And Then There Were None (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

And Then There Were None (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, July 18th)

Crime and punishment is to the fore in the entertaining touring production of one of Agatha Christie’s best loved mysteries, And Then There Were None.

Ever since the novel was written in 1939 the classic story has managed to bewilder, baffle and wrong-foot. So successful was it that Agatha Christie decided to adapt it for the stage with what can only be described as an upbeat ending. The ever-brilliant Agatha Christie Theatre Company (which has been giving us faithful versions of the Queen of Crime’s works for a decade) sticks with the original conclusion and it remains all the better for it.

As ten strangers gather on Soldier Island off the Devon coast their numbers are gradually depleted as secrets are revealed, a storm leaves them marooned, and justice is served. It becomes clear that none of the flawed characters is particularly pleasant as truths come out about their backgrounds and the words of a well-known children’s rhyme turn out to have sinister undertones.

Director Joe Harmston once again respectfully captures the period mood perfectly, helped by a wonderful Art Deco set from Simon Scullion – which heightens a real sense of claustrophobia – and a troupe of actors who ensure there is suspense, chills and plenty of humour thrown in.

The cast – soon to see some changes as the tour continues – are without exception excellent, often having to portray the darkest of personality traits with a look or a short line. If those who are to leave within the next few weeks have any feeling of it being near the end of term they are certainly not showing it; indeed, having seen the production earlier in the tour, it must be said they are better than ever, working well as a team to keep up the pace, raise plenty of gasps from the audience, and find the humour in what could so easily be creaky.

Where the piece needs to be tense and frightening it delivers, yet never once balks at having some fun when things teeter close to absurdity.

There’s a strong performance from Paul Nicholas (one which has certainly developed during the tour) as Sir Lawrence Wargrave, the judge who keeps his cool throughout, clinically assessing the case before him and building up to an icy denouement. Good too is company stalwart Ben Nealon, who hasn’t been better as the outspoken yet charming Captain Lombard, at one moment  rakishly flirting with a young female guest and the next bluffly admitting his crime.

Verity Rushworth is a gorgeous Vera Claythorne, looking stunning in Roberto Surace’s costumes and effortlessly switching from shrieking imperilled young girl to confident heroine. There is some brilliant understudy work from Paul Hassall as private investigator Blore; he usually plays the unfortunate and amoral young Anthony Marston, but steps up to the meatier role with aplomb.

Mark Curry puts in another noteworthy and polished performance as the nervy and trusting Doctor Armstrong, who would appear to be the prime suspect in the series of murders that occur; while Susan Penhaligon is delightfully dotty and sharp-tongued as Emily Brent, an elderly spinster with strong principles.

Frazer Hines manages to make much of his limited role of Rogers, the butler, expressing the earthiness of the not entirely servile butler; and Eric Carte is great as the blustering and fatalistic General Mackenzie, perhaps the most tragic character on stage.

It is no wonder And Then There Were None has for so long been regarded as Christie’s masterpiece. This sound production underlines just why it remains such a success with skill, while also whetting the appetite for the BBC TV version of the story later in the year.

David Guest