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


Black Coffee

Dudley Little Theatre

Netherton Arts Centre


THE days of amateur detectives popping up to solve murders, or Scotland Yard detectives, who just happened to be in the area, taking on juicy cases leaving the local plods directing traffic or whatever, are long gone, if they ever existed at all.

But when Agatha Christie wrote Black Coffee in 1929, her first play incidentally, the idea of gentile amateur detectives, such as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot or the irrepressible Miss Marple were as accepted as much a part of middle class life as the likes of Just William.

No one had actually come across them or even knew anyone who had but they existed happily in an idyllic world people aspired to, just as it was accepted that solving any crime beyond drunk and disorderly was beyond a dim witted provincial force and needed the expertise of some celebrity sleuth of the yard.

The trick for any company 87 years on is to avoid making the play appear old fashioned and dated, which in truth it is with its foreign spies and stolen formula, and Dudley manage that magnificently. The whole thing is treated as a period piece which gives it a life and sparkle while director Andrew Rock has engendered a decent pace – which is needed in a play hitting two and a half hours.

Tony Stamp takes the honours as Hercule Poirot. This is a part made all the more difficult by the 70 episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot on TV with David Suchet making such an indelible mark as the Belgian sleuth – Black Coffee incidentally was the only Christie Poirot story not covered by the TV series.

There is a danger of aping Suchet in a sort of karaoke performance but Stamp is his own man, or Belgian in this case. As pernickety as ever he keeps up a splendid accent and precise gestures creating his own convincing character, saving what is a rather tenuous plot.

He is well supported by Kevin W Stanley as Captain Hastings, his rather up market and charmingly dim right hand man.

The story is simple. Sir Claud Amory, amateur inventor, played with splendid gruffness by John Lucock, has had a formula for a new atomic weapon stolen between the start anPOIROTd end of dinner so, naturally, has called in Poirot to investigate – who is due to arrive within moments. That’s service for you.

Not that Sir Claud is going to be able to avail himself of the service as he croaks of very unnatural causes just as the good detective arrives.

Which leaves the family and guests as suspects. There is Lucia Amory, played as a bag of nerves by Rebecca Clee. She has Italian blood, which is always good for suspicion, and a terrible secret to boot. These days it would have given her celebrity status, in 1930 when the play was first produced, it meant shame.

Kevin Stanley as Captain Hastings, Sophie Waterfield as Barbara Amory and Tony Stamp as Hercule Poirot

Then there is her humourless husband Richard, played by James Silvers, and Sir Claud’s fussy and talkative sister Caroline, played and knitted in that slightly dotty way of Christie’s maiden aunts by Jennie Stanley.

Adding a hint of femininity – Christie did not do sex appeal – is the more flighty Barbara, Sir Claud’s niece, played by Sophie Waterfield in a living for today performance and showing a nice line in 1930’s seduction which had Hasting all aquiver in his tank top, and again at the younger end we have Edward Raynor, Sir Claud’s secretary and assistant, played in studious manner by Charles Adey.

When it comes to suspects though we have Dr Carelli, played bya Ray Curran whoa musta bea guilty as he is a Johnny foreigner. Obvious init. Curran is another keeping up a consistent accent as the dubious doc.

Then there is the real doc, Dr Graham, played in country GP style by Andrew Parkes who manages an overnight post mortem to reveal poisoning the following day and an inquest the day after that - things moved fast in 1930. At that rate the murderer would be tried and hanged by the end of the week.

Not only that he gets into detective mode as well, seems they were all at it, questioning suspects as a sort of GP CSI division.

Not to worry though, here come the real police in the shape of Insp Japp of the Yard, of course, with a hint of working class, lower orders from Mike Kelly. Japp happened to be in the area clearing up another case the locals presumably couldn’t manage so pops in with PC Johnson, played by Claire Hetherington, to solve this one on his way home.

So with servants Tredwell and Fyllch, played by Louise Redd and Ellis Daker, hovering around we have all the contestants in the who did in Sir Claud competition.

It’s a game the involves the formula for an atomic weapon – beating the Manhatten Project by 15 years – a beautiful, international spy for hire, a son deep in debt, a dodgy foreigner – aren’t they all in Christie plots, apart from Poirot, of course, and she didn’t actually like him – and a wife with foreign blood who could be in cahoots with the fully fledged, so probably guilty, real foreigner.

It is all typical Christie with more red herrings than a Grimsby fish market as Poirot unravels the secrets and sub plots to find the real killer who is . . . you have until Saturday to find out.

Phil Sheffield has done a fine job on period costumes, all very 1930s, while the set builders have done a good job on an effective and convincing library set.

The strong cast are all believable and, despite an iffy plot, build up the tension nicely through to the end. All in all it is a fine production to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good mystery. To 24-09-16.

Roger Clarke


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