Murder, Margaret and Me, review: Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, October 22-26

Lin Blakley and Sarah Parks. Picture by Craig Sugden
Lin Blakley and Sarah Parks. Picture by Craig Sugden

Murder, Margaret and Me. The Margaret is Rutherford, the Me is Agatha Christie, and their intriguing relationship is explored on stage this week at the Devonshire Park Theatre.

The play is hard to categorise. Billed as a comedy thriller, the thrills are only mild surprises and the laughter comes in chuckles. But Damian Cruden’s production is never hackneyed, nor run of the mill. This is high quality drama, beautifully staged and exquisitely acted. Its gentle pace and slowly unfolding storyline make for an absorbing evening, rather than a truly gripping or exciting one.

Never mind Brexit, the really enduring national debate centres on the casting of the finest ever Miss Marple. Joan Hickson always wins my vote as the sweetly English spinster, but sweetly Scottish Geraldine McEwan and a brusquer Julia McKenzie have their following, too. Just as long as it isn’t Angela Lansbury….

However, the wide screen adaptations found Margaret Rutherford in the Marple role – in part because of MGM commercial considerations. Christie herself was always thought to have reservations, and this Philip Meeks play explores the complicated relationship between two formidable figures.

Tilted Wigs Productions, and their relentlessly creative and purposeful producers Katherine Senior and Matthew Parish, once again demonstrate sky-high production values. The show is beautifully dressed, perfectly staged and lit, and even the seamless set changes are managed by a crew dressed as flat-cap removal men.

Each of the three actors completely convinces. As the Queen of Crime, Lin Blakley precisely captures her canniness, sharp observation and uncompromising sense of morality. A loveless marriage and the still unsolved mystery of her eleven-day disappearance are touched on, but Lyn’s Agatha is cryptic and controlling.

Sarah Parks is an astonishing reincarnation of Margaret: the hunched and shrugging shoulders, the wry and slightly world-weary manner. And the third character, Gilly Tompkins as the enigmatic and slightly underplayed Spinster, is actually the nearest of all to the Jane Marple persona.

There are mysteries to recount and solve, and indeed a quite startling denouement centred on dark, shocking secrets in the Rutherford family. But it’s all told at third-hand and the play remains a kind of satisfying, detailed still life rather than a rising, unfolding drama.

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