I was in two minds about seeing the new play adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. On the one hand, I’ve read the book several times, seen the movie (Albert Finney, not Kenneth Branagh), and remember clearly both the crime and the (admittedly exciting) denouement and solution. So this wasn’t going to give me any of those suspenseful thrills that come from seeing a brand new murder mystery. On the other hand, I was sure that Chichester would put on a brilliant production, that Henry Goodman would be a superb Poirot, and we were going to be in town anyway to see The Unfriend so it seemed churlish not to!
You all know the story, I’m sure. Poirot needs to return home from Istanbul and his friend M. Bouc, who manages the Wagons-Lit Orient Express insists he takes a first class compartment as his guest. What a very good friend M. Bouc is! The first class compartment is unusually busy though; and his travelling companions include the Wagons Lit conductor Michel, plus a Hungarian countess, a Russian princess, an English governess and her military beau, a Swedish missionary, an extravagant American woman and the businessman Samuel Ratchett and his secretary. Ratchett – a loudmouth bully with more money than taste – wants to hire Poirot’s services and is willing to pay big bucks. But Poirot is not interested in this brute and will not take the job.
The train encounters a snowdrift and pauses near Belgrade with no expectation of moving for hours, perhaps days. And at (maybe, maybe not) 1.15am the next morning, Ratchett is murdered by multiple stab wounds. Bouc beseeches Poirot to solve the case before the Yugoslavian police catch up with them – the reputation of the train company is at stake. But Poirot’s first interest would always be justice. When he identifies the guilty party – not if, but when, this is Poirot we’re talking about – he will insist they are handed over to the police, non? But sometimes justice isn’t quite as easy to define as Poirot makes out…
Robert Jones’ design for the show is simply terrific. From the opulence of the Istanbul hotel, to the train station, and the individual compartments and dining tables, the whole thing looks stunning. There’s a wonderful optical illusion of the train moving through tunnels that works incredibly well. The costumes are superb, with some evening dresses to die for, and Christopher Shutt’s sound design is full of evocative effects and sometimes blood-curdling shocks. Whether intentional or not I don’t know, but Adrian Sutton’s music frequently put me in mind of Richard Rodney Bennett’s soundtrack to the 1974 film.
As a Christie fan, and knowing the book intimately, I was very impressed by Ken Ludwig’s adaptation. He has taken out some of the more minor on-board characters/suspects, given the role of the doctor to the Countess Andrenyi so that she is both assistant and suspect, and enhanced the moral question that Poirot must face at the end of his investigations. He has also removed some of the clues, such as the scarlet kimono, and Mrs Hubbard’s sponge bag, and added a terrific surprise just before the interval curtain which is completely different from Christie’s original but works extremely well – I’ll say no more.
The big challenge of the play is to make the denouement exciting even though most of the audience will already know whodunit. This it achieves perfectly; the denouement takes up at least the last half hour of the show if not more, and as Poirot goes through his suspects and his reasonings, you can hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The circular stage of the Festival Theatre revolves very slowly, with each of the suspects sitting on chairs, their backs to the audience, spaced out equally, so that you can witness each of them squirming in turn facing interrogation. It also irons out any blocking issues!
At the heart of the story, and the production, stands the dapper and slightly diminutive figure of Henry Goodman as Poirot. None of the caricature or pantomime dandy that some characterisations have invested in him, this Poirot is gently arrogant, takes pride in his appearance, has a swishy moustache and all the other attributes that you associate with him – but they’re all extremely believable. He Frenchifies up his accent quite a bit – so that you get 60 seconds in a minoote, or a suspect leaves a fangerprint on a clue. But he’s riveting throughout; and you can completely believe that those little grey cells are working dix-neuf á la douzaine within that intricate brain of his.
Patrick Robinson gives excellent support as the hearty and positive Monsieur Bouc, doing his best to look on the bright side and desperately hoping that Poirot can get him out of trouble. One of my favourite actors, Marc Antolin, gives a superb performance as Michel the conductor, delicately extricating himself from Mrs Hubbard’s clutches and handling the princess with the kiddest of gloves. Sara Stewart is brilliant as the aforementioned ostentatious Mrs Hubbard, appallingly flirtatious and ruthless, sparring magnificently with Joanna McCallum’s haughty and dismissive Princess Dragomiroff. Philip Cairns and Taz Munyaneza weave great intrigue together as Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham, and Timothy Watson is terrific as the mean, snarling Ratchett. But the whole cast work together as an ensemble extremely well, and keep the suspense and entertainment going right up to the final minute.
The show has now finished its run at the Chichester Festival Theatre but will be playing at the Theatre Royal Bath from 9th to 25th June. If you’re a Christie fan, you’ll love it – and if, somehow, you don’t yet know whodunit, attendance is compulsory!! Enormously entertaining and totally gripping.
Production photos by Johan Persson