THERE’S many a familiar face at the King’s next week when Miss Marple comes a sleuthing, but none more so than that of Sarah Thomas, loved by millions as Glenda Wilkinson in Last of the Summer Wine, a role she played from 1986 to 2010.
Thomas is joined by a who’s who of popular television in Middle Ground Theatre Company’s touring production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder Is Announced.
On stage with her will be Judy Cornwell, as Marple herself – Cornwell is best known for playing Hyacinth Bucket’s long-suffering sister Daisy, in Keeping Up Appearances.
The cast also features Diane Fletcher (Elizabeth Urquhart in the political drama House Of Cards), Tom Butcher (Dr Marc Elliott in Doctors), ex-EastEnder Rachel Bright (soap fans will know her as Poppy Meadow), and Dean Smith of Waterloo Road and Last Tango In Halifax fame.
“I think producers feel people are a little more likely to come if they know the names who are in it, but Agatha Christie is always popular,” says the actress, who plays Bunny in the classic Miss Marple mystery.
As the title suggests, a murder is indeed announced: The residents of Chipping Cleghorn are astonished to read an advert in the local newspaper to the effect that a murder will take place at the home of Letitia Blacklock.
‘It will take place on Friday, October the 13th, at little Paddocks, at six-thirty pm’ the notice reads.
Unable to resist, a group gathers at the house at the appointed time, suddenly the lights go out and a gun is fired.
Enter Miss Marple, who must unravel a complex series of relationships and events to solve the mystery of the killer...
“Bunny is a friend of Letitia Blacklock in whose house the mystery takes place,” explains Thomas.
“They’re old school friends, Bunny has fallen on hard times and Letitia has invited her to stay...
Naturally, Thomas is not giving anything away. “The Marple stories have been popular for such a long time and this is one of the really good plays,” she says.
“There are lots of red herrings and quiet a few of the audience don’t work out who the murderer is until it is revealed at the end.”
With a chuckle, she adds, “We know because we’ve asked them.”
And there has been plenty time to do just that, Thomas has been with the production since August.
“... and it’s running until April, so it’s quite a long tour, but you get into a rhythm; you arrive at a new place, find out where you are staying, settle in, then go to the theatre.
“The first night is just getting to know where everything is, then by the second night you feel like you’ve been there for ages. You have to settle in very quickly, so it just happens.”
She continues, “On this tour we have played very big venues and small intimate theatres. The play does feel very different in each.
“I am happy wherever I am but it’s always interesting to play a smaller venue where the audience are so close you can see them, usually there’s just a black hole and it is only at the curtain call that you think, ‘Oh gosh, we did have a large audience.”
To many in those audiences, Thomas will forever be Last of the Summer Wine’s Glenda, domineering wife of Barry, played by Mike Grady.
For a series peopled by pensioners, both Thomas and Grady bucked that trend when they first appeared in the long-running comedy three decades ago.
“I was very young when I started,” agrees the actress, who is now 63. “Mike and myself were the younger people in it. The first episode we did was actually a film-length one called Uncle Of The Bride, Glenda and Barry were getting married in that episode... and it all went on from there.
“It was never my intention to be there 25 years later. At the start you never knew from year to year if it would be recommissioned by the BBC.
“Then, when we’d been doing it for a number of years it became apparent that it would continue... until they decided to stop it,” she laughs.
When the axe fell it was “a disappointment” more that anything, Thomas recalls.
“We felt it had a little bit longer to run and Roy Clarke’s writing was such a joy to play that it would have been nice to go on, but it had been running for a very, very long time – 37 years altogether.”
Before venturing to Holmfirth where Summer Wine was filmed, it was a supporting role in the ITV series Worzel Gummidge that Thomas was best known for, that of Enid the Maid, opposite Carry On stalwart Joan Sims as Mrs Bloomsbury-Barton.
“Another favourite,” she smiles, “I loved that series. I worked with some lovely people on that too – Jon Pertwee, John Le Mesurier and it was so nice working with Joan.
“I used to sit in the hotel in the evenings and listen to all these splendid people telling their theatre stories. It was a lovely time.”
A lovely time is what she intends to have in the Capital next week too.
“It’s my first time working in Scotland, so it is great to be here.
“I did actually drive through Edinburgh once on the way to Pitlochry with a friend, but we didn’t have time to stop, so it will be lovely to finally have a look around.”
A Murder Is Announced, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £15-£30.50, 0131-529 6000