Quintessential Christie whodunit and thoroughly entertaining
Sick of poor portrayals of Hercule Poirot, her super-sleuth, Agatha Christie wrote Black Coffee, her first stage play, so that she could ensure he was as he should be. In doing so, she set in place the basis for all subsequent Christie murders and created the blueprint for our best loved Belgian.
Set in a country house in 1929, the story is atypical of Christie's murder plays; the first third sets up the characters while preparing for the actual murder, the second third shows them all unsettled by the appearance of Hercule and his side kick Hastings, and the third is the great reveal. The claustrophobia of being set in just one room adds to the intensity of the scenes so that by the end of the show the audience is left breathing a sigh of relief that they were not accused by association.
The plot centres on the Amory family; Sir Claud, a prominent inventor bordering on megalomaniac, his sister Caroline, Richard his son and Barbara his niece. They are obviously well to do, with the usual smattering of servants associated with 1920's aristocracy lead by Tredwell the butler and Edward Raynor, Sir Claud's personal secretary. Completing the houseguests are Lucia Amory, Richards wife of Italian descent and an acquaintance of hers, Dr Carelli. Sir Claud has recently designed a formula for the creation of a super explosive and it is this formula that leads to his untimely death, a death which appears to come from drinking the Black Coffee. Of course, I'm not going to tell who did it, save to say that there are enough potential culprits to keep you guessing right to the end.
Jason Durr, of Heartbeat fame, takes the lead and plays the eponymous detective with a delectable degree of aloofness borne only from having total confidence in his ability. He has all the quirks and skittish mannerisms, broken by occasional knowing looks to the audience, that we have come to love from the character so famously 'owned' by David Suchet. He is both unimposing yet commanding, peripheral yet central. I am sure that there will be many linguists challenged to locate exactly where in Belgium Jason's accent hails from, but that all adds to the entertainment of the show.
Whilst Gary Mavers as Dr Carelli continues the theme of un-placeable accents (sorry Gary but Joe Dolce sprang to mind on occasion) it was Felicity Houlbrooke, playing the delightful flapper Barbara who brought a real sense of period with her perfect take on 20's high society - not only did she have the timing and pitch to a tee, but her girly charms coupled with the use of jazz-age slang was reminiscent of Thoroughly Modern Millie. The way she playfully goaded Robin McCallum's Hastings could have made for an entire act on its own.
Special mention must go to the scenery & set design - an art décor paradise which was stunningly lit and perfect in every detail - one of the best stages I've seen at Darlington for many years.
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company can always be relied upon to produce a totally engrossing play, remaining true to her initial writings and yet somehow making it feel very modern - this stands toe to toe with any current murder mystery and head and shoulders above pretty much anything served up on TV - well worth a trip to the Civic, just avoid having coffee in the interval.