Touring – reviewed at Curve, Leicester
“Heavens, No!” “You don’t think we’re silly for not having a telephone, do you?” These famous last words, some might say, along with “Well don’t complain when you have to walk three miles for a pack of cigarettes” establish that the second act’s setting for Love from a Stranger is (in)conveniently isolated.
We’re somewhere in the countryside in the love nest of Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) and Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), having run away to the country after a whirlwind romance. But who exactly is Bruce? Indeed, who is Cecily? How do we know who we’ve fallen in love with?
Agatha Christie is in vogue at the moment. Okay, she’s never really gone out of fashion. She’s the most produced female playwright in the UK and The Mousetrap is London’s longest-running play. However, starry and fresh TV adaptations of And Then There Were None, Witness of the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence have introduced her works to a new generation and have shown that they can be more than simply chocolate box cosiness. Here, Christie’s and Frank Vosper’s 1936 play is in the assured hands of Lucy Bailey in a production for the Royal & Derngate. Where the play flounders, the production remains enjoyable, stylish, and – surprisingly – manages to avoid the absurd.
If this was one of the recent BBC adaptations, they’d probably get rid of this turgid two-act structure. The first act is a loaded jack-in-a-box of exposition. We meet Cecily, bored and longing for some excitement in her life. Having recently won some money, she decides to do something about her settled life on the day (the very same day!) that her fiancé comes home from serving in Sudan.
She meets American nomad (although originally from England) Bruce when he comes to rent the flat she’s letting and is swept over by not so much his charm but his less refined nature. And who can blame her when we finally meet her wet fop of a fiancé as he’s presented in Christie and Vosper’s script. To top it off, they’ve added a Matalan Lady Bracknell (Nicola Sanderson, doing her best with a burdensome first ten minutes) who seems to only be there to make the whole thing into some sort of quintessentially English comedy of manners.
The second act is generally much better. A locked cellar, mysterious empty peroxide bottles, discrepancies between the apparent rent on the house, it has more of the tropes of a delicious thriller. Lucy Bailey keeps the tension high, offering us glimpses of people listening in at the top of the stairs, well-choreographed fight scenes (from Renny Krupinski) and using Richard Hammarton’s music to great effect. Mike Britton’s sliding design is handsome and its gauze walls show off Olivier Fenwick’s lighting design, creating an atmosphere that’s perfect for the genre. The whole set shifts to reveal the front hall (or the kitchen in the next act). This is visually appealing but it also serves a purpose. The set slides across when Cecily first meets Jack, and later when she perhaps sees him anew. When it returns to its original position, we don’t see it the same way, knowing there’s another part that we cannot see, just as Bruce changes the way Cecily sees the world. Bradbury and Frenchum do a sterling job, investing their characters with passion and danger, vulnerability and nous. Plot holes and crowbarred portraits of femme fatale hysteria aside, this thriller could easily have been murdered if it was in weaker hands.
Love from a Stranger plays at Curve, Leicester until 12th May 2018 and is touring the UK.
Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love from a Stranger. Credit: Sheila Burnett.