Spider’s Web (Tour – Oxford)

There is clearly a large market for Agatha Christie and her works. On a sweltering evening here in Oxford, the Playhouse was filled with people eager to see the latest tour by The Agatha Christie Theatre Company – Spider’s Web. From the warm applause at the end of the evening, the vast majority of the audience went away happy with the experience.

Why, then, am I left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the evening?

Christie is known for the strength of her plotting rather than the depth of her characterisation. Outside of her main detectives, her works seem to be peopled by rather two-dimensional archetypes rather than living, breathing participants. Within the confines of the Golden Age of crime fiction, this works just fine. However when her plotting is not at its best, the characterisation is often insufficient to sustain interest for long.

I fear that Dame Agatha was not at her best when she constructed the plot for Spider’s Web. It feels almost as fragile as a real web and with as many holes. Although at the end of the first two acts I was not certain who was responsible, a couple of very obvious clues early in the final act made the denouement predictable rather than thrilling.

The play is notable in that it combines murder mystery with comedy. This production, directed by Joe Harmston, seizes on this and runs with it – a little too enthusiastically. At times, there is so much hamming up on stage that you would imagine that there was a pork pie on every chair. All too often the cast indulge in some dreadfully coarse attempts at comedy that undermines the rest of the play. It does not exactly ruin the evening – it just causes you to wince from time to time.

Not all the performances descend into caricature. Melanie Gutteridge has a fine time as Clarissa, a woman who just loves to tell stories. She captures the slightly arch air that is necessary to make the combination of crime and comedy work. Bruce Montague is another who is able to find the right balance in his portrayal of Clarissa’s protective guardian. As the rather confused detective, Denis Lill conveys the right blend of disbelief and growing frustration at the increasingly exaggerated behaviour of Clarissa and her well-meaning but misguided accomplices.

As I said, the audience seemed to love the performance and so my reaction could be somewhat at odds with the majority view. However it felt that the director had layered on additional, slightly crass, attempts at humour on a play that was not robust enough to withstand the comedic onslaught. A more delicate approach would have paid greater dividends – if you are too rough with a web, it will simply collapse.

It is still a pleasantly diverting evening in the theatre – just not Christie at her best.