BASED on one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and enduring novels, published in 1939, this play was originally called Ten Little Niggers. By the time novel and play reached America the title had become Ten Little Indians, and at some point even this proved offensive to some, so the title was changed to the last line of the children’s rhyme which forms the basis of the plot. Ten characters are marooned on an island off the coast of Devon, an island thought to be based on Burgh Island, but renamed variously according to the title, finally resting as Soldier Island, with the rhyme becoming Ten Little Soldier Boys.
After such parodies as the film Murder by Death, in which many famous pastiche detectives are summoned to a meal in a deserted house and murdered, one by one, and the Stoppard classic The Real Inspector Hound, with its scene-describing Mrs Drudge commenting that their house is “cut off to all intents and purposes from the outside world”, it is hard not to snigger as similar phrases are uttered by the members of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, including such names as Paul Nicholas, Susan Penhaligon, Frazer Hines, Colin Buchanan and Mark Curry. They have to use such lines to set the scene, and build up the plot, and just as the audience is beginning to find things a little comfortable the first murder happens, and an interval arrives.
From this moment on, Christie draws us in, playing with our own deductive and calculating minds and setting up possible motives and means for all the remaining characters. Just as you are settled on which of them is the guilty one, they become the next victim, and the tension grows until there are audible signs of shock and relief from the audience. The murders follow the rhyme, following its natural progression, as we hear more detail about each character and the reason they deserve to be killed.
There is wonderful opportunity for character acting in this play, and the cast do not disappoint. It was hard to remember Paul Nicholas as the Rum Tum Tugger in the original cast of Cats as he accurately portrayed a learned, highly educated judge, Mark Curry from his days on Blue Peter as he inhabited the role of a nervous doctor, or Colin Buchanan from his years as Warren Clarke’s younger foil in Dalziel and Pascoe as he played a retired police inspector. These are just three highlights, but all ten of the possible victims play to reality, with just an occasional a nod to the melodramatic, assisted by a wonderful art deco set with a huge circular window at the back, and an almost Hammer Horror use of Requiem music to end each scene.
It all goes together to provide a sentimentally satisfying evening of pure entertainment, proving that once the “names” from past television have drawn the public in, a great script by the novelist herself can keep us thrilled and puzzled until the very end, an end which I not give away, in the true tradition of Dame Agatha.