At the King’s Theatre this February, Middle Ground Theatre Company presents a slick and gripping stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ‘A Murder is Announced’. Following the events that occur after a mysterious announcement in the newspaper, the play follows Letitia Blacklock’s household of Little Paddocks, in the small English town of Chippling Cleghorn. Leslie Darbon brings this classic and famous murder mystery to life, full of hidden identities, surprise relationships and secrets.
Middle Ground Theatre Company have been producing plays for almost 30 years. Over their lifetime, Middle Ground have more than 40 productions to their name, offering both ‘classic’ and ‘alternative’ dramas. They have travelled all over Scotland, performing in places from hotel lounges to castles – now they are one of the UK’s most established theatre companies.
The show starts innocently enough. The scene is set as each character is introduced, and we are made increasingly aware of the suspicious normality of life at Little Paddocks. However, the further we get into the plot, the clearer it becomes that all is not as it seems. A murder is announced and committed. Inspector Craddock and Miss Marple begin to solve the case.
Director Michael Lunney’s past experience in murder mystery plays is clear throughout the production – Lunney has a full portfolio, with his work including ‘An Inspector Calls’, a stage adaptation of ‘Dial M for Murder’, and ‘The Business of Murder’. Where the plot could become confusing and farcical, Lunney skillfully directs the talented cast, avoiding overblown clichés and creating deep and multi-faceted characters. What is created is not just a polished piece, but one which is simultaneously subtle and exciting. Momentum builds slowly, filling the play with suspense and intrigue.
That being said, there were moments when the dramatic tension could have been heightened – at times, it felt like the audience were waiting too long for the next big event, which sometimes led to an anti-climax. The beauty of a murder mystery is the surprise and shock; the skillful subtly of the piece meant that the audience were occasionally stripped of this indulgence, and at times left feeling a little disappointed. Perhaps Lunney’s attempt to avoid ludicrous and pretentious portrayals of the events, and the characters involved, meant that from time to time the drama was too understated.
However, the play features some outstanding performances from Diane Fletcher, Judy Cornwell, Sarah Thomas and Patrick Neyman. The whole cast handle the text excellently and offer low-key presentations, all the while providing gripping characters who are easy to invest in. It is pacey, full of energy, and never lulls, even in the quieter scenes. When the pace does drop, it is quickly caught up again, and we are pulled further into the unsolved problems of the plot.
This could not be achieved were it not for the work of the set artists and lighting designers. Set in one room alone, the detailed set draws the eye into the scene, causing intensity and suspense as we try to solve the mystery along with the characters. Jeremy Barnaby should be commended for the beautiful lighting of each scene, which created tension and atmosphere, and pushed the plot along as more time passes. The combination of set and lighting design in this play brings the whole production together. As a result, ‘A Murder is Announced’ is a very immersive experience. The detail of the design, the performances and the direction causes the outside world to fade, and we are fully transported into the world of Little Paddocks and Letitia Blacklock.
This Middle Ground production is not an unconventional nor particularly dynamic or groundbreaking piece. Its execution is neither shocking nor risky. However, what the company has created is a gripping drama, which is slick, pacey, subtle and highly entertaining.
By Grace Lyle-Condon