By Frank Vosper, adapted from a short story by Agatha Christie
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Co-produced by Fiery Angel and Royal & Derngate Northampton
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Thursday 29th March 2018
Several surprises tonight. Firstly, this was an Agatha Christie story which I didn’t remember, so I was much more caught up in the suspense that I expected. Secondly, Lucy Bailey’s production had more tension and was more gripping than I’d anticipated. We’d seen her version of Dial M For Murder some years ago, and really enjoyed the way she used the movement of the stage and a much looser set design to create a greater sense of suspense than usual, but although the set here was less balletic, with front and back sections simply sliding from side to side as needed, it didn’t get in the way of the performances, and allowed the tension to build. And finally, and even more surprising, was to find in our records that we saw a production of Love From A Stranger thirty years ago, at the Theatre Royal Brighton: safe to say, I have absolutely no recollection of that production at all.
As this is a psychological thriller, I’ll be careful about what I give away, though the identity of the villain isn’t really in any doubt from early on: as it says in the program, this is more of whodunwhat than a whodunit. We were in the front row, and despite the blockages in my ears, I managed to hear pretty well throughout the evening – the actors’ all had pretty good delivery. Even so, it took me a while to figure out who was who: Agatha was very good at introducing her characters to the audience, but then she didn’t write this play.
The first character we met was Aunt Lulu, or Louise Garrard as the program gives it. She was a wonderful creation, and Nicola Sanderson played her to perfection. A gossipy busybody type, she was the aunt of Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury), a young woman who was due to be married in about a week’s time. Cecily shared the flat in Bayswater with a friend, Mavis Wilson (Alice Haig), and Lulu was, theoretically, helping Mavis to pack up some of their things: since Cecily was getting married, Mavis had decided to travel for three months, and let the flat for that period. It turned out that the flat wasn’t the only thing the women shared – they had recently won a sweepstake, netting a cool £25,000 each! A lot of money in those days. (Or now, for that matter.) (But even more then, of course.)
When Cecily arrived back from her shopping trip, and with Aunt Lulu out of the way, the flatmates were able to have a proper conversation. Cecily was having doubts about the wedding. She’d previously written to her fiancé, Michael (Justin Avoth), to ask him to postpone the wedding, but his response hadn’t been encouraging: he’d insisted that his plans were set, and he wouldn’t be budged. She had written him a letter calling off the engagement altogether, which she’d planned to leave on the table in the flat for him to find when he arrived – he was due in anytime, having been out in Syria for three years.
Mavis took Cecily to task over her attitude: Michael would make an excellent husband, she was being unreasonable, and it was all since she won that money – it had gone to her head! She poured cold water on all the lovely foreign travel possibilities which Cecily mentioned, and finally marched out of the flat to give Cecily a chance to be alone with Michael when he turned up. But it wasn’t Michael who came to the door next. A chap had phoned earlier, before Cecily arrived, and had asked if he could view the flat. Mavis told him it would be alright, and here he was. After a few moment’s confusion, Cecily allowed the man in and showed him round.
He was, or appeared to be, an American, with blond hair, casual good looks and a camera slung over his shoulder. He quickly latched on to her disaffected state, making a couple of shrewd deductions about her feelings which surprised her, and which suggested to us that he knew more about her than he was letting on. To show him the bedrooms, the rear portion of the set slid to the left, and so we were able to see him through the gauze wall, picking up some of her lingerie and burying his face in it. She was elsewhere, talking to him about the layout of the flat, so she missed that behaviour, as well as him taking a photograph of her things.
He introduced himself as Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), and given that she’d expressed a preference for adventure before she settled down, it wasn’t too surprising that they were soon heading off for lunch together. After a spot of darkness and some weird sounds, the next scene showed Michael standing in the middle of the room holding Cecily’s letter in his hands. He was extremely upset and even crying at times. Mavis was with him, and as she explained what little she knew of the situation – she’d only just heard about Cecily’s request to postpone the wedding, after all – I felt that they would have been a much better match for each other.
