SUSIE Blake returns to York Theatre Royal to play Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth Miss Marple in The Original Theatre Company’s touring production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d.
She last appeared there in February 2017 in the premiere of Murder, Margaret And Me, cast as Margaret Rutherford, such a memorable Miss Marple on the big screen, as recalled in a Philip Meeks drama that explored the relationship between the actress and queen of crime writers.
Now she stars in Rachel Wagstaff’s new adaptation of Christie’s 1962 novel The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side that aims to bring emotional depth and psychological insight to a story of secrets, loss and revenge, performing in a company with strong Yorkshire links.
Co-stars Sophie Ward and Joe McFadden had regular roles in the moorland series Heartbeat, as did director Philip Franks, last seen in York as the devilishly disdainful Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show at the Grand Opera House in March.
“I’ve always wanted to play Miss Marple, since the 1960s when I saw Margaret Rutherford playing her. Her character performance immediately drew you in,” says Susie, who follows in the footsteps of Angela Lansbury in the 1980 film of The Mirror Crack’d and Joan Hickson and Julia McKenzie in television adaptations in 1992 and 2011 respectively.
“I loved her Lady Bracknell in [Oscar Wilde’s] The Importance Of Being Earnest, her Madame Arcati in [Noel Coward’s] Blithe Spirit. I loved her so much. I know she’s not fashionable any more as Miss Marple but I was drawn in as a child, seeing her as this safe, cuddly lady who would work things out for you.
“I thought ‘that’s what I want to do with my life’ – to tell stories and be part of mysteries because every play is a mystery, isn’t it? You don’t know what’s going to happen until the end.”
Playing Rutherford in Murder, Margaret And Me has “not really” influenced Susie’s own performance as Miss Marple. “Philip, our director, said, ‘This is your interpretation now, Susie, no-one else’s. We’ve got to find your interpretation’.
“Miss Marple is from a certain period. Her boyfriend, whom she talks about, was in the First World War, so she goes back quite a long way. My mum was born in 1917, and she and her friends were, you know, ‘good eggs’. They had a certain turn of phrase. So, I met some quite useful people growing up.”
Revisiting Christie’s books has helped Susie to put her stamp on a beloved fictional character. “I’ve been re-reading Pocketful Of Rye and there are some very good descriptions of her in there. I go back to that rather than watching other people playing her to find out what makes Miss Marple tick.
“I’m absolutely loving re-reading the books. The people are so clearly drawn. Reading them all together, like I’m doing, you think: these are a multitude of people that she’s observed. Agatha Christie is a Miss Marple herself in order to work these intricate stories through.”
Asked to summarise Miss Marple’s character, Susie says: “She’s fascinated by people, she’s obsessed with finding out the truth and she’ll go on nitpicking until she gets it. She hates evil and injustice, and she hunts it down. She’s relentless in her pursuit of the truth and will go on digging away and digging away.
“Rachel Wagstaff has written a very good script and she’s made Miss Marple a much clearer character: someone who wants to find out the truth. Not in an unkind way but she will go on at somebody, go on delving until she gets what she wants.
“Rachel is a wonderful writer, like how she gives Miss Marple a bit of history, so you get to know why she’s alone. This is her first Christie adaptation; she’s very in with the family and I hope she does more of them.”
In Christie’s story, a wind of change is blowing through 1960s’ England, even reaching the sleepy village of St Mary Mead, where a new housing estate is alarming the villagers as much as it intrigues them. Still more unsettling, a rich American film star has bought the manor house. Jane Marple, confined to a chair after an accident, is wondering if life has passed her by, but a shocking murder demands she must unravel a web of lies, danger and tragedy.
“Rachel’s adaptation is not what you’re expecting. It worried me at first: are people expecting an old-fashioned Agatha Christie repertory production? But it’s not like that at all! Philip has really brought out the characters, with 12 actors on stage. That’s a lot to deal with and he’s made them very likeable and individual and you kind of don’t want any of them to have done the crime.”
