By Saoirse O’Connor
Agatha Christie’s name is synonymous with the modern detective story, her influence evident in modern shows like Death in Paradise. As soon as we see a group of suspects gathered in a room, a detective centre stage ready to uncover a murderer, the Queen of Crime’s hand isn’t hard to discern. But the modern interpretation of Christie is more sordid than I remember of the novels, all dark sordid corners, or dirty boarding houses. And it is Christie’s Belgian detective who has all the fun.
The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, is interesting because it allows Christie’s favourite character into the limelight. Miss Marple may not have a catchphrase like Poirot, but she’s damn good at catching killers. Christie’s characters are never ones for out and about detecting. After all, murderers are far better unearthed from comfortable armchairs than from stakeouts, and under the direction of Melly Stills this element to Christie’s style is more than evident. Marple conducts her investigation, housebound with a sprained ankle. Susie Blake as Miss Marple copes more than admirably with the obstacle of investigating from an armchair, giving us a fully capable, often overlooked elderly lady who can outmanoeuvre any number of well-meaning, but ultimately useless friends and relatives.
The plot centres around the arrival of aging film star on the brink of a comeback in the village of St Mary Mead, where Miss Marple lies, armchair bound, desperate for some grisly murder to occupy her time. Lucky for her, murder is around the corner when a local lady, coincidentally the same lady present for Marple’s accident, is murdered. The question of why would anyone wish to murder the poor woman is quickly posed and answered: the famous film star its be the real target!
There’s plenty to be admired in both the staging and the performance of this particular mystery. In the first half, Susie Blake’s Marple is clearly smarting at her reliance on other people, and her desperation to remain needed is clear in her interactions with surrogate son, Chief Inspector Dermot Craddock (played with wonderful pomp by Simon Shepherd). Julia Hills is wonderful as Marple’s dim but kind friend, Dolly who comes in trilling to spur the plot forward. Her frostiness towards Craddock, conducted under a veneer of upper-class politeness, gives a wonderful undercurrent to the trio’s shared scenes. Dolly brings with her the news of the murder, which gives Blake’s Marple the necessary incentive to spring back into action with a resolute twinkle in eye and a basketful of knitting. Blake’s Marple is performed as Christie intended: a witty insightful old lady with a core of steel.
The staging here works well, as the cast repeatedly manoeuvres their way around Marple’s armchair, constantly re-enacting the murder as different people remember it. The theme of memory and unreliable witnesses is performed with a film-like quality, as the backdrop allows a backstage view into the actions of the characters, repeatedly turning transparent to allow the audience to voyeuristically try and work out who is hiding what. The cast clearly enjoy the opportunity to test out different emphasis through different people’s recollections. After all, what person sees as harmless another sees as sinister.
As with all good Christie stories this one needs an ineffectual detective, a part played with relish by Simon Shepherd. Shepherd’s Dermot Craddock is a trilby-wearing Detective, a JB Priestley’s Inspector Gool wannabe, more concerned with following with the rules or—failing that—not letting anyone realise he’s seeking the advice of his aged aunt. Craddock is obviously used for comedic effect, yelling ‘Bugger’ than rushing out as his aunt reminds him about as-yet-not followed up on suspect, or as-yet-not released non-suspects. But he also presents a disturbing presence on stage as he overlooks both Marple and Dolly, one for being infirm, the other the hysterical widow of an old suspect (proved to be innocent, see The Body in the Library for details) Craddock is still a little boy in the presence of Marple, desperate to prove that he’s all grown up, but the ease with which he angers as Marple begins detecting is troubling, as his coolness as he remarks to the elderly lady that he’ll see her another time.
The staging is not always successful. The opening scene as the cast crowd the stage to gyrate and drink around the sleeping Marple, created a brief panic that the story would be told through interpretive dance (though what a show that would be), and the unmasking of the murderer is, surprisingly oversentimental and sickly. As a result, the final denouement is perhaps not the unforeseen shock it was intended to be. Marple’s own past and her issues as a result are similarly handled. The tragedy of Marple’s one and only love is over-egged and seems silly when compared to the rest of Blake’s kindly but no-nonsense Marple.
But these are trifles, which ultimately don’t detract from a well-acted and very entertaining 2 and half hours. It’s nice to see a Christie adaptation where the desperation to compete with our modern demands for sex, violence, and a deeply tortured lead played second fiddle to the intimate exploration of crime’s favourite old lady detective.