Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

Guilty Pleasure

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th February, 2017

 

Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama is a far cry from the typical, almost cosy murder mystery affair to which she is inextricably linked.  The play uses the trappings of civilised society, i.e. a court of law, to expose the seedy underbelly of human nature.  In the safe haven of our seats in the auditorium, we enjoy the unfolding details – a violent murder, acts of betrayal – but there is a bitter aftertaste to this entertainment that reminds us our fascination with crime as drama is, at best, a guilty pleasure.

This production exudes excellence at every turn.  A top-notch cast populates the story with credible characterisations, breathing life into Christie’s wry observations and the more verbose legalese of the professional lawmen.

Geoff Poole and Katie Merriman get things off to a promising start with some amusing character work as employees of Sir Wilfred, the barrister defending the case.  Their accents give us both place and period.  We’re in London in the 1950s.

Bill Barry is excellent as Sir Wilfred.  He and Brian Wilson, as lawyer Mayhew, give off an air of focussed professionalism, inspiring confidence in the system at work.  Equally strong is the barrister for the prosecution, Myers (John O’Neill), grandstanding in the courtroom under the quiet authority of Mr Justice Wainwright (Geoff Poole again, in complete contrast to his earlier role).

When Zena Forrest enters, as German ex-pat Romaine Heilger, she makes a striking impression, not just because of her Teutonic froideur.  Angela Daniels’s costume work cuts a dash – especially with the female characters.  After all, men’s suits and the accoutrements of the court have barely changed for decades!  Forrest is superb as the haughty femme fatale, provoked on the witness stand to losing her composure and saying too much… Alex Whiteley makes a good fist of Scottish busybody, Janet McKenzie, bringing humour to proceedings with a pleasing appearance in the box.

Director Les Stringer keeps us hooked throughout.  It’s a lengthy sit (three hours, including two intervals) but Stringer manages to avoid any sense of the staid and the static in scenes that involve a lot of talk and a lot of sitting around.  He contrives a crescendo at the end of the second act between prosecutor and prisoner, that is absolutely electrifying.

The set by Colin Judges (his real name) is stunning for the courtroom scenes, displaying craftsmanship to be sure, but it also says something.  The court speaks of power and permanence, and the establishment at work.  The set adds to the authenticity of the piece as much as the language and ritualised conduct of the court.  But even the establishment can get it wrong sometimes, Christie reminds us.

Christie provides more twists than Chubby Checker for a thrilling denouement.  The tables aren’t just turned, they spin!

Mark Payne dazzles, if that’s the right word, as nervy defendant Leonard Vole, as twitchy as his rodent namesake.  Personable and decent, he elicits our sympathy from the start, in what develops into a towering and emotional performance with real star quality.

A thoroughly enjoyable, old-school visit to the theatre, but old-fashioned does not mean lacking in power to entertain.  On the contrary, when it is played and presented this well, you know you’re in safe hands for a good night out.

witness


A Bit of Old Cheese

THE MOUSETRAP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 31st October, 2016

 

Running in the West End since 1952, the touring production of Agatha Christie’s celebrated play started a few years back and is still doing the rounds.  It’s my third time seeing it but knowing ‘who done it’ means you can spot the clues, false trails and red herrings Christie builds in.  The characters are drawn in broad strokes – it seems to me the playing seems more heightened this time round – and the situation is contrived for maximum tension: a mixed bag of guests arrive at a newly-opened, remote guest house, find themselves snowed in and cut off, while the radio gives word of a murderer at large… It’s a kind of cosy chiller, if that’s not an oxymoron.  A bit of old cheese that can still entrap an audience.

Nick Barclay and Anna Andresen are likable enough as the proprietors, Giles and Mollie Ralston.  He treads the thin line between decent cove and out-and-out boor; she is spirited and keen and, above all, domesticated.  Christie gives us three types of female here: the pleasant, obliging Mrs Ralston, the formidable battle-ax Mrs Boyle (Sarah Whitlock getting her teeth into the role) and unconventional modern girl, Miss Casewell (Amy Downham) who flouts decency by wearing trousers.

