THIS is Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, but it is Rachel Wagstaff’s play.
For the stage, she has adapted Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (whose 2022 tour was cut short before its Grand Opera House run in York) and co-adapted Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train too.
An earlier version of her take on Christie’s 1962 mystery The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side toured the UK in 2019. Now comes another crack at it for the Original Theatre Company, one that has modern sensibilities to shake up its outwardly old-fashioned mien.
Self-harm, repressed homosexuality and child loss burst through the surface in Wagstaff’s multi-layered drama rooted in the turbulence of fracturing mental health. The thunderbolt is Jane Marple’s explanation of why she has remained unmarried, still consumed by grief at her young love being shot for cowardice when serving in the First World War.
Philip Franks’s production is stylish, sharply dressed, light on its feet, played out in rooms with almost an excess of glass, in reference to the mirror of the title, reflective but also see-through. There may be plenty to hide but it can’t be hidden from view.
Adrian Linford’s open-plan, rotating setting is two-fold, serving as the grand English manor house newly acquired by an unsettling presence, American film star Marina Gregg (Sophie Ward), and her film director sixth husband of eight years, Jason Rudd (Joe McFadden), and as the home of “spinster sleuth” Jane Marple (Susie Blake) too.
Housebound and frustrated by a sprained ankle, she either sits with her knitting or takes to crutches or a walking stick, ever restless both physically and mentally.
A third, unseen setting plays its part, a new housing estate that “alarms the villagers as much as it intrigues them”. Miss Marple’s home help, Cherry Baker (Mara Allen), has moved in there, and there is more to her than first meets the eye. It was ever thus in Christie’s world.
Marina and hubby are making her first film in 12 years at the manor house, bringing an entourage that includes loyal servant Giuseppe Renzo (Lorenzo Martelli) and production assistant Ella Zielensky (Sarah Lowrie). Young co-star Lola Brewster (Christine Symone) is acting even more oddly than they are, as the plot thickens.
The story unfolds in flashbacks as Oliver Boot’s Inspector Craddock, sorry Chief Inspector, as he keeps correcting, conducts a murder investigation. Blake’s Miss Marple nudges her way into the case, asking the better questions, frustrating Craddock, who delightfully refers to her as his aunt.
Putting her oar in too is Dolly Bantry, former owner of the manor house, exquisitely played by character actress supreme Veronica Roberts, a superb piece of casting by Ellie Collyer-Bristow, who happened to be watching Wednesday’s performance in the next seat.
Miss Marple’s relationships with both Boot’s exasperated Craddock and Roberts’s dabbling Dolly, forever calling by, are suffused with humour in Blake’s performance, but there is intelligence, a seriousness of purpose, to her marvellous Marple. Kindness, sadness, wit and wits about her too.
McFadden’s Rudd is fiery, protective, deeply concerned for Marina’s mental wellbeing, but what is his motive? Ward’s Marina is damaged, graceful, charming when the moment takes her, but capricious, cold, dismissive…and mysterious. Ice and fire, guilt and regret, where will it lead?
Franks’s direction skilfully balances the humour, the double-act to-and fro of both Marple & Dolly and Marple and Craddock, with the darkness of Marina’s troubles. The smoothly interjected yet jolting flashbacks intensify the intrigue, bringing super-fan Heather Leigh (Jules Melvin) into the plot, although Craddock keeps on blocking the attempts of her husband Cyril (David Partridge) to do likewise in a well-worked running gag.
Why do theatres – as well as TV – keep doing whodunits? A midweek packed auditorium would tell you why: we love a mystery to solve, trying to work it out before the sleuth, and when that story is told as adeptly as it is by Wagstaff with direction and performances to match, then crack on with The Mirror Crack’d.
Original Theatre Company in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, York Theatre Royal, Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
2017 Strictly champion Joe McFadden is appearing in his first Agatha Christie mystery, The Mirror Crack’d, on tour at York Theatre Royal all this week in the role of Jason Rudd.
