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Hecule Poirot on the case as stage thriller is revived

One of Agatha Christie's favourite characters is coming to Newcastle Theatre Royal in a play rarely performed

A scene from Black Coffee
A scene from Black Coffee

The detective Hercule Poirot is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous characters. He appears in 33 of her novels, more than 50 short stories... and one play.

This is Black Coffee which is coming to Newcastle next week with actor Jason Durr as the meticulous Belgian sleuth, taking over the role and the neat moustache from Robert Powell.

Christie and Poirot, you might be forgiven for thinking, are creatures of a bygone age and have, therefore, done well to survive.

Black Coffee is set, according to the Theatre Royal, on “a quintessentially English country estate” – a place “thrown into chaos” by the murder of an eccentric inventor and the theft of a lethal chemical formula.

The plot summary adds: “Arriving at the estate just moments too late, one man immediately senses a potent brew of despair, treachery and deception amid the estate’s occupants.

“That man is Hercule Poirot.”

Bill Kenwright’s production, staged by special arrangement with the estate of the late writer (Christie died in 1976, aged 85, after an extraordinarily fruitful career), hit the road at the start of the year and has found favour with reviewers in Wolverhampton, Milton Keynes, Blackpool and other tour locations.

One critic called it “a good old-fashioned murder mystery”.

Jason Durr as Hercule Poirot in Black Coffee
Jason Durr as Hercule Poirot in Black Coffee
 

There are two big selling points behind this production. Firstly, that it is the only Christie play to feature Poirot and, secondly, that it has not been done for 40 years. The latter point might alert the cynic in any seasoned theatre-goer, as Jason Durr acknowledges.

“There are many plays you see where they haven’t been done for years and you think there’s probably a very good reason for that,” he says.

“But audiences seem to have been warming to the language of the play.

“Agatha Christie reads well today which is why she remains so popular. She uses certain expressions and ways of stringing words together that sound as if they were penned yesterday.

“In that respect, if people thought they were coming to see something staid they have probably been surprised to find something so fresh. The fact that it hasn’t been done for so long means people are not coming to it with pre-conceived ideas.

“We feel, in a sense, that we are doing it for the first time.”

Jason, who stepped from the shoes of Sherlock Holmes into those of Poirot, is also well known on television as PC Mike Bradley from Heartbeat.

He played the part for six years and has also appeared in Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Miss Marple: The Blue Geranium and Inspector Morse.

You don’t need Poirot-esque intuition to spot a theme going on there. “I seem to be playing all the super-sleuths at the moment but I’m always attracted to great parts,” says the actor.

“The whole murder mystery genre has really taken off in the last 15 years or so. I think it used to be the black sheep of writing and no-one really wanted to take it seriously but nowadays there are so many writers in the genre.

“Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle (inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes: The Best Kept Secret, Jason’s last stage vehicle) were among the trailblazers, obviously, and I just love the genre.”

A scene from Black Coffee
A scene from Black Coffee

Black Coffee was first performed in 1930 at the Embassy Theatre in London. The author was disappointed with other people’s stage and screen adaptations of her novels which, she felt, didn’t do justice to the characters.

She didn’t trumpet the brilliance of Black Coffee, calling it at one point “a conventional spy thriller... full of clichés” and saying: “It was, I think, not at all bad.”

Poirot was played by Francis L Sullivan, a British actor who became friends with Christie and won a Tony Award in 1955 for his Broadway performance in another of her plays, Witness for the Prosecution.

Flash back to the first London performances of Black Coffee and you see that the critics were not bowled over at all, justifying Christie in her modest estimation of the play.

In The Observer, Ivor Brown remarked: “Black coffee is supposed to be a strong stimulant and powerful enemy of sleep. I found the title optimistic.”

He had the good grace to admit that he started “with some antipathy to murdered scientists and their coveted formulae”.

None of this means modern audiences and critics are wrong. While words on a page stay the same, different feelings accrue to them over time.

In between Ivor Brown writing and the current critics we have had a world war and umpteen successful and much-loved stage and screen adaptations of Christie’s work.

Jason Durr as Hercule Poirot in Black Coffee
Jason Durr as Hercule Poirot in Black Coffee
 

In 1930, the year of The Murder at the Vicarage, she had produced just 10 novels. New ones would appear regularly up until her death in 1976. Her iconic status in the realm of crime writing would continue to grow posthumously.

Today we read about her “quintessentially English” settings. It seems unlikely that that would have occurred to audiences before the Second World War when the works of Agatha Christie were yet to evoke feelings of nostalgia.

In 1930 theatre-goers and critics were more than two decades away from The Mousetrap opening in the West End.

Since then it has become an institution. People go to see it for that reason and it returns to the Theatre Royal in September, hot on the heels of Black Coffee.

For his part, Jason Durr can now look at a string of popular past Poirots including Peter Ustinov, David Suchet and Alfred Molina but he isn’t intimidated by them.

“You’ve got to serve the character. The character is well-loved but an audience wants to see your interpretation.

“They don’t want some pale facsimile of someone else’s work so it’s incumbent on anyone who plays it to make it absolutely your own. That said, audiences feel they own these characters and they want to see them treated with respect.”

Jason says everything an actor needs to play Poirot is written on the page. The accent he has no trouble with but laughs because Poirot, the character, gets “narked off” by the fact people will insist on calling him French. One of those early critics – in The Times, no less – fell into the same trap.

Jason says he worked with Peter Ustinov, one of the most famous Poirots, on a film called Winter Sunshine and asked him about his portrayal of the character. “He put on his accent and said he just made it his own.”

Good advice which Jason, who has been to the North East previously with the RSC, says he is following in Black Coffee.

The play is on at the Theatre Royal from July 14-19. Tickets from the box office on 08448 112121 or buy online at www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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