Robert Powell plays Poirot in Black Coffee

Liza Goddard, Robert Powell and Robin McCallum in Black Coffee. Pic: Comp
Liza Goddard, Robert Powell and Robin McCallum in Black Coffee. Pic: Comp
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IT’S not every day you meet someone whose name graces the canopy of a theatre, so to speak.

“Yes, the only person alive to have a theatre named after them,” laughs Robert Powell, who tours to The King’s, next week, as Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee.

The theatre in question is in Salford, his home town. It’s clear the honour means a lot to the 69-year-old.

“I’m a born and bred Salford bloke, as is my father, his father, his father, his father... We go back about 200 years. It has all been Salford, nothing else. Our family has been rather boring and not very adventurous,” he smiles.

“I left after my parents died, but still felt an affinity to the place. Given the opportunity to help, I did whenever I could and Salford University sort of adopted me. They gave me an Honorary MA, then they gave me an Honorary Doctorate, then they gave me a theatre... which was quite sweet.”

In Black Coffee, Powell dons the famous moustache of Christie’s Belgian detective, an iconic role played by greats such as Peter Ustinov, David Suchet and one of his own heroes, Albert Finney.

“Just down the road from me, as I grew up, was Albert Finney. He was a little bit older, but if ever I needed someone to look up to, follow and admire, then it would be Albert,” he says.

“My mother and his mother used to share the same hairdresser, and would swap notes about us, which was quite funny.”

Written in 1930, Black Coffee is Christie’s first play. It is set in a country estate thrown into chaos by the murder of Sir Claud Amory.

Arriving just moments after the event, Poirot senses an air of despair, treachery and deception.

“He is huge fun to play and like all iconic characters, he is what you make him. There is no hard and fast template, just two things you must have - the Belgian accent and the moustache. Other than that, it’s up to you how you play it.”

Unexpectedly, Powell admits he had never read a Christie novel nor watched Poirot on TV before accepting the role.

“Until this, I’d never read an Agatha Christie play or book. I’d never seen David Suchet’s Poirot, other than for the odd snippet. It just isn’t my bag.

“So the only Poirots I was really aware of were Ustinov’s and Albert’s, both were wildly different.”

As will his be, he reveals.

“What I do as an actor is essentially me. I don’t transmogrify into anther person when I take on a role, it’s just me turned through various degrees and whatever.

“Therefore, my Poirot is very much Robert Powell’s Poirot, which is a very different Poirot to David Suchet’s - he’s a little more energetic and considerably funnier.

“There is already an element of humour in the play, and where I have found other little bits, I have used them. So my Poirot is sometime consciously and sometimes unconsciously funny.”

Powell’s need to bring humour to the role becomes clear when he confesses, “If push comes to shove, I am probably a comedian who became a straight actor, rather than a straight actor who became a comedian.

“Comedy is at the basis of my soul and I try to put it into everything I do, even the serious stuff.”

It was just such a serious role that shot the young Powell to stardom in 1977 - the title role in Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.

It launched his career. He also has fond memories of making The Detectives, with Jasper Carrott.

“I have huge fondness for The Detectives, largely because I was working with my friend Jasper - we had so much fun. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t fun to be honest, but is so long ago I’ve reached the stage where I’m deeply flattered that anybody should remember it. Obviously we got something right.”

Black Coffee, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14.50-£30, 0131 529 6000