Murder on the Nile – Nannette Frew, The Genesian Theatre and the genius of Agatha Christie. (Theatre review)

If Agatha Christie were a man, she would be considered the kind of genius no female could ever aspire to. She is the best-selling novelist of all time, and her books have sold roughly four billion copies.  After Shakespeare and The Bible, her books rank as the most published in history. She is the most translated individual author, having been translated into one hundred and three languages. And Then There Were None is the most popular mystery book ever written, and one of the most popular books of all time. Christie’s play The Mousetrap is the longest running play in history, having opened at the Ambassadors theatre in London on the 25th of November in 1952 and is still running after more than 25,000 performances.

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Death on the Nile, published in 1937, started off as a play by Christie titled Moon on the Nile. Once she’d completed Moon on the Nile, she decided it would do better as a novel, and translated it to Death on the Nile, which became the much-loved novel. Later, in 1942, when she was writing the theatrical version of And Then There Were None, Christie decided to revive the put-away-play, though the re-write would not include Hercule Poirot because she’d grown tired of him, and its name would be changed to Murder on the Nile. Part of this agreement included the promise of a Church Cannon in the play, so Poirot was replaced with Cannon Pennyfather. Murder on the Nile opened in the West End at the Ambassadors theatre in 1946.

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Now, in Sydney at the Genesian theatre, you can go and re-live the world and work of the great Agatha Christie in a fine production of Murder on the Nile that brings together seasoned professionals with enthusiastic amateurs and a set that can’t be beat. Nanette Frew has been with The Genesian Theatre for many years and directed other performances including Twelve Angry Men and Steel Magnolias, plays that are heavy with dialogue and often involve small confined settings. She understands the importance of character background and development in plot and speech heavy plays that can leave the audience feeling fatigued and peeking at their watch. With Murder on the Nile, she’s chosen to concentrate on the speech of each character, understanding that any relationship with Agatha Christie involves the intricate listening for clues, and the piecing together of character history. Cleverly, it is not until the play is over that the audience realize there was very little movement on the stage, and this is due to the Frew’s successful emphasis on speech and voice to carry the bulk of the theatrical experience.

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Frew is able to draw fine performances from her very experienced leads, particularly Michael Barnacoat as Canon Pennyfather and Lilianna Komljenovic as Jacqueline de Severac.  Barnacoat’s experience shines through, as his entirely natural Pennyfather eases his way around the stage, completely comfortable in the formidable role of a Christie sleuth. His Pennyfather is a witty, wize slightly conniving Christie hero, keeping the audience at a distance and therefore casting some doubt on his characters integrity. Christie wrote the part in response to her friend Francis Sullivan pressure to include a priest, and in the deft hands of Barnacoat, one can’t help feeling there was some mischief on the part of Christie as she wrote a wily manipulation into the Priest’s back character. True to her promise, Frew places emphasis on this, and it is perfectly executed by Barnacoat. Pennyfather becomes a Priest whose only rule of law and honourable barometer is his conscience and we are always left in doubt about how rock solid that conscience is.

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Balancing perfectly against the overtly heterogeneous Barnacoat, is the subtly secretive Jacqueline de Severac.  In typical Christie style, if Pennyfather’s background casts some doubt over his reliability, Jacqueline’s history as the unfairly mistreated poor girl is the key to her duplicity. Komljenovic plays Jacqueline with straight forward purity, using all those feminine charms to elevate her character to the angelic. Frew presents a naive and lost Jacqueline, involving the audience completely with her difficulties, making her the well-spring of sympathies and warmth. Through Komljenovic, the tragic accidental shooting becomes something we all feel we could have done, those moments when anger takes over and an action that can’t be undone is committed. The plays psychological pivot, when Pennyfather confronts Jacqueline on her torments and misery, becomes the cementing of the audiences opinions of both, so that in the next hour, both villain and hero are masked enough to create the doubt required to have us on the edge of our seats.

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Along side the strong performances of Barnacoat and Komljenovic are a well-directed cast, clearly having a wonderful time, engaged and happy in their various roles. The standouts are Martin Estridge as William Smith who, granted gets the plays best lines, but performs them clearly and with excellent comedic timing so that none of those jewels are lost, and Ros Richards who is excellent as Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes whose name is every bit as ridiculous as her character. This character is one of the few places where Murder on the Nile has dated, and it is only with the great skill of Richards that her character becomes one of the most endearing aspects of the performance.  Richards plays her with caricature, adding humor where time has removed poignancy. Christie loved to poke fun at contemporary prejudices, often using characters like ffoliot-ffoulkes as mini social commentaries.  However, almost seventy years on, the political lesson has faded to dust, so Richards brings her alive in a campy contemporary version of a stereotype that becomes a cliché within a cliché. It’s a witty and stylish performance, that ads to the overall pleasure of Murder on the Nile.

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A shout out has to go to Owen Gimblett who has provided a clever set that never once prevents you from completely believing you are on a boat, in the 1930’s, cruising down the Nile with a bunch of strangely racist and yet endearing tourists. Many times I caught myself wondering what these rather hopeless people were going to do once they reached Wadi Halfa, and that, surely is the highest compliment you can pay a set designer.

Murder on the Nile is a lively, joyous production of an enduring play by one of the worlds greatest writers. You can grab your tickets here.

Photos courtesy of Mark Banks.

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