Murder On The Orient Express - Perfect Poirot as Chichester travels first class for the night

Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie, adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig, Chichester Festival Theatre, until June 4.

Henry Goodman as Hercule Poirot     Credit: Johan Persson
Henry Goodman as Hercule Poirot Credit: Johan Persson

Henry Goodman gives us the perfect Poirot – and pretty much everything else flows from there on another impressive night in Chichester Festival Theatre’s unfolding 60th anniversary season.

Goodman has got the mannerisms, the movements and the presence; in fact, he’s got everything you could wish for as he brings to life Dame Agatha Christie’s famously eccentric private detective.

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There have been actors in the past who have got it disastrously wrong; Goodman, however, nails it from the moment he appears on the stage through to the superb image, so cleverly done, so cleverly lit with which the night ends.

And crucially, once he has got his “ducks in a row”, he commands the stage in the big reveal, gathering all the suspects together to tell them something that one at least of them already knows only too well – just who exactly the murderer is.

It’s also the scene which makes the best use of the staginess – in a good sense – which underpins the whole night. We aren’t going to get the lavish details and sweeping landscapes of the big screen versions of Agatha Christie’s classic. Instead, former CFT artistic director Jonathan Church and adapter Ken Ludwig quite rightly make a virtue of the fact that we are in the theatre.

There’s the front end of a whopping big train at the back of the stage just to remind us; otherwise it’s all very simply set (with the exception of some rather intrusive roll-on, roll-off props in the first half).

If there’s a real niggle with the production – one that the genuine Agatha Christie anoraks might advance (and I am definitely amongst them) – it’s that the production plays it far too much for laughs.

Arguably this is the right thing to do in terms of sheer entertainment, but whether it actually serves the Christie is another matter. Murder on the Orient Express presents one of the darkest cases in the canon, a particularly calculated murder which is in response to the ghastly murder of a child, this latter based in real life. In that respect, some of the laughs feel inappropriate – for all you can see precisely why this production seeks them out. Your response to it all will reflect just how deeply steeped in Christie you are yourself.

But it’s Goodman who carries it all. Faced with a colourful and completely disparate (on the surface at least) bunch of passengers, he applies those “little grey cells” – and importantly, intriguingly gives us a sense that Poirot is “more and more concerned” not that he won’t solve the case, but rather that he will.

As he gets ever closer to the solution, he’s increasingly daunted by the sheer moral complexity at the heart of it all – the very thing which makes Murder On The Orient Express among the most challenging and most satisfying of the Queen of Crime’s many masterpieces. So yes, too many laughs for sure; and maybe some of the suspects ham it up a fraction too much; but Poirot’s first-class trip certainly serves up first-class entertainment.