Love from a stranger

Love from a stranger

Love from a Stranger terrifies audience with skill

A terrifying play from 1937 -- Not to be missed

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Love from a Stranger is a thriller so tense the collective heart rate in the audience must have hit A & E danger levels. And mysteriously this play has you wondering what it was all about -- long after you leave the theatre.  

The play was a 1937 classic hit thriller and back then they did like their plots sharp and snappy, the action complex and the fear levels sky-high. 

It is an adaptation of one of Christie’s short stories by a Frank Vosper who starred as the terrifying anti-hero in its west End run and transferred it to Broadway in 1937. In a ghastly twist of fate rather too like one of Agatha’s stories, the dashing Frank Vosper disappeared on his way back to Britain for another opening of Love from a Stranger. He was last seen on board the ship home at midnight, on the private balcony of Muriel Oxford, Miss Great Britain 1936. His body was washed up in Plymouth days later, Coroner’s verdict ? ‘Death by misadventure.’

The action of fictional Love from a Stranger has a slow-build beginning. In fact so little happens in the first half it almost droops into a stagey drawing room drama.  Aunt Loulou played with comic gusto by Nicola Sanderson is visiting her niece Cecily and her friend Mavis – upscale office girls who have recently won the sweepstake. Cecily, an elegant classy secretary awaits her long-gone fiancé Michael who’s been out in the Sudan for three years 'eating tinned asparagus and getting sand in my ears'. Planned as a rapturous homecoming for the wedding everything starts to go wrong. Cecily has itchy feet. Their flat is up for rent and Mavis, her co-winner is off for three months on the Continent. Marriage to Michael looks a bit dull. Should she call it off? Or postpone the Big Day? She can’t decide. But as she settles down to wait for his return, events take an exotic turn.

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Cue Bruce, the stranger of the title. He is a swashbuckling American, handsome and charming, come to rent the apartment. He appears as the answer to Cecily’s longings. His tales of solitary life on the banks of he Yukon ‘ with only he beavers for company’ enthrall Cecily,  By the time  fiancé Michael arrives  an hour later he finds they’ve dashed off for lunch at the Ritz and when Cecily returns to face the flatmate and Auntie Lou, it’s a done deal. Heartbroken Michael gets the brush off and Cecily and her (very) new love begin their life together. 

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Can this be it? All pretty predictable. But the second part of the play is very different. The newly weds rent Philomel Cottage a remote, telephone-free hideaway far from a country village with some terrifying secrets in store. Initially loving and attentive, Bruce becomes tetchy spending a lot of time in his cellar darkroom. Cecily takes on a gardener, Hodgson (rendered with solid conviction by Gareth Williams) along with his cheeky niece Ethel played with entertaining bravura by Molly Logan. She manages to confront Bruce and his private cellar activities with brilliant defiance. 'Curiosity killed the cat’ he warns her menacingly. But all isn’t going well for Bruce. He has heart spasms (or does he?) and Cecily calls charming Dr.Gribble – every inch the debonair physician of mid century life. He’s concerned, Bruce is overdoing it. He doesn’t think the couple’s planned trip ‘abroad’ is a good idea. 

Even writing about the rest of the play induces palpitations. Love from a Stranger has some remarkable secrets to unfold  although half the audience is still wondering what they were. Credit for maintaining this fever-level state of tension must go the acting abilities of a spectacularly talented cast. Alice Haig as flatmate Mavis is reassuringly ordinary – a role harder than it appears. Michael Lawrence, the jilted lover, played by Justin Avoth is a moving convincing but shadowy figure. Yet the laurels must go to Sam Frenchum as Bruce Lovell who begins as a see-through philandering fraudster and emerges as a far more terrifying beast than that. And to Cecily, Helen Bradbury who amazes an audience who think they’ve seen in all in the thriller stakes.  

Top tips: what is the doctor doing? And the oh-so-innocent gardener? This is no formulaic Agatha Christie whodunit with a shiver of excitement in the sandwich of procedural nonsense. Frank Vosper created a complex insightful chiller which will not only have you on the edge of your theatre seat, but hammering out  plot details in the bar, long after the action is over. The eternal key questions ; what did the characters know and when did they know it? And who is really the villain?

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