Agatha Christie on Stage: From Playscripts to Playbills.
Updated: Nov 10
The following is the core content of my presentation given at the 2023 International Agatha Christie Festival with images of all the key slides shared. If you attended in person, I hope you enjoy the recap! If you were unable to attend then I'm glad I can finally share this with you in full. It was an enjoyable research project and a fun way to share items from my collection. I hope you find it interesting. I have numerous other in depth projects I'm working on and I look forward to sharing them with you in the future.
While Agatha Christie wrote numerous original stage plays, she also adapted some of her stories for the stage, as did others. She clearly enjoyed writing plays too as this quote informs us.
“I find that writing plays is much more fun than writing books. For one thing you need not worry about those long descriptions of places and people. And you must write quickly if only to keep the mood while it lasts, and to keep the dialogue flowing naturally.” – Agatha Christie c.1950s
With such a large amount of potential content we will be mostly looking at Christie’s original plays and those she adapted herself during her first 30 years on stage. While numerous Christie stories were adapted for the stage by others, we won’t go into depth on most of these. However, it is important to know when reading a play, is it something Christie wrote or something someone else did – as the quality can be significantly different.
In addition to collecting playscripts. I also enjoy collecting theatre memorabilia – between them they can transport you back in time to the moment when these plays were new – from how they were promoted and who starred in them.
As we take this journey together through the world of Christie on stage, we’ll go chronologically… but not based on the date the plays were written but when they were first performed.
1928-May-15: ALIBI: (adapted by Michael Morton).
The first Agatha Christie story to be performed on stage was ‘Alibi’ – adapted by Michael Morton and based on ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’. It opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London on May 15th, 1928. While the play’s script was generally not immediately published for people to buy, most of the time they were published within a few years of the play’s initial performances. The play featured Charles Laughton in the role of Poirot and was directed by Gerald du Maurier – Daphne du Maurier’s father.
While the playscript was not written by Christie, we know that Christie was involved in its production. A newspaper article from the period confirmed that she even attended the rehearsals – something she did often.
One of the great appeals of collecting vintage playscripts is most of them contained photos of the actual set designs. When Samuel French published the playscript in 1929 it contained photographs of these original sets which really helps bring the play to life. There are two photos – showing Roger Ackroyd’s home…
and also what is likely the first ever representation of Poirot’s study on stage or screen.
I also enjoy reading the props lists and staging cues in the rear of these playscripts. While it’s highly likely Christie didn’t write these, there’s a certain period charm to seeing the deemed importance of a Tatler or a Sketch, as well as guidance on how to handle the stabbing of Roger Ackroyd!
For collectors, in addition to the playscripts published by Samuel French, many plays were also produced as ‘typescripts’ in the early years. These are particularly hard to find but are important to know about as they often show how the text and stage directions changed over time. This copy from my collection has the ‘Hughes Massie’ stamp on the cover – whether from her agent’s own archives or just reminding potential producers who her agent was, I don’t know. I used to believe they were only created prior to Samuel French printing copies, but it’s doesn’t appear this was the case.
‘Alibi’ also went to New York in 1932 – but under the slightly different title ‘The Fatal Alibi’. It opened at the Booth Theatre on Broadway – a theatre named for the actor Edwin Booth whose brother, James Booth – also an actor, infamously assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Charles Laughton, who starred in the role of Poirot in London also transferred with the play to Broadway. While I haven’t seen a programme for the London production, this is the playbill from the US which featured him on the cover.
Numerous other Christie stories were adapted by other playwrights for the stage but given our time constraints today, we’ll now focus mostly on the plays Christie wrote or adapted herself.
1930-Dec-8: BLACK COFFEE (original).
In December 1930, Christie’s first original play appeared on stage – produced by the wonderfully named Mr. Whatmore. Originally titled ‘After Dinner’, ‘Black Coffee’ premiered over a two-week run at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage – just north of Regent’s Park in London. Unlike almost every other play, the first printing of this playscript was by Alfred Ashley & Son, though later editions were printed by Samuel French. This original playscript is quite rare, and sadly lacks any photographs of the original set design.
