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/

Dial M For Murder – King’s Theatre

Written by Frederick Knott

Directed by Anthony Banks

Let’s admit one thing; if at one time or another you haven’t concocted the ‘perfect’ murder – you’re likely the one to worry about. How we would get away with it, tying the loose threads together to ensure no slip-ups or the lavish costumes involved – we’ve all thought it up. Dial M for Murder, a classic of thriller cinema, an Alfred Hitchcock staple, has been adapted to the stage from Frederick Knott’s screenplay to welcome a fresh audience into atmospheric theatre. Or perhaps in Anthony bank’s take, a new kind of Carry-On Killing.

Upon discovering his wife’s affection for another man, Tony Wendice goes beyond the immediate aggressions of murder, and into a cold, sinister plan to blackmail someone else into doing the dirty work. Planning each detail, ensuring the plan cannot fail, things go array as his wife Margot changes her routine, setting off a chain of events.

Rooting for the killer, depending on the scenario, has the makings of a sinfully delicious narrative. Excessive, slimy, yet endearingly appealing, much of the production’s over-the-top vibe can be traced back to Tom Chambers performance, Christopher Harper a close second. Here is where a division may occur for the audience, where the line between Hitchcock thriller strays into farcical. Chambers early passion for dance, clear from Strictly Come Dancing and Top Hat continues into Dial M, with his dance training reinforces the spider-like cunning of Wedice’s role. Every strand he weaves cannot be plucked without his know-how. He calculates every occurrence, and Chambers lives for the enjoyment of the character, even if he is seconds from a vaudeville cackle or moustache twirl.

Quite the reverse – subdued, Sally Bretton has a tempered outlook for Margot Wendice, the target of husband Tony’s plan for murder. Perhaps the closest to authentic performance, Bretton deserves credit for grounding the otherwise cartoonish aspects of the production. Possibly, though, Banks’ direction should have stabled the ground, rather than having two talented performers playing characters from two entirely different genres of drama? Despite Bretton and Chambers chemistry, indeed her connection with lover Max (Michael Salami) is palpable too, there feels odd mashing of characters where they are from the shared narrative, but entirely different productions.

Guilty of this difference in performance styles, even for obvious reasons, Christopher Harper’s dual role as both murderer Captain Lesgate and detective Inspector Hubbard leads to an intriguing twist where Lesgate, the crook, with his moustache, exuberant accent and dress comes across as the more three-dimensional. Hubbard, while comical and engaging, occasionally strays from detective into a clown. Dipping a toe into Pink Panther inspiration, Harper exaggerates but refrains from an entirely animated performance. Using the space well, it is the climax where he gains command of the stage, encompassing the stage design into his characters broad movements.

Staging is everything for a production such as this, capturing the right aesthetic can make or break the immersion. Notwithstanding a few time inaccurate details, David Woodhead’s stage design is angular, sharp and toys with perspective. The angular structure especially accentuates Lizzie Powell’s lighting, allowing marvellous nods to the original film’s use of intimidation and shadow. Truly its only flaw is how stagnant it feels, how little flexibility there is.

Components of Bank’s production are gems, ready for the taking, but seem scattered in varying directions. Dial M for Murder is neither a comedic killer nor a thrilling laugh. It lands halfway between a pastiche of classic cinema, and a sitcom re-telling. Intentional or not, it works, Knotts’ narrative makes for a delightful evening which may not have been what one would expect, but unexpected surprises are often the most welcome.

Dial M For Murder runs at The King’s Theatre until February 29th. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/dial-m-for-murder

An Inspector Calls – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Written by J.B Priestley

Directed by Stephen Daldry

It’s a visit none of us desires, when An Inspector Calls, compelling us to reveal the slightest detail, even if we haven’t done anything wrong. What though, if you had done something? No matter how trivial it may seem, what if your actions had led to something horrendous? As the portentous Birley family wine, dine and celebrate their daughter’s engagement, their evening is about to take a turn, a turn which has made An Inspector Calls one of the previous centuries prominent works of the stage.

A staple of the English department, J. B. Priestley’s text has gone through as many adaptations, iterations and re-stagings as humanly possible. So, when a difference occurs, when a design framework captures the dollhouse toying of Inspector Goole in such a unique manner, one does take note. A tale on class, socialism, ‘white knight’ gentlemen and the welfare state, Stephen Daldry’s ability to encapsulate this into a one-act production is staggeringly impressive.

Balancing itself precariously, there are reminiscents of radio-drama, a maniacal melodramatic delivery which feels as though we are to hear, rather than see the performers. A young boy, delivering a swift kick to a clunking radio sparks off events – from curtain up, you know this is a production of high calibre. Sodden, torn apart streets are the playground of these working-class children, as the scaled house contains the blusterous bourgeoisie. Ian MacNeil’s notorious staging of the production, held upon timbers, surrounded by streetlamps and blown apart cobbles, is still a triumph of set design. It’s enthralling aesthetically, toying with levels and powerplay, an becomes a board for the Inspector to set his pawns in a manner of his choosing.

With a wealth of tremendously impressive performances under his hat, Liam Brennan was always a sure-fire hit for Inspector Goole. Few though could have anticipated just how exquisite this transformation is. Unearthly, Goole has always been a character of note for performers. Easy to unbalance, vilify or write off as over-the-top. Brennan is a walking paradox. Cold, but welcoming and warm. Ignorant to the actions of others, but five steps ahead. Even removing the fourth wall, even for a spell, to directly address the audience in a manner which fails to detract from the atmosphere. An utterly sensational performance, commanding every ounce of the King’s stage.

What this entails is a trailing of focus once the Inspector’s duty is done. By no means dragging, there’s a minute or two which requires a tight shave towards the productions close. We’re still beckoned to invest, particularly by Chloe Orrock’s Sheila – the only guilty party who is willing to allow growth. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the pompously malicious Jeff Harmer’s Mr Birling. Brought to life with a superbly loathsome charm, Christine Kavanagh’s Mrs Birling reserves her poker face throughout, hysteric on a knife-edge, her eventual break is the height of melodic drama.

Unaware as we are that the Trump household was around in the 1910s, it’s remarkable how relevant a text can find itself some 60 years after its publication. A viper-like assault on self-preservation, it is quick, ferocious and instant. Nothing is left to chance; the message is quite clear. Priestley’s writing conveys a sense of justice, lacking in preach or jargon. As the family remains, their empire standing, if shaken, An Inspector Calls is as accessible in its theme as it was all those years ago. Troubling.

Lying beneath is a fledgeling five-star production, held back by the silliest of direction issues. It’s a production which respects the original text, offering a potential reason for drama teachers to watch for the twelfth time. A remarkable piece of theatre, An Inspector Calls is ounces away from perfection, fraying slightly in over-exaggerations, but it cannot be stressed – if you haven’t had the pleasure of sitting through Inspector Goole’s deductions, get yourself into the King’s theatre now.

Runnins until October 12th at King’s Theatre Edinburgh, Tickets available: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/an-inspector-calls