Agatha Christie has yet to be toppled from her heady perch as all-time best selling fiction author. According to ‘Guinness World Records’ (who obviously know a ‘thing or two about a thing or two’) the queen of crime’s novels have sold a mind-boggling 2 billion copies around the world. And, if that isn’t enough, her play ‘The Mousetrap’ holds the record for the longest continuous run of any show in the world – and of course, it’s still going strong at the St Martin’s theatre in the West End.
On top of all that, Christie gave us unforgettable and much-loved characters such as Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, who in turn became the subjects of lavish and highly successful films such as ‘Murder On The Orient Express’, and ‘Death On The Nile’.
In a career spanning more than 50 years, Christie managed to pen 80 novels and short stories and 19 plays. And, just to keep herself occupied in the cold winter evenings after she’d finished the household chores, she dashed off a further 6 novels under a different name. Impressive or what?
‘And Then There Were None’ started out life as a novel with the rather inappropriate title ‘Ten Little Niggers’, first published in 1939. But it’s name changed in 1940 to the current title when it was published ‘across the pond’ in the USA. It’s also been the subject of 4 films, 3 with the title ‘Ten Little Indians’, and one as ‘And Then There Were None’. So, the current play has reverted to the more appropriate of the earlier titles.
In a sense, ‘And Then There Were None’ is unique in the mystery/ crime/ whodunnit genre because there’s no detective to unravel the crime, or reveal why it’s been committed. As the title implies, there’s no-one left at the end of the play, although we do get to find out ‘whodunit’ after all. Apparently, Christie herself considered the plot ‘near-impossible’, and was forced to spend a considerable amount of time planning it meticulously.
The play is actually based on a Victorian music hall song written in 1869 by Frank Green, which in turn was based on an American song ‘Ten Little Indians’ by Septimus Winner, published in 1868. The rhyme is highly significant, because it forms the framework of the plot, and in this new stage version, the song is aired before the curtain rises on the second half. But if it’s the original tune being used, I found it rather harsh, and uninteresting.
A disparate group of people, are invited to a house party on a remote and inaccessible island. The play begins with the 8 guests eating dinner served by two servants, during which they begin to realise that their host - the mysterious Mr Owen (a name which later is recognised to have more significance than the guests first imagine) – is absent. After dinner, the guests listen to some music from a record that is suddenly interrupted by a voice accusing each of them in turn of murder, and it soon becomes apparent that they’ve not been invited for the jolly sojourn they had thought. And before long, the bodies are stacking up like leaves in the autumn.
The play’s theme is concerned with the inability of the judicial system to deal with cases where criminal responsibility cannot be proved, leaving it open to a moralistic (or should that be demented?) individual to exact retribution. Of course, the fallacy here is that, if a crime cannot be proved to the satisfaction of a judge and jury, it cannot be proved at all, and society must accept that the accused is innocent. Still, in fiction, anything is possible, and it’s a kind of intriguing idea that’s found currency in other media. So, perhaps we can forgive Agatha in this regard.
Writer Kevin Elyot and director Steven Pimlott, have had to tread very carefully in upgrading Christie’s original work. In some ways it was almost an impossible task, because of the rather dated nature of the concept, as well as the language and setting. Without care, I’m sure this play could have audiences falling about in hysterics – and indeed there were moments even in this careful reworking where the audience were giggling at inopportune moments. However, I think the creative team have managed to accomplish their difficult task quite convincingly. First, they’ve deliberately introduced some humour into the script, for example, when the butler’s wife meets her demise, one of the guests says ‘no wonder he’s looking peaky this morning’. But they’ve also preserved the essence of the of the 1930s, notably in Mark Thompson’s elegant and stylish set, and authentic costumes.
The cast, headed by Richard Johnson as Justice Wargrave is quite formidable, with one of my favourite actors, Graham Crowden playing the unlikely-named General Macarthur. And the cast do ‘justice’ to the script, carefully ramping-up the tension in the second half. I particularly enjoyed Tara Fitzgerald as Vera Claythorne, though I thought Sam Crane’s playing of the affected Anthony Marston a little ‘too, too’ for my palette – but he certainly coped admirably with the demands of retching-up copious quantities of vomit!
For those admirers of the crime genre, there’s much in this play to reward a visit, and for those who are not aficionados, it’s still entertaining and will stretch your mind a little guessing ‘whodunit’ and how. But you needn’t worry, all is most definitely revealed at the end!
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "it's a cleverly tweaked piece of work, adding a sheen of glamour, a streak of knowing camp comedy, and a darker edge to the ruthless retributive justice that governs the proceedings." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "This old 1942 warhorse has had a sophisticated makeover in Steven Pimlott's production of Kevin Elyot's new version, and makes a surprisingly entertaining evening." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "An evening I relished more than I expected."