Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Who Killed 'Agatha' Christie? Devonshire Park Theatre Eastbourne

Who Killed 'Agatha' Christie?
Devonshire Park Theatre

24-28 May 2011

Starring (appearance order)

Stephen Rashbrook
Neil Roberts

Performance seen 24 May

Neil Roberts and Stephen Rashbrook at Devonshire Park Theatre Eastbourne

This is a thriller that has had very good reviews as it has toured the UK. However there has been a lot of talk about the title of the production.

On the occasions when audiences have been small it has been questioned whether the production has lost avid Agatha Christie fans when they find out this is actually nothing to do with their favourite author. It is in fact just based on the nickname of one character, Arthur Christie.

I don't actually think it's anything of the sort. Firstly just about every type of production is struggling to fill a theatre at the moment. Musicals, dramas, musicians, comedians - they all have their work cut out to fill seats. A year ago 400-500 would have seemed a reasonable sized audience (about half full) for a theatre the size of the Devonshire Park. Today 200 is almost a crowd. With the current high cost of living and fuel prices being extortionate a night at the theatre is looking more and more like a luxury item.

Besides if the Agatha Christie fan theory were true there would probably be an equal number of people, aware of all the Agatha Christie storylines, who would like to see a production where they don't know the ending or just fancy something different. There may even be some who can't abide Christie's work.

So no, I don't think low numbers have anything to do with the production's name. It's just a sign of the times and it's just down to the theatre industry itself to come up with ideas about how more bums can be put on seats in these challenging times. Like so many other theatre goers I believe the price of tickets and lack of incentives (like buy one get one free) and loyalty schemes would be good starting points. I have lost track of the number of actors I have spoken to about dwindling audiences for them all confirm it's the price of tickets that is inhibiting. If prices are set fair people will go. A full theatre with people paying less is a better advert for live entertainment than 200 people paying high prices. But is anybody listening?

Anyway what exactly is Who Killed Agatha Christie? (WKAC) Is it a murder mystery? Is it a comedy? An intense drama?

Well, in truth, it ticks all those boxes and should really have a category all of its own. It is quite unlike any other murder mystery I've seen before.

I will try and be constructive here but to be too informative would be a spoiler for those who are to see this.

It takes a great writer to produce any play that can hold the audience's attention throughout with just 2 actors. The author in this case was Tudor Gates and a terrific job he did too. He not only came up with a script that holds attention but the writing is such that you can actually picture in your mind others in the plot who are never seen on stage.

For a thriller the humour is unusually plentiful- but it works here. Jokey humour, sarcastic humour even humour of the macabre type is present. It really is somewhat unusual that you can laugh so much during a play and still leave feeling you've watched a really intense thriller.

If the title of this was ever changed Truth or Lies is a good alternative. One reason this play remains gripping is that you are constantly wondering whether the characters, John Terry in particular, are quoting fact or fiction.

By doing this the viewer just starts believe they know which way the tale is going and perhaps how it's going to end only to have the rug pulled out from under them as they are sent right back to the beginning of their deliberations.

But with this particular thriller try as you might, unless you already know the story, I think it highly unlikely you will guess the eventual ending.

The stars? Stephen Rashbrook and Neil Roberts both deliver incredible performances of their very different characters.

Rashbrook as John Terry is required to start strong and get more deceptive and evil by the minute. Back in the days when the likes of Joe Sugden, Amos Brearly and Henry "Mr' Wilks were in Emmerdale Stephen was playing God loving Rev Tony Charlton for 40 episodes. God would certainly not approve of John Terry though. Rashbrook who has also been in TV productions like 'Allo 'Allo and Doctors also has a formidable theatrical CV dating back many years and covering the UK, including the West End. 

Stephen never falters from his marathon script and the man who used to play a man of God is thoroughly convincing playing a gift from the Devil.

In complete contrast we have Neil Roberts playing Arthur Christie. Christie starts off a confident, somewhat cocky, figure but his confidence is required to diminish as the role progresses. Requiring every type of emotion available we see theatrical reviewer Christie doing everything possible to try to compete with the manipulative power of John Terry.

It was only a year ago that Roberts was at the Devonshire Park Theatre in another great thriller Nighfright (the nightmare of your life). That was great but WKAC is better! (refer to my Nightfright review here).

On TV there are thousands and thousands of fans of Aaron Spelling's Charmed who will remember Neil's performances as Rex Buckland in the first series. In fact he spent several years in the States with more credits in popular programmes like Diagnosis Murder and Beverley Hills 90210.

Back in the UK, in addition to many other shows, he was a regular in the popular Privates and has recently appeared in Life Bites, Doctors and Holby (as cardiothoracic specialist Dr Philip Lawlor). True Dr Who fans, especially convention attending regulars, I am sure will know the name of Neil Roberts. He regularly works on the audio versions of the series with the 'Old' Doctors playing the likes of Sylvester McCoy's sidekick in Kingdom Of Silver a Cyberman tale.

Add to all that the West End and regional theatre performances and you end up with another superbly strong actor to team up with Rashbrook for this engrossing play.

I found this to be a brilliant drama with clever humour enacted by two excellent actors.

I really can't fault the acting, the play itself or the drawing-room style set.

If there's anything to find wrong with it the production does seem a little on the short side. Excluding the interval you are looking at about 80 minutes of entertainment. Whilst excellent it does leave you aware that this is shorter than the vast majority of plays.

However, I have to admit I would rather have 80 minutes of excellence than 105 minutes where 15-20 minutes has been dead boring.

Well done to Stephen Rashbrook and Neil Roberts. An excellent production. We hope to see both these fine, amiable, actors again very soon.
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