Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Agatha Christie's Black Coffee

George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish playwright and one of the founders of London School of Economics, once sent two complimentary tickets for the first show of his stage play to Winston Churchill. Shaw was known to be very bitter and sarcastic in his criticism and though many prominent personalities admired him, they also disliked him. A note attached to the tickets said, "Please bring along a friend, if you have one". Winston Churchill returned the tickets with a note "Unable to attend the first show due to other engagements. But I will definitely come to the second show, if there is one".

It was certainly not for the play "The Mousetrap". The Mousetrap, written by Agatha Christie opened at the  Ambassador Theater in West Street, Near Charing Cross Road in London on 25th November 1952, before many of us were born, and is still running! It ran till its 21st anniversary in 1973 at this theater and, due to higher demand for tickets, moved to the bigger next door St. Martins Theater thereafter. A visitor to London can see the play even now by buying a ticket for 45 to 60 Pounds. The play has been staged over an astounding  24,000 times and still attracts houseful shows. Three generation of actors have acted in the play and David Raven holds the Guinness world record for appearing in 4575 shows as Major Metcalf and  earned the title of  "Most Durable Actor".  

Agatha Christie, who lived between 1890-1976 wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections besides stage plays. She also wrote lesser known romances under the name Mary Westmacott.  Her novels have been translated to over 100 languages and claim over a billion readers all over the world. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, two characters created by her have been very popular with crime story readers. Her stories always ring with authenticity as she has used the familiar surroundings and places she actually visited in her life time, as a setting for her books and plays. Many of her novels have been enacted on stage as well as made into movies. Some of the stories like "Death on the Nile", "Murder on the Orient Express" and "4.50 From Paddington" have been made into movies many times over. 

When our host informed us that the play "Black coffee" was being enacted by the neighborhood Newtown Arts Company during this week and we can see if we are interested, we jumped at the offer. The offer was made at 6 PM for a show to start at 8 PM.  Tickets were available and booked over phone. When the actual place of the show was located on Google, it turned out that the place was not so neighborly and 60 miles away.  Just for orientation, it is like traveling from Mandya to Bangalore. After an early supper we stated at 6.45 PM and our journey itself was a suspense adventure, considering the evening traffic. Theater officials are very strict here and close the doors of the hall two minutes before the start of the show. We had only an hour to travel, find a parking place and go over to the theater for collecting the tickets. When delayed for catching a flight or train we hope that the plane or train is also late. Here there was no such hope. When we parked the car it was exactly 8 PM and we had no hopes of getting in. The theater manager realized that we had traveled far and made us an offer. He would allow us inside but we will not get the original seats allotted to us, but the nearest to aisle so that other guests were not disturbed. We accepted the offer and in the bargain got probably better seats. Total seating capacity of the theater was about 300 and well maintained. The play had just begun and probably only three minutes were lost. Only the first three characters had entered the stage.

"Black Coffee" is the first play written by Agatha Christie and produced initially in 1930. This first piece  launched a successful second career for her as a playwright.  Hercule Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings are summoned to visit a famous physicist, Sir Claud Amory, but they discover on their arrival that he has been murdered. The plot revolves around a stolen formula for manufacture of explosives, with Poirot deducing which of Sir Claud's house guests/family members is the killer.  The action unfolds in the library of Sir Claude Amory's estate at Abbot's Cleve, about twenty-five miles from London, less than half the distance we traveled to see the show. 

I came to know some interesting facts about Agatha Christie at the theater :
  • She worked as a Nurse during the First World War at a hospital in her home town. She liked the profession and called it one of the most rewarding professions that anyone can follow".  The job influenced   her much and many of the murders in her books and plays, including "Black Coffee", are carried out with poison.
  • In 1930 she wrote in her diary that "Poirot was insufferable and an egocentric creep", about a character created by herself.
  • She wrote her autobiography and it was published after her death because Christie told the Publishers, "If anybody writes about my life in future, I'd rather they got the facts right!"
  • Her tombstone reads: "Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas. Ease after war, death after life, does greatly please".   
The show lasted for two and a half hours and was well acted and conveyed the heart of the plot in clear terms. The trade mark mustache of Hercule Poirot was there and we thoroughly enjoyed the show. The artistes and the Director received standing ovation at the conclusion of the play.

"Mousetrap" did not get  fit into our calendar.  We at least got Black Coffee!


  1. Very well! you deserved Black Coffee!, very interesting, you have a very good memory ,please keep writing! Thank you

  2. Would love to attend an Agatha Christie play someday. Thanks for these snippets!