Tag Archives: Sarah Punshon

Giving Tuppence


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

Dim and Dimmer


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 20th September, 2013


Patrick Hamilton’s taut thriller is set in the Victorian home of Mr and Mrs Manningham, shown here in a detailed set by designer Michael Holt – a collection of furniture, potted plants and props that evoke the period perfectly.  Hamilton uses some of the features of Victorian melodrama in his tale but director Sarah Punshon does not overplay them.  We have a villain, who sports a black top hat and cloak – he even has facial hair, a sure sign of villainy according to the convention, but Brendan Hughes’s Manningham stops short of twirling his moustache.  The victim is his neurotic wife Bella, an excellent Alix Dunmore who pitches the poor woman’s fragility just right; we never get the sense that she has a choice, that she should stand up to her bullying monster of a husband, such is the credibility she brings to the role.

There is music too, as you’d expect in a melodrama, but James Earl-Davis’s sound design keeps it subtle.  Atonal notes play on an almost subliminal level, cranking the tension.  The effect is very chilling.

There is strong support from Joanna Bacon and Hannah Lee as the housemaids, one fretful, the other chirpy, again bringing truth to character parts.  The whole tone of the piece is utterly believable, thanks to the performance style and also in no small part to the venue itself.  In-the-round means that the audience is not only the fourth wall of the Manninghams’ living room but the first, second and third walls as well.  This permits an intimacy and a naturalistic approach even to the more sensational aspects of the plot and dialogue.

John Cording’s Ex-Detective Rough almost steals the show, generating warmth and a quiet urgency as he makes his moves to solve an old case.  The scenes between him and Alix Dunmore are superbly done, as he entrances her (and us) with exposition of the crime and convinces her to go along with his plan to bring a murderer to justice.

Brendan Hughes is also pitch-perfect, bringing nuance to what could easily be a two-dimensional role.  We almost fall for his manipulations at the start and we see the power he has over his vulnerable wife.  That the melodramatic aspects are subdued makes him a more chilling baddie and his machinations more plausible psychologically.  I was interested to read in the programme that Manningham’s method of mental abuse has been given the name ‘gaslighting’ after this play.

An absorbing production of a thriller that actually thrills, Gaslight stands the test of time, serving as a reminder of the genius of this too-often overlooked playwright.