I was looking forward to seeing this adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Poison Belt, especially as it was in the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre, a venue I hadn’t been back to for a number of years. Except when a venue is so intimate, it seemed a surprise when a group of latecomers were admitted some 15 minutes after the play had started, causing disruption to the whole audience.
The Poison Belt is set in 1913 Sussex. Professor Challenger (Sara Lessore) predicts that Earth is heading unstoppably towards a deadly gas cloud, resulting in Ned Malone journeying to Rotherfield to investigate the end of the world. The theme of people being trapped in a room, deprived of oxygen and universal death felt very timely, considering the Pandemic we’ve all endured since 2020.
Admittedly I am unfamiliar with the original novel, but did feel surprised by the farcical tone throughout – when it felt such a serious subject matter. At times, there were four characters in a particular ‘chapter’, as each scene was called, yet Professor Challenger’s wife was played by a finger puppet on Lessore’s finger. It’s funny the first and second time, but after that it becomes too silly, particularly when the puppet is put in a pocket or on the table to “lie down”.
The ensemble consists of just three female actors playing multiple rolls, both male and female. Alongside Lessore, Amma-Afi Osei and Yuki Sutton play Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton, amongst others. Whilst multi-rolling is common within theatre, I felt it did not work successfully on this occasion. With three actors playing so many different characters, it became increasingly difficult to follow the storyline, resulting sadly in utter confusion. The decision to have all three taking turns at playing the character of Malone simply compounded my confusion. It’s clear that the novel has many characters, yet to put on this production with only three actors to portray them all was, in my humble opinion, a less than optimal choice. The result is a lack of character development and no truthful connections between characters.
There is much to praise with this play though. All three actors do a fantastic job in covering such a wide range of characters, withal the different ages, classes, and genders, adopting differing physicality for each. There are many laugh out loud moments, such as Malone asking what is to be done as they approach imminent demise and Professor Challenger replying “Well, have lunch”. There’s some great use of props – three wooden crates, which were sat on, stood on, carried around, even a telephone concealed in one. And at stage right was a washing line with clothes hanging on it. It’s only as we approach the end that the purpose of this is revealed in a very moving scene. Having travelled to London, believing they are the only ones who have survived the poison belt, the three come across dead bodies everywhere (the actors having strewn all the clothes, symbolising the dead – those of babies, young and old alike) across the stage. The soundscape, lighting, music are all used to great effect, adding to a growing atmosphere of impending doom.
There were many aspects of this production which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, as with any play I see, I want not just to laugh, but also empathise. Yet sadly, the multi-rolling and the comedy within The Poison Belt simply became too much for me – resulting in both confusion and a growing lack of engagement. I found myself yearning for the subject matter to be handled more sensitively and with some brevity and feeling. This could have been remedied with a lesser comedic touch and with a larger cast.
Written by: Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by: Becca Chadder
Produced by: Jo Walker
The Poison Belt plays at Jermyn Street Theatre until 30 July 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here.