Writer: Agatha Christie
Adaptor: Leslie Darbon
Director: Michael Lunney
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple sails into action in Middle Ground Theatre’s latest who-dunnit touring production. First published in 1950, it has prospered in various incarnations, and this adaptation by Leslie Darbon itself dates back to 1977.
The plot and setting break little new ground for Christie, for whom this was her fiftieth book. A strange notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn morning paper inviting people to attend a murder to be held that Friday, at the home of Letitia Blackstock, who claims ignorance of the invitation. Several of the village’s more interesting characters turn up, and as the clock strikes 6:30, the lights go out, and shots are fired into the room. It is subsequently revealed that only the gunman, a spa attendant, has been killed. The local police bungle their way towards a solution, largely ignoring the contributions of the celebrated detective Miss Marple, here played by Judy Cornwell, who chanced to be at the crime scene.
The plot unfolds in predictable fashion with a variety of suspicious characters drawing the attention. The number of possible culprits has been trimmed from the original novel, but the suspect list remains vast. As the play explores the backgrounds of the characters who had assembled in response to the invitation, the complexities of their lives and relationships broadens the range of possibilities for a motive, and a murderer.
There are always expectations pre-wired for an audience of an Agatha Christie play proclaimed as a “Miss Marple Mystery”, and one of these is that Miss Marple’s input to the inquiry will be central to the unravelling of the plot. In fact, Miss Marple is almost kept to the periphery of the investigation until the final denouement. The dullard Detective Inspector Craddock manages to bring to light most of the key plot elements in his own clumsy fashion, and is not upstaged by his celebrity colleague. Tom Butcher plays the part with relish.
Miss Marple is also less central to the action than apparent crime victim Letitia Blacklock, played with great presence and composure by Diane Fletcher. She is rarely off-stage, and rarely less than the main focus for attention when on it. By contrast, Judy Cornwell’s Miss Marple seemed adrift from the main drama until performing the role of deus-ex-machina at its resolution. Judy Cornwell seemed ill at ease with the role, and was either unnaturally static or given to clumsy gestures to animate her few meaningful interventions.
Other members of the cast give adequate support within the limitations of their stock characters. Rachel Bright is a charming willowy Julia Simmonds, and Sarah Thomas comes close to stealing several scenes as the distracted Bunny. Lydia Piechowiak, playing the Mittel-European maid with a persecution complex, introduced some rare elements of humour. Memorably, her coffee was complimented as the only thing she was capable of making without garlic listed in its contents.
The set was an unsurprising country house drawing room, littered with furniture which seemed to straddle several time zones from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. Costumes likewise reflected a period, but it was sometimes unclear which period this was, but it was definitely elegant, and numerous changes of costume underlined this point. Set changes were generally accompanied by choral or string arrangements from a similarly ill-defined period when Hilversum was still on every radio dial. The one exception was the inclusion of Goodnight Irene, bringing a touch of Leadbelly’s blues hinterland contrasting its raw emotional depth with the middle England social manners of the play. Though one’s not sure why.
Middle Ground Theatre Company have a history of touring crowd-pleasing, uncontroversial fare to the regional circuit, and they do it well. It would not be fair to criticise the play for failing to achieve something it never set out to do, and which, in keeping faith with the original, it was never likely to do. It was written in 1950, adapted for the stage in 1977, and is showing its age. Those with a taste for nostalgia will not be disappointed. Others might be.
Runs until Saturday 5 March 2016.