Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said in 1961

Murder, Margaret and Me

Hall Green Little Theatre


For people of a certain age Margaret Rutherford was Miss Jane Marple, sweeping around St Mary Mead like a sleuthing Valkyrie with dithering sidekick Mr Stringer swept along in her wake.

For Agatha Christie fans though, it was a dilemma: the films were based, in the loosest sense of the word, on the novels of the Queen of Crime, but her Marple was a quiet, insignificant spinster who solved crimes in the background with intellectual, forensic deduction.

Rutherford’s Marple was a big, screen-filling character, eccentric, loud, bustling, the star of the show, dominating proceedings – and her crime solving was less forensic and more . . . well . . . fun. Miss Marple had been turned into a very English, Ealing, comedy.

Rutherford was 69 when she appeared in the first of her four Marple films, Murder, She said, while Christie was 71. The actress had not wanted to play the role fearing it might sully her reputation. She could see nothing funny about murder, indeed she found murder “sordid”.

The writer, whose vision of Marple was based on a quiet, efficient, tiny bird-like aunt, hated the idea of the well upholstered and dominant, on screen at least, Rutherford playing her favourite heroine, and her carefully crafted plots rewritten into rollicking comedies with Rutherford the star – her Marple was the quiet finder of facts, the solver of crimes, never the star!

But by then Christie had become a brand, something else she hated, and some things were now beyond her control, while it was needs must in the case of Rutherford, whose finances were not as large as her screen presence. In short, profligate spending and being an easy touch for any dubious admirer with a sob story, had left her broke.

Christie was never happy with the scripts, which changed her original plots to the point they were hardly recognisable, with Marple in every scene, while Rutherford insisted upon wearing her own clothes and having her husband, the minor actor, Stringer Davies, by her side as Mr Stringer, a character alien to the novels. She hadn’t read the books, had no concept of Christie’s Marple and so, did her own thing.

The result was a success on the screen if not with Christie or her fans.

Stringer, incidentally, was devoted to Rutherford but the pair had waited 15 years to get married.  His mother had disapproved of the actress, apparently, so the pair had waited until her death to tie the knot.

Philip Meeks’ play imagines the meetings between the two, hostile at first, growing into respect and finally friendship. Christie never did like the films but she liked Rutherford, dedicating her novel The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side “To Margaret Rutherford in admiration".

Mary Ruane, is Christie, a little aloof, stand-offish even at first, with quite open disdain for the larger than life Rutherford. A telling early moment comes when Rutherford announces friends call her Peggy, but Christie declines the offer.

Ruane always seems to have a slightly superior air, but as we get to know her, there is also an insecurity there, and, as she sees a sadness behind Rutherford’s jolly exterior, a real empathy and desire to help her in a nicely measured and developed performance.

Meeks introduces a third character, the spinster, played with a quite assurance by Louise Price, who also pops up as Rutherford’s make-up lady, as well as a confidante to both.

Is she Miss Marple, or the aunt or grandmother Marple was based on, or Aunt Bessie who brought up Rutherford, or all of these – an everyman figure hovering around? Price gives hints as she quietly organises the pair, making suggestions, guiding . . . but we are never quite sure if she is merely the sight of a conscience, or a thought speaking out.


Agatha Christie

There is a scene when Christie invites Rutherford for tea at Claridges as an apology after being quoted as not wanting Peggy, (by now they are friends), as Marple. As the two chat, Price sits with them, unseen, unmentioned, unreal.

Price and Ruane give us two fine performances but Ros Davies takes it up a notch or two with her faultless portrayal of Rutherford. She is simply superb. Her Peggy is effusive, childlike, vulnerable and ultimately sad, a character showing a simple, jolly face to the world, hiding a complex soul, carrying terrible secrets beneath.

As the two meet and talk though, we learn more and more about them, of Rutherford’s upbringing, her time in India as a child, her link to Wedgie Benn, her dalliance with a Jordanian Prince, who turned out to be a dodgy antique dealer who had spent time inside for fraud, her marriage to Tuft, her pet name for Stringer, who had a penchant for trips around Soho with actor friend Johnny Gielgud.

Christie’s life was more conventional, Torquay rather than Tamarind trees, but we discover there is more to both than meets the eye, and Christie, with a lifetime of crime writing behind her has the skills to find out what troubled her friend.

Christie had her own secret of course, as to why she vanished for 11 days in December 1926, just after husband Archie had asked for a divorce. A disappearance which has been the subject of speculation ever since, everyhing from amnesia to a publicity stunt.. Meeks, here, gives us one of the many explanations.

But it is Rutherford’s dramatic baring of the soul which explains, or at least gives a little understanding of her often childlike behaviour, such as a houseful of stuffed toys, and her reliance on Stringer, almost as a crutch.

Davies , jolly, large than life, full of fun, becomes deflated, almost defeated, as she relates the real story of Dame Margaret Rutherford, in a moving and emotional monologue.

Miss Marple revived Rutherford’s career, she was to win an Oscar for best supporting actress in The VIPs in the midst of the series, at 71, the fourth oldest recipient in history, but fate was not finished with Peggy though. Her developing illness mean she had to give up first the stage, then finally, the less memory demanding, film. Two years later she was to die, aged 80, from Alzheimer's disease, a bewildered old woman, cared for at home by her devoted husband, Stringer.

Paul Hartop’s set is a simple affair, with the spinster’s knitting chair  - and sherry – centre, Chrstie’s office stage right and Rutherford’s home stage left, with the centre a film set, Claridges, or wherever the story takes us.

Dan Honnor’s lighting helps to divide the studio set further and pick out monologues while Christine Bland’s direction subtly changes the relationship between the two progagonists as the friendship grows.

Whether the meetings ever took place, or if this is all imagined, just scenes in the spinster’s head, we will never know, but the result is an interesting three hander based around the known lives of two icons of the 20th century. Considered speculation fills in the gaps while Meeks adds humour and asides which with an excellent cast, provides an informative and entertaining evening. To 23-06-18.

Roger Clarke


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