Theatre review: Marple, Murder and Me, Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14), Edinburgh

Janet Prince plays three roles in this gem of a production.''Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Janet Prince plays three roles in this gem of a production.''Picture: Steve Ullathorne
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A TRIO of top talent has converged to create one of the finest hours of entertainment you’ll see this Fringe. Written by Philip Meeks, directed by novelist Stella Duffy (who once trod the boards), and acted with wit, delicacy and perfect pitch by Janet Prince, this short play packs in a tremendous amount of plot, and is filled with enough emotional drama to keep its audience on tenterhooks.

Marple, Murder and Me

Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)

Star rating: * * * * *

We are backstage with Margaret Rutherford, about to assay her first outing as Jane Marple. Playing the actress, the author, and “The Spinster” – knitting something mauve – Prince pulls us through the story behind the story. Most will know that Agatha Christie didn’t want Rutherford to play Marple. Fewer may be aware that the actress for whom Noel Coward wrote the role of Blithe Spirit’s Madame Arcati was equally reluctant to tackle the role, claiming she found the subject matter sordid. Slowly, under a menacing dark cloud conjured by The Spinster, we discover the far more complex reasons why.

If you don’t know the very real tragedies that marred Rutherford’s life, I won’t spoil the revelations here. As played by Prince, complete with the familiar doubled-over, clasped-hands stance, Rutherford is formidable and funny, explaining, for instance, that when one is embonpoint, one “cannot be reckless with the way bosoms are presented”. Yet her Rutherford is also curiously childlike and vulnerable, with her stuffed toys and her loving, yet eccentric descriptions of life with her husband, Stringer.

As Christie, Prince is patrician, patronising, and ruthless – as is so often the case with writers. She grows quite affectionate toward the actress, but treats her like a mystery to be solved, never relenting in her efforts to unearth Rutherford’s story in order to lay claim to it. Their laugh-out-loud funny “She said/She said” dialogues remind us that every story has multiple perspectives, and the eloquence of the dialogue throughout speaks of a playwright who adores the fluidity of language.

And all the while The Spinster clacks her knitting needles, telling us: “When you are one with pattern, you’re flexible.” She’s ostensibly speaking about her handiwork, but there’s a clear message about narrative, not to mention psychology – if we can discern the patterns in someone’s life, we have them sussed. Moving, mirthful, and entertaining from start to finish, this gem of a production deserves a wide audience. The one I was part of uttered a noisy cheer when it ended, and left the room wreathed in smiles.

• Until 26 August. Today 3:15pm.