Past Crimes: Agatha Christie's Deadliest Weapon Is 1930s Snobbery
Portillo, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
And Then There Were None
Gielgud Theatre, London W1
Can modern technology revive Agatha Christie? The director Steven Pimlott has set himself that challenge in bringing And Then There Were None back to the West End stage. Is it possible with a slick high-tech set, astonishing stage effects and lots of loud bangs to overcome our resistance to Christie's Upstairs, Downstairs world, the stilted dialogue and her absurd plot? Can a revamp of the original work by the playwright Kevin Elyot pull it off? Not quite.
Perhaps I overstate the problem. Christie comes second only to Shakespeare as a bestselling author. During the 1990s alone, she sold ten million copies worldwide. Movies and television series of her work abound. The Mousetrap is a national institution.
But for all that, the idea of ten people being lured by a fuzzily signed invitation to an unescapable island so that they can be bumped off one by one is risible. Apparently the murderer could rely on the guests being suckers for a freebie weekend, even if they had no idea who their host was. That is merely the first dose of a plot that is packed tight with implausibility.
Of course, the play was meant to be funny. One character, Anthony Marston, reacts to every event by exclaiming: "I say!", which must have been far-fetched even in the 1930s. Similarly, after the butler's wife has been murdered in the night and he is serving breakfast the next day as though nothing unusual has happened, one of the guests remarks to him: "Sorry to hear about the wife, Rogers." To which he replies: "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Being horrified by the ghastliness of the British class system is about as close to terror as we get in this revival.
The mysterious impresario of the homicidal gathering charges each of the guests with murder. Marston has killed two pedestrians while driving too fast. A child left in the care of Vera Claythorne has perished in an accident. Did Rogers and his wife assist a previous employer to die, so as to hasten their inheritance from her? Captain Lombard makes no bones about having allowed a group of "natives" under his command to expire.
The guests will be despatched in line with the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldier Boys", which chronicles each of their fates, ending: "And then there were none." With each liquidation, one of the ten soldier figurines on the chimney piece disappears. Yet there is clearly nobody on the island but the eight guests, the butler and his wife. So the murderer must be in their midst. …