IF EVER a play had a dramatic history it is Love From A Stranger, playing at the King’s in Edinburgh this week. Based on an early short story by Agatha Christie, it was adapted for the stage by writer and actor Frank Vosper, who also played the leading male role in its successful first production in London in 1936, but died in tragic circumstances a year later, after apparently falling into the English Channel from a transatlantic liner.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh *** | Oran Mor, Glasgow ***
However sensational the life, though, there remains something slightly awkward about the structure of the play, which tells the tale of a nice young London gel, Cecily Harrington, who is working in a boring office job, sharing a Bayswater flat with her sensible friend Mavis, and preparing to marry her stodgy fiance Michael, who has been away in Sudan for three years.
On the day of his return, though, the restless Cecily meets an American called Bruce Lovell, who comes to view the flat; within hours, they have fallen in love, Michael has been ditched, and Cecily has started a new life.All of this takes about 50 minutes to explain, with much posh wittering between Mavis and Cecily’s silly and snobbish Aunt Ethel; and try as they may, the combined talents of director Lucy Bailey, designer Mike Britton, lighting man Oliver Fenwick and composer Richard Hammarton – who provides many dark chords and sudden shocks to accompany the sinister, transparent sliding walls of the set – can’t make this seem like much more than a long and none-too-exciting piece of exposition.
All of which suggests that the play should really begin at the starting-point of the second act, which takes place in the idyllic country cottage to which Cecily and Bruce have retreated after their sudden marriage. The background could easily be explained in a few lines of chat, then we could plunge straight into the real stuff of the drama, which concerns the rapid deteriorating of Bruce’s mood and health, his increasingly jealous and controlling behaviour towards Cecily, and his eventual unmasking as a psychopath spiralling towards violence.
As it is, the play’s crisis is played out in a shocking and slightly unconvincing rush, in the last ten minutes of a two-hour evening. And although Helen Bradbury as Cecily and Sam Frenchum as Bruce do their best to make the drama work, we’re left with a sense of an Agatha Christie story lost in time somewhere between 1920 and 1950, unsure of its social resonances, and structured so that it wastes too much time setting up its own storyline, and not enough developing that rich sense of society’s sinister undercurrents, at any given moment in history, that haunts Agatha Christie’s work at its best.
If it’s June, it must be time for the annual Play, Pie And Pint mini-musicals season; and here, right on cue, comes rising star of Scottish theatre Brian James O’Sullivan, with a daft but excessively witty 60-minute musical about life in ancient Athens in the fifth century BC. Tom Urie is Strepsiades, a widowed Dad with a sulky teenage son called Pheidippides, who keeps going out and getting drunk, running up serious debts, and staring at his little etching-slate whenever his Dad tries to talk to him.
Salvation comes in the shape of Socrates’s Thinkery, a home of moral philosophy and logical speculation which happens to be at the end of their street.
And if the story of Pheidippides’ getting of wisdom is wafer-thin, and some of the songs distinctly cheesy – in standard 21st century musical style – the detail of the script and lyrics is witty and inspired enough to keep the audience more than entertained; while a vintage cast that also includes Jimmy Chisholm as Socrates, Sandra McNeeley as no-nonsense house-slave Zenobia and Nathan Byrne as a gangly Pheidippides, keeps the show on the road in glorious summer style.
Love From A Stranger is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, today and tonight, and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 26-30 June. The Thinkery’s final performance at Oran Mor is today.