The Samuel French edition published in 1952 features a depiction of Poirot on its cover, because - of note – this was the only original Christie play featuring her Belgian detective. In the four Poirot novels that Christie later adapted for the stage, she removed him from the story. Also of note, this edition does have a set design included – though still no period photograph.
It’s important to note that scripts did change over time. Christie herself updated them as did others involved in the production of plays. Much of this was to keep the play current and adjust the language to the times. For example, when I look at my original 1930s typescript of ‘Black Coffee’ I see Barbara Amory concerned that the men saw her ankles. Later editions printed by Samuel French did not include this reference!
After ‘Black Coffee’ it would be 13 years until any fresh Christie-penned play was performed – and this was a play she adapted from her one of her books. It would be over 20 years after ‘Black Coffee’ until another truly original Christie play appeared on stage.
1936: LOVE FROM A STRANGER: (adapted by Frank Vosper)
In the in-between years there were a few Christie-credited plays that appeared on stage, but they were adapted by others. First was ‘Love From a Stranger’ – adapted by Frank Vosper (who also starred in it) from Christie’s short story ‘The Stranger’ or as it was later known ‘Philomel Cottage’. It was first performed in 1936.
I reference it because for collectors of playscripts ‘Love from a Stranger’ is particularly unique as Collins published the first edition - simultaneously as both a hardback and a paperback in 1936. As the publisher of her hardback novels perhaps they were testing out whether there was a large enough market for playscripts. If this was the case, demand likely wasn’t there as Collins didn’t do this again for another 37 years when Akhnaton was published in 1973.
From 1943 til 1953, eight new Christie plays made it to the stage – none of them were original – they were all adaptations. Of these seven were adapted by Agatha Christie from her own novels and stories, while the eighth - Murder at the Vicarage - was adapted by others.
We’ll now take a look at the seven Christie herself adapted.
1943-Sep-20: AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (adapted by AC).
The first of these reached the stage in 1943 – it was only the second Christie-penned play. In the UK, ‘And Then There was None’ was performed with the same title as her 1939 novel from which the play was adapted. Samuel French published this playscript in June 1944 with a photo of the original set.
Surprising to some perhaps given the various film adaptations over the years or later stage productions, the set design was described in the playscript as “a very modern room and luxuriously furnished”. This post-war modern design – perhaps now considered ‘mid-century modern’ has similar design elements to the Lawn Road Flats in London, where Christie was living at the time.
While the play originally opened in Wimbledon, its West End premiere was at the St. James’s Theatre, where it stayed for its entire run – with the exception of about 8 weeks. On February 23rd, 1944, during what was known as the mini-blitz, multiple bombs fell in the vicinity of the St. James’s Theatre – with one landing on it. Luckily for theatre-goers the bombs landed at 11:50pm, and during the war, theatre times were moved earlier to assist with blackouts. That evening, the play’s performance had begun at 5:40pm. As one says, the play must go on… and so it did at the nearby Cambridge Theatre until St. James’s could be reopened. This programme from that short run at The Cambridge is quite rare, but serves as a reminder of how theatre in general went on during the war – providing both an escape and a sense of normalcy.
While many of the Samuel French playscripts were printed for the global market, a north American printing was done given the name change to ‘Ten Little Indians’. Rather shockingly, this printing has a spoiler-filled synopsis of the play right in the front of the playscript and a rather unique description of the play as “a phantasmagoria of gruesome (though rather comical) details”. Sadly, there are no pictures of the New York set design nor is it clear whether the US production even followed the script.
It is generally believed that Albert de Courville, the British theatrical director, modified the script to make it more comedic. However, no working copy of his script has yet surfaced. As you can see here, it was promoted on posters in New York as a “hilarious mystery thriller” - so some questionable changes must have occurred.
