True to its title, the Agatha Christie mystery Black Coffee, the flagship production of Royal MTC’s Master Playwright Festival, is a dark and stimulating piece of theatre.
First produced in 1930, Christie’s theatrical debut seems to be a little dated with its drawing-room setting and its quaint, mannered characters. Yet the play’s McGuffin (the Hitchcockian term for the single object that drives the action) is a formula for an explosive that can wipe out populations by the tens of thousands, according to its fiercely autocratic inventor, Sir Claude Amory (Ross McMillan). So... points to Christie for presaging the nuclear race a decade-and-a-half before it became reality, not to mention her authoritative knowledge of narcotics and poisons.
When Amory’s valuable formula goes missing, the bullying scientist orders everyone in his house to assemble in the cavernous locked drawing room (an especially rich and impressive piece of set design by Brian Perchaluk). Having invited master detective Hercule Poirot (Lorne Kennedy) to the posh Abbot’s Cleve estate, Amory has the lights turned off so the guilty party might return the stolen item without consequence. But that plan doesn’t work out, and by the time Poirot arrives on the scene with his guileless associate Captain Arthur Hastings (Arne MacPherson), there is a murder to be solved, as well as a theft.
The suspects will ring familiar variations-on-an-archetype to anyone who followed the PBS series Poirot. Sir Claude’s impoverished son, Richard (Derek Moran), may have a money motive. Richard’s Italian émigré wife, Lucia (Claire Armstrong), is visibly distraught prior to the theft, possibly the result of the disturbing presence of a sinister visitor from Italy, Dr. Carelli (Omar Alex Khan). Less suspicious, but no less likely (in the Christie canon, anyway) possibilities include Sir Claude’s fusspot sister Caroline (Mariam Bernstein), his scandalously forthright niece Barbara (Daria Puttaert), his spinsterish assistant Edwina (Miriam Smith) and, of course, his imperturbable butler Tredwell (Andrew Cecon).
The play’s three-act structure may throw audiences for a loop in that the intermission comes after the first act, a mere 40 minutes in. Director Ann Hodges set a zingy pace for the remainder of the two acts, artfully blending comedy with suspense in one big handsome package.
Bernstein is notably funny in a role of a "foreigner"-averse xenophobe who nonetheless finds herself sweet on our Belgian sleuth. MacPherson gets laughs as a mature man turned into a lovelorn schoolboy by the wiles of the sophisticated Barbara. McMillan, doing double-duty, also appears as Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard, a no-nonsense cop who makes a fine earthy foil to the unfailingly cerebral Poirot.
Kennedy does especially excellent work as the dapper sleuth with the exemplary "little grey cells." An iconic figure of mystery fiction, Poirot is a character whose every physical movement is as precise and calculated as a Swiss watch. Yet Kennedy breathes organic life into him, usually though his exasperation with unnatural English obsessions such as exercise and fresh air.
Black Coffee runs two hours and 20 minutes including intermission.