THE MIRROR CRACKED AT THE ARTS THEATRE
Miss Marple has changed. In the opening scenes of Agatha Christie’s stage adaptation she sits motionless in the middle of a rock-a-billy riot of Sixties boppers as they jive around her invalid chair. The music is fab. The Shirelles blast out the sublime One Fine Day and Helen Shapiro ( anyone remember the 15 year old with the voice of Bessie Smith?) hits those exuberant notes in Walking Back to Happiness as if 1962 was only yesterday. Just as the scene hits peak fun – a young man on a black and white screen above the stage is brutally executed.
It’s a dream of course. Poor Jane Marple is chair-bound and confused. No one from ‘ the village’ has been around to see her and her carer is just on her way out to get a glimpse of the Hollywood Royalty about to arrive at the Manor House.
Susie Blake as the veteran detective gives us a bleak vision of old age This character is far from her glory days as centre of detective attention. She is side-lined and redundant. No wonder her mind plays on the tragedies of the past ( her fiancé shot for cowardice in the First World War) and anxiety about the rip-roaring adventurousness of the present. The world is changing around her and in this version of a little known murder mystery adapted by Rachel Wagstaff , it seems there is no room for her skills any more. After 12 novels and 25 short stories this is a bit of a shock. Her adoptive child now Chief Inspector Dermot Craddock pays only a cursory visit. Bossily insecure, he is played expertly with a thin- skinned tetchiness by Simon Shepherd, as a man very much of his time. It’s all looking a bit bleak for the one-time queen of detectives. Bad enough to be out of favour, but a washed up woman endures a worse fate. Patronized even by her protégé Dermot, she feels finished.
Yet Miss Marple may be down but she’s not out. Her friend Dolly Bantry – Julia Hills is comic gold as the outspoken entitled lady of the village. ‘A new housing estate on the outskirts appalls her “ all those girls pushing prams and not a sign of a wedding ring anywhere” not to mention the supermarket “ finding your own food and putting it in a basket? No!” A true friend to Miss Marple she arrives with the news that someone has been killed at the Manor House ( recently her own home ) . Even more intriguing, the new owner is a Hollywood star, five times married Marina Gregg (unlikely stage name) and the death occurred at her welcome cocktail party when the victim dropped dead at Dolly Bantry’s feet after downing a Daiquiri intended for the famous film star herself. Chief Inspector Craddock is soon round for a chat and Miss Marple springs into a new lease of life – particularly when the Inspector is persuaded to take her – in her wheelchair – to conduct the initial interviews. There is no time to lose and Miss Gregg’s life is in danger. Cue the suspects; Marina’s bellicose husband Jason is played with a bullying swagger by Joe Dixon, her devoted manservant Giuseppe Renzo ( dismissed as a ‘wop’ by the Inspector) is given a touching intensity by Huw Parmenter – just as well, as he does resemble Faulty Tower’s Manuel as he dashes emotionally about the set. And if veteran star Marina corresponds to Elizabeth Taylor in her marriage tally, she also has a streak of Angelina Jolie - she adopted two girls (but unlike Angelina had them ‘sent away’ inexplicably twelve years before the action). The late and glorious arrival on the set of Suzanna Hamilton as the star does not disappoint. She is a vision of fifties loveliness in a Dior gown and perfect chignon, charming, gracious – but secretly worried, like Miss Marple herself by the passing of time and its effect on her career.
The scene is set and the plot weaves its spell.
For Christie fans this production is a two layer box of Belgian chocolates - packed with all her favourite misleading traps . Yet there is plenty of interest for any audience. The play emerges as much more than a ‘murder in the village mystery’. The famous film star is filming an historical drama set in Tudor England and plays Catherine of Aragon to a minxy young Anne Boleyn rising rival Lola Brewster ( a tremendous stage presence from Gillian Saker) whom she is convinced hates her - camera lights action – these film- within- a -play scenes are very good, - the change of costume and character is quirkily revealing and we could have done with more of them, yet the script is still a success, packed with false leads and sassy women ( Davina Moon even animates a classic secretary Ella Zalinsky into zingy life complete with super-sexy suit and springy presence). Most of all, the playwright Rachel Wagstaff transforms a tired fearful Miss Marple into a sensitive thoughtful woman, caught up in her own regrets but open to the oncoming world . If the production is ultimately far too long, unraveling the motivations is repetitive – it is inventive and insightful and by the end we actually come to love Jane Marple as a real person..