When? Monday 26th November 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Steven France, Thomas Howes, Karl Howman, Bruno Langley, Graham Seed, Jemma Walker, Jan Waters, Clare Wilkie
2012 has been a quite extraordinary year for Britain. Completely apart from the world of theatre and performance – a remarkable half-sentence coming from me – it has been a year we can be rightly proud of. The remarkable success and legacy of the Olympic games is plain for all to see – and Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony spectacular in particular was a joy to behold (well, that didn’t take long!). 2012 also marked a very special 60th anniversary for someone, a certain lady on the throne, known the world over as a British institution. That’s right, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is celebrating it’s first ever full UK tour – and the Queen of Crime’s masterpiece is in positively majestic form.
Set exclusively in the grand hall of the newly established guest house Monkswell Manor, the set-up is classic Christie. A grisly murder has been committed in London amidst a huge snowstorm which is battering southern England. Newlywed couple, The Ralstons, are preparing to receive their new house-guests – each with their own secret reasons for visiting the isolated retreat. Before long, a police sergeant arrives – on skis – bringing news of the London murder, with the belief that one or more of the guests may be involved…
Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen and Adam Spiegel’s tour is a very timely tonic for the UK straight play touring circuit. One which is guaranteed to fill venues up and down the country for as long as the noted producers wish I suspect – but agreeably for all the right reasons. Director Ian Watt-Smith is no stranger to The Mousetrap, having directed the 38th, 41st, 58th and 59th years of the West End production and his intricate understanding of the piece is the key to this production’s success. Christie’s writing is sharp and witty, but in the hands of the wrong director can tumble into parody or, worse still, a ham-fest. Watt-Smith’s genius is in understanding what to play straight and what to send up; amusing and dramatically thrilling in all the right places, The Mousetrap absolutely flies by – and yet feels dense, tense and emotionally engaging.
The Diamond Anniversary tour of The Mousetrap is a brilliant, timeless and iconic production – and Monkswell Manor is positively lit up by one of the finest casts I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a straight play in recent years. The entire company are strong: Steven France gives a hilarious performance as a flouncing, but deeply vulnerable Christopher Wren; Jemma Walker and Bruno Langley make a likeable and convincing Mr and Mrs. Ralston; Mousetrap regular Jan Waters makes a softer and funnier Mrs Boyle than I’ve seen previously and Clare Wilkie makes far more of Miss Casewell than could be reasonably asked of her, with a far subtler and considerably less angry vibe about her than many other actresses who have played the role previously as, to be blunt, ‘an angry lesbian’. Graham Seed as Major Metcalf shares some amusing first act banter with Mrs Boyle which earned hearty laughs from the audience; Karl Howman’s half-baked Italian-ish accent as Mr Paravicini is so ropey as to actually work in his favour, casting doubt on the character’s true identity…
The undoubted star-turn though comes from Doncaster born Thomas Howes as Detective Sergeant Trotter. Howes, known to television audiences for his performance as William in ITV’s Downton Abbey, shows his versatility and brilliance as a character actor and leaves a lasting impression on the audience with an outstanding performance. He looks, sounds and adopts mannerisms so far removed from his noted television turn that he is barely recognisable. And his performance is certainly not identikit, in fact, with director Watt-Smith, Howes adds quirks and traits to the character which help make the role truly his own – Howes will be a big loss to the production when he leaves the show at the end of the Bradford run. His replacement is yet to be confirmed.
The production values are superb and no expense has been spared in recreating the West End production for tour. Whilst the Diamond Anniversary tour is technically a new production, it is in essence a reproduction – Anthony Holland’s original sets, the costumes, lighting design and so forth are almost identically replicated from the West End, where the production is re-directed once a year – regardless of the frequency of cast changes – to help ensure freshness. From experience though it doesn’t, as the West End production housed less than a few hundred people the last time I attended, most of whom were tourists. The tour production feels infinitely fresher, the regional audience frankly better.
Admittedly, it does take a few scenes to adjust to some of the follies of ‘an Agatha Christie’ as one integrates oneself into her universe. Christie’s fictional settings are ones which surely felt old-fashioned even in her day, so in 2012 a fair amount of willing suspension is necessary for any audience. One such example are accents; most of the company adopt the tried and trusted attempt at 1950′s ‘BBC newsreader’ RP – a rather stifling necessity for an actor with a natural regional accent, perhaps straining to imbue their performance with credibility. It is fortunate, then, that Watt-Smith’s focus is on delivering fully fleshed out incarnations of each and every character and is hugely successful in doing so. The Mousetrap is more than a play, it is a tradition – a staple of British theatre. This sense of tradition is enforced by the company’s request to the audience at the curtain call not to reveal the identity of the killer.
I appreciate that The Mousetrap is not without its critics; many commentators have bemoaned the sixty-year West End policy of refusing to discount tickets for a show that frequently struggles to put bums on seats – and some simply find Christie’s famous ‘cosy’ trademark style simply too, well, cosy for a 2012 audience. But there is no denying that in front of a packed Bradford Alhambra audience, some sixty years since it embarked on its West End run, we were caught up in a very special Mousetrap. A true masterpiece, dare I even say with Howes heading the company for his final few performances, in its prime.
- Harry Zing
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!