Review – The Mirror Crack’d, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st October 2022

The Mirror Crack'd““Bugger!” cried Miss Jane Marple, as the pain in her leg prevented her from reaching the telephone on time” is a line that you won’t find anywhere in the oeuvres of Dame Agatha Christie, but it is the opening gambit in Rachel Wagstaff’s endearing new adaptation of the Queen of Crime’s 1962 novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, currently thrilling us at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday 5th November.

Katherine of AragonIn a nutshell: American movie star Marina Gregg has bought Miss Marple’s friend Dolly Bantry’s old home Gossington Hall, and Marina is making a new movie Katherine of Aragon at a nearby film studio directed by her loving husband Jason Rudd. Unfortunately, at a drinks reception for local dignitaries, the neighbourhood St John’s Ambulance Chair, Heather Leigh, drops down dead, apparently poisoned by her Strawberry Daquiri. But was Heather the intended victim? And whodunit? Don’t think I’m spoiling it for you, by the way – all this comes out in the first couple of minutes!

Marina and JasonThe Mirror Crack’d, as it is now usually called, lends itself to adaptations like a duck to water. Perhaps most memorably, it became a glossy American movie with Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in the 1980s, a film which has survived the test of time rather well. As a result, I think many in the audience already knew whodunit; I did, mainly because it wasn’t long ago that I wrote about the book in my Agatha Christie Challenge. The fact that it’s still a remarkably entertaining show is a testament to the creativity of this production.

Miss MarpleAs you can guess from that opening line, the adaptation isn’t 100% faithful to the original book, which has heaps more red herrings, an additional murder and extra suspects; but then something has to be omitted when you distil a 200 page novel into two-and-a-quarter hours (including interval) of stage fun. There are quite a lot of liberties for the Christie purist to come to terms with, including a whole re-writing of two of the original roles, as well as presenting a much more up-to-date Jane Marple who’s not averse to showing her emotions and dropping the odd expletive. But Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation is cunning, creative, pacey, fluid and tremendously rewarding. It’s also remarkably funny in a way that I certainly didn’t expect.

Jane MarpleIn most Miss Marple books, the wily old lady sits at home with her knitting and thinks out the solution to a crime, whilst her friends bring her nuggets of information to chew on. Appropriately, this adaptation concentrates on Miss Marple at home, whilst she (and we) see the accounts she hears of the crime being acted out in front of her. It’s a very clever staging that stays true to the essence of the character and books, whilst still bringing the whole drama very much to life.

Miss MOf course there are some scenes at the studios where Miss Marple attends, seemingly as the guest of Inspector Craddock – Chief Inspector Craddock as he would like to be known, or Dermot, as she mainly knows him, having looked after him as a child after his mother died young. Much is made of the personal relationship between Dermot and Jane, and it works rather well, being a source of both high emotion, as when he finally becomes able to talk about his grief, and a source of comedy because Miss M has a tendency to treat him like a child. “I know how to make a cup of tea!” he yells, as he storms off to the kitchen, whilst Miss Marple quietly takes over his investigations. There’s a very funny scene where Craddock interrogates Marina whilst Miss Marple is just sitting in a corner pretending to be much older and battier than she really is – but of course she’s dissecting every word she hears.

Miss M and CraddockAdrian Linford has created an intriguing stage design for the production; basically a revolving corridor with doors at either end and glass panels along the side, that swivels into place at slightly different angles, effectively suggesting all the various internal locations of the story. A very significant part of the production involves Max Pappenheim’s sound design and compositions, which eerily surge as the characters’ individual dramas unfold before Miss Marple’s eyes. The music certainly adds to the tension and atmosphere.

Marina and JaneSusie Blake felt like an intriguing casting choice for the role of Miss Marple and I wasn’t entirely sure whether I could see her in the role. I needn’t have worried – she’s superb. She conveys all the character’s kindness and supportiveness, but also shows her devastating quick-wittedness and incisive mind. It’s a terrific central performance; the whole show revolves around her. Sophie Ward is also excellent as Marina, combining a superstar’s rather patronising sufferance of the public with an understatedly vicious aloofness when she’s had enough of you.

Marple and CherryOliver Boot is superb as Craddock, the butt of many of the jokes, balancing a nicely underplayed superiority against being the foil to Miss Marple’s more expert sleuthing prowess. Joe McFadden is excellent as the bad-tempered but earnest Jason Rudd, and Veronica Roberts is hugely entertaining as Dolly Bantry; gossipy, a bit stuck-up, but very supportive to her friend. Jules Melvin gives us a very hearty and brusque Heather, and I really enjoyed Mara Allen’s light touch of comedy as Miss Marple’s housekeeper Cherry. But everyone puts in a solid and enjoyable performance.

CastThere’s a moment at the beginning of Act Two where Craddock loses his temper with Miss Marple; and I’ve rarely seen an audience so rapid to intervene to their heroine’s defence! That’s a sign that we were really engaged with the play. There’s a lovely running gag with one of the characters desperate to be interviewed by Craddock but always being turned away in favour of a more interesting suspect. And if you’re from Croydon, prepare to have your hometown taken in vain!

