Verdict – May 2011

6/10

By: Agatha Christie

Directed by: Joe Harmston

Company: The Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday, 30th May 2011

This was a perfectly reasonable touring production; nothing spectacular, but decent performances all round. I’m an Agatha Christie fan myself, and although I recognize that she’s not the greatest writer, I do think she’s better than her critics admit. That said, there were one or two areas which I felt didn’t work so well tonight, and I’ll start at the beginning with the whole idea of using tableaux. It’s a dated style of theatre, and one I don’t particularly care for, as it can often lead to confusion. The play tonight started with Mrs Roper, the cleaning lady, standing centre back, spot lit for several seconds while the rest of the set was in gloom. I had no idea who she was at this point, so what was that for?

I’ll describe the set now, to save complications. It’s an unusual layout, so pay attention. To the left was a huge set of shelves crammed with books. Leaning against this was a wide ladder, and when the lights go up after the opening tableau, there’s a chap sitting at the top of the ladder, reading a book. In front of the shelves stood a pot plant stand and another table, which was next to Anya’s wheelchair when she was on stage. To the right of the shelves was an opening showing more bookshelves – this led to Anya’s room. To the right of this the stage was split into two levels. On the same level middle right was a desk with two chairs, one behind and one in front, and there was another chair and side table to the right of it. Behind these stood a dresser(?) of some kind with a drinks tray on it.

Across the middle of the stage stretched two wide steps, with a raised area behind. There was an opening off left which led to the front door, another opening in the middle which led to the rest of the house, and a large window to the right. There was a dividing door which was normally pulled back, but for one crucial scene it was drawn almost fully across the top of the stairs. There were books everywhere, a tray with water jug and glasses on the side table front right, and a telephone on the desk. Now read on (or not if you don’t want to know the plot).

The opening scene between Mrs Roper and the young man on the ladder, Lester Cole, set the scene a bit, so we know we’re in Professor Hendryk’s study (no idea what subject he teaches), and that he’s somewhat charismatic. When Lisa Koletzky turns up (Susan Penhaligon), we also learn that she’s chosen to look after Anya Hendryk, who’s been an invalid for five years, although Lisa’s training as a physicist would allow her to get a job anywhere. With her accent, it’s clear she and the Hendryks are middle European, and without knowing the time period accurately, images of them fleeing Nazi persecution flitted across my mind. However, the period is 1958, and anyway this isn’t a political play, it’s about the destructive possibilities of kindness and compassion.

It turns out that the professor’s kindness to a colleague he didn’t even like meant that he and his wife, Anya, had to leave their comfortable home and friends and move to London, where she is housebound, lonely and fretful (to put it mildly) and he has to work long hours to keep them in some degree of comfort. It’s not helped by his principled choice of providing extra tuition to poor students who show promise, and turning down rich students who may not be so able.

One such rich girl is the catalyst for his downfall. The professor has already turned Helen Rollander down, but she turns up, well, barges in really, while the professor, Anya, Lisa and Doctor Stoner, Anya’s doctor, are having a cup of coffee together. Helen demands that the professor take her on for extra tuition. She’s beyond tactless, this girl, with hints of budding sociopathology (we watch too much TV) and an obvious crush on the prof. The visit upsets Anya, who goes back to her room, and although the professor finally gets Helen to leave, her father, Sir William Rollander strolls in shortly afterwards with a much more persuasive offer.

Anya suffers from something-or-other sclerosis, which is apparently incurable. She’s confined to bed or a wheelchair, her hands have started to shake more, and she naturally gets cranky and depressed, with a side order of guilt because she feels she’s a burden to everyone. The prof still loves her, though, and it’s this that Sir William uses to get what he, or rather his daughter, wants. He can guarantee access to a select trial of a new antibiotic which has had good results in treating Anya’s disease in the US. The prof will do anything to help his wife – he’s still feeling guilty that he caused them to leave their former home – so he reluctantly agrees to take Helen on. She pops back in to pick up some books – she’d been waiting in the car while daddy worked his magic – and we suspected the massive volumes the prof gave her wouldn’t be read as thoroughly as he might wish.

