Friday, May 13, 2022

Three confessions and a funeral (or two) … Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest (Belvoir Studio Theatre until Saturday 14 May)

Oh what a tangled web we weave … and there are quite a lot of tangled webs to choose from at the minute.

The mystery of who will be the second DUP MLA for Lagan Valley was solved this afternoon with the surprise announcement that former Belfast South MP and MLA Emma Little-Pengelly was being parachuted in to replace Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who had appeared on last Thursday’s ballot paper and topped the poll.

There’s also the mystery of the lost Whatsapp messages and the phone lost overboard that has reduced the evidence available in Rebekah Vardy’s libel case against Coleen Rooney in London’s High Court. Often referred to in tabloid newspapers as the “Wagatha Christie trial”, that one’s set to run for a while longer.

And then there’s Belvoir Players’ production of Agatha Christie’s 1958 play, The Unexpected Guest.

A crashed car on a foggy night brings Michael Starkwedder (Aidan Hughes) into the Warwick home, stumbling upon the dead body of Richard Warwick (a suitably stiff performance by Robbie Irwin) still sitting in his wheelchair. Written for the stage by Christie, the majority of the first act is a lengthy and somewhat confessional conversation between the stranger and Richard’s wife Laura (Sinead Fox-Hamilton) which also introduces provides handy pen pictures of the other household residents.

Among those not crying about the death of the gun-obsessed, insomniac, fond-of-a-drink, heavy-on-the-accelerator, child-killing monster, we meet the family matriarch (Beth McNair), the all-seeing housekeeper (Maggie Gorman), the all-remembering half-brother (Chris Pegg) who fears being placed in a care home, the light-sleeping nurse (Jonathan Brown), and a politician (Gareth McGimpsey) who is liberal by party and liberal by nature. As you’d expect, any one of them could have the motive and maybe even the opportunity to have pulled the trigger. By the start of the second act, the south Wales police have arrived in the shape of Inspector Thomas (Joseph Quinn) and Sergeant Cadwallader (Deirdre Johnson) bringing with them the early fingerprint analysis from the crime scene.

There’s no single investigator, no Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot to hold up a figurative magnifying glass and hunt down the truth. Instead, Starkwedder and the police conduct parallel independent investigations. The ‘aha’ moment drew gasps and a few whispered swearwords from the audience.

Johnson has great fun with Sergeant Cadwallader’s mannerisms and confectionary priorities, while Pegg delivers the standout performance as the underestimated man-child whose stoked-up rage provides much drama and distraction as someone who is vulnerable becomes a victim in the third act leading up to the big reveal.

While some of the descriptions of disability clash with 21st century sensibilities, this is a text in which patriarchy is subverted and Christie gifts her women characters with an inner steeliness while allowing the men to become victims of loose stereotyping.

It’s a script that relies on words not action, so the audience have to work hard and listen to the barrage of clues and red herrings. Playing along is encouraged with the Cluedo-style pack handed to audience members when they arrive. There’s no room for actors to hide or fumble, and on the opening night it was clear that the cast had been drilled until they were very confident with their lines.

There’s just one location – the sitting room, complete with stuffed animals on the wall – and it’s as if Christie had written for a time such as Covid, minimising the number of people on stage at any one time, largely confining scenes to two or three people at a time.

While the satisfaction of being surprised – or smug – is fairly short-lived, The Unexpected Guest is a well-produced whodunit, and director Jessie McGreevy should take credit for the play being performed with confidence by a talented cast who looked like they’d been doing this night in night out for weeks rather than tonight being their first performance.

The Unexpected Guest finishes its run at Belvoir Studio Theatre on Saturday 14 May.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

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