Murder, Margaret & Me, Kings Theatre Southsea, until Saturday, November 9.
Dame Agatha Christie famously considered Margaret Rutherford absolutely wrong as Miss Marple in the film franchise; slightly less famously, Dame Margaret considered it all rather sordid and was driven to it by the taxman.
And that’s the intriguing starting point for playwright Philip Meeks – a documented antipathy which he turns into an imagined friendship, which he draws out around the sadness he detects at the heart of both of them.
But Agatha will be Agatha – and for the most part, until sincerity takes over, she’s driven by curiosity, sensing a great, tragic secret enveloping Dame Margaret’s past. In reality, her sleuthing is Agatha’s way of not facing up to her own secret, the real story behind her ten-day 1926 “disappearance” which had thousands of volunteers scouring the country looking for her.
And this is where Meeks’ play, in its second half, is undoubtedly at its strongest, Lin Blakley excellent as Agatha Christie teasing out Dame Margaret’s past while tormented by her own.
But in truth, there’s no getting away from the fact that the play is just too slight for the venue, as a dismally-small rainy Monday night audience testified.
Really we should have been in studio theatre territory in search of a much more intimate theatrical experience. And we should have been enjoying a much trimmer, tauter version of the play, shorn of scenes and exchanges which seem too much like padding.
Things improve considerably after the interval, but the whole could do with some serious pruning. It’s too long to be so static – and cries out for much greater intensity. When the two Dames give us their guide to marriage, it all becomes a bit too bizarre.
But that’s not to say Blakley doesn’t give a fine performance. She really does. And Gilly Tompkins, particularly as Miss Marple, is similarly impressive.
There is also much skill in Sarah Parks’ portrayal of Margaret Rutherford, but while you can see precisely why she latches on to the instantly recognisable Rutherford mannerisms, they mean – with her softer delivery – that you have to concentrate just that bit too hard to follow what she is saying. Ironically, less Rutherford would have brought greater clarity.
The whole thing starts with the most fascinating of premises, but it’s not quite fully realised.