Agatha Christie tour takes in Brighton’s Theatre Royal

Ben Nealon (in the leather jacket) stars in Rehearsal For Murder
Ben Nealon (in the leather jacket) stars in Rehearsal For Murder

After a decade promoting the Queen of Crime’s theatrical output, The Agatha Christie Theatre Company turns into The Classic Thriller Theatre Company, offering Rehearsal For Murder as its first production.

The tour takes in Brighton’s Theatre Royal until Saturday, July 16.

Having appeared in eight out of nine Agatha Christie productions, Ben Nealon (Soldier, Soldier) slips seamlessly into the new company.

In a sense, it’s a case of job done as regards Christie, Ben believes: “Producer Bill Kenwright had the rights and then the rights expired and so he has carried on in the same vein, with more murder mystery.

“I think the joy of Agatha Christie was that she was so incredibly underrated. (Agatha Christie Theatre Company artistic director) Joe Harmston used to say that the Agatha Christies weren’t so much ‘whodunits’ as ‘whydunits’. She gives you really 3D characters, and you are trying to understand what is it that pushes these people to kill, just trying to work out why. This one now is much more of a ‘whodunit’, and it’s a different pleasure, the joy of trying to work out who the hell the killer is. The way the killer is revealed is beautifully done.”

Playwright Alex Dennison is left heartbroken when his fiancée and leading lady Monica Welles is found dead from an apparent suicide after the opening night of her stage debut. On the anniversary of that ill-fated night, Alex assembles the same cast and crew for a reading of his new play.

But as the reading progresses, the play’s similarity to actual events becomes increasingly uncomfortable for the participants. Alex believes Monica was murdered and his new play is a devious attempt to uncover her killer.

“I am playing the juvenile lead, even after all these years!” Ben says. “He is a young actor who was looking for his great break but the play flopped on its opening night. In the interim, he really has not had much work at all while his girlfriend has become very successful, and then they are thrust back together again, and there is a lot of nastiness with that.

“It is safe to say that I am one of the chief suspects. It looks like I could be the killer, but everyone has got a very good motive…”

As for Christie, Ben feels she is perhaps now better regarded as a dramatist, as a result of the theatre company’s ten-year span: “She is the country’s most successful female playwright and maybe the most successful playwright ever with the exception of William Shakespeare.”

“I ended up doing eight out of the nine productions that the company did, and I think inevitably some are stronger than others, but year after year, the audiences built and built. When we did the first one, The Hollow, people were perhaps not quite sure what they were coming to, but as we developed, the audience just got bigger and bigger and the tours got longer and longer and before we knew it we were doing a whole year and selling out lots of venues.

“The Mousetrap has since gone on tour all over the country, and I think one of the reasons it has done so well was as a result of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company.”

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