Dame Agatha Christie is the queen of crime writers – her tally of two billion books worldwide means she is only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare.
So it comes as some surprise then that actor Robert Powell – currently playing the great detective Poirot on stage – hadn’t read a single one of her books.
“I hadn’t read her. Not at all,” says Robert who plays Hercule Poirot in the first play Agatha Christie wrote, Black Coffee.
“Then Bill Kenwright asked me to do this role and I thought I ought to familiarise myself with her novel.”
Robert’s daughter suggested he should read Agatha Christie’s 1920 novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Poirot makes his first appearance.
“I was quite impressed,” admits Robert. “It was a much better read than I thought it would be, although it’s not my thing really. I’m not a fan of the genre, although people certainly find things like Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple interesting. I actually don’t know why. I suppose there’s something about the generic detective crime thriller that appeals to people.”
Black Coffee is, says Robert, “a clever play.”
A quintessential English country estate is thrown into chaos following the murder of eccentric inventor Sir Claud Amory, and the theft of his new earth shattering formula. Arriving at the estate just moments too late, one man immediately senses a potent brew of despair, treachery, and deception amid the estate’s occupants. That man is Hercule Poirot.
After his debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the Belgian investigator went on to become one of world’s most cherished and long-lived fictional characters, appearing in 33 novels, one play and more than 50 short stories published between 1920 and 1975.
To this day he remains the only fictitious character to receive a front-page obituary in the New York Times.
This production is by Bill Kenwright and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. Robert, who received a Bafta nomination for his portrayal of Jesus in Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, also starred in the film The 39 Steps and on TV in Holby City.
His co-stars include Liza Goddard, star of Bergerac and the long-running Give Us A Clue, Gary Mavers, best known for playing heart-throb doctor Andrew Attwood in Peak Practice and Ben Nealon, who was Capt Forsythe in Soldier Soldier.
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is endorsed by the writer’s estate, managed by her grandson Mathew Prichard.
“I am so pleased that Robert Powell has agreed to play Poirot in Black Coffee,” says Mathew.
“His appearance will be the icing on the cake of a real treat that lies in store for all those who go to see the play.”
The theatre company is known for high production values and this set, with its Art Deco style, doesn’t disappoint.
And there is a twist with this murder mystery, a change from the usual country house affair.
“Everything that happens you actually see on stage,” says Robert. “The audience see it all. It’s fun to do. I suspected it might be fun to play Poirot.
“There are lots of elements that appeal. He’s quite funny and pompous, ego-centric. The audience take to him, possibly because he’s not English.”
What is not so much fun is being away from home. His wife is former Pans People dancer Babs and the couple have two grown-up children.
“Nobody likes being on tour. Why would anyone really enjoy spending 20 weeks living in hotel rooms? You make of it what you wish.
“A place like York, where we are now, is not so bad when you can spend a day in York Minster.
“And Cornwall I’m looking forward to. My father had a little car and we used to go there on holiday.”
And what made Robert become an actor.
“I have absolutely no idea,” he laughs.