Love from a Stranger review at Royal and Derngate, Northampton – ‘a taut thriller’
Agatha Christie knew how to keep an audience on its toes. The art of concealment is key to this: what you keep from an audience is as important as what you tell them. This is certainly true of Christie’s 1936 play, Love from a Stranger, directed by Lucy Bailey, whose staging of Witness for the Prosecution is still running at London’s County Hall.
Having recently won big in the sweepstakes, Cecily (Helen Bradbrury) decides to call off her long-delayed marriage to her dependable fiance Michael. She craves adventure not domesticity in Wimbledon. Her wish is granted when Bruce (Sam Frenchum), a well-travelled American, shows up at her flat and starts saying all the things she wants to hear. He persuades her to leave her old life behind and move with him to a remote country cottage.
The play is based on Christie’s short story, Philomel Cottage. She adapted it for the stage, but the actor and writer Frank Vosper, who had his eyes on the plum part of Bruce, revised her version in order that he could star in it himself. The result is a taut thriller that pulls off an exciting narrative rug-pull towards the end.
For much of its run time, the play – relocated in time to the 1950s – is a fairly nuanced study of a manipulative and controlling relationship. Bruce isolates Cecily, emotionally and geographically. He objects to them having visitors. He micro-manages her time. He says things like: “I resent anyone who keeps me from being with you.”
Bailey gradually ramps up the tension and claustrophobia. Having also previously directed both Dial M for Murder and Gaslight, she’s on familiar ground. Peeping Tom, Michael Powell’s deeply unsettling study of voyeurism, is cited as an influence and Mike Britton’s teal set, with its sliding walls and translucent panels, allows ample opportunity for Bruce to be glimpsed listening at doors or hovering at the top of the stairs. The pretty cottage becomes increasingly ominous, red light seeping through the walls.
The cast’s grasp of the material and how to pitch it is uniformly strong. Though some of the riper lines are delivered with a sliver of knowingness, this never trips over into parody. This is particularly true of Nicola Sanderson as Cecily’s snobbish Aunt Lulu, a woman easily distracted by the prospect of tea at Fortnum’s,
Bradbury makes it feel plausible that sensible Cecily might fall for too-good-to-be-true Bruce, while Frenchum’s initially disarming facade shifts into something more sinister. Both clearly relish the moment when their characters’ masks drop.
It’s a neatly structured piece, with a tight grip and a suitably nasty pay off. But it’s the play’s depiction of psychological abuse and emotional manipulation that really impresses.