Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee – Review

Mar 25 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩   Classic, classy Christie

Liza Goddard (Miss Caroline Amory) and Robert Powell (Hercule Poirot) in Black Coffee. Photo © Keith Pattison

Liza Goddard and Robert Powell. Photo © Keith Pattison

King’s Theatre
Mon 24 – Sat 29 March 2014
Review by Martin Gray

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company, last seen presenting Go Back For Murder at the King’s in 2013, returns to Edinburgh with the only stage play the Queen of Crime wrote featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

And he has plenty of opportunity to flex those ‘little grey cells’ in a country house mystery which begins with an inventor and his stolen explosive formula. Said boffin, Sir Claud Amory, is swiftly dispatched while inviting his family and guests to return the paper, with poisoned coffee causing an apparent heart attack.

Soon Poirot and chum Captain Hastings are on the case, swimming through a sea of red herrings on their way to unmasking the culprit.

All the usual suspects are here: a woman with a secret in her past; a gaggle of heirs; the smooth secretary; a bally foreigner and, of course, the butler. Christie choreographs her characters through a typically twisting, yet fair-play plot, putting the spotlight of suspicion on each in turn.

While each of her players is, at base, a cog in a fiendish plot machine, she invests them with enough individuality to make them believable people rather than simple archetypes. And skilful playing brings them to life before our eyes.

While Gary Mavers and Olivia Mace, as Italians Lucia and Dr Carelli,  forget to do-a the accent once or twice, their overall strong playing and considerable charm sees them get away with it. And of course, it makes you wonder if they’re actually only pretending to be Italians within the play, adding an extra layer to the fun.

Felicity Houlbrooke is terrific as Sir Claude’s niece Barbara, the familiar fizzy ingenue with a taste for sensation, and her scenes with Robin McCallum as Hastings – to whom she takes a shine – are a hoot, even as they advance the story. McCallum’s mix of embarrassment, awkwardness and Tigger-like enthusiasm is truly impressive.

Liza Goddard could play Aunt Caroline, who’s dotty – ah, but is she really? – in her sleep, but she has enough respect for the audience, and her craft, not to. As a veteran star, Goddard might try a bit of scene stealing, but instead she’s a pitch perfect ensemble player.

While he’s not on stage for long, I did like Ric Recate as manipulative patriarch Sir Claud. I also liked Eric Carte as Inspector Japp. Frankly, I couldn’t choose between them …

Ben Nealon has a tough role. As Sir Claud’s son, Richard, he has to play sympathetically supportive husband to chief suspect Lucia while also seeming a credible cad. Happily, Nealon is up to the challenge.

“you can see the legendary brain cells at work”

The rest of the ensemble jolly the show along nicely, with Martin Carroll in particular, as the fabulously grumpy butler Tredwell, making the most of his stage time.

The ensemble, but who did it? Photo © Keith Pattison

The ensemble, but who did it? Photo © Keith Pattison

And at the centre of it all there’s Poirot, in the form of Robert Powell – a slightly bigger form than usual, thanks to judicious padding that gives him the Belgian’s distinctive silhouette. Powell plays Poirot as slightly less cartoony than Poirot-for-a-generation David Suchet, making him more believable. Whereas the TV Poirot seems to be a savant, here you can see the legendary brain cells at work.

But Suchet, having committed to growing his own, has the better moustache.

Still, you can’t have everything, and this is a very watchable Poirot, wrangling his suspects with quiet glee. The partnership with the frankly dim Hastings works well – by the close of the action you can see why the detective keeps him around. Plus, the pairing allows Christie to insert some smart gags.

Director Joe Harmston doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are no showy moments of stagecraft, no winking at the audience – he serves the text with rock solid, quietly stylish direction and the production works from beginning to end.

The world inhabited by Poirot and co is utterly convincing, from the gorgeous Art Deco set to the eye candy costumes worn by both sexes – kudos to designer Simon Scullion and costume designer Nikki Bird.

Black Coffee is classic Christie given a classy treatment. If you’re at all a fan of whodunits, it’s not to be missed.

Running time 2 hrs 10 mins
Run ends Saturday 29 March 2014
Daily 7.30pm; Matinee Weds, Sat 2.30pm.
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tickets from
Tour website:

Black CoffeeChristie’s first stage play, was written in 1929 as a result of her disappointment at the portrayal of Poirot in Alibi, Michael Morton’s 1928 play based on her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. After her death, Black Coffee was novelised by Charles Osbourne. Click on the images above to purchase script and novelisation from Amazon.

Black Coffee on tour:

24-29 Mar 2014 Edinburgh
Kings Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
31 Mar-5 Apr 2014 York
Grand Opera House
0844 871 3024 Book online
7-12 Apr 2014 Malvern
Festival Theatre
01684 892 277 Book online
14-19 Apr 2014 Truro
Hall For Cornwall
01872 262466 Book online
22-26 Apr 2014 Guildford
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
01483 44 00 00 Book online
28 Apr-3 May 2014 Milton Keynes
Milton Keynes Theatre
0844 871 7652 Book online
6-10 May 2014 Coventry
Belgrade Theatre
024 7655 3055 Book online
12-17 May 2014 Billingham
Forum Theatre
01642 552663 Book online
19-24 May 2014 Blackpool
Grand Theatre
01253 74 33 46 Book online
27-31 May 2014 Brighton
Theatre Royal
0844 871 7650 Book online
3-7 Jun 2014 Croydon
Ashcroft Theatre
020 8688 9291 Book online
9-14 Jun 2014 Cheltenham
Everyman Theatre
01242 572573 Book online
23-28 Jun 2014 Dublin
Bord Gais Theatre
+353 (1) 677 7999 Book online
30 Jun-5 Jul 2014 Shrewsbury
Severn Theatre
01743 281 281 Book online
7-12 Jul 2014 Birmingham
Alexandra Theatre
0844 871 3011 Book online
14-19 Jul 2014 Newcastle
Theatre Royal
0844 811 2121 Book online
14-19 Jul 2014 Newcastle
Theatre Royal
08448 11 21 21 Book online
1-6 Sep 2014 Swindon
Wyvern Theatre
01793 524 481 Book online
8-13 Sep 2014 Swansea
Grand Theatre
01792 475715 Book online
15-20 Sep 2014 Torquay
Princess Theatre
0844 871 3023 Book online
22-27 Sep 2014 Darlington
Civic Theatre
01325 486555 Book online
29 Sep-4 Oct 2014 Chesterfield
01246 345222 Book online
6-11 Oct 2014 Bromley
Churchill Theatre
0844 871 7620 Book online
20-25 Oct 2014 Aberdeen
His Majesty’s Theatre
01224 641122 Book online
27 Oct-1 Nov 2014 New Brighton
Floral Pavilion
0151 666 0000 Book online
10-11 Nov 2014 Crewe
Lyceum Theatre
01270 368 242 Book online


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