Writer: Agatha Christie
Director: Joe Harmston
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The Public Reviews Rating:
Agatha Christie took Murder on the Nile through several incarnations before it reached its final form. Originally called Moon on the Nile, the first version featured Hercule Poirot, whom she removed over concerns as to how the dapper detective would appear on stage. She subsequently reworked it with a new central character, Canon Ambrose Pennefather, written with Francis L Sullivan, her favourite actor and friend, in mind, and it was eventually produced in 1944. Many will also be familiar with the 1978 film, in which Sir Peter Ustinov’s Poirot appears as the detective who solves the puzzle before the police can arrive, and may wonder where he has gone and how the character of Pennefather can simultaneously carry the burden of suspect and amateur ‘tec. Fortunately, although Christie in general is best known for her plotting, the who and how, rather than for depth of character and the why, in Pennefather she has created a complex character, altruistic, well-meaning whilst flawed, scheming and incisive. In this production, the seventh from The Official Agatha Christie Theatre Company, Robert Duncan does a fine job as Pennefather, giving a nuanced performance among other characters who are written rather more two-dimensionally.
So in Murder on the Nile we have the classic ingredients of a Christie mystery: a closed group of people, each with their foibles and secrets, a sudden death with a range of possible culprits, and a clear-headed central character who is able to fathom it out, even without Poirot’s “little grey cells”. On board, we have the newly wedded and beautiful couple, the Mostyns, married after a whirlwind romance; following them, almost like a stalker, is his discarded fiancée, Jacqueline de Severac, revelling in the discomfort she causes the happy couple. Also on board is the foreign doctor, Dr Bessner, the communist class warrior, William Smith, and possibly the world’s biggest and laziest snob, Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes with her put-upon and penniless niece, Christina Grant. The whole is set during a time of unrest in the middle-east with gunshots regularly heard from the shore, and after a banking crisis has seen some moneymen, Kay Mostyn’s father amongst them, do very well, while others, including Dr Bessner and the de Severacs , have lost everything. Christie puts some interesting words into her characters’ mouths about the conduct of bankers which have a certain resonance today and which are perhaps unexpected from a writer often accused of being a snob herself.
So our closed society sets sail. Tensions quickly come to the surface between characters, and Act One closes with a shot. Act Two opens to mayhem shortly afterwards, some verbal sparring and another shooting before the crime is solved. No spoilers here! The first act, introducing the characters to us, is, perhaps predictably, a little slow-moving, but the plot gathers pace – and corpses – in the second.
In this performance, Kate O’Mara, due to play Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes was unwell, so veteran actress Nichola McAuliffe stood in and gave a creditable performance as the superficial socialite, providing many moments of well-timed and welcome comedy, even if she did appear occasionally to be reading her lines from convenient props. Susie Amy, as Kay Mostyn, is perhaps a little too shrill and highly-strung. Despite the vehemence of Christie’s words against the financial world, neither Max Hutchinson’s Smith nor Mark Wynter’s Bessner really get going. The atmosphere of a Nile river boat was recreated in Simon Scullion’s simple but effective static set and the muted background sounds from sound designer, Matthew Bugg. Simple lighting changes ensure the audience know just where the action is in the day and so the narrative is easily followed.
However, despite the resonances with current events, Christie’s well-constructed plots, the class war and tensions on board, seem to come from another era and so, whilst this was undoubtedly an enjoyable evening, it is perhaps now old-fashioned and pedestrian.
Runs until 13 October
Picture: Keith Pattinson
Murder on the Nile - Belgrade Theatre, Coventry,
Tags: Agatha Christie, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Joe Harmston, Mark Wynter, Matthew Bugg, Max Hutchinson, Murder on the Nile, Nichola McAuliffe, Robert Duncan, Simon Scullion, Susie Amy, The Official Agatha Christie Theatre Company