Black Coffee Kings Theatre

Black Coffee was Agatha Christie’s first play, written in 1929 and the only one of her plays to feature her famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Well known producer Bill Kenwright, under the banner of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, has been touring the UK since 2006 with annual productions of Christie’s plays and with star studded casts.

Christie is still an undoubtedly popular writer as sales of her books and countless TV and film adaptations will testify. In fact, the programme contained an advert for the forthcoming 60th anniversary tour of the Mousetrap. Why is it that this play continues to attract audiences when other arguably better works have closed after a few months? Well, the public obviously loves a good whodunnit and they also love the reassuring familiarity of the Christie formula.

Black Coffee, starring Robert Powell as Poirot and Liza Goddard as Aunt Caroline, is most decidedly formulaic. The characters are all the stereotypes we expect in a Christie whodunnit – the batty Aunt, the jolly hockeysticks neice, Poirot’s chinless wonder sidekick, the suspicious Italian doctor and the bluff and blustering policeman. It is all set in that quintessential of Agatha Christie settings – the drawing room of an upper class mansion in the country and the plot surrounds the murder by poisoning of unpleasant aristocrat, Sir Claude Amory and the theft of a secret formula. Everyone seems to have a motive to want him dead and an opportunity to commit the crime. It is down to our hero Poirot to eliminate the suspects one by one through his inimitable powers of deduction and get to the bottom of the mystery.

I have to say this play didn’t work for me at all – I found the dialogue stilted and stuffy and just plain dull. It is an old fashioned work and is showing its age, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in this day and age. The humour all seems to revolve around the notion that foreigners are suspect simply because they are “not one of us”, a concept that comes over as totally outdated and even faintly racist. None of the characters elicit any sympathy and the whole thing is just a bit of hokum. Compare and contrast to a piece such as Noel Coward’s Private Lives which is set in the same era but which still has things to say to a modern audience and is full of sparkling wit and vitality. Or the inventive adaptation of John Buchan’s 39 Steps – there are many examples of good quality reinterpretations of old classics on the go currently. The only saving graces of the evening for me were the performances of Powell and Goddard who showed they were a class above the rest.

The snoring of the man in the row in front of me and the yawns of the audience at the interval said it all for me, I’m afraid. This one is for diehard Agatha Christie or Robert Powell fans only.

Irene Brownlee