I feel as though I need to start by admitting that I have no previous experience of Agatha Christie’s works – I know, I know, it’s an outrage, which I now want to remedy. So I was expecting some version of the classic murder mystery, served with 19th century etiquette around cups of tea. Clever, surprising and with an ending wrapped up in a bow. So I was taken aback by this domestic thriller, which constantly builds an atmosphere which you could cut with a knife, until its shocking conclusion. Sinister, twisted and unpredictable. Oh and the final pivotal scene included coffee, not tea!
Based on Christie’s short story ‘Philomel Cottage’ published in 1934, she adapted it for stage two years later before actor-director Frank Vosper revised this version. The play revolves around Cecily Harrington (played by Helen Bradbury) as she is swept off her feet by a stranger, with tales and promises of adventures around the world. Having recently won big in the sweepstakes and realising her hesitation to marry long-time dependable fiancé Michael, Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum) shows up saying all the right things. However, Cecily’s happiness could be short-lived due to disturbing intentions and secrets.
From the beginning, Bradbury ensures that as an audience we understand the emotional and psychological journey that the character of Cecily is trying to navigate. We see her naivety, which though frustrating at times, turns into knowledge and strength. Nonetheless, this didn’t prevent the occasional urge to shout ‘do not trust him!’ Frenchum as Lovell was suitably charming, with wonderful moments where the façade shifted to reveal something much more menacing beneath.
With an inventive sliding set, director Lucy Bailey used the opportunity to show changes in perspective and hidden psychological depths. There were also plenty of translucent panels to sufficiently allow glimpses at the possessive and troublesome side of Bruce that Cecily was blind to. Add in some sudden black outs, red light barely illuminating the stage as well as horror movie music, and you could hear a pin drop in the room.
The build-up is slow, with the first act focused on Cecily’s desire to escape from expectations of mundanity and life without adventure. There was a touch of much-appreciated humour in the form of Nicola Sanderson as Aunt Lou Lou, who stole the show for me. A favourite moment was when she helped herself to some alcohol in the house, realised there was no-one else in the house and quickly doubled her glass.
It’s true that my knowledge of Agatha Christie’s writing was non-existent before today but now that I’ve had a taste, I cannot wait for more. This show will have you on the edge of your seat, captured by every detail of the setting and stellar acting. You may act as a detective, but I promise that you will not predict the final twist in this bitter tale.