Part romance-fraud, part gas-lighting thriller, “Love From A Stranger” – Agatha Christie’s gripping psychological drama – is showing this week at the Richmond Theatre in a winning revival directed by Lucy Bailey. Last year Lucy Bailey made her name with her production of “Witness for the Prosecution” in the atmospheric setting of the London County Hall chamber on the South bank. Thanks to Lucy’s brilliant take, we are seeing Agatha Christie in a new light and giving her proper credit for her psychological insight and stage craft.
Key to this production are the fantastic sets put on stage for us to enjoy by designer Mike Britton. He was particularly inspired by the 1960 film “Peeping Tom”, its themes of predation and voyeurism finding surprising echoes in “Love From a Stranger”, where a basement darkroom becomes a place of fascination and fear. “Peeping Tom” was considered innovative in its day yet “Love From a Stranger” predates it by a quarter of a century. Psychopathy was first clinically defined by the Canadian psychologist Robert Hare in 1970, so Christie’s presentation of it is both original and prescient. How did Christie know this stuff? She was incredibly interested in people. If she was in a restaurant she would be earwigging every conversation around her. But she also understood herself and perhaps recognised that given different life circumstances she too would be capable of transgressive behaviour. Recent biographies have focused on her mysterious disappearance for eleven days in 1926. She left her home late one evening, abandoned her car and checked in to a hotel in Harrogate. Did she contemplate suicide and change her mind? We will never know. She refused to speak about this episode. But maybe from the abyss of considering suicide she gained insight into human motivation. She realised what made people tick. And then she explored it to the extremes. She presents ‘What if?’ games and lets them play out to their ultimate. Murder. She was the Mozart of murder, and she makes it so gripping, so entertaining. It is edge of the seat stuff. She keeps audiences guessing. “Love From A Stranger” is not a “whodunnit”, but a “whodunwhat”.
“Love From A Stranger” was adapted from Christie’s short story of 1924 Philomel Cottage by Frank Vosper, a rising star of the stage and screen, who saw a great lead role for himself as Bruce Lovell and so worked up a sharper version. In 1937 it was a hit in both the West End and New York. On the ocean liner home Vosper fell overboard and drowned. Suicide? An open verdict was returned at the inquest.
This play is a chilling and intense psychological thriller, following protagonist Cecily Harrington (played by Helen Bradbury) who, after winning a large amount of money, yearns for a life of adventure beyond the monotony of the everyday. When she puts her Bayswater flat up for rent, handsome, charming and worldly Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum) comes to view it and the two embark on a whirlwind romance, with Cecily abandoning her fiancé, job and friends for a new life in a remote country cottage in West Sussex with no telephone! This is the classic Christie playbook. But what makes this production so gripping, so compelling, is the breath-taking quality of the acting. There are some wonderful performances to savour. Nicola Sanderson as Aunt Lulu is terrific. A battle-axe and a snob (she only lunches at Harrods or Fortnum’s on lemon sloe and meringue) she is a no-nonsense tell-it-like-it-is type. Giving Cecily a dressing down for abandoning her fiancé Michael (Justin Avoth), she says; “How could you, that man has been in the SUDAN and just for you.” Her articulation of SU-DAN is priceless.
Alice Haig as Cecily’s best friend, Mavis is spot on. She asks all the right questions and says what we are all thinking, serving as the audience’s mouthpiece. Puncturing Cecily’s dreams of meeting someone more ‘romantic’ than her fiancé, she cuttingly remarks; “You’ll end up with a pimply clerk who bites his nails!” Despite Mavis’s sound advice, Cecily is bewitched. She is fed up of office work and coming home on the bus and nothing ever happening. She wants to live, to travel, to meet someone “Romantic”. Sam Frenchum is superb as the charmer who seduces Cecily and then schemes to isolate, deceive and coerce her. As he says; “a woman’s weakness is a man’s opportunity.” Look out for the scene when he changes from an American to a Cockney accent. In one of the most spine-chilling, blood-curdling scenes of the play, he stands in silence at the top of the stairs listening to Cecily talking with her ex Michael. It is eerie, creepy and utterly compelling.
A review of an Agatha Christie story cannot give too much away for obvious reasons. However, suffice to say that ‘Love From A Stranger’ is top stuff that will entertain and enthral in equal measure.