I hadn’t expected to go to see this play, but when the opportunity arose, it was a no brainer; I definitely had to go.
Theatre producer Peter Sanders seems to have persuaded or challenged Agatha Christie into writing this script, by submitting a version he wrote himself to her. Within a few months she had come back with her own offering, though Julius Green (author of Curtain Up: Agatha Christie – A Life in the Theatre), assures us that Christie’s version is not based on Saunders. She wrote and edited the play whilst at one of her husband’s digs and often sent new drafts via friends going back home. The process of writing this play is also notable for Christie’s turn to outside advice, in this case picking the brains of barrister Humphrey Tilling, for various legal aspects of the plot. Other members of the time also gained court room experience, such as Saunders who managed to see some of John Christie’s trial for serial murder. Obviously don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but the play centres on the trial of a young man called Leonard Vole, who stands accused of murdering a rich older woman called Emily French. The circumstantial evidence is damning yet not conclusive, so the case really hangs on the testimony of Vole’s wife. But the question is, what will she say when she gets into the witness box?
I didn’t come to this play with a blank canvas, as in 2016 I read the original short story by Christie, before watching Sarah Phelps interpretation that Christmas. Having already watched one adaptation, I felt as though I had something to compare the play with and suffice to say I think the play did a far better job at bringing the story to life than the BBC effort. There are a few reasons for this assertion, the main one being that in this production of the play, I found the characters were wonderfully three-dimensional, complex and intricate, emotionally engaging and above all where needed, maintaining the original ambiguity. I found this especially so for the character of Romaine Vole, Leonard’s wife, as I think the BBC adaptation left her character both largely unexplored and equally filled with 2-dimensional stereotypes. In contrast Lucy Phelps brought such a richness to the role, making you alternately dislike her and in sympathy with her, and even at times comically entertained. Lucy certainly struck an untapped seam of dark humour in this character, which I have not seen before, but worked beautifully.
Furthermore, I think the play also took the right decision in not letting the audience have any interaction with the victim, Mrs French, except through the eyes of the undoubtedly biased witnesses. Again this maintains the ambiguity around her character: what sort of relationship did she really have with Leonard? The BBC unfortunately made the opposite choice and provided the TV viewer with more clichéd stereotypes, not really giving you much to think about or consider. Character and relational ambiguity is the lynchpin to the success of this story/play so any adaptation needs to preserve this, in my opinion.
The legal characters in this production also deserve a mention. The Judge, played by Julian Curry was surprisingly but effectively good as a source of subtle comic relief and the competitive verbal duels between the QCs were equally strong and brought the trial scenes to life.
Above all I think this production was excellent at creating tension, the atmosphere really could have been cut with a knife, especially the closing scene. The music, lighting and minimal props were all used to good effect in this cause, without the aid of a miasma of green fog.
Whilst for obvious reasons I cannot detail the ending or its final twist, I can say I enjoyed it a lot, as I felt it gave the play a deeper emotional charge. This final twist is unique to the play and not found in the original story, though still devised by Christie. I didn’t see it coming, though I really should have done, but I
think my prior knowledge of the story probably actually wrong footed me a bit. It can be said that the ending is quite fast, with the twists unfurling at a rapid rate of knots, but I feel that is the only way it could be done and is not the worse for it.
If you are able to get along to the County Hall in London before November I’d definitely recommend going to see this play and if you’re interested in reading the full cast list, it can be found here.