The Unexpected Guest

Agatha Christie
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

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It starts out like a joke – dark foggy winter night, chap prangs his car and makes his way to nearby house. Just before he gets there he hears a shot, and dashes in through the French windows to find a blonde, a smoking gun and a dead man in a wheelchair how long would you hang around to hear the punchline to that one? I’m afraid that in the current production, the wait seemed endless and the suspense wasn’t even tickling me.

I feel uncharacteristically guilty about giving this play a bad review because it did at least deliver the goods as advertised. You want the slow steady build of a Christie plot, with new suspects and motives brought forward in turn, dismissed, reassessed and generally chewed over for as long as flesh and blood can stand, then you’ll get what you came for. If you enjoy the sort of play where two people at a time stand around telling each other things, then you won’t be disappointed. And to be fair, the majority of the audience seemed to enter into the spirit of the thing and went away satisfied. (Including the immensely considerate lady in the row in front of me who took pains to dissipate any anxiety as to who had dunnit by discussing this with her partner at regular intervals. She was right, too, reaching her solution ion through a powerful exercise of deductive reasoning. As it happened I had come to the same conclusion very early on but in my case it was just one of those lucky guesses based on the fact that it was clearly signalled before the play even started.)

In honesty, I’m not entirely sure that the windows through which the mysteriously nosey Michael Starkwedder (Ben Nealon) entered were French in style, but they certainly were in spirit. The drama took place in one room (the garden outside carefully concealed) decorated in a mode that could have been anything from Art Deco to contemporary – I had to look up the original performance date before I was quite sure when the action was taking place. First produced in 1959, The Unexpected Guest started life as a play rather than a novel (though it has since been rewritten and published in that form) so my immediate notion that its lack of drama was the result of unimaginative adaptation from page to stage won’t hold water. Perhaps it’s just that Christie wasn’t primarily a dramatist, or that she drew her ideas of staging from a mode which must have been creaking painfully even in the fifties, but this felt as though the medium had hardly been taken into account.

The plot ought to sizzle, or mystify, or peel back the thin veneer of convention to reveal the darkness inside – imagine where Pinter would have gone from that beginning. Instead it remained strictly two-dimensional. The dead man, Richard Warwick, turned out to have been a thoroughly unpleasant cove, a big-game hunter turned sour after a lioness had (quite justifiably, one feels) left him disabled. Between lying, boasting, making life miserable for his wife and shooting the neighbourhood cats, he had also managed to run over a hapless child. But that was in the past, the child’s father was now dead and so this red herring could have no connection with Warwick’s own violent death or the timely appearance of Michael Starkwedder (Ben Nealon), the chap with the pranged car (you thought I’d forgotten about that, didn’t you?)

Coming from nowhere he sets about helping the obviously guilty wife (Susan Penhaligon) save herself from the crime she’s ready to admit to. But is she telling the truth? There’s a gun-crazy half-brother of limited intelligence (an odd role for Dean Gaffney) who also needs protecting from himself, not to mention a devoted housekeeper, a disillusioned mother, two assorted policemen, a highly-respectable local MP and the dead man’s blackmailing African nurse-come-manservant. In this role, now tiptoeing over an abyss of political correctness that Christie could never have envisaged, Richard Blackwood gave the best performance of the evening, finding the necessary tone of artificiality and playing it punctiliously for all the hidden humour without ever sending up his character or the vehicle of the play. The unexpected delicacy and tact with which he got his laughs obviously justified casting a comedian in the part.

Otherwise, the casting ticked all the boxes for familiar television faces without seeming to consider how their styles and interpretations (and, rather noticeably, their ages) would work together. The end result was an uncoordinated stab at what felt like generic Christie rather than one coherent drama which could draw the audience into its particular little world. And no Poirot or Miss Marple to save the day.

John Thaxter reviewed this production in Richmond and Sheila Connor in Woking.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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