That’s pretty much it for the first act, apart from confirmation that Lisa, a cousin of Anya’s, is also in love with Hendryk herself, which is her main reason for choosing to be there, and that the prof loves her as well, desperately but unattainably. In the second act, we see Helen confirming that she’s not much of a student, just a selfish, spoilt girl with the hots for the professor and a neo-Nazi attitude towards culling the useless members of the population, such as the professor’s wife, for example. With everyone else either out or about to leave, Helen uncharacteristically volunteers to sit with Anya till Lisa gets back – alarm bells are ringing. The doctor gives the prof a lift to his lecture, Mrs Roper pops out for yet another packet of tea (she’s the only one who drinks it), and so the cute cuddly bunny is left alone with the hungry python. What will happen next, we wonder?

It doesn’t take long. After a short exchange, where both women seem to find something in common, the clock chimes, and Anya exclaims that she needs her medicine. Helen offers to get it for her – four drops in a glass of water – and Anya obligingly tells her that it’s dangerous stuff and she mustn’t take too much, only four drops. Helen may not be the greatest intellectual on the planet, but she can add two and two, and so we see her tip the whole bottle (it’s a small one) into the glass. Anya comments on how strong it tastes, but Helen assures her it was only four drops, so she obligingly knocks it back. Within a couple of minutes, she’s dead.

Now Helen has to cover her tracks, which she seems to do pretty well. She puts her gloves on, takes the glass and empty bottle over to the table by the wheelchair, wipes them clean and then puts Anya’s prints on them. Then she heads off, only to return a few moments later, perhaps in response to our silent screams of ‘you’ve forgotten the water jug’. She puts that right, then leaves, and from the way she sets herself up to walk out of the door – head high, calm, self-assured – it’s clear she’s headed for a life of crime in the future, killing anyone who gets in her way. Always assuming she gets away with it this time, of course.

Shortly afterwards, Mrs Roper returns, and fails to notice the dead body cluttering up the living room. (Honestly, you just can’t get the staff nowadays!) She heads into Anya’s room to do some work (yes, I know, it shocked me too), so when Lisa gets back and does realise that Anya’s dead, Mrs Roper hasn’t seen her come in. There may well have been another tableau before the interval, but I don’t remember the details.

The second half begins with a tableau of the doctor, Lisa, the prof and young Cole, all standing on set with their coats on. When the action starts, they’ve just come back from the inquest into Anya’s death, which recorded an open verdict. Other than Cole, who’s come back with them to try and help, no one believes it was suicide, and the prof in particular believes it was a tragic accident. Lisa heads into Anya’s room to start clearing out her stuff – may sound cold, but she was just being practical – and later she and Cole take a couple of parcels to the mission, that period’s version of the charity shop. The doctor also leaves, and so the prof is alone when Helen comes to call. She’s nervous at first, but soon bounds back to full confidence as she declares her love for the prof and that there’s nothing to keep them apart now that his wife’s dead! She’s said some breathtakingly callous things already, but this takes the whole biscuit factory. He’s dismissive of her at first, so to show him how much she deserves his love, she confesses all to him – crazy, or what? When he realises what she’s done, he’s horrified, of course, and finally shows some anger. He makes it absolutely clear that he has no feelings of that sort for her, and she’s terribly upset. For once, when he tells her to leave, she goes, in tears.

Now you, I and the next person would probably call the police immediately if we found ourselves in this situation, but the prof is made of finer stuff. He reckons the poor child (who’s twenty-two, by the way) has never had a chance to develop such qualities as compassion, etc., but that there’s still a good person underneath her insensitivity, selfishness and murderous intent. The doctor sums it up more accurately later on, I feel, when he describes Helen as a cruel little bitch – that brought a small gasp from the audience.

This is where the central theme of the piece is brought out. Lisa comes back, and the prof tells her about Helen’s confession. She’s insistent that he call the police straightaway, but he points out that grassing up Helen (he didn’t use that actual phrase) wouldn’t bring Anya back, so to avoid blighting a young woman’s life, he won’t say anything. Why she doesn’t just pick up the phone herself, I don’t know, but soon the two of them turn their attention to their own, unacknowledged love for each other, and at long last they embrace each other for the first time. Unfortunately, Mrs Roper spots this through the translucent glass of the dividing door, which had been moved across at the start of the scene, and the tableau here has the two lovers, moving apart when they realise she’s there, and staring at her as she watches them.

