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Love from a Stranger

by on 2 May 2018

Misadventure or Adventure Averted?

Love from a Stranger

by Frank Vosper, adapted from Philomel Cottage by Agatha Christie

Fiery Angel in association with Royal and Derngate, Northampton, at Richmond Theatre until 5th May than on tour until 21st July

A Review by Mark Aspen

Adventures are dangerous. If you wish for an adventure be careful: it may become more of an adventure that you had wished for. In Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger, the sense of danger mounts with an irrepressible inevitability that makes it almost painful to watch. Then comes the typical Agatha Christie twist and misadventure is averted (or is it mis-averted) as Bluebeard meets Scheherazade. To say more would be a spoiler, for tonight was the Richmond opening of Fiery Angel’s national tour, and it has quite a way to go.

The gestation of the stage play Love from a Stranger was almost as convoluted as an Agatha Christie plot. Originally written in 1924 as a short story Philomel Cottage, it emerged ten years later in The Listerdale Mystery. Agatha Christie then rewrote it as a stage play, but it wasn’t until a further rewrite by actor Frank Vosper that it took off as a theatre hit, firstly in the West End in 1936, then on Broadway a year later. Bizarrely, the play’s pre-war life took a Christie-esque final twist, when Frank Vosper was lost at sea from a trans-Atlantic luxury liner, the SS Paris, apparently slipping into the ocean from the balcony of the room of Muriel Oxford, 1936’s Miss Great Britain, where she was having a party. His body was found near Plymouth a few days later.

Love Stranger 2

Agatha Christie, the “Mozart of murder” was obsessed with the idea of the pathological successful liar, and the one of the two main protagonists of Love from a Stranger, Bruce Lovell, is such a subject, a con-man and much, much, worse. (Note how Agatha Christie drops the clues around: Lovell, “love”-all, is Bruce, the one who waits patiently watching the spider’s web being constructed.)

Friends and flatmates Cecily Harrington and Mavis Wilson are moving house. Things are changing and they are renting out Cecily’s Bayswater flat. Tied to a tedious office job, Cecily’s has been unable enjoy the adventurous life that she craves. Now, Cecily has won a half share of a half share of a £50,000 sweepstake prize. Is it too late? she thinks. That afternoon her fiancé, Michael is arriving from the Sudan, where his colonial duties have now finished, ready for their wedding. Cecily is in a tis-was: she has already suggested postponing the wedding, and confides to Mavis that her relationship with Michael is a “tepid romance”. So when a stranger walks into her flat as prospective tenant, a fast talking charmer with an American accent and tales of worldwide and everywhere adventures, she falls, but … but, he is Bruce Lovell.

Royal and Derngate’s set, designed by Mike Britton, creates the right mood. Sepia with gauze flats, it conveys a sense of claustrophobia, in spite of (or maybe because of) the open vista of the skyscape beyond the wide windows, with its promise of adventure. As the opening of Richard Hammarton’s edgy soundscape, the sudden and abrupt start to the play is startling.

Director Lucy Bailey moves Vosper’s mid 1930s setting to 1958, although it is not obvious why (or why such a precise reference date). However, the precise costumes of the period enhanced the characterisations and the mentions of Wimbledon as “cheap to rent” drew laughter from the audience.

Love Stranger 5

The first half of the play is a slow burn. One quite hoped for a shorter fuse, knowing that the Agatha Christie fireworks were to come. However, this did give a good opportunity to meet and develop the characters other than the two principals, and the three characters we see from Cecily’s life in Bayswater are neatly and accurately drawn. Louise Garrard, Cecily’s Aunt Lulu, is played slightly larger than life and with obvious enjoyment by Nicola Sanderson. The wonderfully jolly-hockeysticks Aunt Lulu reminds us (whilst breaking a “priceless” candlestick) that she is one of The Garrards, who always have great taste. She believes that Harrods is the sine qua non for everything from estate agency to afternoon tea … until trumped by an offer to go to Fortnum and Mason’s. Pecking orders are clearly defined for Aunt Lulu. When Michael Lawrence, the fiancé arrives, we see from his bearing that he is an all-round good egg, upright, smart, with neatly parted and Brylcreem-ed moustache and hair. But Justin Avoth’s Michael is far from being a spoof. We see a man (a man of his time) needing to be in control of his emotions. His frustration and disappointment at being jilted (Aunt Lulu’s word) by his fiancée is palpable and, when confronting the “other man” the officer and a gentleman stiff upper lip wins, in spite of clenched fists. Alice Haig’s portrait of Mavis is well defined, the trustworthy and loyal friend, with intelligent insight and finely tuned intuition that all is not as it might seem. Why, I kept thinking, didn’t Michael go with Mavis when he lost Cecily; two generous characters, they so suit each other? Three spot-on characterisations.

