Love from a Stranger, Studio Theatre, Salisbury

WE Brits really do love our murder mysteries, and now Salisbury’s Studio Theatre has found an ancient Agatha Christie that tells a rather different story, but with all the essential elements thrown in, all ready for a two-week sell-out staging.

The provenance of Love from a Stranger is a bit of a mystery in itself, with both Christie and Frank Vosper claiming the origins. The story first appeared in 1924, as the short story “Philomel Cottage” in a collection by the 34-year old Agatha. In 1932 it was registered by Christie as a three-act play called “The Stranger”. Then four years later, “Love from a Stranger” opened on stage, apparently written by Vosper.

Rarely performed and rather long, it is the story of Cecily, a proper young woman, awaiting the arrival of her fiance after a five year engagement, who is swept off her feet by an interesting stranger, cancels the wedding, marries the new man and, at his behest, buys an isolated country cottage where they live in newlywed bliss (?) before setting off on the travels she has always yearned for.

Of course, all is not as it seems. Anomalies arise, the odd few red herrings are dropped, Cecily’s friends and family are on high alert … and the tension rises.

Director Colin Hayman assembled a brilliantly-believable cast for this eight-hander, and the attention to period detail, as well as the photographic “extra” on high, added to the edgy atmosphere as Bruce Lovell’s behaviour becomes more enigmatic and Cecily’s future seems more uncertain.

It all starts as Aunt Loo Loo is helping Cecily’s friend Mavis to pack up the two girls’ London flat for a three month let, and a man with an American accent phones to ask if he can come to view the accommodation. Cath Angel is a delightfully dotty and domineering aunt, easily swayed by the promise of free food in a society restaurant. George Cotterill gives another multi-layered performance as Mavis, joint-winner of £20,000 (about £1.5M today) on the sweepstake with her longtime friend Cecily (Anna Rose). Fiance Nigel (beautifully played by James Pullen) is due home from the Sudan, all ready for his wedding to Cecily, who is out shopping.

When she returns, she shocks her aunt and friend by telling them she wants to postpone the ceremony, and if Nigel won’t agree, she’ll call off the wedding. In the angry confusion they forget to tell her that a man is about to arrive to look round the flat. They leave, hoping that Nigel’s imminent arrival will bring Cecily to her senses. Instead, she opens the door to Bruce Lovell (Richard Clarke), a rangy “Canadian” in a pale linen suit, full of stories of distant travels and adventures. She’s hooked. She ditches Nigel and heads off to Kew with Bruce.

You don’t need to be listening too hard to realise this man’s accent is peculiar, to say the least. Canadian vowels are mixed with Deep Southern inflections and Richard Clarke does a terrific job of confusing the audience. Of course’s he’s a money-chasing bounder, but what else is he hiding?

By the second act they are settling into the country cottage that Cecily has bought, as Bruce’s money hasn’t yet been transferred from Canada to England. Enter a traditional gardener (John Jenner), his niece Ethel (Sophie Townsend) from the village and the local doctor, (Alistair Faulkner). Aunt Loo Loo comes to visit, by now taken in by Bruce and forgetting her fondness for the jilted Nigel.

Bruce is getting stranger, Ethel flirtier, the newlywed’s departure around the world more imminent, and you think you know where this is going ….

No spoilers, but you might just have a few questions even as the curtain falls. This fledgling Christie story certainly fulfilled its promise from the Queen of Crime. The play calls for a total transformation from the London flat to the cottage, and all credit to designer (the multi-talented Richard Clarke) and the prop-makers and backstage crew for their work.

Love from a Stranger is on until Friday 26th April, and there might be a couple of tickets left for this terrific production of an unfamiliar and complex murder mystery.


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