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MURDER, MARPLE AND ME – Ambassadors Theatre, London.

murder, marple and me“What kind of people read detective stories and why?” asks Agatha Christie in her seminal essay Detective Writers in England. The Queen of Crime concludes that our love of whodunits stems from the fact that “the reader can have all the fun of the chase without moving from a comfortable armchair”. A similar pleasure awaits audiences of one-woman show Murder, Marple and Me, which combines backstage drama, Countess of Grantham-esque putdowns and enough twists and turns to satisfy the most ardent of Christie-philes.

In 1961, the seemingly benign spinster with a cynical view of human nature made her first foray onto the screen in Murder, She Said, a loose adaptation of 4.50 from Paddington. Christie’s well-documented reservations about tone are understandable, given the film’s reliance on broad comedy of manners, but what is more surprising is her objection to the original, subsequently iconic screen Marple, Margaret Rutherford – and that Rutherford, for whom Marple became a calling card, was at first vehemently opposed to appearing in such a sordid endeavour as a crime drama.

This battle of the Dames would be entertaining enough, but the real joy of Philip Meeks’ intriguing tale lies in teasing out the deep, dark mysteries beneath their mutual antipathy. We are guided on our quest by Miss Marple herself, relishing the disclosure of past horrors in between bouts of knitting, and it is to the credit of director Stella Duffy that the piece switches effortlessly between acerbic comedy and genuinely unsettling thriller.

This is also a remarkable showcase for Janet Prince, charismatic and compelling throughout. She differentiates clearly between the three women without resorting to caricature: her Marple outwardly demure, but revealing glimpses of steely resolve; Rutherford a splendidly jocular luvvie, larger than life in more ways than one; and Christie majestic, imposing and coolly disparaging, until she spies the opportunity to play amateur sleuth: “I can never resist intrigue.”

The investigation throws up familiar Christie themes, such as family secrets, mental illness and the inheritance of tragedy. In a neat bit of intertextuality, the author’s findings and her developing relationship with Rutherford even inspire a later Marple novel, which is duly dedicated to her new muse; super-fans may guess its title before its revelation, and will also enjoy the irony of Rutherford’s casual putdown of fellow actress Joan Hickson.

Above all, this is a treat for those who prefer their whodunits stylishly presented. Revelations are couched in wonderful turns of phrase (Rutherford “fell foul of financial matters” after stocking up on such essentials as egg cosies, she confesses, before launching into a tirade about the “tepid” boiled egg), or paired with delightful farcical touches, notably simmering tensions over the tea trolley.

However, Meeks doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of his characters. Christie describes Marple as “sweet as strychnine”, and indeed both she and her creation struggle to contain their positive mania for murder, visibly brightening when they scent blood in the water. Christie’s relish of all things grisly extends to taking revenge on a bothersome publisher by plotting to capture her in print and then poison her, a moment of fantasy that is as amusing as it is disturbing.

As David Suchet’s Poirot prepares to take his final bow on TV, it seems highly appropriate that his female counterpart should find a new home on stage, right next door to the West End’s longest-running show, Christie’s The Mousetrap. The Queen of Crime is dead; long live the Queen.

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Reviewed 12/06/13/

By Marianka Swain

11th June – 19th June 2013
Ambassadors Theatre, London, WC2.

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