Jordan Toth makes his ‘directorial debut’ at Village Theatre Waterdown with Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest, and this is by no means a lightweight play. With a cast of nine (ten, if you count the corpse of the troublesome Richard Warwick), a complex and twisty plot, dense dialogue, multiple players moving around the set, and a legendary writer to boot ...well, Toth had his work cut out for him. So too, did Stage Manager LeeAnn Paul (with Assistant Stage Managers Elaine Hale and Anne Hogan). The result, I’m pleased to say, is a solid production.
Before I go further, I must acknowledge that in this, my first trip to Theatre Waterdown, I was treated so well by all volunteers and staff. I felt like a valued friend, and there was no hint of the snobbery I’ve (sadly, sometimes) picked up on at other venues. Whether you’re a regular theatregoer or a complete newbie, your experience can be coloured by those who never set a toe onstage. So, hats off to Waterdown for understanding this, and being so welcoming.
The production crew behind The Unexpected Guest really set the cast up for success. The set is meticulously appointed and beautifully built. The lighting and sound is spot on, and the way an eerie light casts Laura Warwick in shadow in the closing moments of the play is electric. The costuming is gorgeous: Laura’s green dress, her stockings with the seam up the back, Mrs. Warwick’s queenly attire... the women responsible for costuming collectively have a great eye for fit and impression!
Julian Farar (Michael Hannigan) is the last character to emerge on stage, but it quickly feels like he’s always been there. Having seen Michael Hannigan perform a few times, I get the distinct notion he may be one of those actors who never feels more at ease than when he’s on stage. He looks completely comfortable in his own skin; it’s as though he’s not ‘playing’ Julian Farar, but really IS Julian Farar.
At the risk of being superficial, Duncan McCallum gives servant Henry Angell a marvelously curly moustache to go along with his pragmatism. A recent theatre notice I saw online has me thinking McCallum may have joined the cast quite late in preparations, and if so, respect is certainly due for the solid job I witnessed last Saturday. Jason Swenor puts in a capable performance as Inspector Thomas but I was also impressed when I noticed that, being very tall, he has to duck whenever negotiating a doorway to Richard Warwick’s bedroom.
Isaiah Cook plays Jan Warwick, the deceased’s half brother. He’s delicately referred to as being ‘simple’ at one point, though it’s hard to ascertain whether Jan is developmentally challenged, mentally disturbed, or a little of both. He professes to know more than anyone gives him credit for several times before matters take a diabolical turn. Jan has been given what I came to think of as the ‘Boo Radley’ treatment; he’s designated as strange, and emotionally fragile, and slightly sinister through shifty mannerisms, messy hair, and an overly pale face. I think there’s something to deconstruct there: why has a mental disability been visually denoted by pallor of skin, as though he was an invalid? Perhaps it’s just how Christie described him, and certainly it’s been done before, but it does seem curious.
Then there are the accents. Accents are tricky. They can be difficult to learn, and to maintain; with even subtle stumbles or missing nuances, they can become jarring. Christie’s script, dense with dialogue, must make it particularly daunting. To my ears, certain members of the cast manage better than others. The actors playing Michael Starkwedder (Michael Bedford), Laura Warwick (Maggie Makar), Mrs. Warwick (Inese Hill), and Julian Farrar (Hannigan) do well with their English accents. Makar’s diction put me in mind of Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II from the first two seasons of The Crown. I found myself wondering if she’d watched the show as she prepared for her role. And Hill’s Mrs. Warwick? I definitely got some Dame Maggie Smith/Dowager Countess vibes from her regal bearing.
Sergeant Cadwallader (Nicholas Terpstra) and Miss Bennett/Benny (Valarie King)’s accents are less successful. They come and go. Terpstra seems to be using an Irish accent, but he loses the thread once in a while. Presumably King is playing an Englishwoman of slightly lower social class than the Warwicks; sometimes you can hear it, but unfortunately, most of the time she sounds fairly North American. While all of the cast have clearly put significant effort into their roles, tonally there’s something just a little ‘off’ with Cadwallader and Benny, and I think the accents are part of it. There was a feeling of slight discordance for me, as though they were moving to a different rhythm than the rest.
This was my theatrical introduction to Agatha Christie. It’s a drama with lots of twists and reversals, and once in a while the motives and details get a wee bit fuzzy. On the whole, though, it did what it set out to do: keep audiences wondering ‘whodunit?’ until the very end. It’s a pleasant evening at the theatre. V
The Unexpected Guest
by Agatha Christie
Continues November 14 - 17 and 21 – 23
Village Theatre Waterdown
317 Dundas St. East (Highway 5)
Box office: (905) 690 - 7889