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Review: Agatha Christie's Love From a Stranger at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

Anyone who has ever worried their friend has got involved with a wrong’un will watch Love From a Stranger with a mounting sense of foreboding.

And indeed, it’s all about the incremental ratcheting up of the tension in this little-known Agatha Christie tale, brought to the stage by Fiery Angel and Royal and Derngate.

Because Love From A Stranger isn’t so much a whodunit as a what’s-he-going-to-do?

And rather than gathering a collection of disparate people together in a confined space (a draughty country house, a train carriage, a paddle steamer) to investigate a crime and flush out a murderer, here we have a two-hander psychological thriller with a last-minute twist.

Secretary Cecily Harrington (a willowy, cool and poised Helen Bradbury) has come in to a sweepstake windfall and now she dreams of casting off her dull life and her dull, decent fiancé Michael (Justin Avoth), finally back from Sudan to put a ring on her finger, and embarking on a reckless adventure.

Enter a mysterious American, Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), who arrives to rent her flat but instead sweeps her off her feet with his enthusiasm and tales of exploits in far off lands, despite the disapproval of her strident and amusingly snobbish aunt Lulu (Nicola Sanderson) and best friend Mavis (Alice Haig).

Helen Bradbury as Cecily Harrington. And above with Sam Frenchum as Bruce. Pics: Sheila Burnett

Cecily is duly swept.

But is Bruce all he seems? Why does he keep taking sneaky photos? What is he doing in the cellar? Who buried peroxide bottles in the shrubbery? What are those papers he wants her to sign? And what’s in that strong box?

We might ask all these questions, but the seemingly warm-hearted, mild-mannered Cecily appears to remain wilfully blind in a second half that cranks up the unease in drip, drip, drip fashion.

Christie penned the original story in the early 1930s. It was then re-worked by actor and playwright Frank Vosper and first staged in 1936. This version, directed with crispness by Lucy Bailey, pushes the action forward 20 years to a time where respectable women were still expected to get married and settle in to quiet domesticity.

Bradbury’s Cecily dares to challenge that – but then faces paying a heavy price for wanting more.

The first half of the play constructs the narrative framework, although the second, where all the threads start to come together – or unravel, depending on your viewpoint – is dramatically the more satisfying.

Frenchum’s boyish Lovell successfully juxtaposes tactile intensity with sinister detachment. But he doesn’t exude the kind of magnetism and charisma which would make you believe a sensible and mature woman would throw it all in to be with him. And there’s physicality but not much sexual frisson between the two characters.

The sense of general unease is augmented by Richard Hammarton’s unsettling soundscape, and the action unfolds on Mike Britton’s clever set, its sliding sides and translucent walls and doors offering hidden corners in which Frenchum’s creepily watchful Lovell might lurk.

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