Oliver Gully gives an energised performance as camp extrovert (read: homosexual) Christopher Wren and does more than scream his way through the part.  Gully also manages to evoke sympathy as he alludes to the rough treatment he has received because of who he is.  That homosexuality is regarded as a mental aberration by the like of Mrs Boyle is an attitude I hope is consigned to the past…

Tony Boncza’s Major Metcalf is a fine spot of character acting.  Also, Gregory Cox as the ‘unexpected foreigner’ Mr Paravicini pulls out all the stops in an outlandish depiction, falling short of actually chewing the scenery.  Lewis Collier’s Sgt Trotter gets the tone right but sometimes his accent muddies his diction and we lose some of his lines.

It adds up to a lot of fun.  Director Ian Watt-Smith brings out more laughs than you might expect – especially during the first half before the murderer makes a move.  Christie keeps us suspecting everyone in turn before the moment of revelation.

I suppose the show’s enduring appeal is that it’s a throwback to an England that never really existed (the Shangri-La that Brexit voters seem to hanker for) and I’d like to think it’s something of a museum piece and the xenophobic and anti-gay sentiments expressed are all behind us now… If only!!

Dramatically, the play still works and this is a solid, well-mounted production that is reliably entertaining.  See it if you haven’t already.  If you have, it’s worth a second look, although perhaps not a third.

moustrap

A scream! Oliver Gully as Christopher Wren (Photo: Liza Maria Dawson)

 


Caught Again!

THE MOUSETRAP

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 29th June, 2015

 

Still the longest-running play in London, Agatha Christie’s legendary whodunit continues to tour in this production first mounted a couple of years ago to mark the 60th anniversary. And the tour is still going strong – in fact, catching it again two years on, I think it’s going stronger.

Knowing who dun it doesn’t detract from your enjoyment of the piece. It’s fun to spot all the red herrings and misdirection Christie builds in, as well as the clues she seeds in from the offset.

Giles and Mollie Ralston receive their first guests to their new venture, a country house hotel. Unfortunately, it’s snowing and won’t stop and, down in London, there’s been a murder. Christie introduces us to a range of oddball characters, each of them suspicious in their own way, before trapping them in the house and cutting them off from the outside world, and bumping one of them off… The killer from London is among them!

What makes it fun – and some of the outmoded attitudes (a character’s campness is regarded as a mental aberration!) palatable – is the expert playing by the ensemble, who capture the larger-than-life characters without too much exaggeration. Director Ian Watt-Smith brings out the humour of the piece as well as the suspense and tension. It’s a delicious watch.

As Giles Ralston, Mark Homer is suitably charming and yet pompous – and sounds a little like David Mitchell! Esther McAuley is his Mrs, Mollie, again pulling off the period accent with aplomb and, later, showing sensitivity and emotional depth (not something you see often with Christie’s characters). Anne Kavanagh is bombastic old biddy Mrs Boyle, William Ilkley is bluff old cove Major Metcalf, but their colourfulness is topped by Jonathan Sidgwick’s outrageous Italian, Mr Paravicini, who turns up unannounced. Also striking in this performance is Jocasta King, standing in as young-woman-in-trousers Miss Casewell. Conducting an investigation is Luke Jenkins’s energetic Sergeant Trotter but it’s the most extrovert character, the vigorous Christopher Wren (an irrepressible Edward Elgood) who cuts the biggest dash – irritating, overbearing and yet funny and touching, Elgood elicits an Ahhh from the audience at one point, so enjoyable is his portrayal.

Christie’s plot moves like clockwork, drawing us in and getting our minds working. I think I enjoyed it more the second time around.

William Ilkley, Edward Elgood and Esther McAuley feeling the pinch of The Mousetrap

William Ilkley, Edward Elgood and Esther McAuley feeling the pinch of The Mousetrap


Giving Tuppence

THE SECRET ADVERSARY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 28th April, 2015

 

Agatha Christie plays always prove popular so it’s surprising that no one has adapted the Tommy and Tuppence stories for the stage before now. This touring production by the Watermill Theatre addresses this oversight.

