Murder on Air

Agatha Christie
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Derby Theatre and touring
(2009)

Publicity graphic

At long last! After only one production in nearly two years, the former Derby Playhouse has reopened under new management and with a new name. The University of Derby has bought the lease of the building which will now be used for professional touring and amateur shows as well as being home to the university's theatre arts programme.

Derby Theatre, as it's now known, has started without an ostentatious, headline-grabbing programme. An amateur presentation last week preceded the first touring production to visit the theatre since before the management team of Stephen Edwards and Karen Hebden took over in 2002.

On the face of it, the Agatha Christie Theatre Company's latest offering Murder On Air might seem a strange choice to drop into the season for a three-night run.

The three plays which make up Murder On Air are virtually unknown and were written for BBC radio. The company performs them on a set which resembles a radio studio, with the men wearing black tie and the women cocktail dresses. They all read from a script and there's a foley artist who's kept very busy producing sound effects. It sounds odd but it works extremely well on stage.

Two of the plays, Personal Call and Butter in a Lordly Dish, are not typical Christie whodunits but feature miscarriages of justice and a desire for revenge. The third opus, The Yellow Iris, which Miss Christie also wrote as a short story and a novel, involves Hercule Poirot's arrival at a restaurant unable to prevent a crime but swiftly unmasking the evil villain.

Roy Marsden is impeccable in three different roles, as troubled James Brent in Personal Call who receives a phone call from his first wife who's been dead for more than a year; as the unflappable Poirot in The Yellow Iris; and as a philandering barrister in Butter in a Lordly Dish.

Susan Penhaligon is delightful opposite him, especially as the new Mrs Brent when she's ever so slightly over the top without turning the character into a parody of a societal lady.

I found it eminently enjoyable watching the supporting cast portraying the minor characters with gusto and also realistically recreating the noise of a party and the goings-on at a busy railway station.

Louise Faulkner shows she has a good singing voice during The Yellow Iris which is set in a restaurant while Alexander S Bermange accompanies her. He's an accomplished pianist but he excels in his other role, producing a succession of sound effects, opening and shutting doors, chinking glasses and making telephones ring.

The three plays in Murder On Air were written between 1937 and 1954. To some people, they may seem dated. Occasionally Miss Christie takes liberties: the denouement of Personal Call is clever but a little contrived and parts of Butter in a Lordly Dish are predictable. However, the plays are well plotted, there's tight direction from Joe Harmston and occasionally there's comedy which the author might not have intended.

The only downside was there weren't many in the audience on the first night. You would have thought that names such as Marsden and Penhaligon performing in a prestigious company would have been enough to attract theatre-starved Derbeians. It may be a long time before Derby Theatre attracts the sort of audiences it used to pull in during its heyday.

"Murder On Air" runs at Derby Theatre until 14th and tours to the Connaught Theatre, Worthing from 15th to 17th October

Reviewer: Steve Orme