He’s dead! You shot him? Yes.
And so begins Agatha Christie’s riveting stage thriller, The Unexpected Guest, which has just opened at The Mill at Sonning. Solved in 30 seconds flat? As if.
In the production’s programme notes Brian Blessed, never one to shy away from a good story, regales us with the time, back in 1958, when he spent two weeks with the Queen of Crime.
He was working, in his first job, at Nottingham Playhouse and she was opening one of her plays. Probably this.
Now Blessed is at the helm of this beautifully staged revival at the country’s only dinner theatre.
The Mill At Sonning, nestling on the banks of the Thames, close to Reading, is an idyllic and unique theatre, fashioned out of an historic flour mill that still uses hydro power to provide the entire venue with its electricity.
Tickets to most shows come with a free two-course meal and, without sounding like an advert, the food is delicious.
It boasts George Clooney as a next door neighbour and the beautiful, well-heeled village where it is set, once home to Terence Rattigan, now boasts, according to dear old Wikipedia, Teresa May, Glenn Hoddle, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page as residents.
But, back to our Unexpected Guest. What a well produced thriller. Despite seeing it before I, along with the entire audience, were on the edge of our seats throughout, being wrong-footed, falling for red-herrings, and baffled as to who really did kill the sadistic, obnoxious, former big game hunter Richard Warwick.
Animal-lover Blessed, whose daughter Rosalind, is in the cast, was faced with a dilemma over the set design, we’re told in the programme.
The walls of this drawing room mystery are overflowing with photos and trophies from Warwick’s time in Kenya.
But, rather than use real animal heads he’s had the props department work overtime in creating dummies to appease his conscience.
However, he has no such qualms with human murder…
The play opens with the arrival of a stranger to a fogbound country house in South Wales. Engineer Michael Starkwedder has driven his car into a ditch and is seeking help.
But he is met with the corpse of wheelchair-bound Richard Warwick and his ravishing blonde wife, femme fatale, Laura Warwick, standing next to him with a gun in her hand.
She admits to killing her husband but it soon becomes evident that the death of a man who no-one particularly liked, is not that clear cut.
It could have been the lovely Kate Tydman as the obvious suspect, Laura. Or it could have been..well, any number of people.
Like all Agatha Christie’s thrillers there are no shortage of suspects. I fancied George Telfer, skilfully playing the devious valet, Angell, as John Le Measurier (complete with withering laugh); or Rosalind Blessed’s overbearing, super-efficient housekeeper, Miss Bennett.
What about Warwick’s mother, who was supposed to have been deaf but the affliction quietly forgotten by veteran stage and screen actress Diane Keen?
Then there’s Warwick’s younger brother, the childish and simple-minded Jan, superbly played by Luke Barton. Or perhaps Laura really did do it and we’re being double-bluffed?
Why didn’t anyone hear the murderer fire the lethal shot? And why does no-one suspect the very dodgy, poet-loving, telephone-hating, pantomime plod, Sergeant Cadwallader (Alexander Neal)?
What’s more, how are the South Wales Police, circa 1958, able to obtain scenes of crime reports, including fingerprint analysis, less than 12 hours after being called to the murder scene? They certainly put modern day policing methods to shame.
I loved every second of this engrossing crime drama. Séan Browne, hilarious as David Beckham in The Three Lions, here makes a dashing matinee idol hero, as Starkwedder.
Yes, you have to suspend disbelief, when he emerges from the fog and isn’t at all fazed by finding a dead body and killer holding the smoking gun.
But Tydman is so utterly believable as the wronged wife. She flashes him a look and he’s putty in her hands.
He isn’t even dissuaded from helping her escape justice when he discovers that she’s been having an affair with the local MP, smarmy Julian (Patrick Myles – did he do it?).
Diane Keen gives a droll and intimidating turn as the chatelaine of the manor but the grieving mother’s vulnerability is soon apparent.
Secrets are revealed, accusations thrown about and, at its heart is Noel White’s well played and dogged Inspector Thomas, who is determined to get to the truth.
The larger-than-life, Blessed, as director, shows a surprising lightness of touch.
Too often Christie plays are overworked and over-theatrical, but here he keeps it both in period (love the Paul Temple radio reference) and on point.
There are no overblown performances or histrionics, but, instead a pacey and engaging thriller with terrific turns by the entire ensemble (and that includes the excellent “corpse” of Richard Warwick who spends the whole first act without so much as twitching).
The Unexpected Guest plays at The Mill at Sonning until July 28.
The Unexpected Guest
Review. Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest receives a thrilling revival from Brian Blessed for The Mill at Sonning, packed with suspense, humour and red-herrings galore.