King’s Theatre: Mon 26 – Sat 31 October 2015
Review by Hugh Simpson
Fans of good old-fashioned murder will be pleased with a solid production of And Then There Were None by Bill Kenwright’s Agatha Christie Theatre Company at the King’s.
The plot here reverts to something closer to the celebrated original book – whose first title was too contentious even to be used on the first US edition and has since been quietly dropped – compared to the dramatisation Christie herself originally produced.
A motley collection of people have been invited by the mysterious Mr and Mrs U.N. Owen to a party on a suitably remote island. It soon becomes clear that all of the guests have shady pasts, and it is not much of a spoiler to reveal that they start being killed off in ways mirroring an old nursery rhyme – but by whom?
It is not a good idea in the circumstances to become too attached to any of the characters – which is fortunate, as a more unsympathetic bunch would be hard to imagine.
Ben Nealon of Soldier Soldier fame has an unenviable task as a Philip Lombard, a raffish, womanising cad whose role dates the play most seriously. He is clearly meant to be in some way lovable, but his every deed and utterance mark him out as beyond the pale to modern audiences. Cleverly, this is counteracted by Nealon investing the part with such gusto and comic brio that the characterisation achieves a certain fascination.
There is no such joy for Tom McCarron’s Marston, a caricature of an unthinking Hooray Henry who is practically begging to be the first victim of the unknown Owen.
The more experienced members of the cast do at least manage to achieve some degree of nuance. Deborah (Bergerac) Grant and Eric Carte both give apparently vindictive characters a more rounded feel – Carte’s ageing General Mackenzie is oddly sympathetic at times, while Grant’s spiteful holy hypocrite Miss Brent has a peculiarly individual energy.
What manages to keep the storyline going most fluently is the way that so many of the house guests are obviously hiding something. The previously ever-youthful Paul Nicholas now adds a grey gravitas to a sleek and mysterious poise as Justice Wargrave. Blore, the ex-copper (or so he says), expansively played by Dalziel and Pascoe’s Colin Buchanan, has a similar hidden side. And what is the hidden secret of the teetotal Dr Armstrong (60s heart-throb Mark Wynter, who has aged extremely gracefully), a ‘nerve specialist’ who seems to have problems with his own nerves?
Miss Claythorne (Kezia Burrows), the newly hired secretary, is a less successful portrayal – she is suitably defensive and brittle at times, less convincing at others. The hired hands – butler Rogers (Mark Curry, the ex-Blue Peter presenter), his wife Ethel the cook (Judith Rae) and boatman Fred (Jan Knightley) introduce some welcome if rather forced comedy at the beginning; Curry in particular manages to invest his later appearances with a wounded, defensive air.
The opening act takes an age to get going, with endless scene-setting and countless rounds of introductions as characters appear, taking things into the realms of self-parody. From the moment it creaks into action, however, the story unfolds with a malevolently automatic glee that is impossible to resist (despite at least one gaping hole in the plot).
Many of the roles have been played by other equally recognisable TV faces on the tour, and at least one of the ensemble has switched roles. This gives everything an interchangeable feel that is not necessarily to the production’s detriment. In truth, it is better if the characters are not too clearly defined, as there are too many moments where stopping and thinking would scupper the onward march of death. What is necessary – as happens here – is for the cast to discharge their duties conscientiously in the knowledge that the story is the real star.
Joe Harmston’s direction helps greatly with this, as much of the production goes like clockwork. There are a couple of unwise choices with Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting, at least one of the murders is ludicrously unconvincing, and the business with the decreasing soldier statuettes on the mantelpiece (to signify the number of murders) could be handled more surreptitiously on occasion. On balance, however, the feel is straight-ahead to the point of quaintness, and largely successful.
Simon Scullion’s art deco-inspired set is imposing and attractive, although it hampers the narrative on a couple of occasions; Matthew Bugg’s sound design is impressively oppressive, and Roberto Surace’s costumes are perfect.
There is nothing up-to-date or modernised about this 1939-set production; however, it is a thoroughly satisfying if undemanding piece of theatre.
Running time 2 hours 25 mins including 2 intervals
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Monday 26 – Saturday 31 October 2015
Evenings 7:30pm; Matinees Wed and Sat 2:30pm
Details and tickets from http://www.edtheatres.com/thentherewerenone
And Then There Were None on tour:
0131 529 6000
His Majesty’s Theatre
01332 59 39 39
0844 871 3018