Now, this is a bit special. This week, the Norwich Players – the amateur theatre company based at the fine city’s Maddermarket Theatre – are staging a bit of a historical theatrical event: the European premiere of a play written by Agatha Christie, based on her own classic novel: Towards Zero.
The play, a gripping murder mystery, is Christie at her finest. In addition to featuring a chilling, gruesome murder and a whole host of well-rounded characters as suspects (as is expected), the script also delves deep into human behaviour, becoming in turns an unpredictable melodrama; an intelligent psychological thriller; an exploration of mental health; and, for some light relief, a comedy of social status. What more could you want wrapped around a plot by the Queen of Crime herself?
The drama focuses initially on an outgoing and confident married couple, Neville and Kay Strange, who are staying at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of Neville’s former legal guardian, Lady Tressilian, a frail old woman attended by her dour carer MacGregor, naive housemaid Collie and uppity butler O’Donnell. Also in the house is a friend of the family, the shy and socially awkward Thomas Royde. The plot thickens when Neville suggests he invite his ex-wife, the timid Audrey Strange to stay as well…
Despite only being produced twice before (once for a week in America in 1944, and again more recently in New Zealand), the script absolutely sparkles. Clearly Christie was having a ball when she adapted her own novel: after establishing various tensions between all the colourful characters – including fourth-wall-breaking dialogue referring to people in life being like characters in a play – she has her characters claim that murder is “the end of the story, not the beginning”, thereby giving herself full permission to take her time, rather than opening with a dead body, in the traditional whodunnit set-up. This deliberately subversive extended build-up to the inevitable murder leads the audience to start second-guessing the plot in a different way than might be expected; rather than “who done it”, it’s “who will do it?” but also “who will be done?”.
By roughly the halfway point, things settle down and become more conventional. There’s a dead body to contend with, and more importantly, a mystery to solve. The original novel’s final appearance of Superintendent Battle is replaced by the thorough and open-minded Inspector Leach, supported by Doctor Wilson and Police Sergeant Harvey. Everyone is a suspect – including Angus McWhirter, a apparently friendly stranger who attempted suicide a while ago and has curiously returned to the neighbourhood; and Kay’s dance partner, Peter De Costa who clearly has eyes for Kay…
The Norwich Players handle the 75 year old material well. The actors performing the three Stranges – Lee Johnson (Neville), Lucinda Bray (Kay) and Kiera Long (Audrey) – are on particularly fine form, providing a beating-heart emotional core to the proceedings. Ray Tempesta is also a great asset, cutting a surprisingly dashing hero figure in Angus McWhirter; as is director Becky Sweet as a last minute stand-in (due to cast illness) for Lady Tressilian. Stephen Goldsmith is clearly having lots of fun adding a young-gormless-but-keen quality to Sergeant Harvey, as is Paul Ellingford, adding a joyful campness to flirty Peter De Costa.
Meanwhile, Matthew Pinkerton and Ian Shepherd give considered, intelligent portrayals of Doctor Wilson and Inspector Leach – with the latter somewhat reminiscent of John Williams’ Chief Inspector in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (no bad thing!) – while Carol Hunt (MacGregor), Diane Webb (Collie) and Terry Cant (O’Donnell) provide excellent, solid support as Lady Tressilian’s staff.
For fans of Christie, the Norwich Players’ production is a sheer delight. Sadly, issues with the projected background, and the limited (although not-bad-looking) staging do indicate the non-professional production budget – but, once again, the Norwich Players deny their amateur status with excellent performances of a gripping play. A definite must-see!
Towards Zero will run until Saturday 28th June at the Maddermarket Theatre, St John’s Alley, Norwich.