Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Love from a Stranger

Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper
Fiery Angel and Royal and Derngate Northampton
The Lowry,Salford
10 July 2018 to 14 July 2018

Love From a Stranger does not follow the formula that one might expect from an Agatha Christie thriller. Based upon one of Dame Agatha’s short stories and adapted for the stage by Frank Vosper, the play is not a ‘whodunnit’ and a detective does not pop up in the final scene to tie together all of the loose ends. But if there is anyone who can make such an unlikely material work as a thriller it is director Lucy Bailey, who has had great success in the past staging classic mysteries.

When Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) wins a jackpot in the sweepstakes she decides to make some changes in her life. She quits her dead-end job and calls off her marriage to the decent but dull Michael (Justin Avoth). When the globe-trotting free spirit Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum) calls around to view her flat, there is an attraction between the two and Cecily impulsively agrees to marriage. Worryingly, however, Bruce insists on moving to an isolated cottage, has an obsession with keeping the cellar locked, and takes a very active part in managing Cecily’s finances.

Lucy Bailey does not limit her influences to the source material. Love From a Stranger pays tribute to Micheal Powell’s disturbing masterpiece Peeping Tom. Early in the play, Bruce Lovell takes a voyeuristic pleasure in studying Cecily’s discarded clothing. The play does not shy away from the erotic aspects of a killer toying with their victim, with, at one point, a captive seeming to take pleasure in being trapped.

Bailey sets a mood of tension with growing unease, as walls turn transparent to reveal Bruce Lovell eavesdropping, or the light from his darkroom colours the stage red. There is little physical violence in the play but the audience is held in suspense throughout. Lovell likes to photograph his victims, and the audience gets to share his twisted viewpoint as, at key moments, the soundtrack plays the click of a camera and the entire set slides sideways like a roll of film within a camera.

The play unfolds beautifully. There are broad comic turns, with Nicola Sanderson and Molly Logan in fine form as a battle-axe of an auntie and an over-eager maid.  Helen Bradbury makes it easy to believe Cecily would behave with such recklessness. There is a twitchy urgency to Bradbury in the early scenes, as if Cecily has just realised the opportunities that are open to her and is desperate to begin. Justin Avoth makes only too clear why Cecily might feel this way – in a three-piece suit and with his hair slicked back, he looks more like her father than her boyfriend. Sam Frenchum is, outwardly at least, a diamond in the rough, and one can see why Cecily might find his roguish charm appealing after the disappointment of her boyfriend.

Like all good thrillers, Love From a Stranger ends with a twist, and one so extreme that patrons leave the theatre with differing interpretations of what they have just seen. One reason that the twist works so well is the strong on-stage chemistry between Bradbury and Frenchum that makes the final scene tremendously tense. 

Despite the lack of obvious ingredients, Love From a Stranger is a thriller that thrills.

Reviewer: David Cunningham