Joining Glasgow-born Joe, 46, in Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Christie’s 1962 psychological thriller will be Susie Blake’s Miss Marple and Sophie Ward’s Hollywood star Marina Gregg for a story of revenge and the dark secrets that we all hide, presented by the Original Theatre Company.
In the sleepy village of St Mary Mead, a new housing estate is making villagers curious and fearful. Even stranger, a rich American film star [Gregg] has bought the Manor House. Cue a vicious murder; cue Jane Marple defying a sprained ankle to unravel a web of lies, tragedy and danger.
Here Joe answers questions, but not those posed by Miss Marple.
Who is Jason Rudd?
“He’s a film director who put his career on the back burner because his wife, Hollywood star Marina Gregg, is going through a hard time. Now he’s going to make a film about Henry Vlll and his wives with Marina as Catherine Aragon.
“He manages to tempt her back with a script that he’s been working on for quite a long time. You’re suspicious of his motives. There are so many people circling around Marina, this Hollywood star from a bygone era and you ask yourself: why are they so interested in her? What are they getting out of it?”
Cast an eye over your CV…theatre, TV, Strictly…
“I feel very lucky that I get to do musicals and to do plays – and to do the odd bit of telly now and again. It’s really an actor’s dream in that I’m not stuck doing the one thing. The usual thing is that you either do plays or you do musicals or you do TV, and it becomes hard to break into the others. I feel very fortunate I get to do all of them.”
What have been your favourite roles?
“I couldn’t pick a favourite, honestly. It’s brilliant doing a play because you get a lot of time to sit down, as we have during The Mirror Crack’d rehearsals, and talk about the story. Working on something like Agatha Christie, it’s absolutely necessary because it’s so textured, so layered and there’s so much in there. On the face of it, it seems a simple whodunit but they’re all such complex characters. Nobody is really what they first appear to be.”
What’s the enduring appeal of Agatha Christie stories?
“They’re so rich, there’s so much in there and it really keeps you guessing. It’s not so much a whodunnit as a social commentary. The Mirror Crack’d is, as I’ve discovered, about mental health. At the time it was written, Agatha Christie was very much ahead of the curve.
“It’s a real examination of this movie star, Marina, and how, when you get to a certain age, you’re not in the running for the parts and you’re cast aside. It’s about the tragedy and unfairness of that. My character adores Marina and will do anything to protect her.
“We discover he’s been there for her in the past but you’re not sure what his motives are and, as is the way with Christie, discover he’s not all he seems to be by the end of the evening. So, it’s really great charting how much you show to an audience and who the red herrings are. Quite exhausting mentally”.
Have you gone back to the book, the TV versions or the film?
“I haven’t really read the book because some details have changed. Rachel Wagstaff has done a wonderful adaptation. It’s kind of confusing for me because I’ve watched the Julia McKenzie TV version and the Rock Hudson/Elizabeth Taylor film version and they’re all slightly different.
“What you do get from them is a feel for the period, the style and the characters. It’s difficult when you’re so familiar with the other source material because you’re torn between what you’re doing and what they’re doing.
“I feel like I don’t need to read the book or watch the films again. Not at the moment. Perhaps when we’re all finished I will.”
You are appearing in your first Agatha Christie thriller…
“Absolutely my first. My mother was a massive mystery fan. She loved a sleuth, Murder She Wrote, Poirot, all the detective shows, so I was brought up watching these films and TV shows. I do have a real fondness for them because they get you involved.
“You’re not passive when watching, you’re actually trying to work out whodunit. And while you’re working it out, you’re being entertained and getting a real insight into these human beings and their particular circumstances.”
The Mirror Crack’d brings together three regulars from ITV’s Yorkshire series Heartbeat: you, Sophie Ward and director Philip Franks. Plenty of conversation points, no doubt?
“We’re having a great time reminiscing and comparing experiences. I’ve done a number of long-running series and there’s something to be said for knowing the other actors and knowing the crew. It’s nice with a job like Heartbeat or Holby City, where you have a shorthand with people and a relationship with people. Those were particularly lovely jobs to do.
“I was happy to do them for as long as I did: two years of doing Heartbeat and five years in Holby. I’m sure every job is not as happy as those but I was very happy to do them for so long.”
