Writer: Agatha Christie and Gerald Verner
Director: Brian Blessed
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Towards Zero is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenious mysteries, a seaside tale of family dispute, inheritance troubles and competing wives. The Mill at Sonning has made these stories a regular part of its summer season and now Brian Blessed directs a version adapted by Christie and writer Gerald Verner for the stage.
At Gull’s Point, the clifftop home of Lady Tressilian, guests gather for an end of season holiday including her nephew Nevile Strange, his current wife Kay and his former spouse Audrey, along with family friends and retainers. Tensions rise and a brutal murder takes place with all the evidence pointing in one clear direction, but are they being framed and who really stands to benefit?
This1956 stage adaptation is based on Christie’s own 1944 novel is rendered here with neat art deco touches by designer Dinah England who creates the stationary living room of Lady Tressilian’s home with elegance. Woven carefully into every aspect of the set are timepieces or Roman numeral characters from a clock face which decorate the raised platform to a bay window, an arch around the door as well as pocket-watches and clocks on the wallpaper – why, well that would spoilt the story.
Blessed’s direction is quite understated and the three Act structure gives Towards Zero a feeling of being entirely from another era, so while we may now expect to see our murders quickly, in grisly detail and preferable more than one, Christie makes us wait until the middle of Act Two for a single crime to be committed. It makes the 50-minutes of the first Act a little lethargic at times as characters and relationships are established with little happening – something which TV adaptations are better able to overcome with changing locations and intercutting drama.
But the second half is far more gripping as the detectives asses the evidence while conducting interviews with the main suspects. Blessed elicits a great deal of tension from these exchanges as Christie’s slippery tale morphs into a variety of shapes before our eyes. The final denouement does everything you could want from the genre, a gathering of the cast, a full explanation of how the facts actually fit together and a last minute twist in the tale that earns a few gasps from the audience.
Towards Zero’sbiggest issue is that its main character seems to lack the darkly attractive charisma and fascination that becomes so vital to the story. Rob Heanley never seems like a man torn between his two wives or irresistible enough for them to be fighting over him. Why either Mrs Strange is there at all is unfathomable, which rather dilutes the purpose of Christie’s bluff and double bluff formula.
In a story that focuses on their machinations, it is the female characters that this production draws particularly well. Kate Tydman is especially good as the placid and restrained Audrey, an almost ethereal presence, her containment and quiet suffering are particularly well conveyed. Bethan Nash captures the sulky annoyance of Kay but finds some sympathy for her fish-out-of-water experience as she feels her husband fading away, while Hildegard Neil suggest the fidgety concern of Lady Tressilian bringing the much-needed sense of foreboding.
There is a lot of humour in this production – sometimes in the strangest places – with a minor but amusing turn from Chris Pybus as Inspector Leach, while gravitas comes from his uncle Superintendent Battle (George Telfer) and Noel White’s Mr Treves who becomes pivotal to the eventual solution.
With a two-course meal included in the ticket price, a visit to the charming Mill at Sonning is a complete experience that is not solely about the play, but the complexities of Towards Zerotranslate well to the stage and are directed with a pleasing clarity by Blessed. Drawn in perhaps by the beautiful poster art for this show, Christie fans will enjoy a step back in time to a different era of crime-solving, while those new to the play should prepared to be amazed by her twisted genius.
Runs Until: 28 September 2019 | Image: Andreas Lambis