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Murder on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie, adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig
Chichester Festival Theatre
Festival Theatre, Chichester

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Henry Goodman as Hercule Poirot Credit: Johan Persson
Henry Goodman as Hercule Poirot and Patrick Robinson as Monsieur Bouc Credit: Johan Persson
Laura Rogers as Countess Helena Andrenyi and Henry Goodman as Hercule Poirot Credit: Johan Persson

One would think that Murder On The Orient Express had been done to death. Versions with Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet have explored its depths, not to mention Kenneth Branagh’s highly technical film. Chichester, however, is never at a loss; this must be the first version of the Orient Express to take to the stage, and what an undertaking, what a challenge. Ken Ludwig’s superb adaptation has breathed new life into it as well as adding a lot more humour to the dialogue, so there are plenty of laughs as we try to puzzle out who is who and why they are travelling on this train.

It’s a very complicated story, all referring back to the little girl we met briefly at the beginning, and the adaptation has lost some of the characters (I’m pleased to say) but made up for that by engaging a veritable army of an ensemble who do terrific work with exquisitely choreographed scene changing (movement Lucy Hind) whisking tables, chairs and whole train carriages to their respective places with panache as if it’s all a dance.

Robert Jones’s set design is a miracle of ingenuity too. The café in Istanbul only needs a slight movement of a pillar to become again the railway tunnel where a practically life-sized engine is panting to get going while the passengers are milling around on the platform and we get to know them and their characters a little, notably that of Samuel Ratchett (Timothy Watson), who succeeds in creating a thoroughly obnoxious character believing his money will buy him anything. Surely he can’t last long.

It is apparently unusual to find the train so full at this time of year (winter) and Poirot has not booked, but luckily his friend Monsieur Bouc, director of the Compagnie International des Wagons-Lits (Patrick Robinson), is overseeing the passengers boarding his train. I liked the easy camaraderie between the two as a berth in a first class carriage is arranged, also bringing in the fact that Poirot likes his creature comforts.

A murder takes place—well there had to be one—and there are various clues to help, or hinder, the investigation. A pipe cleaner is found by the body but no pipe; a handkerchief is dropped, and a scrap of paper is found to contain a clue; a button from a uniform is found but no uniform is missing one. Also, how had the killer got into the compartment? There are no footprints in the snow—which had been falling heavily. It had to be someone on the train.

Henry Goodman is magnificent as Poirot, absolutely perfect in every way. Every tilt of the head, raised eyebrow, annoyed rustle of newspaper together with the prissy little walk brings the essence of Agatha’s Christie’s vain little man to life and, perhaps surprisingly, he is twitching with excitement and anticipation when about to see Laura Rogers’s Countess Helena Andrenyi… could this develop into a love story?

Poirot of course uses his ‘little grey cells’, gathers all the passengers together to announce his verdict and I have never seen such a dramatically stunning dénouement as he confronts each one in turn—music and sound playing a big part here, (Adrian Sutton and Christopher Shutt) as they have throughout—but we haven’t quite finished yet. There is a moral dilemma to confront. Should all details be passed to the law, which Poirot firmly believes is the correct thing to do, but is this really justice? The audience holds its collective breath awaiting the verdict.

Jonathan Church’s production has provided a truly memorable theatrical experience, keeping tension and anticipation high. All the cast perform brilliantly, but it is Henry Goodman who leads every moment to the highest level.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor