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Whirlwind romance turns deadly in Agatha Christie chiller Love From A Stranger

PUBLISHED: 10:00 11 July 2018

Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love From a Stranger
 by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love From a Stranger by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Sheila Burnett

Agatha Christie's less known story Love From A Stranger is less whodunit and more psychological thriller about a woman desperately yearning for adventure. As a new production comes to Norwich, lead actress Helen Bradbury tells Simon Parkin more.

Helen Bradbury in Love From a Stranger 
by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila BurnettHelen Bradbury in Love From a Stranger by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Cecily Harrington has led a staid and proper existence. After winning a large amount of money in a sweepstake she desperately yearns for a life of adventure. Enter Bruce Lovell, a handsome and charming stranger who sweeps her off her feet. However, he is not what it seems.

Once seen as staid Agatha Christie has recently been rediscovered by a new generation including acclaimed director Lucy Bailey, whose revival of Witness for the Prosecution has been has been a huge success in London. Now she has turns her attention to one of Christie’s lesser-known psychological chillers, Love From A Stranger, which began life in 1934 as a short story, Philomel Cottage.

As her production comes to Norwich Theatre Royal, Helen Bradbury who plays Cecily Harrington, opposite Justin Avoth as her fiancé Michael and Sam Frenchum as Bruce Lovell, argues the tale has modern relevance.

Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love From a Stranger
 by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila BurnettHelen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love From a Stranger by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Love From A Stranger is one of Agatha Christie lesser known stories. Were you aware of it before?

No I wasn’t aware of either the play or the short story Philomel Cottage, which is quite unusual in itself. Nestled amongst all the Poirot and Miss Marple sleuthing stories it is more of a domestic thriller. It’s quite personal and about a relationship going awry. There was a low key production of the play in the 1990s, but otherwise it has not been produced since the 1936 when it was a bit of a smash in the West End but then disappeared.

Director Lucy Bailey has previously adapted Witness for the Prosecution. How has she approached this play?

Helen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love From a Stranger
 by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila BurnettHelen Bradbury and Sam Frenchum in Love From a Stranger by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila Burnett

She did quite a bit of re-writing and looking at it structurally before we went into rehearsals but then we did quite a lot of adaptation once we were in the rehearsal room. We found that some of the dialogue dated it a bit and we were trying to make it as direct and character and relationship based as possible. Lucy’s impulse was to update it as much as she possibly could.

The production is set in the 1950s. Why that period?

Because of certain things about the plot as soon as you get up to the 1960s and the sexual revolution things start to not quite fit so well. So we have moved it to just before the 1960s hit. Our lead character Cecily Harrington, and her friend Marvis, are both in the position of working women who can’t really earn enough to support themselves. They both have to get married so there is that kind of pressure. But then Cecily is relieved of that pressure by this huge sweepstake win that means she can question the received wisdom of who she should marry and what she should do with her life. Then in walks a handsome, well travelled stranger who represents that alternative life, adventure and potential.

Gareth Williams and Helen Bradbury in Love From a Stranger
 by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila BurnettGareth Williams and Helen Bradbury in Love From a Stranger by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Is it interesting to play a character at this period in time? Does it have a message for today’s women?

It is not an overtly political play so we can’t drag too much politics out of it but as a representative of a woman who is kind of trapped and wants to make a transgression in terms of what society expects, she is really interesting to play. I think the idea the man who she has been engaged to for a long time while they wait to afford to get married represents the drudgery of the low paid work she has been forced to do, whereas the man who walks into her life is seen by her as the root to escape, freedom and travel is fascinating. The fact that she is looking to a man as a root to individualise herself is something that even now we are still shaking off as a legacy. We are very slowly getting the point where women feel they can empower themselves to make their own choices.

Nicola Sanderson in Love From a Stranger 
by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila BurnettNicola Sanderson in Love From a Stranger by Agatha Christie. Photo: Sheila Burnett

The production’s staging has echoes of the Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom. What more can you tell us about it?

Because we have moved it into the 1950s it has got that kind of washed out feel about it. That era is right of the cusp of the 1960s. We have got a really clever set which shifts and changes and every thing Bruce Lovell comes on the scene the walls shift and you don’t know quite where you are. You can see into corners of rooms that you couldn’t before while other parts become obscured.

There have been a number of recent Agatha Christie adaptations. Why do you think that is?

There seems to be a move to re-examine her work and come back to it with fresh eyes. I think the sources stories are a bit patchy, some are absolute genius while others you could have guessed the ending all along, but the way you adapt a story has a huge impact on what you understand about it. So I think its exciting that a new generation is going back and finding that actually there is something really endearing about her particular interests which are essentially basic human fears. She writes about them so vividly and so well.

Were you an Agatha Christie fan before?

I’d never read of the novels but I’d of course seen adaptations and she is so familiar just from growing up in this country. I think I’d thought it’s not for me, but I have to say going back to read the stories I’ve actually become a bit of a fan. I think she’s really fab particularly at her time and the woman she was. She really did break boundaries.

Love From A Stranger has its own Agatha Christie-esque backstory. Frank Vosper who originally adapted the story for the stage died in mysterious circumstances when he fell from the ocean liner…

It’s so extraordinary. I don’t think it has ever been solved what happened. There are stories about him having arguments with his lover on the ship. He was actually on the way back from New York where he had taken Love From A Stranger to Broadway but had a bit of flop after its massive success in the West End, so we don’t know what his state of mind would have been.

• Love From A Stranger is at Norwich Theatre Royal from July 17-21, 7.30pm, 2.30pm July 19 and 21, £26.50-£10, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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