Chris Eldon Lee reviews Agatha Christie’s “Black Coffee”, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 8th February and Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn from June 30th to 6 July 2014
Actually, Robert Powell makes a rather good Hercule Poirot. He’s tall, walks normally and has a full head of hair. So he could be scarcely more different from the TV persona presented by David Suchet over the past 25 years…an image that fades remarkably quickly once Powell has established himself on stage.
The other big difference between Poirot ‘live’ and Poirot ‘canned’ is the laughter. Powell’s company brings Agatha Christie’s often-ironic humour gently to the surface like cream rising in a quart of milk. And there’s something of a cheeky Charlie Chaplin in Powell’s personification of the great Belgian detective that chimes perfectly with the Poirot we all know and love. He frequently “puts on the grin of a sheep” and comes out with twinkling lines like “What we have here Hastings, is a drama”. The Queen of Drama would, one feels, have approved.
‘Black Coffee’ was the first play Christie ever wrote for the stage (in 1929) and the quality is such that it’s clear to see why she went on to become the most performed women in the history of theatre. It’s also the one Poirot story never to be televised -though I have seen the ‘device’ transplanted into another episode.
It’s an intricate, well-plotted story of black coffee, black outs and blackmail.
Sir Claud is a brilliant scientist who has been having a go at “bombarding the atom”.
This is a classic Christie concept, so well ahead of its time that Claud’s house guests believe that “nothing will come of it”; all except one, who’s prepared to murder to get their hands on the formula. But who?
There’s the usual character list of suspects; including several relatives who will happily inherit, and a very dodgy Italian doctor with an even dodgier accent and an intimate knowledge of the contents of a World War One drugs cabinet. But, of course, nothing is quite as obvious as it seems to we mere mortals and only Poirot’s little grey cells can solve the problem. My advice is to keep an eye on the coffee cups.
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company has assembled a strong, no-nonsense cast and it’s fun to see how Liza Goddard (pictured with Robert Powell) has cornered the market in comedy aunts – this time with a more than decent line in ‘foreigner’ jokes.
They’re also transporting Simon Scullion’s wonderful art deco set round the country. It’s beautifully evocative of the 1920s with geometric carpets, a marble sky and mantelpiece lamps that match the topiary. It’s so lovely to gaze at, the arriving Hastings comments on the room before he comments on the body.
This is a very good piece of work, presented precisely in the manner Christie intended and in the original two-interval format – which gives plenty of opportunity for collaborative speculation about ‘who-dun-it’.
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Dedicated fans will be keen to add this production to their Christie collection – and the rest of us will enjoy a jolly good night of traditional theatre.