Writer: Agatha Christie (adapted by Frank Vosper)
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
Agatha Christie’s work seems to be enjoying a renaissance in the last few years. Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express had an all-star cast, while two recent BBC TV adaptations attracted critical and viewer’s acclaim and Lucy Bailey’s revival of Witness for the Prosecution is enjoying an extended London run.
Bailey has since turned her attention to the author’s lesser-known play, Love From A Stranger. First written as a short story, Philomel Cottage, the story was re-written by Christie for the stage and later adapted by Frank Vosper and achieved some success on both sides of the Atlantic.
Agatha Christie fans will find many familiar ingredients in this play. Characters with mysterious histories and suspicious motives, middle-class manners, chaps with backbone and a stiff upper lip, a murder (or more) and, of course, an unexpected twist to surprise us right at the end. You already know the formula and there isn’t any point in trying to second guess or dwell too long on the obvious plot shortfalls, just go along for the thrill and the suspense of the ride.
The story opens with Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) sharing her doubts to her flatmate Mavis (Alice Haig) about her imminent marriage. She has been engaged to Michael (Justin Avoth) while he was away in Sudan and he is returning after three years apart for their wedding. But Cecily and Mavis have won £50,000 between them and Cecily now seems to prefer the attractions of adventure and travel to marriage and Wimbledon. Just at this moment into her life walks the exciting American traveller Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum). Goodbye poor dependable, dull Michael, hello Mrs Cecily Lovell.
Within minutes of Lovell coming on stage we are in no doubt there is a sinister side to his story. Bailey has us recoil as Lovell sniffs Cecily’s underwear behind her back. Instead of an immediate adventure he takes his new bride off to some remote cottage in Sussex (warning light), with no telephone (more warning lights), inexplicably not allowed in the basement of the cottage (oh dear no) and signing off on documents she doesn’t even check through (what is wrong with this woman?).
Mike Britton’s clever set allows us to observe how the ever-creepy Lovell keeps a watchful eye on Cecily. Split sets mean we see him waiting in hallways or opaque screens show him listening to her conversations from the tops of stairs. Cecily finds herself both geographically and emotionally cut off from everyone affording no protection from Lovell’s emotional manipulation.
As a study in psychological abuse, this play has the basics for a great chilling thriller but there isn’t enough going on otherwise for a full-length play. To compound this, so much is revealed about Lovell’s character right at the beginning which seems an odd decision. As a result, the play feels rather lightweight in content and much of the suspense was gone early in the first half while we wait for the inevitable. Just in the last few minutes, things take an exciting turn, but by then we had been waiting a long time.
The characters appear even more one dimensional than usual for a Christie plot. Credit to the cast to avoid cliché without much else to help them through the night but the Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard clipped accents straight from Brief Encounter take them dangerously close. All in all, not quite enough to keep even Christie fans satisfied.
Reviewed on 30 May 2018 | Image: Contributed