The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Arts Theatre, Cambridge, and touring
The guests arrive, with initialled luggage, at some old gentleman's country retreat. Everyone praises the country location, there's lots of set up, and then a murder - everyone is suitably shocked, and eventually, the murderer is unmasked and finished off, while in the meantime two of the suspects have realised how much they've loved each other all along.
There's not much interpreting to be done in a production of an Agatha Christie play, as the plot and characters are immutable from production to production - and to some extent, from play to play. There are two choices for the director of this genre - use the production to point out how much of a relic the play itself is, or try to invest proceedings with as much truth and tension as possible.
What The Hollow - the inaugural production of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company - ends up being is a bit of both. Director Joe Harmston and his creative team definitely opt for the tension route: Ian Horrocks-Taylor's sound design is all far-off cars and ominous thunder, and Matt Drury illuminates Simon Scullion's design in a variety of melancholy colours. Scullion's design also seizes on the play's abstract art motif, and tilts the walls violently to one side; so that we, like the admirers of the abstract sculptures in the play, are reminded that things aren't always precisely what they seem.
In fact, though, they are. No amount of polished wood at any angle can make The Hollow seem anything more surprising than the creaky rep thriller which it quite clearly is. And the top-notch cast, whether by direction or intuition, know exactly that, and, fronted by two winning lead performances, turn The Hollow into something solidly watchable. Kate O'Mara, in what might be called an abstract make-up, is hilarious as an dotty, dungareed Lady Angkatell, and Tony Britton as Sir Henry conjures laughs from tiny, insignificant lines with the light touch of a real master. Add an excellent twitchy, nervous performance from Simon Linnell as Edward Angkatell, who inhabits his character to such an extent that he almost makes the rather clunky love plot seem convincing.
Yet when O'Mara and Britton are having great fun giving reppy performances where the actor is more evident than the character (e.g. pointedly firing pay-off lines out front, lots of double takes and raised eyebrows) it seems only too clear that the disposable nature of the play responds much more readily to being sent-up than relied upon.
Fine performances of every archetype from dotty old Lady to overcoated detective then - and a perfectly sincere production of a disposable play. But, when the play itself is the limiting factor, you look at the expensive set, the excellent cast, and the list of top-notch venues receiving this production, and think of the thousands of plays that would far more merit this attention. Why revive The Hollow then? Now that is a mystery.
John Thaxter reviewed this production at the Richmond Theatre
Reviewer: Robert William