When director and designer Kenny Miller was growing up, mystery was everywhere about the house. This came in the form of a stack of Agatha Christie novels lapped up by his mother. The young Miller had never touched them until one night when the 1945 film adaptation of Christie's 1939 novel, And Then There Were None, was broadcast on television. Originally published under the more contentious title of Ten Little Niggers until it was changed for the US edition, Christie's pot-boiler drew inspiration from a British nursery rhyme, and charted how ten people are lured to an island by persons unknown, whereupon they are picked off one by one in a manner already set down by the rhyme.
Miller was smitten, and, with his mother's approval, turned his attention to the mini Agatha Christie library he already had access to. While this may go some way to explaining some of Miller's directorial choices over the years, from a compendium of true life Glasgow murder stories, Blood on The Thistle, to a version of Ten Rillington Place, which dissected the crimes of serial killer John Christie, and a production of Dial M For Murder, it has also led to Miller directing a new production of Agatha Christie's own stage adaptation of her novel with Dundee Rep's ensemble company.
“I've wanted to do it for years,” Miller confesses as he outlines his own motivation for doing a play that continues to captivate audiences despite its seemingly old-fashioned execution. “My mother was obsessed with Agatha Christie. Hers were the only books in the house, and I think she loved the nostalgia and the innocence of them. There's no blood and gore in them, so they were something she could use to get her kids used to reading. I remember sitting there and watching the film for the first time and being really shocked, then thinking afterwards, well, what were the clues?”
It's a question that readers and audiences have been asking themselves ever since Christie opted to adapt And Then There Were None for the stage in 1943, when Christie was advised by producers to graft on a feel-good ending to appease what was perceived to be a sensitive audiences .
“It was the first stage adaptation of her own work that Christie had done,” Miller points out. “There'd already been a lot of them done by other people, but Christie was never happy with them. This one is a lot more psychological than the book. The audience have to use their brains to find out who did it. It can be a bit creaky and a bit clunky, and because there's no blood and guts it can look quite sanitised at first, but that also makes it quite creepy, especially the way no-one ever responds to any of the deaths.”
With this in mind, and with the permission of the Agatha Christie estate, Miller has both reinstated the book's original ending, as well as making a few minor tweaks to the script in order to make things even more dramatic.
“If we're going to do an Agatha Christie, I want to do it as a homage,” Miller explains, “both to my mother, and to Christie.”
And Then There Were None has been played all over the world, with its original literary source remaining one of the best-selling books ever and inspiring an entire industry of murder mystery weekends. It hasn't, however, remained immune to parody. The 1976 film, Murder By Death, is the most notable example of this, with a more recent episode of adult cartoon series, Family Guy, joining in the fun with an episode titled And Then There Were Fewer. Miller's version, on the other hand, will be playing it straight.
“I've no interest in doing a Carry On version,” he says. “I don't see any point in doing that at all. To me these people in the play are real, and have to be played as such. Some people might think it quite a retro thing to do an Agatha Christie in that way, but I quite like that.”
Miller's production of And Then There Were None is an all too rare sighting of a stage production of Christie's work that isn't a commercial touring venture by the much loved Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which was set up in 2005 to solely produce the mistress of crime's stage works. Indeed, The Agatha Christie Company itself will be arriving in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks time with their production of Christie's Hercule Poirot thriller, Black Coffee, with Robert Powell as the inscrutable detective.
In 2005, a new version of And Then There Were None by Kevin Elyot starred Tara Fitzgerald on the West End and on Broadway. Steven Pimlott's production also looked to the story's dark side.
“It was fun,” according to Miller, “but it was very Grand Guignol. Very heightened.”
Apart from its style, the technicalities of putting And Then There Were None onstage are enough to try any director's patience.
“Following all these glasses and drinks being passed round is quite a choreographic feat,” according to Miller, “especially when you've got ten people on the stage, and you're trying to put these very real red herrings in there to throw the audience off the scent. It was the same when I did Dial M For Murder at the Citz. That was a nightmare.”
Miller's take on And Then There Were none coincides with last week's announcement of a new deal between the BBC and the Christie estate to present new versions of some of the author's major work on television. This will include a three-part adaptation of And then There Were None by Sarah Phelps.
With Miller just appointed an associate director at Perth Theatre for a year as it becomes a mobile operation during the building's renovation, it is unlikely that Christie's dramas will become a regular feature of Miller's work.
“The only other one I'd want to do is Sparkling Cyanide,” he says, “and not for a few years yet.”
With Christie's original novel of And Then There Were None having shifted more than 100 million copies since it was first published, it is the book's spirit Miller is intent on capturing.
“I think the biggest thing for the journey the characters go on is revisiting the novel,” he says. “It stops things being creaky sand elevates it to something a bit more surreal, and that makes far more sense to me.
And Then There Were None, Dundee Rep, March 5-29
Agatha Christie – A dramatic life
Agatha Christie was credited with some seventeen original stage plays during her lifetime.
Christie also wrote four radio plays and one television play.
The 1947 radio play, Three Blind Mice, formed the basis for The Mousetrap, which premiered in 1952, and which has run continuously since then.
Twelve stage plays have adapted from Christie's original novels by other writers.
This trend began in 1928 with Alibi, Michael Morton's version of the novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and has continued right up to David Hansen's 2012 stage adaptation of the Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Christie's first original stage play was Black Coffee, which first appeared in 1930.
And Then There Were none premiered in 1943, and was based on Christie's 1939 novel.
Three of Christie's plays, Black Coffee (1938), The Unexpected Guest (1958) and Spider's Web (1954), were posthumously adapted into novels by Charles Osborne.
The most recent sighting of a previously unseen Christie stage work was in 2003, when Chimneys, which was written in 1931, was staged for the first time.
Chimneys was based on Christie's 1925 novel, The Secret of Chimneys, which remains unpublished.
The Herald, March 4th 2014