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.