Review: *Verdict* (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, July 23)

You may be so used to sleuthing your way through the clues and red herrings of a good old Agatha Christie thriller that a new touring production may come as a refreshing surprise - for *Verdict* is not so much a whodunit as a will-they-get-away-with-it?

The Queen of Crime’s final original play from 1958 is dusted off for a new staging courtesy of director Joe Harmston and the splendid Agatha Christie Theatre Company, who have been doing such a great job bringing the writer’s plays to the stage for the past five years.

For Christie fans, it’s a fascinating departure from her familiar work, concentrating more upon relationships and characters than murder mystery. It may be too slow and uneventful for some, but while not jet-propelled, it ticks along nicely and remains a gripping melodrama.

Robert Duncan gives a solid and subtle performance as the likeable and respected German Professor Hendryk, who has fled persecution in his home country together with an invalid wife (Cassie Raine, doing well with such a surprisingly unsympathetic character) and her cousin Lisa (Susan Penhaligon, capturing the angst of the pain of forbidden love as well as wrongful arrest for murder).

The question at the heart of the play is whether the morally upright professor will seize the chance of life-saving treatment for his wife in return for taking on an undeserving and conniving new pupil (played with minxish glee by Holly Goss), what will become of her stalker-like affection for her tutor, and how will the idealistic professor respond to her eventual confession? The audience’s verdict on the characters’ behaviour and motives is every bit as important as the court verdict at the play’s climax.

Adding colour to the cast are Mark Wynter’s down to earth Dr Stoner, Peter Byrne’s brief but magisterial Sir William, Elizabeth Power’s light-fingered busybody housekeeper Mrs Roper, and Lyndon Ogbourne’s eager to please talented student Lester, whose confession in Act One reveals so much of Professor Hendryk’s libertarian and potentially damaging beliefs.

When first performed in the 1950s Verdict failed to ignite the interest of audiences looking for a traditional Christie murder mystery. This new production reminds us that there was a lot more to Dame Agatha’s skill as a writer and understanding of human nature.

David Guest