Touring – reviewed at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Dark undercurrents flow beneath the surface of Fiery Angel and the Royal & Derngate, Northampton’s touring production of Love From a Stranger.
If, in the end, its doomy atmosphere and psychological explorations never quite pay off, it remains an enticing proposition. The plot originally comes from an Agatha Christie short story called Phloem Cottage, adapted for the stage by both Christie herself and Frank Vosper.
Cecily Harrington, recently enriched by a big sweepstake win, throws over fiancé Michael on his return from the Sudan to run off with charming American stranger Bruce Lovell. This cannot be counted as a typical Christie whodunnit. It is more of a ‘why did they do it and how are they getting away with it’, as it is made abundantly clear from his first appearance that Lovell is a thoroughly bad egg. The uneasiness his glib, superficially charming but profoundly unsettling character evokes is enhanced by his similarity to the central character in Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom – a declared influence on both Lucy Bailey’s direction and Mike Britton’s design.
The set features disorienting sliding floors and gauze-covered sections behind which Sam Frenchum’s Lovell can hide at the top of the stairs. Frenchum is worryingly good as the sociopathic Lovell, while Helen Bradbury’s brittle, cut-glass Cecily convinces even when the story seems less plausible.
The central couple certainly gives the story a great deal of psychological depth and dramatic impetus, which carries the production over a couple of bumpy patches. Perhaps betraying its origin as an old-fashioned three-acter, the structure here is peculiarly lop-sided, with the second half being far longer and running out of steam a little.
The definite echoes of Peeping Tom do not necessarily do anyone any favours; very little can have the impact of that thoroughly nasty skewering of the male gaze, which proved such an all-round hatchet-job on the cinematic process itself that it had a disastrous effect on the career of more than one of its participants.
There are certainly nasty undertones here, which are not entirely dissipated by the artificial events towards the play’s conclusion. That artificiality, moreover, has always been present.
Despite a supposed updating to the 1950s, the setting still seems more like the never-was-land of a 1930s period drama. And while many recent dramatisations of Christie have tended towards satirising some of the characters, here they seem more like bumptious parodies.
This is not the fault of the cast, who do their best to keep things on the right side of send-up and largely succeed. Justin Avoth invests the stolid, stodgy ex-fiance with a certain upright conflictedness, while Alice Haig gives Cecily’s upright friend Mavis a definite spark.
Nicola Sanderson’s annoying Aunt Lulu is a finely judged comic performance that constantly threatens to puncture the tension but never quite does so. Gareth Williams and Molly Logan give the stereotypical servant characters rather more life than the writing demands, with Williams in particular having a slightly shabby dignity that is very appealing.
In the end, however, the staging starts to get a little portentous, with the sudden blackouts of Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and siren-calls of Richard Hammarton’s sound design signalling that Important Themes are taking place. While there are certainly troubling moments, in the end they give way to something a little more conventional – if consistently enjoyable.
Running time 2 hours 25 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday 5– Saturday 9 June 2018
Daily at 7.30 pm, Matinees Wed and Sat 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: http://www.capitaltheatres.com/lovestranger.
Love from A Stranger on tour 2018:
5 – 9 June
0131 529 6000
12 – 16 June
Newcastle Upon Tyne
19 – 23 June
26 – 30 June
0844 871 7647
3 – 7 July
0844 871 7652
10 – 14 July
0843 208 6000
17 – 21 July
01603 63 00 00