Aunt Lulu came back in and was horrified to find that Cecily had broken her engagement: she was sure there was another man involved. When Cecily arrived back, her suspicions were confirmed, although only just. Aunt Lulu tried to take charge of the situation, and ended up grabbing Bruce by the lapels, which gave us all a good laugh, but they managed to calm her down a bit. Her morality was perfectly matched by her snobbery, so after exclaiming “how common” when she heard that Cecily and Bruce had had lunch together, Cecily’s further comment “at the Savoy” was met with a long pause in which Aunt Lulu’s lips pursed and mouéd in a most entertaining way. It appeared that having lunch together was quite beyond the pale, but at the Savoy…
Mavis used this snobbery to good effect when she decided to take Aunt Lulu out of the flat so that the others could have a proper talk. At first her offer of tea was refused – the situation was far too interesting to leave – but when it was going to be “at Fortnum’s”… Like a donkey following a sweet, juicy carrot, Lulu was out of that door so fast she forgot her bag and had to come back in and get it. After insisting that Bruce leave the room, Michael got his chance to talk to Cecily alone, or so he thought. The front section had moved over at some point, and we could see the small foyer, where Bruce was lurking, apparently listening at the door. He did sit down on a chair after a bit, so perhaps he wasn’t so concerned about their conversation after all. When Michael left, having realised there was no chance of changing Cecily’s mind, Bruce came back in and soon he and Cecily were in each other’s arms having what I assume was their first kiss. Lights. Interval.
For the first half the stage was set up with the sitting room at the front, dining area back left and gauze walls sectioning off the bedrooms back right. The side walls were a scumbled blue, which the gauze curtains and screens matched. There were two doors in the left wall: the front one led to the foyer and the outside while the back one wasn’t used in this half, as I recall. The screens at the back suggested possible double doors or French windows – they were kept ambiguous. A door middle right led to the kitchen. There were a few packing cases around the sitting room area, along with a sofa, a side table (with telephone), a coffee table centre stage and a desk on the right wall. In the dining area there was a table and two chairs plus a standard lamp. There was a picture on the wall and a few decorative items, including two porcelain candlesticks, one of which Aunt Lulu broke, though she decided not to mention that to Mavis. All the furnishings were consistent with the 1950s, the period in which this had been set, but otherwise the sparse layout looked quite modern.
During the interval, with the safety curtain down, the set was changed to the cottage layout. Stairs in the middle of the stage led up to the left, under which there was a gauze wall with a door down to the cellar. Bruce intended to use this as his dark room, and we could see into it when the red light was lit. The left door led to the kitchen and back door, while the front door was on the right. A table and two chairs were centre front, with a small bookcase against the stairs and a drinks trolley over by the kitchen door. Back right was the sitting area, with French windows out to the garden. A grandmother clock stood on the right by the door, and a couple of packing cases were present as well, along with a large metal trunk.
When Cecily and Bruce arrived, we soon learned that they had been together for about six weeks and married for slightly less. They were looking forward to settling down in their snug little nest, well away from human society – the village was several miles away. Bruce took a red shawl out of the metal trunk, which contained his photography stuff, and gave it to Cecily. He took a picture of her wearing it as well. Just then, Cecily spotted a figure at the windows, who turned out to be Hodgson, the gardener (Gareth Williams). He came in to see if they wanted him to carry on working there, and Cecily agreed. He also introduced his niece, Edith (Molly Logan) who was looking for work due to an excess of child helpers at home. Cecily agreed to take her on as well, and Edith soon proved to be a veritable whirlwind of activity.
