It is in the nature of thriller as a genre to rely on the gradual building of dramatic tension aiming towards a pivotal point at the end, and as such its strongest suit lies in the ability to keep its audience on edge for the entire duration of the narration, or at least until the start of the resolution. Love from a Stranger, originally from the pen of Agatha Christie, is in this sense a perfect example of a classic thriller – in fact even more so than many contemporary works claiming to belong to the genre, which are in fact action stories with a twist. Love from a Stranger, on the contrary, is a very slow burn carefully building up tension through an accumulation of small details that are just a little off-key, culminating in an explosive climax where a whole series of twists (two or, depending on the reading of the ending, possibly three in a row) resolve the situation in an unpredictable fashion while leaving the audience with more questions than answers. In this sense it is also an interesting deviation from the usual style of Christie’s tales, which do not usually rely so much on emotional logic, and are generally intellectual more than they are psychological. Yet there is no doubt that the play is a clever, perhaps even shrewd, construction where nothing is left to chance, meant to function like clockwork in building the necessary foundation, and most importantly the necessary mood, to bring its characters to the string of revelations of the ending.
Elizabeth Bouckley and Sam Frenchum
It is undoubtedly, for all of these reasons, a challenging text for the performers, who are tasked with portraying characters that are layered and multifaceted, having to take into account the hidden sides of their characterisation at all times while not being able to display them until the very ending. In this production of the play, all actors stand up to the task, delivering a number of remarkable performances that play to the tune of the text in all its subtle nuances, and undoubtedly constitutes its greatest strength. Both Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum, who as Cecily Harrington and Bruce Lovell have to shoulder the great majority of the time on stage, deliver performances that are carefully constructed and display an in-depth study of both text and character. Frenchum in particular is truly remarkable in his ability to keep the entire feeling of his character ever so slightly off through the direction of the play, leading the audience to second-guess the correct reading of his words and actions and yet never being blatant enough to dissipate doubt. It is an impressive feat of subtlety that constitutes perhaps the main device leading this production of th play to work as well as it does – keeping the audience’s attention in spite of the very slow burn of its first half, and the almost frustrating lack of an acceleration in tempo in the early scenes of the second half, to finally end up in a frantic ending that feels both violent and liberating. Supporting performances are equally of a very high standard, bringing to the play a pointed and somewhat cruel sense of humour that lightens the mood at the appropriate moments and punctuates the development of the plot.
Lucy Bailey’s directing and Mike Britton’s stage design equally contribute to this careful construction of tension, wisely opting for an understated tone that implies that something is wrong without falling into the trap of trying to point out what. Particularly good in this sense are also Richard Hammarton’s sound design, capitalising on the background ticking of the clock that is as noticeable when it is absent as in its constant presence throughout the first half, and on a reasoned, moderate use of music that amplifies its abruptness when it happens, and most of all Oliver’s Fenwick’s design of lighting: changes in lighting from a warmer to a colder tone, almost imperceptible, are as subtle and wisely measured as the nuances in the performers’ deliveries, and the sudden appearance of a disconcerting red light at important turning point in the plot immediately introduces an ominous feeling to the otherwise domestic surroundings of the stage. It is a pity, given the amount of thought clearly put in the construction of this whole environment, that the performance I attended suffered from a technical difficulty in a persistance interference noise on the microphone, which somewhat disrupted the web of environmental mood built by the direction. The issue was luckily resolved in time to enjoy the last part of the second half, with its frantic sequence of twists and turns, undisturbed.
It is a performance that undoubtedly does justice to what is a text both simple and complex, without need to accelerate a pace that in its first part needs to be kept slow nor to overplay disturbing details that need to be presented in a subtle way. In a time of impulsive, emotional acting, it is also a refreshing return to a greater devotion to the script. While its slow burn may not fit the taste of all audiences, those with a passion for authentic thriller and for plots driven by psychology rather than actions will find it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
New Theatre until April 21.