Black coffee is generally good for your health. Unless, of course, you happen to be a character in an Agatha Christie plot, in which case it's likely to bump you off quicker that you can say "two lumps, please".
Christie's first play, Black Coffee – the only one featuring her great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – is on at the Oxford Playhouse, directed by Bill Kenwright and performed by The Agatha Christie Theatre Company.
World-famous scientist and domestic despot Sir Claude Amory (Eric Carte) invites Poirot (Jason Durr) to his country house to investigate the theft of a priceless formula that will change the fortunes of the world – and whoever gets their hands on it. Unfortunately, before Poirot arrives, Amory meets a grisly end after drinking a curiously bitter-tasting cup of coffee, and we are left wondering whodunnit.
Was it his badly-off son, Richard (Ben Nealon) or Richard's passionate Italian wife Lucia (Georgina Leonidas)? Or perhaps his muddle-headed sister Caroline (Deborah Grant), or their feisty, modern niece Barbara (Felicity Houlbrooke)? Could it have been his secretary Edward Raynor (Oliver Mellor), the sinister guest Dr.Carelli (Gary Mavers) or, like all good murder mysteries, was it in fact the butler (Martin Carroll)?
If, like me, you're a die hard Agatha fan, you've read and re-read her books and plays, and seen most of the television and radio adaptations over at least 25 years, then you might find any new production somewhat unsettling - a bit like replacing your fluffiest, most comfortable woolly jumper. For example, after reading Charles Osborne's novelisation of the play, I wasn't expecting an Art Deco set. But it was fabulous. So was the incidental music. In addition, a comedic touch seemed to lighten this adaptation, possibly more than the quieter, tenser, subtler stuff seen on screen.
In my eyes it would be almost impossible to surpass the woolly jumper that is David Suchet's Poirot. Poirot is short and elderly. Jason Durr is not. While the director's note emphasises that "what Christie was concerned about from the start was capturing the spirit of Poirot's intellectual and emotional approach to crime-solving, rather than simply his stature and moustache", Christie herself took great pains to describe the little man with the egg-shaped head and cat-like eyes who, by virtue of his stature, does not stoop or dodder, but puffs his chest out proudly, and whose advancement in years means that he can credibly refer to himself as 'Papa Poirot', and to adults as 'mes enfants'. But that's being overly picky. To be fair, Durr did a pretty decent job with the mannerisms and characterisation of those famous 'little grey cells'.
Bar a few dodgy accents, the performance, skilfully divided into three acts, became stronger and stronger, until the final, classic denouement. I particularly enjoyed Eric Carte's Inspector Japp, Robin McCallum's Captain Hastings and Deborah Grant's Caroline Amory.
Whether you are a Christie fan or you simply fancy a classic English whodunnit, this after-dinner brew - flavoursome and full of surprises - will leave a pleasant taste in your mouth and no doubt become smoother with time.