Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Blessed goes big to turn murder mystery up

IF the veteran actor Brian Blessed has a motto it is almost certainly “If in doubt, go BIG!”

IF the veteran actor Brian Blessed has a motto it is almost certainly “If in doubt, go BIG!” A quick look at his life will show why.

So when he turns his hand to directing, nothing changes. Agatha Christie’s The Hollow at the Mill at Sonning until mid-September is the result — a wild ride through the sainted dame’s murder mystery.

As usual it’s a bunch of rich people in a big house in the country, but close enough to London for them to be metropolitan as well as shire folk.

And as usual there’s a guest who gets up everyone’s noses and of course gets bumped off — not for quite a while, though.

We knew before a word was said that this might not be an ordinary Christie. As we took our seats a recording of a Sixties radio show, The Clitheroe Kid, was played through the sound system.

Perhaps we weren’t meant to take anything too seriously this night. And if you’re too young to remember The Clitheroe Kid, count yourself lucky.

No spoilers here, so I won’t say who it is that gets the finger because part of the game in Christie shows is guessing the victim, then guessing the killer.

Anyway, we were mostly right about the obnoxious corpse — and rather sadly, probably because Christie’s methods are now so well known to us, we guessed the killer too. Blessed brings a lifetime of theatre to his task and spares few opportunities for melodrama, occasional laughs and a little skittishness in his presentation.

For instance, two thunderclaps out of nowhere as the denouement unfolds — we assume Blessed was having a laugh. And the opening of the second half sees the detective standing motionless at the front of the stage bathed in light in a Mackintosh — what else? — as the theme music for Dick Barton: Special Agent is played.

Noel White’s detective inspector almost dances around the stage and even hops over a sofa gymnastically. DI Colquoun is a coltish investigator dressed elegantly but constantly appearing to rail against the dignity and respect of his position. His sergeant is a greenhorn in need of the edges being knocked off.

The butler — a joyfully miserable performance from George Telfer — enters with even the most optimistic news presented as doom-laden; think Lurch from The Addams Family.

His harrumphs of disapproval over one particular character’s shall we say extreme close-ups with a movie star neighbour were one of the highlights of the evening. And that movie star, played as a Hollywood cliché of self-importance by Leanne Rowe, brought fluid and purposeful movement to the action, as well as a full dynamic vocal range. Up until her introduction there had been a stiffness about some of the movement and dialogue.

But that changed for the most part, with convincing portrayals from Blessed’s wife Hildegard Neil as the lady of the house and Francesca Regis as a recently matured young woman.

Other performances raised a question mark. I wondered why Blessed’s daughter Rosalind was directed to dial her voice up to an unwavering 10 in such an intimate space as The Mill. No doubt there was a reason — artistic temperament, perhaps. She plays a sculptress.

One of the problems is that these characters inspired some kind of respect and deference in the middle of the last century — now they would be seen as no different from the rest of us. So do we really care about their foibles and morality?

By the end, as all became clear-ish, we were left wondering whether it had been a parody, a genuine drama, or a knowing look at the Fifties from a modern world.

But if you’re an Agatha Christie fan you will almost certainly enjoy it.

Until September 3.

Review: Mike Rowbottom

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