Suspicion and surprise

A Murder Is Announced at Devonshire Park Theatre April 26-30
A Murder Is Announced at Devonshire Park Theatre April 26-30

Now then folks, before you read on, just glance quickly at the Herald classifieds. Old bikes for sale and plumbers for hire? Phew. Be grateful that we are not the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette – available at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week – where A Murder Is Announced.

The excellent Middle Ground Theatre Company presents an accomplished and hugely enjoyable production of the Agatha Christie classic, and Tuesday’s first-night audience absolutely loved it.

Jane Marple – who must have a great-niece or an old school-friend in every village in England – happens to arrive on the very day that the personal column of the local rag publishes an invitation to a murder at Little Paddocks. Tasteless joke, or sinister warning? The next few hours will tell...

Intrigue, suspicion, fear and surprises – all expertly presented on an immaculate country-house set, by actors at the top of their trade. What’s not to like? Well, you have to swallow the formulaic Christie recipe, digesting a whole string of plot twists, and rueing that you missed that little key clue or failed to spot that the nice chap was really a villain. But that is precisely why Agatha Christie is such fun.

And anyway, this is Chipping Cleghorn, a few miles down the winding lane which leads from real life. Do not be lulled: the prettier the village and the more genteel its inhabitants, the deadlier are the lurking threats.

Marple is actually a challenging part to take on – quite apart from having to share the credits with the likes of Joan Hickson and Geraldine McEwan. She must combine modesty and understatement with the sharpest of minds. Judy Cornwell plays her with a placid, engaging humour and it works nicely.

Around Judy, a richly experienced cast nets together like a thoughtfully designed mosaic, each piece complementing the rest. Diane Fletcher’s central character of Lettie Blacklock is played with fine command, while Sarah Thomas is a dear, dithering companion Bunnie. More humour – for this is no dark drama – is added by Lydia Piechowiak’s wonderful Hungarian maid Mitzi.

Young relatives Rachel Bright and Patrick Neyman are perfectly paired and beautifully played, even if their little first-scene slow foxtrot to the gramophone is the most incongruous bit of business you’ll see. Did the plot really require it?

Christie police officers are sometimes painted as slow-witted plods, but in Inspector Craddock (an assured Tom Butcher) Jane has an alert and knowing counterpart. Completing a most professional company are Alicia Ambrose-Bayly, Cara Chase, Dean Smith, Will Huntingdon and Jog Maher.

Delicious death, as one of the characters remarks. Yes indeed: Miss Christie and this company deliver it deliciously. By Kevin Anderson