Writer: Agatha Christie
Adaptor: Frank Vosper
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Lizz Clark
The Agatha Christie ‘whodunnit’ is a tried-and-tested story format with enduring appeal, whether on screen, stage, or page. But Love from a Stranger, adapted by Frank Vosper from a Christie short story, is more of a ‘whodunwhat’ – a slow-building, suspenseful story with a murderous climax which leaves audiences asking questions about what they have just seen.
Director Lucy Bailey comes fresh from the resounding success of another revived Christie play, Witness for the Prosecution. Her immersive production casts the audience as jurors in the atmospheric surroundings of London County Hall. Love from a Strangeris a more traditional experience: as the show begins, we peek through the fourth wall of a somewhat dreary living-room, glimpsing hallway and bedroom on either side. Cecily Harrington is moving out after a lucrative sweepstakes win, and fiancé Michael is due to return from abroad today. But when handsome stranger Bruce Lovell turns up to view the flat, Cecily’s future is turned upside-down.
Helen Bradbury is a dynamic Cecily, forging a new life with equal parts confused uncertainty and frustrated energy. Desperate for excitement, she is easily swept off her feet by Sam Frenchum’s Bruce. Yet we in the audience see something nobody else can. The rooms of the flat shift and realign themselves when Frenchum enters. His appearance changes the contours of reality. When the second act sees Bruce and Cecily move into a remote cottage – miles from the nearest town, without even a telephone – we begin to fear.
In a way, Love from a Stranger is very timely in the age of #MeToo, with terms like ‘catfishing’ and ‘gaslighting’ spreading awareness that an enthralling lover may not be all he seems. Just like Gaslight, the cottage’s lamps flicker occasionally as Bruce and Cecily become entangled in a web of lies. We draw in our breath each time Bruce makes a double-edged comment or has Cecily sign documents without reading them. In 2018, we are primed to suspect him, with our ever-increasing awareness of the ways men use their power over women. Frenchum gives us a convincing manipulator who knows just when to use his agitation to control Cecily, charm her with boyish enthusiasm, or exploit raw sexuality to keep her close.
Cecily’s new home is overlaid on her former flat, parts of it dimly visible through the cottage’s gauze ‘walls’. Ever more uneasy, we watch through them as Bruce lingers, listening, at the top of the stairs, or stares at photographs in his darkroom. And as the tense climax approaches, it happens again: the rooms start to move, sliding across each other. The back door comes into view. Cecily tries it, but it is locked.
What saves Love from a Stranger from grim voyeurism is the subtle trap that Christie lays from early on, threading in clues to a dramatic finale. The seemingly inevitable conclusion of Bruce’s manipulation – the shadowy event he has thoroughly planned in that darkroom – is derailed by a thrilling twist that gives a new perspective on all the tense moments that came before. Just what is the truth of this chilling relationship? When the play ends, we’re still trying to make the pieces fit together.
It’s convincingly creepy, and the unexpected, ambiguous ending makes sure Love from a Stranger is no run-of-the-mill thriller. Bradbury and Frenchum are magnificent when the final twist throws a new light on both their characters, and the supporting cast are strong, from the repressed ex-fiancé (Justin Avoth) to the interfering aunt (Nicola Sanderson), who gives us some laughs along the way, too. A chilling evening that keeps us guessing even at the end.
Runs until 14th July 2018 | Image: Contributed