In the following scene, the prof has just returned with the doctor a few hours later, and both Lisa and the doc go through the arguments again to try and persuade the prof to report Helen’s confession to the police. He’s still adamant that he won’t, and so, like some Greek tragedy, the consequences of his choice kick into action. A police inspector arrives, with his sergeant, and asks some more questions. They now reckon it was murder – any idea who could have done it? That sort of thing. The prof still refuses to implicate Helen. As a result, the police arrest Lisa. Mrs Roper has reported what she’s seen between the two of them, plus she found Lisa standing over the dead body with no alibi for what happened before that. Now the prof decides to come clean, but it’s too late. Not only does it sound bad, that he’s trying to implicate another woman when his lover is under threat, but it turns out that the evening paper he bought when he was out with the doctor earlier carried the story of Helen Rollander’s death! She’d been so distressed by the prof’s rejection that she’d run out into the road without looking and been flattened by a lorry. You couldn’t make this stuff up! (Um, actually……)

With Helen not available to change her story – that she left at Anya’s request before Mrs Roper got back – Lisa is arrested and tried for murder. The final scene shows the prof, doctor and Cole waiting for the eponymous result of the trial. The phone keeps ringing, but it’s always the press looking for something to print. There’s speculation about the verdict, but ultimately this scene is about the final confrontation between the prof and Lisa after the doctor and Cole have headed back to the court house.

Despite the evidence, somewhat miraculously Lisa was acquitted, and now she’s come back to collect a few things before starting a new life somewhere else. The prof is devastated – he wants to develop their relationship – but the writing was on the wall in the earlier scene when the professor allowed Lisa to be arrested without immediately offering the Helen option to the police. It still wouldn’t’ve worked, but at least he would have demonstrated loyalty to her instead of to his idealised principles. Ah well. She leaves, the doctor comes and goes, and then the prof is left alone to endure the anguish he’s created for himself. He puts on a record of the Tristan And Isolde song that was an integral part of his first meeting with Lisa, and sits down on the floor to weep.

That’s the end of the action, but the final tableau involves Lisa coming back on to stand at the rear of the stage, still in her coat and carrying her suitcase, with her and the prof spot lit. Curtain. This final tableau caused some confusion within the audience. Some thought she’d come back, some that it was just his fantasy, while others, like me, thought it was just to emphasise the final situation – that’s what these tableaux usually do, after all. I have no objection whatever to ambiguity, but in this case I felt the confusion undercut the resolution of the play, and we’d have been better off without it. Still, we did enjoy ourselves, and the rest of the audience seemed appreciative too.

So what else didn’t work so well? Writing this, I’m aware how creaky the plot is in places, but the writing and acting were both good enough to keep the ship afloat. Cole’s character was a bit of a puzzle. His purpose in the opening scene was to show the professor’s compassionate nature; when Cole finally confessed to selling one of the books the prof had loaned him, so that he could take a special girl out on a date, the prof lets him off the hook, glad that he’s owned up to it, demonstrating his unusual approach to ethics. Fair enough, but thereafter Cole is a bit of a spare wheel, always hanging round, and frankly without much reason for it and with very little to contribute. No reflection on the actor, of course – Agatha has to take responsibility for this one.

The part of Mrs Roper, on the other hand, is a little gem; a nasally charwoman who likes helping herself to the prof’s cigarettes as well as the tea, and ready to bitch and pry at a moment’s notice. It was a lovely performance from Elizabeth Power, and as well as the comic relief, she instigates one of the crucial turning points of the story.

The other performances were all fine, and the play built up a nice degree of tension towards the end. Although we’d seen this play back in 1984, I didn’t remember it as such, though I was confident about which way the story was going, so perhaps the memories were closer to the surface than I realised. I found the delivery a little patchy at times, so I missed some of the dialogue; I think that was mainly down to the accents, although Susan Penhaligon was fine throughout.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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