The play’s New York Broadway run began in June 1944 at the Broadhurst Theatre. While a photo of several actors adorned the cover, one disadvantage of this was when Claudia Morgan – the actress shown here on the left who played the role of Vera Claythorne – left the production after only a few weeks. The Broadhurst quickly changed the cover of the programme to a very generic image. Consequently, these original first state programmes are very uncommon and highly collectible. The play transferred to the Plymouth Theatre in early 1945 where the new programmes reinstated a photo – now with the new actress playing Vera – Beverly Roberts – shown on the left. The play finished its Broadway run here – lasting just over one year in total.
For collectors, finding any programmes for plays produced during World War II and through to the early 1950s is very challenging due to the paper rationing and recycling drives – this is true both in the US and UK. You can see this notice here of the requirement to share, and many were likely returned for reuse.
As with many of her plays, Christie made substantial changes to the novel – for ‘And Then There Were None’ she provided a different ending. Perhaps this is understandable with this play for a variety of reasons. Many theatre-goers likely wanted a distraction from the ever present reality of World War II and the novel’s ending is certainly darker than the revised ending in the play. When one considers that this play was also shown to members of the armed forces – both at home and in the theatre of operations – the ending was likely far more appealing to them.
Of note, when ‘Ten Little Indians’ was performed for The War Department Theatre at West Point in October 1944, the entire Broadway cast and production was brought to them. In the European Theatre the play was produced by the U. S. Army Special Service in cooperation with the USO. The cast included several well known stage & radio stars of the era. These programmes are very uncommon, but they really help provide a sense of time and place for this play.
1944-Jan-17: HIDDEN HORIZON / MURDER ON THE NILE (adapted by AC)
The next Christie play to hit the stage was her adaptation of ‘Death on the Nile’ – originally billed as ‘Hidden Horizon’ and then later as ‘Murder on the Nile’. It was first staged at the Dundee Repertory Theatre in January 1944. This play ended up in Dundee for its initial performance because of the actor Frances Sullivan. He credited that play’s director Mr. Whatmore as giving him his break back in 1930 – 14 years earlier – when he starred in Christie’s ‘Black Coffee’. Mr. Whatmore was now running the Dundee Repertory Theatre and Francis Sullivan wanted to thank him by bringing a future West End play to him.
One item in my collection I’m really pleased to have is the proof artwork used on the Samuel French playscript. This was a generous gift from Samuel French many years ago.
Of note, the artist is Joyce Dennys who attended the Exeter Art School in the early 1900s so her path may well have crossed with Christie leading to this commission. She was also a well-known contributor to The Sketch.
In this playscript is a photo of the original set design. Perhaps less well known is that it was designed by Danae Sullivan – the wife of its lead actor Francis Sullivan. Here we have the observation saloon of the steamer “Lotus”.
The play toured various theatres in the UK before finally making it to the Ambassador’s Theatre in the West End in March 1946 – but it only lasted six weeks. In the US it opened in September 1946 but retained the original title ‘Hidden Horizon’ – it only lasted 12 performances. Consequently, programmes from either the UK or US productions are exceptionally scarce. This US playbill shows that it was produced and directed by the same team behind ‘Ten Little Indians’ - the Shubert brothers and Albert de Courville.
It’s also interesting to see an ad for Frank Sinatra as he had only recently started his solo career and 1946 was the year he released his debut album – The Voice of Frank Sinatra.
1945-Jan-29: APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH (adapted by AC).
‘Appointment with Death’ was adapted into a play by Christie in 1944. When she adapted the story, she significantly reworked it – including the motive and the whodunnit. In my opinion, the play offers a far more satisfying outcome for the reader than the novel and is one of my favourites, not only for the plot development, but also the dialogue and witty banter.
It opened in Glasgow in January 1945 and then went on a short national tour to Northampton and Manchester, before landing at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End in March 1945. This was another play that didn’t have legs – closing after 42 performances – making original programmes exceptionally difficult to find. Why it closed so quickly is open for debate, but these were the waning days of WWII in Europe – with VE day just a few days after the play closed – so people certainly had other things to focus on.
However, one positive came from it… as we can see from the cast list. The original West End production featured Joan Hickson, in the role of Miss Pryce.
