As far as ‘whodunnits’ go, I’m far more used to being laid out on the sofa with a cup of tea (gin and tonic) watching them unfold on telly. So, to be in the theatre watching the drama unfurl live on stage is an intriguing novelty in itself. Also intriguing is that The Unexpected Guest, written by the grand doyenne of detective stories Agatha Christie, has never been adapted into a television series or film in the UK. And there’s an argument for and against this.
The Unexpected Guest isn’t the most fast-paced of Christie’s plays. We are introduced to the central characters, mean old Richard Warwick (Spoiler alert: he’s dead in his armchair) his wife Laura (Spoiler alert: she’s holding the pistol that killed him) and Michael Starkwedder, a stranger who just so happens to have walked in on a crime scene, all in the first few seconds. The plot, however, is a slow-burner. Starkwedder bizarrely offers to help Mrs Warwick cover up the murder by framing an old rival, whose son was knocked over and killed in a drunken hit and run by Richard years before. This wouldn’t be a whodunnit if it were that straightforward, though, and a slew of suspects come into the fray to muddle with their plans. Slow it may be, but it still has all of the ingredients for a fine drama, so it’s beggars belief why it’s not more well-known. It’s classic Christie; interesting, uncertain and deliciously over-the-top. It keeps the audience’s attention straight through to the finale, or at least it did mine.
Alison Carr is mesmerising as the unhinged Laura. It isn’t clear to the audience whether the murder of her husband is a crime of passion or pure malevolence, or whether she’s even behind it, and Carr has them hanging on her every movement. Carr is also an award-winning playwright and it is probably these skills, an eye for detail and the understanding of a character’s being, that aid her in giving such an understated yet rich performance, which begins right from her fabulously camp entrance wielding a pistol. Sam Hinton is also great as Starkwedder. His swagger is impressive and his cool, conniving demeanour is a grounding presence in contrast to Carr’s nervous Laura. Richard Gardner is on great form as Sergeant Cadwallender, his broad Welsh accent down to a tee. He was spectacular in the People’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors a few months back and he impresses again here. Callum Mawston also puts in a sweet and studied turn as young Jan, a lad with learning difficulties.
A rich set utilises the stage well, the chair in which the victim is discovered the focal point throughout. Jess Chapman and Vanessa Aiken’s direction is simple and allows the story to unfold without too many distractions. Other than a few gunshots and cigarettes being chain-smoked, the play is played straight.
Not the most obviously thrilling of Christie’s works, but a perfectly good display of her talents as a murder mystery writer. In this case, a great cast help an adequate story become something a little bit more, well, mysterious.
The Unexpected Guest is at the People’s Theatre until Sat January 21. For more information or to book tickets, call the box office on 0191 265 5020 or click here