Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express

The Court Theatre, Bernard Street, Addington, Christchurch

02/03/2024 - 06/04/2024

Production Details

Story: Agatha Christie
Adapted by: Ken Ludwig
Director: Dan Bain

The Court Theatre, Christchurch

Everyone is a suspect.

Ken Ludwig’s clever adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic boasts all the glamour, intrigue, and suspense of Dame Agatha’s celebrated novel, with a healthy dose of humor to quicken the pace.

Just after midnight, a snowdrift stops the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train is surprisingly full for the time of the year, but by the morning it is one passenger fewer. An American tycoon lies dead in his compartment, stabbed eight times, his door locked from the inside. Isolated and with a killer in their midst, the passengers rely on detective Hercule Poirot to identify the murderer – in case they decide to strike again.

2 March – 6 April
The Court Theatre, Christchurch
Times: various
Tickets from $35

Hercule Poirot: James Kupa
Monsieur Bouc: Dan Allan
Mary Debenham: Millie Hanford
Hector MacQueen: Andrew Todd
Michel the Conductor & Head waiter: Roy Snow
Princess Dragomiroff: Yvonne Martin
Greta Ohlsson: Kathleen Burns
Countess Andrenyi: Monique Monique Clementson
Helen Hubbard: Juliet Reynolds-Midgley
Colonel Arbuthnot / Samuel Ratchett: Ben Freeth

Set Designer: Julian Southgate
Lighting Designer: Giles Tanner
Sound Designer: Matt Short
Costume Designer: Findlay Currie
Stage Managers: Jo Bunce; Lousie Topping and Tayor Ballantyne (Assistants)
Operator: Geoff Nunn
Cosume Manager: Daniella Salazar

Theatre ,

2 hours 10 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)

Dream cast and first-class surprises make Express an absolute triumph

Review by Ruth Agnew 09th Mar 2024

Whodunnit? Dan dunnit; Dan “bloody brilliant” Bain. Dan Bain bloody did it. What a ride it’s been, and how wonderful to arrive at this destination with him and his dream cast. 

Welcoming the opening night audience, Artistic Director Alison Walls stops short of sharing too much of the mystery about to unfold on the Orient Express, assuring us she wouldn’t let any spoilers slip. While Agatha Christie Crime a-fiction-ados would appreciate the sentiment, revealing the murderous twists and turns of a play based on a novel published in 1934 seems a touch too much. I mean, the title is a bit of a reveal; it’s not called ‘Poirot and his old chum Monsieur Bouc have a jolly chit chat and catch up over cocktails on the Orient Express’ or ‘First Class Passengers Complain about their soup being served cold on the Orient Express’. No, it’s murder that hitches a ride alongside the other passengers on this stormy, snow-whipped three-day train trip to tragedy… or is the true destination retribution station?

Spoilers be damned; Bain’s superb staging of one of Christie’s most loved suspense stories deserves every accolade and acknowledgment to be writ large or screamed to the skies. If I offend any Orthodox Agatha Christians by letting slip a 90-year-old secret that has been repeated in print, on radio, shown on big screens and small, and onstage, I am not sorry, and question how fanatic a fan who hasn’t yet read/heard/seen Christie’s most popular story in any form; clearly, their poirot-ities need to be reassessed. In any case, The Court Theatre production sets out to spoil nothing but the audience, offering a feast of theatrical thrills and stylistic visual treats.

The casting is the first delight offered up by Bain. There is no question that the Poirot has to be played by an actor who could embody the Belgian sleuth’s spirit as well as his physical characteristics. As something of a Poirot-pedant myself, I can confirm there would have been nowhere to hide from the wrath of wronged fans, had the actor behind the fastidiously formed moustache failed to deliver an acceptable performance in this Herculean role. Thankfully, Bain has revealed an absolute super-sleuth star hiding in plain sight in The Court Theatre whanau; James Kupa, quite simply, is the perfect Poirot.

I can hear the collective scoffs of Agathusiasts at the word “perfect”, but I assure you, I’m not exaggerating. While those who saw Kupa’s previous Court appearances (Frankenstein, The Girl on The Train, Dance Nation) are aware of his formidable acting range and commitment to character, this performance has to be the pinnacle of his Ōtautahi roles thus far. Kupa demonstrates a depth of understanding of Poirot in every aspect of his personification of the diminutive detective. His accent, gait, and demeanour culminate in a rendering of Poirot far superior to more familiar actors who attempted to fill Hercule’s shiny patent leather shoes (inferior attempts include those made by John Malkovich, Albert Finney, Tony Randall and, in the same story, Alfred Molina).

