Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder – Review

Directed by Terry Loane

Writer: Tom Dalton

Rating: 3 out of 5.

n 1926, for eleven days history’s best-selling novelist Agatha Christie underwent her most elusive mystery as she disappeared – the events of which are still unknown. This, as one can imagine, enables a tremendously tempting narrative tool: speculation. From plotting violent revenge against her husband, to a brief nervous breakdown following an encounter with an alien wasp, what precisely happened to Christie during these days has been wildly speculated. In late 2018 the British television network Channel 5 premiered ‘Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder’ (2018) a new take on the disappearance, revealing itself as an immersive look at the potential depressive struggles, creative blocks and disconnection Christie was experiencing.

Tom Dalton’s story plays with the metanarrative in a contrite, but appealing manner, placing Christie inside one of her mysteries to a degree. On the verge of divorce, unable to write and suffering from an emptiness, Christie enters doldrums of life where she finds little joy or creative sparks. The police unable to provide answers to the death of Florence Nightingale’s goddaughter, the deceased lover and partner Mabel Rogers requests Christie’s help.

Taking on the role of a best-seller isn’t easy, particularly one without a resolute sense of character. While Christie was a sensational writer, with an uncanny ability with problem-solving, deduction and evident intelligence, she wasn’t renowned for ‘traits’. Irish actress Ruth Bradley characterises Christie as a bold woman, confident in her standing in the male-dominated culture, but nevertheless vulnerable, especially given her husband’s relationship with another woman. Notably younger than Christie at the time of the disappearance, Bradley still carries weight, and refrains from showing the novelist as a scorned woman, or obsessive over her husband. Indeed, her lust for life, for writing and place as an equal is the motivation for helping solve the case. This, and she needs a story where no one will guess the killer before page three.

At the risk of sounding elitist – for a television-movie, ‘The True Murder’ does well for itself. Facing the facts, a feature produced for a television audience traditionally has lower production value. Nowhere is this more prevalent than the film’s aesthetics, Damien Elliott’s cinematography is structurally staged for television. Practical, the camera work and effects are nothing spectacular, they serve narrative rather than artistic purposes, chiefly drawing audiences into clues to the murder or, in the reverse, distract viewers with misdirection. Structurally, there’s a cleverness to Dalton’s writing as the evolution of Christie as an author, a wife and woman move along with the mystery. The shadiness of Florence’s murder may be the catalyst, but the film rightfully keeps Christie’s story as its focus.

A classic murder mystery is squandered without a resolute supporting cast, these are after all our suspects. ‘Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder’ is lucky in one respect here, with a few of Britain’s talented character actors on hand from the likes of Tim McInnerny, Ralph Ineson and Blake Harrison. McInnerny and Ineson, in particular, bring a layer to their characters Randolph, the cousin of the victim and Detective Inspector Dicks. In a complementary piece to Bradley’s Christie, Ineson is has a gruff, brash and no-nonsense attitude, but performs this with a great deal of humour and conviction.

Credit is earned in the film’s depiction of Mabel and Florence’s relationship, by the simple merit of not overindulging. The pair share little screen time, though Pippa Haywood conveys agony in the loss of her partner in a sympathetic performance. Even when the film creeps into the territory of the ‘shameful’ nature of same-sex relationships of the period, McInnerny’s role as Florence’s cousin Randolph’s acceptance of the relationship is human, appropriate and refrains from a distasteful overreaction. It’s a refreshing acceptance from characters while maintaining the strains of loving another human being, which at the time was still considered criminal if they were of the same gender.

As one expects creative liberties are rife, but to a forgivable extent as Dalton’s writing has the decency to draw on semi-real events, particularly the assault details of Florence Nightingale’s goddaughter Florence. There’s a delightfully fantastical blending of history and references such as Christie’s meetings with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which make for engaging scenes as the two authors postulate over their fans.

