And Then There Were None – April 2015

Experience: 7/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Joe Harmston

Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st April 2015

An excellent day to be seeing this thriller again, given the early suggestion that someone was playing a practical joke on the assembled guests at the isolated island retreat of Mr and Mrs U N Owen (unknown). Despite our familiarity with the plot, we rated this performance higher than the previous time we saw it – don’t know why that was – and with the same set and staging there’s little to comment on in terms of the production, but I will make a few notes just the same.

There was some stormy music playing quietly when we entered the auditorium, accompanied by the sound of waves crashing against rocks. When the curtain rose, a large chandelier was sitting centre stage, covered with a large cloth; the butler’s first task when he came on was to remove the cloth and use a push button on the left side wall to raise the chandelier up. This was the same control panel that the murderer uses at the end to lower the noose.

The ‘guests’ began arriving almost immediately. Marston, the arrogant boy racer, was very affected, whilst Davis, the apparent South African who turned into an English copper, was bluff and hearty. The judge said “when” before the soda siphon had even reached his whisky, which got a laugh, and I noticed this time that nobody could remember Davis’s name. The back of the secretary’s evening dress was very low-cut, and this infuriated Emily Brent, a self-righteous individual who took great delight in the divine punishment of people she didn’t like. The bitchiness between her and Vera Claythorne – the secretary – was very well done, as were the snide remarks by the housekeeper.

Some of the murderer’s actions were less clear this time round, but just as effective in reducing the population of the island, while the soldiers were being removed by whichever member of the cast was in the vicinity. Ben Nealon, a stalwart of this company, was making sure he could be heard in the back row, but as we were sitting right at the front, he was a bit too loud for my liking. I did spot some passing references to Christie’s other work, such as the doctor suggesting that another character may be an impostor, and again I was aware of how well this play has been put together. The auditorium was fairly full, and we gave them a good response at the end of the evening as well as providing lots of gasps and suchlike during the performance.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Black Coffee – April 2014

Experience: 7/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Joe Harmston

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 23rd April 2014

Front row again for this play. We saw a rehearsed reading a couple of years ago at Chichester with David Suchet not only reading the part of Poirot, but dressing up in the costume and acting the part as well as could be imagined; it was as if the great detective had agreed to play himself in a radio play which we were privileged to witness. No David Suchet himself this time, of course, but Robert Powell was an excellent substitute, delivering the great detective’s role with style and authority, and well supported by the rest of the cast.

I won’t give away the plot. We knew whodunnit from the off, and with the action unfolding directly in front of us I even spotted the culprit in the act of committing the murder! The unravelling of the crime and exposure of the criminal was very well done, and being able to see the action as well as hear the dialogue was great fun.

Set in 1929, the costumes and set were wonderfully detailed, with the elderly aunt choosing to dress in an older style from the young ‘uns. The room in which all the action was set was in the (then) modern Art Deco style, with double doors in the vast window at the back leading into the garden, a door on the left to the study, doors front right and back right to other parts of the house and a fireplace on the left side of the room. There was marble, glossy black and chrome everywhere, while the sofa, chairs, tables and other furnishings all looked period to me.

This time round I noticed some interesting references in the dialogue to two of Christie’s other works, The Unexpected Guest and The Mousetrap (although as that play was written after this one, the humour was anachronistic – we laughed anyway). I did try to listen for other references, but I became so engrossed in the story I lost track.

Robin McCallum was a marvellous Hastings, bringing out a lot of humour in his facial expressions, and the audience was nicely responsive both during the performance and at the end.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Go Back For Murder – June 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Joe Harmston

Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Friday 14th June 2013

No programs? What do you mean, no programs? We had to be content with a photocopied cast list and actors’ CVs – no details of the creative team, background info, nor any interesting and entertaining articles. I had to get the essential details from the flyer – good job Steve has a penchant for collecting such things.

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The Mousetrap – April 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Ian Watt-Smith

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 18th April 2013

I very much enjoyed seeing this for the second time. The first was back in 1987, and for a number of reasons it wasn’t a great experience. The play was clinging on by the tips of its fingernails to the West End supported only by its long-running record, the set looked like the original one from the 1950s, and by that time the regular cast changes had brought the performance down to the level of stock characterisations and slightly hammy acting. We spotted some obvious points early on, and if we hadn’t been waiting for more twists to follow we would have nabbed the culprit before the interval.

