Bodies to the left, bodies to the right… And Then There Were None

by Mark Burger

The Stained Glass Playhouse will be doing its best to keep the suspense of the Halloween season at full boil with its upcoming production of the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None, which opens Friday, Nov. 5 in the Playhouse (4401 Indiana Ave., Winston-Salem).

The Dame of Death. the Doyenne of Murder.

Agatha the Great. When you think mystery, you inevitably think Agatha Christie (1890-1976). The collection of her novels, short stories and plays is staggering: Witness for the Prosecution, Murder on the Orient Express (AKA Murder in the Calais Coach), The Man in the Brown Suit, The Unexpected Guest, Death on the Nile, the Mirror Crack’d, The Spider’s Web, Ordeal by Innocence… the list is long and lethal.

“Christie is the queen of crime, and the ‘whodunit’ format is something I think audiences never tire of,” said Nathan Adam Sullivan, director of the Stained Glass production. “They like trying to solve the crime along with the characters.”

Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple are among the most popular literary sleuths in history, and Christie created both of them. To this day, Christie remains one of the most popular and successful writers of all time. There are even video games based on Christie’s stories!

“It is quite impressive that her works are so enduring,” Sullivan observed. “And Then There Were None is arguably Christie’s most popular story — it is, at least, the one that has been adapted the most. One might think that the somewhat stodgy upper- and middle- class Brits she wrote about wouldn’t be quite so interesting to us Americans, but the period English atmosphere in her stories seems to make them that much more fascinating to Americans. It adds almost an otherworldly feel to it, [and] helps to the make the experience that much more diversionary and fun.”

Christie’s play The Mousetrap opened in London in 1952 and is still running, 58 years and 23,000 performances later. (Needless to say, the show has undergone a few cast and crew changes over the years.)

And Then There Were None, also known as Ten Little Indians, is quintessential Christie: Ten strangers are assembled at an elegant country house on an island off the coast of Devon. It is there that each is accused of a past murder that he or she has managed to get away with. This unexpected turn of events is only the first of many, as one by one the guests are mysteriously killed off — not unlike the nursery rhyme about the “10 Little Indians,” each of which met a tragic fate. With each guest’s death, a statuette on the mantel breaks.

As their numbers dwindle and their suspicions increase, the survivors realize that themurderer is in their midst. Unless they can figure out who it is, pretty soon only one person will be left standing — and that would be the murderer. The ensemble cast of the Stained Glass production includes Stephen Holley, Debra Hanson, Jeff Haste, Amanda Frazier, Cameron Williams, Zac Hiatt, James Shover, Roland Krueger, Linda Minney, Scott Carpenter and Gregg Vogelsmeier. Which one is the one who- dunit? You’ll have to see for yourself… if you dare!

Rehearsing the crime — errr, the production — has been “an incredible experience,” Sullivan said. “This is the first murder-mystery I’ve directed, and I’m loving creating the psychological tension that would come with being in a situation like that. Knowing the secret [i.e. the solution] and trying to find ways to drop hints without being too obvious is a real challenge and thrill. Of course, for those in the audience who don’t already know the show, it is a huge focus of mine to make it perfectly possible for any of the [characters] to be the killer.

That is, until they bite it.”

The first, and undoubtedly the best, screen version of And Then There Were None was directed by Rene Clair and released in 1945, with a top cast headed by Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston.

Some 20 years later, in 1965, producer Harry Alan Towers (who died last year), an impresario of interesting repute, made the remake Ten Little Indians, which starred Hugh O’Brian, one-time Bond girl Shirley Eaton, and the inimitable Fabian. In 1975, Towers produced another version — this one filmed in Iran! — with a cast including Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer and Richard Attenborough. I interviewed Sommer some years back, and she told me all about this film, including an on-set dust-up between Reed and director Peter Collinson. That Ollie, what a card!

(Fortunately, there have been no physical altercations on the set of the Stained Glass production.)

In 1989, the indefatigable Towers produced still another version, this one filmed in South Africa. Yours truly reviewed it for his college newspaper, and it was not kind, despite a cast headed by one of my favorite hams, Donald Pleasence.

Each successive version, however, tended to be worse than the last. Still, there aren’t Christie. too many stories that make it to the screen four different times — testament the durability and resilience of Christie’s tale. Any story that could survive Harry Alan Towers is well nigh indestructible.

And Then There Were None is scheduled to run through Nov. 21. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12 (general admission) and $10 (students and senior citizens). For advance tickets, call 336.499.1010. For additional information, call 336.661.4949.