Susie’s Miss Marple will spend much of The Mirror Crack’d walking on crutches. “She’s sprained her ankle, right at the top of the show,” she reveals. “I start in a chair, then crutches, then finally a stick. They’re not easy to use, these old wooden crutches – I think they might be museum pieces, beautifully shaped – so I’ve had to learn how to use them.
“I must try not to limp because at my age  that could be disastrous. But being on crutches is a good ruse for slowing things down to allow her to work things out!”
Over a long career, “I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t ever had a theatre injury,” reflects Susie. Keeping herself fit, during the tour’s Eastbourne run, she went swimming in the sea each day, chatting with the regulars at the beach huts. Next week, she heads to York, sketch book by her side. “That way you get a good memory of a town,” she reasons.
Susie is working with director Philip Franks for a second time. “We did [Alan Bennett’s play] Kafka’s Dick at Nottingham Playhouse in 1998 with Alistair McGowan in the cast,” she recalls.
“For The Mirror Crack’d, he said, ‘I’ll bring the education, you bring the talent!’, as I’m not well read but I went to [Elmhurst] ballet school, Arts Educational and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art,” says Londoner Susie.
“He’s so lovely with actors. He’s given me free rein but made suggestions like, ‘what about if she was at Bletchley Park, doing de-coding in the war, and so she’s intrinsically interested in wanting to work things out, being fascinated in solving things, rather than being ghoulish?’.”
Rather than woolly jumpers and pince-nez, her Jane Marple will be wearing a “rather lovely suit”. “Quite a nice look, with a big collar, a white blouse underneath, a string of pearls, sensible shoes obviously, and no hat because the play moves too fast for me to wear one – and nobody’s missed the hat,” says Susie. “She’s my age, in her seventies rather than in her eighties, in our production.”
Why does Miss Marple’s popularity show no signs of diminishing, Susie? “Almost everything on the telly is a mystery, whatever you’re watching. You want to be taken by the hand knowing that Miss Marple or Poirot will help you work it out,” she says.
“It’s like having a pal, going into a situation with someone by your side. With most shows, you don’t know whose side to be on, but with her you have a familiar friend. And you can read the books again and again and watch the stories again and again and always enjoy them.”
Best known for her comedy break in Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, her Continuity Announcer in Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV and her regular roles as Bev Unwin in Coronation Street and Hillary Nicholson in Mrs Brown’s Boys, Susie has latterly appeared in series one and two of Kate & Koji (ITV), Not Going Out (BBC One) and The Real Marigold Hotel (BBC One).
Have her roles become more interesting as she has grown older, leading to Miss Marple? “Yes, I think they have – and I’ve probably got better too,” decides Susie. “I’ve never wanted to be a frontliner or a film star. That was never on the cards. Only when you look back, you think, ‘I’ve been busy in my career’. Splendid looks can be quite difficult when you have to do the changeover to middle age. For me, it’s gone seamlessly from girl next door to wives and mothers to grandmothers.”
As for the future, “I’d love to be the next Miss Marple on telly. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
The Original Theatre Company in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, York Theatre Royal, October 4 to 8, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Did you know?
The Original Theatre Company’s past productions at York Theatre Royal: Alan Bennett’s Auden-Britten encounter The Habit Of Art, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong and Ben Brown’s Cold War political drama A Splinter Of Ice.
Did you know too?
Susie Blake was born into famous acting stock. Her cousins are the actresses Juliet and Hayley Mills; her great-uncle was the late film star Sir John Mills, and her maternal grandmother was Annette Mills, who fronted the BBC TV children’s series Muffin The Mule from 1946 to 1955.
Just one other thing…
How do you think Miss Marple compares to Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Susie?
“They are so different. They both have the same interrogating mind, but her methods are very much to do with the fact that she’s a little old lady. She gets chatting to people and shows her vulnerability, all the better to hook into what she needs to know.
“It’s the knife edge quality of her mind whereas Poirot never shows any weakness. She, on the other hand, will knock on someone’s door and say, ‘ooh I feel a bit faint; can I sit down?’.”
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