By Agatha Christie
Directed by Joe Harmston
Company: The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Sunday 15th July 2012
What joy! Not only an Agatha Christie, but with David Suchet himself as Poirot! Heaven! And then they added a short Q&A with David afterwards! Bliss! (And I’ve used this year’s quota of exclamation marks in one short paragraph!)
This was a rehearsed reading of the only Agatha Christie play to feature Poirot. The Agatha Christie Theatre Company chose to present this reading in the radio play format, as they do with Murder On Air. Before the start, the stage had the back wall of the Heartbreak House set (very appropriate, as it turned out) with a bank of chairs in front of it, a sound effects table on the far left (the side we were sitting on) and about seven or eight microphones placed around the front area of the stage, not quite at the front. When the cast trooped on through the doors on the set, they were in evening dress, and I suspect Trevor Cooper was wearing his costume from Heartbreak House. No sign of David Suchet or David Yelland (playing Hastings), but as the butler started the play by arranging a cab to pick two gentlemen up from the station, we knew they would be arriving soon. Joe Harmston was also there in full evening dress, and he introduced the reading with a few words and gave us the opening stage directions – the library of Sir Claud Amory’s house, 8p.m.
It was a little strange at first to have the radio format when the play is meant to be staged, but I soon got used to it. Steve tried listening with his eyes shut for a bit, but it didn’t make any difference. There were gaps in the dialogue for the action, which the sound effects filled very effectively most of the time, and we enjoyed a number of these additions, especially the occasion when Jared Ashe, the Foley man, actually powdered his face to fit with the dialogue.
The situation was soon clear; Claud Amory was a scientist who had made a lot of money from his inventions. He had discovered a powerful new explosive (hence the appropriateness of the set) but the formula had been stolen, and only the people in the house could have done it. He had sent for Poirot to solve the case, but was going to give the culprit a chance to return the formula anonymously. The lights were going to go out for a couple of minutes, and if the formula was on the table when they came back on, he would send Poirot away. If not, ……
Well, the formula may have been returned, but Sir Claud’s death meant that Poirot still had a case to solve, and with various twists and turns there was plenty to sort out before Japp arrived. Hastings as usual showed his weakness for the fairer sex, while also providing the comment that triggered Poirot to find the correct answer through the mist of red herrings. Japp (George Layton) made the usual simplistic assumptions, but was more than ready to help Poirot when the crunch came, and there were lovely contributions from the rest of the cast. Susie Blake in particular was excellent as the gossipy maiden aunt who made disparaging remarks about foreigners.
I must record Poirot’s entrance, as it was a remarkable moment. The lights had gone out, there were various noises, and then the lights came back up just as the door knocker signalled Poirot’s arrival. The butler announced him, and then there was a long pause. We had realised when we saw the setup that we were likely to get a full-on version of the great detective, and so we weren’t surprised when the man himself walked through the doors to great applause. Fully in character, Poirot took his time to ensure the perfection of his appearance before accepting his copy of the script from the director; he checked his moustaches (we laughed), he checked his cuffs, and when he was sure he was immaculate, he accepted the proffered script and turned to mince to the central microphone for his first lines. I noticed he even made sure his feet were perfectly parallel before speaking.
The rest of his performance matched the start, and we loved every minute of it. There were the usual funny remarks by other characters about the strangeness of foreigners, and a huge laugh when Poirot himself commented that he was often taken for an Englishman. David Yelland gave us a fine Hastings to match this definitive Poirot, and we especially liked the way he coughed and spluttered after claiming that Poirot couldn’t blow dust in his face. It was also handy to have him there when Poirot and Doctor Carelli, another suspicious foreigner, were going to converse in Italian or French; not much use to the rest of us, but Hastings came to our rescue with a suitably funny interjection.
We pieced the clues together to figure out whodunnit before the final revelation, but it was still very enjoyable to watch it all unfold. Poirot ended the play by adjusting some papers which had bothered him with their lack of symmetry, which was a good way to end the performance, and we all applauded long and loud. A great experience to witness, and many thanks to all those involved who gave up their time to allow us to share it with them.
There was also the Q&A to enjoy, and this was undoubtedly the best attended post-show event we’ve ever seen. Some people did leave, but the house was still crammed when David Suchet and Joe Harmston came back out about fifteen minutes later. After a few comments by Joe, David made some opening remarks. He told us that he had actually trodden these very boards when the theatre was only just built, and before Olivier took over as artistic director. He had joined the National Youth Theatre, and they performed Coriolanus at Chichester (David was a Volscian general) while the builders were still there. So it was entirely appropriate in this fiftieth anniversary year to have him back. He clearly loves Chichester as a performance space, and was delighted to be here on that account, but he was also delighted to add this play to his CV, as he has made it clear that he wants to perform in every story Christie wrote with Poirot in it.
There were plenty of questions from all round the auditorium. David’s favourite part at Chichester was Cardinal Bellini in The Last Confession, a play we and many in the audience had enjoyed very much. David had been sent the script several years earlier and found it unsuitable, but a revised version came along and he found himself intrigued by the central role. He started to do his own investigation into the death of John Paul I, and realised there was something peculiar about it all, so decided to do the play. It worked very well on the Chichester stage; sadly, the director David Jones died before he could see it performed outside the UK.
David also discussed his filming commitments for the remaining Poirot stories on TV. He’ll be filming until July next year, and as these will be the last stories to be done, he knows there will be sadness and a feeling of bereavement to go through. He has a lot of gratitude for the benefits he’s received through doing Poirot, and reckons he will feel a sense of accomplishment at having recorded the complete set of stories to a standard that will keep them available for future generations. Knowing that it will be a difficult process, they’re filming Curtain first, a wise choice I think.
He doesn’t take Poirot home, though he did find it hard to drop a character in the early days of his career. His process, which is intrinsic to him, is to completely immerse himself in the character, to give the writer a voice which otherwise they don’t have. He looks for the significant contribution that his character gives to the overall piece, and when he finds that, he can proceed with confidence. He doesn’t act for himself, which he finds boring, but only to serve the work of the writers as best he can.
He will come back to Chichester if the right play comes along, but he won’t be doing Black Coffee again. We have seen the one and only performance. The choice of the radio play format was explained by Joe, and it was based on the desire to give a good performance while only having a few hours to rehearse. David is currently in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the West End, so this was how he spent his only day off this week – and we’re immensely grateful.
His background is not French or Belgian, sadly; he would have liked it to be. But in Who Do You Think You Are he discovered that his grandfather had lied about his background, and the final conclusion was that David is two-thirds Russian and one-third Sandwich, Kent. His favourite Poirot is The ABC Murders, due to Poirot’s lateral thinking, but Murder On The Orient Express is coming up fast in the inside. He likes the way that Poirot’s otherwise clear-cut morality is challenged by the realisation of what has happened, and the effect he could have on so many people’s lives. The book itself is quite dark, and he’s pleased that the production company allowed the film to reflect that. He’s hoping that Hugh Fraser and Philip Jackson will be available to reprise their roles for these last Poirots; that’s currently under discussion. With some final comments about the brilliance of Britain’s waterways, he finished the Q&A and we gave him a standing ovation. It was a real honour to be at today’s event; a memory I will treasure.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me