The Agatha Christie Theatre Company
Derby Theatre and touring
Touring productions like this one face an uncertain future at Derby Theatre now that its leaseholders the University of Derby have been refused Arts Council funding.
The university has stated emphatically that the theatre won't close. It has yet to say how the lack of a grant will affect its artistic programme.
Since the university took over the theatre, it's reversed the previous management's policy of staging only locally-produced theatre. Touring organisations including Hull Truck, Ian Dickens Productions and the Agatha Christie Company who are back after staging Murder on Air have all graced the Derby Theatre stage in the past two years. It would be a pity not to see them here again after the reception given to Verdict.
It's an unusual Christie play in that it's not a whodunnit; you actually see a murder committed. When the play premiered in the West End in 1958, theatregoers weren't happy because there was no mystery, which was why it had only a short run.
But Mrs Christie felt Verdict was the best play she'd written, apart from Witness for the Prosecution.
Verdict is an analysis of the character of Karl Hendryk, a European professor who's a refugee from an unspecified dictatorial regime. He has strict morals which he refuses to compromise, despite the potentially devastating consequences. For instance, he took in a disgraced colleague which led to his banishment from his home country; and later he won't tell the police who killed his wife Anya even though her cousin Lisa Koletzky is falsely accused and faces the death penalty if found guilty.
Some commentators see Verdict as semi-autobiographical; Mrs Christie was often worried about her relationship with husband Max Mallowan, an archaeologist 14 years her junior. We'll never know how much of her complex life is wrapped up in the characters of Verdict - but she's produced an extraordinary tale about the psychology of relationships between men and women.
Robert Duncan gives a fine performance as Karl, the professor who sticks to his principles and has to battle with his emotions because of his love for two women.
Cassie Raine is impressive as his wife Anya whose leg twitches continuously as she sits in a wheelchair and feels she's a burden to everyone around her.
Dawn Steele is also commendable as Lisa, the trained physicist who's happy to be nursemaid to her cousin. Her character most of all epitomises Mrs Christie's observation that relationships aren't exactly as they appear on the surface.
There are strong performances from Mark Wynter as Dr Stoner; Ali Bastian as spoilt, shallow, condescending rich girl Helen Rollander; Peter Byrne as Sir William Rollander; and Elizabeth Power as the busybody cleaner Mrs Roper.
Andrew Malkin's portrayal of Detective Inspector Ogden seems over the top and stereotypical at the start but he soon discards the formula as his character drives the action on in the second half.
Some people may not like Verdict because there's not a lot of action in this single-set play; but although there's no mystery, there's plenty of suspense which is cleverly maximised by director Joe Harmston. At one stage there were gasps from the audience at one of Mrs Christie's revelations.
Harmston has dropped the last two lines of the script, meaning it has a more satisfying ending than the original.
The verdict from the audience on the night I saw this play was very positive and one the university would do well to consider when its managers decide the future of touring productions at this venue.
"Verdict" continues at Derby Theatre until April 9th and tours until September 17th
Iain James Finlayson reviewed this production at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton
Reviewer: Steve Orme