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.

Continue reading

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

Murder On The Nile – May 2012

6/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Joe Harmston

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 4th May 2012

Closely related to Death On The Nile – same plot, similar characters, but no Poirot – this production had a lovely set and mostly good performances, making for an enjoyable evening out. It was written by Agatha Christie herself, and she deliberately chose to keep Poirot to the book, using Canon Pennefather as the ‘detective’ in the stage version. All the action took place on the observation deck, magnificently recreated on stage, so Louise had to be shot through the screen across the bar, and the injured Simon Mostyn had to be carried from Dr Bessner’s room a couple of times to take part in the action, but these adjustments all worked just fine.

Kate O’Mara made full use of Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes’s snobbery to give us most of the funny lines and looks of the evening; her grimace of social disappointment when the Canon turned out to be one of the Shropshire Pennefathers, was lovely. Dennis Lill as the Canon made a good substitute for Poirot, and although it meant we couldn’t go into detail on the potential embezzlement motive, he had the necessary level of authority to hold the investigation together. Chloe Newsome did very well as Jacqueline, although her maniacal laugh in the first act could do with a bit more practice, and Ben Nealon, a company regular, hit all the right notes as Simon Mostyn, the husband of the murdered woman. Susie Amy’s lack of experience on stage showed in her rather stilted performance as Kay Mostyn, but as she was killed before the interval that didn’t matter too much, while Vanessa Morley dropped all the right hints as the maid, Louise. Jennifer Bryden and Max Hutchinson were very good as the potential young lovers, and Mark Wynter was a fine Dr Bessner. Hambi Pappas and Sydney Smith were surprisingly strong as the two Arabs who represented the crew (these parts are notoriously undercast as a rule), and while we knew the solution in advance, there’s a good chance that anyone who didn’t would be kept guessing till the final revelation.

The play ended with the lights going out and a single shot being fired – nicely ambiguous. I was aware that there was much less investigation than in the book and film, but that’s inevitable given the limitations of the medium. There was still plenty of psychological content, such as Kay’s inability to recognise guilt when she felt it, while the strong complaints about financiers running people’s lives were totally relevant today (sadly). Even though we’d seen this play way back in the 1980s, neither of us could remember those productions, so it’s safe to say this is the best version so far for us.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Alarms And Excursions – August 2011

7/10

By: Michael Frayn

Directed by: Joe Harmston

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 4th August 2011

This production consists of a number of short plays by Michael Frayn, all loosely connected by the impact of modern technology on our lives, particularly the difficulties the technology itself causes and our inability to handle them. The set was therefore generic, with lots of flats sliding on and off and furniture trundling hither, thither and yon between each play. None of this was a problem; the set design created each location very effectively, although the actors will no doubt have their own view on all the quick changes they had to manage. With a good crowd, it all made for an enjoyable afternoon.

We missed the first couple of minutes due to heavy traffic in Brighton – we’ll take the train next time – but I don’t think we missed much. We were able to slip into aisle seats as well, so hopefully we didn’t disturb anyone. The first play was called Alarms, and when we arrived it was clear that a dinner party was being interrupted by an irritating beep. It sounded very much like the beep of a smoke alarm with a low battery – the chap behind us recognised it too – but the group having the party didn’t know what it was. While they tried all sort of options, other alarms and buzzers started going off, including the oven timer and a car alarm. The phone system in this house was apparently state-of-the art, which meant no one understood how to work it, so when an urgent call came in for the husband, he couldn’t actually speak to the person on the other end until he’d assaulted the phone out of sheer frustration.

The dialogue was marvellously tailored to the events. The caller was still trying to get the husband to pick up the phone, and saying things like ‘you can’t hide under the table’, while at the same time the visiting wife had accidentally been covered up by the dining table for reasons I won’t go into now. All of this was great fun, and although this is an extreme version of reality, much of it was recognisable in our own lives.

