Despite a long and successful career in both British film and theatre, Dame Margaret Rutherford is now best remembered for a role she didn’t, initially, care for at all — Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Rutherford would play the spinster detective in four films during the 1960s, in the process becoming more famous and popular than ever before, but it seems she only agreed to do the first because — if you pardon the vulgarity of it all — she needed the money (she’d even done some television — imagine!)
This is just one of the personal insights we get into the life and times of the actor, in this nuanced play by Philip Meeks. Another is the fact that Christie herself was initially unhappy with the casting of Rutherford in the role — partly because the actress essentially played herself, but also because Rutherford had publicly declared her dislike of the film’s “sordid” subject matter. Yet, against all the odds, the two women became genuine friends, a puzzle of human nature within which Meeks unwraps another, far more personal mystery.
According to Meeks’ play, Christie was intrigued by Rutherford, genuinely liking the actor’s innocence and lack of guile, but also fascinated by the shadow of a hidden past that Rutherford initially refused to talk about. Nowadays, of course, the truth Rutherford believed so potentially scandalous is just an early part of her entry on Wikipedia, but it’s fascinating none-the-less to think that the old-style school-girl persona that we all know — all hockey sticks and late-night suppers — was actually a deliberate construct, created to protect herself from the personal and family consequences of a terrible tragedy.
While Janet Prince may lack the distinctive jowled features of Margaret Rutherford, she is adept with posture, movement and tone of voice, successfully channeling not just the often-childlike actress (with her favourite toys) but also Christie and the character that nominally linked the two — Miss Marple. The audience does have to pay attention; on occasions, Prince switches between all three characters quite rapidly, but she easily ensures that their identities never blur. It’s an enchanting performance.
Tightly directed by Stella Duffy, this is a no-thrills piece of theatre that delivers a warm and engaging portrayal of a human being who dealt with life in the best way she could. Apparently it was well worth it — the life of Dame Margaret Rutherford, after all, was “glorious”.