Agatha Christie struggled to find the best way to present the story now being told by the Clayton Community Theatre under the title Murder on the Nile. Christie first thought of it as a play called Moon on the Nile but then decided it might work better as a novel, which she called Death on the Nile. But then an actor friend asked her for a play in which he could play her popular Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. By the time she got around to writing the play, she had grown tired of Poirot and promised her friend that the play would have a church canon as the detective for him to play. The play was only moderately successful in its provincial try-out, in London’s West End, and on Broadway. But it has continued to appeal to producers in various media, with two movies having the usual star-studded casts and a few TV versions in the UK and US.
I know that Nada Vaughan, the director of the Clayton production, is very fond of Christie and has done well by her in the past. But I’m afraid that Murder on the Nile has challenged her and her cast, designers, and crews.
The play takes place on a paddle-wheel tourist steamer on the River Nile, in the late 1930s. In the first act, set on the observation deck of the -boat, the passengers arrive, are assigned to their staterooms, and some gather for drinks on the deck, so we are given lots of exposition with little action and with little of the wit often found in such Christie exchanges. This is a honeymoon voyage for newlyweds Kay and Simon Mostyn, played by Annie Valuska as the very attractive bride who wears well the frocks given her by costume designer Jean Meckmann, and Brett Hanna as the less attractive groom.
They and the other passengers are welcomed aboard the Lotus by the perfectly accommodating steward played smoothly by Panaglotis Papavlasopoulos and by the perfectly irritating beadseller of trashy trinkets, a menace at all tourist sites, constantly pushed aside and constantly returning, played by Mark A. Neels, who happily is also cast in the last act as the ship’s captain, quite capable of dealing with the emergency on board, totally unlike the beadseller.
Both Ann Egenriether and the audience thoroughly enjoy the fun we are all having with her playing Miss Helen ffoliot-ffoulkes, a wealthy snob who is only happy when making trouble wherever she can. Kaytlin Doscher, another lovely and well-costumed young lady, plays her much put-upon niece. Fortunately, the niece catches the eye of a young man who claims to be a socialist and dresses accordingly, played with fine nonchalance by Michael Stephens. Caitlin Doscher plays the bride’s maid, a slip of a girl who wants nothing to do with what has happened. Paul Schultz creates a fine air of mystery about Dr. Bessner, a psychologist and physician of uncertain background whose presence proves to be helpful. And who could be better as Canon Pennefather, Poirot’s replacement, than Colin Nichols; exactly right.
Liv Lewis has her work cut out for her, which she can handle, as Jacqueline de Severac. Jackie has been bride Kay’s best friend. She’s also been engaged to the groom, Simon. But she made the mistake of introducing them to each other. Not only is Kay beautiful, she is extremely wealthy. Break one engagement, make another. And a wedding, And a honeymoon trip. But Jackie seems obsessed with following the bridal couple on their trips, including this boat on the Nile, and she is almost maddened with jealousy. Can any good come of this?
Not in Agatha Christie’s hands, of course. And the second act does pick up some steam, if a little slip-shod compared to her best.
Andrew Cary’s set design keeps things basic, with wooden folding chairs and tables for the observation deck in the first act and the the same for the ship’s dining room in the second act. That space also has four massive (for the space) Egyptian sculptures created by Kate Mego filling the upstage wall, though I am not sure if that is the wall of the dining room or statues seen through dining room windows; I am left wondering about how it all fits together. Nathan Schroeder did his usual helpful lighting design, Jackie Aumer masters the props and Gene Rauscher the sound, and Rob Corbett decorated the set.
I’m sorry I found Murder on the Nile to be lesser Christie, but I do appreciate Director Vaughan’s cultivating some of Christie’s less fertile fields.