There’s a reason why Agatha Christie still ranks as the best-selling novelist of all time in the Guinness Book of World Records more than 30 years after her death.
Christie’s knack for taut and impenetrable thrillers remains unrivaled. The British crime writer is the queen of elegant whodunits, murder mysteries that feature a killer whose identity is at once unforeseen and completely credible by the time the revelation rolls around at the end of the story. That skill for suspense drives the action in “Murder on the Nile,” one of Christie’s most successful stage adaptations currently running at the John Hand Theatre in Lowry. The Spotlight Theatre Company handles the thriller with skill and subtlety; Christie’s trademark elements are all at play in the modest confines of the 89-seat John Hand Theatre. The story features an exotic locale, a colorful menagerie of characters/suspects and some truly startling and violent moments, all of which come to life through some standout performances and Bernie Cardell’s direction. Some of the accents are more believable than others, and some expository moments weigh a bit heavy. The suspense is still consistent, and the Spotlight troupe offers a mystery that is intriguing.
All of the action takes place in the parlor of a luxury steamer ship, a vessel that departs from Cairo for a leisurely cruise of the Nile River in the 1940s, a turbulent time in the history of the Middle East. In typical Christie fashion, the motley cast of characters comes at a speedy clip. We meet the well-to-do and hyper-sensitive English socialite Miss Ffoliot-Ffoulkes (Deborah Curtis) and her meek servant Christina Grant (Jenny Weiss); the idealistic young agitator Mr. Smith (Phillip Bettison); and Dr. Bessner (Dale Halton), a physician from an unnamed eastern European country.
The mystery develops with the arrival of Simon Mostyn (Christian Mast) and his wealthy fiancée Kat Mostyn (Kaity Talmage-Bowers). When the couple runs into their old friend and spiritual guide Canon Pennefather (Todd Black) on boarding, the plot thickens. It turns out that Mostyn has spurned his former fiancée, Jacqueline De Severac (Haley Johnson) for Kat. Jacqueline hasn’t taken the slight well, Simon reveals. During the couple’s honeymoon in Egypt, Severac’s been following them from hotel to hotel, from tourist site to tourist site.
The luxury steamer is no shelter, it seems. Jacqueline De Severac appears on the boat before it casts off. She confesses to Pennefather that she delights in causing the pair discomfort; she confesses to violent urges, she reveals she’s carrying a pistol and cites a constant thirst for revenge. That twisted fantasy is realized, it seems, when Jackie accidentally shoots Simon in the parlor. The gunfire doesn’t end there — almost immediately after the first shot rings out, the crew discovers that Kat Mostyn has been murdered, shot in the head by an unknown assailant. De Severac claims innocence — her presence in the parlor rules her out as the murderer, she insists.
What follows is classic Christie: Gradual exposition where everyone is a credible suspect; Gunshots and attacks that ring out at unexpected moments; Plot twists that make sense, against all odds; A murderer revealed, a final scene that poses its own questions.
Deborah Curtis takes a cue from the classic noir films of the ’40s and ’50s for her energetic performance as Ffoliot-Ffoulkes, and Black is meditative and understated in his performance as Black, one of the most layered and intriguing characters in the mystery. As the highly suspicious De Severac, Haley Johnson is a standout. Her thirst for revenge is unsettling and her motives understandable, but Johnson’s measured performance is far from simple or cartoonish.
Vibrant characters find an anchor in a brilliant set design by Bernie Cardell and set dresser Beki Pineda. The John Hand Theatre takes on the feel of a cramped steamer in some faraway time. The soft and subtle lighting schemes by Brian Miller support that sense of place and time.
The production succeeds in maintaining the most important part of a good mystery. The suspects and the motives are legion. The puzzle is constant. The answers aren’t obvious. It’s a formula that’s made Christie and her stories such a durable part of the genre and “Murder on the Nile” such an enjoyable piece of theater.
“Murder on the Nile”
Runs 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Sundays, through Sept. 22.
John Hand Theatre, 7653 E. 1st Place, Denver.
Tickets start at $20.
Information: 720-880-8727 or thisisspotlight.org.