Ten little thriller boys

vast of and then there were none

Guests to a cull with the cast of And then there were none. Pictures: Pamela Raith

And then there were none

Coventry Belgrade

****

IF you want to catch a good thriller, even today you can scarcely do better than ever-reliable Agatha Christie.

And if you want to catch that authentic Christie feel, then who better today than the authentic Agatha Christie Company? The versatile touring ensemble was devised nearly a decade ago by Bill Kenright.

Directed on each occasion by the masterful Joe Harmston, a seasoned Christie expert, this is surely the ensemble to give you the real, traditional flavour of the good dame’s wily, elusive, and intriguing plots.

Simon Scullion’s partly Art Deco set places the action comfortably in the end 1930s, which is when this reading of And Then There Were None (the company also toured this play in 2008, before Witness for the Prosecution, Murder on the Nile and several others) is set.

Harmston’s director’s notes are exemplary in giving the appropriate historical feel, and laying out how the play, which Agatha Christie scripted herself based on her 1939 novel, hit the London stage (St. James’s, then the heftier Cambridge Theatre) in 1943, with one or two major changes (a love finale) to allow for wartime sensitivities; others are necessary today; then reached New York’s Broadway within weeks of the 1944 Normandy landings. And was thrice filmed (1945/65/75), with varying levels of success. 

Having taken so much trouble over her text, Christie rightly saw it as one of her most successful plots, in which ten characters in an isolated venue are wiped out one by one: a kind of reversal of Murder on the Orient Express: here the personnel are extinguished one after another; in the former, almost all the characters are the perpetrators.

Joe Harmston’s production, like the set, is deliberately relatively straightforward, amusing, periodically fast-moving and fun. Several of the demises of the hapless guilty victims are played as frankly comic and lightweight. Possibly here and there, it lightens the drama too much.

The moments Harmston rightly and highly successfully saves for the greatest tension centres on two cogently played characters, Paul Nicholas as the High Court judge, Sir Lawrence Wargrave, and former soldier Captain Philip Lombard (Ben Nealon). Both give hugely vivid, confident performances from start to finish.

As Christies aficionados and readers of the novel will know, each of the ten disparate characters, including the villain/villainess (insomuch as there can be said to be one), is personally and historically flawed; each has already effected, with whatever degree of malignity, a crime that amounts actually or virtually to causing death, though the degree of culpability varies.

Each gives some kind of summary of his or her fault, and either expresses, or does not express, guilt.

There are arguably a few drawbacks: the ‘And then there were none’ poem, though visible to the ten characters on a shabby wall hanging (facing an equart deco setally crinkly painting), is not readable by the audience.

Since each sinister line holds clues to the often grisly method of death, that’s a crucial detail for us and for them. Arguably the sinister proclaimed mode of death should be built up to, artfully designed and prefaced, in every case.

The white statuettes (soldierettes) which crumble one by one – ‘and then there were five’, etc.) are too small, so their removal brings little tension and is understated. Thus two key aspects of the drama are treated casually, even slightly apologetically. The tension is inexplicably played down.

Apart from the impressive grand window at the rear of Act One, which serves mainly as a first entrance for the characters, there is no visually significant or imposing entrance.

Simon Scullion’s partly Art Deco set places the action comfortably in the end 1930s.

All three other routes are side entrances, with nothing distinguishing. So the chances for the discovery of the bodies, or the last chokings of the doomed character him (or her) self, several times pale into insignificance. Are we intended by Christie to find the first death (Paul Hassall’s Anthony Marston, poisoned at the close of Act I) or the third (Eric Carte’s General MacKenzie) just a bit of a hoot? I doubt it.

Susan Penhaligon’s demise (the aged Miss Emily Brent, thought to be dead, then clearly not, then quickly excised by hypodermic) is a good one, precisely because of this unpleasant paradox (is she, isn’t she?), and because her character is so unpleasant and judgmental; the most bizarre, the Judge, is played as a piece of pure Expressionism, swathed in garish scarlet and very effective – and relevant – too.

But the executions of Ethel Rogers (Judith Rae) or her hapless husband, the temporary butler Rogers (Frazer Hines), which offer scope for a modern-style ekkuklema (wheeling out the body, Athens style) or even more the ‘discovery’ of Rogers’s corpse (felled gruesomely by an axe) surely deserved more impact than mere announcement by a third part. The offstage (drowned) Doctor effectively disappears. William Blore, the (as it turns out) ill-fated detective, has been a central figure in the dialogue and remains one of the (seemingly) last three candidates for the killer; yet he too simply disappears. Some of this seems a little lazily conceived; too easy-going.

Such less convincing efforts contrast with the very alive and well managed buildup which Harmston manages at the end: it centres on three characters (though not the policeman), and culminates in three deaths. The dialogue, with elements of monologue, is beautifully managed and delivered. The tension here, partly because of the patent vulnerability of Verity Rushworth (as the attractive young Vera Claythorne), is palpable and dramatic. With elements of the unexpected, and all grippingly directed, these exchanges work tremendously well.

So there at last we were really on the edge of our seats. And enough now of reservations: this was a vividly enjoyable, fun-infused production, given the good, old-fashioned Mousetrap treatment. The packed first night audience at the Belgrade clearly hugely enjoyed it. It’s a touring treat.

Why? Harmston’s carefully handled, well-rehearsed, often inventive cast delivers admirably. Quick cues at the outset from the Butler (Frazer Hines - I remember him from his early teens as a nailbitingly good, spirited TV boy actor), his wife Ethel (Judith Rae).and each new arrivee made for a forceful start. Eric Carte established his old general as such an amusingly crusty comic figure; one was saddened to see him go quite so soon. Paul Hassall managed to render Anthony Marston as a bouncy, pert youth quite the least likely to meet a sticky end. He falls first. That’s another nicely effected bit of paradox, the sort of detail that gives this punchy production its fight and spark.

It has to be said that easily the most strikingly presented sequence early on is the monologue where Paul Nicholas’s shrewd Judge Wargrave seeks to unravel the likely thought behind the terrifying goings-on, and the map out the rationale of the killer.

Because the Judge has a similar unravelling role to play later on, this creates a kind of balance in the drama – a particularly strong matching feature round which the action more or less centres. Each of the dramatic scenes is both inspiring and chilling: wisdom and uncanny insight fused with unease.

I’d like to have seen more of Jan Knightley (here in the affable small role of Fred Narracott), here a kind of glorified delivery boy - possibly understudy - but who has a distinct presence and strong speech. Mark Curry produced a slightly dotty, clearly conscience-ridden Doctor Armstrong. More forcible was Colin Buchanan’s blunt detective, unearthed early on and particularly strong on terse one- or two-liners as the action builds up.

But it is the splendid doggedness of Ben Nealon’s Philip Lombard, determined to penetrate the truth and unlucky narrowly to fail in his quest, whose clarity of delivery and patient searching makes him one of the most attention-deserving characters.

Which leaves Vera. We are so nearly persuaded that the well-meaning, honest-hearted, supportive Vera may, against all expectations, be the secret executioner. And Verity Rushworth’s playing of her – one of a handful of characters memorably well dressed by Costume Designer Roberto Surace – does let us believe she could kill, in the most graphic of ways. The finale, for whatever reason, is hers, and she carries it off winningly and superbly. To 21-02-15

Roderic Dunnett

16-02-15 

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