People’s Theatre, Newcastle.
After having watched the 1980 film of ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ just the other night, I was very much in the mood for more Agatha Christie and was looking forward to this People’s production when it opened this week. All in all, it’s fair to say that I wasn’t disappointed.
The play is Christie’s own adaptation from her 1942 Poirot novel ‘Five Little Pigs’, although in this version she chose to replace her most famous detective with a solicitor who decides to take on the task of assisting the lead character, Carla le Marchant. Having received a letter from her mother who has died in prison, Carla wants to get to the bottom of the mystery of who really murdered her father sixteen years previously – the murder of whom her mother was found guilty. Apparently the reason for inventing this solicitor character rather than using Poirot was that Christie wanted to introduce a love interest into the story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite shine through here. It is so underplayed and underwhelming that there doesn’t appear any real spark of attraction to speak of between the two characters.
The title of the original American imprint of the novel was ‘Murder In Retrospect’, which gives a clue as to the structure of the play. Act One, taking place in 1952, shows us five scenes in five different locations, in which, one by one, Carla speaks to each of the five suspects to get their version of the events that took place sixteen years previously. She then persuades them all to meet at the scene of the crime to re-enact the events. As a result, the first half is all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’, in which a lot of people sit down in various chairs and describe their recollections of what happened. This can, and does, work fine in a prose novel, but is a much trickier sell on stage, where it needs pace, energy, and plenty of movement. Again, there isn’t really much of any in evidence here.
Act Two, however, comes alive when we actually see the scenes from the past played out (with the daughter now taking the part of her mother) and we witness the events leading up to and just beyond the murder. Arguments explode, tantrums are thrown, secret love affairs are played out, philandering husbands are confronted, fingerprints are wiped from items of incriminating evidence. This is more like it. The action rattles along – helped in no small part by the appearance on stage of Keith Wigham as the murdered father, renowned artist Amyas Crale. Wigham’s skill, stage presence, and boundless energy – not to mention the small matter of actually making his every word audible (a skill not every actor on the stage was able to display) – goes a long way towards turning the second half almost into a different production. There are some very good performances throughout though, notably by the older members of the cast. And one or two wandering accents don’t distract too much from the enjoyment of the play.
A nifty and attractive set design by Sands Dobson helps the change of locations flow seamlessly in act one, before reinventing itself cleverly into the country house scene-of-crime in the second act.
The play runs until Saturday 20 Jan, and is well worth a look for any fan of Agatha Christie or of the whodunit in general.
(originally posted 17 January 2018)