Rather than the naturalistic approach that is reserved for Christie’s courtroom dramas or country house murder mysteries where one location is all that is required, here the set is a multi-purpose stage-within-a-stage and theatricality is heightened. A cast of seven versatile actors populate the tale and provide their own musical accompaniment with on-stage instruments. It is 1920 and we are in London. Post-war austerity is all the rage and there are rumblings of general strikes and revolution in the air.

Unfortunately there are also rumblings in the sound design. Low frequency rumblings that hamper the dialogue. Sometimes traffic sounds and machinery noises can be discerned but the general din underscores the entire production. Perhaps it’s meant to convey a sense of menace. Perhaps it is meant to depict the locations – if so then this is at odds with the non-naturalistic approach of the rest of the presentation. I find it annoying in the extreme and unnecessary, and it saps the comic energy effusing from the players, and I long to stand up and shout, Turn the bloody thing off!

Despite this handicap, the cast delivers a slick and amusing performance, as our two heroes strive to foil a Bolshevik plot to overthrow British civilisation. Garmon Rhys gives us his Tommy, an all-round decent cove, brave and not too much of a drip. He delivers a wonderful masterclass in physical comedy – I now know what to do the next time I am tied to a chair! The charming Emerald O’Hanrahan shows us her Tuppence – an indefatigably plucky young woman up for fun and derring-do. Elizabeth Marsh is stunningly good in a range of roles, from a disgruntled French chef, to a Russian activist and a nightclub performer. Morgan Philpott is excellent value in his roles – indeed, the entire ensemble is superb (Sophie Scott, Kieran Buckeridge, and Nigel Lister, to namecheck those responsible!) unflagging in their energy and comic timing. Director Sarah Punshon captures a flavour of the age and her script co-written with Johann Hari glitters with innuendo and a generous helping of silliness. There are several moments of inventive brilliance: the keyhole scene, for example, and Tommy spying on the conspirators from a skylight… There is much of the brio and style of the long-running West End hit The 39 Steps: Christie’s original is more of a John Buchan adventure than her usual fare.

There is a political message, albeit a satirical one. Why should the rich have everything and the poor nothing? Any attempts to alter this status quo must, of course, be quashed! As the general election approaches, I say we need more unrest and protest, while this tongue-in-cheek production holds up the desire to keep things the way they have always been as something to be mocked, at the very least.

tommy and tuppence


Murder Most Fine

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 3rd February, 2015

 

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company revisit this classic mystery for their current UK tour; I saw their 2008 production but I couldn’t for the life of me remember who done it. Even if I had, or if you know the story, there is much to enjoy here. This kind of old-fashioned, solid entertainment provides opportunities to see some of our finest character actors doing their thing.

A group of strangers gathers in a large house on a remote island. They have been invited there under false pretences. Early moments are like the first night in the Big Brother house as they introduce themselves to each other (and to us) before the tension begins its slow burn, and they start popping their clogs. The deaths seem to be related to an old rhyme that in this politically correct age is now about ten little ‘soldier boys’ – everything else is in keeping with the 1930s setting.   The art deco architecture of Simon Scullion’s set is remarkable.

Verity Rushworth is the ingénue, looking fab in a range of Roberto Surace’s evocative costumes. Rushworth’s lightness has a darker edge; she pitches it perfectly. Indeed as each character’s back story comes to light, we see beneath the veneer of civility. Paul Nicholas is suitably pompous as a high court judge, contrasting with Judith Rae as the housekeeper, with her down-to-earth nature and touches of humour. Frazer Hines is an unpretentious butler (making him prime suspect for a while, of course!), while Ben Nealon is the dashing Philip Lombard, all scorn and flash heroics. It is an absolute treat to see Susan Penhaligon as curmudgeonly old biddy Miss Brent – someone needs to employ her as Lady Bracknell at once; forget David Suchet! These are character types you find in Christie’s plays but this experienced and skilful cast humanise them beyond the requirements of the plot. Upper Class Twit Anthony Marston is made bearable by Paul Hassall’s portrayal. Eric Carte is rather sweet as General Mackenzie, resigned to his doom, and Mark Curry makes an impression as the somewhat neurotic Doctor Armstrong.

