Mark Ludmon reviews Brian Blessed’s revival of Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero at The Mill at Sonning
The Mill at Sonning, Oxfordshire
Agatha Christie got me hooked on theatre. Before I was old enough to venture out on my own, my only experience of the theatre as a child was an annual family trip to Windsor Theatre Royal to see one of her stories on stage. Whether it was Murder at the Vicarage or A Murder Is Announced, someone would be dead by the interval and, by the end, the killer would be unmasked and justice served. Once common in regional theatre, Christie’s perfectly formed crime mysteries are more of a rarity now despite the 67-year success of The Mousetrap and occasional hits such as Witness for the Prosecution at County Hall, and we have become accustomed to sexed-up, darker adaptations of her books on TV. So it was like stepping back in time to see the revival of Christie’s Towards Zero directed by Brian Blessed at The Mill at Sonning.
Originally a novel, this is an adaptation that Christie herself wrote, collaborating with Gerald Verner, in 1956. It has all the elements you would expect of one of her stories: a remote country house populated by a disparate group of characters with troubled histories, a sudden death, and a detective following a series of clues until all the suspects are gathered in the drawing room for the culprit or culprits to be revealed. The setting is Gull’s Point in Cornwall, the home of wealthy widow, Lady Tressilian, and her companion Mary. Her ladyship is being visited by her former ward, Nevile Strange, his young wife Kay, and his ex-wife Audrey as well as their friends Treves and Latimer and a relative, Royde. (With this being the 1950s and the upper classes, the men are mostly known by just their surnames.)
The first half is a slow-building mystery of who is going to cop it, as Christie exposes the tensions beneath the surface. The characters feel that “something is going to happen”, that “there is something queer going on”, that there is a “sensation of gunpowder in the air”. In fact, it turns out a real storm is brewing and, as the rain pours down, the killer strikes. With everyone a suspect, the job of solving the mystery is put in the hands of the somewhat unorthodox Superintendent Battle, who featured in five of Christie’s novels and, according to Blessed, was the favourite of all her detectives.
Trotting along at a steady pace towards a thrilling conclusion, this is a classic murder mystery, nicely told. It has a good ensemble cast with some delightful performances, including Bethan Nash as the fractious and lovestruck Kay, and Hildegard Neil who is charming and mercurial as Lady Tressilian. There are touches of humour, especially when the action slips into moments of melodrama, as well as a self-referential knowingness as if the characters are aware that their lives resemble a literary murder mystery. The production is visually impressive with striking period costumes created by Natalie Titchener and a set, cleverly themed around timepieces, designed by Dinah England. Entertaining and undemanding, Towards Zero is a fine example of Christie’s skills as a storyteller. While her writing was not well-known for its psychological depth, this play reminds us of her sharp understanding of what drives seemingly ordinary people to take extreme actions.
Running to 28 September 2019