Black Coffee by Agatha Christie at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, January 25.

17:10 23 January 2014

Agatha Christie’s first play, featuring the detective Hercule Poirot, is a jolly little romp with a bit of brain teaser and quite a few good lines.

You always need plenty of red on your lips, says the flapper, Barbara Amory (Felicity Houlbrooke), because you don’t know how much you will lose in the taxi on the way home.

You English and your open air, laments Poirot (Robert Powell). You never leave it in the open.

However, some of the performances in this production are about the standard that most families would reach with a mystery murder game. There is an awful lot of acting acting. Very little evidence of research into anyone’s character, or the period of the 1930s, how people walked or spoke. Yes, this play is light-hearted, it has no heavy message and is not meant to rip into your soul, but the audience has still paid for its seats. We do expect more than saying the lines and not bumping into the furniture.

We are told that the characters, Lucia Amory and Dr Carelli, (Olivia Mace and Gary Mavers) are Italian but they must have been in England long enough to have lost their accents. Speaking like a European isn’t just a matter of changing your vowels. The stresses are on different syllables and with Italian speakers, the last consonant is often emphasized to the point of adding on a vowel that isn’t there.

The production is saved by Robert Powell’s sheer force of personality and comic timing and by strong performances from Robin McCallum as Hastings, Eric Carte as Inspector Japp and Mark Jackson as Edward Raynor.

Mostly, it’s a case of black coffee and slaps around the face.

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