Review: A Murder Is Announced. (touring) Nottingham Theatre Royal

Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, directed by Michael Lunney, is exactly what you would expect of a cozy mystery: quirky characters, an amateur sleuth, a comfortable and intimate setting…and a murder to disrupt the status quo.

It is while Letty, Bunny, Julia and Patrick are sitting in the large drawing room of Little Paddocks, a house in the small village of Chipping Cleghorn, that we first discover that a murder has been announced. Using an advertisement in the local paper, the inhabitants of the house discover that a murder has been planned for 6.30pm that very evening. Understandably, the characters have very different reactions to this, ranging from fear to dismissal to humour – it’s surely just a game isn’t it? As the clock chimes the half hour, we suddenly find ourselves in darkness, with a new character on stage shouting at everyone to put their hands up, and shining a torch on them in turn. Then 3 shots ring out…a murder is accomplished. But whodunit?

The murder scene itself is very well done as the tension mounts, and the stage stays in darkness for what seems like a very long time. I find myself straining to distinguish voices as the identity of the murdered character is kept from me for a deliciously frustrating length of time. From then on, the thinking cap is firmly on!

It’s a dense plot and I find myself open-mouthed in concentration a few times during this headscratcher as I try to distinguish red herring from fact. Given that Leslie Darbon has crammed a 320 page novel into a 2 hours and 20 minute (including interval) stage play, there is no way that the play can be an exact replica of the novel and not being familiar with the plotline myself, I find it difficult to follow the connections between characters and who everyone is. During Act 2, when one of the characters says with despair “I don’t know who anyone is anymore”, this brings an agreeing harrumph from the audience. It seems we are all in the same boat with these offstage characters who bring so much import to Act 2, but are completely faceless names.

Keeping up with the character connections is difficult enough without the multiple mobile phone rings that erupt throughout the performance – very frustrating since we are reminded by the ushers on entering the auditorium to switch them off. Perhaps a voice over at the beginning, whilst not quite inkeeping with the 1950s time period would prevent the big reveal being disrupted by Mozart!

Despite the futuristic interruptions, the 1950s cast all put in a splendid turn with their respective characters. Sarah Thomas as Miss Marple plays her role expertly. One could be forgiven for thinking that this dotty old lady is a nosy interferer, sitting with her knitting during interrogations, but her shrewd mind is always at work. She is something of a hindrance to Inspector Craddock (Tom Butcher), who’s clipped tones are reminiscent of some of the British comedy greats. He has the humour and exasperation of a bobby who’s seen it all and wants results…who is this hatted lady who keeps taking over his investigation? One of my favourite moments in the play is the handshake at the end between these two as they congratulate each other for a job well done. They are unlikely duo to be sure.

As arguably the main character, Letitia “Letty” Blackstock (Barbara Wilshere) is something of a stalwart. Sensible, caring, perhaps a little naïve, Wilshere carries her through a range of emotions, always whilst maintaining that stiff upper lip to be expected of the lady of the manor. Dora “Bunny” Bunner (Karen Drury) is the more eccentric friend, cared for my Letty. Her nervous disposition and forgetful nature bring some laughs as she says exactly what she thinks and is unable to keep any secret. At times, I almost want to pass her the smelling salts.

Julia Simmons (Lucy Evans) is eye catching from the start in her scarlet dress; there is a sexuality about her that doesn’t quite fit into the rather quaint, rural surroundings. She is excitable and progressive – she is a strong presence on the stage. Her brother, Patrick Simmons (Will Huntingdon) displays charm and cheekiness throughout – the two siblings have excellent chemistry on the stage, as do the other family unit depicted: Mrs Swettenham (Dot Smith) and her long-suffering writer son Edmund Swettenham (Tom Gibbons). Mrs Swettenham really is the epitome of a nosy neighbour, casually dropping by with a jar of honey, all the time denying that she is really there for the gossip.  Phillipa Haymes (Emma Fernell) is a rather sweet addition to this quirky group of people and Fernell plays her with a softness that is unlike any of the other characters depicted. Luke Rhodri puts in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him performance as Rudi Scherz, and I very much enjoyed that he came out for the bows, despite the fact that he only graces the stage for a short space of time…in a blackout.

Finally, Lydia Piechowiak is absolutely hilarious as the maid, Mitzi. She is hard and rude and paranoid and dramatic – her tales of fear from an unnamed Eastern European country change with every retelling. She should be the most untrustworthy character on the stage, and yet somehow, I never question whether she is the murder. Piechowiak brings laughs aplenty, and every time she walks on the stage, the audience waits with baited breath for a hard word or a dramatic turn. Fabulous casting.

My only niggle production-wise is the sound. Especially at the beginning of the play, it is very difficult to hear the dialogue. The stage is very deep, and it seems to be more of an issue when the characters are upstage. Some of the actors project incredibly well (Butcher, Evans and Piechowiak in particular) but others sometimes lose their words to the air. With such a densely packed production, every word counts.

Overall, I love the authenticity of the costumes (Michael Lunney) and there were lots of them to show the passing of time, the simplicity of the music (Lynette Webster) – it reminds me of a simpler time, and the attention to detail in the set (Andy Martin) with a beautiful pastoral scene as a backdrop (Jon Goodwin).

You know just what to expect with a good old murder mystery and this one does not disappoint. A Murder is Announced is playing at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal until Thursday 2nd June.

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