Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, Rowntree Players, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm, 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk
AGATHA Christie wrote Spider’s Web at the request of its star turn, Margaret Lockwood, during West End rehearsals for Witness For The Prosecution.
Now, director Howard Ella has “re-written” Christie’s 1954 murder mystery for Rowntree Players’ return to the stage after the pandemic hiatus.
More accurately, he has updated Christie’s manor-house setting of Copplestone Court to 2021, with cultural references to Harry Syles, Daniel Radcliffe and the local Aldi, a Nike bag and trainers for dodgy Oliver Costello and a photographic portrait of lady of the house Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, rather than an austere oil painting.
At the same time, a butler in formal attire, a rather old-school child with hair clips, a protective guardian, an eccentric gardener and games of bridge evoke the earlier era, while Graham Smith’s Hugo Birch appears to be dressed for a shooting party.
There are worse crimes – often in a Christie story – than tampering with a text, and Ella’s decision is born as much out of necessity as in the spirit of fun that pervades Agatha’s second most-performed play.
Ella’s production ends up with a foot in both camps, rather than in no man’s land, as do his cast’s accents, but the dialogue stubbornly betrays its Fifties’ roots, like that tell-tale tramline of black in bleached blonde hair.
In the absence of programme notes and indeed a programme – another concession to Covid times, with only a cast list available – Ella explained his reasoning afterwards in response to a late-night CharlesHutchPress email question: “Was there a reason for the modern setting? Was it to do with costume non-availability after the Rowntree Players’ store fire?”
“It was less about the store fire but more about Covid and costumes and control,” Ella responded. “Both from a costume and a propping point of view. Very dull but a necessary evil in these times.
“It actually was a decision when we thought we could perform in early 2021. But it pushed and pushed.
“I like the idea of playing it contemporary, although, of course, the challenge sits in balancing that against how faithful you should be to the original dialogue.”
So that clears that up. Now, to the play, wherein diplomat’s wife Clarissa (Gemma McDonald) is spinning tales of adventure and stepdaughter Pippa (Katelyn Banks) is permanently hungry and restless but tired.
Guardian Sir Rowland Delahaye (Martyn Hunter), fellow old sport Hugo Birch (Smith) and young buck Jeremy Warrender (Andrew Roberts) are passing the time, trying to identity different glasses of port in a taste test, waiting for dinner at the nearby golf club, although Warrender looks strangely interested in trying locate a drawer in the desk.
Craig Kirby’s sonorous, stone-faced butler, Elgin, is doing what impenetrable butlers used to do; Jeannette Hunter’s perky, if mysterious, Mildred Peake keeps traipsing in from the garden.
Clarissa’s husband, the something-hush-hush-at-the-Foreign-Office Henry (Rory Mulvihill), has to pop out to a meeting. In pops Jake Botterell’s malevolent Oliver Costello, up to no good with a vow to take Pippa away to her flaky mother.
Suddenly, there’s murder on the drawing-room floor, but whodunit and how does far-fetched fantasist Clarissa cover it up? Desperate to dispose of the body before Henry arrives with a very important politician, she enlists the help/hindrance of her house guests .
Enter the detective, in this particular case Mark McDonald’s heavily-bearded, somewhat heavy-handed Inspector Lord, a wry, if blunter, instrument of interrogation than Christie’s Poirot, assisted by the frank Constable Jones (Sara Howlett, lovely Welsh accent et al).
Christie revels in a “conscious parody of the detective thriller”, leavening all the familiar tropes with knowing humour, while still tightening the suspense ever tauter, albeit over a long stretch of nearly three hours, replete with dropped clues and plot contrivances aplenty.
Add drug addiction, ham sandwiches, invisible ink, a very valuable rare stamp, a secret drawer, a hidden doorway and an unusual corner-turn for a second stage entrance, and Ella oversees a spirited production full of heightened drama, humorous confrontations and murky mystery.
Hunter, Mulvihill, Smith and Kirby are the ballast; Hunter is comedy gold; McDonald and Howlett form a resourceful double act; Roberts could have escaped from a Noel Coward comedy, and the menacing Botterell and precocious Banks bring freshness to the Players’ ranks.
In the lead role, Gemma McDonald’s Clarissa is full of fun and games, but has a few hiccups with her mountain of intricately-spun lines that hopefully will not repeat on her tonight and tomorrow.
Suffused with surprises, some new to Christie’s story, this modern-day yet retro Spider’s Web makes for an enjoyable evening’s entanglement.