Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Give us a break

Ten strangers having a black-tie dinner in an airport lounge. That’s the opening tableau of And Then There Were None. The airport lounge turns out to be a posh house on a tiny island to which the guests have been invited by an absent puppet-master named U.N. Owen. Speaking from a pre-recorded LP, the mysterious host accuses each diner of having committed a murder. Naturally, they deny the allegations. It’s not exactly a frisky opening. Ten charges, ten rebuttals. The play silts up in a stream of explanatory jabber. Then the bumpings-off start. A chortling fool drops dead in a pool of jam. The maid is throttled during an afternoon catnap. A white-haired booby gets Trotskied with a pick-axe. Each death prompts a panicky discussion which is interrupted by another death, so the play settles into a flat, nervy rhythm — chat, poisoning, chat, stabbing, chat, shooting, chat, chopping. You long for a mass suicide to speed things up.

Kevin Elyot’s script is vague on place and time (England, 1940s, I’d guess) and scuppers itself with Nineties slang like ‘barking’ and ‘skinful’. More to the point, he can’t decide whether to honour Agatha Christie’s original or jeer at it. One actor, in particular, makes strenuous efforts to mock his role but the audience declines to respond. If the territory is worth visiting at all, it’s worth respecting. The show is hampered by a huge and gruesomely plain set which seems to suck all the performances into its soaring white spaces. In Row K, I felt I was watching far-off mice scurrying around a lab. Once half the cast is dead, things pick up. The play’s premise is original and ingenious: every character is murderer, suspect, victim and culprit, and with the cast reduced to five the suspense becomes genuine, the friction palpable.

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