Theatre Review: Black Coffee

Agatha Christie's Black Coffee is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday
Agatha Christie's Black Coffee is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday

In Agatha Christie’s first and only ‘whodunnit?’ written for the stage featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, veteran actor Robert Powell stars in the latest adaptation of Black Coffee which plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this coming Saturday.

We’ve all become used seeing Peter Ustinov and latterly David Suchet in the role of Poirot on both film and on television, so it seems strange to have Powell sporting that turned-up moustache which is the Belgian detective’s facial trademark on stage.

However he carries it off superbly in this clever murder mystery which also stars bubbly blonde actress Liza Goddard.

Together with his somewhat dim companion Captain Arthur Hastings (Robin McCallum), Poirot is soon on the case which takes the pair to a magnificent Art Deco-style country mansion where he calls upon his ‘little grey cells’ following a dastardly deed which befalls ingenious inventor, Sir Claud Amory (Ric Recate).

Amony is distressed about a stolen explosives formula and he calls his family and guests together before succumbing to what turns out to be a poisoned cup of black coffee which brings on an apparent heart attack.

Without a single reference to either Costa or Starbucks, there are plenty of twists and turns in this complicated plot, yet Poirot seems to wade through them all in his usual brilliant deducting manner, the host of red herrings laid before him being brushed aside as he unravels the mystery and unmasks the murderer.

As usual, suspicion falls upon several possible suspects, among them Sir Claud’s flighty niece Barbara (Felicity Houlbrooke), his sister, the slightly dotty Aunt Caroline (Liza Goddard) while Richard, the boffin’s son superbly played by Ben Nealon, has his suspicions who the chief suspects are.

They’re his own Italian wife Lucia (Olivia Mace) and fellow Italian Dr Carelli (Gary Mavers) who just happens to pop in unannounced in a bid to blackmail Lucia regarding the secret identity of her mother.

Then there’s Tredwell, the wonderful grumpy butler played by Martin Carroll, while Scotland Yard detective Inspector Japp (Eric Carte) is always in awe of the Belgian detective and his uncanny powers of deduction.

With Powell’s acting credentials down the years having seen him play the title role in director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1975 film ‘Jesus of Narereth’ to Richard Hannay in ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’, the 69-year-old has also been a regular on television as a nurse in the medical drama Holby while he also starred alongside his friend and golfing partner Jasper Carrot in the brilliant tv comedy The Detectives.

I was never sure that he could carry off the role as I always think of Poirot as a short, slightly rotund gentleman … but how wrong could I be! Powell was great in the part and he even had that same lilted continental accent just as his two well-loved predecessors had.

Liza Goddard – who I still fondly think of as Bergerac’s nemesis in the popular Channel Island television drama – was excellent as Sir Claud’s sister while tv Peak Practice actor Gary Mavers had a somewhat suspect Italian accent which could almost have seen him double for Arthur Bostram’s French policeman in Hallo Hallo!

With a far bigger moustache than Poirot’s, Inspector Japp is a typical old-fashioned London detective who is on hand to make the final arrest of the perpetrator along with Constable Johnson (Kieran Molony) who hardly gets more than a line of dialogue in the whole show.

At two hours long – there are two ten minute intervals – played out over three separate acts, all the action takes place in the same lavish Art Deco drawing room under the direction of The Agatha Christie Theatre Company’s Joe Harmston, the man responsible for bringing a host of the crime writers’ novels to the stage while adding a few comical touches of his own.

If you enjoy a good old-fashioned – well it is over 80 years old! – murder mystery, then Black Coffee could be one for you. It plays until this Saturday (May 3) with tickets tickets priced from £16.90 to £37.90 available from the theatre box office on 08448 717652 (booking fees apply) or on-line at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes