Past crimes

Theatre - Agatha Christie's deadliest weapon is 1930s snobbery, writes Michael Portillo

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Can modern technology revive Agatha Christie? The director Steven Pimlott has set himself that challenge in bringing And Then There Were None back to the West End stage. Is it possible with a slick high-tech set, astonishing stage effects and lots of loud bangs to overcome our resistance to Christie's Upstairs, Downstairs world, the stilted dialogue and her absurd plot? Can a revamp of the original work by the playwright Kevin Elyot pull it off? Not quite.

Perhaps I overstate the problem. Christie comes second only to Shakespeare as a bestselling author. During the 1990s alone, she sold ten million copies worldwide. Movies and television series of her work abound. The Mousetrap is a national institution.

But for all that, the idea of ten people being lured by a fuzzily signed invitation to an unescapable island so that they can be bumped off one by one is risible. Apparently the murderer could rely on the guests being suckers for a freebie weekend, even if they had no idea who their host was. That is merely the first dose of a plot that is packed tight with implausibility.

Of course, the play was meant to be funny. One character, Anthony Marston, reacts to every event by exclaiming: "I say!", which must have been far-fetched even in the 1930s. Similarly, after the butler's wife has been murdered in the night and he is serving breakfast the next day as though nothing unusual has happened, one of the guests remarks to him: "Sorry to hear about the wife, Rogers." To which he replies: "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Being horrified by the ghastliness of the British class system is about as close to terror as we get in this revival.

The mysterious impresario of the homicidal gathering charges each of the guests with murder. Marston has killed two pedestrians while driving too fast. A child left in the care of Vera Claythorne has perished in an accident. Did Rogers and his wife assist a previous employer to die, so as to hasten their inheritance from her? Captain Lombard makes no bones about having allowed a group of "natives" under his command to expire.

The guests will be despatched in line with the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldier Boys", which chronicles each of their fates, ending: "And then there were none." With each liquidation, one of the ten soldier figurines on the chimney piece disappears. Yet there is clearly nobody on the island but the eight guests, the butler and his wife. So the murderer must be in their midst. What unspeakable tension!

To enliven this familiar material, the designer Mark Thompson has devised a glorious set. He has conceived a modern house, a striking piece of architecture in stone and glass set high up on the island. Its huge glazed doors at back and front slide open and shut so that sometimes we can glimpse only silhouettes within the building. Pallets carrying different room interiors and the actors with them glide on and off stage, helping Pimlott to achieve absolute slickness in his production.

It is well-known that murders generally occur on stormy nights. Pimlott and Thompson make the most of lightning flashes, power failures and deafening thunder claps. In conformity with the rhyme, the last "little soldier" meets death at the end of a rope, and the hanging provides the director with the opportunity for a superb special effect.

The cast works well. Sam Crane is suitably loathsome as Marston. Tara Fitzgerald supplies the love interest as Vera Claythorne. Her character should be commended for being able to focus single-mindedly on getting laid, despite the fact that, like everyone else, she is unlikely to wake to another morning. Anthony Howell as her bed companion Captain Lombard seems better able than the other actors to shed the Christie baggage. He emerges as a real character, even a sympathetic one: shocking really, considering that he does not deny his heinous crime.

Gemma Jones gives a thoroughly professional performance as Emily Brent, a religious zealot who sacked a young employee for getting pregnant and so drove her to suicide. That has earned Emily her invitation to homicide island.

Perhaps the strongest performance of all comes from Richard Johnson as Justice Wargrave, a veritable hanging judge. His name has been added to the guest list after a tendentious summing up in court has sent a young man to the gallows.

The staging helps to provide a spooky moment or two, but fundamentally the original material is beyond rescue. It is really not possible nowadays to be frightened by Agatha Christie. Indeed, the play struggles to hold the audience's attention.

It is so well directed and acted that this revival deserves to be a success, and probably will be. But let's face it. We go to a Christie play out of nostalgia and perhaps to pay homage to a giant of the theatre in her day. That's not the same as being there for enjoyment.

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This article first appeared in the 07 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Ambushed: Why America turned on Dubbya