Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Spider's Web

Agatha Christie
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring
(2009)

Production photo

This is the fourth year for the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, formed in association with Bill Kenwright, and with the collaboration and blessing of Christie’s grandson, chairman Matthew Pritchard. Their intention is to produce quality productions of Christie’s work as adapted for the stage by the lady herself. She was a very prolific writer – they will be with us for a long time yet, I am happy to say.

Year one was The Hollow, superbly presented and expertly directed, and performed. Next year’s The Unexpected Guest was, for me, a disappointment, lacking action and credibility, but they were back on form with And Then There Were None. This year’s production is the best ever, and it will be interesting to see if it’s possible to top it for the next one.

In designer Simon Scullion’s impressive and detailed country house drawing room (a true Christie-style location) the vivid green of the high, portrait hung walls demand attention and vast double doors lead through to an equally impressive library. Two eminent elderly gentlemen (Bruce Montague and Mark Wynter) are testing each other with a blindfold port-tasting, trying to impress with their knowledge, and they are joined by a younger man (Ben Nealon) who admits he can tell no difference. Their hostess Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Melanie Gutteridge), wife of foreign office diplomat Henry (Lucas Hare), arrives to inform them that all the glasses contained exactly the same, but it entertained them well enough for a wet afternoon, didn’t it? She is given to making up stories and situations to entertain and amuse, a habit which leads to disbelief when she is telling the truth, resulting in a tangled web of mixed truth and lies causing endless complications, especially when a police inspector (Denis Lill) becomes involved.

Under Joe Harmston’s expert direction characters and characterizations are introduced and built up so skillfully that we could easily believe we are watching a genuine slice of nineteen fifty two life before our very eyes, but we know that there will be a murder – and we’re looking for clues. The clues are there, along with numerous red-herrings, but always hard to spot. “Curious how people can’t see what’s in front of their eyes,” says Mildred Peake (Catherine Shipton), the hearty, thigh-slapping gardener who seems strangely protective of the furnishings within this rented abode.

There is an antique desk with a secret drawer, and a large concealed cupboard opened by moving a book – the stage is set!

Karen Elliot’s Pippa, Clarissa’s inquisitive and ever-hungry step-daughter, has discovered these and is happy to show off her knowledge, but she becomes distraught when an aggressive Oliver Costello (Matthew Hebden) demands that she be returned to her mother.

The servants too are a mystery. Michael Gabe’s sinister Elgin admits to having faked their references and why did he and his wife return so early on their night off?

Tension and suspense creep up on us, not even diminished by the comedy which had the audience roaring with laughter, a great deal of it for the antics of Mark Wynter’s Hugo Birch, agitated and panic-stricken in case he might be found to be deceiving The Law. The young constable too (Mark Rose) caused more laughter with his sympathetic reactions to Clarissa’s latest story.

Terrific music played between the scenes was of the period and occasionally appropriate - Gutteridge’s beautiful bell-like voice happily singing “When a body meets a body” just before she stumbles over one, and the show plays us out with “The Finger of Suspicion”

Intriguing, fascinating and achingly funny, performed to perfection by each and every member of the cast, this production is sheer joyous entertainment. Highly recommended to cheer up a cold, wet winter night.

Touring to Cardiff and Wolverhampton.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor