THE generation born between the two world wars was known for resilience and coping, not talking about “feelings” and certainly not digging into a troublesome past. It’s very different from our times, when everyone is encouraged to bring emotions and experiences out into the open and “share” them with as many people as possible.
Add those factors to the cliche – as true as many cliches are – of the sad clown, the joker who hides dark events and depression behind a facade of verbal or physical comedy, and you get a hint of what Philip Meeks is tapping into in Murder, Margaret and Me, on at Salisbury Playhouse until 24th February.
Despite the description, this is not a comedy thriller in any conventional sense. Nor is it a biography of either Margaret (Rutherford) or “me” (Agatha Christie) or even of Christie’s famous creation, Miss Marple, a role which Rutherford played four times on screen.
It is – perhaps a little like Schiller’s Mary Stuart, where the Scottish and English royal cousins meet, as they never did in real life – an imagining of meetings between the great comic actress and the Queen of Crime. There is only one recorded meeting, at a press call for the Marple films, but Meeks imagines a relationship developing between these two grandes dames, and a sleuthing role for Christie, whose acute observation spots a deep darkness behind Rutherford’s upper middle class eccentricities.
Why is the versatile actress so resistant to Miss Marple, a role she was surely born to play? What lies behind her fierce opposition to performing in a crime story, and her description of murder as a “sordid” business.
Christie was by this time bored by Poirot and his “little grey cells” and preferred her insightful, deceptively quiet Marple, who appears in the play as Spinster (the delightful Tina Gray), providing both background narrative and prods to keep the plot moving on.
By now in her 70s, Agatha Christie (Kate Brown, capturing what one imagines was the intellectual confidence but slight emotional insecurity of the novelist) was determined to keep control of her character, but faced an uphill battle against the behemoth of the film industry. Like Margaret Rutherford (the excellent Sarah Parks who conveys the warmth and oddness of the character without a hint of caricature), Christie had her own secret – the 11 days in 1926 when she “disappeared” and was “found” in Harrogate.
Through the medium of Spinster, the playwright explores Christie’s own hidden story, while the best-selling novelist of all time devotes herself to uncovering the tragedy that Margaret Rutherford refuses to acknowledge about her parents and her apparently idyllic childhood in India.
No spoilers (although it is easy enough, in these days of Google and Wikipedia to find the story) – this play offers interesting insights into two remarkable women, imagines how they might have come to respect each other and even become friends, and teases the audience with plenty of barbed one-liners, whodunnit tropes and genuine shocks.
Director Damian Cruden pays hommage to the Christie theatrical style with pregnant pauses, climactic music and atmospheric lighting. The set, designed by Dawn Allsopp is a delight – interesting for an audience generally more used to seeing the finished product to watch a classic country house being built and unbuilt before their eyes.