The success of last year’s production of The Mousetrap has prompted the producers to follow that up with the staging of another of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries – Leslie Darbon’s adaptation of A Murder is Announced.
The Mousetrap has well earned its place in the pantheon of classic plays, for not only its incredible durability and 60 continuous years on stage, but because its plot twist continues to surprise audiences to this day. A Murder is Announced, while charming and full of typical Christie red herrings and archetypes, including the beloved sleuth Miss Marple, is a much inferior script with a far from unforeseen resolution.
Set in the living room of Little Paddocks, the stately home of Letitia Blacklock, the story unfolds when an announcement is placed in the local Chipping Cleghorn newspaper – "A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends accept this, the only intimation." This comes as a surprise to Letitia (Debra Lawrance) and the other residents of the house: her living companion Dora ‘Bunny’ Bunner (Deidre Rubenstein), her second cousins, who know her as ‘aunt’, Julia and Patrick Simmons (Elizabeth Nabben and Nathaniel Middleton), widowed lodger Phillipa Haymes (Libby Munro) and housekeeper Mitzi (Victoria Haralabidou). Miss Blacklock brushes off the threatening nature of the message and determines to prepare for the visitors she plans to host that evening, neighbour Mrs Swettenham (Carmen Duncan) and her writer son Edmund (James Beck). When the fateful moment arrives the announcement proves as no idle threat, but the victim is entirely surprising.
This script does little to challenge its performers, nevertheless the cast here put on a good show full of period charm, classic English stoicism and suspiciously enigmatic behaviours. In particular, Lawrance is given the most to work with and distinguishes Miss Blacklock with a high degree of accomplishment. Haralabidou also makes her mark as nutty Hungarian housekeeper Mitzi and provides welcome comic relief, sparkling whenever she enters the scene. Miss Marple (Judi Farr) as always ‘just happens’ to be around at the time of the murder, this time having met Miss Blacklock while recuperating at the local spa. Farr injects all the requisite charm and strength that we’ve come to expect from the iconic Miss Marple, while Robert Grubb fulfils the role of the clichéd police inspector with fewer investigative skills than the little old lady gumshoe.
Technical aspects of the show are well executed, Darren Yap’s direction is strong, Matt Cox’s lighting appropriate, Linda Berwick’s set is convincing (although no one ever built a bay window to look out onto a wall) and Suzy Strout’s costumes are attractive. Particular praise should be laid upon Strout’s hair design, which is uniformly excellent.
The reason that murder mysteries remain a mainstay of popular entertainment is often in part due to the fact that the audience is made feel intelligent by being directed to the answers before they are revealed by the story itself. On that basis, A Murder is Announced should make even the most snoozy of audience members feel positively intellectual. The identity of the murderer is pretty predictable from the moment the crime is committed, while the many little twists that are strewn along the way to the ultimate reveal are sign-posted well in advance.
This is far from challenging theatre, so regular theatregoers shouldn’t expect grand artistry here. However if you’re looking to take your grannie or elderly mother out for a night of mild entertainment, she’s bound to thank you for the lovely evening at this affair. Beats a night in watching repeats of Midsomer Murders.