If you’ve seen one Agatha Christie murder mystery on stage, you really, really haven’t seen them all. In her rarely produced The Hollow, now enjoying a stylish revival at Cortland Repertory Theatre, Dame Agatha cuts back on the bloodshed but steers toward greater psychological development. One reason for this difference is that The Hollow
was originally a novel (1946), allowing her to answer critics that her characterization was too thin. This means more than the usual exposition in the first act but no diminution of suspense.
The stage version, originally titled Murder at the Vicarage, was a huge success when it opened during the Festival of Britain in 1951. So much so that Christie was prompted to write The Mousetrap, which opened the next year and never closed. For Christie buffs the two plays are thought to be related. For the rest of us this is a chance to catch up on a rarity.
The discarded title for the stage play, Murder at the Vicarage, is worth remembering because it prompted the famous essay on Christie, “The Guilty Vicarage,” by highbrow poet and critic W.H. Auden. Christie’s observations on class differences and gender abrasions, often treated lightly in murder mysteries, are portrayed in greater depth here. In this play, then, we get a better grip on what the novelist-playwright only hints at elsewhere.
It should also be noted straightaway that there is one huge difference between the 1946 novel and the 1951 stage play: Hercule Poirot. The celebrated Belgian detective made an early appearance in the novel, but he is absent from the play. Not bumped off but deleted, gone. Just as Arthur Conan Doyle temporarily tired of Sherlock Holmes, so Christie had grown weary of her snail-eating sleuth.
This is not mere petulance, however; Christie knew what she was doing. She also knew the difference between the page and the stage. There might be room for such a pungent character as Poirot, garlic and all, in the novel, but he’s too distracting in a two-hour work where focus is better served on the denizens of the vicarage, which is called “The Hollow,” 18 miles from London.
Instead of a private detective, the truth-seekers are a man from Scotland Yard, Inspector Colquhoun (Brian Alan Hill), and his uniformed sidekick with a working-class accent, Sergeant Penny (Christopher Collins). The characters were renamed and somewhat expended from the novel. As the Inspector and the Sergeant have less shtick than other characters, director Jim Bumgardner and actors Hill and Collins do nice jobs of rounding them out. Hill’s Inspector, an empathetic listener, responds to each revelation with humorous irony without going so far as to steal a scene.
Despite the 1951 opening, much conversation in The Hollow is directed toward the immediate post-war environment of 1946, with much gratuitous criticism of the then-new Labour government. The lure of Hollywood glamour lurks just offstage. And as government-sponsored Public Health had not yet kicked in, Christie seems to be fostering a resentment of the still-private medical system, where arrogant doctors had more money in their pockets than other professionals or even the landed gentry.
As Auden pointed out, in the ideal Christie drama disparate persons who nonetheless know each other should assemble in an isolated country house for the weekend, on whatever pretense. The hosts at the Hollow are solid Sir Henry Angkatell (Dale Young) and his flibbertigibbet wife Lady Lucy (Mary Williams). Silly women who spout nonsense are Christie favorites, and they can always be counted on to be more perceptive than they sound, regardless of their likelihood of being the killer. Actress Williams, a Cortland Rep favorite, fondly remembered for her Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks two summers ago, is the major comic presence in The Hollow, and we can’t get enough of her.
Before we get into the dynamics of the different guests, we are given much attention to a portrait of the luxurious county house, Ainswick, once inhabited by Lady Lucy, whose esteem elicits praise and even toasts. Without giving away any of the plot, it appears that the house is a spoof of the mansions appearing in acclaimed novels of previous years, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Ainswick belongs to its current resident, cousin Edward Angkatell (Dylan Schwartz-Wallach), a handsome but troubled young man. Edward is in love with a distant cousin, Henrietta (Melissa Herion), a beautiful, slightly older sculptor, who is a resident in the Hollow before the action begins. There is no chance Edward is going to make any time with Henrietta because she is the mistress (“mistress not lover”) of Dr. Cristow, who has yet to arrive. Complicating the love vectors is yet another cousin, Midge Henry (Avery Epstein), who is smitten with Edward. Midge, the first guest to arrive, has suffered fallen social circumstances and now works in a shop and must comply with the timetables of her employer. More aware of popular culture than others, Midge announces that Veronica Craye, an English girl made good in Hollywood, has taken a cottage nearby.
Making a late arrival after we have heard them discussed unfavorably are haughty Dr. John Cristow (Dustin Charles) and his nave, childlike wife Gerda (Phyllis Gordon). It’s a wonder they were ever married in the first place. Dr. John, who could have been borrowed from the plays of Clifford Odets, quickly establishes himself as one of the most insufferable creatures in the entire Christie canon. On his vocation: “Diseases are interesting—not patients,” and, “I don’t cure people; I give only faith, hope and a little laxative.” When Henrietta (not yet revealed as Dr. John’s mistress) gives long-suffering Gerda a statuette for which she had posed, the husband oozes disdain for it.
Also present in the Hollow are two servants, a cadaverous, appropriately suspicious butler, Gudgeon (Mark Mason), and a saucy, talkative maid named Doris (Alexa Shanahan), who speaks in a bubbly working-class accent. Arriving when she’s least wanted is the movie star Veronica Craye (Charlotte Fox), who has embarrassing and upsetting secrets to share and well as demands to make.
Now that Christie has been studied so closely, many of her secrets are out. Most of her plots are constructed like algebra problems, e.g. who is where at what time, with the characters sketched in later. Not so here. What makes The Hollow interesting is that without sacrificing any suspense, or dispensing with her usual red herrings, Christie provides more psychological footing for justifiable homicide.
Cortland Repertory is the only regional company to serve up these Christie crowd-pleasers, and they really have perfected the light touch. Director Jim Bumgardner knows when to give and when to take. Jonathan Wentz’s scenic design gives us a slightly more chic Britain than existed under rationing with the Atlee government, just as Wendi Zea’s costumes depict the well-born Aristocrats as Anglophiles in the audience would like to see them. Thanks also to dialect coach Dustin Charles (doubling as Dr. John) for the variety of accents. Henry Higgins would have approved. ο
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 11. See Times Table for information.