Director Lucy Bailey is no stranger herself to delivering stylish period mysteries, having previously delivered highly acclaimed productions of Gaslight and Dial M For Murder. Following her recent success with Agatha Christie’s Witness For The Prosecution at London County Hall, she returns with another of the Queen of Crime’s plays (adapted by Frank Vosper), Love From A Stranger.
Perhaps a more obscure work by Dame Agatha, Love From A Stranger is an adaptation of one of her short stories – Philomel Cottage – from the published anthology The Listerdale Mystery. It follows Cecily Harrington (a pitched-perfect, powerful performance by Helen Bradbury), a young woman liberated from a future of dutiful but stifling conformity as a secretary, and fiancé to Michael Lawrence (Justin Avoth, giving depth and pathos to a role that easily could have been one-note), by a sudden financial windfall and a chance encounter with handsome American stranger Bruce Lovell (an excellent performance, by turns laconic and mercurial, by Sam Frenchum). To the horror of her family and friends, Cecily impulsively abandons her old life for a new life of adventure and domestic bliss with the charismatic Bruce. However, as you would expect with Christie, not all is what it appears to be.
The tragedy of Cecily and Michael is that they both yearn for the opposite dream. Having spent years in the Sudan, Michael wants nothing more than certainties domestic life back in Britain will bring, with a steadfast wife by his side. Cecily though, stifled by years of dutiful waiting as a fiancé and trapped by her unfulfilling but respectable role as a secretary, instead craves the adventures in those far-flung lands Michael is as keen to escape. Where the windfall tantalises Cecily with the opportunity for liberation, the arrival of Bruce, a well-travelled and expressive photographer, pushes her headlong into a whirlwind romance and new life at a picturesque but isolated cottage in the country.
Cecily is like a number of heroines in Christie’s works, particularly her thrillers, which often follow spirited and sharp-minded young woman of means in mysterious adventures, often involving spy rings, exotic locales, and not a small amount of derring-do. Helen Bradbury’s assured performance ensures the audience’s sympathies are with Cecily event as she jilts her fiancé and absconds with a man she barely knows, and we cheer her on even though deep down we have an uncomfortable feeling that she may have jumped out of the frying-pan and into the fire.
Similarly, Bruce is a familiar figure in Christie’s stories – the attractive stranger whose charisma is a smoke-screen for more hidden desires and agendas. It’s difficult to say too much more about Sam Frenchum’s performance without giving the game away, but it is fair to say his is a performance that builds almost imperceptibly in steeliness and magnetism until his presence dominates the stage for an intense climax that has a number of surprises up its sleeve.
Injecting a notes of levity are Alice Haig and Gareth Williams as the servants, our slightly sly and mischievously insolent rural folk, and Nicola Sanderson as Cecily’s overbearing, snobbish and amusingly interfering aunt.
Bailey’s direction and design are superb, slowly building the atmosphere of tension and unease towards a gripping finale. The music is sharp and staccato, rising to a crescendo before abruptly breaking into silence. The set design is very effective with the simple mechanism of having the sets slide back and forth to reveal further aspects of Cecily’s flat and the cottage. It gives the illusion that the very set itself is as shifty and untrustworthy as the characters in a story in which not everything is as it appears to be.
There is great play, again very common in Christie’s work, between the veneer of social respectability of apparent truth, and the hidden, seedier reality that lurks just out of sight. Bruce’s vocation as a photographer alludes to this interest in how things appear and how things actually are. There is a sordid and sexual edge to this production (moments that are few and far between, but that nevertheless caused slight consternation amongst some fellow audience members who were perhaps expecting more traditionally genteel Christie fare) but one which is critical to undercutting the world of respectable, drab conformity Cecily was desperate to escape from, and to tinging the world she has made for herself with intensity and menace.
This is a confident, polished and gripping production, and a great opportunity to enjoy perhaps one of the Queen of Crime’s most overlooked gems.
Love From a Stranger runs until Saturday 19th May and tickets are available here
Review by David Powell