Live theatre is all about rolling with the punches, so when we assemble for a rehearsal of the next Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society production—Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced—at the end of January we all take in stride (no pun intended) the fact that one of our actors, Matthias Sampson, is on crutches with his right foot swathed in bandages.
A basketball injury, he explains, adding that he’ll be back on his feet—both of them—without crutches well before opening night in mid-March. We all breathe a sigh of relief as we commiserate with him, and he’s quite right; within two weeks he is off the crutches and back to normal, just in time to start trying on costumes (including shoes) with the rest of the cast. Stage manager Jessica Clement has dragged boxes full of clothes and shoes, hats and belts, jewellery, and more from our storeroom at the Ashcroft HUB to the rehearsal room, and cast members have brought in items that might work.
We look over various options, bearing in mind the play’s 1952 setting, the ages of the different characters, and what they would (and wouldn’t) wear. Items are ruled out, approved, or approved with modifications, and our brilliant wardrobe person, Margaret Moreira, starts leaving rehearsals with pieces of attire that need altering.
There are other sartorial questions to be decided. Which characters wear hats? Does Miss Marple need a pair of gloves? Is Edmund Swettenham a tie or a bow tie kind of person? Will any of the female characters be carrying a handbag, and if so, what should it look like?
We’re also starting to assemble props and some furniture, with something new—an ornate ashtray, an armchair, a cigarette case—at almost every rehearsal. Set designer Jim Duncan is usually on hand to discuss details of the set, as we decide on such crucial things as paint colour, wallpaper or no wallpaper, a raised platform for the sofa at upstage right, and much more.
The main focus of each rehearsal, however, is going through scenes one by one with an emphasis on characterization and motivation. This being an Agatha Christie murder mystery, many of the characters have secrets, and the dialogue abounds with clues. The trick is not to underplay these lines, so that they get lost, but not to overplay them, either, lest someone give the game away before the final act.
Christie was always scrupulously fair in making sure that the clues were all in place in her short stories and novels, enabling alert readers to have a real chance of figuring out whodunit alongside her detectives. A Murder is Announced is no exception, and was in fact one of the author’s favourites among her vast output (more than 60 mystery novels and 150 short stories, as well as plays, two autobiographies, and six romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott).
In 1972, Christie responded to a reader who had sent a list of her favourites of the author’s works. “My own ten would certainly vary from time to time because every now and then I re-read an early book and then I alter my opinion—sometimes thinking it is much better than I thought it was—or not so good as I had thought,” she wrote. Christie put A Murder is Announced at number three on her list, noting that “I thought all the characters interesting to write about and felt I knew them quite well by the time the book was finished.”
James Prichard—Christie’s great-grandson, and CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd.—also cites the novel as one of his favourites. While acknowledging that when it comes to the “best” Christie novel there is stiff competition, he says of A Murder is Announced that “I was once asked what I thought was the best-written Christie, and this is my answer to that.”
It’s a classic mystery story, full of secrets, clues, red herrings, intrigue, murder most foul, and of course one of Christie’s most delightful creations, Miss Jane Marple, whose sweet demeanour masks a keen eye and a shrewd mind. Will you be able to discover who the murderer is before she does? Test your wits and find out when A Murder is Announced plays at the Ashcroft HUB for five performances starting on Thursday, March 12. Tickets are $15 each and are available in advance at the HUB (711 Hill Street).