Festival Theatre, Chichester
Written by Agatha Christie
Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Jonathan Church
READ MY INTERVIEW WITH HENRY GOODMAN HERE
Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most beloved murder mysteries of recent decades. Committed to the screen 4 times and with its grand scenes of Istanbul, steam trains, and treacherous mountain blizzards all framing a cast of glamorous characters from across Europe and the USA, the romance, intrigue and above all deception have long combined to give Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s celebrated sleuth, the challenge of his detective career.
Equalling that challenge is the task that Chichester’s cast and creative team have faced in taking their audience on a two-hour journey across the Alps to watch as Henry Goodman’s Poirot cracks the case. And much as Poirot stylishly delivers his unravelling of the train’s gruesome murder, so too has Jonathan Church’s ensemble delivered an outstanding interpretation of this ripping yarn.
Ken Ludwig’s adaptation has skillfully filleted Christie’s novel into a two act play that threads the essential elements of the plot into a well crafted tale. There are melodrama and shocks a’plenty with just a hint of wit and humour too, all thrown in with some serious moral anguish in the endgame. Pure theatrical class.
The audience’s disbelief is first suspended by Robert Jones’ stunning set. Like Steven Spielberg’s shark in Jaws, the eponymous steam train is kept out of sight for quite a while as with an ingenious use of sliding arches and simple scenery, Jones transports us to Istanbul for the story’s opening. Then, as the journey commences and those brilliant arches start to slide the locomotive is revealed, a glorious fusion of steel, smoke and light that frames the murderous tale. It is not often that a scene change receives its own round of applause - Jones’ work is sensational and enhanced by Mark Henderson's lighting, the coup de theatres are magnificent.
Many actors have waxed that famed moustache and by his own admission Goodman acknowledges that he “is standing on the shoulders of giants” as he tackles literature’s most famous Belgian, but he unquestionably makes the role his own. On stage for virtually the entire show and with an accent deliciously cod, Goodman probes his suspects with a combination of sensitivity and vigour that is never less than convincing. When the play’s finale sees him wrestling with his conscience, he commands our sympathy. With two Olivier Awards already under his belt alongside countless other nominations, Goodman should garner another gong for his Poirot.
His fellow passengers are all delightful caricatures. With numerous suspects to flesh out in 2 hours, there is not a lot of time to allow each character much depth. The skill therefore in bringing them into relief, as with all drama, lies in the brilliant economies of Ludwig’s script blended with the company’s fine acting and some absolutely gorgeous costume work and millinery (with a shout out here for Sean Barrett’s stunning hats, created for Joanna McCallum’s equally stunning Princess Dragomiroff). Sara Stewart as Helen Hubbard and Laura Rogers as Countess Andrenyi were perhaps the most memorable of the bunch, but there is fine work all round.
Murder on the Orient Express is unpretentious, brilliantly crafted theatre of the finest standard. The horror is not too bloody, nor the scares too scary nor its arguments too complex, with Adrian Sutton’s music (albeit not as majestic as Richard Rodney Bennett’s 1974 movie score) providing an enchanting backdrop to the intrigue.
Chichester have a hit on their hands that deserves a London transfer. Unmissable!
Runs until 4th June, then tours to Theatre Royal, Bath
Photo credit: Johan Persson