The Unexpected Guest

by Agatha Christie; dir Alec Brown

Priory Theatre, Kenilworth

22 June – 2 July 2011

As you would expect from Agatha Christie, The Unexpected Guest is a murder mystery or ‘whodunit’. A quick scan through the TV listings confirms the enduring popularity of this genre and the Christie name is virtually guaranteed to get the punters in.

The story begins with the murder already committed and the house in darkness. Out of the night arrives the eponymous and very laid back stranger (Tim Hughes), catching the victim’s wife (Sally Cox) with the murder weapon in her hand. Out of apparent chivalry, the stranger concocts a story with her and manipulates the scene to make it look like revenge by an outsider. Before long we meet the rest of the household; the usual kind of hodge-podge that you expect in a whodunit. The police are called and proceed to investigate. As you might expect, the identity of the murderer becomes unclear and the plot revolves around keeping you guessing until the end; red herrings aplenty.

If whodunits are your thing, there is enough to keep you occupied. If you’re looking for realism, however, you won’t find much of it here; most of the characters are rather one dimensional and a general lack of experience is all too evident. The opening scene drags along, with the intensity that is evident in Christie’s words failing to be represented in the action. Things don’t improve when the rest of the household discover the body, and the incredible attempts at shock and grief are almost painful to watch. Unacceptably for this day and age, the curtain came down for some minutes between the two scenes in the same room. A number of audience members thought it was the interval.

Eventually we get to meet the one truly convincing character of the whole performance, Inspector Thomas (Graham Shurvinton), and his barely intelligible partner, Sergeant Cadwallader (James McNulty). The following scenes start to relieve the tedium as each character has their moment in the spotlight to reveal their possible motives, although the denouement comes as no real surprise.

While I accept that this is a genre piece and not expected to be ground-breaking, surely some more believability could have been worked into the characters. It seemed poorly directed and I felt that many of the actors were capable of more if the director had brought it out of them. Notably Ben Wellicome, as Warwick’s ‘simple’ brother and David Eardley as the wife’s bit-on-the-side. As I indicated above, though, the star of the show was Graham Shurvinton as the inspector; engaging, natural and believable, he clearly had enough experience to not need the director’s help.

Unless you’re a die-hard whodunit fan or know someone in it you’re probably better off waiting for some well-played Christie on the TV.

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