Watching Agatha Christie’s play unfold last night was a bit like spending an evening surrounded by 500 Frankie Howerd impersonators. Each twist in the plot was met by choruses of ‘Ohhhh! and ‘Ahhhhh’ and ‘Oh no! When two characters kissed – when we’d been led to believe shouldn’t – there was a collective ‘Tut Tut’; as if our youngest daughter was late home from the dance. That is the magical effect the Queen of Crime still has on sane, normal people in a crowded auditorium. It’s like playing a party game; which is what the characters suspect they’ll be doing when a strange advertisement appears in the local newspaper.
We’re in the drawing room of ‘Little Paddocks’, in the charming village of Chipping Cleghorn in the autumn of 1950; and the house guests are studying a notice at the bottom of the personal column which states that “A murder will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends accept this, the only intimation.” “We’ll laugh about this in the morning”, they conclude – but Miss Marple is more interested in posing the question “who’s going to be the victim?”
The tweedy sleuth is played in this Middle Ground Theatre Company production by Judy Cornwell; broad of beam, with matching tan hat, shoes and gloves. Christie has given her a watching role in this story and Cornwell (until the final showdown) plays her in a quiet, retiring, listening manner; as she sits and knits a blue scarf. Indeed I half suspect Judy Cornwell is knitting this year’s Christmas presents live on stage.
The star of the show is the domineering Diane Fletcher, as weekend hostess Letitia Blacklock. It is she who gives pace and purpose to proceedings in a performance so pivotal you rather hope it’s not her who gets the bullet. The murder itself is expertly handled in a blackout, shot through with various flashes. We know it’s coming for two reasons. One is that it is indeed half past six; the other is that the theatre’s emergency exit lights are extinguished so as not to ruin the blackout. I gather one rather vigilant usherette was scurrying to report the lighting failure… until the penny dropped. Needless to say, there are numerous numismatical descents before the evening is out.
All Christie’s stock characters are present and correct; the bumbling old lady, the young couple intent of disguising their love, a grumpy inspector, and, in this case, a particularly entertaining comedy maid “and bucket washer” of east European extraction, belligerently played by Lydia Piechowiak.
Christie also treats us to a string of tricky clues such as a freshly oiled door, a vase of wilted violets and a faulty table lamp…all of which must be paid attention to. Nor can she resist a couple of in-jokes about plot complexity to amuse those who aspire to write.
But audiences love the familiar security of it all and the opportunity to pit their wits against such a quick-witted author. And as theatre managers love full houses, so no one goes away disappointed.
The blue scarf, meanwhile, gets longer each performance. But I never did work out why the murder was announced in advance.
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