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Review: Black Coffee at Newcastle Theatre Royal until Saturday

Agatha Christie's Black Coffee is at the Theatre Royal all this week, David Whetstone gives his verdict

***
A scene from Black Coffee
A scene from Black Coffee

If I can deduce anything from this good-looking production it is that Agatha Christie did not become a giant of the potboiler through her skill at conveying human relationships.

Rather than a people person, she was a plot person.

Her characters were pawns on a chessboard – or rather the Prof Plum, Col Mustard etcetera in the Cluedo game inspired by the murder-mystery genre in which she excelled.

This was the first Agatha Christie play I have seen but I was more than a little surprised at the lack of concern expressed when a living, breathing human being is transformed into a non-living (and hence non-breathing) human being after the lights in the drawing room go out for an instant.

The very recently departed’s nearest and dearest register less concern than I would do if I spotted a woodlouse on the garden path – which is to say, hardly any at all.

From his own sister, a woman who clearly has known him for rather more than 21 years and has recently shown herself flutteringly concerned at the minor health wobble of a patently fit young ‘gel’... zilch! Just a remark about the quality of the teatime sole!

Black Coffee drew some scathing reviews when it opened in the 1930s and it hadn’t been performed for 40 years before Bill Kenwright decided to revive it.

Set in a world which has been described as “quintessentially English” but which I would call quintessentially weird, it concerns a country house full of oddballs, the death of one of them and the sudden, bizarre and almost inexplicable appearance of a Belgian sleuth called Hercule Poirot.

Written long before writers were cruelly shackled by political correctness, there’s also an Italian chap, Dr Carelli (Gary Mavers), who is pretty quickly set up as the prime suspect. What passes for knockabout humour is the fact that he’s foreign, and therefore clearly dodgy, but so is Poirot, whom the audience (Christie fans one and all) know is not.

Jason Durr is a rather rigid Poirot with a stride as clipped as his moustache and his arms held tightly by his side. Personally, I wouldn’t have trusted him with a magnifying glass.

Liza Goddard, a lovely actress, plays Miss Caroline Amory, the lady with the compassion deficit, and Ric Recate is the unloved Sir Claud Amory who succumbed to the dodgy fish – possibly.

I’d given up caring long before I worked out whodunit but it’s a period piece, it looks lovely and Christie fans will no doubt lap it up.

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