Thursday, January 18, 2018
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Review: Dusty Agatha Christie radio plays captivate on stage

CLEARWATER — For many a bookworm, Agatha Christie thrillers are a kind of benign addiction, devoured one after another on rainy days at a resort with a shelf full of her paperbacks. It's not unusual to run into a reader who has consumed all of the prolific Dame's novels, from The Mysterious Affair at Styles to Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple's Last Case.

Those are the people who will especially enjoy Agatha Christie's The BBC Murders, a stage adaptation by Judith Walcutt and David Ossman of four largely forgotten radio plays that opened Tuesday at the Capitol Theatre. In many ways, it is a captivating experience, with a terrific cast and splendid rendition of radio theater, but the material itself is awfully slight and makes for a long haul. There is a reason these Christie scripts gathered dust in British archives for decades.

The Queen of Crime's persona, first seen pecking out her autobiography on a typewriter, binds the plays together. Played by Melinda Peterson as a tweedy matron with a sly twinkle in her eye, she supplies commentary between murders, though sometimes the narrative takes on an "And then I wrote" slackness.

The first play on the bill, Butter in a Lordly Dish, is the strongest, with its clever Biblical theme and marvelous performances by Gary Sandy as a philandering lawyer and Amy Walker as the black widow spider who lures him into her web. Walker, a chic beauty in the Claire Bloom mold, appears in all four plays as characters covering the gamut of class with a droll comic tone that is delightful.

The least successful of the plays, The Yellow Iris, is given the most elaborate staging, probably because it introduced Christie's most famous character, know-it-all Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, played by Phil Proctor (one of the four members, as is Ossman, of the legendary Firesign Theatre). It's a tepid mystery set in a cabaret, pepped up by a jazz band and tenor (Alex Jorth) in songs by Rupert Holmes.

Three Blind Mice is of some scholarly interest, because it was Christie's first stab at the scenario (psychotic killer on the loose in a snowstorm) that led to The Mousetrap, the world's longest running play. Personal Call is a supernatural yarn that features the surround-sound ambience of a London railroad station.

The radio aspect is fun. Actors, scripts in hand, are on studio microphones, and Foley artists Tony Brewer and Lydia Ferry handle the lighting of wood matches, the popping of a champagne cork, the pouring of drinks over ice and other sound effects. Amy Cianci's costumes and hair evoke British style of the 1930s and '40s. The subtle lighting is by Brian Sidney Bembridge. Sound design (Steven Wiese) and sound/special effects (Randy Thom and Dennis Leonard) are immaculate.

Agatha Christie's The BBC Murders is a production of Ruth Eckerd Hall at the Capitol, which the hall (with financial support from Clearwater) seeks to renovate as a center of much-needed activity downtown. Before Tuesday's performance, which drew attendance of 450, the block in front of the theater was transformed into a London street fair, with vintage cars, a swing band and students dressed as the Queen's Guard.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

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