Ten Little Soldier Boys went out to dine…
So begins the rhyme that acts as both motif and blueprint for Agatha Christie’s murderer in her novel, And Then There Were None. Although the epigraph may act as the story’s formula, Fiery Angel’s adaptation of this 1939 murder mystery is anything but formulaic. SOURCE was fortunate enough to play detective (along with the rest of the audience) during the show’s stint at Theatre Royal Brighton this week…
The show opens with a scene familiar to fans of crime fiction and the works of the genre’s leading lady. An assortment of characters – each with their own histories, secrets and (dare I say it…) motives – assemble in an elaborate setting, in this case, a manor house on a small and deserted island off the British coast. A series of events are set in motion by the cunning machinations of an elusive Mr and Mrs Owen and one by one the guests turn on each other as it becomes apparent that there is a murderer in their midst.
Against a backdrop of a seaside idyll – initially warm and inviting but soon menacing and austere thanks to some clever design by Mike Britton (set) and Chris Davey (lighting) – the snooty veneer of gentrified etiquette quickly falls away as the guests begin to realise what it is they are facing. Director Lucy Bailey has honed a slick production, with the action unfolding at a well-balanced pace, fast enough to prevent stagnation but slow enough to allow the audience time to piece together the clues. More than a “whodunnit”, And Then There Were None is a question of “who keeps dunning it” as the guests are knocked off thick and fast with a final body count rivalling some Shakespearean tragedies.
Wry smatterings of humour lift a script which is sometimes, necessarily, exposition-heavy. These moments also provide a much needed outlet for the mountains of tension to dissipate. The added device of having the deceased roam the stage is a poignant touch and drives home the very real gravity of what is actually occurring – there is still murder with this mystery and, in keeping with the play’s overarching message, life should never be so trivially discarded or forgotten. The show culminates in a macabrely gothic crescendo worthy of its source material, an unsettling and yet exhilarating watch.
Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard (brought to life superbly by Sophie Walter and Joseph Beattie respectively) are the imperfect voices of reason amidst the maelstrom, their frustration and fear gradually building as fingers are pointed in all directions. The cast make for a very strong ensemble, with Christie’s occasionally larger-than-life characters all well defined, detailed and always the right side of caricature. A special mention has to be made for Katy Stephens’ Emily Brent, a fanatical Bible-basher, as comfortable in her prudishness as she is unhinged in her zealotry, who stops the show with a breathtaking outburst as the facade of faith finally slips for a brief moment before being restored.
As we watched the action play out it occurred to us that Christie’s plays, as well as the stage adaptations of her novels, were once perhaps the closest things going to immersive theatre. In an age before the advent of companies such as Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak, before the genre defined itself with promenade elements, site-specific locations and intricately crafted scenic design (with the help of some eye-watering budgets) these were the stories that asked the most of their audiences: a degree of silent participation. Across the stalls and galleries motives are pondered, suspects eliminated and theories shared to then be exchanged and re-examined across interval drinks in the hopes of validation during the second half.
Perhaps that’s what makes audiences come back, again and again and again. Once the murderer is revealed at the end of Christie’s The Mousetrap audiences are urged to “keep the secret” and that is what is so enticing about these stories; there are secrets to keep. Although the elements of the setting, action and even characters may seem familiar that is in no way to call it mundane. Christie’s charm lies in that familiarity. Her readers and audiences sit comfortably in their discomfort, we are on the edge of our seats but they come with cushions. And, as we pour out of the theatre and into the night, we marvel and laugh at how we never predicted that all along the murderer was…
Theatre Royal Brighton, Tuesday 9th January 2024
For tickets and further information go here
Photos by Manuel Harlan