Tom Butcher (Inspector Craddock), Sarah Thomas (Dora Bunner), Rachel Bright (Julia), Dean Smith (Edmund), Cara Chase (Mrs Swettenham), Alicia Ambrose-Bayly (Phillipa), Patrick Neyman (Patrick), Lydia Piechowiak (Mitzi), Jog Maher (Sergeant Mellors, Will Huntington (Rudi Scherz)
“A Murder is Announced” by Agatha Christie was first published in 1950, the fourth novel featuring the indomitable crimebuster, Miss Marple. The character was partly based on her grandmother, but "more fussy, spinsterish, chiefly associated with fluffy wool .. the complete detective service in the home.”
The setting is October 1950 in Chipping Cleghorn, a quiet English village, at Little Paddocks, the home of Letitia Blacklock who lives with her second cousins, Julia and Patrick, her old school friend, Bunny and Phillipa, a young war widow.
The wood panelled Drawing Room is charmingly furnished with comfy chintz sofas and armchairs, portraits, paintings, coffee tables, lamps, a large Wireless and drinks cabinet. A French window leads out to the garden. It’s Friday morning and all Bunny wants to do is browse the local Gazette.
But in the Personal Column is a strange advertisement which she reads out, ‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, as the only intimation.”
Letitia laughs it off as a silly joke, Julia and Patrick think it could be an amusing parlour game, while dear old Bunny believes that she will be murdered in her bed, until reminded that the event is planned for 6.30pm.
Expecting that a few neighbours might call in that evening, Mitzi the Hungarian cook (who loves to treat the household with her very garlicky goulash), is dispatched to prepare sandwiches; unfortunately she decides to use the expensive Foie Gras instead of cheap cheese much to Letitia’s dismay!
The mood is all rather lighthearted and jovial as the villagers, Mrs Swettenham and her son Edmund arrive for this impromptu drinks party. As glasses of sherry are poured, without warning the lights go out, several gun shots are fired, and a woman screams in the pitch black darkness. Despite a murder being announced in advance, it takes us all by surprise!.
Miss Marple, who is staying at the local Spa Hotel to treat her rheumatism, arrives at Little Paddocks to find a strange man dead on the carpet. Over the next few days, Inspector Craddock and his Sergeant carry out the police investigation into the identity of the victim and the murderer.
Trying to play guess the culprit with Christie’s crime stories is often impossible; she's like a magician performing an ingenious trick with her meticulously placed clues and a cast of suspects, each with a motive for murder. This is another classic puzzle involving family relationships, a Swiss Hotel waiter, inheritance of a small fortune and mistaken identities.
Centre stage in an armchair sits Miss Marple, quietly knitting, while analysing the tragic situation; the murdered man reminds her of the young boy at the fishmonger in Rye, with his sneaky practice of pocketing an extra shilling. She has an astute, psychological understanding of the dark side of human nature.
Judy Cornwell takes on the much loved enigmatic role with gleeful, high spirited manner matched by a sharply perceptive intellect. In her over-sized tweed skirt and jacket, brogues and carpet bag, she combines the endearing charm of Joan Hickson’s memorable portrayal in the BBC series, with a touch of Margaret Rutherford's eccentrically batty bonhomie.
This creates some hilarious moments, such as her request to be interrogated by Inspector Craddock, who takes no notice of this elderly spinster, always interrupting his work. Meanwhile Miss Marple prowls around the house, suddenly appearing behind a door, (akin to the ever present Lieutenant Colombo), carrying out her own investigation.
This highly polished production is well staged with attention to detail – music, telephone calls, subtle lighting - all directed with fast paced action. The second act in particular races through to the final denouement - perhaps 'less haste more speed' would offer a little time to understand the complex plot.
Credit is due to the director, Michael Lunney and Jennifer Helps for precise period costumes with a wardrobe of pretty slim-fitting frocks, smart three piece suits and colourful Fair Isle sweaters.
Many of Agatha Christie’s novels adapt well to the stage as Drawing Room dramas where all the protagonists gather together in a Country house. She viewed her murder mysteries as “ morality plays” to illuminate themes of retribution for evil, justice for the guilty.
A book review of "A Murder is Announced" concluded, “ The plot is as ingenious as ever, the dialogue both wise and witty; while suspense is engendered from the very start, and maintained skilfully until the final revelation.”
The ideal description too of Middle Ground Theatre’s entertaining revival of the play, performed with dramatic tension, delightful humour and gorgeous vintage style.
Monday 1 - Saturday 6 February, 2016
UK Tour dates - www.middlegroundtheatre.co.uk