Slow Boat to Egypt

MURDER ON THE NILE
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th May, 2012

Most of the pleasure in these murder-mystery shows comes from trying to out-think the writer and work out what’s happened, sometimes even before it happens. When you see an Agatha Christie, you have to keep your wits about you, Poirot fashion, and more often than not, you don’t see it coming.

Unlike in our own cosmically insignificant lives, in an Agatha Christie, everything happens for a reason. Even if it is a red herring to lead us up the garden path (and make us mix our metaphors), every detail has purpose and we are invited to sift through them and play the game. Or, you can sit there and let it all wash over you, until the denouement.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company churns out these productions year after year and usually they are very gripping affairs. Sadly, this one is such a slow burner it doesn’t really create any atmosphere until the second half. By the interval, no one was dead – when “murder” is in the title, it’s all you’re waiting for. It’s all Titanic and no iceberg.

We are introduced to the usual mixed bag of characters. Kate O’Mara totters around the deck as objectionable old snob, Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes. After ten minutes I was ready to climb out of my seat and throttle the old bag, so effective was O’Mara’s portrayal. She doesn’t miss a beat and provides most of the comic relief.

Also on board are Christie stalwarts Mark Wynter as foreign (and therefore suspicious) Dr Bessner, Chloe Newsome as unhinged stalker Jacqueline de Severac, and dependable old Denis Lill as Canon Pennefather, a cleric who finds himself playing detective when the murders eventually take place. Impossibly beautiful Susie Amy drawls through her dialogue, while Vanessa Morley as her French maid Louise, glowers and frowns like a double agent in ‘Allo, ‘Allo. Ben Nealon conveys intensity as social-climbing gold-digger Simon Mostyn. Jennifer Bryden gains our sympathy as the decent, put-upon niece to O’Mara’s harridan aunt and Sydney Smith provides grinning support as the steward on this seriously understaffed boat. Additional local colour is supplied by Hambi Pappas as a persistent and annoying purveyor of souvenirs.

Outbursts from the dapper young Communist-with-a-secret, William Smith (Max Hutchinson) could have been written yesterday: the continuing exploitation of the poor by the rich, how the judicial system treats people according to class… Set against a backdrop of Egyptian unrest, this makes Christie seem startlingly prescient. The world hasn’t really moved on since the play first appeared in 1944 – or if it has, it has since taken backward steps.

A sweltering evening in Wolverhampton matched the onstage setting, adding to the atmosphere. I would have preferred more action in first half as I sat there wilting, but on the whole, director Joe Harmston, an old hand at this type of thing, handles the material well, conspiring with Christie to surprise the audience. Moments of action and revelation are tackled very effectively. I worked out what was going on with the Communist but was pleased to be put in my place when whodunit was finally revealed. Turns out I’m no Miss Marple after all.

The ambiguous ending means the story stays with you after the curtain falls and the genius of Agatha Christie has asserted itself yet again.

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About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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