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The Virgin In The Ice – March 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Ellis Peters

Adapted, designed and directed by Michael Lunney

Company: Middle Ground

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Friday 29th March 2013

Fortunately I’m already a fan of the Cadfael books, as this rather choppy adaptation of Ellis Peter’s The Virgin In The Ice wouldn’t have encouraged me to become one. Middle Ground did their best, but it’s hard to transpose detective fiction successfully to the stage – Agatha Christie adapted several of her own books to make sure they worked – and despite the clever use of video for backgrounds, maps, etc., there was still a lot of stage furniture to be wheeled on and off between quite short scenes. Even with the help of an abundance of monks, this took some time and inevitably lost momentum.

I won’t go over the story again; they were pretty faithful to the book, and the scene at the robbers’ stronghold was very well done. With so much of the action being on the top of a tall structure we couldn’t see it very well, but the dialogue was clear enough. Gareth Thomas was fine as Cadfael himself, and there was good support from Paul Hassall as Hugh Beringar and Daniel Murray as the young man, Yves Hugonin. But with so much story to tell, the other characters were sketchy at best, although I wouldn’t criticise any of the actors as I did feel they weren’t helped by the adaptation.

We enjoyed ourselves well enough – as I said, we’re fans of the books – and I did have a few sniffles at the end when Cadfael came face to face with his son. A good effort, but not Middle Ground’s best work.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Haunting – November 2012

8/10

Adapted from the ghost stories of Charles Dickens by Hugh James

Directed by Hugh Wooldridge

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 20th November 2012

Another splendid adaptation of Dickens tonight, this time by Hugh James. He’s taken Dickens’ various ghost stories, plus some atmospheric bits from the novels, and blended them into a really creepy evening’s entertainment, complete with special effects. For an audience used to compelling 3D CGI in films nowadays, it may seem a bit tame, but I found it tremendously scary – Steve’s hand is expected to make a full recovery. The performances were very good, and although some of the lighting effects seemed a bit strange, the story was so well told that I was gripped from the start.

I won’t give too much away (I hope). The two-person story concerned a young man, David Filde (James Roache) and an older one, Lord Gray (David Robb). Lord Gray had recently succeeded to the title after the death of his father, and he was back in England to wrap up the estate and sell off the remaining assets – the books, the house, etc. – so that he could clear his father’s debts and return to India, where he had established himself as a businessman. David Filde was the nephew of the book dealer who had sold the late Lord Gray many of the books which lined his study walls, and having been trained in the same business, had been sent by his uncle to catalogue and remove the books for sale. After a short while, David began to hear strange sounds, a voice asking him to “help me” and the like, and with only four days left before Lord Gray returned to India, the pressure soon mounted to unravel the mystery in time.

The set was detailed and elaborate. It represented the study where the older Lord Gray had spent much of his time, with a bedroom off it in which he had actually died. There was a surprising amount of humour in this production, and the current Lord Gray’s casual reference to the fact that the bed young David would be sleeping in was the one his father had died in was one of the early laughs. From the right: tall double doors to the hall, bookcases with steps up to them, a small dais in front of the central French windows where stood the desk with an armchair on the audience side, a large globe on a stand in the corner, the double doors to the bedroom, and more book shelves surrounding the fireplace. A portrait of the late Lord Gray hung over the fireplace, and there was a very strong resemblance to his son. Another armchair stood beside the fire, and there was the skeleton of a tree outside the windows, which were smeared with age. The room had fallen into such neglect that it had lost part of the roof – a chandelier lay front right on the floor, draped with cobwebs and dust. At the top of the walls were some broken planks, and a thick film of dust with cobweb trim was visible on most of the books. As the play progressed, and David sorted out more of the books, gaps appeared on the shelves and a couple of packing cases materialised near the doors to the hall.

The effects were not too surprising – books falling off shelves and doors opening and closing on their own and suchlike – but they were well used, and the plot unfolded with masterful skill. We had some ideas at the interval, and weren’t completely off the mark as it turned out, but there was plenty still to learn in the second half and the revelations were well done. The final scene put a whole new slant on the events we’d seen, and we were very happy with our evening’s thrills and chills.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Black Coffee – July 2012

8/10

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