Review: And Then There Were None at The Everyman, Cheltenham
PUBLISHED: 17:29 03 February 2015 | UPDATED: 17:29 03 February 2015
Corpsing on stage is most definitely allowed when you're watching unfold one of the finest plots old Agatha ever penned, says Katie Jarvis
So the plot is this. Ten strangers are invited by a mysterious man with the initials UNO – whom none of them have ever met – to stay, for free, on an island from which there is no escape.
“Hang on just a minute!” says Ian, as the theatre doors inexorably close behind us with a sinister thud. “Weren’t all the press invited here? Into this auditorium! With free theatre tickets!”
“Yes,” I say.
“By some mysterious person known as Francesca?”
“She’s press and marketing officer for the Everyman. Alongside Jackie Rodgers,” I say.
“Oh,” he says. “That’s OK then.”
The second thing we realise belatedly is that we’ve already seen And Then There Were None, on holiday in Dartmouth, at the Flavel Arts Centre. The 100-strong audience nearly became And Then There Were 99 when the most fascinating and bitter bust-up I’ve ever witnessed in a theatre broke out over someone rustling sweet papers. “Luckily,” Ian says, about the most memorable plot ever devised, “I can’t remember who did it.” That’s the upside to those long moments he spends vacantly staring into the fridge. He’d probably be equally astonished were we to pop along again the next night.
(I have to digress here to tell you about a brilliant tweet I saw the other day, which postulated how frightening it would be if your fridge were to open your bedroom door every 20 minutes and peer in.)
Anyway, yes, yes, I’m just getting round to the Everyman play. Which is brilliant. It started life as an Agatha Christie whodunit novel, and even she was delighted with the brain-searing plot: “It was clear, straightforward, baffling and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation,” she wrote in her autobiography.
It involves, as I also mentioned, 10 strangers, each with a guilty secret, who are invited onto Soldier Island (partly based, in this instance, on Burgh Island on the coast of Devon, though don’t tell my friend Sandra who goes there each year for her wedding anniversary) by a mysterious stranger. All is well for about 10 minutes, when they realise the meaning of the phrase Holiday of a Lifetime is not entirely what they’d hoped. It is, I guess, a brave producer who stages a play that demands an expensive cast of at least 10 (for obvious reasons), who are then uneconomically bumped off in record time. It seems surprising to me, considering the first performance was back in 1943, that no one has yet written a better-value version where all 10 characters survive until the last scene where they’re wiped out by a particularly brutal vomiting and diaorrhea bug.
Anyway, again. This is simply the most brilliant play – funny, frightening, claustrophobic, moral, brutal, encapsulating, as the programme points out, Christie’s almost god-like sense of moral justice. And the cast is superb – Paul Nicholas, Colin Buchanan, Susan Penhaligon, Mark Curry, Verity Rushworth, Frazer Hines, Ben Nealon, Eric Carte, Judith Rae, Jan Knightley, Paul Hassall: some great names – particularly the much-loved Paul Nicholas – but they all have to be patted on the back for bringing to life the multiplicity of characters that make this play so interesting. Characters that, as ever, verge on caricatures, but with just enough of humanity about them to mean that you care. And that you are scared, too.
And it is scary: as it suddenly dawns on this motley crew that their holiday is with Death; as the food runs out into not much more than a tin of pressed tongue (the culinary equivalent of sinister); as the island presses in. It’s one of those plays, however, where the audience nervously teeters between laughter and gasps, never quite sure when funny meets horror. The gruesome death of Blore, courtesy of an unexpectedly ursine weight, provokes peals of laughter, probably because the crushing takes place off-stage. But also, I guess, because there’s a fine line between horror and comedy at the best of times.
(The most hilarious film description I ever saw was for a supposedly full-blown thriller, which detailed: Blind girl comes home to find all her family murdered.)
But why-ever you shiver and shake, you’ll love it. This is old-fashioned entertainment at its best: witty, suspenseful, full of characters beautifully acted, masterful. Ten corpses in one play? What not to love.
Katie Jarvis reviewed And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, at Cheltenham Everyman, in January 2015
• The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk