Review: Murder on the Nile, Bradford Alhambra, 16/07/2012
When? Monday 16th July 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Hambi Pappas, Sydney Smith, Kate O’Mara, Jennifer Bryden, Max Hutchinson, Vanessa Morley, Mark Wynter, Susie Amy, Ben Nealon, Denis Lill, Chloe Newsome
“It’s intolerable!” shrieks actress Susie Amy as Kay Mostyn, drawing audible gaffaws from several members of the audience around me. This ill-advised first act exclamation of disgust and hopelessness echoed around the majestic Alhambra theatre, almost daring an ironic rebuttal from a pithy, fed up theatregoer.
Many in the audience may have already been familiar with Christie’s 1937 novel Death on the Nile, a piece made famous to current audiences when adapted for television, first in 1978 starring Peter Ustinov and most recently in 2004 with David Suchet. Agatha Christie was famously dubious that her top protagonist and most famous creation – Hercule Poirot, the hero of Death on the Nile – could be successfully brought to life on the stage. She decided therefore to re-work the piece into Murder on the Nile starring a new cast of characters, some key differences in the plot and, crucially, no little Belgian detective to save the day.
The Bill Kenwright owned Agatha Christie Company’s new production of Murder on the Nile is beyond disappointing. Even by the finale which, as expected, packed at least something of a punch – albeit watery low-alcohol punch – it was frankly hard to care who anybody was, what their alleged motives were or even if the boat they were cruising on sank – just as long as they all died quickly. The plot is a classic Christie cozy; a group of wealthy people are boarding a boat set to cruise on the Nile, through happenstance (or otherwise..?) several of these people know each other – or seem to have an awful lot in common. Unfortunately, things take an ugly turn when a cleverly planned murder occurs and, with the police unavailable it falls on our morally irreproachable hero to solve the crime and bring the murderer/thief to justice.
The first act feels like an eternity; the exposition is clunking and obvious with characters spouting lines such as “But you KNOW nobody can inherit my vast fortune until I am either twenty five or married!”, as one female character arrives on honeymoon with her new penniless, playboy husband. Some forty-five minutes in, the crew (both of them) are still milling around loading luggage aboard the boat, while we are introduced to characters with an absolutely bewildering array of phony accents. When the ship does finally set sail in the second act it is the perfect metaphor, as things do finally get moving in the plot, but by then the damage is done; a lady two rows in front is fast asleep, winning the battle of the visual imagery.
To say the evening is lacking direction is something of an understatement; Joe Harmston treats Christie like a cartoon. Characters are bloated, outrageous parodies of better actors doing parody. Why does “Harun, the Steward” keep opening and closing the bar while surely important (or else, why are they there?) conversations are going on downstage? Why does Musa, the crew member/mountebank begin the play in his pants, only to get dressed seconds later in the middle of the stage? Trying to sex up Christie is a novel idea, at least. Why does everybody speak with very strange accents, with some actors even struggling to keep a solid RP down? The questions are endless and the product hopeless. These questions did, whilst ignoring the distractions offered by the restless and visibly bemused audience by the midway point in the first act, give me a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the beautiful English Renaissance stylings of the Bradford Alhambra’s beautiful ceiling art and proscenium decor.
Unfortunately, the cast are far from blameless for the state of Murder of the Nile. The entire performance was sorely lacking in energy and passion, but without being unkind, several of the cast were clearly out of their comfort zone and, undoubtedly, their depth in terms of talent. Curiously, in a supporting comic role, veteran of stage and screen Kate O’Mara mumbles and bumbles her way to top billing, a position which rightfully should’ve gone to Denis Lill as protagonist Canon Pennefather. Despite his character being a dullard in clerical clothing, Lill at least makes his lines sound like he is having a conversation when he is supposed to be, rather than just exchanging blocks of text in a strange accent and throwing his arms around, as in the norm for the company in this production. The cast are as stilted, wooden and unconvincing as I can recall seeing in a professional production in recent years; to her credit Chloe Newsome as scheming Jacqueline over-acts dreadfully, but at least brings some melodrama to the fore, which engages briefly. The performance was also blighted by unforgivably poor diction from the cast. An unfortunate high-pitched whistle caused by an unfortunate patron’s hearing aid was distracting in the first act, fortunately the venue took swift and remedial action to investigate and resolve this issue for the start of the second act. Murder on the Nile is home to the worst Scottish, most half-baked Eastern European, borderline racist Egyptian and ropiest French (Spanish?) accents on the British theatre touring circuit, no mean feat and a resounding success for director Harmston and the production team.
Simon Scullion’s singular but sumptuous two-tiered set of the observation deck of the Lotus is the saving grace of this production; Mike Robertson’s lighting even feels stiflingly hot – although it is only Lill who considers to dabbing the (real) sweat from his forehead. We’re in Egypt, people! Unfortunately, productions like this do come along now and again and keep us all honest; with so much great theatre so far in 2012 in our Yorkshire theatres and so much more to come*, there is no doubt in my mind the only way is up from here.
- Harry Zing
*Bradford Theatres have just announced their Autumn 2012 line up, boasting visits from ‘international hit comedy’ Bouncers, 42nd Street starring Dave Willetts and Marti Webb (‘Think of Broadway, damn it!’), Julius Caesar from the RSC, Daddy Cool, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and, arguably most excitingly, The Mousetrap on its first ever UK Tour!