The Mirror Crack’d at Salisbury Playhouse


I FIND it hard to believe that, 50 or more years on, this stimulating and highly original production of The Mirror Crack’d should actually be the first ever UK stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery.

There have been several film, TV and radio productions of course, including, somewhat bizarrely, a Bengali language version set in Kolkata, and quite a variety of Miss Marples too, including Angela Lansbury, Julia McKenzie, June Whitfield and, of course, the incomparable Joan Hickson, who, I am told, gave her final performance as Jane Marple in the 1992 TV version of this very tale.  (Interestingly, Christie dedicated the original novel to another fine Miss Marple, Margaret Rutherford  “in admiration”, although I don’t believe she ever actually played the role in this particular story.) Never before though have we had the opportunity of seeing any Miss Marple “in the flesh” as it were, in this, the last of Agatha Christie’s true village whodunits.

This version of The Mirror Crack’d has been newly adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff and is directed by Melly Still. Although still firmly set in in the early 60s when the novel was written, it was far from being a traditional production.  Not surprisingly, it is the title of the original book that gives the play its overall structure.  It is taken from Tennyson’s famous poem The Lady of Shalott in which a beautiful maiden, having been cursed, is condemned to view the world only through its reflection in a mirror.  When eventually she succumbs to temptation, the mirrors cracks from side to side.

In Christie’s story, the events surrounding the poisoning of the unfortunate do-gooder Heather Leigh are portrayed from a variety of different character’s perspectives just as the shards of glass that were once the mirror would each have reflected the world from slightly different angles.   In Still and Wagstaff’s production, the playing and replaying of events as they were remembered, or claim to have been remembered, by the various characters in the play are given life by making clever use of a whole range of dramatic forms and theatrical effects – particularly appropriate here in that the intended victim was assumed to have been glamourous Hollywood actress Marina Gregg.

The play opens with a nightmarish dream in which we see Miss Marple, splendidly played by Susie Blake, feeling old, somewhat lonely and definitely marginalised.  Times are changing and things aren’t what they used to be in sleepy St. Mary Mead.  To a lively burst of Helen Shapiro singing Walking Back to Happiness, she desperately tries to join in some frantic choreography but it is too much for her and she sinks back into her chair, dreaming instead of the First World War and the death of a poor young man that might have been her fiancé.   This was clearly not going to be a cosy, “chewing gum for the eyes” sort of production and it took some of us at least a little while to get into the swing of things; woe betide if we should lose our concentration.

Miss Marple might be physically frail, but she is as sharp as ever and when she hears the news of the murder at Gossington Hall it doesn’t take her long to get interested and through a series of flashbacks, the events surrounding the poisoning are played out. By and large she is remote from the action but by no means a passive observer, her razor sharp observation and intuition keeping her old acquaintance Inspector Craddock (another fine performance from Simon Shepherd) on the right track.  In the role of Dolly Bantry, Miss Marple’s best friend and former owner of the scene of the crime, Julia Hills gives a wonderfully sparkling performance.  These three complete what might be called the establishment.  Everyone else in the story is a newcomer, be they members of the film star’s entourage or residents of The Development, the large housing estate which is fast altering the demographics of St. Mary Mead.

Much use is made of such devices as slow motion, projection, shadow play and the freezing of the action.  Although, in less capable hands, the result could look a bit like a GCSE drama class, it flowed smoothly and worked absolutely brilliantly. (The business with the red powder towards the end of the play was quite remarkable – but you will have to see this for yourself, I am certainly not going to spoil it for you here!)  Coupled with some superb, atmospheric lighting and the occasional deep reverberation reminiscent of some vast door being closed to articulate the various flashbacks, the overall effect was both imaginative and compelling.   If all this sounds just a bit too intense for its own good, be assured the play was not without its humour – the commode comes instantly to mind – as well as moments of tremendous emotion, particularly in the second half.  Miss Marple’s reminiscing of good times gone by with Dolly was full of tenderness and warm nostalgia, while the agonising scene about children between her and Marina Gregg (Suzanna Hamilton) was played with terrific poignancy.

Last night’s production was a fine example of ensemble theatre and looked good too, from start to finish.  It featured strong characterisation, suitably exaggerated I felt, which was further enhanced by some great costumes – although I’m not quite sure I would have had my Miss Marple in trousers!  Maybe one or two actors could have done with slowing down and /or projecting their voices rather better, but maybe that is just me getting that much older.  Whatever the case, it didn’t affect our overall enjoyment and last night’s near capacity audience loved it.

The Mirror Crack’d, a co-production by Wiltshire Creative and Wales Millennium Centre, runs at the Playhouse until Saturday 9th March.


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