Obsession, this is the titular ‘truth’ of murder, a theme which ripples across the film – an obsession with people, with wealth, with prestige and the past. ‘Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder’ is a remarkably impressive experience for the medium it has been created. It relies on methodical writing, rather than cheap tactics or obnoxious romanticism. Where it may suffer from an occasional one-dimensional supporting character, it makes up with enjoyable chemistry, developing story around the mystery, and a pleasantly refreshing depiction of a gay relationship.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2020/04/30/review-agatha-christie-and-the-truth-of-murder/

SIX – Festival Theatre

Written by Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss

Directed by Lucy Moss & Jamie Armitage

History is widely written by men; no wonder we didn’t pay attention in school. Unless you have had the misfortune of a beheading or being pushed into a nunnery by your gout-suffering brut of a husband, Six is the concert musical sensation which rules the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, stormed the Westend and conquered Broadway. They may have been divorced, beheaded and died, but on stage, they thrive. 

A testament to the colossal power of a lucrative, stimulating idea and the influence of the Festival Fringe, Six descends on high to mingle with the common folk. This regal return for the wives of Henry VIII reminds us all that behind the man were six efficacious, prominent and notably individual women. All of whom deserve a damn-site more praise and attention than their historical footnotes.

Of course, the real question is: “who’s your favourite”? Which Queen deserves to lead the band, own her crown and step out from Henry’s broad shadow? Should it be the seductress Anne Boleyn; the woman who would give birth to Queen Elizabeth I? Or maybe, the Spanish mother, the O.G, Catherine of Aragon is the royal of your heart? Or could it just be those other women, the ones whose names sit on the edge of your tongue? Six has a primary concert premise, a seventy-five-minute run-time, but vivacious talent, legions of fans and a cast of undeniably skilled women befitting their crowns.  

So, roll up your Green Sleeves lords and ladies of the court, it’s a right royal rumble, for now at least. From the scintillating imagination of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six pounds with a heart of musical theatre, but with the blood and teeth of a gig. Both Marlow and Mosses’ lyrical ability gifts the audience with ten unique numbers full of a rainbow of hilarity, affection, cattiness and fury. The vocals of the team, consisting of Lauren Drew, Maddison Bulleyment, Lauren Byrne, Shekinah McFarlane, Jodie Steele and Athena Collins has an intense, diverse range of tone, purpose and delivery.

There are raps, power ballads and break-out those glowsticks folks – we have club-house beats. It is though, Steele’s number ‘All You Wanna Do’ which has a lyricism and choreography that delves swiftly from raunchy into depraved, tormenting and a piece of artistic expression which holds context across centuries. In reverse, Haus of Holbein and Get Down shatter the glass ceiling, shake the Festival theatre and propel the audience into bursts of energetic movements, courtesy of McFarlane who channels enviable energy, a lust for life and pizazz which carries us into the shows second half.

In transitioning to the stage, minor adjustments have been taken to provide a sense of theatricality for the touring production. For those familiar with the Queen’s Fringe performances, the changes make a welcome addition, though in moments the crowns need a little polish. Chiefly, communicating pathos to the audience, emotion ramped up from a natural state, where the lyrics and vocals are equally capable of conveying the destructive abuse of histories obsession with sexualising these women.

Blasting concerns of the production occupying the venue space, Emma Bailey’s set design maintains its structure from previous years – evidence to how well-thought the original construction was. Playfully, the lighting design transforms concert dynamics, spotlights make the obvious appearance, but it is the neon, the bulb-lights and manner in which Tim Deiling’s lighting design knows precisely what temperature and shading will contrast, or indeed complement each number which heightens the show.

Before we go, before you even think we’re done; let’s mention Gabriella Slade’s costumes. Sharp stitching houses the essence of characterisation in glorious shades of attitude. It wouldn’t be a show about Queen’s, had their gowns not slain quite as mercilessly as their husband. Nor would they be anywhere without their ladies in waiting; Arlene McNaught, Vanessa Domonique, Frankie South and Kat Bax on instrumentals, McNaught also providing musical direction.

Lucy Moss & Toby Marlow have given a voice to the past, a voice which in-turn speaks for the future. Placing these icons of history in the spotlight, Six is more than a concert history lesson, it has a vaster depth than a feminist musical; Six is an example of the trials of passion, a coming together in the name of rejoice, not revenge and vitally, is a show worth losing your head over.

SIX runs at teh Festival theatre until February 9th. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/six-the-musical

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Ten Times Table – King’s Theatre

Written by Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Robin Herford

If the authenticity of the dreariness of a committee meeting seems spot-on, it will come as no shock to hear of writer Alan Ayckbourn’s endless experiences with councils and organisations as he too attempted to secure funding for theatre projects. A herald of British comedic writing, Ayckbourn is renowned for an astute dissection for the notorious thirst and depravities of commonplace relationships, staging them in remarkably familiar surroundings. Then, there is Ten Times Table.

