Dorset Review

Lucy (Jennifer Mudge) contemplates swallowing pills while Agatha Christie (Mary Bacon) does the same nearly 100 years earlier in Dorset Theatre Festival’s “Mrs. Christie.”

A huge Agatha Christie fan, Lucy thinks she has found evidence of a lost play by the great mystery writer while at the Agatha Christie Festival in England. Through a journey of comic hijinks that involve Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Christie herself, she may have found the still-unsolved mystery of Christie’s 11-day disappearance.

And Lucy may just have found herself.

Dorset Theatre Festival opened the world premiere production of Heidi Armbruster’s “Mrs. Christie,” Friday at the Dorset Playhouse, with a performance that — though it missed much of the play’s delicious wit — had the audience laughing raucously.

Developed at Dorset Theatre Festival’s Women Artists Writing Group, “Mrs. Christie” is a novel and witty paean to the most successful novelist of all time (3 billion books sold). Armbruster has created a delightful comic fantasy focusing on the nearly simultaneous death of Christie’s mother, the breakup of her marriage and her mysterious disappearance. Armbruster has given the challenge of making sense of it all to 30-something Lucy, an earthy American bartender and passionate Christie fan, enjoying a midlife crisis.

At the festival, Lucy meets William, an unsuccessful Christie scholar who has the hitherto unannounced (fictitious) 74th notebook (Christie famously kept notebooks of her story ideas, and shopping lists) that alludes to an unknown play. After Lucy ditches the randy William, she teams up with Jane, an elderly festival-goer, always being reminded of someone she knows. (Read Miss Jane Marple.)

Meanwhile, with scenes shifting back and forth, we find an unhappy Agatha returning home after settling her mother’s affairs only to confront her (first) husband Archie and her mistress Nancy Neele. Agatha is out of control in her desperation, but her loyal friend and secretary Charlotte finally convinces her to get away.

In fact, Christie disappeared in 1926 for 11 days after her husband demanded a divorce. Her car was found perched above a chalk quarry, and her disappearance became a cause celebre, involving the public, the police and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She emerged in a trendy resort hotel, claiming amnesia, only to become the great writer we know today.

In Lucy’s quest, she and Jane eventually end up in that hotel where they find themselves running into Christie, and even Poirot and, of course, the unexpected — the very unexpected.

Armbruster has crafted a delicious mystery-comedy, full of English drawing room wit and characters that are either recognizable or plausible. Never, in her writing, does Armbruster tamper with the real Christie or her iconic characters. The writing is crisply witty and the situations she created irresistible.

For the premiere production, Giovanna Sardelli, the director, chose to play “Mrs. Christie” as farce. Characters were caricatures or exaggerated, and they did a lot of yelling. In short, they were played more as “characters” than people — but they were funny.

Jennifer Mudge gave some depth to Lucy, charmingly mixing her foolishness, passion and unhappiness. Mary Bacon delivered Agatha as a mix of miserable, foolish and desperate. Betsy Hogg, though, created a really dimensional character as the secretary-friend Charlotte, at once witty, charming and caring.

Michael Frederic’s Archie spends most of the show being angry, countered by the human reasonableness of Hannah Caton as his mistress Nancy Neele. The other characters were just plain fun. Susan Greenhill was a grandmotherly Jane, while Stephen Stocking was a delightful cad as the scholar-on-the-make William. And Sevan Greene as Poirot was, well, very Hercule Poirot.

There was a problem, particularly during the first half, understanding everything that was said, as some of the rapid-fire dialogue was overpowered by heavy accents. Fortunately, that seemed to clear up in the second act. Dorset’s physical production, per usual, was excellent. Alexander Woodward’s elegant changing set, aided by Stacey Derosier’s creative lighting, resulted in the perfect backdrops for drawing room comedy. Sarah Netfield’s costumes, period and modern, rounded out a perfect picture.

Heidi Armbruster has created a beautifully and lovingly crafted, even irresistible comedy about Agatha Christie, and Dorset Theatre Festival had great fun with it.

jim.lowe

@rutlandherald.com

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