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Review – A Murder is Announced – Floral Pavilion New Brighton

AGATHA Christie’s novel ‘A Murder Is Announced’ was published in 1950, in between the appearance of ‘Three Blind Mice’ on the radio in 1947 and its reworking as ‘The Mousetrap’ in 1952. The classic one room setting and ingenious plot made it a prime candidate for dramatisation, and numerous stage and television versions have appeared over the years.

This touring production from Middle Ground Theatre has already played at over 40 venues pre-pandemic and now visits New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion as one of 12 stops in its renewed tour for spring 2022.

Letitia Blacklock is the lady of the house at Little Paddocks in the English village of Chipping Cleghorn. Staying with her at present are her old friend Bunny and her younger cousin Patrick and his sister Julia, both of whom she has only recently become reacquainted with having not seen them since they were children. Also a guest in the house is Phillipa, a recently widowed friend of Letitia.

Bunny is most put out because she can’t find her copy of the morning paper, but it soon turns out that it had been nabbed by Patrick, who is roundly admonished and gives it back. Moments later Bunny discovers a very disturbing announcement in the personal column. A murder is announced, to take place that very evening at 6:30 at Little Paddocks. Letitia passes it off as a joke, and it seems to be of great amusement to Patrick and Julia, but Bunny is very disturbed by the whole thing and becomes quite faint at the prospect. Meanwhile Mitzi, the maid who is a refugee working for Letitia, becomes paranoid that someone is out to get her, and she resolves to lock herself in her room that evening.

Of course the newspaper announcement has piqued the interest of the local community, and before long an impromptu drinks party develops as people turn up as the appointed hour approaches. Neighbours Mrs Swettenham and her foppish son Edmund arrive, hoping for some gossip, and there would be no show without the appearance of Miss Marple, who happens to be holidaying in a nearby hotel. Miss Marple of course has some theories of her own, but departs to conduct other business before the clock strikes the half hour.

There’s a flash, and the lights go out. In the darkness there are angry voices, screams and shots fired. When the lights are finally turned back on, a corpse lies in the middle of the floor and Letitia is holding her ear, which has been grazed by a passing bullet. It seems like an open and shut case – a matter of a robbery gone wrong in which the mystery thief has accidentally shot himself – but Miss Marple has arrived within moments of the shooting and recognises the corpse. Her observations set Inspector Craddock of the local constabulary on a mission to find the truth, and he enlists Miss Marple’s help in doing so.

Here we enter the world of classic Christie plotting, with the twists becoming increasingly tangled until finally being unravelled by the combined cunning of Marple and Craddock. Few of the characters are quite who or what they seem, and everyone appears to have secrets to hide.

The play is staged on a splendidly solid drawing room set designed by Michael Lunney, who also directs the production. It’s all done in the clipped accents of the period, which suits the sharp dialogue well. Barbara Wilshire, Emma Fernell, Will Huntington and Lucy Evans in particular succeed in pitching their portrayals of Letitia, Phillipa, Patrick and Julia, and Tom Butcher is a scene stealer as the thoughtful and lugubrious Inspector Craddock. On New Brighton’s press night Miss Marple is played by cast understudy Cara Chase, who is every bit as prim and proper as expected. Although billed as a Miss Marple Mystery, the show is a more the territory of Craddock, with Marple taking very much a back seat driver’s place.

This is a show that those looking for a traditional telling of the ‘50s tale will find very satisfying. It takes its time to get where it’s going and lays all the clues out with neat precision. In keeping with the era, transitions between scenes are marked by a closing of the curtains rather than a brief blackout, which accentuates the gradual, plodding nature of the narrative. It’s a who, and indeed why-dunnit, which starts dropping us hints at a very early stage and, as is usual for Christie, the trick is to sort the real clues from the red herrings. Expect to see all the usual trappings of the genre, but with Miss Marple in a sequence of prominent cameos rather than a leading role.

Star rating – 3 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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