Love From A Stranger
Feb 20th - 22nd 2020
Cruising happily down my blogs I see that I have not thrown my incisive, or irritating, theatrical opinion through Wheathampstead’s ample doors for nigh on eighteen months. They gave us a cracker (My mother Said etc.), lovingly scribed, and a damp squib (The Herd), sensibly silent. I love to praise, or at least commend, and found little in the latter. But they clearly miss me, given all the get well/stuffed cards I never received. Wait Until Dark may have been good, I am told it was, but thrillers on stage do not do a lot for me. Explains why in over forty years of directing I have only ever done two. And one of those was the real life Rattenbury murder case. Much more fun. But you should support local theatre and they do not get much more local than WDS. On a dreary Saturday night I threw my twenty quid for two into their collecting tin and prayed that the only murders on stage would be welcome ones.
Love From A Stranger may have Agatha Christie’s illustrious name on it but it is no Gaslight or Shadow of a Doubt. The main character is clearly a killer, probably a serial one, but there the similarity ends. The others have tension and narrative thrusts in spades, this Stranger had little. Teasing clues should engender a growing awareness in the prospective victim to deliciously engage a breathless audience. It’s a given. I am blowed if I could sense much in this script, not a great help to actors, and what there was suffered from muted direction and prosaic presentation. Director Robin Langer’s first port of call with an old fashioned pot boiler should have been to create oodles of menace in which to immerse the characters. But lack of atmospheric music and unimaginative country cottage setting scuppered that particular trick.
So it says a lot that most of those on stage turned in more than passable offerings and one or two were exceptionally good. Given some fine and spooky packaging they were skilled enough to add a grip the play never delivered. Or so I thought whilst contemplating a few more of those get stuffed cards. Damon Pattison was skilled and confident in his creation of the mysterious stranger who wins the heart of gullible and nouveau riche Cecily Harrington (Lisa Fitzgerald). Eminently watchable, Mr Pattison’s too good to be true Bruce Lovell hinted at menace and danger almost from his first entrance. But if there were any warning bells in Ms Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the innocent prey they were pretty well muffled. Clues, some of them clunky, abounded but it was only in a slightly overwritten last scene that pennies seemed to finally drop. A signalling of earlier doubt would have enhanced an otherwise competent performance.
Other than Mr Pattison the best bit of acting came from Julie Gough in the role of best friend and London flatmate Mavis Wilson. Ms Gough has impressed before and her crystal cut accent created a character with brains and poise. I reckon she would have soon sent an incipient American killer and his mysterious suitcase packing. Her warning bells were decidedly not muffled. Viv Fairley made for a very nice Auntie Loo-Loo, even if the sniffy critic in me sensed a requirement for a more comic portrayal, and Sheila Scull was a pleasing country cottage maid. If she wasn’t making Cumberland pies offstage, everything about her suggested she should be. Steve Leadbetter struggled with his posh accent in the thankless role of Ms Harrington’s ditched boy friend and John Simpson, looking every inch the benign country doctor, merely struggled. I have no wish to be unkind and if Mr Simpson had relaxed into his role it could have been an absolute scene stealer. Especially in the scene where notorious past murderers are lovingly regaled to the unbelieving Ms Harrington. Malcolm Hobbs did a splendid job as the curmudgeon country gardener Hodgson and created so many alarm bells, buried peroxide bottles and financial chicanery, the heroine should have been out on her bike long before the last scene.
But Love From A Stranger is not a logical play. It is a bit of 1950’s thriller nonsense, adapted from a Christie short story by Frank Vosper, and needs mixing up in sign posted menace and dangerous atmosphere to make it work. Mysterious suitcases, prohibited cellars, the sinister bottles, and books on notorious murderers, are all very fine. They can provide a solid and pleasingly vicarious base to the most prosaic of plots. Christie does it in spades in her books. Wheathampstead had a pretty good cast overall but rather than murder most foul we got murder most bland. I quite enjoyed my evening, they deserve my twenty quid. But I shall of course, given my less than enthusiastic review, look warily for the get stuffed letters and any number of peroxide bottles. I reckon Crippen had similar problems. Roy Hall