MarinaMany years ago we saw the Agatha Christie Company present a stage version of The Hollow. Mrs Chrisparkle hated it so much that she vowed never again to see a Christie stage adaptation! I’m delighted to report that The Mirror Crack’d has turned her into a Christie aficionado once again. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by this production, but we were both shocked at how thoroughly enjoyable the whole thing is!

Production photos by Ali Wright

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Gaslight, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2015

GaslightHot on the heels of the superb Brave New World comes another well-known British work of the 1930s which has completely passed me by. I’d never seen the play of Gaslight, nor any of the film adaptations; my parents used fondly to recall Fanny by Gaslight but that’s another thing entirely. Patrick Hamilton, the author, was also responsible for the play Rope, famously adapted for the memorable Hitchcock film. Although written in 1938, Gaslight is set in 1880, and so I was expecting a spooky Victorian psychological thriller with a touch of melodrama thrown in – and to a large extent, that’s precisely what the production delivers.

Tara FitzgeraldJack and Bella Manningham lead a rather gloomy and austere life in a gloomy and austere house in London. She is obviously a nervous wreck, desperate to please her husband and play the role of the good Victorian wife; he is a controlling, ruthless, unkind Victorian husband, languishing at home by day and absent who knows where in the evening. And the key to the success of this play is not knowing anything more about it in advance, so that’s all the plot summary you’re getting.

There’s a huge amount to admire and enjoy in this production. William Dudley’s set is amazing, offering so many opportunities to accentuate Bella’s paranoia, including opaque walls that let you see what’s happening in the next room, and a very surprising extension that takes your breath away. At portentous moments, mysterious music will just gently seep its way into your consciousness to add to the general eeriness. This is all strongly juxtaposed with the realism of the costumes and props; I appreciated the scrupulous attention to detail here, I especially liked the Victorian bone china tea set, and the very clear sound effects from the street outside – you could almost smell the horses.

Jonathan FirthHowever – and for me it’s quite a big however – I found this an extremely curious play. In fact, it’s almost two plays dovetailed in together. There’s the classic dark thriller, where a husband mistreats his wife with psychological game-playing; and there’s an almost farcical comedy struggling to get out, based on the character of the police inspector Rough, a self-confessed dandy whom you suspect could just as easily turn into Clouseau as Holmes. Thanks to good old Youtube, I’ve had a quick flick through the film and see that the characterisation of Rough there is also somewhat larger than life. In this production he is played by Paul Hunter, an actor and director of immense talent and experience, so I am completely certain that this isn’t a case of miscasting or accidentally getting it wrong.

Paul HunterBut whereas the contrast of fantasy and realism works very well with the set and effects, I found the difference of characterisation of the inspector sat ill-at-ease with everything and everyone else. I just didn’t find him remotely believable. I didn’t get a sense that he was in the same period as the other characters – he felt too modern, too unconventional. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed that the scenes between Jack and Bella were superb; a really fantastic study of the chilling domination of one person over another. We also loved the interaction between both characters and their servants, and the unexpected way in which the servants’ relevance in the story develops. But as for the inspector? We just didn’t get it, I’m afraid. In the interval, we both thought it was going the way of An Inspector Calls – apparently J B Priestley was a great admirer of Patrick Hamilton’s work – and Gaslight predates Inspector by seven years, so it would be Hamilton influencing Priestley and not the other way round. But no – whilst there may be all sorts of psychological games going on, Inspector Rough is indeed proper flesh and blood. Yes, at times he makes you laugh, and you might well feel that a laugh nicely breaks up the heavy atmosphere; but all I can say is that the characterisation wasn’t to my taste, and that’s not Mr Hunter’s fault – it’s a disconnect between me and the play.

Alexandra GuelffTara Fitzgerald is simply brilliant as Bella, conveying immaculately her mental fragility, her desire to be loved, her awkwardness with the servants, and her fighting spirit too. There’s an extremely moving moment when she discovers a hidden letter, which really moved me to tears. I enjoyed how she portrayed the character opening up to the police inspector as if he were a kind of therapist – it’s an all-round amazing performance. Jonathan Firth is also superb as the calculating and cruel Jack, really using the pace and control of his voice both to dominate and to lull Bella into a false sense of security. It’s a beautifully understated characterisation of evil – it wouldn’t surprise me if he committed any appalling act he wanted.

Veronica RobertsAlexandra Guelff takes on the role of Nancy the maid with great gusto, subtly sneering at her mistress and becoming more challenging – and forward – as the character grows in confidence. Veronica Roberts gives great support as Elizabeth, particularly in the delightfully suspenseful scene where Jack goes in and out of his dressing room. And Paul Hunter is very funny and very charismatic as Rough, a character that I just feel deserves to be in a different play.

The suspense lasts right until the very end and it’s an extremely rewarding, as well as thoroughly moral, climax. It was a pleasure to see the Royal so full for a Wednesday evening, and I’m sure this is going to do great business. I just think it’s a very strange play!