Walking into the theatre, I was greeted by the curtain up on a bare stage, with Miss Marple (Susie Blake) asleep in an armchair. My first hint that this was not the usual Agatha Christie production, with dark deeds in a charming English village.
The quiet stillness of St Mary Mead is disturbed by the arrival of retired American film star Marina Gregg (Suzanna Hamilton) and her producer husband Jason Rudd (Joe Dixon), who have bought Grossington Hall from Miss Marple’s friend, Dolly Bantry (Julia Hills) to live in, and are also making a historical film there, which will be Marina’s comeback. At a reception to meet the villagers, local resident Heather Leigh (Katherine Manners) is murdered, poisoned after drinking Marina’s daquiri, who is now considered to be the intended target by Chief Inspector Craddock (Simon Shepherd) of Scotland Yard.
Using the idea of a film that is viewed, rewound and then viewed from other ‘cameras’ (witnesses), the writer Rachel Wagstaff and director Melly Still, have created an intriguing production where the cast act out witness statements, first one way, then the other, twirling from A to B then back to A again, an incredibly difficult thing to do live. Lighting, sound and set design all help with this, and at first I found it a little distracting, but as it went on I changed my opinion, drawn in by the artistry on show. I was completely won over when the murdered victims helped trace each other’s outlines – a staple of crime fiction – using pink sand.
This is a rare thing, an old story given a new interpretation that really works. Wagstaff opens it up and develops the characters, such as Dolly Bantry lamenting her lonely widowhood, from the stereotypical to the human, exploring the racism, sexism and ageism of the time. At one point Craddock, infuriated by what he sees as her interference, yells at Marple “you’re not a detective, you’re a spinster!” which provoked a completely involved audience, privy to the sad secret of her fiancé being executed in WW1, to hiss and almost boo him. An incredible reaction outside of panto.
Susie Blake is brilliant as Marple, smart, determined and quietly lonely, while also demonstrating the comedy skill she’s famous for. Simon Shepherd is a prickly detective, still dealing with losing his mother as a child, while Joe Dixon brings a caring gruffness to the husband. For me the stand outs were Suzanne Hamilton’s fading film star, vascillating from fragile, fading movie star to demanding diva, and Julia Hills, whose snobbish former lady of the manor reveals her true feelings of uselessness and isolation, now that she’s no longer a wife or mother. The rest of the cast do well with what they have, but contribute mightily to what is an original and stunning ensemble piece.
This production runs at New Theatre, Cardiff until the 6th of April.