What made you sign up for Strictly Come Dancing in 2017?
“I did agonise over the decision to do it because back in the day, 20 years ago, actors didn’t really do reality TV shows. It was a new thing. I thought long and hard about it and took advice from various people, friends in the industry, but ultimately my reason for doing it was I wanted to learn how to dance. I wanted to have this world champion teach me to dance. That opportunity only comes along once in a lifetime. I felt it would be silly not to grab it with both hands.”
It could not have worked out better: you won!
“I’m so glad I did it, not because I won but because it was such a brilliant experience. It was about saying yes to things and not being afraid of the unknown. As human beings we like the familiar, the same thing, and that’s a dangerous place for an artist to be because you want to challenge yourself and challenge people’s perceptions of you. Strictly was good for that.”
What was the hardest part of doing Strictly?
“Being myself on screen, which I hadn’t really done before. The most daunting thing was all the speaking and the live television but even that stuff ended up being massively enjoyable. Talking to Zoe Ball on It Takes Two became one of my favourite parts of the week because she made it so lovely. The fans are so appreciative and so warm that you feel the love everyone has for that show, something I perhaps wasn’t aware of going into it.”
What’s your advice to celebrities taking part in the new series of Strictly?
“Just to enjoy every moment, because you never know when it’s going to end, and get as much sleep as you possibly can because the tiredness is like nothing you will have experienced in your life. Just enjoy it because it will be over in a flash. It goes so quickly. Don’t take it too seriously, throw yourself into it and do exactly as your partner tells you.”
Will there be any dancing in The Mirror Crack’d?
“We do a bit of a waltz. I’m trying to dredge up from the corner of my mind how to do it.”
How do you feel about touring?
“I toured with Priscilla Queen Of The Desert for seven months and toured with two different Ghost Stories before that. I love touring. As an actor, you either love it or hate it. I try to get out to see places and not stay in my digs all the time.
“The great thing for Priscilla is that I didn’t drink for the whole time I did the show, which meant I got up in the morning, went to the beach, did the museums. I love how we get to go to these places that you never would at any other time.”
Joe McFadden fact file
Television credits include: Raffaello Di Lucca in Holby City from 2014 to 2020; Alistair in Casualty in 2009; PC Joe Mason in Heartbeat, 2007 to 2009; Jack Marshland in Cranford; Dallas in Sex, Chips & Rock’n’roll; Prentice McHoan in The Crow Road and Gary McDonald in The High Road.
Theatre includes: Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical; Torch Song Trilogy (Menier Chocolate Factory); She Loves Me (Chichester Festival Theatre); Rainbow Kiss (Royal Court Theatre); How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (Chichester Festival Theatre); Aladdin (Old Vic Theatre) and Rent (Shaftesbury Theatre, London).
Joe won BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing glitter ball with partner Katya Jones in 2017.
Questions for Sophie Ward, an actor playing an actor in The Mirror Crack’d
SOPHIE Ward returns to the York stage this week for the first time since playing the lead role of Eunice in the Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s staging of Ruth Rendell’s tale of murder, A Judgement In Stone, at the Grand Opera House in October 2017.
In the Original Theatre Company touring production of The Mirror Crack’d at York Theatre Royal, Sophie, 57, is cast as Hollywood star Marina Gregg.
Is The Mirror Crack’d your first experience of performing an Agatha Christie story?
“No, I did a television version of A Caribbean Mystery with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and also Go Back For Murder, which was a play by Agatha Christie.
Is Marina Gregg based on anyone in the movie world?
“There was a star called Gene Tierney who was the inspiration for this character, and quite famously Elizabeth Taylor played the character in a film, when Angela Lansbury was Miss Marple. Marina is entering a new chapter in her life, a bit more peaceful. She’s doing films she likes with her husband and finding some respite in buying this big house in an English country village. It’s a new start for her.”
Marina is an actor, as are you, do you identify with her in any way?
“There are lots of things that I understand and I’ve worked in a lot of productions from that period. So, it’s a world I know a little bit about but I hope it’s not too close to my own life.”