According to Agatha Christie Limited, Christie was so taken with her performance that she wrote to Ms. Hickson and stated that she hoped she would one day play the character of Miss Marple. While it took 39 years to come true, Joan Hickson was finally cast as Miss Marple in 1984!
While Samuel French bought the publication rights in 1947, a playscript wasn’t published by them until 1956. Since her agent, Hughes Massie, did not actively promote this play for amateur production, very few playscripts appear to have been published in the initial print run – making the first printing exceptionally difficult, potentially even the hardest, to find. For those that can find one, you’ll be pleased to know it does contain photographs of the original set designs. The first is of the lounge at the King Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem for Act I.
The second photo is of the Travellers’ Camp at Petra for Acts II and III. This is particularly good to see as it’s a great visual aid when reading the play.
There is no doubt the story and plot points clearly challenged both Christie and the set designers.
1945: TOWARDS ZERO - outside (adapted by AC)
The next play to reach the stage was the only play Christie wrote as a result of a commission. The Shuberts in the US, who had produced several of her plays already, commissioned a stage adaptation of her recently published novel “Towards Zero”. This play was the first to premiere in North America. It opened on 4-Sep-1945 at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. It has not been professionally produced since.
This was considered a ‘lost play’ until its script resurfaced based upon research in 2015 by Dr. Julius Green for his wonderful book – Curtain Up – a must read for anyone interested in the history of Christie’s plays. This play is not to be confused by the later adaptation written mostly by Gerald Verner but with some minor input by Christie. To differentiate, Christie’s original adaptation is often referred to as “Towards Zero – Outside” because it is set on the terrace, while the later adaptation is referred to as “Towards Zero – Inside” as it is set entirely inside Lady Tresselian’s home.
When the playscript was approved for publication a few years ago, Samuel French first issued it as a large format comb-bound printing. For collectors there are no vintage publications to acquire. Perhaps there’s a programme out there somewhere from Martha’s Vineyard, but I’m yet to find one.
There’s yet to be a professional production since the test run back in 1945.
1951: THE HOLLOW (adapted by AC).
‘The Hollow’ was the next play Christie adapted that appeared on stage. It opened at the Art's Theatre in Cambridge in February 1951 although Christie was absent as she was in Iraq accompanying her husband Max Mallowan on one of his archaeological expeditions. As with her other plays, Christie adapted the story heavily – such as removing Poirot. In ‘The Hollow’ which has some excellent comedic banter, there was obviously some concern that a director may make the play too funny so one of the stage directions related to the Inspector is “He must not be played as a comedic part”.
As an aside, for collectors of the original Samuel French playscripts, you may find ones with stamps or stickers that discuss whether the play can actually be performed by amateurs. You can see here a stamp from inside an original printing of ‘The Hollow’ stating no performances by amateurs until October 1953 which marked one year after the end of the West End production.
As with other Samuel French printings, the original playscript does have a photo of the set showing the garden room of Sir Henry Angkatell’s house.
After a brief test run in Cambridge, it re-opened in Nottingham in May 1951, and went on a three-week tour prior to moving to the West End. The last stop on this tour was at the Theatre Royal in Birmingham. This scarce promotional flyer for that final stop is informative because it shows how Peter Saunders tried to overcome the reality that he didn’t have any big-name stars in the play. The lead was given to Jeanne de Casalis – a comedic radio star from the 1930s – while other parts were given to actors who were perhaps less well known to many.
The play opened in the West End at the Fortune Theatre in London on June 7, 1951 – but it only stayed there for four months – making this original programme a scarce survivor. The programme is also highly desirable for collectors as it is the first play written by Agatha Christie that Peter Saunders produced.
After the Fortune, it transferred to the Ambassadors Theatre in October where it ran for a total of eleven months before closing.
‘The Hollow’ was considered a success by Christie – even Queen Mary attended a performance. At the end of 1951, while it was still playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, Peter Saunders received the script from Christie for her next play – The Mousetrap.
1952-Oct-6: THE MOUSETRAP (adapted by AC).
‘The Mousetrap’ was first performed at The Theatre Royal in Nottingham on the 6th October, 1952. This was its first leg on a seven-week tour in advance of moving to London.
