Love From A Stranger

Studio Theatre  Studio Theatre, Salisbury  Anne Waggott 19 April 2024

Cecily Harrington has led a demure and modest life. After winning a large quantity of money in a sweepstakes, she yearns for a more exciting life, deciding that she can no longer marry her safe and dependable fiancé, Nigel Lawrence. She has already put her flat up for rent, and thus meets Bruce Lovell, a handsome and charming American stranger, who declares an interest in renting the property, but instead sweeps Cecily off her feet. After a whirlwind romance, Cecily shocks her former fiancé, family and friends when she recklessly abandons her plans, marries Bruce and settles in a remote country cottage with her new husband – but is Bruce really the answer to her dreams, or will it be a case of “Be careful what you wish for…”?

I admit I’m a fan of Agatha Christie’s work, so I was really looking forward to seeing this play – and I was not disappointed! Award-winning Studio Theatre has gained a reputation for high quality shows – and Love From A Stranger is no exception. Director Colin Hayman has ensured this production deservedly enhances the Company’s reputation, from the opening Gershwin music (another personal favourite), via finely tuned props and costumes, through to the almost perfect accents for the era, slick performances, developed characterisations and sharp pace.

As this is an intense and chilling psychological thriller from Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper, examining the twisted and sadistic mind of a serial killer, I wasn’t expecting there to be so much humour throughout. However, not only is this a lovely surprise but it also increases the level of peril in the play’s climax and is a tribute to both the director and actors.

Anna Rose is superb as Cecily, perfectly portraying the conflicts within her character: will she regret her reckless plunge into a more exciting life, following her heart rather her head, or be rewarded for her courage in seizing the day and taking a leap out of her comfort zone? Cecily’s thoughts and inner battles are flawlessly reflected in Anna’s every facial expression, dialogue delivery and natural gesture, her thoughts reflected in her face.

Richard Clarke is suave, sophisticated and disturbingly menacing as her sinister suitor, with a magnetic performance; my only criticism is that any American accent is just too subtle. Although Bruce mentions that he left England for America when young, his accent is just too English for me – or for the characters noting he is American to make any sense.

There are excellent performances in the supporting roles: Jamie Pullen as Nigel, his confusion and ongoing loyalty to Cecily endearing, despite her rejecting him; Cath Angell as Cecily’s Auntie Loo-Loo, with a comic performance reminiscent of Keeping Up Appearances’ Hyacinth Bucket, despite the gravitas of the play; and George Cotterill, utterly convincing as ever, embodying the efficient, level-headed and trustworthy character of Cecily’s friend and flatmate, Mavis.

John Jenner as Cecily and Bruce’s country cottage gardener has a richly warm West Country accent matched by his wonderful easy-to-read expressions, while Sophie Townsend is delightful as his niece, Ethel, bright, cheerful and curious as she learns to become the Lovell’s housemaid. Alistair Faulkner (local Dr Gribble) completes the lineup of spot-on casting and characterisations.

Richard Clarke proves he has more than one string to his bow with a clever set design that transforms completely from a small London flat to a large country cottage during the interval (kudos to the cast and crew as well!). George Fleming, likewise, oversees an array of props with a fine attention to detail. The costumes are absolutely right for each character and the era, thanks to Rae Owen and Megan Greenstock, while Chris Angell (Lighting) and Brian Waddingham (Sound) complete the production elements with aplomb. This year’s Director of Productions, David Rhodes, would have been most proud of how Studio Theatre has continued to bring his season’s plans to life – a fitting legacy to him.

Love From A Stranger runs at the Studio Theatre, Salisbury until Saturday 26 April (7:30pm each evening, no Sunday performance). If the response from last night’s full house is anything to go by and you are fortunate enough to have a ticket, you are in for a treat!