Black Coffee (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, May 31st)

Blackmail, theft of a precious document and a fatal poisoning are among the staples of any whodunit – in the splendid touring production of Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee it’s a potent and enthralling mix.

If Dame Agatha was the Queen of Crime then the Agatha Christie Theatre Company has become the king of staging her work, capturing the true spirit of the mystery dramas with 11 productions since 2006.

With Black Coffee we see Christie’s first play, written in 1929, her only drama to feature the celebrated and dapper Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Here, Robert Powell sweeps aside all images of David Suchet’s definitive TV portrayal with a masterly performance of his own; this charismatic Poirot is a cheekily charming, fastidious foreigner with a twinkle in his eye and, as he engages his little grey cells there is never any doubt that he will unmask the culprit. It is well worth making every effort to see this fine actor playing Poirot in his last week in the role at Brighton before a new Hercule steps into the polished shoes from next week.

The plot itself is as solid a country house mystery as you are likely to find: it’s a spy thriller in which scientist Sir Claud Amory discovers a chemical formula he has developed has gone missing – but when he puts into action a plan for its return the lights go out and he is murdered, just before Poirot and his sidekick Captain Hastings arrive on the scene.

Some familiar company regulars make up the list of suspects and are perfectly cast as well as working wonderfully together and displaying confidence and comfort with the genre: Lisa Goddard, glorious as the prudish and somewhat dotty maiden aunt, Caroline; Ben Nealon, excellent as the newly-married Richard, determined to be faithful to his young wife; Gary Mavers, beautifully oily as the dodgy Italian Carelli; Eric Carte as a forthright and no-nonsense Inspector Japp; Olivia Mace, delightful as the intense and mysterious Lucia; Felicity Houlbrooke, fantastic as the modern-minded and lively Barbara; Robin McCallum perfect as the good-natured and dependable Hastings; Mark Jackson as the ambitious and intelligent secretary Raynor; Martin Carroll as loyal butler Tredwell; and John Ashby as Dr Graham.

Director Joe Harmston is very much at home with the style of these plays by now, and does his work skilfully, while Simon Scullion’s design for the single set library is a masterpiece of Art Déco, and Nikki Bird’s costumes are striking.

All in all, this production from one of the best touring companies around delivers quality, exquisite performances, and a pleasing whodunit to chew over. Un grand success, n’est ce pas?!