The play was adapted by Christie from a short radio play she wrote that was first aired in 1947, which was itself inspired by real life events.
The first playscript – shown here - was published by Samuel French two years later – in 1954.
Included was a photograph of the original set design for The Great Hall at Monkswell Manor – not a lot has changed over the years for those who have been more recently.
Material related to ‘The Mousetrap’ is probably the most widely collected – due to both its popularity and because of how long it has run. When one considers what a success it is, it’s interesting to see the programme for its first performance at The Theatre Royal in Nottingham – with a ballerina on the cover! If only they knew.
When the play opened in London on 25th November 1952, its new home was the Ambassadors Theatre, and the cover of the programme had an image of a mousetrap – but no actual title. The earliest programmes just state “Directed by Peter Cotes” on the bottom of the front (who of note was the husband of Joan Newell who had just appeared in ‘The Hollow’). However, by mid-1953, Saunders parted ways with Cotes and brought in Hubert Gregg to assist with the production. From this point on Cotes name was removed from the programme and it was replaced with the statement ‘This play was produced here on November 25th, 1952’. For collectors, the original version with Attenborough and Sims in the cast, and the programmes from the advance tour are all highly collectible.
Other collectibles from the early years are original posters – here clearly giving Attenborough and Sim top billing.
With Saunders’ success with ‘The Hollow’, he was finally able to attract the big stars he wanted – and there’s little doubt that their billing launched the play successfully and gave it legs. Also shown here are the unique silk programmes issued to commemorate special moments – a theatre tradition that dates back to the 18th century. These are the special programmes that recognized the 1000th performance, and also the 2239th performance – when ‘The Mousetrap’ became the longest running theatrical show in London’s West End – eclipsing the show ‘Chu Chin Chow’ from almost 30 years earlier. These are scarce but do show up for auction or sale periodically.
This cartoon from 1959 I particularly like – and there are many fun promotional pieces or cartoons like this that are affordable and easy to find.
As the years went on, the theatre programmes changed – many promoting how many years the play has been around. The one on the left is from 1966, the one with the fingerprint is from 1973 – the final year of the play’s run at The Ambassador where it had now completed 21 years. The play moved next door in March 1974 to the St. Martin’s Theatre – likely where most of us in the room have seen it. Sadly, many programmes over the years had fairly uninspired covers, but others have had unique designs or photos of the theatre on the front. Each is a snapshot in time and provides the details of the hundreds of actors who have played their part over the years.
The Mousetrap was first performed in the States on the Arena Stage inside the Hippodrome in Washington D.C. It was a theatre in the round and the last play to be produced at this historic theatre – where it ran for eight weeks.
Before the play made it to New York, it was performed in various other venues in the USA. In 1959, it was staged at the Little Phoenix Theatre – the oldest theatre in Arizona. For collectors of playbills this one is unique as it came with a contract you had to sign promising not to divulge the ending! The play didn’t get its official Broadway debut until November 1960 when it opened at the Maidman Playhouse where it played for three months, before moving to the Greenwich Mews Theatre where it lasted two more months before closing… so five months in total for its Broadway run… certainly not the same legs as London.
As we move onto her next play, it’s important to note that given the success of The Mousetrap, it overlapped with future Christie plays as she didn’t stop writing for the stage.
1953-Sep-28: WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (adapted by AC).
‘Witness for the Prosecution’ was adapted by Christie from a short-story originally titled ‘Traitor Hands’. As did ‘The Mousetrap’, this play also opened at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. Its first performance was the 28th September 1953. It then travelled to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Sheffield before moving into its West End home at the relatively large Winter Garden Theatre on the 28th October 1953. The first playscript was published by Samuel French in 1954 – shown here.
Unlike most playscripts, this had an ‘author’s note’ from Agatha Christie who was concerned that the almost 30 actors required would be too much for amateur performances – so she provides insights on how to reduce the number of actors needed.
One of these suggestions is to have members of the audience invited on stage and use them in non-speaking roles – such as in the jury. This is something the current production at County Hall in London has taken a step further as you can now pay extra for the privilege of sitting in the jury box.
