There is a generally-accepted idea – by those of us who grew up watching David Suchet sporting a moustache and a funny accent on a Sunday evening – that Agatha Christie adaptations should be silly and camp, without too much unnecessary sex, gore or realism. The BBC’s epic, sepia-toned adaptation of one her most widely read novels And Then There Were None last Christmas was a more serious business: three hours of bleak shots of the sea, people looking glumly out of windows and the chap from Poldark occasionally taking his shirt off. Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming lavish Murder on the Orient Express seems set to take on a similarly sombre tone, so the question for any director of Christie’s work in 2017 is how to draw the line between silly facial hair and gloomy soundscapes. In Mermaids’ first Byre show of the semester, Rowan Wishart has managed to create an incredibly entertaining evening by giving us the best of both worlds.
And Then There Were None is a character actor’s wet dream, and the ensemble cast of Mermaids new and old clearly relished their roles. Each dived into their murder mystery stereotype with aplomb – Coggin Galbreath as the foppish playboy and Benjamin Davies as the senile military man are worthy of special mention. However, staging a cast of this size is a tricky business and even on the gorgeously designed and cleverly utilised two-level set (created by Caelan Mitchell-Bennet) the blocking in the first act felt a little messy. The 11-strong cast were constantly coming, going, standing and sitting, often for no reason more obvious than that otherwise the staging would get too stagnant. However, as soon as they started dying off, we were allowed more intimate moments with some of our characters, and this is when the performers really shone. Daniel Jonusas’ inexplicably-posh servant and Morgan Corby’s high cheek-boned army captain both kept me guessing for a long time. Clemmie Beresford as the moralising spinster showed a cold-hearted complexity and depth in her performance, and it is rare that I have loathed a fictional character so much. But it was Mermaids stalwart Eleanor Burke as the sultry but relatable Vera who stole the show, combining moments of well-timed levity with heart-wrenching honesty.
Although some people I spoke to after the show raved about the sound design, I personally could have done with less of the halting jazz and storm sound effects. Sound levels and speaking volume are hard to get right without microphones in the Byre, and I appreciate that often student theatre pieces only have a few hours of technical get-in, but even so there were swathes of dialogue I could barely catch over the screeching wind or the bizarrely inapposite music. Also distracting were some of the murders themselves. While, as mentioned, the overdone nature of the performances lessened as the plot developed and the stakes were heightened, the deaths remained hammy throughout and more than once elicited a laugh from the packed audience. This would have been fine if I thought the production team had intended this. However, stage deaths are hard to get right, and all of this was forgotten with the very last murder, which was beautifully and horrifically done.
Regardless of any other faults, the whole team has clearly delivered on their vision: to create a show that does both the things that a good murder mystery should – to comfort and revolt us by the humanity presented to us. All should be commended for walking this line, as not one actor failed to give us Branagh-worthy moments within their Suchet-esque silliness.
STARS: * * * *