Brian Blessed was 16 when he was cast as Edward Angkatell in Agatha Christie's 1951 play The Hollow at the Mexborough Theatre Guild in Yorkshire. Many decades have passed since then, but you get the impression that this production of The Hollow at The Mill at Sonning, Blessed's stage directing debut, probably isn't all that different from his first experience of the play. Not that that's a problem per se – you don't go and see a Christie country house murder mystery if you're looking for a cutting edge night at the theatre.
What Blessed has created, with the help of set designer Dinah England, lighting designer Matthew Biss and sound designer Matt Smee is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable whodunit with a generous smattering of laughs and a successfully pulled off switcheroo.
The laughs are largely reliant on Hildegard Neil in the role of Lady Angkatell, the "batty" but charming hostess of The Hollow, a suburban villa outside London where the housemaid still brings breakfast in bed and weekend guests still dress for dinner. Neil, who happens to be married to Blessed, gets all Christie's best lines and delivers them with considerable panache. "The worst of murder is that it upsets the servants so much," she says, shortly after discovering that one of her guests, a distant cousin by the name of Dr John Christow, has been shot by person or persons unknown.
Emily Stride has a good time with John's spineless wife Gerda and Leanne Rowe is all attitude as Veronica Craye, the Hollywood film star who just happens to be renting the cottage down the lane. But not all the casting is so successful. Jason Riddington lacks the charisma to make John a believable love interest, a problem for a plot that hinges on jealousy and revenge. And Rosalind Blessed (Blessed and Neil's daughter) never feels quite at home in the role of Henrietta Angkatell, another cousin down for the weekend, who also happens to be having an affair with John.
Plenty of Christie's dialogue is pretty creaky, but there's fun to be had in the business of the servants (George Telfer as Gudgeon the butler and Angharad Berrow as housemaid Doris are a cheery double act) and in Inspector Colquhoun's (an able Noel White) eventual unravelling of the mystery. This show won't be rocking anyone's world, but if you find yourself in the vicinity of The Mill at Sonning this summer, you won't regret joining Blessed on this light-hearted trip down memory lane.
The Hollow runs at the Mill at Sonning until 27 August.