When I was a boy I always enjoyed the Miss Marple films, adapted from Agatha Christie’s novels, when they were shown on television.
Murder, Margaret and Me
York Theatre Royal
Till Mar 4 @ 7.30pm, matinees Thur 2pm, Sat 2.30pm
These films starred the redoubtable Margaret Rutherford in the title role, she of the wobbly jowls and steely, determined eye but with a twinkle and an air of the comical too.
For me, Rutherford was, and still is, the Miss Marple in spite of other more recent and excellent television portrayals.
So I was particularly looking forward to seeing Philip Meeks’ play about Rutherford, Christie and Marple. I wasn’t disappointed. This production is thoroughly entertaining.
Philip Meeks, a Margaret Rutherford devotee from childhood, says in his excellent programme note that he wanted to write a biographical play that was more than just a straight narrative of her life, a comedy that would be neither disrespectful nor ridiculing.
Originally a one-person play focussing on Rutherford alone, Meeks always intended to expand it and this is the result.
He chose to concentrate on the three years in the early 1960s when Rutherford brought Miss Marple to life on the big screen, a role she was reluctant to take on as she regarded murder to be a sordid and serious subject.
With good reason: after her death in 1972, dark secrets about her family background emerged.
Rutherford and Agatha Christie first met on the film set, an uncomfortable meeting given that Christie had been publicly disparaging about Rutherford’s casting as the ‘bird-like’ amateur sleuth.
Meeks then went on to imagine from that inauspicious start that the two women developed a friendship and that Agatha turned sleuth herself to discover Margaret’s secret.
The result is a fusion of fact and imagination made all the more interesting and satisfying by Meeks’ discovery that his imagined friendship between the two ladies turned out to be true.
The play reflects this strange overlapping of real and unreal as the two protagonists develop their relationship and Agatha becomes ever more intrigued with Margaret’s story.
The intrigue is helped along by the play’s third character, The Spinster (Andrina Carroll). Who this character is meant to be is not fully revealed. Is she the spirit of Miss Marple herself, or does she represent the inner consciences of both Christie and Rutherford?
The Spinster sometimes addresses the audience to advance the narrative and also has dialogue with the two main characters.
She is nearly always on stage even in scenes where the action focuses on the other two. Her constant presence is a shade unsettling.
But it’s by no means all intrigue and mystery. This is meant to be a comedy thriller and there are some very funny scenes and lines.
Tea and cakes feature strongly in the two main characters’ meetings and there’s plenty of fun stage business to be enjoyed here.
Susie Blake is in tremendous form as Margaret Rutherford. She has the stance and demeanour of the actress to a tee (although maybe not the wobbly jowls).
At times it was just possible to believe that it was Dame Margaret herself standing on stage, especially when in tweedy twin-set and flowerpot hat. But she also portrays Rutherford’s more eccentric side with a sense of fun and girlish giggles.
Nichola McAuliffe is a convincing Agatha Christie, emphasising a forceful, inquisitive nature as well as an impish sense of humour, especially when dancing the Charleston while recalling her infamous 1926 ‘disappearance’.
Completing the line-up, Andrina Carroll is excellent as The Spinster, combining innocent storyteller and mysterious presence.
Designer Dawn Allsopp’s set is very effective in conveying a fantasy/ make-believe feeling to the story.
Everything is apparently part of a film stage with set panels, props and lights dotted around. Scene changes are minimal and are carried out by stagehands in brown coats, often while the actors are still performing.
Some people might find this a distraction but I didn’t find it so and thought it worked well as a theatrical device and progressed the story seamlessly.
It also meant that there is at least one member of the cast on stage pretty much the entire time which helps to keep the pace and the audience’s engagement with the characters.
Lighting by Prema Mehta is atmospheric and sound designer Yvonne Gilbert uses music sparingly but effectively to enhance some of the scenes.
For film music buffs Ron Goodwin’s catchy Miss Marple theme is frequently heard throughout the play which for this audience member greatly added to a feeling of nostalgia and a longing to see those old films again!
It probably helps to know a little bit about the main characters before seeing this play but it’s witty, fun and at times poignant with some great performances to be enjoyed by anyone.
This is a comedy-thriller with a twist of reality and a must-see for any Margaret Rutherford fans.