Director Joe Harmston handles the material with assurance; he knows exactly how to pace this type of thing, not rushing Christie’s sometimes ponderous script, and timing shocks and surprises with expertise. The result is a comfortably intriguing night at the theatre. The company takes us for a bit of a thrill ride, slowly but surely drawing us in as the plot reaches its conclusion.

Great stuff.

and then


Grounds for Murder

BLACK COFFEE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 3rd February, 2014

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is back on the road.  This year’s offering is an excellent production of Christie’s first play, featuring Robert Powell at the top of the bill as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

From curtain up it is clear this is a quality show.  Simon Scullion’s art deco set is grand, stylish and elegant, and is matched by the formal evening wear of the characters.  This is very much a period piece, as evinced by a plethora of lines about ‘foreigners’ and how they can’t be trusted.  “They’re clever!” someone says as though it’s a bad thing.  It’s like a UKIP broadcast and just as funny.

Director Joe Harmston is a dab hand at this kind of thing; he knows how to pitch it just right for a present-day audience, having his cast play the cardboard characters as naturalistically as possible – We’re not meant to care about them; we’re meant to suspect each and every one of them as we try to solve the puzzle before the detective reveals who done it.

Robert Powell is a marvellous Poirot, acting with a quiet authority, assurance and wry humour – the play is funnier than you might expect.

The plot centres around the sudden death of a rich inventor and no one is above suspicion.  Company stalwart Ben Nealon gives a solid turn as the dead man’s disgruntled son.   Another regular, Liza Goddard witters and sparkles as batty Aunt Caroline – imagine Christine Hamilton in Downton Abbey.   Felicity Houlbrooke brings energy as bright young thing Barbara, cutting a rug with the dashing Mark Jackson as Raynor, the dead man’s personal secretary.  We almost veer into Allo Allo territory with Gary Mavers’s Italian doctor – but then foreigners are supposed to be dodgy – and I particularly enjoyed Robin McCallum as Captain Hastings, Poirot’s nice but dim sidekick.

It’s hardly ground-breaking theatrically speaking but with its fine blend of humour and intrigue and a cast that’s full of beans, Black Coffee perks up a dismal winter evening.

Image


Scene of the Crime

GO BACK FOR MURDER

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th November, 2013

On paper the premise for Agatha Christie’s 1960 play seems rather intriguing.  Young woman comes to England from Canada to uncover the truth behind her parents’ deaths.  Did her birth mother really poison her father?  She meets, takes tea and interviews people who were material witnesses in the murder trial.  One after the other… The first act is, in reality, a string of two-handed scenes in which the witnesses (now also suspects) spill their guts all-too-readily.  The dialogue is like giving testimony in court rather than conversation.  They all remark on how much the Canadian girl looks like her murderer mother.

In the second act, the cast are let off the leash as, in flashback, the events of that fateful day are played out, and they get to interact with each other at last, and we get to see a country-house murder after all.

Sophie Ward, all 60s hip in bobbed hair and a dress like a Mondrian painting plays her own mother (so that’s why they kept mentioning the resemblance!) contrasting the accents of mother and daughter very well.  Gary Mavers is the victim, the artist and temperamental prick Amyas Crale – there is no pity engendered for him; the suspense comes from waiting for him to die.  In this respect, Christie is playing to our darker side.  And we love it.

In the first act, Lysette Anthony gives an overly mannered performance as Lady Elsa Greer but in the flashback she is more palatable as the artist’s model-cum-mistress.  Stuffed shirts Robert Duncan and Antony Edridge have little to stretch them but they occupy the stage as potential culprits and atmosphere-bringers more than competently.  The marvellous Liza Goddard is underused as Miss Williams the governess, and Georgia Neville makes for a rather grownup little girl.  Tying it all together in the quasi-detective/narrator role is Ben Nealon as the dashing young solicitor.

Director Joe Harmston keeps the stage uncluttered – there is enough to create an impression of era and place – and keeps the company on the right side of caricature.  The play is all about the puzzle, although what drives it is the notion that no two people remember an event in exactly the same way.

Image