Review: A Murder is Announced at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to review the Middle Theatre Company Ltd’s latest production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced on its opening night of a five-night run at the wonderful Orchard Theatre in Dartford.

While young Agatha Christie’s husband was away fighting in the First World War, she worked in the dispensary of the University College Hospital, London, where surrounded by poisons the idea of writing her first detective story was conceived. Her elder sister Madge was an avid supporter of the idea, so Agatha rose to the challenge, and the rest as they say is history.

Mrs Christie was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1971 to honour her many literary works. Known as The Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha penned thirteen novels in the  Miss Marple series. A Murder is Announced is a firm favourite amongst fans of the series.

As Act One of A Murder is Announced opens, the audience are invited into Letitia Blacklock’s drawing room at Little Paddocks, her typically Victorian home in Chipping Cleghorn.

Within minutes of the opening the audience are gripped by the storytelling (adapted for stage by Leslie Darbon) when Dora Bunner, the delightfully dizzy and slightly senile Bunny reads an article from the local paper which reads:

“A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October the twenty-ninth, at Little Paddocks – at six thirty p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.”

The residents are thrown into an excitable turmoil, not sure whether to be thrilled by the excitement in this unexpected event for a sleepy country village or scared by the threat to them. Is it a practical joker taking things a step too far, or is the threat real and the residents should be in fear of their lives…?

Not wanting to spoil the surprise and give the plot away, I’ll just say that the second half of the investigation into the running order of events at Little Paddocks after 6.30pm on that evening is methodically unraveled by Inspector Craddock, along with Sergeant Mellors.

Local resident – and in Inspector Craddock’s view the interfering – Miss Marple (Louise Jameson) decides to get involved and make her own discoveries about the order of events.

It is a small cast of just twelve, but you’ll be thrilled with the star studded line up from Janet Dibley (Fat Friends and Eastenders) as Letitia Blacklock, Louise Jameson (Bergerac and Tenko) as Miss Marple, Tom Butcher (The Bill and Emmerdale) as Inspector Craddock and Dean Smith (Waterloo Road and Last Tango in Halifax) as Edmund Swettenham, to name just a few that you’ll recognise.

There are comic interludes when the wonderful Hungarian housemaid Mitzi (Lydia Piechowiak) takes to the stage, which lighten the audience’s mood amongst the more serious elements of the story.

A Murder is Announced plays at the Orchard from 15th to 19th August. Grab your ticket while you still can to find out whodunnit!

Review: The Mousetrap at the Orchard Theatre

The Mousetrap is one of those plays that brings with it a sort of legend. The world’s longest-running production has been playing to audiences in the West End since 1952, where it continues to this day, in addition to the national tour that now brings the play to Dartford. Much of its success, I suspect, lies in its air of mystery; as the curtain falls, audiences are kindly requested not to reveal the secret. And while there’s no way to know for sure, it seems most people do keep it to themselves – in a world where social media makes it far too easy to stumble on spoilers (Game of Thrones, anyone?) I’m amazed and impressed that I’ve never caught so much as a hint of the plot, let alone the identity of the murderer.

 

Photo credit: Liza Maria Dawson

So in keeping with that, there’s not much I can say by way of summary. A young couple, Molly and Giles, open a guesthouse on a snowy night. As their first guests arrive, news comes over the wireless about a murder committed the day before in London. And that’s about as far as I’m willing to go… but this is Agatha Christie, after all, so suffice to say there are secrets, plot twists and a spooky nursery rhyme, and by the end of Act 1 you can expect to be totally confused about who anyone really is or what’s actually going on.

Now let’s be honest – The Mousetrap isn’t Agatha Christie’s best story. It doesn’t have the creeping tension of And Then There Were None, nor does it feature either of the famous detectives Poirot or Miss Marple, and there are a few slightly frustrating loose ends left dangling at the end of the show. Even the author didn’t expect it to run for more than eight months, so the play’s enduring success is a bit of a mystery in itself. But there’s plenty to enjoy in this traditional whodunnit: an eccentric cast of characters; a set that’s as labyrinthine as the plot; a touch of humour; another touch of danger… and of course, the potential satisfaction to be found in correctly identifying the guilty party. (Not that I’d know – but I assume it’s pretty satisfying.)

Photo credit: Liza Maria Dawson

Like most Christie plays, the cast in Ian Watt-Smith’s production are very much an ensemble, working together to confuse and misdirect the audience. Oliver Gully is wonderful as the flamboyant architect Christopher Wren – no, not that one – and former Eastender Louise Jameson is thoroughly detestable as the stern and snobbish Mrs Boyle. There’s also an enjoyably bizarre turn from Gregory Cox as Mr Paravicini; both character and actor are clearly having fun in the role of the inevitable unexpected guest.

The Mousetrap is a clever and finely crafted story – but then we’d expect no less from the Queen of Crime. More than that, though, it’s an undisputed phenomenon, and for that reason alone this record-breaking play is a must-see.

The Mousetrap is at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 21st May.