Time for the last production in the 2017-18 season of Made in Northampton shows at the Royal and Derngate, and Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger; probably the one I was looking forward to least. Why least? Because whilst I love to read whodunits, and watch TV detective programmes, I’m not sure murder mysteries transfer to the two-hour stage format that well. Of course, I recognise that Christie is a most bankable name, and that when you could buy tickets for the opening night of The Mousetrap, front stalls only cost two groats. But I was disappointed in the Peter James play The Perfect Murder that we saw a few years ago, and when I took Mrs Chrisparkle to see the Agatha Christie Company’s The Hollow in Milton Keynes in 2006, she threatened divorce if I ever booked for any of their shows again. I haven’t.
However, Love from a Stranger is a very different kettle of intrigue. If the title means nothing to you, it’s adapted from Christie’s 1924 short story Philomel Cottage, that was first published in the UK in the collection The Listerdale Mystery. If you’re a regular reader you might know that I’m currently re-reading all the Agatha Christie detective books and blogging about them as part of my Agatha Christie Challenge – fortunately I couldn’t remember the details of Philomel Cottage before seeing the play, but if you intend to see it, please don’t brush up on the short story beforehand because it will completely ruin it for you!
This is not your regular Christie whodunit with a quaint old English lady or meddlesome Belgian detective poking their noses in other peoples’ business. Whilst it has distinct Christie traits – everything that’s wrong in the world, for example, stems from those dreadful foreigners that Christie’s characters always seem to distrust so much – this is much more of a genuine thriller. You simply don’t know where the story’s going but you sense it’s not going to end well for someone. The original play was a success in 1936 but for Lucy Bailey’s production she has moved it forward to 1958. That’s perhaps a curious, random time setting, but in a sense it proves that the atmosphere and themes of the play are timeless; and, handily, it would still be perfectly reasonable for a photography enthusiast of that time to have their own darkroom. The production has an air of austerity to it, with Mike Britton’s vision of a Bayswater flat being fairly drab and featureless; the settings and costumes, whilst superbly realised, are far less glamorous than you might think the original 1930s version of the play would offer.
Having been uncertain about this production before seeing it, I can now say that it’s a humdinger of a thriller, packed with suspense and nerve-jangling moments that keep you on your toes from the start to the finish. The whole visual and audio presentation is disconcerting throughout, with eerie music that creeps in at eerie moments; buzzing, vibrating throbs that take the otherwise realistic presentation and invest it with otherworldly significance; lights flashing whenever the camera snaps; and a set that has a mind of its own, enabling the audience to see the play from more than one perspective.
At the heart of the play are two superbly performed characters – Cecily, played by Helen Bradbury and Bruce played by Sam Frenchum. Ms Bradbury delivers a marvellously controlled performance as the stifled and repressed Cecily, desperate for some excitement in her life and dreading the prospect of a staid life married to Michael. As happiness appears to blossom in her life, her joy expands as she becomes Mistress of Philomel Cottage, benevolently taking charge of her new servants but also getting increasingly concerned at her husband’s deteriorating health. She cuts a dramatic figure on stage and it’s a brilliant performance. Mr Frenchum, too, is superb as the unassuming but strangely charismatic Bruce, deftly stealing Cecily from under the nose of Michael and starting up a new life in the country. As Bruce’s role becomes more complex, Mr Frenchum takes on a truly scary persona, and the 9pm scene (if I can put it that way) between the two of them is terrifying in its suspense, physicality and constantly changing surprises.
But the whole show is littered with great performances, none more enjoyable than Nicola Sanderson as the appalling but hilarious Aunt Lulu, a social-climbing skinflint who’ll always compromise her principles if it means a free tea at Fortnum’s or being impressed with a mention of the Savoy. Alice Haig also gives great support as Cecily’s friend Mavis, a slightly bland role to which she gives real heart and character. Justin Avoth as Michael is the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip in a breakdown, Molly Logan a humorously enthusiastic domestic servant Ethel, Gareth Williams a faithful old retainer as gardener Hodgson, and Crispin Redman a hearty yet sincere doctor of the old school – I wish someone like him worked at my GP practice.
To say more would be to give away the game and that just wouldn’t be right. It’s a smashing production that builds in intensity to a stonkingly good denouement. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 17th March and then embarks on an extensive tour to Oxford, Guildford, Canterbury, Cardiff, Liverpool, Richmond, Leicester, Birmingham, Cambridge, Plymouth, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cheltenham, Glasgow, Milton Keynes, Salford and Norwich. A great night’s entertainment – don’t miss it!
Production photos by Sheila Burnett