Where the London production has largely become part of the capital’s tourist scene, surviving mainly on foreign visitors to keep it going, bringing it out to the regions will no doubt give it a huge shot in the arm, as a whole new audience gets to see this historic whodunit, which practically defined the genre on stage. At the Mayflower Southampton at least, this tour is doing record breaking business that the London production can these days only dream of, and those inspired may just want to check out the original.
Agatha Christie’s sharp and intricate plotting stands the test of time well. She skilfully populates her world with eccentric and suspicious characters, and puts them in a classic country house setting, cut off from the outside world by a convenient snowdrift. Recently married Mollie and Giles Ralston (Jemma Walker and Bruno Langley), open their home as a guest house, and as they welcome their first guests, the snow falls outside, and the radio reports the news of a seemingly unrelated murder that has just been perpetrated 30 miles away in London. On the face of it, the house guests are all lone travellers and unknown to each other; there is the bombastic Major Metcalf (Graham Seed) and the frosty and forthright Mrs Boyle (a nice caricature by Jan Waters), the secretive Miss Casewell (Clare Wilkie), and the highly strung and oddly named young man Christopher Wren (a delightfully skittish and fey Steven France). Add to this, the sudden arrival of the ‘unexpected guest’ Mr Paravicini (Karl Howman) who’s car overturned in the snow, and the dogged detective Sergeant Trotter (Thomas Howes playing for all his worth like a young Colin Baker) - who battles the elements to catch the killer, reaching the house on skies – and the stage is set for a good old fashioned murder mystery.
Directed by Ian Watt-Smith, who also directed the London production in its 58th and 59th years, and with a set identical to Anthony Holland’s 1965 design, which still graces the St Martin’s stage today, purists will delight in this production. For me however it seems a shame that the opportunity was not taken to freshen things up a little. Without the security blanket of being a landmark tourist attraction, and taken out of its historic and intimate spiritual home in the west end the cracks do show and some of the action creaks a little. This does Dame Agatha a disservice as at the time it was written the piece was contemporary and touched on some pretty hard-hitting topics that were daring in popular theatre. Period drama does not have to be a museum piece, and with a touch more irony from the performers, and some sharper direction, this cracking play could be re-invigorated.
British audiences have a seemingly insatiable appetite for all things Agatha Christie, and this production certainly delivers everything you would expect. Having seen it on tour, make the effort to see it in London, where it sits comfortably in context and where it will hopefully continue to baffle and entertain theatre-goers for many years to come.