DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Murder, Margaret and Me – York Theatre Royal

Writer​: Philip Meeks
Director: ​Damian Cruden
Reviewer​: Ron Simpson

Given the potentially fascinating story-line and the writing, directing and acting talent involved, Murder, Margaret and Me should be a truly memorable evening in the theatre. Disappointingly it isn’t, but it is a polished entertainment, cleverly written and beautifully acted.

Initially a rather shorter one-person play staged at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival, Murder, Margaret and Me has been extensively re-written for this, its professional premiere as a three-hander. Its premise is the meeting between Margaret Rutherford and Agatha Christie on the occasion of the first Miss Marple film. Relations could well have been frosty, given that Christie thought Rutherford unsuited to the part and Rutherford hated crime fiction and thought the part beneath her.

Philip Meeks projects an ongoing acquaintance, amounting almost to friendship, between the two women. Remarkably, after writing the earlier version of the play, he found this to be true in essence. In the Meeks version Agatha Christie discerns a deep-lying sadness beneath Margaret Rutherford’s jolly eccentric persona and sets about finding the cause.

In the end, Christie has to swap the truth about her well-known flight to Harrogate with Rutherford’s account of the impact of several domestic tragedies which are unknown to most of us, surprisingly since the story is a remarkable one and was revealed some years ago. The play billing “Agatha Christie turns sleuth” is a little over-stated and the promise of a comedy thriller barely outlives the crash-bash-flashing lights-silhouettes on walls opening.

Philip Meeks’ great inspiration is the creation of a third major character, The Spinster. The personification of the tiny bird-like Miss Marple Christie first imagined, she is superbly played by Andrina Carroll who also contributes two contrasted cameos. The Spinster is a mischievously prim link between audience and stage, between truth and fiction: Christie’s authorial conscience, a teasing narrator of the back-story to Rutherford’s tragedy, a larky go-between to bring the two ladies together.

Nichola McAuliffe (Christie) and Susie Blake (Rutherford) match each other perfectly. Neither attempts an impersonation – that way satire lies – but both manage enough physical and vocal resemblance for us to accept them as the real thing. Both have the wit and precision Meeks’ wordy script requires, both display immaculate timing and the sensitivity to make the most of the script’s more poetic moments.

Two of the problems go back, one suspects, to the play’s one-woman origins. For a play with so little action, there is less dialogue than might be expected; much takes the form of alternating monologues. It’s all good stuff, worth listening to, but dramatic tension is low.

It still seems an intimate piece. Damian Cruden, ingenious as ever, fills the Theatre Royal stage with stagehands bringing on/carrying off doors and windows, walls and props, to create the film set or Margaret Rutherford’s house or simply a sense of busyness. McAuliffe and Blake start the second act with an entertaining double-act on the reasons for a successful marriage, Blake front of curtain, McAuliffe in a stage box – very funny, sharply delivered, but also an attempt to make the play fit the theatre. It never quite does that, but it entertains, amuses, occasionally moves and sends us all to the internet to find out more about Margaret Rutherford’s tragic background.

Runs until 4 March 2017 | Image: Anthony Robling

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