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.
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.