Sunday, September 18, 2016

Agatha Christie's Spider's Web

Producer Peter Saunders with Margaret
Lockwood and Agatha Christie
In the early Fifties Agatha Christie dominated the West End of London. Her first play actually dated to 1930, Black Coffee having debuted that year at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage. The Forties saw the Agatha Christie plays And Then There Were None, Appointment with Death, and Murder on the Nile. Her 1951 play The Hollow ran for eleven months and 376 performances at the Ambassadors Theatre. While The Hollow saw some success, it would be The Mousetrap that would prove to be her most successful play. Phenomenally successful upon its premiere in 1952, it became the world's longest running play. Mrs. Christie followed the success of The Mousetrap with Witness for the Prosecution. Like The Mousetrap it also proved to be extremely successful. The Hollow, The Mousetrap, and Witness for the Prosecution were all produced by Peter Saunders.

While Agatha Christie was having enormous success on the West End in the early Fifties, an actress born on Mrs. Christie's twenty-sixth birthday in Karachi, British India (now Pakistan) saw her once successful film career in the doldrums. Margaret Lockwood had become a star with Carol Reed's Bank Holiday and Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes in 1938. By the mid to late Forties she had become the most popular British actress in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, while Miss Lockwood was still a popular star, the early Fifties saw many of her movies failing at the box office. Margaret Lockwood then took the opportunity to return to the stage. She appeared as the title character in Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre in both 1949 and 1950, and then played Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion at the Edinburgh Festival and on tour.

Margaret Lockwood was an avid reader of mystery novels, and was a fan of Agatha Christie in particular. It was then quite natural for Miss Lockwood to ask her agent, Herbert de Leon, to approach his friend Peter Saunders about getting Agatha Christie to write a play for the actress. Peter Saunders liked the idea and so he approached Mrs. Christie about it. Agatha Christie and Margaret Lockwood then met for lunch at the Mirabelle restaurant in London. The two women, both fans of each other's work, took a liking to each other immediately. Mrs. Christie conceived the idea of a comedy thriller in which Miss Lockwood would star. It would mark the first time ever that Agatha Christie was commissioned to write a play for a specific star.

Agatha Christie finished the play, titled Spider's Web, in the summer of 1954. Margaret Lockwood loved the finished script, in which she played Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, an upper class woman with an overactive imagination. Mrs. Christie had written the role of Pippa Hailsham-Brown, Clarissa's teenage stepdaughter, with Margaret's daughter Julia in mind, thinking the two women might like to appear on stage together. Unfortunately Julia Lockwood had prior commitments that would keep her from appearing in the play.

Before its premiere on the West End, Spider's Web went on an eleven week tour of England and Wales, starting with the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. Spider's Web received a warm reception from audiences in such cities as Oxford and Cardiff. Unfortunately, while theatre goers loved Spiders Web and Margaret Lockwood's performance in it, critics were not quite so kind. They criticised the quality of the script and the flightiness of Miss Lockwood's character.

The critics would not keep Peter Saunders from opening Spider's Web in London, particularly given the amount of money the play made on its tour. He simply asked Agatha Christie to do a rewrite of the script and the proceeded to open the play on the West End. This would give Agatha Christie three plays running simultaneously on the West End (The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution, and Spider's Web), the most of any playwright up to that time.

Spider's Web opened at the Savoy Theatre in London in December 1954. It proved as successful at the box office in London as it had elsewhere in England and Wales. Unfortunately, critics were still less than enthusiastic about the play, and chalked its success up largely to the star power of Margaret Lockwood. Despite the critics' lack of enthusiasm for Spider's Web, it proved very successful. It ran for 774 performances.

Margaret Lockwood went onto reprise her role as Clarissa in a 1955 BBC adaptation of Spider's Web. In 1960 a film adaption of the play, retitled The Spider's Web, was released with Glynis Johns in the role of Clarissa. The BBC adapted Spider's Web again in 1982 with Penelope Keith playing Clarissa. The play has also seen the occasional revival at various theatres in the United Kingdom and United States.

Alongside The Mousetrap and Witness for the Prosecution it marked the height of Agatha Christie's career as a playwright. It also successfully launched Margaret Lockwood, previously a successful movie star, as a stage actress. Miss Lockwood go onto several more successful plays in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. While it is not seen often today, Spider's Web then proved to be a significant in work Agatha Christie's oeuvre.

( For more information on Spider's Web you might want to check out Lyndsy Spence's excellent biography of Margaret Lockwood, Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen.)


Caftan Woman said...

Critics! Bah!

Mrs. Christie knew how to write. Miss Lockwood knew how to act. All this happened a long time ago, but it pleases me that success was had despite the critics.

Unknown said...

I wish I could have seen this on stage! It must have been delightful. This was really interesting to learn how Margaret Lockwood transitioned into being a stage actress and how they both admired each other's work. It makes one wonder what Agatha Christie made of Alfred Hitchcock films.

Thanks so much for this great post honoring both Lockwood and Christie and for joining in the blogathon!