Black Coffee: In spite of a thickening plot drowned in superfluous banter, Hercule Poirot saves the play!
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht
July 20, 2012 Friday at 5:01 pm
Agatha Christie has created two of the most colourful crime solving individuals in her career as a writer of mystery novels, short stories, plays and film scenarios: Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. Both have risen to worldwide fame through films, published works and the British television series featuring each of these fictional characters.
The play is interesting in as much it already contains all the ingredients that will define Christie’s brand of detective mystery theatre. A murder is discovered, the suspects all find themselves within a closed space (an elegant drawing room, a huge country house in Britain or a similar setting) as guests of the deceased; everyone becomes a suspect as soon as the detective arrives to unravel the mystery and find the guilty party.
Hercule Poirot in this case, is invited into the house by the owner, Sir Claud Amory a noted scientist whose notes related to an important experiment have disappeared! He is hoping that Poirot will find the stolen formula. However, new events take place; there is a murder and Poirot and the guests find themselves involved in a much more serious affair. From that point on, the public has to pay very close attention to every little detail revealed in each dialogue as the author sets up her mass of clues, hoping we are smart enough to recognize what she is trying to tell us.
Andi Cooper as Hercule Poirot was impeccable as the meticulous investigator with the little black moustache and the slightly comic shuffle. He is compassionate but sharply focussed on his work and Cooper, with his luscious French accent and comic stance captured the famous Belgian detective to the point that he became a perfect imitation of the character as he appears on British TV. I also liked Paul Washer as his sidekick Hastings, the obedient collaborator who attracts the eye of the slinky Barbara Armory (Theresa Knowles) in a most unlikely bit of hanky panky that seems to be taking place in the garden while the rest of the cast is rushing around under great stress. Aunty Caroline (Sharron McGuirl) also held her own as the slightly absent minded sister of Sir Claud, and Mike Heffernan was rather good as Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard with the baggy pants. He established a good stereotypical character that was quite amusing although his performance would probably be even better if he just dropped that English accent. It hampered him a lot.
Generally speaking however, the cast suffered from an imbalance between fairly good performances and extremely weak ones. The play progressed very slowly and I feel that much of that lack of rhythm was due to the director Johni Keyworth’s heavy handed staging. There is also no doubt that the play needed to be trimmed, especially Act 2 where all the plot thickening action is drowned in a lot of superfluous banter that could easily be removed. The problem is therefore partially the writing that a dramaturg with a good ear could have cleaned up in no time.
Nevertheless, the audience reacted very well, they gasped and clapped and obviously loved dear Inspector Poirot who fielded Aunt Caroline’s xenophobic remarks about all those “foreigners” in our British midst, with interiorized chuckles. Social snobbism is also the reason for the distress of Lucia Amory (Tina Prud’homme), wife of Richard Amory ( Robert Krukowski), Sir Claud’s son. Agatha Christie was obviously taking a good shot at the narrow minded upper crust of British society and the play captured some of the funnier moments of that tongue in cheek very well. With those bits of social critique, plus the delightful presence of Hercule, along with a good strong cup of coffee at intermission, I managed not to fall asleep.