With everything going so well, Cecily wanted to relax and enjoy herself, but Bruce just needed her to sign some final bits of paperwork to do with the house purchase. Silly girl, she didn’t even read them before she signed. When Bruce described this as the “most wonderful moment” of his life, we laughed – we knew what that meant. Just when they were about to go upstairs for a bit of conjugal relations, who should turn up but Aunt Lulu – Bruce was well unhappy. Then Lulu got a glimpse inside the metal chest, seeing a photo of a woman with a lovely shawl. Bruce claimed it was his sister, and shut the lid firmly to prevent her seeing anything else. When Lulu went off with Cecily, Bruce saw the shawl draped over the back of the chair and took a nasty turn, clutching his chest (the anatomical one) and looking very queasy. He got that trunk downstairs pretty quickly once he’d recovered.
With some more music, the scene changed and we got our first glimpse of the dark room via the red light. That faded, and Ethel came on with a tray and a very loud shout of “tea”, which made us laugh. She also tried to take a peek into the cellar, but Bruce forestalled her by emerging just as she was at the door. He took the opportunity while no one else was around to check his scalp in an (invisible) mirror, and then after tea Doctor Gribble (Crispin Redman) arrived to check Bruce’s health, despite Bruce having insisted he didn’t want to see him. They went upstairs, and during this time Hodgson brought in a small bag which he’d found buried in the garden. Cecily looked inside and found several bottles labelled hydrogen peroxide. What a puzzle! She thought it might have something to do with Bruce’s photography, and put them to one side. At the very end of the scene, we saw Bruce take the shawl, which Cecily hadn’t been able to find, out from the back of the clock and remove it from the stage.
Cecily had mentioned that Mavis wanted to come down for a visit, and Bruce had, reluctantly, agreed. Mavis spotted that Bruce was looking very unwell, and was surprised that he and Cecily were due to go away for a long vacation the next day – the travel would surely be too much for him. She also picked up on the gardener’s comment about the house only selling for £900: Cecily insisted it had cost them £1500, but as Bruce had handled the business end of the purchase she only knew the amount she’d put on the cheque.
Bruce was well out of the way at this point, hiding in his room, but he appeared at the top of the stairs about the time Michael came in. Mavis had played a sneaky trick on her friend, coming down with Michael and persuading Cecily to speak with him for a short while. She did so, and there was nothing for Bruce to worry about, so he disappeared before the end of their conversation. Michael had got over his disappointment at Cecily’s decision to break off their engagement, and even acknowledged that his behaviour had been out of line. He was glad she was happy, and he left with Mavis when she returned.
The doctor also showed up, but not for a professional call. He had noticed on his previous visit that Bruce had some books on criminal trials, particularly serial killers, and thought their shared interest might make it easier for Bruce to accept him as a doctor. However, this time he had brought a specific book with him and wanted Cecily to look at it, especially the picture of a young man who had been acquitted of a murder before further evidence showed him to be guilty: by that time, he had disappeared. Cecily remembered that Bruce had the same book, but when she looked inside that copy, the picture was missing – how odd. The doctor, having done all he could, left her the second book, the one with the picture, and told her he would be at the local pub if she needed anything.
When Bruce came down, he became more threatening than before. She finally looked properly at the picture and realised who she was dealing with. Bruce locked them in, and they sat down to their meal. Towards the end of it, Bruce set the grandmother clock to the correct time – he was very particular about knowing when it was nine o’clock – and Cecily went into the kitchen to fetch their coffee. The front stage slid right to show the kitchen space, so we could see her attempt to get out of the back door, but it was locked, as Bruce told her a moment later. She covered her actions by stirring the coffee before bringing it out and pouring him a cup. Soon after that, Bruce began speaking in a Cockney accent, and forced Cecily to read out loud the details of his past activities from the trial book. She was almost in tears as she read, and things looked very bleak for her. What would happen next?
Well, that’s where I’ll leave these notes. The final tableau was nicely enigmatic, with some horrified expressions on the faces of those who were there. The sizeable audience gave them all a warm response, and we headed out into the night, well satisfied with our day’s theatre-going. There were good performances all round, and although the staging wasn’t as stylish as the Dial M For Murder, it was effective: I can still feel the tension from those closing scenes as I type. The level of humour was good too, making for a very enjoyable production.
© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me