“People matter as much as ideas”
Her off Strictly Come Dancing, him out of Drop the Dead Donkey, her out of Monarch of the Glen, him off Doctors and yes him out of Harry Potter all grown up now: Bill Kenwright’s The Agatha Christie Theatre Company’s production of her 1958 play Verdict is jam-packed with recognisable faces, a canny move for a touring show. But the company’s exploration of the full breadth of her playwriting (last year saw Witness for the Prosecution but the previous one saw A Daughter’s A Daughter, a romance written under her Mary Westmacott pseudonym) means that this is not necessarily the most recognisably ‘Agatha Christie’ of her works. A completely original play, Verdict eschews the mystery thriller format and is more of a melodrama. Yes there’s a murder but it is carried out onstage in front of us and Christie is much more interested in exploring the consequences of following the head and not the heart and the impact that purely intellectual reasoning can have on people.
It is set entirely in the Bloomsbury flat of German émigré Professor Karl Hendryk where he lives with wife Anya, suffering from a progressively debilitating disease, and cousin Lisa who helps to care for her. Anya is bitter about having to flee her contented life in Germany due to Karl’s act of kindness to a persecuted friend and depressed about the state of her own health, so questions of suicide are raised when she dies. But his liberal attitudes to those who do him wrong push his friends to the very limit as it turns out all is not what it seems with his wife’s death and adhering so strictly to his moral code threatens those who are closest to him.
Robert Duncan’s professor was strong with a nice fatherly compassion, though I wasn’t entirely sure I saw what made practically every woman in the play fall for this character. But the relationships with the women in his life were well done and the connections with Dawn Steele’s excellent Lisa, a tower of patient strength, Ali Bastian’s slatternly spoilt student and Cassie Raine’s angsty wife were testament to some strong acting performances. Around them, there’s a flurry of variable supporting performances: I enjoyed Mark Wynter’s kindly Doctor Stoner but Matthew Lewis’ helpful student was too underpowered to make much impact and conversely, Elizabeth Power’s vicious gossip of a housekeeper was too broadly comedic, though most of the audience would probably disagree with me.
However, the strength of the acting cannot really overcome the dated feel to much of the material and the sense of old-fashioned melodrama that permeates. It all feels rather predictable and though director Joe Harmston jolts occasional life into the production by working in a couple of neat tricks with some key revelations, it just serves to remind how good her mystery thrillers are by comparison. Christie’s insights into the relationships between men and women don’t offer much to our contemporary world though the debate on morality and ethics was more effective.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 2nd April, then touring to Derby and Richmond
Originally written for The Public Reviews