THERE WAS A moment, a few years ago, when the rules around Agatha Christie theatre productions in the UK seemed to be changing. Under the banner of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, producer Bill Kenwright and director Joe Harmston started to shift the atmosphere slightly while still giving full weight to the popular whodunnit narratives, creating art deco designs that reflected Agatha Christie’s view of herself as a modern woman of the mid 20th century, and giving full rein to her decidedly ironic view of British upper middle-class ideas and prejudices; in Christie’s world, after all, it’s rarely the “sinister foreigner” who turns out to be the murderer.
Dundee Rep **
You can forget all of that, though, when you take your seat for the aptly-named Middle Ground Theatre’s ultra-conventional touring version of the 1950 novel A Murder Is Announced, playing to packed houses in Dundee this week. The traditional country-house drawing-room set where the entire action takes place announces this production as the complete 1950s nostalgia trip, full of period clothes and cut-glass accents; it is, in other words, one of those shows that confirms the widespread image of theatre as something intrinsically posh, and stuck in the past.
What’s worse, its cosy style seems to give off a subliminal signal that it’s all right, in this context, to revert to 1950s social attitudes, as we laugh merrily along with the idea both that the refugee Hungarian housekeeper, Mitzi, is comic in herself – she has a funny foreign accent, doesn’t she? –and that it’s perfectly normal and even witty for the local police inspector to tell her to “sit”, like a badly behaved dog.
The production has some redeeming features, notably a beguiling central performance from Louise Jameson as Miss Marple, and some strong work from Lydia Piechowiak as Mitzi, who emerges as something of a heroine in the end. It is striking, though – and perhaps revealing, in these Brexit times – to see audiences so profoundly seduced by the superficial image of 1950s establishment cosiness projected in this production’s early scenes, despite Christie’s attempts to introduce some real Cold War politics. And this time around, it’s the lovingly-crafted 1950s surface of the show that makes the deepest impression; rather than Christie’s always-bold effort to shake things up, and to suggest that the goodly apple of English country village life is sometimes rotten at the core.
Dundee Rep, final performances today; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, next week, 17-22 July.