The first printing of the playscript also includes photos of the two sets needed for this play – the first being the Chambers of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Q.C.
and the second being the Old Bailey or Central Criminal Court. This was clearly a substantial set design project.
For collectors of programmes – the original programme from the Winter Garden Theatre is quite different from earlier plays with its photo on the cover.
Also of note, is how they masked the complexity of plot twists by a single entry of ‘The Other Woman’ in the cast list – an entry that likely was assumed to be one actress until the last moments of the play. I also enjoy seeing in these old programmes what was relevant at the time – here we have credits for both the provider of the telephone and also for the nylon stockings.
Given the success of Christie’s plays and their star-maker abilities, the inside of the programme contains numerous pictures of the actors at work.
David Horne, who played Sir Wilfrid, had previously been in ‘Murder on the Nile’. Patricia Jessel – relatively unknown prior to this – became a huge star because of her role as Romaine.
Of note, the early programmes also have an ad on the rear panel promoting The Mousetrap – here still starring Richard Attenborough. The play continued at the Winter Garden until January 1955 when it closed after 458 performances.
The play opened in the States originally in New Haven, Connecticut, in November 1954.
Here we have a scarce promotional flyer for that pre-Broadway tour with a ticket order form on the rear. As you can see, Patricia Jessel had left the West End production mid-run and gone to the States. For the role of Sir Wilfrid, Peter Saunders hired Francis Sullivan – the actor who had played Poirot in Black Coffee 24 years earlier. After New Haven, the play went to Boston before New York.
The play opened at the Henry Miller Theatre on Broadway on the 16th December 1954. Here we have a promotional poster as well as the playbill cover for that production.
In the States, the same use of ‘other woman’ was used in the cast list. I also find the period ads fascinating.
We learn the the S.S. United States is the world’s fastest ship getting you to Europe in less than 5 days and we also see that this play was on Broadway at the same as Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews were starring in My Fair Lady.
For collectors there is a first hardback printing of this play which is found in “Famous Plays of 1954”, published during the year by Victor Gollancz.
This is an actual printing of the playscript – not to be confused with the short-story that also shows up in various book collections. You’ll see the last play included is ‘Carrington, V.C.’ written by Dorothy and Campbell Christie. Campbell Christie was the brother of Agatha Christie's first husband Archibald. He helped Agatha to turn 12 short stories into what would become the novel The Big Four.
1954-Sep-27: SPIDER’S WEB (original).
The next Christie play to reach the stage was only her second fully original play – the first being ‘Black Coffee’ from 1930. This new play was ‘Spider’s Web’ and was first performed at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham in September 1954. Samuel French published the playscript in 1956.
Fortunately Samuel French was still providing a photo of the original set design – which for this play was the drawing room of Copplestone Court – the Hailsham-Browns’s home in Kent.
The genesis of this play is rather unique. Herbert de Leon was the manager for the film actress Margaret Lockwood – who was Britain’s highest paid film star in the 1940s and early 1950s. She had become interested in moving from film to stage, so de Leon contacted Peter Saunders and suggested to him that he ask Agatha Christie to write a play specifically for her to star in.
When Christie and Lockwood met to discuss the idea, Lockwood requested that she didn't play a sinister or wicked part but wanted a role in a "comedy thriller". They clearly had a great respect for each other as successful women. There is a great quote from an interview Lockwood gave to the press where she says: “Agatha has the gift of doing what all women want to do, but only men have a chance …. The only consolation I get is that Agatha kills off a few of you”.
The play had an eleven-week pre-London tour, starting in Nottingham. This program is from its stop in Manchester mid-way through the tour. Any of the pre-West End programmes are scarce, but great fun to search for.
We see from the cast, that in addition to Margaret Lockwood the play also starred a then less well-known actor – Desmond Llewelyn. However, he would become very well known nine years later when he took the role of “Q” in the James Bond film “From Russia with Love”.
‘Spider’s Web’ opened in London at the Savoy Theatre on the 14th December 1954.
