There’s a perception that tried-and-tested does well in regional theatre. That what people most want to see is a long established play that made its name in London or a playwright with ‘Sunday night TV drama’ name recognition, plus a couple of actors also familiar from the telly. Undemanding fare for a traditionally older audiences uninterested in ‘edgy’ topics or new, unproven work. The Agatha Christie Society’s Murder on the Air is guilty on all of these charges and if it were to find itself in a mystery by Christie herself, it would be carted off in cuffs by the nice-but-dim policeman faster than the elderly lady detective could finish her plot summary. But, it wisely tempers this cosiness with a degree of sly humour and self-awareness, and is both subtler and smarter than you might expect.
At first glance, it’s an odd conceit: a trio of radio plays performed on stage, but it actually works quite well. The actors are assembled in a stylishly recreated 30s radio studio (courtesy of designer Simon Scullion) to perform three short Agatha Christie pieces – somewhat anachronistically, since two of these weren’t written till the forties and fifties. The stories themselves are unremarkable: a ghostly tale of a dead wife returned to haunt her murderous husband (Personal Call), a philandering barrister punished for his overconfidence in Butter in a Lordly Dish, and Hercule Poirot putting in an appearance in Yellow Iris. (This, despite the familiarity of the character, is the weakest piece: stretched even at 30 minutes and padded out with pleasant if slightly pointless musical interludes).
Jenny Seagrove and Tom Conti – the ‘faces off the telly’ – both give fairly one-note readings. Seagrove’s breathy gasping is always on the tipping point of hysteria and she has a collection of meandering accents, while Conti is oddly flat, and at times both seem only to have a passing familiarity with the scripts in front of them. ‘We’re too old to learn lines anymore,’ Conti jokes, pleasantly, riffing with the audience before the performance begins; an old pro’s masterclass in winning over a crowd. ‘Speak for yourself!’ Seagrove replies tartly from the back of the stage, as if accidentally overhearing him, and it’s this exchange that sets the tone for the piece. Age might have withered Conti’s memory, but his timing remains impeccable: most of the laughs come from his perfectly placed gestures – mugging towards the audience when the Foley Artist pours him a gin he’ll never get to drink, wincing at sudden noises and silently bemoaning that a scripted kiss involves placing a smacker on his own hand as Seagrove retreats hastily away in visible relief that she doesn’t have to succumb to his attentions. The pair’s polished double act – his incorrigible old rogue to her exasperated professional – is all the more impressive since, after that initial exchange, neither speaks a word that isn’t in Christie’s scripts.
For all Seagrove and Conti’s polished charm, the star of the show is Alexander S Bermange, the on-stage Foley Artist. It is he who crafts the magic from his box of tricks, whether it’s faking footsteps or mocking up a murder – he’s the one who sets the scene and controls the pace. Bermange takes this essential role and makes him a petty jobsworth who takes a deadpan delight in his power, whether it’s by taking his own sweet time pouring a drink, secure in the knowledge the actors can’t resume talking till he’s done, or indicating the grisly demise of a character by stabbing a cabbage with such zeal that the actor playing the ill-fated soul looks positively disconcerted. He called to mind Rowan Atkinson’s tyrannical shop assistant in Love, Actually, unwilling to relinquish a purchase until the last ribbon has been tied, the final rose petal strewn, bitterly revenging himself on all who have ignored his genius. There’s years of simmering discontent at the hands of self-obsessed actors latent in every gesture here: timing is, of course, essential for a Foley Artist, but Bermange joyfully turns such precision into silent pedantry, and as such gets many of the biggest and best laughs.
The rest of the troupe gets in on the fun too. While ably taking on multiple parts in each piece, they are also playing the actors performing these shows, which leads to a degree of layering of meaning that feels very meta, without trying too hard to prove its own cleverness. They amiably acknowledge the inherent absurdity of radio plays (there’s a wry glance towards the grey-haired Conti – hamming it up with great gusto as the Belgian detective – when someone gushes about the fact that Poirot’s hair is still black), but also recognise the outmoded conventions of the era, where ‘exotic’ foreigners were played as stereotypes with exaggerated accents and personalities to match by plummy English ladies, and actors wore evening dress for an audience who couldn’t see them. It’s this layering that makes this feel like more than a lazy rehash of old ideas, and it’s to director Joe Harmon’s credit that the evening’s best moments look spontaneous and unscripted, when they have clearly been choreographed as carefully as the Foley Artist’s effects.