DramaReviewSouth East

The Unexpected Guest – The Mill at Sonning

Writer: Agatha Christie

Director: Brian Blessed

Reviewer: Christie-Luke Jones

The Unexpected Guest is a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery set in a fog-shrouded 1950’s South Wales. One-time big-game hunter Richard Warwick, now in a wheelchair after having been mauled by a lion in Kenya, is found dead in his study by Michael Starkwedder (Séan Browne), the show’s staccato-voiced titular character. What unfolds is a grippingly labyrinthine tale of ulterior motives, family politics, and convoluted pasts.

Dinah England’s set design is meticulously arresting, instantly transporting the audience into Richard Warwick’s inner sanctum – a spacious study housing an unsettlingly narcissistic mix of gruesome hunting trophies and opulent period furnishings. England’s impressive attention to detail serves to bottle the very essence of the show’s recently-departed Mr Warwick, which acts as a pleasingly atmospheric accoutrement to Christie’s many-headed narrative.

Director Brian Blessed’s ensemble cast fully commits to the obvious anachronisms of its characters, striking a deft balance between seemingly self-aware humour and head-in-hands, door-slamming melodrama.

There are some definite stand-out performances here – Browne’s tweely charismatic portrayal of the handsome, floppy-haired Starkwedder is eminently watchable. Think the best bits of Clark Gable mixed with the worst, but ultimately the most entertaining, bits of William Shatner – it’s James T. Kirk with a clipped British accent and it guides the audience wide-eyed through Christie’s twisting narrative from start to finish.

Luke Barton is equally impressive as the deceased’s younger half-brother Jan Warwick, a curious and kind-natured young man with an intellectual disability, tormented by his older half-sibling’s cruel threats to have him ‘locked away’. Barton has clearly invested a lot of time into both the vocal and physical intricacies of his character, and as a result enjoys perhaps some of the most successful dramatic moments the production has to offer. Jan’s conflicted emotional state, in which he swings abruptly between a want to emulate the blood-soaked, gun-toting masculinity of the late Richard Warwick and a burning hate for his cruel treatment at the hands of his late half-brother, is a truly gripping spectacle. Barton blends Jan’s child-like excitability with a distinctly adult undertone of corrosive resentment, and in doing so presents a character with a level of depth unrivalled elsewhere in the show.

In terms of the show’s comedic success, George Telfer does a lot of the heavy lifting as the late Richard Warwick’s valet Henry Angell. Telfer is deliciously deadpan as the well-spoken, well-travelled Angell, who slowly and fastidiously unpacks his motives with a feather-like subtlety that often has the audience in stitches. Particularly hilarious is his scene with Julian Farrar MP, played by Patrick Myles, in which Telford abandons Angell’s usual emotional distance to make some very direct accusations – all with pinpoint comedic timing and impressive attention to physical minutiae.

Admittedly, the show is not without its minor flaws. Police duo Sergeant Cadwallader and Inspector Thomas (played by Alexander Neal and Noel White respectively) fall somewhat short in their attempts at emulating a comedic back-and-forth akin to that of iconic pairings such as The Two Ronnies. The essential ingredients are all there – a somewhat bumbling local sergeant and his despairing superior – but for some reason the punchlines are delivered with a flatness and a lack of commitment to the bit that results in the jokes ultimately missing their mark. It’s a shame, as both Neal and White are talented character actors, as demonstrated by their competent performances in the show’s more dramatic scenes.

Lastly, there’s an unfortunate moment in which the hitherto atmospheric bank of fog is allowed to seep rather too quickly through the open windows of the late Mr Warwick’s study. This is by all means a minor critique, but the obvious smoke-machine moment did temporarily spoil the show’s otherwise flawless staging.

Runs until: 28 July 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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