Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express, making a crime scene of the upper classes’ first-class form of European travel, has a final twist that numbers – along with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Mousetrap – among her very best.
Successive generations have protected these ingenious denouements for the pleasure of new viewers. But even for those who know its audacious pay-off, Murder on the Orient Express remains a joy for the author’s exemplary plotting – it’s a different sort of fun to be in on where Christie is leading and misleading us – and the latest actor inhabiting Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot.
Whereas David Suchet (ITV), John Malkovich (BBC) and Kenneth Branagh (movies) have explored the inner darkness of a veteran of one European war who grimly expects the next, Henry Goodman initially concentrates on the comedy of Poirot’s egotism and dandyism.
Recent theatre has sensibly moved away from accented English for foreigners. However, Christie’s characterisation of Poirot centres on English mispronunciation. The excuse is that he is speaking a second tongue, so Jonathan Church’s perky production of an adaptation by US playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor) is careful also to give Poirot some impeccable French, plus Hungarian and Russian with two of the polyglot suspects.
Despite Christie’s economic heft in theatre, this novel is not often staged, likely due to the challenge of depicting locomotion. Robert Jones’s design uses the thematic solution of quickly trucking in on tracks the necessary restaurant cars, compartments and stations – so effectively that one route received a show-stopping round of applause.
At the interval, it seems surprising that such froth, albeit enjoyable, has attracted an actor of Goodman’s quality, but the explanation comes when he commands the large stage with 40 minutes of near monologue as Poirot prowls and pounces among the suspects. Goodman reaches every note of the investigator’s vast intelligence and, ultimately, pain. The storyline makes the supporting case ensemble but Patrick Robinson is especially powerful as the train company boss.
Both the 1974 and 2017 movie adaptations were released pre-Christmas, which was smart marketing for a cosy entertainment set on a snowbound train. And as fake flakes fall, it sometimes feels as if there has been a seasonal breach, and the bars should be serving mulled not chilled wine. But perhaps a different commercial savvy is at work, with its sights trained on a winter tour or transfer, which few would rail against.
• At Chichester Festival theatre until 4 June.