Reviewed by Richard Swainson
Agatha Christie is back in vogue. With Kenneth Branagh’s successful revival of Murder on the Orient Express and another adaptation of Death on the Nile primed for post-Covid release, public appetite for homicide amongst the British middle class of the 1930s is as strong as ever.
Cambridge Repertory Society’s production of Christie’s Love from a Stranger taps into the trend. The material has its origins in a 1924 short story, though the play itself, co-written by Frank Vosper, dates from twelve years later. Filmed and adapted for early television in the same decade and performed on radio by Orson Welles somewhat later, next to Christie’s classics it remains largely unknown today. This is all for the good, almost guaranteeing that the twists and turns retain a sense of mystery.
There’s a Gaslight element to it all. Cecily Harrington, a young woman who has been waiting five years to marry Nigel, her childhood sweetheart, has recently come into some money. Reflecting on the possibilities inherent in the windfall, she has cooled toward her fiancée , making her susceptible to the charms of the titular American, Bruce Lovell. A whirlwind romance leaves her best friend Mavis and busy-body Aunt Loo Loo gobsmacked. Does Cecily realise what she’s getting herself into? Is Bruce motivated by her bank balance?
Though essentially a dramatic thriller, Love from a Stranger has wit aplenty, opening with a precisely positioned and none-too-shabby derriere. In a lesser cast, Sara Young’s Aunt Loo Loo would steal the show. As it stands, Loo Loo’s flighty superficiality and casual snobbery ensure an entertaining exposition, matched as she is by Catherine Wilde’s equally excellent Mavis, the most grounded person in the piece but thanks to Wilde’s clear and thoughtful characterisation far from the least interesting. Aided by a wonderfully detailed set design, one that regularly suggests space beyond the stage, these performers set the scene impressively, transforming us back to the class-conscious inter-war years when Britain still had an Empire to speak of.
Alexander Norris does well to register in the largely thankless part as the cuckolded Nigel and there is fine work by the rest of the supporting players as the action shifts to an isolated rural cottage, with Nigel Slaughter’s ever-thirsty, salt-of-the-earth gardener and Christine Southwick’s spirited-if-inexperienced maid bringing real flair to the working class stereotypes and veteran Clive Lamdin at his naturalistic best as local physician and amateur criminologist Dr. Gribble.
However, this is the type of drama which hinges on the leads. What luck then that the casting here is well nigh ideal. Stef Gibson has a beautiful, open face and clear, if necessarily accented diction. If her Cecily isn’t always paying close attention and vulnerability is vital to the role, in Gibson’s capable hands she never becomes an out-and-out victim.
Johan Niemand delivers a highly skilled and nuanced performance as Lovell, seguing from easy charm to nervous rage without overplaying at either end. Bruce is a part that could so easily be undone by broad acting and it’s to Neimand’s and director Karen Carroll’s credit that he resists the urge to go completely over the top. It is tempting to invoke the name Tony Perkins and the spectre of Norman Bates, a comparison that should suggest that there’s not much between Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.
If I have a criticism it’s that while there is good chemistry between the pair this doesn’t extend to hints of sensuality. For a couple who fall almost instantly in love and who then return from honeymoon there’s precious little sexual tension. No doubt Christie herself was coy on such matters and the British are not exactly known for public displays of affection, but perhaps room could have been found for at least a peck on the cheek?
My only other gripe relates to the lighting of the climax. A well written, paced and performed scene could have benefited from a spotlighted presentation, enhancing the tension still further.