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BWW Review: LOVE FROM A STRANGER at Howick Little Theatre


BWW Review: LOVE FROM A STRANGER at Howick Little Theatre

Love From A Stranger

By Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper

Reviewed by Glenda Pearce

Stranger Danger

How many times as a child were you warned about strangers? The opening night of "Love from a Stranger" at Howick Little Theatre reminds us that we need to be very mindful about what we wish for, and to be very careful of a tall, brooding, handsome stranger who brings a romantic passionate whirlwind.

Love From A Stranger is an adaptation by Agatha Christie co-written with Frank Vosper (as a vehicle for himself as an actor) which draws both on Christie's earlier play, The Stranger and her short story Philomel Cottage (1924) . As such it's indubitably a classic piece of 1930s mystery thriller. It is long (nearly 3 hours) and somewhat drawn out. Christie often paces her dramas carefully, allowing the audience to grasp the hints. Stylistically, she relies heavily on dialogue to vary the pacing of the story as well as to heighten suspense. It's important to keep the pace of the dialogue quick and to punctuate this with longer pauses when necessary. In this case, we do know the villain by the end of Act 1, and Act 2 and 3 serve to confirm our suspicions. Agatha Christie fans will know what to expect.

Today's audience's might find the play more wordy than contemporary writing. Unlike modern theatre, we do not get directly addressed - but rather are visual "readers", watching the plot unfold. Despite that, we can appreciate the skilled direction of Laurie Mills, with his expertise in period pieces. There is well-positioned use of stage space, and character placement with superb use of dramatic exits and entrances. The audience can delight in many of the lines: "Beavers aren't great conversationalists", "the strange sound of thrill", " a woman's weakness is a man's opportunity', and "I would never be a man risking his life on a woman's silence."

Consistently superb performances from experienced actors, astutely and attractively costumed, with imaginative set design, precision staging and well-lit, this is a show well worth viewing. The set design (David Gilford) is both period based and imaginative. The first act it is a 1936 London maisonette, with use of rear openings cleverly employed to lead into offstage bedrooms, kitchen and dining room. In the second half, the set transforms to the brightly coloured happy décor of an isolated country cottage in rural England - complete with an ominous cellar, and stairs to an upper floor. Atmospheric lighting (Rory Janssen) and sound (Andrew Gordon) captures the eerie doings - and foreshadows the psychological deterioration of the serial killer.

Middle class, hardworking girl, Cecily Harrington (Philippa Hibbs) is both beautiful and credibly naive. She's been engaged , without any great passion, to Nigel Lawrence (Matthew Cousins) for five years, and due to his military career, hasn't seen him for three years. After winning a large amount of money, she now yearns for life, adventure and passion. She's decided to call the wedding off. Her friend, Mavis Wilson (Rosheen Leslie) uses her resonant tones, expressive face and quick responses, to point out a wiser version of real life to Cecily - telling her to be careful of the "fictitious ideals".

Enter the slightly shifty, smooth talking "American" Bruce Lovell (Erik van der Wijdeven), who strikes the audience as "not quite what he seems to be" from his initial scenes, and easily manipulates Cecily to marry him, and sign over her money to him. Costuming ((Judy Rankin) metaphorically shows how he's in "borrowed robes" in the first Act, with an ill- fitting jacket. It's not until the final (extremely tense) scene of the play that we can appreciate the intensity of the sadistic mind of a serial killer and the extremes to which the power of suggestion can be pushed.

An outstanding performance came from Catherine Maunsell as Louise Garrard (Aunty loo- Loo) whose comic timing, upbeat energy and enthusiasm for Cecily's upcoming reunion with her fiancé́ engage the audience in the opening act. Catherine brings a vitality to Aunty Loo- Loo, always well-intentioned, but not always tactful, and her stream-of-consciousness no matter what's actually happening is one of the highlights of the play. Her internalized emotions are played out to the audience so that we feel included in her various complexities. Aunty Loo-Loo is full of nostalgia for her own thwarted romantic life. World War 1 robbed many young women of their romantic dreams.

The supporting characters in the play were entirely convincing in their roles, often contributing a tonal range of light and shade to the dialogue and a realistic contrast to the sinister action. Matthew Cousins was sincere and true-to-life as the soldier, Nigel, disappointed in love. His dry humour was effective and his resonant voice worked well in Act 2 and 3 where we saw the debonair and handsome potential of the jilted fiancé́. Dr. Gribble (Andrew Maher), Hodgson (Barrie Graham) and Ethel (Shelby Sparks) all rounded out their minor roles, so they were genuine, endearing and believable personalities.

Howick Little Theatre is one of the three North Island theatres currently open for business. Book early - it's proving popular. This is a professionally delivered and well- directed production that will reward the audience who enjoys this classic genre.

The play runs July 11 - August 1.
Book online at or phone 361 1000.

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From This Author Glenda Pearce