Today has been an out of the ordinary for me, as me and my sister went to see this play today at the Newcastle Theatre Royal. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Christie theatrical, so I was hugely looking forward to this one.
Love From a Stranger, originates in a short story Christie wrote in 1924 called ‘Philomel Cottage,’ which she then later adapted in 1932; the play’s name being The Stranger. In 1936 Frank Vosper then created his own adaptation of the previous play, writing and performing in Love From a Stranger, which the Daily Herald reviewer at the time described as a ‘brilliant terror play.’ It was long until this was then adapted for film, the first of which occurring in 1937, starring Basil Rathbone and rather young Joan Hickson, (in a minor part). Adaptations continued to appear in 1938 and 1947.
For those of you not familiar with the plot, ‘the story is a chilling and intense psychological thriller, following protagonist Cecily Harrington who, after winning a large amount of money, yearns for a life of adventure beyond the monotony of the everyday. When she puts her London home up for rent, handsome, charming and worldly Bruce Lovell comes to view it and the two embark on a whirlwind romance, with Cecily abandoning her fiancé, job and friends for a new life in a remote country cottage. It remains to be seen whether they can live happily ever after…’
The actual physical set was really good and I thought very effective. The play only has two locations, but it didn’t feel samey, as the middle section of the stage is able to move horizontally right or left meaning that more of either side of the stage appears and is focused on. The lighting and music were also used to great effect, really picking up tension when needed most. Although probably a bit of a purist I didn’t mind the story being updated to the 1950s, in many ways it is a story which can easily be shifted from decade to decade, though I have been mulling over whether a current day adaptation would work out the same, in the world of Facebook and Twitter. The director, Lucy Bailey, according to my programme, is quite keen to emphasise how ‘absolutely relevant to today’ and how ‘absolutely current’ the play is. Perhaps overstating the point but I can see where she is coming from.
I think the protagonists, Cecily and Bruce were fleshed out very well, though there were a couple of unnecessary Phelpian touches as I like to call it. I am getting resigned to this being the current direction Christie adaptations are taking in Britain though. The Phelpian similarities continue in the way Lucy Bailey comments on the ‘dark undercurrent’ and ‘intense claustrophobic atmosphere’ of the play, (both of which I think were done well in this production). Bruce’s character is the hardest to portray out of the cast in my opinion, being ‘the successful liar’ and essentially the ‘psychopath,’ so much credit needs to be given to Sam Frenchum who excelled in doing so. I particularly enjoyed how his character transforms over the play, with his character’s personality and persona macabrely degenerating and disintegrating in the final scene. Helen Bradbury also did a great job as Cecily, depicting the type of personality who might be vulnerable to the charms of a man like Bruce and you can see how her foolish behaviour comes out of her meeting Bruce at a psychologically vulnerable moment. I must also mention Molly Logan, who played the maid Ethel and Nicola Sanderson, who played Louise Garrard, a.k.a. Aunt Lulu. These were smaller roles than the central two, but I loved their performances nevertheless. Their comic touches were very effective within the whole piece and they made their parts truly memorable.
Finally the ending. Don’t worry I am not going to say what happens, but I think I am safe in saying that the play maintains the ambiguity of the original story, though is ambiguous in a different way. I think this ending received a mixed, but mostly positive response, my extensive research comprising of two fellow theatre goers on the bus home, whose conversation I was able to earwig (thanks guys!). From several rows behind I gather they thought the ending was clever and mystifying, but perhaps expectations were for something less open ended. There is a lot of ambiguity around Cecily in this production, with her character reversal at the end being left open to the debate: Is it the real her or a fiction she employs to survive? Personally I rather enjoyed the open ended and abrupt nature of the play.
I think Lucy Bailey sums it up well when she says ‘Love From a Stranger is not a whodunit, but a whodunwhat.’ My fellow Christie fan and sister is equally noted for her pithiness and said ‘it was quite good.’ Looking forward to seeing what other Christie plays come touring next year, as I’ve managed to The Mouse Trap and And Then There Were None in previous years.