David Suchet is an unusual sort of star, a tremendously gifted stage actor specialising in dark, difficult roles who is nonetheless predominantly famous for a quarter-century playing Agatha Christie’s fussy Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot.
He’s well known, but more for a single MOR telly role than for his best work; and certainly he’s not a celebrity in the same sense as fellow theatre knight and RSC alumnus Ian McKellen, who presented his own, very different, autobiographical show at this exact address a couple of years back.
Where McKellen’s show ‘On Stage’ was flashy and funny and heavy on laughs and audience interaction, Suchet’s ‘Poirot and More’ is rather more modest. He doesn’t take questions, and rather than solo it, he’s brought along his mate Geoffrey Wansell to act as interlocutor in an evening that has the air of a two-and-a-half-hour after-dinner speech.
But actually that’s fine. Suchet is a tremendous actor and bona-fide national treasure. He has every damn right to do a show about his life and career, and if he’s not McKellen, clearly he knows that. It’s an old-fashioned but charming evening, divided into two halves that groan with polished bon mots from a fascinating career, each culminating in a section on ‘Poirot’ – the first on how he got the gig, the second on how he set about building his characterisation of the moustachioed super-sleuth. He is a modest, enthusiastic and vigorous presence, and graciously points out that this show is only really viable because of ‘Poirot’. And his most famous role is the spoonful of sugar that allows him to talk about his other interests: the first half is more personal autobiographical stuff, the second based around some more thespy observations.
The show has been on tour since October, presumably with little deviation in content, but old pals Suchet and Wansell give enough impression of spontaneity to style this out. The first-half stuff isn’t very revealing, though – he touches on his distress at being sent to boarding school aged eight, and tells a funny story about being a fish out of water at drama school, but he never really drills into it: for somebody who has performed so many titanic tragic roles, he keeps his own feelings largely out of sight, even if the stories are unfailingly entertaining.
By far the most controversial opinion he expresses comes in the second half, when he launches a passionate and detailed defence of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, arguing that it is not antisemitic. Clearly there are many who’d disagree with him, but his argument is heartfelt and heavily backed up by historical context and analysis of the language (an extract of which he performs, beautifully). I’m not sure the ‘Poirot’ nuts will care, but for me it was a thrilling outing for zee leetle grey zells. In general, it really comes to life when Suchet shows us what he can do as an actor: I got somewhat emotional when he opened the second half with a speech by Salieri from the terrific Old Vic production of ‘Amadeus’ he starred in, which I actually saw on a school trip in the late ’90s.
I’m sure plenty of audience members were only mildly interested in Shakespeare and Salieri, and to be honest I feel the same way about the lengthy discussions of Poirot’s moustache. But there’s something here for all of us in a humble, charming and enthusiastic evening in the company of a man who has undoubtedly earned it.