The Mirror Crack’d lacks real tension although Susie Blake’s Miss Marple is a comforting presence

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d: Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. 28.11.2022. (JPr)

(l to r) Oliver Boot (Chief Inspector Craddock), Sophie Ward (Marina Gregg), Susie Blake (Miss Marple) © Ali Wright

I am not a great Agatha Christie fan: I have never sat through any of David Suchet’s TV version of Poirot though have seen Peter Ustinov and Kenneth Branagh on film and have watched Margaret Rutherford and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple back in the day. Then of course there have been the occasional TV adaptations of some of Christie’s other books that I have seen including And Then There Were None (which has an original now-infamous title). Also I have never, ever, wanted to see The Mousetrap now 70 years young on London’s West End – and currently on a UK anniversary tour – with no sign its popularity will end soon. I came to the Original Theatre Company’s The Mirror Crack’d totally ignorant of whodunnit which I suspect is the best way to see it, otherwise Christie devotees might be wanting this adaptation to get on with it or wish they had stayed at home and re-read the book.

The time period is uncertain, supermarket and showers are new ideas, yet there is still the death penalty as the ultimate punishment. So presumably it is either late-50s or early-60s, though some of the speechifying – Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation is a very wordy one – was clearly 2022. It is not a spoiler to say that there is a murder to be solved and several suspects who could have done the deed. Heather Leigh (Jules Melvin) dies – poisoned by a strawberry daiquiri – at a party given by Marina Gregg (Sophie Ward) a famous American actress who has moved into the area with her husband, film producer Jason Rudd (David Partridge) and who – returning after a break – is attempting to revive her career by making a film about Catherine of Aragon. They have bought the local manor house Gossington Hall from Dolly Bantry (Veronica Roberts) who – in another convenient coincidence – is the neighbour and good friend of Miss Marple (Susie Blake) in St Mary Mead. The murder is being investigated by Chief Inspector Craddock (Oliver Boot) for whom Miss Marple is ‘Aunt Jane’ and there is history there of him trying to stop her getting involved in his investigations, which he signally fails to do once again. There are other characters on whom suspicion falls such as Lola Brewster (Chrystine Symone) who is starring with Gregg as Anne Boleyn, Gregg’s assistant Ella Zielinsky (Sarah Lawrie), and her butler Giuseppe Renzo (Lorenzo Martelli) but – no especial spoiler here – he will not see out the play. There is also the more innocent looking Cyril Leigh (John Wark), Heather’s husband, and Cherry Baker (Mara Allen) who is Miss Marple’s home help. She needs the help because in a strange opening to The Mirror Crack’d Miss Marple is rather housebound – at least initially – because of a sprained ankle.

There is a very odd opening to the play with Miss Marple sleeping in her chair and she seems to conjure up the characters we will later see. Incredibly the first word we hear her say – and the first word of the play – is ‘Bugger!’ It would have been so much better to have shown us the (first!) murder and then with flashbacks and freeze-frame (which we do get a lot of) see all the events from the viewpoints of those involved. Miss Marple sits in the chair quite a lot with everyone walking around her – or sitting with her – to tell us what happened in the past or offstage. (Later she will hobble slowly around on crutches or use a walking stick.) It is all rather static and, to be honest, somewhat stagey.

For me, Max Pappenheim’s incidental music didn’t add a great deal to the atmosphere. On the plus side, there is excellent use of Adrian Linford’s revolving set which could reasonably suggest – because of a glass conservatory look with sliding doors and large French windows – the locations the play needed from Miss Marple’s living room, the party at Gossington Hall, as well as a film studio. Cue that murder mystery staple, a crashing arc light!

Susie Blake (Miss Marple) and Veronica Roberts (Dolly Bantry) © Ali Wright

There are some lighter moments, mainly from Dolly Bantry who complains about supermarkets with – compared to old-style grocers – people having to select their own shopping, new housing estates, and wondering how it would work for two women in love. Then – indicative of the adaptation’s inconsistent style – there is a lot of pathos, particularly with Miss Marple reflecting poignantly on over the four decades that had passed since the mysterious-sounding death of her sweetheart during the First World War. This mirrored (sorry!) the heroine’s isolation and loneliness in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott which gave the novel its original title, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, plus its other themes of love, loss and how actions have consequences. I will write no more on this now because all this comes together in the (familiar) big reveal at the end of the play even if Philip Franks‘s direction fails to create any real tension before we get there.

I thought the acting was good but not exceptional and in a number of ways The Mirror Crack’d lacked much needed glamour, style and sophistication. Susie Blake was a quietly comforting presence as Miss Marple, she (eventually) unmasks the culprit by stealth rather than insightful leaps of intuition. Oliver Boot’s Chief Inspector channels John Cleese in his exasperation with her, whilst Veronica Roberts was the perfect village gossip confused by the social changes of the twentieth century. Sophie Ward has her best moments at the end – saying more about that would be giving too much away – but mostly her performance is rather understated as Marina Gregg, the faded movie star. Elsewhere there are some dodgy accents in the performances of the rest of the ensemble but deserving of special praise were David Partridge replacing Joe McFadden as Gregg’s devoted – though latest – husband, Jason Rudd, and John Wark who stood in for Partridge as Cyril Leigh.

Jim Pritchard

The tour of The Mirror Crack’d continues in 2023.

New adaptation – Rachel Wagstaff
Director – Philip Franks
Designer – Adrian Linford
Sound designer and Composer – Max Pappenheim
Lighting designer – Emma Chapman
Movement director and AD – Sophia Vi
Original dramaturgy – Melly Still

Miss Marple – Susie Blake
Marina Gregg – Sophie Ward
Jason Rudd – David Partridge
Cherry Baker – Mara Allan
Chief Inspector Craddock – Oliver Boot
Ella Zielinsky – Sarah Lawrie
Giuseppe Renzo – Lorenzo Martelli
Heather Leigh – Jules Melvin
Cyril Leigh – John Wark
Dolly Bantry – Veronica Roberts
Lola Brewster – Chrystine Symone
Party Guest / Assistant Director / Policewoman – Holly Smith

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