Ten little soldiers went out to dine. One choked his little self and then there were nine. Just like the ditty about the bottles of beer whose numbers diminish as they’re taken down and passed around, a silly little poem about soldiers kills them off one at a time.
The poem has a tainted history — before the victims were soldiers, they were members of ethnic groups. But for Agatha Christie, none of this mattered. She liked the story of people being offed one by one because it had possibilities for a mystery, which she wrote in 1939. Under the title “And Then There Were None,” it became her most popular whodunit.
In 1943, she rewrote it as a stage play, changing some of the plot to make it more workable for the theater. It still is, and the proof’s on stage these nights at Walnut Street Theatre, where Charles Abbott — one of the Walnut’s go-to directors — has masterminded a spirited telling of the tale. Christie’s script has a decidedly old-fashioned feel, and you might even imagine hearing creaks as Abbott moves his adroit cast about Andrew Thompson’s beautiful living-room set.
You’ll find scarier mystery stories, mysteries packed with more adventure and, on the downside, plenty of mysteries that seem to be solved supernaturally but not by hints or logic. “And Then There Were None” endures with a no-nonsense plot — straightforward and entertaining in a subdued British way. It has a cool cast of characters, beginning with a husband-and-wife cook and butler (John-Charles Kelly and Sharon Alexander) who’ve been hired to work at a party in a mansion on a remote island.
The weekend guests are an alluring new secretary for the mansion’s owner (Jessica Bedford), a dashing former soldier who claims to have fought in Africa (Damon Bonetti), a bore of a police officer (Laurent Giroux), a bumbling World War general (Peter Schmitz), a nasty religious biddy (Wendy Scharfman), a happy-go-lucky reckless playboy (Harry Smith), a surgeon (Paul L. Nolan) and a judge (Greg Wood, who does a great job here as Agatha Christie’s stand-in for a detective).
And the host of this collection of weekenders? He shows up only as a recording, accusing all the guests — plus the maid and butler — of being responsible for the deaths of many people. That’s a heavy load of guilt to throw on the 10 folks stranded in the house — but not as heavy as their fates: One by one, they begin to drop off, and each time, a figurine of a soldier topples from the living-room mantle.
The cast brings this off nicely – it’s fun to listen in as they share their dark secrets, and to chuckle at their anticipated demise. Christie wrote several deaths to take place off-stage, which nowadays looks like a missed opportunity for action. But the action pumps up greatly by the very end, and in Abbott’s staging it’s strikingly realistic. The production has the quality of a doily that’s been sitting permanently on a side-table. In its current telling of “And Then There Were None,” the faded elegance feels right.
“And Then There Were None” runs through April 26 on the main stage of Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.