Black Coffee – Review

Robert Powell in Black Coffee

In a week when modern actors are being accused of mumbling through TV dramas it is refreshing to sit in a theatre and be able to listen to wonderful diction and pronunciation – from seasoned screen stars.

Was it that Agatha Christie’s whodunnit, Black Coffee, was set in 1929 when everyone spoke properly, or was it that, once again, Bill Kenwright’s splendid Agatha Christie Theatre Company had the pick of this country’s top performers?

Black Coffee, which opened last night to a full house at Milton Keynes Theatre, was the first play ever written by the doyenne of crime writers.

It was also the only play to feature her most popular sleuth, Monsieur Hercule Poirot.

Actor David Suchet made the part his own over several TV series spanning 24 years and 70 episodes.

So it takes a brave man, mon ami, to step into his spats and wax moustache.

The accent may have varied wildly from French to Belgian but the wonderful Robert Powell has created a smashing little detective for the stage.

His dialogue is packed with humour and those blue eyes twinkle at every turn.

Poirot’s offer to be a father confessor to one of the suspects was greeted with a sigh by the ladies in the audience who would willingly confess everything to be in Powell’s company.

Fans of the detective will find elements of the story familiar. Key plot similarities can be found in The Underdog and The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

But this is a tremendous outing for the Belgian detective who must summon all his little grey cells to solve the murder of Sir Claude Amory, a rich, and unpopular, inventor whose prized weapons formula was stolen just before his death from poison.

To me, it wasn’t the murder that proved the most puzzling, it was Poirot’s remarkable ability to be at the scene of the crime just 90 minutes after being summoned to a remote country house, at night and by train, from London.

All the usual suspects can be found in the beautifully Art-Deco inspired library (a wonderful design by Simon Scullion).

Prime suspect is a dodgy Italian doctor (who must have done it purely because he’s a Johnny Foreigner – and he’s played, with an atrocious accent, by Gary Mavers) but there is also the dotty maiden aunt (who sounds too good to be true – the lovely Liza Goddard playing herself to perfection).

What about the vulnerable young woman married to Amory’s son (Olivia Mace and Ben Nealon – both as guilty as sin) or a young niece who is much too convincing to be innocent (Felicity Houlebrooke).

And then there’s victim’s rather slimy male secretary (Mark Jackson). Oh, and, of course, the butler (Martin Carroll). The butler did it, doesn’t he always?

Christie throws in endless red herrings and the top drawer ensemble play the drama with real style and flourish. And, gosh, it’s so nice to hear every word that’s said.

I wasn’t keen on the two brief intervals. They were too short to queue for a drink or the loo and interrupted the tension.

Powell is on for most of the 130-minute play, joined at a very late date by that other Poirot stalwart, Inspector Japp (a nice, affectionate cameo by Eric Carte).

As always Poirot had his rather dim but nice sounding-board Captain Hastings (beautifully captured by Robert McCallum) to help explain his thought processes to the audience.

One final mystery to solve was the identity of the murder victim, named in the programme as being played by Rec Recate.

Ah, bien sûr! What an idiot. Japp would have got it in a second, eh Monsieur Carte?

Black Coffee runs until Saturday.

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