Review - Love From A Stranger at Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love From A Stranger. Picture by Sheila Burnett
Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love From A Stranger. Picture by Sheila Burnett

Anyone expecting a slightly quaint genteel whodunnit will probably be disappointed by this mostly forgotten Agatha Christie yarn.

For there is not a wiff of a cucumber sandwich or gentlemen sipping cocktails on a garden lawn while there is Murder Most Foul. Instead, it's a replaced with a sinister sense of foreboding, deeply disturbing and with plenty of action.

Love From A Stranger sees Helen Bradbury's Cecily Harrington renting out her flat when the American Bruce Lovell walks into see the place. She's supposed to be marrying the safe choice of Michael, but ends up going off with Bruce. Everything seems hunky dory, except there are a few things that begin to play on Cecily's mind.

There's a perverse atmosphere throughout this show. Helped by Mike Britton's cleverly designed set, which while must have been a challenge to stage, is one he has risen to magnificently. Parts of the stage slide off almost slowly, eerie which helps to create a sense of unease in what is a relatively polite sitting room. But he really earns his salary with the set for the second act, which takes a quiet country cottage and turns it into almost a place worthy of a nightmare. Helped with some very clever lighting.

There is somewhat a tendency to overplay Agatha Christie material. Going too much with the spiffing and politeness. However, like the recent adaptations of And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution on the BBC during the last few festive periods, the cast here take the material absolutely straight, and play it with genuine conviction.

Cecily Harrington is given such life by Helen Bradbury that you never think she's the weak minded woman tied to the railway tracks waiting for the cackling villain. Justin Avoth is stoic as the jilted Michael while Aice Haig and Nicola Sanderson give just about enough comedy and gumption to portray the worried Mavis and the concerned Aunt Louise respectively.

Sam Frenchum's Bruce Lovell is truly an excellent villain. It's not a spoiler to ruin it for it is clear from the moment of his first entrance, his obsession with Cecily's bedroom that he's quite clearly going to go rogue. But rather than playing it with over the top relish, he underplays the part beautifully making for a truly chilling performance. All it takes is a little bit of extra make up and the charm disappears. He becomes a monster, a menace, one to rival the masters of the macabre mentioned in the programme.

I have to admit, I enjoy the Agatha Christie plays and their traditional trappings and trying to work out who did it. With that in mind I was looking forward to this. What I ended up seeing was a piece so suspenseful, I could have sworn that Alfred Hitchcock had come back from the grave to direct this piece of theatre. Which probably would have been very apt for this piece.

Love From A Stranger can be seen at Northampton's Royal & Derngate until Saturday March 17. It then goes out on tour. For further information or to book tickets visit here or call the box office on 01604 624811. To find out further dates on the tour visit here.