Jury gives thumbs up 50 years on

Now I'm not one for gossiping . . . but: Elizabeth Power as Mrs Roper (left), Cassie Raine as Amy Hendryk and  Dawn Steele as Lisa Koletzky


Wolverhampton Grand


IT WAS back in 1958 when Agatha Christie settled back in her seat at Wolverhampton Grand to watch the world premiere of her new play Verdict to see how a Black Country audience reacted before it headed off to the West End.

Then, as now, they loved it although the years have not really been too kind on the plot. Perhaps we have become more sophisticated or perhaps a diet of CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Silent Witness and the like means we are a bit more advanced in our policing than Miss Christie's lumbering, one dimensional plods.

And the twist in the tail of this one . . . telegraphed doesn't really cover it  . . . could probably have been seen coming from space.

The plot, though looking tired, is still interesting though because it is a departure for Christie who usually presents a stageful of suspects and corpses and then invites us to follow a Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot or man from the Yard in solving the crime.

In Verdict however we not only know who commits the crime we see them do it. They don't even make an attempt to hide it  – no shame some of these old murderers.

Plot apart the fact this is a Bill Kenwright production should be enough to tell you what to expect. Solid, believable period , sets and costumes and a cut above standard of acting, and so it proves. Even the dialogue has a wonderful period feel for a setting sometime in the 1950s.

All the action takes place in one room festooned in bookcases with just a desk and a few chairs which, for all the world when the play opens, could be a central library in a small, country town rather than the home of book loving academic Prof Karl Hendryk.

Robert Duncan,  best known as Gus from Drop the Dead Donkey, is superb as the Prof who has fled his unnamed home country with his family after standing up on a point of principle and is now lecturing in London where he finds himself willingly, and in the case of one unwillingly, embroiled with three women.

Glamour with a steel edge from the self centred Helen Rollander, played by Ali Bastian

There is his invalid wife Anya (Cassie Raine* see below) then there is his wife's cousin, Lisa, keeping it in the family, who is beautifully played by Dawn Steele who you probably remember as Lexie in Monarch of the Glen.

Into that cosy if less than ideal world comes a pushy, tall, leggy, lovely blonde pupil with a dad as rich as Croesus, Helen Rollander, played by Strictly Come Dancing favourite Ali Bastian who is back in her day job.

Her father, widower Sir William, (Martin Carroll) ensure his chequebook and influence will always buy his only daughter her stony heart's desire which, for the time being is a foreign prof with an invalid wife and a lot of books. Linking them all is Doctor Stoner, in the more than capable hands of Mark Wynter who, half a century ago used to be a pop star - Venus in Blue Jeans and all that.

Spying on everything, when she is not popping out for a quarter of tea for the coffee drinking family or some cigarettes for the prof, who must sometimes wonder how he manages to buy far more than he smokes, is Mrs Roper, the household gossip who can put two and anything together to make whatever number she thinks will have most effect, played with panache by Elizabeth Power.

Without giving away too much of the plot the old Prof finds out who has done the deadly deed but refuses to grass them up to the local constabulary as it will not bring the victim back. This, for those who had not spotted the way that particular cookie was crumbling, turned out to be less than a bright thing to do.

So when the police, lead by DI Ogden (Andrew Malkin) arrive in their size 12s to announce that suicide in this case spelt murder the old Prof is hoist by his own philosophical petard.

Of course back in 1958 when the play first appeared a murder trial was front-page news, real sensational stuff with the Press hanging on every word.

It was only three years after Ruth Ellis, convicted of murdering David Blakely, had become the last woman to be hanged in Britain.

Mr Justice Havers, the trial judge who handed out that mandatory sentence incidentally, was the grandfather of Nigel Havers, and wrote to the Home secretary, recommending clemency but had received a terse refusal.

Ellis's hanging was a case which was to ignite public support against the death penalty which was finally abolished in 1965 but in 1958 the penalty for murder was still death by hanging.

Lester is a sort of trainee scholar who helps out and borrows books and is played by Matthew Lewis, Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter film series

So in the minds of the theatre going public of the time a murder trial then was truly a matter of life and death instead of the few years it represents today so the wait for the verdict of the title would have really build up the tension 53 years ago. Circumstance meant that  had been lost in 2011.

Don't let a plot diminished by time put you off though. This is a well structured play, well directed by The Agatha Christie Theatre Company's Joe Harmston, who trained at Birmingham University by the way, has a fine set from designer Simon Scullion, and has a cast that cannot be faulted - and accents which are rock solid from start to final curtain

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile on appeal . . .


MANY happy returns! The world premiere of this clever play was staged at the Grand in 1958 with Agatha Christie sitting in the first night audience to see how her latest work was received by a Black Country audience.

Now, 53 years on, it's back, and the author's reputation is ensuring that the customers are rolling in again to see how a talented modern cast present the story of Professor Karl Hendryk's devotion to his invalid wife...while two other attractive women have eyes on him.

It's a rather unusual Christie tale. Instead of a whodunit, the audience actually witness a murder take place, but do the police get the right culprit from the suspects with a possible motive?

Robert Duncan, of Drop the Dead Donkey fame, is convincing as the university professor who faces an unexpected challenge when he reluctantly agrees to take on a wealthy new pupil who appears to have a dangerous crush on him.

Ali Bastian - remember her in Strictly Come Dancing - plays the sexy blonde, Helen Rollander, and there is a superb performance from the stunning Dawn Steele as Lisa Koletzky, cousin and carer of the professor's wheelchair-bound wife, Anya (Cassie Raine).

Dawn, well known for her TV role in Monarch of the Glen, perfectly delivers a gripping and unexpected conclusion to the play, which also features Mark Wynter (Dr Stoner) and

Directed by Joe Harmston, Verdict runs to Saturday night 26.02.11

Paul Marston

 *Well worth a mention

Cassie Raine is an ambassador for Theatre for a Change, which is a charity using theatre to improve the lives of people in Malawi. Just a line in the programme which hardly tells the story. What was not mentioned is the fact she went to Malawi in 2008 and spent 18 months working there using interactive theatre to help reduce the risk of HIV for the population.

Apparently an average of two teachers a day are dying in Malawi leaving class sizes of 300 – and we complain about more than 30 - and that is just a small part of their problems. Infant mortality is high, life expectancy is 43.8, putting it in 179th place on the UN list. Infant mortality is high, 89.4 per 100 births, putting them down in 174th place at the UN while 132 children in 1,000 will not survive to see their fifth birthday. Most of the population struggle by on less than $3US a week.

It has a million orphans, many the result losing parents to AIDS and almost a million, 11.9 per cent of the population, have HIV/AIDS with an average of  250 new cases a day with 68,000 a year dying of the disease on 2007 figures.


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