The title is best known as the movie in which Basil Rathbone stars as a sinister lothario with a penchant for wealthy single women, but the delightful dinner theatre in Berkshire reverts to the Agatha Christie short story, Philomel Cottage, and presents the 1934 fiction with a straight face and a no-nonsense new dramatisation by Louise Page.
One-time fringe firebrand Andy de la Tour directs and has no qualms about letting the stilted, under-populated plot unravel in a cosy country cottage designed by Terry Parsons to resemble an under-dressed setting in a repertory theatre circa 1954.
There’s a painted view of green fields, a chin-high mantelpiece for two candlesticks, potted plants around the periphery and a lot of brown and beige wall space. The cottage has been taken by fresh-faced, blonde Alix (Chloe Newsome) who is emotionally flanked by two colleagues in her shipping office in town: big, sweaty Dick (Peter Moreton) and scheming devil-woman Fran (Dido Miles).
Alix has come into some money, cue handsome playboy Gerald Martin (David Michaels) with a weak heart and a penchant for spending time in the dark room in the cellar. Dick refuses to marry Alix and live off her money. Alix states her intention of marrying Gerald when he recites Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love,” in full. Even then, she still dreams of Dick, who’s also targeted by Fran.
So Fran mixes a gossip cocktail and we start noticing possible murder weapons: a hammer, a pruning knife, a chiffon scarf and a garden spade. Added to which, Alix, like Agatha Christie herself, has history as a pharmacist’s assistant in the war, so potions could figure, too.
The plot consists of some pretty contrived comings and goings while a creepy old gardener (Struan Rodger) switches a work day, along with his Mummetshire accent, because of the village fete and precipitates Alix’s discovery of Gerald’s diary. And what’s all this about deep digging?
The time is the spring and summer of 1932, but beyond the hem-lines and a name-check for Diana Cooper, the script is almost completely devoid of period charm. Christie was no Coward, that’s for sure.
Still, it’s all fairly well done, with a quick clatter of surprises and a sudden burst of psychotic “mad” acting, all gibber and no guts. And there are worse theatres to visit as the days draw out dreamily by this enchanted stretch of the river.