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REVIEW: Agatha Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest” (The Studio Theatre Company, South Hill Park).

Detective Beakhouse asks the jury: “Is this lesser-known Christie play really ‘past its prime’?

  • Stars (out of 5) = 3
  • One-sentence review = “Solid production of a middling Agatha Christie script”
  • Good for people who = Enjoy playing Cluedo at Christmas
  • Not good for people who = Don’t enjoy guessing games
  • Would David Suchet like it? = Probably
Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…

…We are convened to pass judgment on The Studio Theatre’s production of “The Unexpected Guest” (henceforth known as “the defendant”). Specifically, we wish to ascertain whether it is worth your time and money.

Before we deliver our verdict, let us review the facts. The defendant is a lesser-known Agatha Christie play. It’s not held in the same esteem as your “Mousetraps”, “Hollows”, or “Spider’s Webs”. Brian Blessed’s 2018 production at The Mill in Sonning received a blasting from The Stage (“past its prime”).

Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures

Witnesses attest that it presents a unique twist on the classic “whodunnit?” plot. A lost personage enters a stately house, discovering a shellshocked Laura Warkwick (Catherine Hazell) standing over the bullet-strewn corpse of husband Richard (Dan Deville), gun in hand. We appear to know the “who” from the first. What, then, is left to sustain our interest? Will the prosecution please step forward…

Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures

The case against the defendant.

I found it hard to enjoy the first act of the script. With the identity of the murderer seemingly revealed from the start, the following hour became an extended search for a plausible patsy on whom the murder could be pinned. Unfortunately it was difficult to sympathise with Laura – despite having suffered greatly at the hands of the deceased, her quest to evade justice leads to an attempt to pin the murder on an equally undeserving person. A problem with the script rather than the production, to be fair, but not one that made for (initially) sympathetic characters.

Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures

While this could’ve generated a fascinating exploration of how far one should/could go to protect an abused woman, the production’s trappings and program are from the start at pains to remind us that every member of the cast could be a potential killer. Consequently the first act (for me) became rather negligible, as did the end-of-act revelation that all may not be what it seems.

But perhaps I’m just grouchy because I lost half of my muffin underneath the seats. Prosecution rests.

 The case for the defendant.

The defence submits several pieces of evidence that justify spending £14 on this play (not the least of which is the chance to find and consume my muffin).

Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures

Exhibit A: Unfortunately I’ve been sworn to secrecy regarding the best part of the show. Agatha might not approve, but the magic spell cast by director David Stacey raised some brilliant questions about gender politics, and produced the sort of small-scale, high-impact emotionally atmospheric ending that only intimate productions like this can nail. Honestly: if you think you know the play, or that you’ve seen everything Agatha has to offer – you don’t, and you haven’t. But you’ll have to watch it for yourself to see what I mean.

Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures

Exhibit B: Once we hit the second act, we’re in full Murder Mystery swing. Every character becomes a suspect, nothing is what it seems, and I had great fun trying to puzzle things out (enhanced greatly by the production inviting the audience to make their guess during the interval).

Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures

Exhibit C: The cast and set are superb. While the numerous characters are tricky to keep track of, there are stand-out performances of the dramatic and hilarious variety throughout – not least in Jess Hadleigh’s Amy (whose strong moral drive provides much of the production’s resonance), Quiller Rees’s Inspector Thomas (a waking dream of physical acting; imagine one of those “drinking bird” toys in a police uniform), and Lesley Richards’s Mrs Warkwick. But the absolute knock-out performance (and my favorite performance of 2018) is Alex Daykin’s Jan Warkwick. Contorting his body like a tortured eel one moment, leaping & bounding with excitement the next, he captivates, beguiles and charms every second he’s on stage…

…and what a stage it is. Lush with period detail, from the warm lighting to the mahogany-paneled walls, beautiful porcelain nativity scene, mocked-up vintage newspapers and ageing Xmas tunes, this is absolutely what one wants at Christmas. Purchase a hot chocolate or glass of port at the interval, and you will be in festive heaven. Defense rests.

Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures

 The verdict.

It might not quite match the high standards set by The Studio Theatre Company’s previous Christmas production,  “Dick Barton & The Reindeer Knitting Pattern” (written and directed by the incomparable genius David Wembridge), but this is due solely to the script rather than to its execution; and the production stands as a particular testament to the wonderful skills of David Stacey.

So for anyone desiring a festive murder mystery, or for any fans of Agatha Christie, the jury concludes that you should dust off your magnifying glass and sally forth into the foggy night post-haste…

…and please do let me know if you find that missing piece of muffin.

Tickets are available at: https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/the-unexpected-guest/.

Kudos to Dan Deville for spending the majority of the first act as an on-stage corpse (Photo courtesy of Livelywood Pictures)

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