The audience doesn’t know whether to laugh with or at “And Then There Were None,” Kevin Elyot’s intriguing if only intermittently successful attempt to make Agatha Christie palatable for the 21st century. Given over more to camp than to genuine cries of alarm, Steven Pimlott’s production shifts tone almost as many times as Mark Thompson’s overpowering near-mausoleum of a set changes locations. Play is easier going than “The Mousetrap,” to be sure, and benefits from a surprisingly affecting turn from Tara Fitzgerald in the femme lead. But those expecting an “Inspector Calls”-style overhaul of Dame Agatha may be chagrined to find more of the same, with only the sex and violence turned up a notch or two.
The material has had various incarnations, including one by a title, “Ten Little Niggers,” that wouldn’t wash today. Returning primarily to the Christie novel and not the play, Elyot amplifies the moral component of a tale that surely remains at least two-thirds standard-issue whodunnit. Stalked less by a killer in their midst than by a communal sense of retributive justice, the 10 characters confined to an island all must confront the hangman’s noose of their own conscience — and some doggedly cliche period discourse along the way.
It may simply be that Christie resists the kind of theatrical smarts Stephen Daldry famously brought to bear on “An Inspector Calls,” whose author, J.B. Priestley, was a more trenchant observer of the social and political scene. For all the talk of “serious times” (show is set in 1938), “And Then There Were None” seems at least halfway hell-bent on sending itself up.
Even during the more sober-minded passages, you can’t resist thinking what the disparate likes of Charles Ludlam or Carol Burnett would have made of the same scenario, which might land with greater authority and force, paradoxically, if Elyot and company had pushed the implicit pastiche much further.
As it is, show has one foot in a literally by-the-book narrative that makes for an especially ponderous first act. Scarcely have the lights gone up on our distinguished octet of dinner guests, and the two servants assigned to them, before young Anthony Marston (Sam Crane) is projectile-vomiting across the table like something out of “The Exorcist.”
His subsequent demise is accompanied by the loss of one of the 10 toy soldiers encircling the central column of Thompson’s art deco set, on which we see the children’s nursery rhyme detailing just how the characters will be bumped off. Marston’s departure, meanwhile, is scarcely to be mourned, since antic newcomer Crane is all but unbearable in the role.
One down, nine to go, and with that the realization that the survivors all share — gasp! — a guilty past. Small wonder that for dessert, their absent, potentially nonexistent host is heard pointing a long finger of blame via an ominous recording.
Nerves fray, the weather worsens and any rescue boat seems forever out of reach: In existential terms, “And Then There Were None” announces nothing less than a collective reckoning, albeit spiked with Anglicisms like “crikey” and “blimey” (sometimes in the same sentence).
How do you play such stuff? There’s a rub that Pimlott hasn’t quite massaged. It isn’t just the difference in class that makes Gemma Jones’ starchy, God-fearing Emily Brent sound as if she occupies an entirely different universe from John Ramm’s comically malevolent butler, Rogers. (Jones, though, performs a lovely death scene that is as near as the evening gets to grand opera.)
With his hangdog visage and self-parodic vocal attack, Ramm would seem to be channeling his erstwhile japery for the National Theater of Brent. He gets laughs, all right, but at the expense of the tonal integrity of a piece that may innately resist a unifying approach.
As the ranks diminish, the staging picks up, even if there are fewer genuine screams on offer here than in a London long-runner like “The Woman in Black.” (One such moment is an overwrought vaudeville of strobe lighting.) With veterans like Jones, Graham Crowden and Richard Johnson cutting a trio of beautifully bred baddies, acting honors belong to the eternally youthful Fitzgerald as a games mistress who knows a ghoulish thing or two.
Against the odds, she brings elements of Lady Macbeth to the advancing guilt threatening to overtake Vera more quickly than unbridled lust. (Her eleventh-hour assignation with Anthony Howell’s dashing Capt. Lombard may raise eyebrows among those steeped in the time warp of “The Mousetrap.”) Crumbling elegantly away in evening clothes, Fitzgerald most unexpectedly brings sensuality to the table. In Christie’s stiff-backed world, that’s saying something.