This original programme clearly puts Margaret Lockwood front and centre as the star – despite the rather unemotional portrait photo. It’s interesting to note the concern about revolver shots – something I've learned was due to complaints from residents in the hotel - but also fun to continue to see credits for the provision of the telephone, nylon stockings, and the chocolates and cigarette lighter.
It’s worth pausing for a second to note that when ‘Spider’s Web’ opened at the Savoy, Agatha now had three plays running simultaneously in London’s West End – this, ‘The Mousetrap’ and ‘Witness for the Prosecution’. This was a new record for a female playwright. While Witness for the Prosecution closed in January 1955, Spider’s Web continued for almost two more years.
However, Margaret Lockwood left the cast in May 1956 after 15 months in the role. A suitable replacement was needed – preferably another film star. The role was given to Anne Crawford – both a film and television star of the day, but also the wife of the director Wallace Douglas.
But her role was short lived – Anne died from leukemia in October that year resulting in the play closing shortly thereafter. For collectors, the promotional ads and programmes from Anne Crawford’s stint are much rarer than those of Margaret Lockwood.
One last challenge for Peter Saunders was that he’d committed to two weeks of performances off the West End once the play’s run ended. Margaret Lockwood saved the day for him – resuming her role for these last performances.
1956-Jul-9: A DAUGHTER’S A DAUGHTER (original)
Before ‘Spider’s Web’ closed, Christie did get another play on the stage. ‘A Daughter’s a Daughter’ opened on the 9th July 1956. It ran for only one-week and didn’t make it to London. Agatha Christie wrote this play in the 1930s, under her own name and it was first proposed for production in 1939 but its premiere was halted due to World War II. It wasn’t until 17 years later that it was finally performed and only at the Theatre Royal in Bath. It finally made it to London in 2009 and didn’t have a North American premiere until 2020. There are no early Samuel French playscripts – the first publication of the play for readers or collectors was only a few years ago. Interestingly this is the only original play Christie wrote that she later adapted into a novel and then under her pen name of Mary Westmacott.
1956-Aug-6: TOWARDS ZERO – indoors (adapted with Gerald Verner).
The next play to reach the stage was Towards Zero – the indoor version - adapted by Gerald Verner and Agatha Christie from her novel. However, Christie’s actual contribution to the playscript is questionable and likely very minimal, though she did buy all Verner’s rights out prior to the play going into production. This allowed Christie to take full credit on the cover as seen here in the first printing by Samuel French.
As with several other plays, Towards Zero did a four week long pre-London tour which started in Nottingham’s Theatre Royal on the 6th August 1956.
The original playscript continued the tradition of including a photo of the original set design. Here we see the drawing room at Gull’s Point, Lady Tressilian’s house at Saltcreek in Cornwall – though the dropcloth painting through the windows looks rather like Burgh Island!
The last week of the tour before going to London was at the Coventry Theatre starting on 27th August. This programme from that week is rather fun because not only do we get all the credits for the suppliers of the clothing, record player and tobacco, but we also get to see what music was played as an overture and also during the intermission and again, fortunately there were no revolver shots in the play!
It then went to the St. James’s Theatre, in London’s West End on 4th September 1956 – the same theater that premiered ‘And Then There Were None’ just over 10 years earlier. This is the original programme for that production – sadly a fairly uninspired cover.
For collectors, ‘Towards Zero’ has a unique US playscript printing published by Dramatists Play Service in 1957. It’s unclear why there was a unique US only version of this play and that the US market didn’t receive a Samuel French printing. This American playscript also contained the same set photo while stating that all amateur acting rights in the US and Canada are controlled by the Dramatists Play Service. It also tells you how to buy a vinyl record for each of the necessary sound effects!
In the rear of both the British Samuel French playscript and the US version, there is a ‘scene design’ and accessory list.
Of note I love how the book needs to be a ‘Penguin’ – an odd choice given that they didn’t print the first paperback of Towards Zero… but perhaps a nod to The Bodley Head – her first publisher – from where Penguin books was born.
1958-Feb-24: VERDICT (original).