Kupa himself may be younger, physically fitter and distinctly less Belgian than the man he embodies, yet his talent transcends these trifling issues to truly deliver the most satisfying Poirot yet. Before David Suchet loyalists come at me, I will admit that until seeing this production, I too felt no one could come close to pulling off the mustachioed crime-solving icon as well as the actor who has portrayed him more often than any other. Until Kupa. My companion, who was raised on a diet of Weetbix, jet plane lollies and Poirot, is an even more devoted Christie-mystery super-fan than myself, shares my sentiments as soon as the house lights came up for intermission. He turns to me, his face as shocked as if he had just stumbled upon the solution to a long unsolved puzzle. “That’s Poirot”, he says, with complete certainty. “I don’t even want to go back to Suchet now. That’s my Poirot”.

It isn’t until later that it occurs to me that Poirot isn’t the most demanding role in the play. Monsieur Bouc, Poirot’s longtime friend and compatriot, actually does the heavy lifting of the piece, offering the audience easily digested exposition and key plot points and setting up Poirot’s stylish revelations. Again, Bain found an actor capable of portraying the complex character right under his nose. Daniel Allan has been a frequent face in Christchurch shows for decades, delighting families in outdoor summer shows such as Around the World in 80 Days and The Odyssey, appearing in Scared Scriptless and other Court Jester shows since the early 2000s, as well as countless school holiday kids’ shows, but this is his first appearance on The Court Theatre’s main stage in a major show. Hopefully this awful oversight will now be rectified with much more Allan in upcoming Court Theatre shows, as he is an absolute delight as Monsieur Bouc, steering the show towards the ultimate reveal with an assured command.

Allan isn’t alone in giving audiences something special in his characterisation; every actor onstage offers more than anyone could expect from the original descriptions Christie created in her novel. Some of Christie’s writing has not aged well, particularly the casual racism she daubs upon her characters who only appear once in the canon. The fine acting of the entire cast lifts stereotyped stock characters out of the quagmire of offensive Euro-tropes, and bestows each role with much more nuanced, well-rounded personalities than their 1934 versions. This is of course aided by the brilliant Ken Ludwig adaptation, which avoids many of those uncomfortable moments that mar a modern-day rereading of many Christie classics.

Another theatrical tour de force is the grand dame of the Court Theatre, the magnificent Yvonne Martin. First treading The Court’s boards in 1979, Martin’s appearance as a Russian princess is a deserving acknowledgement of her real-life role as Ōtautahi theatre royalty. While Martin can steal a scene with little more than an arched eyebrow or expressive exhale of breath, another amazing actor with an intimidating CV, Juliet Reynolds-Midgely, also gives audiences far more than the usual portrayals of the oft-married American Helen Hubbard offer. Quite simply, if Reynolds-Midgely decided to stage a show comprised solely of her dancing the Charleston whilst singing, I would buy a ticket to every single performance.

There isn’t a weak link in the whole show, onstage or off. Like Bain, Kupa and Allan, many in the cast come from a background of improvisational comedy (Millie Hanford, Andrew Todd, Kathleen Burns), which may explain the precision timing and believability of the relationships between them. Others have more musical theatre credits (Ben Freeth, Monique Clementson, Roy Snow), which explains their pitch-perfect portrayals.

While it would be easy to wax lyrical about the endless appeal of Bain’s Murder on the Orient Express, it would make more sense to suggest buying a ticket to catch this murder-train before it’s too late. But before disembarking at my station, back to the spoiler I promised. I am not naming the murderer, although knowing which hand delivered the fatal blow would not diminish the fabulous denouement (an absolute triumph of theatricality, marrying precision timing onstage with sophisticated stylistic lighting design to focus on a key convention of film noir – a glinting, bloody knife blade). I simply must reveal the surprise star of the night, a theatrical gift bestowed upon us by props and set savant Julian Southgate. In a moment that isn’t exactly a deus ex machina, Southgate pulls off an ambitious feat beyond what one could reasonably expect. Forget murder on a train; the true excitement of the evening was seeing a train on the stage.

So now that spoilers have been spilt and any concerns about accuracy (acc-Christ-y?) dispelled, there is nothing to do but insist Agatha acolytes and Poirot-aphiles secure tickets to this absolute triumph of a show before it is too late. Tickets have been selling so quickly a season extension has already been announced, so don’t waste any time. Jump aboard this train before the whistle blows and it leaves the station for good.


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