“Help this story live. We kindly ask that you keep the ending a secret. We wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for other theatregoers and we wish to preserve the ongoing mystery of this iconic murder mystery masterpiece!”
So says the programme for Dundee Rep’s masterful performance of Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery And Then There Were None which, unlike the vast majority of programmes for theatrical performances, does not contain a plot synopsis. For newcomers to the story therefore, what was about to unfold onstage came as one surprise twist after another.
For those of you who missed the play, or missed getting a programme, here’s a factoid for you: in 1944, Dundee Rep opened its production of Hidden Horizon by Agatha Christie, who was herself in the audience on opening night. The 1944 production was no ordinary performance, but the first ever production of Hidden Horizon. The story was later developed into Murder on the Nile and filmed as Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov playing Hercule Poirot.
Based on the nursery rhyme known these days as “Ten Little Soldier Boys”, And Then There Were None starts simply, as eight guests arrive at a secluded house on an island with two staff in attendance. True to the spirit of the mystery and in keeping with the Rep’s programme plea, that is as much of the plot as I am willing to give away. Anyone who wants to know “who-dunnit” must watch the play or read the novel.
On entering the theatre, the first thing that caught our attention was the angling of the stage, thrusting out as it did to into the audience’s seating space. As a performance that challenged our expectations, this unconventional stage protrusion seemed fitting. When the lights on the stage brightened, the curtain was revealed to be gauze, shrouding the stage space in shadows and mystery before it drew back to reveal what lay behind. The scene once set – a modernist bar and seating area – never shifted location, drawing us in closer as the drama intensified. The only things that did change were the number of chairs and the level of lighting. On one side of the room was a set of shelves on which stood ten figurines of soldiers. When the first of the play’s character died, one of the soldiers fell from the top shelf and smashed and… well, any more would spoil it. Suspense heightened every time a figurine fell so that when the gauze drew back for another act the eyes of the audience went to that shelving unit to count the remaining soldiers.
I confess, what came as the biggest surprise to me was not the identity of the murderer – although that was a shock – but the fact that the play was full of humour. Ncuti Gatwa, as dapper man-about-town Anthony Marston, was hilariously devil-may-care about the strange circumstances he found himself in; Robert Jack as Philip Lombard had an irreverent sense of humour that had the audience in stitches, even if other characters did not approve of what he had to say; in addition, nearly everything Emily Brent (Rep Regular Ann Louise Ross) did or said had a level of humour that certainly lent a balance to the grim subject of the play. The brilliant comic timing of the actors, the comedy infused into the script and the direction of the award-winning Kenny Miller lent a levity that never descended into farce; nor did it detract from the play’s chilling atmosphere. In this, the production’s two halves perfectly balanced.
Indeed, the entire production of And Then There Were None meshed fantastically, with superb performances from all the actors involved and an ending that had the entire audience on the edge of their seats with suspense.