The Unexpected Guest
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Richmond Theatre and touring
For its debut production a year ago the Agatha Christie Theatre Company staged The Hollow, revealing its house author as a boulevard playwright with an unexpected flair for repartee.
As a thriller it was a structural rarity, since absolutely nothing untoward happened to spoil the alcoholic chatter and flourish of gold cigarette cases until well into the second act, when a gun went off in the garden room and the cops turned up, asking awkward questions.
But with the Christie companys second, more dramatic production, the lethal shooting occurs even before the curtain goes up on a darkened drawing room in November 1957, as a tall stranger, the unexpected guest of the title, enters through the french windows.
This is Starkwedder, brusquely played by Simon MacCorkindale, a motorist stranded in the fog and looking for a telephone to call for help. Instead he discovers the corpse of Richard Warwick, a great white hunter with a bullet hole through his left temple, slumped in his wheelchair.
Then seconds later he is confronted by Laura, the dead mans wife, gun in hand and eager to confess that she has just murdered her husband.
A cool blonde played with elegant command by Tracey Childs, Laura clearly takes Starkwedders fancy, who, touched by her plight, formulates an audacious plan to save her from the gallows: an artfully contrived red herring designed to mislead the police into thinking that the killer was Warwicks worst enemy, returning to take revenge.
Joe Harmston, who first staged this whodunit at the Agatha Christie Festival in Westcliff five years ago, marshals Christies contrivances with entertaining aplomb. But I have a couple of niggles.
Firstly, the body in the wheelchair is so obviously a dummy with a crude, badly-fitting wig that it undermines the intended chill of a long opening scene.
Secondly, the design by Simon Scullion offers us a blank arc of white blinds like the setting for Pinters No Mans Land closely drawn except for a narrow gap in the middle, thus cutting off our view of both the world outside and those essential french windows through which the cast make frequent comings and goings as the plot unwinds.
This being a Christie thriller the two plainclothes officers from the local constabulary, played by Frazer Hines and Gary Richards, fall for Starkwedders false clues but are then faced with a houseful of suspects, each apparently guilty or complicit, and, for a variety of reasons, prepared to confess; among them Virginia Strides austere matriarch, Dean Gaffneys Jan, a trigger-happy youth with an addled brain, and Mark Wynters adulterous Liberal politician living right next door to the Warwicks.
Even the servants are not in the clear as Warwicks creepy valet, played by Eugene Washington, limbers up for a bit of discreet blackmail, while Kate Best as housekeeper-companion eggs on the demented Jan to do his worst, which includes taking a pot-shot at the police sergeant.
It would be fair to say that shortly after the interval most Christie aficionados will have identified the murderer. But then our chief pleasure is in second-guessing how the Queen of Crime will unravel her plot without leaving loose ends.
Good Saturday night entertainment!
Tour details: Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham 12th Feb to 17th Feb; Palace Theatre, Southend 19th Feb to 24th Feb; Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton 26th Feb to 3rd Mar; Queen's Theatre, Barnstaple 5th-10th Mar; New Theatre, Cardiff 12th-17th Mar; Jersey Opera House, St Helier 19th-24th Mar; Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne 26th-31st Mar; Malvern Theatres, Malvern 2nd-7th Apr; Forum Theatre, Billingham 16th-21st Apr; The Lowry, Salford 23rd-28th Apr; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen 30th Apr-5th May; Arts Theatre, Cambridge 14th-19th May; Sands Centre, Carlisle 28th May-2nd Jun; Theatre Royal, Glasgow 4th-9th Jun; Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds 18th-23rd June
Reviewer: John Thaxter