Review: A Judgement in Stone at the Orchard Theatre

Ruth Rendell was once described in The Sunday Times as “the best woman crime writer since Christie” – so it seems fitting that Bill Kenwright’s Classic Thriller Company, having presumably run out of Agatha Christie stories to stage, has chosen one of Rendell’s most famous works for their latest production. A Judgement in Stone unpicks the story of a grisly mass shooting, but despite commendable performances from an impressive cast of household names, it doesn’t quite succeed in blowing its audience away.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Largely, I think this is simply because it’s not Agatha Christie. Her stories work on stage because often they take place in one location, so focusing all the action in a single room doesn’t feel limiting, and because they build to a big reveal of a shocking, clever twist based on clues that have been liberally scattered throughout the play. Rendell’s novel opens by revealing both murderer and motive; it wasn’t really intended as a murder mystery so much as an exploration of social class divisions in the 1970s. Simon Brett and Antony Lampard’s adaptation forces the story into the classic whodunnit mould, meaning a lot of that subtlety is lost, and we spend the whole evening waiting for a twist that, unfortunately, never comes.

 

That said, it’s an entertaining enough production, and director Roy Marsden certainly succeeds in ramping up the suspense, particularly in Act 2. The play opens some weeks after the murders of the wealthy Coverdale family, as a detective from London – called in by someone important in the Government – arrives to help the local police solve the crime. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, beginning when Eunice first joins the family and building up to the night of the murder nine months later. In between, the two police detectives interview various suspects (at the murder scene, rather bizarrely) on their way to solving the crime, which eventually happens more by luck than judgement; there’s certainly no Poirot-esque flash of inspiration that suddenly makes sense of everything, and this also contributes to the play’s rather subdued conclusion.

Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

The cast do a good job with some slightly sketchy roles (apart from one brief exchange about family life and fish paste sandwiches, for instance, we learn next to nothing about Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon’s police detectives, who only really seem to be there to set up the next flashback). Sophie Ward is great as the awkward, slightly eccentric housekeeper Eunice, while Deborah Grant has perhaps a bit too much fun as her religious fanatic best friend Joan, and there’s a solid performance from Blue’s Antony Costa as Rodger Meadows, the family’s gardener with a dodgy past.

Having seen and enjoyed several productions from the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which work so well on stage, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with this latest offering. But here’s a twist: I do now want to read Ruth Rendell’s novel. Although I don’t feel it entirely works as a play, the story and characters have enough potential that I’m intrigued to find out everything the stage version didn’t tell me. And fans of Ruth Rendell’s novels, who already know how the story ends, may enjoy this fresh take on a favourite.

A Judgement in Stone is at the Orchard Theatre until 30th September.

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: America’s Number One Detective Agency at the Drayton Arms

Written by Liv Hunterson and directed by Anna Marshall, Fatale Femme’s debut production America’s Number One Detective Agency is an enjoyably silly and suitably atmospheric – if a little more convoluted than feels strictly necessary – homage to the film noir genre.

Our heroine Vivian O’Connell (Fleur De Wit) is fighting to reclaim her crown as America’s top private detective, recently lost to her ex-boyfriend Bobby (Hamish Adams-Cairns) in a high profile case. But he gets all the best clients these days, so Vivian and her partner Joey (Siobhan Cha Cha) are reduced to helping out irritatingly perky aspiring actress Betty Channing (Alex Hinson), who seems to have acquired a stalker. Throw in a deranged gangster (Oliver David-Harrison), a dapper English gent (Iain Gibbons), and something about a gorilla(?), and the stage is set for a mystery caper that will take the gang all the way to Las Vegas. But will they all make it out alive…?

Arriving at the theatre is like stepping into an early 20th century jazz club, with a live band and singer playing in the corner while the actors lurk in the shadows, smoking and looking moody. The musical accompaniment works particularly well in maintaining the film noir atmosphere throughout the play, with singer Isabella Bassett taking on a very different role on occasion as Betty’s thuggish ex-husband, Freddie.

Under the direction of Anna Marshall, the cast of six give good individual performances but also work very well as an ensemble, keeping the action moving at a rapid pace throughout. (If anything it’s all a bit too fast – in such a complex plot where every detail counts, it’s easy to blink and miss something important.) Even when not directly involved in a scene the actors all remain on stage, either as secondary characters or as part of the set; the moment in the car is particularly well executed. I’m still not 100% sure if the problem with the door was part of the script or a set malfunction, but if it was the latter, then the cast are also to be congratulated on smoothly working around a frustrating technical glitch and turning it into a running gag.

With an even male/female split in the cast, it’s refreshing to see the women taking charge and driving the story forward, while the men are busy pining for lost lovers, cowering under tables and getting punched in the face. Fleur De Wit’s Vivian is a feisty heroine, keeping her cool despite the chaos unfolding around her, with strong support from Siobhan Cha Cha as Vivian’s trusty associate Joey, and Alex Hinson as Betty, the Hollywood starlet with hidden depths. Meanwhile the three men provide some of the best comedy moments, particularly Iain Gibbons as Teddy, who just can’t help putting himself in harm’s way whenever he feels a lady’s honour needs defending – even though the ladies are more than capable of taking care of themselves.

America’s Number One Detective Agency is good fun, particularly for fans of the film noir genre; it certainly looks and sounds the part. The plot could benefit from being a little less complex, or the pace of the production taken down just a touch so the audience can keep up with the various twists and turns (and jokes). That said, this is still a very entertaining show, and a promising debut from Fatale Femme.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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.