The Bitter Taste of ‘Black Coffee’

Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee

Bill Kenwright Ltd, starring Robert Powell

UK Tour 2014

It is somewhat dispiriting to arrive at the theatre having spent months arguing the case for the multi-generational appeal of Christie, only to find the entire theatre full of over-65s.

Not pictured: hyoscine

Not pictured: hyoscine

We need little explanation as to why Black Coffee comes on tour now: with the end of the fourteen-year run of ITV’s Poirot, the release of Suchet’s Poirot and Me and the announcement of a new Poirot novel by thriller writer Sophie Hannah, the Belgian detective is currently in vogue. But there is one insurmountable problem with the touring production: Black Coffee is not a very good play.

It was Christie’s first, and the learning curve is obvious. As with a lot of early Christie, the plot includes spies and international intrigue despite the fact that Christie simply isn’t very good at writing about spies or international intrigue. And what she is good at – subtle foreshadowing, surprising the audience – doesn’t really come into play here. Sir Claud Amory, amoral scientist (see what she did there) is working on a mysterious and dangerous formula which – gasp! – is quickly stolen. Meanwhile, beautiful young girls are being threatened and shady Italians turn up on the scene for no apparent reason. This is best exemplified in the manner of the murder itself.  About ten minutes in, the characters take down a black briefcase from the top of a bookshelf, which transpires to be medical supplies from back in the war. They open it, and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ wide-eyed over the glass bottles inside. One character asks if these are at all dangerous; Mysterious Foreigner Dr Carelli laughs mysteriously, with a line that can only be rendered as:

 “Ahaha. This alone can kill ten men. Ahahaha.”

It’s not so much Chekhov’s gun as Chekhov’s howitzer. The only way the manner of Sir Claud’s death could possibly come as a surprise after this is if he were killed by being hit over the head with the damn case.  The entirety of Act One is spent bringing the characters up to speed with what the audience have guessed in the first five minutes, with its savvier members spending the time wondering if they’ve gone to the wrong theatre and this is actually the Christie play where the audience know who killed ’em and have to watch the characters guess.

Note that this is not a criticism of Christie, rather a criticism of the production company who decided that this was the best play to stage. Yet there is one, slightly unexpected, beacon in the dark. And that beacon is Poirot himself.

When we think of our favourite Belgian, the image that springs into mind is that of David Suchet, for fourteen years the face of Poirot. Suchet owns the role, and at the beginning Black Coffee doesn’t seem too keen to disassociate itself, with the chords that accompany the curtain-up sounding a little familiar. And then Poirot arrives with the face of Robert Powell.

It’s initially amusing to see Poirot played by an actor who, in the immortal words of Wikipedia, is best known for playing “Jesus and Richard Hannay” but then he’s also an actor who boasts of not having read a single Christie bar The Mysterious Affair At Styles and describes it as “not my thing, really”. Should this man step into the shoes of Suchet, the man who practiced walking with a coin between the buttocks to get the mince right?

“Suppose, Hastings…just suppose…”

Yet this ignorance, if it is ignorance, can only have been a good thing. Powell acts Poirot completely differently but, like Suchet, he takes him a step in the right direction. Powell does not play Poirot as cosy, comforting, comedic but with ice. Watching Powell on stage you get the feeling, that you never quite got with Suchet, that this is a man five times cleverer than everyone else in the room and knows it, a man eagerly manipulating, even toying with, the emotions of the suspects until he finds the answer, a man who almost seems not to care that a man is dead because it’s all a feature in his puzzle. Everyone else in the cast is playing for Sunday evening comfort television, with clichéd characters, easy jokes, and dear God we didn’t need to see the fifty-something Hastings smitten with a twenty-year old girl. Everyone but Powell, who plays Poirot like the puppet-master he is, with a remoteness that even Suchet never quite gave to the character.

And it is this that makes the whole worth watching. After the death of Sir Claud the audience sigh as his sister, Caroline Amory, patiently waits her turn to scream and mourn; but then everything is saved as she turns to Poirot and says that at least Cook had prepared his favourite dinner that night. “I am sure that will be a great comfort to you, Madam,” Poirot replies with crushing condescension, and the world is okay again. His reaction when both the Young Lovers confess their involvement in the crime is worth the price of admission alone, and the change from the icy, almost cruel Poirot we see in the first few scenes to the compassionate father figure defending the young is all Powell, not Christie, but it is wonderful to behold nonetheless.

It’s paint-by-numbers Christie, and she can be so much more. But, that said, it’s a lovely evening and a damn good Poirot.

Who cares that he doesn’t mince right?