by Mark Taylor
Agatha Christie’s work as a playwright is enjoying something of a revival. While The Mousetrap continues its extraordinary run in the West End (66 years and counting!), other works by the master crime storyteller are enjoying renewed attention.
Much of the credit for this must go to Lucy Bailey, the director of both this production of Love From a Stranger as well as the acclaimed Witness for the Prosecution, currently being staged at London County Hall.
Watching this production of Love From a Stranger, it is easy to understand why Agatha Christie remains so compelling for modern audiences.
Many elements of the story are reassuringly familiar — the isolated country cottage, the overbearing aunt, the handsome stranger who seems too good to be true.
But amidst the cups of tea and freshly cut flowers, there is always a sense of something very unpleasant just beneath the surface.
The story begins in the apartment of Cecily Harrington, played here with panache by Helen Bradbury.
We learn that she has just won £25,000 pounds on a sweepstake and that her fiancé, Michael, is due back from a three-year assignment in “The Sudan”.
As her friend Mavis and her aunt Louise are very keen to point out, Cecily should be the happiest girl alive.
But she isn’t. She wants adventure and excitement. And so, when the handsome, artistically sensitive American stranger, Bruce Lovell, comes to view Cecily’s flat, we know that Cecily has been enshared.
So far, so predictable. But it doesn’t stay like that for long.
Sam Frenchum’s Bruce Lovell is certainly handsome and exotic but there is also something strange about him.
Mike Britton’s clever set design enables the audience to see a telling moment when Bruce surreptitiously holds Cecily’s underwear to his face.
It is a tiny detail but it immediately ratchets up the tension. As the programme notes inform us, Bailey draws on the 1960 film Peeping Tom to develop Bruce’s character.
That film was ahead of its time in its candid portrayal of criminal perversion and one cannot help feeling that Christie was also a trailblazer in the incorporation of such a strange character as Bruce Lovell.
When the action moves to Cecily and Bruce’s isolated cottage in the country the tension increases again.
The contrast between Cecily’s happiness and our growing sense of Bruce’s strangeness makes the action which unfolds deeply compelling. But, be warned, the outcome is far from predictable!
The show is running until Saturday, April 7. So if you like your drama dark, get down to the Marlowe quick as you can. This is one not to be missed.