Ayckbourn’s position as playwright should, inherently, place his writing squarely in the ability to take all sides, weigh them accordingly and balance the reality of the situation with the comedy elements. Instead, Ayckbourn seems to find himself stagnant on the same table the committee seems intent on never leaving. Ten Times Table is neither a full-fledged farce nor capitalising on more than pleasant Sunday afternoon chuckle.

Heading this committee is Ray, who naively attempts to find harmony with other representatives of the town, including his wife Helen, rallying them behind a historical re-enactment. Of course, history has an uncanny ability to repeat itself, often with disastrous consequences. Slowly (very slowly) the committee drag themselves up and out of the bar long enough to hold their first meeting. As Helen finds a nemesis in self-proclaimed Marxist Eric, a state-comprehensive teacher, the remaining members find themselves drawn into an impending breakdown between the two. Battle lines are drawn, war is about to break, but the tension is as taut as a well-worn slipper.

Robert Daws’ Ray is a remarkably upbeat character, with an approachability entirely unexpected from the role. There’s principally nothing offensive to the character, perfectly pleasant (if a little dull), Daws brings likeability and interest where other performers may have lost our attention. His ability to curve the tone of his annunciation to coax out a laugh from the audience offers a little more depth to the character, and he works well with Deborah Grant playing Helen – who herself injects a tremendous weight of rural-town, middle-class venom into the part.

The stage never feels large enough for the cast, incorporating a few extra players on the board as we introduce characters Tim (Harry Gostelow) and timid-sounding Philippa (Rhiannon Handy). Robin Herford’s direction helps promote the small-town feel of standing on top of one another, no secrets to hide but plenty of noses about, but there’s only so much he and the cast can work with. Both Mark Curry and Robert Duncan have the potential for rich development which never strays far into the narrative, Duncan’s role as Laurence; a man going through a marital breakdown seems more a nuisance to the committee rather than a genuine area to build relationships on.

Michael Holt’s design work is quaint, refusing to commit to unnecessary set-work when the minimum will do – opting for a had-its-best-days look of a hotel conference room, complete with table and piano. If anything, the scale of this table, dominating the stage, is too accurate in depiction. The production’s first half is largely spoken wordplay in its comedy, with the occasional facial expression. It looms, overbearing the cast who have little room for manoeuvring, limiting their range of reactions and interactions with one another.

In stark contrast, the second half-strips away the table to the morning of the gala, chaos bubbling beyond the doors. Here, Ayckbourn’s play takes a steady leap towards the shaping of a farce, which is carried off by all performers well. Notably short, the second halves’ 30-minute run time makes for a brief punch of comedy, but only offers a sliver of what the cast is capable of, notably Gostelow’s physicality.

Further distorting the script, Craig Gazey delivers a perfect comedic narcissism to the Marxist character which the Daily Mail would gleefully write about. He and Deborah Grant’s characterisation exhibit a wealth of passionate exposition at loggerheads, but they’re written as such one-note caricatures that quickly the joke ebbs. In no fault of the performers, it limits how we connect with the characters on-stage, distancing us from a fully dimensional performance. The animosity the two shares isn’t unfounded, but it feels far less like biting social commentary and far more similar to a plot-thread you might bump into on re-runs.

Technology and politics may change, but people do not; Ten Times Table reflects the culture it imitates, mimicking the irritation of a committee meeting while capturing the lengths petty squabbles and small-town mindsets can grow. It fails to develop any sense of relationship for the characters, instead, allowing itself to lapse into a meander of paint-by-numbers sitcom structure. No sense of urgency or genuine threat is felt for character relationships or outcomes. It’s by far one of Ayckbourn’s weaker plays, a product of the time but the Classic Comedy Theatre Companie’s tour fails to find any relevance with a modern audience outside of a few cheap gags, niggling chuckles but does profit from an accomplished cast who are attempting their best with a limp script.

Ten Times Table runs at The King’s Theatre until February 8th. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/ten-times-table

Photo Credit: Pamela Raith