Agatha Christie’s “Love From A Stranger” is at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tue 5th to Sat 9th June), performing one of Christie’s earlier works for stage (adapted by Frank Vosper with an original opening date in 1936). In this production, our date-line has moved forward to 1958 (probably towards the end of the last vestiges of what was left of the original social society the original work was set in), but it still works due to Agatha Christie’s understanding of what drives us inside as people, and this work which delves more into the mind of a psychopathic killer rather than the event itself can so easily be adapted to any time line and so many plot variations.
This production from Fiery Angel and Royal & Derngate Northampton is as good as any Agatha Christie production that I have seen to date on stage, and of course working with a play as the original source material and not adapting one of the books keeps us far closer to the original work. These plays though, for the most part, do belong in a world that has simply vanished, a very polite world of often the very comfortably off or aristocratic strata of British Society where convention and appearances are everything. These are always very neat murders that leave little mess for the house-keeper to clean up in the morning. This has led (perhaps a bit unfairly) to some of Agatha Christie’s characters being referred to as “cardboard cut-outs”. Perhaps true in parts, but Agatha Christie was a people watcher more than anything else; what drove people to crime I think interested her far more than the event itself.
In this story, a bored fiancée (Cecily Harrington played by Helen Bradbury) soon to be married meets an exciting new stranger in the course of renting out her flat, has a whirlwind romance with the stranger (Bruce Lovell played by Sam Frenchum ) and quickly marries him. The new love of her life however turns out to be a psychopathic serial murderer, and could her recent half share in winning £50,000 with a friend have anything to do with his love for her too? Old family Aunt Louise (Nicola Sanderson), friend Mavis Wilson (Alice Haig) and jilted fiancé Michael Lawrence (Justin Avoth) have their own thoughts on the matter. A very typical Agatha Christie class divide view here too with Gareth Williams as Hodgson the gardener and Molly Logan as his niece/housekeeper Ethel. Crispin Redman as Dr Gribble also puts in a nice character performance in Act Two.
As usual with all of these productions, everything needs to work here to create that “nostalgia effect”, and good performances from everyone combined with good stage sets and costume design combine to pull the audience into the story. Some unusual use of how the King’s Theatre stage can work at a mechanical level for sets for this production too. Nice to see set designers thinking a little differently here as to how to present multiple sets to an audience (not telling you what, go and see)
This production has a First Act of roughly 45 minutes and a Second Act of roughly 75 minutes, so time does feel a little short in the first act as everything is being set up for the finale. A short first act is perhaps a bit merciful as it is a very slow introduction to our story with little happening. The main value in it now is more as a social documentary into how people viewed the class structure of the period. Act Two though is thankfully a completely different piece of work as we start to explore the mind of a serial killer along with the thinly disguised sexual arousal that our killer gets from his control over his intended victims. For myself, I would have been far happier with this work left as a psychological drama as that is where its strength lies. Being an Agatha Christie story there are of course “red herrings” placed throughout the story and the inevitable twist in the story at the end (which this one just did not need).
At the end of the day though, a good solid production with strong character roles from everyone on stage and a production that is simply an entertaining night out at the theatre.
Review by Tom King
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