The British love a murder a mystery, and Agatha Christie epitomises the genre at its best. The plays, like the novels, draw heavily for their appeal on period settings, and mores which may always have been more artistic creation, than fact. A shocking murder, solved by a curious old lady, in well- dressed middle class settings, with secrets that will out, is the formula that works, and is one which is skilfully exploited by Middle Ground Theatre Company who have been combining a programme of classic and alternative drama since 1988 with an increasingly impressive roster of acting talent.
“A Murder is Announced” was written in 1950, reprising an earlier short story “The Companion”, and features detective stalwart Miss Marple, whose character has been reimagined contemporaneously in the hit television detective series “Vera”. It was around ( depending on how you count) Christie’s 50th novel. Even then, the fealty of her followers was legendary, and it was an instant success with its established, and proven, melange of ingredients. Leslie Darbon has adapted this for the stage.
At the centre of the story is a startling conceit. In the Personal Column of the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette is an advertisement : ‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, as the only intimation.” Miss Marple (Judy Cornwell) arrives to unravel the murderous consequences.
Cornwell is best known for her portrayal of Daisy in the TV sit-com “Keeping Up Appearances” and imbues her Miss Marple with vim, eccentricity, and warmth as she knits, spinning out her purls of wisdom, in tweed skirt and sensible shoes. Christie’s legendary legerdemain means that working out the identity of the murderer is futile, instead it is best to sit back and enjoy the well-crafted drama. Jennifer Helps costuming is a delight complimenting a satisfyingly appointed drawing room offering luxurious comfy chintz sofas and armchairs.
Rachel Bright steals the show as Julia , looking gorgeous in elegant figure hugging dresses and with secrets to hide. But as Inspector Craddock, Tom Butcher also shines in a three piece suit and an intellect which his ponderous mannerisms initially obscure. It is a large cast, some twelve strong, and unusually for Christie, a comic figure in the guise of Mitzi is included, a role which Lydia Piechowiak clearly enjoyed playing as much as the audience enjoyed her performance of the role.
The story, directed by Michael Lunney, and 1977 adaptation, does veer between period charm, and uncomfortable anachronism. Full further education grants, the Police dismissed as “Gestapo”, dodgy foreigners and “Leftie” writers, all feel like a long time ago now, but the world of Agatha Christie sets its own agenda and is part of the appeal. The audience enjoyed the show, but its profile was steadfastly of pensionable age. Whether Christies’ murder mysteries will attract a new generation of theatre goer is by no means certain.
Runs until Saturday 27th February and continues on National tour.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.