Black Coffee (Cambridge)
Be careful in your choice of after-dinner beverage! Black coffee is not to be recommended. Unless, of course, it comes in the shape of Agatha Christie's 1930 play of the same name
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company does very well by its titular author's first original work for the stage. Black Coffee in Joe Harmston's stylish production has a fantastic Art Déco set by Simon Scullion (inspired surely by the Courtaulds' Eltham Palace mansion) and attractive costumes for the women by Nikki Bird (which do sacrifice naturalism for a degree of sheer theatrical flair).
Scientist and inventor Sir Claud Amory – not the most sympathetic of brothers, fathers or hosts in Ric Recate's portrayal – has just finished dinner. At table were his sister (the slightly vague Caroline), his son Richard and daughter-in-law Lucia, his niece Barbara, his put-upon secretary Edward Raynor and an Italian visitor Dr Carelli. Now they gather in the drawing-room for coffee.
Sir Claud has a couple of unpleasant surprises for those present. When he is discovered to have died somewhat suddenly, among those concerned to get to the truth of the matter are the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and his friend Captain Hastings.
In the latter role Robin McCallum is mainly called on to act as a sounding board for everyone else, while maintaining the traditional military man's stiff upper lip. Only Felicity Houlbrooke's Barbara, a thoroughly modern miss, provokes a slight thaw. Unfortunately, this all-but wrecks one of Poirot's clever plans to trap the murderer.
Robert Powell takes centre stage as Poirot from his first entrance. It's a convincing portrait of a man who is both an outsider and insider in the social circles of his adoptive country. Liza Goddard fluffs engagingly as Caroline while Olivia Mace has the right intensity for Lucia, another person who is both in and outside her new family.
Richard Amory, as Ben Nealon shows us, is genuinely in love with his wife. It is natural therefore that he bristles at the thought, let alone actual presence, of Gary Mavers' Carelli. Into the third act stomps Eric Carte as Inspector Japp, all no-nonsense professionalism – albeit in a raincoat stuffed full of prejudices.
In Edward Raynor, Mark Jackson gives a characterisation of a man with many ambitions, and as many grudges. John Ashby is the doctor who confirms that death was indeed by poison and Martin Carroll's brisk butler suggests a man unlikely to remain in service once he can escape.
Black Coffee continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 January and tours nationally until 19 July.