Review: Who Killed Agatha Christie? Tabs Production. Nottingham Theatre Royal

Who Killed Agatha Christie?

Given the subject matter of this play, and as a theatre reviewer, I’m almost afraid to put pen to paper in case I incur the murderous wrath of cast or creative, but here goes…

This time last year, I was a fledgling theatre reviewer who was asked to review “The Final Twist” which was part of the Colin McIntyre Classic Thriller Season 2021. I very much enjoyed that production, so I was thrilled (if you’ll excuse the pun) to be invited back to review Tab Production’s “Who Killed Agatha Christie?”

Please don’t be fooled by the title, this play has nothing to do with the seminal crime writer…neither Miss Marple’s handbag nor Poirot’s moustache grace the stage at any point. Instead, we are presented with a two hander, set solely in a small, stuffy and sparsely furnished flat in 1978. John Terry (John Goodrum) has invited scathing and acerbic retired theatre critic Arthur “Agatha/Aggy” Christie (David Gilbrook) to his flat in the hope of catching their respective partners, for want of a better phrase, in the act! Terry needs Christie to enact the perfect murder…without committing murder at all. Confused? You definitely will be…

As soon as the curtain rises and the audience is presented with a small, wooden room with a prominently placed skeleton, and a sound recorder as the focal point (set design by Sarah Wynne Kordas), you just know that this won’t be like a typical Agatha Christie caper. The first line spoken, “dead on time…Agatha” is filled with humorous foreboding. A recent niggle for me in watching another production at The Theatre Royal, was the lack of projection from the depths of the stage; this is certainly not an issue in this production as both Goodrum and Gilbrook project incredibly well; not a word is missed, and this is important where the script is so wordy and the audience don’t want to miss a single word…we’re all looking for the twist from the start.

As a duo, Goodrum and Gilbrook are fantastic and play off each other with ease. The pace of the dialogue is intense, and neither miss a beat. I find myself in awe of both actors’ ability to memorise such a complex script and deliver each and every word.

As Arthur, Gilbrook creates a surprisingly vulnerable character; the words of his caustic theatre reviews seemingly forgotten, at least by Arthur, it is difficult to imagine that this Arthur, this older angina-ridden man with a broken heart, could cause such emotional pain himself. He initially steps onto the stage in his wide brimmed hat and silk cravat, exuding an air of import as he, along with the audience, try to work out exactly why John Terry has asked to meet him. When it becomes clear that his younger partner, Brian Coombes, has been having an affair with John’s wife, Jo, we see his heart break, and from that point he becomes much more fragile and relatable. The use of the sound recording machine, giving Arthur a live aural performance of Brian’s adultery in the very flat downstairs, is uncomfortable for the audience, not least because of Gilbrook’s reactions which makes it crueller of John Terry to force Arthur to listen to it in the hope that he will become an accomplice to the perfect murder.

Gilbrook gives a wonderful performance but the star of the night is John Goodrum. At times, I find myself just watching his performance, almost as if it’s a masterclass in acting. From the second, the curtain raises on his frozen figure, to his final words, this actor just keeps on giving. Presenting initially as suave and charming, Goodrum takes the audience on a journey through his mind, through his ambitions, through his “plot(ting)” all the way to his resolution. John Terry is, to put no finer point on it, mad – he knows this, he doesn’t try to hide this, but within the madness is a criminal mastermind. I just love his deadpan presentation juxtaposing with his jaunty mania! John mentally tortures Arthur…and enjoys it – as do the apparently sadistic audience! One can almost imagine John Terry frolicking in the wards of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as he melodramatically espouses on elitism in the theatre and how the words of critics can ruin lives and minds. John is clearly a highly intelligent man with an extensive vocabulary, and Goodrum switches between sense and nonsense with ease. Worryingly, Goodrum makes the nonsensical seem sensical…no wonder Arthur’s angina is playing up as this theatre reviewer felt her own heart skip a few beats, especially during the climax scenes in Act 2. The lighting, also by John Goodrum (my, he’s a talented man) until this point is natural and simple, but come Act 2, in scenes of high drama or tension, the lighting is dramatic and, in some places, reminiscent of a horror film. Rather than feeling out of place, the characters lean into this cliché and it works very well. The use of darkness on the stage is also well done, and at a certain point, just make the audience feel helpless – we may be a little sadistic in our theatre viewing pleasure, but we’re not murderers…one would hope…

Karen Henson has directed this production to perfection, from the casting to the blocking, everything is just spot on and definitely not “trite and absurd”. The plot is somewhat of a slow burner, with lots of exposition in Act 1, with the action in Act 2, and not forgetting the final twist of course which is just deliciously performed, lit and presented as the curtain falls.

After having a fair amount of vitriol directed at us theatre reviewers in this performance, there is an uncomfortable moment after the bows where Goodrum talks directly to the audience, and this reviewer must admit a small amount of panic in case he asks “are there any reviewers in tonight?”  as I know my poised pen atop notebook is a dead giveaway.

This play is about the fragility of humankind and the lengths to which people will go to get what they feel they deserve as we watch John Smith go from cuckold to killer. This play is dead good and I’m just dying for you to grab a ticket before the production closes on Saturday 16 July.

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