This interesting production is the European premiere of a play by the author of the longest running show in the world, The Mousetrap. Agatha Christie wrote the novel Towards Zero in 1944 and later wrote this adaptation for the stage which was briefly performed on Broadway, only then to disappear into the archives until recently unearthed by author Julius Green.
The rather narrow world depicted in most Christie tales is familiar, we are looking at the world of inter-war toffs and their servants living in elegant country settings. The relationships between the entitled rich seem generally to be rather shallow and mercenary and characterised by an apparent disdain for human feelings. Their staff are ordered about and insulted quite freely in a manner that would not be tolerated these days. These somewhat two-dimensional setups will be familiar to anyone who has watched an episode of Poirot or many other TV adaptations where skilled actors try and add personality to Christie’s depthless characters in surroundings of showhome elegance. The events are usually concluded in one rather splendid drawing room.
Towards Zero precedes the period when Christie got into a playwriting routine using her trusted formula but nonetheless has many of her standard devices.
Set in the clifftop home of ailing Lady Tressilian (Becky Sweet) visitors include the triangle of Neville Strange (Lee Johnson), his new glamorous wife Kay (Lucinda Bray) and divorced ex wife Audrey (Kiera Long). Jen Alexander plays Audreys childhood friend and admirer Thomas Royde, while these needy folk are assisted by three servants, MacGregor (Carol Hunt), Collie (Diane Webb) and O’Donnell (Terry Cant). A mysterious stranger Angus McWhirter (Ray Tempesta) pops up over the garden wall.
As the play moves along Christie sets up a complex web of inter-relationships between all these characters to make sure our suspicions are unfocused when the murdering starts near the end of the first half.
Director Becky Sweet has directed the Norwich Players with great skill and attention to detail to create believable characters in the clifftop garden setting. The costumes and set design are all very good and appropriate to the period of the play’s setting. The three who comprise the love triangle all warm to their roles with great conviction as the brash husband Neville appears to tire of his new wife and seek the comfort of his divorced previous wife Audrey. Parts of the play are positively romantic for Christie, usually in initially unexpected pairings. In the second half the trusty plod arrive in the form of Inspector Leach (Ian Shepherd) with trilby and raincoat, hapless Sergeant Harvey (Stephen Goldsmith) and accompanying medic Doc Wilson (Matthew Pinkerton). Ian Shepherd has great fun as a convincing Christie sleuth. He ploughs through all the individuals motives for the dirty deeds committed with gentle relish.
This production contains everything from elegant dancing to some surprising violence as we twist and turn through a complicated plot. This cast give us a range of characters that we quickly identify with who have rather more consistency than some thriller writers achieve. The original text also gives us a chance to think about how social mores have advanced (or not) since the 1940s in terms of both gender and class relationships. It is a thoroughly enjoyable production that suits the musty but charming and intimate atmosphere of the Maddermarket Theatre perfectly. A splendid show from a very capable and enthusiastic cast.
© Julian Swainson 2019
Towards Zero by Agatha Christie is presented by The Norwich Players at The Maddermarket Theatre until Saturday 29th June – Tickets £8 – £12, details from maddermarket.co.uk