A Murder is Announced

Sydney Theatre, October 9

THERE was a time when I thought Agatha Christie the last word in reading entertainment. I devoured her books hungrily, and decided that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was about the cleverest thing written. I still think it’s pretty nifty actually, and it was rather influential in the crime genre, a genre I adore to this day.

Christie’s writing perhaps hasn’t stood the test of time particularly well but she did give us two of the great detectives in the canon, Hercule Poirot – the sleuth in the matter of Roger Ackroyd – and the even more imperishable Jane Marple, spinster of St Mary Mead and incomparable amateur detective.

Miss Marple made her first appearance in a 1926 short story, the year of Roger Ackroyd as it happens, and appeared in a dozen novels, the last one (Sleeping Murder) published in 1976. Not a bad innings, and one that would be extended until the present day via film and television.  The most recent series of Miss Marple mysteries, those produced by ITV, have been notable for two splendid leading ladies – Geraldine McEwan and then Julia McKenzie – and for the almost comical number of well-known British actors happy to appear in them. Fiona Shaw, Richard E. Grant, Tom Baker, Julie Sawahla and Richard Briers are just the tip of the iceberg. For heaven’s sake, even the splendiferous Carey Mulligan, she lately of The Great Gatsby, has featured.

All of which is a really long way of saying that wherever Miss Marple goes, I will follow.

Judi Farr as Miss Marple in A Murder is Announced. Photo: James Morgan

Judi Farr as Miss Marple in A Murder is Announced. Photo: James Morgan

Naturally I didn’t come to the current Australian production of A Murder in Announced completely fresh. I saw the ITV version (McEwan as Miss Marple, Zoe Wanamaker as Leticia Blacklock, Elaine Page as Doris Bunner) some years ago and while I had initially forgotten who done it, the mists dissolved fairly quickly. But never mind. The pleasure of these things is noting how the bits and pieces interweave and interlock to lead to a satisfying and, one hopes for those who are still in the dark, a surprising conclusion.

The Sydney Theatre, while comfortable, isn’t entirely the most atmospheric place for an unrepentantly old-fashioned piece such as A Murder is Announced. Melbourne’s Comedy should be somewhat more suitable. Still, I was enchanted with Linda Bewick’s set (Bewick is also one of the producers). One enters the auditorium to see a rather good facsimile of an English drawing room, complete with chandeliers, sconces, standard lamps, chintzy coverings for the sofa and chairs, a tray set for tea.

Dead centre – and dead is indeed le mot juste – there are two doors close together. These will be crucial.

The play opens, as did The Mousetrap – the producers of which are responsible for this commercial tour – with news delivered over the radio, something about a billionaire and an inheritance at stake. There is plinkety plunkety music (the estimable Max Lambert composer), the lights go down, and we’re off. A notice has been placed in the local Chipping Cleghorn paper to say a murder will take place that very evening in that very house. In those days people believed what they read in the papers, or at least the rather excitable Doris Bunner (Deidre Rubenstein) does. And you know what? She’s absolutely spot on.

Quite a few people happen to be staying in the house – the play has a cast of 11, which is good and rare news for actors – and it becomes clear that not everyone may be as advertised. There are meaningful exchanges, speaking glances and other necessary mystery trappings, mostly handled smoothly by director Darren Yap, although I felt Rubenstein chewed the scenery perhaps a little too frantically.

There are also, in Leslie Darbon’s script, some incredibly complicated pieces of exposition. One does have to be most attentive to keep up, and even the actors seem to find the going tough. I saw A Murder is Announced a couple of weeks in and there were still glitches. Debra Lawrence, as Leticia Blacklock, got herself in a right old pickle during a very long speech that is rather vital to one’s understanding of just who fits in where in the old inheritance imbroglio so that one was not a great deal the wiser at the end of it. Just grateful to move on really. Perhaps a more recent adaptation than this 1977 one would have had a lighter, more flexible touch and a more tripping use of language while retaining the enjoyable period feel.

I did have fun though, and very much appreciated Victoria Haralabidou’s calculatedly hysterical maid Mitzi. Above all, one is in exceptionally safe hands with Judi Farr’s sensibly shod, cardie-wearing Miss Marple. All the intelligence and quiet wit one could wish for are present and correct, and the twinkly relish with which Farr delivers her blackout line for Act I, Sc ii is perfection itself.

Sydney Theatre, until October 27. Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, from October 30. Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, from December 27. Canberra Theatre Centre from February 22.

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