Tag Archives: Ian Watt-Smith

A Bit of Old Cheese


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.


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


Caught Again!


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

Of Mice and Murder


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th February, 2013

Agatha Christie’s most famous play has been running in the West End for 60 years, and is still going strong.  Now, in celebration of this anniversary, comes this touring production, saving us all the rail fare to London.

The first murder happens before the curtain goes up and straightaway we are plunged into the mystery.  The description given by the police could fit most of the characters that subsequently appear at Monkswell Manor Guest House, a fledgling business venture run by young married couple Giles and Mollie Ralston.  The usual suspects assemble: the reactionary old frump (Elizabeth Power), the madcap twit (Steven France), the retired military man (Graham Seed), the dodgy foreigner (Karl Howman), and the forthright young lady (Clare Wilkie).

As they become snowed in, cut off in this rambling country house, the play takes on an air of Cluedo crossed with Big Brother, as the guests annoy each other and argue.  The arrival of a detective on skis cranks up the tensions between them, and the audience eagerly awaits the next victim and we speculate over the identity of the killer.

This is standard Christie fare.  There is always something delicious about the murder mystery in a big house and this production conveys that atmosphere very well, thanks to a sturdy and evocative set and direction by Ian Watt-Smith.  The script is from a time when foreigners were immediately suspect – the dodgiest thing about Karl Howman’s Mr Paravicini is his accent.  And gay men were considered mentally deficient – Steven France’s Christopher Wren is as camp as cupcakes, prancing around like Louie Spence and laughing like the Joker.  Christie lays in the red herrings with a trowel – you know the denouement is going to be cleverer and more surprising than you first surmise…

Having said that, when the killer is revealed, the loose ends are tied up rather superficially and the action dribbles to a close.  It’s a bit convenient, I found, and some moments in the second act could do with picking up the pace, but on the whole I found this is a quality production that brings life and energy to a creaky old plot in a creaky old house.

Jemma Walker carries the emotional weight of the piece as young Mrs Ralston and a lot of the energy comes from Bob Saul’s performance as the quirky detective.  Graham Seed is in his element in this kind of thing as the dignified retired Major, and Elizabeth Power is delightful as the curmudgeonly old trout.  Bruno Langley keeps us guessing as young Mr Ralston in an effective turn as curmudgeon-in-waiting, and Clare Wilkie as Miss Casewell, in male attire, adds intrigue.  Even with the more exaggerated character types, you can’t help wondering what they might be up to.  I think this is perhaps at the heart of the play’s longevity: you want to find out more and try to beat the characters to the killer’s unmasking.

Definitely worth seeing, The Mousetrap is a slice of British culture, a helping of nostalgia for a bygone age that has an undercurrent of human nature that is still recognisable in society today – said he being careful not to give anything away.

Catch it if you can!