Cecily and Bruce (Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum) get to grips with each other – photo supplied
I have always struggled with the works of Agatha Christie. While undoubtedly popular – populist, even – she seems to me to reduce complex human interactions to an almost cartoon like simplicity. Cartoons have a place and are often the best way to reduce a story to its most basic elements, deleting anything not immediately relevant. If you approach this play as you would appreciate a cartoon it will certainly do its job well. If you expect the subtlety or psychological analysis that you might find in the works of Simenon or Dorothy L Sayer then this is not the one for you. So suspend your disbelief and take your seat to discover who plans to murder who. Surely there must be a murder, this is Agatha Christie?
In spite of my reservations Agatha Christie remains the most successful female playwright, at least in terms of seats sold, so I was not surprised to see a full house for this thriller. The eight strong cast do a fine job of creating an atmosphere of tension. They are in their final week of an eighteen-venue tour, so have their performances honed to perfection.
The central character is Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) who has just won a big cash prize in a sweepstake and has decided to enjoy life a bit. This is complicated by the fact that her worthy but unexciting fiancee Michael (Justin Avoth) is due to arrive any minute after a three year stint working in The Sudan. Cecily shocks her flatmate Mavis (Alice Haig) and her aunt Louise (Nicola Sanderson) by deciding to end the engagement and then scandalises them completely by taking up with the handsome stranger who comes to view her flat which she is renting out whilst away. The stranger, Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum) appears to be a wealthy traveller from America who sweeps Cecily off her feet with a scarcely believable bit of instant wooing.
By the time the interval ice creams have been served we find them married and living in a remote cottage in the countryside, with no phone or neighbours. But will the marriage survive – indeed will they survive marriage? As ever with Christie there is a twist to the tale as all the clues dropped throughout the play clunk into place with several loud thuds.
There are departures from normal Christie practice. We do not have a houseguest doubling as an insufferably clever amateur sleuth, for once, and the denouement is a rather reduced affair in terms of cast numbers. The pace of the plot development leaves little time for us to worry too much about some frankly implausible character depictions. The power couple at the heart of this play, Cecily and Bruce, are both given as much breadth of character as possible by the two leads and they clearly enjoy their respective roles, not to mention the hanky-panky between them on occasions. Every other on stage role is the simplest of stereotypes, although once again this skilled cast do their very best with them. The list includes the maiden aunt, the heartbroken but dull returning fiancee, the rather frumpy single flatmate, a gardener who likes a drink, his uncouth daughter who becomes the maid and a doctor who knows what is going on slightly before the rest of us do. All portrayed with exemplary zeal by the cast.
The set is a clever bit of construction with bits of it sliding in and out of the wings to give some extra spaces to use. It depicts standard mid-twentieth century English middle class living spaces in suitably drab colours, although the lighting director seems determined to perk up the colour balance from time to time as the lights zing up and down according to the mood of the script. No I don’t know why either.
Although the plot is even less plausible than a Government Brexit statement this play is still great fun to watch and will send you home with a smile on your face. Now all I have to do is choose between a whisky and soda or a nice cup of coffee. I’ll just give the maid a shout…
© Julian Swainson 2018
Love From A Stranger is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday 21st July
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000