Throughout the first half, the French scenes of the play are marked not only by changes in lighting but by a sideways sliding of part or all of the scenery accompanied by an eerie sound effect. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting plot is mood-enhancing and the whole effect is clearly intended to increase tension, which it well serves. Ingenious as it is, it does seem a little unnecessary and pulls out the slow burn even more. It smacks of aiming for the grand effect of opera, which is perhaps a vestige of Bailey’s operatic directing career.
The tempo is upped in the second half. We are now in a remote cottage in the country in West Sussex. Cecily and Lovell’s romance has been the archetypal whirlwind. A quick trip to Kew Gardens and they are they are engaged within hours; a flip around here and there and married in days.

The Agatha Christie genre demands isolation, but the Sussex cottage doesn’t quite fit this bill. It is a seven shillings and sixpence train journey from London, and unannounced visits thence constantly frustrate Lovell’s plans, translucent to us audience but seemingly opaque to (most) of the characters. Around their apparent marital bliss, Agatha Christie scatters lots of clues for us to see Lovell in his true light: Peeping Tom photography, bottles of hydrogen peroxide secretly hidden, parcels of soft porn, an obsession with sensational murder trials, sniffing of underwear, compulsive notebook keeping, a strangely significant silk stole. Then there is the secret “darkroom”, converted from the cellar, into which dark secrets accumulate.

Three characters we now see in Sussex are also accurately drawn. The local GP, Dr Gribble, and the gardener, Hodgson are both observant, a tutored and an untutored viewpoint each. Their characters are brought into perspective by Crispin Redman and Gareth Williams. Molly Logan plays Ethel, the learner housemaid, cheeky, energetic and playful. Ethel has a natural curiosity, especially about the secret dark room, which piques Lovell. “Curiosity killed the cat”, he reminds her. Logan demonstrates how to play a cameo role and get the most from it without pulling the focus, and with delightful subtlety. Again, three spot-on characterisations.

Sam Frenchum tackles the difficult role of Bruce Lovell with assurance, with all the right hints and flicks towards the hidden character, Lovell’s superficial charm and his manipulative manner. The svelte and willowy Helen Bradbury gives a nuanced portrayal of Cecily Harrington, her breath-taking belief in love-at-first-sight, her discovery of the emotional adventure and then the sudden revelation as the rose tinted spectacles are rudely broken. However, together they don’t seem to get the chemistry quite right. I was not convinced that this level-headed gal would be swept off her feet by a stranger with the corny line, “You have happened to me”. Equally, the sinister sub-consciousness of Lovell didn’t really come over.

Love Stranger 1

Love from a Stranger is one of Agatha Christie’s earlier works and as a stage play much of the plot doesn’t really hold together (although we famously suspend disbelief on entering a theatre), but the Agatha Christie magic really comes out in this play in the ending twist. “Go on and then you will see how precious it will be”, says Lovell of the 9pm reminder in his notebook and Cecily’s alarm bells begin to ring. Suffice it to say, that the twist is unexpected.

Earlier Cecily, hearing a nightingale, says that “The nightingale only sings for lovers”. Ovid tells why: as TS Eliot puts it “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king so rudely forced”. Barbarian or Bluebeard, this is an adventure too far for Cecily. Is Love from a Stranger a misadventure or an adventure averted?

Mark Aspen
May 2018

Photography by Sheila Burnett

From → Drama, Reviews

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