Royal & Derngate’s latest offering from their Made In Northampton season is the rarely performed thriller, Love From A Stranger by Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper, in association with Fiery Angel LTD, and directed by Lucy Bailey
Stifled soon-to-be bride Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) is set to welcome back her fiance of 5 years, the straight-laced and repressed (in a way a man of the 50s is wont to be) Michael (Justin Avoth) from his job in Sudan, when she suddenly declares to flat-mate Mavis (Alice Haig) that she is, in fact, bored of their relationship and longs for adventure with her recent sweepstakes winnings.
Cue the handsome and charming stranger – Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), who in the space of the 10 minutes he spends considering letting her flat, has her fall utterly in love with his adventurous background and American accent. And with that, she dumps her fiance and runs away for a day out at Kew.
But, as with any Agatha Christie story, you know it’s not going to end up being a bed of roses…
From a clever claustrophobic set, impeccable acting and levels of suspense I can honestly say I’ve never felt sat in a theatre, this is a superb production. From the moment we’re plunged into darkness with no warning as the play kicks off, everything is designed to make you just that little bit wary of what’s going on.
And that suspense and the unnerving feeling is played off nicely by a great deal of humour – Nicola Sanderson particularly, as Cecily’s overbearing and ridiculous Aunt Lulu, had the audience in stitches, as well as Molly Logan as adorable domestic servant Ethel, and the sweet-natured rheumatic gardener Hodgson (Gareth Williams).
While the first act appears to take a leisurely pace, I found myself amazed that a whole 50 minutes had flown by as the lights came up for the interval – I’d been so engrossed in the little foreshadowing details that I’d barely noticed any time passing.
Act 1 takes place in Cecily and Mavis’ London flat, but by the start of Act 2, Cecily and Bruce are married and have purchased an isolated cottage with no telephone connection. Cecily, worried for Bruce’s health which seems to have taken a turn for the worse, enlists the help of Dr Gribble (Crispin Redman), who shares Bruce’s love of criminal court case books.
The second act builds the tension gradually and by the time the final scenes reach their unexpected crescendo you could have heard a pin drop; the audience sensing what was coming but still trying to figure out which way it was going to go right up to the last moments.
The cast were superb – Sam Frenchum as Bruce being a true standout, building each layer of a complicated character with subtlety and underlying malcontent.
Alongside excellent performances from all of the cast, the set must be applauded. There was an audible gasp early on as the set changed – a surprise I don’t want to ruin here! Needless to say, it certainly impressed, and the changes were used to amazing effect. Lighting too, combined with the fantastic use of ticking clocks and dramatic music, left the audience on edge, heightening the anticipation and sense of unease.
If your opinion of Agatha Christie is based purely on Miss Marple or Poirot, then you’d be forgiven for thinking of her work as quaint, or sweetly old-fashioned. This intense psychological thriller proves that wrong. Love From A Stranger is captivating, chilling and charming all rolled up into one heart-stopping production.
And it only runs in Northampton until 17 March 2018 before heading off on a UK tour until July – you do not want to miss this one!
Performance Tues 27 Feb 2018