Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Matthew Jebb and Jonathan Whiteside
There’s an irresistible pull to the macabre and sinister, an instinctual thirst for something bloody and mysterious which goes against our nature to survive. It’s that sliver of brutality that the most successful female playwright, and a rather famous author Agatha Christie, captures in crimson-soaked droves throughout her work. And sharing this taste for horror and crime, Edinburgh grassroots theatre company Strawmoddie revive one of Christie’s most notorious pieces, with a body count to match: And Then There Were None.
Converting the esteemed Central Hall from its usual host of hymn and song into a solitary island home, ten strangers arrive by a mysterious invitation from a pair of hosts who seem not to have arrived yet. Whiskey flows, judgements are drawn, and tranquillity is a dream before a tightening of the noose – as a harrowing recording echoes through the house, naming the guests and heralding their crimes for them the rest to hear. Everyone here has a secret; someone knows them all.
Strawmoddie has a superbly melancholy and well-constructed script to work with, one meticulous in handling its understanding of guilt and judgement. They rise to the occasion with gusto, determination, and inventiveness that ensures audiences remain one step behind the cast and creatives. Directors Matthew Jebb and Jonathan Whiteside do a superb job of bemuseming the audience, keeping the revelations secret enough so that even those with a firmer familiarity with the show feel they’ve caught it anew.
And we have a veritable gallery of rogues to pick our bids for the first chop: Timothy Bond’s flash-harry style Anthony Marston who sees the enjoyment in it all, treating this mysterious invitation away as no more than a holiday, an excuse to drink and show off their motor. A motor which Chris Person’s General MacKenzie and Whiteside’s Dr Armstrong find offensive, particularly to the flustering and often irate Armstrong. Person’s mentally exhausted General offers a more intimate and mortal viewpoint away from the grimness of it all: that at the end of it all – these players in a deadly game are human. Well. Nearly all of them.
Significantly, Strawmoddie’s production has one main drawback – speech pace and annunciation. The lack of microphones and the reverberating echo of the venue cause issues with catching line deliveries, particularly when performers turn their backs to the audience in awkward stage positioning. It’s the only true concern of the piece, but a rather significant one with such a wide array of things to get across. But the quick turn-around by cast members come acts two and three offers a testament to their professional nature.
So, that aside, what of this rag-tag bunch? They don’t seem up to the standards of the home’s temporary housekeepers Mr and Mrs Rogers. From flash youths with faster motors to a neurotic doctor and a rather unpleasantly pious and haughty woman – they’re not the sort of the Rogers care for. Chris Allen and Wendy Mathison have the tricky task of laying the foundations, positing exposition about the set-up and the numerous visitors. They manage it sufficiently, ensuring a flow continues as the audience is introduced to a hefty cast. But don’t worry – those numbers won’t stay high for long.
As usual, Ben Blow brings a mischievously enjoyable performance presence as Blore, a mysterious (shocking) man whose past doesn’t align with the revelations. Blow instils a much-needed levity to it all without sullying the seriousness of the production but can turn to the aggressive footing when going toe-to-toe with Matthew Jebb’s Philip Lombard – a colonel and often de-facto leader of the room. But there is one who can outrank Blore and Lombard’s authority: Michael Daviot’s Sir Lawrence Wargrave.
The reverence and candour with which Daviot carries is an undoubted credit to the company and a pillar around which other performers can grow their characters. The professional performer and playwright perform with crystalline diction, commanding the room with but a word as the law-abiding, if stern, Judge – never overstepping the mark or impressing upon others. Indeed, their conversations with fellow performers Hilary Davies, turning in a thoroughly foul and cruel character, and Blow often come as highlights in trading barbs and a more clear example of the back-and-forth Jebbs and Whiteside intend.
Director and performer Jebb’s self-assured, even brash and liquor-induced Philip Lombard stirs much of the commotion this evening. His playful, flirtatious nature aligns terrifically with another standout performer, Alice Pelan’s Vera Claythorne. Taking the emotional stresses and turmoil of the show to heart, Pelan’s physicality throughout is exceptional: ranging from aloof and floating naïvety to a gradual crumble of tension. Pelan captures the desperation, clawing at life – likely the character audiences may find themselves relating to the most. But are they desperate to survive, or merely eager to not be found out…
Those familiar with And Then There Were None know of its multiple endings depending upon the tastes of the director and production company. To spoil Strawmoddie’s choice in the finale and how they tackle it would be a dreadful sin. But it’s safe to say that the degree of care, thought, and revelry in pushing heightened adrenaline is evident in the final moments. If you’re able to blink or draw breath, then you might be just as mad as the rest of them.
With the gentle crashing of the waves between acts and the shift to candle-lit evenings of dread, Elissa Webb’s lighting and sound set the scene without distraction. And upon this converted stage are some fully rounded and developed demonstrations of character-based performance, which evolve and sink deeply into emotional turmoil, anxieties and even a campness of comedy. These though also highlight the weaker elements of pacing, annunciation and a few less fleshed-out roles (a fault with Christie). And Then There Were None, though stunted by the venue, demonstrates an exceptional ethic of hard work, care and panache for playing to the grim, a production Strawmoddie grows from murder mystery into a macabre character-driven piece.
Panache for Playing to the Grim
And Then There Were None runs at Central Hall, Tollcross until March 18th. Thursday – Saturday at 19.30pm.
Running Time – Two hours and twenty minutes including two intervals. Suitable for ages 12+
Tickets begin from £15.00, concessions are available, and tickets may be obtained here