Murder on Air (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday September 6th)

From the clinking of glasses and the scrunch of footsteps on gravel to the arrival of a steam train at a busy station, the sound effects which are so central to Murder on Air set the scene for a hugely enjoyable and entertaining evening at the theatre in the company of the Queen of Crime.

The simple premise of this offering from the always dependable Agatha Christie Theatre Company is that the three short plays presented are performed as though being recorded in a radio studio in the 1950s – hence the extraordinarily hard work of the sound effects man, the actors reading from scripts and the charming attention to detail in the set design.

Radio versions of Agatha Christie’s thrillers have always been popular, so it makes a lot of sense to present three of her lesser-known short stories in this interesting and unconventional way to ring the dramatic changes.  The production is widely-travelled and always boasts two star names – at Brighton Jenny Seagrove and Tom Conti – in addition to a solid supporting cast and athletic foley artist (dextrous brilliance from Alexander S. Bermange).

The three plays performed have a very different feel: Personal Call has the air of a chilling ghost story; Hercule Poirot gets to exercise his little grey cells in The Yellow Iris; and there’s more than a shade of Biblical vengeance meted out in Butter in a Lordly Dish (in which you might even feel sorry for a cabbage).

Director Joe Harmston does a good job in recreating the period atmosphere. It’s a shame the original idea of all the cast arriving on stage in hats and coats and preparing themselves for the recording has evaporated a little in this staging, but there’s plenty of clipped accents, upright microphones, snippets of contemporary news broadcasts, and the performers dressed in formal dinner wear even though they would never have been seen, all adding to the overall mood.

A pity, then, that Tom Conti completely destroys the effect by strolling on, talking to the audience, and all too frequently winking or gurning to spectators who would not have been present at a real drama recording of this type – you wouldn’t expect guffaws in a serious radio drama. It’s a shabby intrusion and lets down the other performers working so hard to create the theatrical illusion. Good grief, it’s as irritating as a plastic water bottle in a Downton Abbey publicity shot!

If Jenny Seagrove is still a few steps away from ‘national treasure’ status she is certainly a shining gem in this: while clearly having fun in the roles she plays, she nonetheless injects menace, sex appeal, and commendable vocal range across her characters.

It’s sad that many audience members don’t seem to know what to expect of this production and appear disappointed by what they find, as it’s a neat device, extremely well executed by a company that remains on top form (even with the irksome extras in this case!).