Review: Agatha Christie’s Love From A Stranger, Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham (June 19-23)

Love from a Stranger - Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum (c) Sheila Burnett

Love from a Stranger - Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum (c) Sheila Burnett - Credit: Archant

There are two sets of dupes needed for a cracking psychological drama – the dupes on stage; and those in the audience. Katie Jarvis is a very happy dupe

Love from a Stranger - Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum (c) Sheila Burnett

Love from a Stranger - Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum (c) Sheila Burnett - Credit: Archant

You know that psychopath you socialise with from time to time? Well, no – obviously you don’t. I mean, you know them; but you’ve no idea they’re a psychopath.

What you do know is that they’re charming; excitingly unpredictable; engagingly mysteriously.

What you don’t know is that they are a manipulative, pathological, dangerous liar. (Don’t judge; we all have our peccadillos.)

And that they’re (possibly) plotting your utter, ruinous downfall.

Could be that they’re your boss. (Don’t want to alarm you here but CEOs and lawyers (yeah, yeah; don’t act all surprised) are jobs with huge psycho appeal.)

Could be that they’re your gorgeous new fiancé, whom you met a bare few weeks ago right after your huge lottery win (coincidence), and who utterly, completely swept you off your feet…

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…Which is pretty much the plot of Love From A Stranger: the deep, dark, menacing tale, played out on stage to the script of Frank Vosper (more in a mo), adapted from a short story by old Agatha herself.

And what a delicious experience this is. If a play can be a psychopath, then Lucy Bailey’s production scores high on the Robert Hare Psychopathy Checklist. Barely pausing for breath, it bombards you with words, charms you with its likeable characters; then swipes you with moments of such blackness, you can barely make out your hands as they rise to cover your face.

Love from a Stranger - Sam Frenchum and Helen Bradbury (c) Sheila Burnett

Love from a Stranger - Sam Frenchum and Helen Bradbury (c) Sheila Burnett - Credit: Archant

The drama unfolds as Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury whom, I confess, I began by thinking wooden; but she knew exactly what she was doing) is packing up her flat, with the help of sensible friend Mavis (Alice Haig), and interfering (just doing her utmost to combine auntly duties with a good Harrods lunch) Aunt Lulu (Nicola Sanderson). Cecily should be having a blast (Lucy’s production is 1950s, just so you know): she’s just won a staggering £25,000 (fact-check from wiki: the average wage was a tenner a week), and her fiancé Michael (a dapper Justin Avoth) is returning from three years in The Sudan, ready (finally) to marry her.

But all is not well.

Cecily has already written her Dear John note (not even a letter, by the look of the size of paper). She’s had enough of her dull office job and her tediously dependable fiancé. She’s had enough of settling for a tepid romance; she’s yearning for adventure.

Cue: Bruce Lovell (a wonderfully psychopathic Sam Frenchum, perfect in all but his odd hair, which (from where I was sitting) erred too dramatically on the Trumpian side for my taste)). He’s ostensibly a prospective tenant for her flat: young, handsome (except ref the hair), and exciting. She’s hooked. When he tells her, within minutes, that he’s just experienced a coup de foudre – he loves her! – Cecily feels he’s everything she’s been looking for. (Hey! Defo so long, Michael!)

But what Cecily hasn’t seen, we have. We’ve peaked at new arrival Bruce sniffing at her underwear as she’s distracted elsewhere; taking sneaky pics of her bedroom.

And that’s the beauty of Love From A Stranger. There’s no attempt to hide the psychopath in plain sight. But don’t think that means there aren’t surprises in store…

So let’s step outside this mesmerizingly claustrophobic drama for one second – straight into a couple of others. Christie published the short story Philomel Cottage – from which this play originates – back in 1934 and followed it with a theatre adaptation that tickled no one’s particular fancy. Then Frank Vosper picked it up – already making a name as an actor – rewriting it with himself in lead role.

The West End loved it, and it transferred to New York, where it didn’t do quite so well. On the ocean liner home – after a swinging party held by Miss Muriel Oxford (Miss Great Britain 1936) – Frank disappeared. Some newspapers reported that he’d threatened to end his own life if Miss Oxford refused to marry him: a claim that Miss Oxford (and the many who knew that Frank was gay) strenuously denied. Certainly, his body was found, drowned; he was just 37.

And there’s another mystery, too. For Agatha, in her 1934 story, effectively defined an as-then-unknown disorder to perfection. Yet it would be another seven years before the medical profession itself officially recognised psychopathy.

We know it now – at least in theory. And Lucy Bailey’s clever, perceptive, atmospheric adaptation – with its shifting perspectives (literally – the stage moves); its silent, watching figures; its lights and its darks; its incessant chatter counterpointing the underlying silence - will dupe you. As much as it dupes those characters on stage.

Depending on how you score on the official Psychopathy Checklist, you’ll be horrified, entertained...or inspired.

Love From A Stranger will run from Tuesday June 19 to Saturday June 23.

To book tickets, visit the Everyman Theatre website or call the Box Office on 01242 572573.