Flying the flag for the Queen of Crime

Ben Nealon is delighted to be doing his bit towards re-establishing Agatha Christie as the remarkable playwright she was, prolific and superbly skilled.

The Queen of Crime’s Black Coffee will be served at Brighton Theatre Royal from May 27- 31, this year’s production from the Agatha Christie Company, directed by Barnham-based Joe Harmston.

“I have been very lucky,” says Ben. “This is my seventh with the company. They have kept me very busy for the past few years. We started with The Hollow about eight years ago, and I have done seven of the nine that Joe has directed.

“What is incredible is that it shows how prolific a playwright Agatha Christie was, and how good a playwright. We have gone some way towards reinstating her reputation as one of the finest playwrights we have ever had.

“With all the ones I have done, when I have been offered a part, I have read the script and I have never known who the killer was. I think that’s the basic thing that makes her so good. She is so good at coming up with the machinations and with the intrigue. In the last seven productions, I have been killed twice and been the killer four times, but I would never have known until it is revealed.

“But the other thing that makes her so great is that she is so good at creating three-dimensional characters. She has got a bit of a reputation for not doing that, but I think it is because a lot of the amateur companies have done cut-down versions, and so you don’t get the full complexity of the characters. We do the uncut versions, and so you get the real joy of the 3D characters.

“And another thing is that she is really dealing with some very dark subjects. In this one, you have got hints about nuclear technology. There is also racism. Other plays have been about child abuse and drug abuse. People think that these plays are nice, gentle whodunnits, but they really aren’t. There is such a lot to them.”

Robert Powell stars as Poirot in Black Coffee, the only play in which Poirot features.

“This was the first play that she wrote, but the interesting thing about it is that having seen it, she didn’t believe that there was another actor that could play Poirot, and so in subsequent plays she took him out. Death On The Nile does not have Poirot.

“But this is the one play that does. We are extremely lucky to have Robert Powell in the part, and his interpretation is wonderful. He has brought to it a lovely warmth and humour that you might not have seen before. When we opened in January, there was a fair amount of trepidation, just wondering how Robert’s Poirot was going to be received, and it was great. And it is not just Poirot. There are other of Agatha Christie’s stock characters, Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings. But the reaction has been wonderful.”

Ben is delighted that the show is now heading to Brighton – for the simple reason that the theatre is seven minutes from where he lives.

“The downside to being on tour is that seeing your own bed is pretty rare. You don’t see it for more than ten to 12 weeks a year. But it is also lovely to be going back to venues that we have been to before. Some people come to the show two or three times a week. Once they know, they want to come back and see the clues. And then they think ‘Ah! Yes!’

Tickets on 0844 871 7650.