Writer: Agatha Christie
Adaptor: Leslie Darbon
Director/Designer: Michael Lunney
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The problems with Agatha Christie plays are mainly a matter of balancing plot and people and presenting an archaic Englishness without too much stuffiness or implied chauvinism. Christie herself could do this with a suitably light touch between the dramatic revelations, but in Middle Ground Theatre’s production Leslie Darbon’s elderly adaptation of A Murder is Announced creaks despite a fairly opulent production with a handful of skilful performances.
How much of the plot to reveal? Letitia Blacklock owns Little Paddocks, an early Victorian house in the village of Chipping Cleghorn, a typical Christie figure, a solidly upper-middle-class pillar of the community, not rich, but with the possibility, we learn, of inheriting vast wealth. Also living at the house is a bizarre collection of hangers-on, Letitia’s old school friend Dora “Bunny” Bunner and a whole string of recent arrivals: her much younger cousins Julia and Patrick, Phillipa Haymes, a war widow working locally as a gardener, and Mitzi, a Middle European refugee and Letitia’s cook.
Of course, the announcement in the local paper that a murder will take place at Little Paddocks that very evening comes true – and thereafter the hunt is on, led by Inspector Craddock and (just visiting Chipping Cleghorn) Miss Marple, to prevent the next murder.
Though the plot is considerably simplified from the original story, it still contains more than its fair share of twists and red herrings. The second half of the play, when the plot takes over, is cleverly plotted, springs its surprises and holds the attention, though it’s scarcely credible that virtually everyone is pretending to be someone else.
The problem lies with the first half when we are asked to believe that these are people behaving as people do. Script, direction and some of the performances are equally stiff: nicely dressed people sit round in a circle making brittle comments, blunt barbs that seldom strike home. In fairness, most of the characters are not who they seem, so a bit of unconvincing characterisation may be seen as a hint to the perceptive.
Many of the performances are either under-characterised or display a tendency to strike attitudes, but Janet Dibley is always on the mark as Letitia, the blandly correct hostess with hidden depths. Sarah Thomas is engaging as Bunny, memory failing, long-suffering – and making sure everybody knows it. Tom Butcher’s dry humour as a rather intelligent version of the stereotypical police inspector works well. As Mitzi, the Magyar in the kitchen, Lydia Piechowiak offers a tour de force of gloweringly aggressive paranoia, but it’s an uncomfortable presentation of the craziness of foreigners.
Louise Jameson entertains as Miss Marple, but she is, if anything, a bit too dotty – that angle of her hat is surely unsustainable in normal life – though, a final confrontation with the murderer is very effective.
Michael Lunney’s direction is competent but uninspired, but there are solid qualities in Middle Ground’s production. Lunney’s set designs are traditional, as they should be, and handsome; Lynette Webster’s music creates the right atmosphere; above all, it’s good news to find a touring company in these straitened times which travels with a cast of 12 and no doubling.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed