is trapped in the middle of nowhere, even when the sleazy Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered. I won’t give any spoilers here, just in case,  although I imagine most people know the plot; suffice it to say, I know there are reasons why the suspects’  reactions are not as we might initially expect, but still… No one really mixes; no one seems irritated with anyone else; they’re all so separate, as if they’re not in close proximity. It’s all plot and no character, despite the starry cast.

The starry cast is a problem too. They’re all magnificent, but I only know that from their other work, not from what they do here. There’s nothing for them to do. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Caroline Hubbard, is perhaps the luckiest; there’s some substance here, so she can milk her role. But to under-use actors as fine as Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz et al is criminal: these are all essentially cameos.

In the end, sadly, this is just a pointless remake of what is – sorry, Agatha fans – a silly story. It’s not awful – everything is bigger here, including Poirot’s moustache – it’s just not very good.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Mousetrap

unknown

17/10/16

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on this planet for sixty-four years and I’ve never seen a stage production of Agatha Christies’s The Mousetrap beforeIronically, the play has been around for exactly the same length of time as I have. It was first performed  in 1952 and has been running in the West End ever since. This touring production, directed by Ian Watt-Smith, is at the King’s Theatre until the 22nd of October.

It’s a single-room drama and the events take place in an extraordinarily naturalistic set, which looks as though it was tailor-made to fit the stage of the King’s (although, of course, it wasn’t, and will shortly move on).  The detail is meticulous – even the smattering of snow on the characters’ coats melts as they warm up by the fire. We are in Monkswell Manor, an old country pile, where Mollie Ralston (Ann Anderson) and her husband Giles (Nick Barclay) are attempting to set up a guest house. As the play opens, a terrible snowstorm is in progress and we learn very quickly that there has been a brutal murder nearby. As the first clutch of guests begin to arrive, it is apparent that each of them can be considered a suspect – especially the histrionic ‘Christopher Wren’ (a deliciously revved-up performance by Oliver Gully), whose ill-considered utterances make him look more suspicious by the moment, and the mysterious Mr Paravicini (Gregory Cox), who wears makeup to appear older than he really is – why? The first half closes with the murder of one of the guests and, in the second act, it is up to Sergeant Trotter, who has arrived on skis in the middle of the storm, to attempt to unravel which of the Manor’s inhabitants is guilty of murder most foul.

This is unashamedly old-fashioned in its style and ambitions (how could it not be?) and fans of Agatha Christie will revel in the avalanche of red herrings unleashed here. At times, it’s like being caught up in a game of Cluedo, with characters conveniently slipping away to a variety of locations throughout the house, just as something important happens. Of course, the play is famous for it’s ‘twist’ ending and it’s impossible not to play armchair detective as you try to unravel the possibilities of who might be hiding something. The play’s revelation (which audiences are always entreated not to reveal) must have seemed pretty incredible back in the day, but those well-versed in detective stories may find themselves guessing the eventual outcome early in the proceedings.

It doesn’t matter. This is an enjoyable slice of classic theatre and it’s easy to see why it has remained in the public gaze for so long. Why not drop in and see if you can work it out for yourself?

4 stars

Philip Caveney