The second play, Doubles, was set in two adjacent hotel rooms. Two couples arrive at almost the same time, and we see their identikit lives play out. The walls are thin enough for sounds to carry, and this leads to some hilarious misunderstandings, with couple one (Serena Evans and Robert Daws) believing they’ve heard couple two (Belinda Lang and Aden Gillet) having sex when they’ve actually been trying to kill a mosquito, and couple two thinking couple one are called Kevin and Sharon, when that’s the names they’ve been using for couple two. It took a little while to set up the situation, but then we had a great time seeing all the variables of social embarrassment play out. The final situation is that both couples are staying in their rooms until they see the other couple get into their car – it could be a long wait.

After the interval came Leavings, the sequel to Alarms, with the two original couples going through the end-of-party process of leave-taking. The husband has fallen asleep, and there’s not much conversation going on amongst the rest of them. After several declarations that they must leave, the visiting couple finally get up to go, but when the husband wakes up, he assumes he’s the visitor and starts to head off himself. We then see all the last minute conversations that crop up at these times. The husbands get into a rambling, pointless conversation about things being unnaturally natural, while the wives are subsequently distracted by some gossip about an affair. This eventually draws the men in as well, and the upshot is that the visiting couple decide to make themselves something to eat as they’re so hungry.

Pig In The Middle is a short conversation between a husband and wife about the message left by a repair man about some thingy that needs fixing. The husband has a rant about the message, because he knew the man would say it was the bit inside that needs fixing when it was always the bit around the back, and the wife gets a bit fed up with being the one to pass on all these messages instead of her husband dealing with it himself. She gets her own back, though. After checking the shopping he’s brought back with him, she points out that he’s got the wrong sort of something. When he claims that they never have the right sort, she tells him he always goes to the place inside instead of going round the back! It was a lovely piece of word play, and Steve and I could both recognise our own liberal use of the word ‘thingy’, although we’re lucky enough to actually understand what we mean most of the time.

Toasters had three of the cast in office outfits, standing next to a plant on a stand and carrying a folder, a plate and a glass. While the company’s boss makes a tedious rambling speech, they have to juggle these items to keep up, opening the folders to all the mentioned pages, raising their glasses to toast some success story, and putting their stuff down when they have to applaud even more success. Or are they meant to toast? Or applaud? The uncertainty had them squirming, and kept us laughing.

Finishing Touches was another short piece, with a husband and wife sitting at a restaurant table at the end of a meal. He has a very slow delivery, with lots of very long pauses, so she finishes his sentences for him. This goes on for a short while, then he starts finishing her sentences as well – it’s the only time he can talk quickly. Their snippiness is evident, and I noticed there was at least one couple who laughed loudly all through this sketch (not us, as it happens). Clearly this situation was closer to home for some of the audience.

Look Away Now was a funny variation on the safety demonstration given at the beginning of each plane flight. The passengers were actually told not to pay attention, but one of the three on this flight was a new boy (reminded me of my first time – the only pair of eyes in a sea of papers) and he was actually watching. He did open a paper to show willing, but because he was listening, he realised the air hostess was actually taking her clothes off! The expression on his face was wonderfully funny. Unfortunately for him, he’d been spotted, and the final part of the announcement was to the effect that he wouldn’t be getting any dessert because he’d peeked.

The final play was called Immobiles, and a voiceover explained to the audience before it started that it was set in the past, at a time when people had to use landlines and public phones if they wanted to talk to one another. We’d seen Alarms And Excursions before, in 1999, and this was the scene I remembered best from the previous occasion. Dieter has arrived in Britain to visit some friends, and calls to leave a message on their answer phone. The husband also calls to leave a message – he’s at Heathrow to pick up Dieter but can’t find him. The wife, when she gets in, uses the answer phone announcement to tell them what to do, and then heads off to pick up Dieter, at Gatwick! She’s forgotten that her mother is also due to arrive, so in a short time we have four people making phone calls, leaving messages and eventually blocking each other’s calls. With so much going on, the poor answer phone blows up, and I don’t blame it. Makes me glad we have mobiles now.

I enjoyed all of these plays, although I do think they might have been better ending the show with Leavings, to top and tail the performance with the same couples. However, it’s only a minor point, and doesn’t take away from the excellent performances. All four actors are superb with this sort of comedy, and we’re glad we saw this again. According to the program notes, Michael Frayn had added some new material for this production; I don’t know which bits exactly, as it all seemed to mesh very well.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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