Last week I went to Hackney Empire to see The Unexpected Guest by Agatha Christie, produced by Bill Kenwright. The play was written in 1958. I’m not clear how faithful to the original script this production is, but it had a few signs, mainly of the linguistic variety that it had been adapted somewhat for a modern audience (a particular example being the detective uttering a distinctly Alf Stewart-esque ‘strewth’, which didn’t strike me as especially Christie-ish). This modernisation sits poorly with the character of Jan, here played by Robbie from Eastenders, who is ‘retarded’ (their words). The attitude towards Jan is passively tolerant, but underlaid with a sense that it’s ok to laugh at people with learning difficulties. There are a few explicit statements this effect, but the humour was mainly derived from dramatic rolling of eyes and knowing looks at the audience from cast members. I can accept that the use of ‘retarded’ was meant to be of its time, and possibly the dubious attitude too, but given the modernization in other areas of script previously mentioned, this approach seems distasteful (to me at least, there were plenty of people laughing in the audience). Dean Gaffney’s approach to portraying Jan was to use babytalk and put on a silly voice, which was just excruciating and just a little bit insulting. It certainly wasn’t essential to the plot.

Overall I felt it was overacted, rammed into the audience’s ears a good few decibels louder than was comfortable. There was little subtlety to the proceedings – the actors’ delivery was at times larger than life, to the point of farce. Which brings me to my problem with this production – it sat itself inelegantly betwixt outright farcical comedy and serious crime fiction, resulting in it being none of these things effectively. It suffered from a common misconception about Christie – that her oeuvre was solely mass-market fare, awash with high drama and crime fiction clichés. The tension between these two opposing directions was detrimental in the main. If you’re going to be farcical and funny you have to go the whole hog, otherwise steer well clear, and stick to playing it straight. Christie’s stories can easily be done humorously/ farcically, but equally there is a wealth of subtlety and emotional depth that can be exploited if you wish to do it in a sober manner. This production fell down because it did neither – on one hand the jokes were awkward and a little clumsy, but conversely the emotion was stilted and undeveloped. It was also too fast paced – a lot of the appeal of an Agatha is that she will expand the backstory of characters evenly, a trait which allows her to play red herrings and misdirect the reader, meaning the reveal at the end can be a genuine surprise rather than obvious from the start. Here we had the customary fixed range of possible murderers, but because only a couple of their stories were fleshed out it was clear reasonably early on whom the murderer was. The twist was another matter, and here they got it right, providing a chilling surprise.

Of course these things aside it was great fun, Richard Blackwood (really poor website!) probably put in the best performance, although I couldn’t quite shake the memory of his involvement in Channel Five’s remarkable Celebrity Enema, sorry, Celebrity Detox, a problem I share with many, including Richard himself.