Did you experience Hollywood when you were commuting between England and America?
“I did quite a lot of television in various shows but not films in the US. I met my wife [Rena Brennan] in Los Angeles so we like to spend time there. I’d like to get over there more, but my mother-in-law lives in Florida, my mother is in London, and I have grandchildren in England. With work and family, it’s not been easy to get over there in the past few years. A small matter of the pandemic.”
Have you and The Mirror Crack’d co-star Joe McFadden comparrd experiences working on Heartbeat?
“Joe was in the series after my era on Heartbeat, but we have that in common, which is really nice to be able to talk about. I was on the show for two years, quite a big chunk of time to do one job when you’re an actor. We’ve been catching up on our time in Heartbeat.”
How was lockdown for you?
“When we had our first lockdown, I was quite happy doing a lot of gardening for a while. But I think we all had thoughts of a reassessment of life and of what we were doing. I had time to ask myself, ‘Am I going to carry on with acting when this situation finishes’.
“As it turns out, I do want to carry on and I did miss it during lockdown, but it was really great to have that time to think about things. You’re on a wheel, which you get on and keep going round and round. It was good to think ‘I’m choosing to do this and not just carrying on’.”
Where does Marina Gregg fit into the kind of roles you play these days?
“I’ve had the opportunity to do lots of different parts. Marina is very much a movie star with all the charm and challenges that can bring. I’m thrilled to be playing her.”
What are the strengths of Rachel Wagstaff’s new adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d?
“This is one of Christie’s later books and things are changing in society and in St Mary Mead. Rachel’s version shows that they’re quite conscious of that in the village. The characters aren’t stock characters; they are all interesting, three-dimensional people and Rachel has managed to include all their stories.
“As an audience we need to care about them. You want to understand people and not just see another character murdered. Every character is valuable to the story.”
Have you returned to the book or film and TV versions?
“Obviously what we’re doing is our version. Rachel has done an amazing job so that’s what we work on and that’s where my imaginative world is: in Rachel’s world. But I’m really interested to see other versions and find out more about that world. Then you have to focus on Rachel’s version.”
You have written two novels, the first one, Love And Other Thought Experiments, being longlisted for the Booker Prize. Is a third book on the horizon?
“My second book [The Schoolhouse] came out in May and I’m hard at work on the third one. It takes me about five years to write a book.”
What prompted you to ‘go back to school’?
“First I did an undergraduate degree part time, then I did an MA, and I’ve just finished my doctorate at Goldsmiths. There’s a lot of waiting around in our job and I left school after my A-levels, didn’t go to university, just carried on working.
“I really wanted to go back to school. I knew my children would be coming up to that age soon and wanted to be able to talk with them about going to uni, what it meant and what it was. I studied, it took me about 15 years, and out of that came the idea for my first novel, which was a mixture of the things I’d been studying.”
You are an advocate for gay and lesbian rights…
“I try to be supportive and feel open about my life. I did write about equal marriage for the Guardian. I felt very strongly about it, about everyone being able to have that option to get married. I am involved to that extent but there are people whose whole careers are seriously applied to gaining our rights. I’m a very small part of that.
“There have been a lot of changes, changes in the law and people’s attitudes, which has been amazing to see and experience. But I never take it for granted because, as we see in other countries, either things don’t progress in the same way or they’re going backwards. You can’t be complacent.”
What’s coming next for you after The Mirror Crack’d tour?
“I have a research trip for my next book.”
“I can’t really say as I’m still developing the ideas and immersing myself in a new world. Let’s just say ‘travelling’!”
Sophie Ward fact file
Her first acting role was at the age of ten.
Now playing Rachel Johnson, opposite Kenneth Branagh’s Boris Johnson, in This Scepred Isle on Sky Atlantic/Now TV.
Appeared opposite Claire Foy and Paul Bettany in A Very British Scandal (BBC); starred in Troubled Blood (BBC/HBO), an adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s novel.
For the past four years, Sophie has hosted the European Diversity Awards and she works closely alongside Stonewall.
Original Theatre Company in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 7.30pm nightly; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
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?’.”