FEW roles can be said to carry the same iconic weight as his earlier Jesus of Nazareth, but it certainly takes some courage for Robert Powell to appear on stage as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Star of countless novels and screen adaptations, the Belgian detective is perhaps crime fiction’s most enduring creation, and has attracted his share of top acting talent over the years.
First produced in 1930, Black Coffee marked an early outing for a character who would become better defined in subsequent works. Rather than offer their own interpretation of the legend, however, Powell and director Joe Harmston have played things safe by presenting audiences with as conventional a depiction of Poirot as is possible.
Their reluctance to take creative risks can be attributed to the uninspired plot which forms the play’s backbone.
A run-of-the-mill whodunnit concerning the poisoning of famous physicist Sir Claud Amory, the impression is never given that anything is at stake for the high society caricatures that populate the piece. All had motives for murder and are shown to be equally worthy of suspicion.
The presence of Poirot himself elevates the play far beyond the pedestrian, Powell chewing the scenery with confidence and humour. His moustachioed sleuth is a decidedly eccentric proposition. Obsessed with order, he even expresses regret he didn’t embark on a career as a housemaid.
Elsewhere, he shows a peculiar sensitivity to gentle breezes, and proudly describes himself as “a very good dog.”
The rest of the cast aren’t given as much opportunity to impress, but shine in their roles regardless. Felicity Houlbrouke and Martin Carroll prove particularly amusing as a privileged socialite and butler, respectively.
Intricatley plotted, this Black Coffee is an unashamedly entertaining exercise in ensemble acting and snappy dialogue.
• Run ends Saturday