The next Christie play to reach the stage was an original play – initially titled ‘No Fields of Amaranth’ it premiered under the name ‘Verdict’. Unlike the previous few plays, its premiere was not in Nottingham but at The Grand in Wolverhampton, in February 1958.
The first playscript was printed by Samuel French in September 1958 and the play was eligible for private production from October onwards.
The first printing still contained a photograph of the set design – here showing the living room of Dr. Hendryk’s London flat.
The décor for this set was done by Joan Farjeon – the same lady who designed Sir Henry Angkatell’s living room for ‘The Hollow’ seven years earlier.
The original flyer for the world premiere in Wolverhampton gives top billing to Patricia Jessel – reminding us of her role in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ – not only in London but in New York where she won a Tony award for her performance. The flyer is also very transparent in stating that the play “is not a whodunit”. However, when the play opened in London at the Strand Theatre on 22nd May, 1958 – it was to poor reviews and Patricia Jessel’s presence could not save it. For those that have read ‘Verdict’ you know it is more of a traditional play – there are no secrets or surprise endings – things that audiences likely expected. Consequently, the play had a very short run, closing within a month of opening.
1958-Oct-4: THE UNEXPECTED GUEST (original).
Given the failure of ‘Verdict’, Saunders and Christie realized the best solution was to stage another play as quickly as possible – this time one in a more traditional Christie style. The play was “The Unexpected Guest”.
It was first performed on the 4th August 1958 at The Hippodrome in Bristol. It played for only one week before moving to the Duchess Theatre, in London’s West End, where it opened on the 12th of August.
The speed with which Christie and Saunders accomplished this is shocking and likely something that couldn’t be replicated today. ‘Verdict’ closed on the 21st June, but by the 14th of July – less than 3 weeks later, Christie had resurrected a previously conceived play and finalized its script. Cast members were signed, Hubert Gregg hired to direct it, and rehearsals had begun. Within a month of ‘Verdict’ closing, the trial run in Bristol had been completed and the play was now in the West End.
The photograph of the set design in the first Samuel French printing starts to give a hint as to the style Christie was returning to – with its country house vibes – almost harkening back to ‘The Hollow’. The opening of the play with the curtain being raised to a dead body on stage, shot through the head, instantly tells the audience this may be more of a traditional Christie.
The cast list also confirms another one of the challenges for Saunders which was to find recognized actors given the Verdict’s flop but also the speed at which the play was brought to stage.
This is the original promotional poster for the play where headline billing was still given to the three principal actors despite none of them being household names. This was undoubtedly a ploy to position the actors as if we should know them and diminish the memory of the last play’s outcome.
As the original programme here shows, Christie’s name did not take top billing in that either – here Saunders took headline credit.
But the play saved Christie’s reputation. The critics and audiences loved the play which ran for almost two years and broke all box office records at The Duchess Theatre. Even the Queen went to see the play in early 1959. The play finally closed in January 1960.
While we could continue to discuss Christie’s plays for hours, what we have already covered marks essentially the first thirty years of Christie on stage – from ‘Alibi’ in 1928 to ‘The Unexpected Guest’ in 1958. Given our look back over this period, I’d like to share an excerpt from a letter that was recently auctioned. It was a reply to a fan written by Agatha Christie in 1929 – shortly after ‘Alibi’ was performed. As you can see, it reads: “I hope to have another play on sometime. But plays are very uncertain things. Thank you for all you say about my books. It is always nice to know one’s work is appreciated”.
Little did she know then what a success she would become as a playwright and how much her work continues to be appreciated today.
There are still many plays we haven’t talked about today - such as those shown below - but we’ll just have to save those for another time.
I should also point out that all the plays we’ve discussed today as well as many others are now being published and are available from Samuel French. There are still many unpublished plays – a few shown here – and hopefully one day they will also be available for fans to acquire and read also.
What I do want to end on though is how rewarding collecting things can be. Hopefully by sharing these playscripts, programmes and the theatre memorabilia, you have seen how they take us on a journey that really helps place Christie’s plays at that moment in time when they were first appearing on stage.
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