Murder mystery

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Crime writer Agatha Christie and Margaret Rutherford, who played one of her most famous detectives, are finally reunited on stage. Sarah Freeman reports.

Philip Meeks’ knowledge of Agatha Christie is best described as encyclopaedic. He’s read the novels. Every single one of them. He’s also watched the various films, ploughed through biographies and has little time for those who dismiss the writer’s whodunits as formulaic.

“They’re detective novels, so of course there is a formula,” he says. “There’s a death, there’s a roll call of suspects, a few red herrings and the final reveal, but her books are so much more than that. There is a real sharpness to her writing, which stands the test of time even though it’s now almost half a century since her last book was published. Some of them are also quite dark. Christie isn’t afraid to push children out of windows and while her killers are often quite sympathetic characters, the people that get bumped off are often pretty horrible. She is not as simplistic as some people like to make out.”

Meeks, whose play Murder, Margaret, and Me has just opened at York Theatre Royal, says he had been toying for years with writing a piece inspired by Christie but didn’t want it to be a straight biography.

“That would have been terribly boring and I knew that it would be more interestingly dramatically to focus on one part of her life. And then it came to me. I wanted to bring Agatha face to face with Margaret Rutherford and explore the differences and parallels between their lives.”

For a certain generation Rutherford was the ultimate Miss Marple. During the 1970s she appeared in four George Pollock films loosely based on the novels and seemed made for the part of the slightly eccentric detective. However, what audiences didn’t know at the time was that Rutherford, a gifted comic actress, had quite a troubled life. Suffering from debilitating periods of depression, she had several spells in psychiatric hospitals where she was given electric shock treatment and Christie too had her own mental battles.

Her husband Archie was unfaithful and when he told her he wanted a divorce, Christie famously disappeared. When her car was found abandoned it sparked a massive police operation only for the writer to reappear ten days later at Harrogate’s Swan Hotel.

“Both women had a very public image, which often belied what was going on in their private lives,” says Meeks. “When Rutherford was cast as Miss Marple she was already famous having appeared in Blithe Spirit and a dozen other films, but Christie wasn’t sure she was right for the role.

“I loved the idea of writing a play that really delved into the lives of these two incredibly famous faces and one which put the absolute focus on older women. They are incredibly interesting, have far more to say than the rest of us and yet they tend to be sidelined.

“There is a huge theatre audience out there who are 50-plus women, but in terms of seeing themselves reflected on stage they get a pretty raw deal. Hopefully this play will redress that balance a little.”

Murder, Margaret and Me, York Theatre Royal, to March 4. 01904 623568, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk