Murder, Marple and Me

Philip Meeks
Gilded Balloon
Ambassadors Thestre

Janet Prince as Margaret Rutherford
Janet Prince as Agatha Christie
Janet Prince as the narrator

Philip Meek’s play begins on the first day of shooting for the first of the Miss Marple movies in which the long-established British actress Margaret Rutherford was cast as the aging female amateur detective created by Agatha Christie. Rutherford, dozing in her dressing room, is having a nightmare about when she was a little girl in India and from there it follows the relationship between actress and writer to reveal some of Rutherford’s secrets.

Rutherford, known for her comic qualities with her tremulous voice, quivering jaw and solid, stooping figure did not want to play Miss Marple. She publicly called Christie’s murder mysteries sordid, though it turned out she had never ready any of them, and Christie was horrified at the idea of her being cast. This certainly was not the “diminutive and bird-like“ ageing villager, based on her own grandmother, whom she had created in her fiction.

It was probably the need to pay back tax that forced Rutherford to accept the role and probably, having sold the rights, Christie had no control over casting. She did however, visit the studios and Rutherford, aware of their mutual antagonism, invited her to tea. From that a kind of friendship grew and Christie became determined to discover the reason for Rutherford’s feelings about her detective stories.

Janet Prince plays both women. Wearing the same dress and wig she switches not only from writer to actress but also becomes another character who acts as an occasional narrator to the story, often addressing the audience from the chair where she is comfortably knitting when not sipping from a glass of sherry. She doesn’t give her name but says we know her well, we’ll have seen her on the television. No, it is not the actress playing herself but the fictional Miss Marple as Christie originally conceived her.

Miss Price does not give us an imitation of Margaret Rutherford as she was seen by the public that inevitably would seem like caricature but she creates her own version of this eccentric lady with her family of small stuffed toy animals, including one from a supposed Jordanian prince who appeared to have a romantic attachment to her.

She tells us of her marriage to fellow actor the devoted Stringer Davies and how he kept a letter from John Gielgud in the pocket of a jacket that he wanted buried with him—and how she had removed “Johnnie’s" letter and replaced it with one that said even more shocking things. Stringer would always greet her stubbornly erect—she called him Tuft, after that piece of hair that was always upright—but you can’t help feeling she is being deliberately wicked. As well as being eccentric, this woman is funny and delightful when she attempts to do the twist.

Price’s Christie is a straight-backed contrast and more posh but probing. The secrets she learns in confidence are now public but not well-known so I’m not going to say more about them. They are surprising and their unearthing gives the second act extra interest. However, running only about 75 minutes with a brief interval we learn little about Christie herself.

It is difficult to create mood and involvement with a character when the writing is mainly telling rather than doing and fractured by moving around in time and between dressing room, writer’s study and Marple’s fireside, with the performer switching from character to character speaking directly to the audience and, when reporting a piece of conversation, taking up opposite positions to voice each speaker, playing both sides of a conversation.

Stella Duffy’s production adds occasional music to support atmosphere but at the performance I saw it seemed ill-timed and counter-productive. More importantly, the Ambassador’s high stage, I think made even higher for Stomp (which plays other nights at the theatre), creates a separation from the audience which is difficult to bridge, despite this being a comparatively small theatre. This feels like an intimate production that has had to up its energy and has not yet adjusted to this theatre.

Murder, Marple and Me plays on Tuesdays and Wednesday only.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton