Before Agatha Christie was a household name for crime fiction, she worked in hospital dispensaries, a profession that would later inform many of her future fictional poisonings. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie’s first published novel and one of the first books published by Penguin Books, features a mysterious poisoning that bridged the two realms of Christie’s careers in pharmacology and murder.
Jon Jory’s adaptation of the novel that began Christie’s writing career brings the early-20th century story into the 21st with a rapid, condensed pacing, slim theatrical stylings, and a focus on the iconic characters of Hercule Poirot (Peter Gizariotis) and Hastings (Delmar Terblanche) who form their detective duo in Hercule Poirot’s First Case.
Hastings is staying at the manor of friend Emily Inglethorp (Denise Kitching or Ros Bilbe alternating) who is also hosting a number of other guests including her friend and companion Evie Howard (Ruba El-Kaddoumi), old family friend Cynthia (Emilia Kriketos), and her two stepsons Lawrence (Patrick Gallagher) and John (Paul Adderley) along with John’s wife Mary (Alice Bendall). While the summer seems calm, Hastings has arrived amongst a complicated family drama sparked by Emily marrying a much younger man Alfred (Frederic Claudel) who many believe to be a gold digger after the manor and Emily’s fortune. It comes as a great shock when Emily is discovered one morning dead, having been poisoned by strychnine. By coincidence, the Belgian detective and friend of Emily Hercule Poirot is staying nearby and Hastings pulls him into the fray to help investigate the murder. The case is tricky to unravel when there are so many suspects with motive from the husband to the sons to the maid Dorcas (Meg Girdler). Alfred seems the most likely but when a disguise is discovered in John’s room, he is arrested and tried, only to be acquitted, putting Poirot, Hastings, and Inspector Japp (Thomas Southwell) from Scotland Yard back at square one.
The style of the story takes on the classic Christie cozy murder mystery form with concerns of inheritance implicating family and business acquaintances kept close at hand by the murder victim. But the adaptation by Jory and direction from Tom Massey slimmed down the excess information for a much faster paced and more theatrical story. Structured now as short episodic scenes that flowed together without pauses for transitions, the tricks of the theatre were peeled away with props appearing from off-stage as mentioned and characters wandering in and out of the wings as the conversation called for it. Eschewing the formalities of theatre realism allowed Massey to amplify the humour of the characters as well as highlighting the specificity of clues and questioning that Christie so often employed in her red-herring heavy mysteries.
Susan Carveth’s period costuming was plenty for conveying the time and place of inter-war England while the lighting design by Mehran Mortezaei added dynamism and intrigue to the bare stage with bold colours and integration of the beautiful stained glass windows behind the stage. The combination of more classical elements like costuming with more contemporary approaches to staging with visible off-stage actors added a fresh energy to the production that was considered, clever, and innovative.
Similarly, the actors, even as they moved seamlessly through the slippery scenes, maintained the up-right and nearly stuffy demeanour customary to Christie’s characters. Terblanche’s Hastings was a booming, commanding ex-soldier with the appropriate propriety amongst a squabbling family while Gizariotis modelled his Poirot very much off David Suchet’s rendition in Agatha Christie’s Poirot with his sharp little moustache and bowtie. The two had a comfortable dynamic between the well-meaning but inexperienced Hastings and the prim, proper Poirot, while remaining faithful to the underlying commentary on British nationalism and xenophobia wrapped up in Christie’s writing around the wars. The surrounding cast were solid in their performances with stand-outs including Bendall as Dame Agatha Heavyweather giving a rousing defence of John in court, Claudel as the suspicious and evasive Alfred, and Kriketos for introducing Christie’s personal experience in a hospital dispensary amongst poisons and medicine in abundance.
Christie mysteries are a mainstay of the Genesian Theatre’s programs with Towards Zero in 2019, the Secret of Chimneys in 2021, and even the Christie parody Murdered to Death earlier this year. But this particular adaptation shines a new light on this long-standing relationship with a fresh and entertaining approach to theatrical mysteries and the Crime Queen’s in particular.
Hercule Poirot’s First Case is running at the Genesian Theatre from May 21st – July 2nd
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