by Loren Noveck · August 13, 2014
Two narratives overlap in Philip Meeks’s Murder, Margaret and Me, a hit from the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival now imported to FringeNYC. The first, and central, one takes place in the early 1960s, at the intersection of three formidable British women of a certain age: Golden Age detective writer Agatha Christie (creator of detective Hercule Poirot as well as classics like Murder on the Orient Express); Miss Marple, the elderly spinster-cum-sleuth from a country village who was one of Christie’s most famous and beloved characters; and character actress Margaret Rutherford, who, near the end of a distinguished career on stage and screen, played Jane Marple in a series of films. The other story thread follows an “investigation” by Christie and Marple: as Christie senses and Marple narrates, there’s a secret in Rutherford’s past. And as Christie gently probes into the story of Rutherford’s young life, she finds a dark tale, full of tragedy.
Meeks and performer Janet Prince (who plays all three women) have a grand time delving into the psyches of the three, and Prince inhabits these equally strong but very different women with relish, showcasing Rutherford’s boundless energy, Marple’s sly humor, and Christie’s sharp, refined intelligence (even if the one-woman framework does sometimes feel a bit strained in the scenes where Christie and Rutherford appear together). Prince and director Stella Duffy find some wonderful character moments--Miss Marple’s and Agatha Christie’s delight in the ghoulish opportunities afforded by their chosen professions (Christie gets to kill off lightly disguised versions of people who annoy her; Marple gets to delve into murder); Rutherford’s sheer enthusiasm for her own weirdness and her insistence on doing her own stunts.
Still, there’s not a lot of actual meat to be found in the relationships among the three. Yes, there was potential for confrontation between Christie and Rutherford (neither of whom was initially on board with Rutherford’s playing Marple): Rutherford initially turned down the role (she later accepted due to financial difficulties she and her husband found themselves in at the time), and Christie didn’t initially approve of the casting (having based Marple on her own grandmother, a delicate, birdlike woman, Christie was not impressed by Rutherford’s zany earthiness, or her insistence on infusing Marple with a streak of broad comedy). Duffy tries to liven things up with staging, but this sometimes gets overly literal, almost mime-like.
To give the piece more of a narrative spine, Meeks sets Marple and Christie on their investigation into Rutherford’s secrets. The tragic (true) story, which includes murder, suicide, and madness, is genuinely strange; it’s the kind of melodramatic backstory that would be hard to believably write for a fictional character. Still, it feels shoehorned in here: alluded to at the beginning, then pried out of Rutherford with little fanfare later in the piece.
The piece is thoroughly enjoyable, but somehow the whole feels less than the sum of its charming parts.