I have always said, or if I didn’t I do now, it aint what you do it is the way you serve it up. Cooks and prostitutes know what I mean, not that I know many cooks. But it is a bloody sight easier to make an interesting meal of Coq au Vin than it is to tingle taste buds with beans on toast. And, in theatrical terms, Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ is very much a ‘beans on toast’ pot-boiler. I love her books, The ABC Murders, Murder is Easy, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are absolute gems. Read ‘em all. Far too many times than is good for me. But she doesn’t really translate. Dame Christie is all plot and stock characters. Fascinating on the page, a bit ploddy on a stage.
So you need a keen theatrical eye to make them work. TV does it par excellence with Joan Hickson’s definitive Miss Marple and, even better, with David Suchet’s Poirot. Sublime characterisations of the Belgian egotist and his super sidekicks, Japp and Hastings, guarantee an evening of fireside pleasure. And the latter is all so art deco, from its geometrical openings to its opulent London flats with those overlarge clocks, it screams pre war 1930s. And I like that sort of thing. Which goes some way to explaining why I loved Alistair Brown’s latest production for the Rep. I have always admired this director, can teach me a thing or two, and his setting of this trap for the unwary deserved at least four stars before anyone opened their mouths. I won’t describe it, far too difficult and time consuming, but it gobsmacked you for its opulence and style. You were never in any doubt that you were firmly in those heady and frivolous thirties before the dark clouds of world wars descended. Mr Brown, and his interior designer Alan Goss, had laid before us a visual treat and laced it with super mood music of the Shostakovich variety. The rest was down to those actors and their mouths.
There were ten of them, eleven if you include a spiky boatman, and they were the invited guests to the politically correct Soldier Island and its sumptuous villa. All had murderous history and all entered with innocent aplomb. And all were doomed to die at an unseen hand. Poison, axes, guns, syringes, even bear shaped clocks, you name it. They all died, or most of them did. To the tune of Ten Little Soldiers (Ten Little Niggers in Miss Christie's unacceptable original) they popped their clogs in consummate 1930’s style surrounded by that evocative music. All a load of pleasurable theatrical tosh, and if the ending displeased you could not help but admire the clean and cosy way they all died to order. But And Then There Were None is a very orderly play. There may be loads of deaths, there are very few surprises. Practically everything is flagged unmercifully, but in a production this good it mattered not a jot. It may just be narrative beans but, as Mr Brown seemed to be saying, it comes on a clever piece of artistic toast.
The ten soldiers, downed one by one from Craig Fisher’s stunning chimney design, were all competent and well paced and even the weakest actors entered into the overall style. I particularly liked Liz Blower’s emotional Vera Claythorne and Chris Young’s nervy Dr Armstrong. Both performances had an essential truth and subtly avoided the melodrama that constantly lurked in the script. Rep stalwarts Angela Goss, a superb Emily Brent in an equally superb evening dress, Joe Butcher with a very convincing South African accent, and Phil Baker as the believably mad High Court Judge all twirled with ease and Luke Howard, the first victim, briefly created an inconsiderate and engaging louse. But none of the performers totally jarred. David Hillman did not have the voice of the quintessential butler but he moved beautifully and looked an absolute treat. Don’t think he ever served the Sandeman’s port but a metaphorical silver salver was never far away from his person.
But whatever my individual caveats this was an evening of superbly served up theatre. The set was awesome, the music evocatively underscored the deadly narrative, Richard Foster’s lighting complemented all the moods, and the tightly knit team of actors turned and died on cue. I lapped it up, recognising that a master of the directorial art at the local Rep had pulled an illustrious rabbit out of a pretty ordinary hat. Being full of artistic jealousy the only question is whether I should bring about his demise with poison, an axe, or a hangman’s noose. Don’t think I will. Very appropriate but much too messy. Reckon I will give him four and a half stars instead. That should finish him off.