Review: Murder on the Nile (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, June 16)

Dated and as creaky as the cruiseboat on which it is set, Murder on the Nile nonetheless manages to entertain and tickle a few little grey cells courtesy of the Queen of Crime in this quaint touring production.

Now in its seventh year the Agatha Christie Theatre Company must be commended for having a bash at all of the writer’s plays, though few matched the high standards of her novels.

Here we find a rarely performed oddity in that the work was a stage play which became a Hercule Poirot whodunit and was then adapted once more as a play - minus the wax-moustached Belgian detective, of whom Christie was starting to tire.

Director Joe Harmston, now a dab hand at these Dame Agatha period pieces, handles the pace well in a piece which is pretty wordy, given the fact that some key scenes actually take place out of sight, but the cast seems to be having fun and the expected blend of red herrings and plot twists leaves those amateur sleuths unfamiliar with the story gasping in surprise.

The setting is a Nile cruiser (a shade too static and unconvincing, perhaps, in Simon Scullion’s design) on which we find a typical collection of characters: newlyweds fleeing the bridegroom’s scary ex-fiancée; a firebrand socialist; a shady foreign doctor; a wealthy snob and her niece; a maid; and a clergyman with a twinkle in his eye and a taste for alcohol.

It is no surprise to find that one of them doesn’t make the whole Egyptian tour and ends up murdered. But despite there being an obvious suspect things aren’t always what they seem.

In place of Poirot, it is clergyman Canon Pennefather who has to exercise his brain cells in trying to solve the crimes aboard the cruiseboat, and Denis Lill is perfectly cast, rather quickly making his way through the web of lies and deceit to find the truth, but colourful and charismatic.

Kate O’Mara has enormous fun with the formidable and impatient Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes, as does Mark Wynter in the role of Dr Bessner, two stage stalwarts ensuring their characters rise above the two-dimensional. It is unfortunate that the put-upon niece Christina (played by Jennifer Bryden) has so little to do as she gives a strong performance.

Max Hutchinson is very good indeed as Smith, the hot-headed Communist stuck aboard the cruiser with a nightmarish collection of capitalists; Susie Amy and Ben Nealon are rather unlikeable and a little unbelievable as the honeymooners, while Chloe Newsome is good as the spurned fiancée as is Vanessa Morley as their loyal maid.

A word of praise for Hambi Pappas as a pesky pedlar with an eye on making a quick coin or two and Sydney Smith as the boat’s steward - both giving lovely unassuming performances very much in the background, but with an edge that makes you wish for more for their characters. They definitely need their own spin-off story.

Yes, it’s slow and ponderous, and there may be times when amateur detectives in the audience have to make giant leaps of faith in coming to a conclusion, but the questionmark ending is excellent and the production as a whole manages to be engaging and pleasing.

David Guest