And Then There Were None was originally an Agatha Christie novel written in 1939, was re-written by her in 1943 and since then has been adapted and filmed three times, notably by French metteur en sc ène René Clair in 1946. Ten people are delivered by a boatman to an island off the English coast at the invitation of a mysterious Mr. U.N.Owen. But who is he? Where is he? As the number of guests dwindles suggestively, the tension and suspicion factor is ratcheted up in an arithmetical if not geometric progression, and a combination of distance to the mainland, tide and wind precludes the possibility of fleeing the scene.
I think that assessment of a play of this sort requires the use of two, quite different yardsticks; what are its merits as a drama, and what as a thriller? This latter criterion is the more easily dealt with. The murder count is satisfying, committed under our noses or as near as makes no difference. There's no omniscient detective, fuelled by either pure logic or crystal-ball intuition – so no Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple – and this absence is welcome in that we the audience can step into the sleuth's shoes and have a stab at the killer's identity. We are fed a cholesterol-rich diet of mysterious entrances and exits, delayed action demises, deaths that have more than a touch of Lazarus about them, and a moment of romance to clean the palate sated with blood and guilty pasts. This variation on the 'locked room' puzzle is an intriguingly tough one to guess, and in the context of the conventions of the genre, the solution's plausible enough.
And yet judged as drama, the verdict has to be more ambivalent. I'd like to say something along the lines of: 'And hardly have we taken our seats before the first victim is dropping off his/her perch' but this would be to compromise my feeling that the first jolt seemed like a long time coming, and Christie's dialogue is not quite focused enough on swift-brush creation of character. To really care about the fate of Mr. X and Ms. Y, we have to know something about them as people. In the case of ATTWN about their pasts, and I never really felt that these islanders were anything more than broad-brush stereotypes – the racy young man in a sports car, the crabby, bible-bashing spinster, the would-be Lothario...
director Elena Wright, who has had in mind this material and staging for the
best part of a couple of years kindly talked to me at the interval about the challenge
of the Unicorn stage (narrow and very lacking in depth) vis à
vis this production where the scenario requires, in Act I anyway, the clogging presence
of up to 10 characters simultaneously. Restrictions on movement are consequently
inevitable, and Elena is all but compelled to rely primarily on the spark of
her actors to generate energy – successfully, on the whole.
From the cast I particularly liked Mike MacDonald's Mr. Blore (in wonderfully tasteless jacket and trousers and even louder shirt and tie), an ebullient figure, a dispenser of would-be home truths, and Jamie Crowther's callous Capt. Lombard ('Natives don't mind dying, you know; they don't feel about it as Europeans do!'), after a slightly diffident start grew both in playfulness and also in relaxed authority as the island world turned bloody and elbow-room expanded. Val Shelley's Miss Brent, knitting something in green from her armchair while freezing her listeners with Old Testament injunctions ('The wicked is snared....'), was an impressively impassive presence, and as Mr. Owen's new secretary Miss Claythorne, Anna Wilson managed to delve into her character effectively, and moved well.
Elena Wright also came up with neat staging touches: the audience's sight-lines to the cast were carefully planned when any falling-down in that respect would have been all-but disastrous on this stage. She also successfully trod the fine line between getting her actors to relate easily to one another within the atmosphere of fear, if not paranoia, experienced by their characters; not at all easy. The painted backcloth nicely suggested sky and sea beyond, sound design and creepy lighting was effective (and expertly handled by lighting and sound operator Holly Bathie, next to whom I sat), and her choice of Queen's 'Another One Bites the Dust' as we filed out was a little masterstroke!
If you like your thrillers served up with a bit of old-fashioned style and blood, Studio Theatre Club's And Then There Were None will tantalise your palate something cruel this week.