A Problem Getting There
From Midsomer, to Morse, to Miss Marple, English murder mystery novels, with their often eccentric and adorable detectives, are revered worldwide. None more so than those of the genre’s undisputed queen, Agatha Christie, whose works are still in print today, and still being adapted for stage and screen. The BBC’s hugely successful And Then There Were None from 2015, as well as the forthcoming, star studded version of Murder on The Orient Express, give testament to the fact that Christie can still catch the modern imagination. Something Middle Ground Theatre Company strive to do with their production of Christie’s "A Murder Is Announced." A Miss Marple mystery based on Christie’s 1950’s story of the same name, "A Murder Is Announced" shows much in terms of ambition. Yet the end result is poorly realised, in a deeply problematic production redeemed by some subtle, yet powerful performances.
In “A Murder Is Announced” a killer places an advertisement in the personal section of the local newspaper stating that a murder will occur at a given time and a given place. Why the paper published it, or why the police never bothered to ask who placed the ad, is, like a good number of other things, left unexplained. Inevitably the announced murder does indeed take place, followed by another, and in no time Miss Marple is busy knitting the clues together. In the end, it may well be resolved, but as in any good detective story it's how you get there that matters. Wherein lies the problem with “A Murder Is Announced:” the getting there.
Adapted by Leslie Darbon, “A Murder Is Announced” doesn’t successfully translate to the stage as well as it might have. Steeped in excessive set up, exposition and revelation, as well as redundant detail, very little happens onstage and plot is conveyed primarily through endless conversations delivered at too slow a pace. A situation not helped by designer and director Michael Lunney’s straightforward approach which sees cast sitting or standing around, in near tableaux almost, endlessly relaying information in a beautifully designed set. In the end, it's all tell with very little show, feeling like a work much more suitable to radio. A work that also seems to suffer something of an identity crisis. Funny in a great many places, it’s never funny enough to be a full-blown comedy, send up or farce. Nor is it dramatic enough to be something more substantial. The whole falls into a middle ground, resulting in what can feel like a pedestrian pantomime played at a plodding pace, one that risks becoming less a matter of whodunnit and more a case of who cares? A case in which the super sleuth, Miss Marple, seems to serve as an incidental or secondary character.
Given the often less than stellar quality of the writing and direction, cast are often left to fend for themselves, with several seeming to over compensate with performances, and accents, that are larger than life. Some worryingly so. While Lydia Piechowiak’s acquits herself delightfully as the East European maid Mitzi, the character risks being a negative, clownish stereotype straight from a Benny Hill sketch. Thankfully, experience saves the day. Janet Dibley, as the mysterious Letitia Blacklock, is always compelling, striking the balance beautifully between bemusement and authority. Tom Butcher as Inspector Craddock is wonderfully understated. Smarter than your average PC Plod, Butcher’s Craddock risks turning "A Murder Is Announced" into an Inspector Craddock Mystery. Sara Thomas as ditzy birthday girl, Dora Bunner, is an absolute joy, delivering a subtle, masterclass performance on how to do so much more by doing so much less, being present in every moment and in every detail.
Not funny enough to be farce, nor deceptive enough to be a genuine detective whodunnit, “A Murder Is Announced” falls uneasily between the two. If some Christie aficionado’s will have huge problems with it, many more will find much to enjoy here. As will many neutrals, who are being given a gilt-edged opportunity to see several of British TV’s well-known personalities performing together.
Agatha Christies, “A Murder Is Announced,” adapted by Leslie Darbon, directed and designed by Michael Lunney, and produced by Middle Ground Theatre Company, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until September 9th
For more information, visit The Gaiety Theatre