Serving a very satisfying brew

Black Coffee

Wolverhampton Grand

****

THERE is a formula for Agatha Christ murder mysteries and this one has all the elements in place – including a real formula for an atomic bomb.

There is the requisite society setting, in this case the library at Abbot's Cleve, the home of world renowned physicist – and window lock inventor - Sir Claud Amory, just outside London.

Then we need a mysterious stranger, a Johnny Foreigner no less, which is tantamount to proof of guilt in itself; then underlying currents and agendas to give just about everyone on stage a motive; and finally enough red herrings to stock Grimsby fish market and a distinct lack of clues as to the real murderer until he, or she, is revealed by brilliant deduction to which we have not been party.

All good fun and excellently executed in this fine production from Bill Kenwright and The Agatha Christie Theatre Company.

This was the first play Christie wrote herself, apparently as a result of her being unhappy at earlier attempts by others to dramatize her novels. It is also the only time she allowed Hercule Poirot, a character she did not really like, to appear in one of her own stage plays.

It was premiered in 1930  and designer Simon Scullion has done a fine job with a period Art Deco set which along with Nikki Bird’s costumes sets the scene as soon as the curtain rises and before a word is spoken - you immediately know both the era and the social class you are dealing with and one in which Monsieur Poirot  will be most at home.

More coffee ladies: Miss Caroline (Liza Goddard), Lucia (Olivia Mace) and Barbara (Felicity Houlbrooke)

With the stage set next comes the introductions with first Olivia Mace as the rather sweet and emotional Lucia, Italian wife of Sir Claud’ s son Richard who is obviously upset at the appearance of mysterious Italian stranger Dr Carelli played by Gary Mavers.

Carelli knows her of old but there is something rather sinister about their relationship, something it might need a world famous detective to unravel. Carelli’s accent gets in the way of the words at times but he everyone’s credible suspect, what with being foreign and all.

Then there is the talkative (as in hind legs and probably front legs as well off the proverbial donkey) Miss Caroline, Sir Claud’s sister played with the delightful assurance of experience by Liza Goddard and the flighty Barbara, Sir Claude’s niece, played with bubbly enthusiasm by Felicity Houlbrooke who is just a little too worldly wise for Miss Caroline.

Sir Claud’s son Richard, played by Ben Nealon, seems a bit quick to jump to conclusions and a bit insecure – not surprising as Sir Claud keeps him on a tight financial leash.

Then there is the patriarch and soon to be murder victim Sir Claud, filthy rich, gruff, tough and played by Ric Recate.

Having had Tredwell the butler, played by Martin Carroll, lock all the doors he makes a startling announcement – one of the last things he says and one that heralds the arrival of Hercule Poirot and his faithful assistant Captain Hastings, played with capital vagueness by Robin McCallum. The household is complete with personal secretary Edward Raynor, flitting around in the background played by Mark Jackson.

A tidy mind: the fastidious Hercule Poirot in the capable, and no doubt well manidured, hands of Robert Powell

Poirot, first played on stage by Charles Laughton incidentally, is not the easiest of roles having Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney and most recently David Suchet in its screen CV but Robert Powell makes the dapper, diminutive Belgian detective his own, even throwing in a little humour here and there, including the playful end, to lighten the drama. His accent is enough to make you think Belgian without needing a translator’s ear to follow what he is saying and the result is such a polished performance that even Christie might have found a new fondness for the detective she disliked so much.

Poirot had arrived to solve the first crime and finds himself embroiled in a second, as well as solving a third in a sort of three for two detective’s bonus offer.

The amazing thing about the drawing room dramas is the speed, or lack of it, with which the police, invariably Scotland Yard, appear when a murder is discovered, leaving Poirot in charge for hours of course.

Eventually Insp Japp of the Yard turns up, played with a moustache of authority by Eric Carte, and his appearance is only because he happened to be clearing up another case in the neighbourhood,. He arrives with Pc Johnson, Kieran Moloney seemingly happy that the Yard’s role in these affairs is largely assisting the good Hercule who builds his case meticulously from the tiniest of clues – some so small the audience never see them.

Directed by Joe Harmston this is a well paced production and three acts, instead of the usual two, means that there are two opportunities to create a climax for the audience to discuss their theories of whodunit over speedily quaffed drinks and ice creams in the two 10 minute intervals.

With an elegant and very solid appearing set, a well managed plot and fine acting this is the best Agatha Christie production I have seen for some time keeping you guessing to the end.

Roger Clarke

And asking for a refill in the corner . . .

****

WELL, that’s one problem solved then. Could anyone step into the shoes, or wear that unique moustache, of super sleuth Hercule Poirot with as much style and comfort as David Suchet?

After the opening night performance of what was Agatha Christie’s first play, the verdict is unanimous. Much loved award-winning actor Robert Powell ticks all the boxes.

The man who starred opposite Jasper Carrott in the hit BBC TV comedy, the Detectives, is in a much more serious role as the immaculately dressed Belgian detective, and he carries it off with aplomb.

The foreces of law and order: Insp Japp (Eric Carte), Poirot and Hastings (Robin McCallum)

Powell produces a suitable accent as he stalks the stage investigating the apparent poisoning of eccentric inventor Sir Claud Amory and the theft of his earth shattering formula. Every glance, shrug or glare is convincing, so that even the most ardent Suchet fan would feel satisfied.

As usual there are several suspects in the outstanding cast, in addition to dodgy clues as Poirot arrives at Sir Claud’s English country estate and begins to find whodunit, and you can only wonder how he knows what he knows. Who knows?

By the time the police turn up in the shape of Inspector Japp (Eric Carte), sporting a bigger, if not better, moustache than Hercule, the Belgian has already got is man...or woman, in his sights.

The play includes many humourous scenes as well as drama, with members of the posh family dismissing suspicious Italian, Dr Carelli (Gary Mavers) as naturally inferior to the English, much to the amusement of Poirot.

A lovely performance from Liza Goddard as Sir Claud’s sister, Caroline, and fine contributions from Olivia Mace (Lucia Amory), Ben Nealon (Lucia’s husband, Richard) and Robin McCallum (Captain Arthur Hastings).

Directed by Joe Harmston, the Agatha Christie Theatre Company’s production is given added strength by a superb set. To 08.02.14

Paul Marston

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