It opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London's West End on May 15, 1928, starring Charles Laughton as Hercule Poirot. It was deemed a success and ran for 250 performances closing on December 7, 1928. It was the first work of Agatha Christie's to be presented on stage and the first ever adaptation of one of her works for any medium outside of her books.
Christie disagreed with the change of her favourite character Caroline Sheppard, the inspiration for Miss Marple, into a beautiful girl called Caryl Sheppard. She only permitted this change because the alternative was turning Poirot into a young man called Beau Poirot and having "lots of girls in love with him". The other major changes from the book were:
- The characters of Mrs Russell, the housekeeper, and her son, Charles Kent, were dropped, as were the subplots concerning these characters.
- Roger Ackroyd was given a title and became Sir Roger Ackroyd.
- Poirot was stated several times not to be Belgian but French.
The play takes place in two sets - the hall at Fernley Park and in Poirot's study in his house in the village. Sir Roger's study is situated at the back of the centre stage of the hall set with two doors which are opened at various parts in the play to reveal the corpse at his desk and are closed at other times when events in the play dictate they should be.
Act I, Scene 1
(The hall at Sir Roger Ackroyd's, Fernley Park. Afternoon)
Sir Roger’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Ackroyd, her daughter, Flora, his secretary, Geoffrey Raymond and Major Blunt, a guest, are relaxing in the hall. Mrs. Ackroyd and Flora live there due to their financial circumstances. They are utterly reliant on Sir Roger who tightly controls their money and consequently they are in some debt. They discuss a report in the newspaper of the suicide of a local woman, Mrs. Ashley Ferrars, during the previous night. She had a close relationship with Sir Roger and her death has greatly affected him. They further discuss the impending announcement of the engagement between Flora and Sir Roger’s stepson, Ralph Paton and the difference that this marriage will make. A young woman who is a neighbour, Caryl Sheppard, arrives to play bridge and Flora teases her over her fascination for a recent arrival in the village – a foreigner who Caryl thinks is called M. Porrott, but Flora reveals that her uncle has told her that he in fact is M. Hercule Poirot, the famous French detective. Poirot arrives and meets everyone. He is especially taken with Caryl. During the conversation, Caryl tells Flora that she thought she saw Ralph Paton in the village that morning but Flora is surprised – as far as she knew Ralph has been in London for the previous six months ever since he had an argument with his uncle. As Caryl’s brother, Dr. James Sheppard, is dining at Fernley that evening, she will be alone and she invites Poirot to dine with her. They leave together. As the others go off to change for dinner, a maid, Ursula Bourne, tidies the room and meets Ralph when he comes in from the terrace. It is obvious that the two have a secret relationship but their conversation is interrupted as Bourne sees Dr. Sheppard approaching the house. Ralph quickly hides in the adjoining library and Dr. Sheppard enters to be greeted by Parker, the butler. Dr. Sheppard may have to rush out to a confinement case later and consequently he has his doctor’s bag with him which Parker looks after. Sheppard is left to his own devices for a moment and Ralph comes out of hiding and tells the doctor, an old friend, that he is in a mess with his stepfather and that he is staying at a local inn, the White Horse. Ralph leaves the house and soon Sir Roger himself comes down into the hall. He too unburdens himself on Sheppard: Mrs. Ferrars was going to be his fiancée after the year’s mourning for the late Mr. Ferrars came to an end but, when the requisite time was up, she hesitated for three more months and then confessed that she poisoned her brutal husband. She was driven to suicide by an unknown blackmailer who knew of her actions and has been draining her of funds all this time. Sir Roger is certain that she would have left him a letter detailing who her persecutor was. At that moment, Parker comes in with a letter for Sir Roger – it is from the late Mrs. Ferrars but he has no time to open it as the others come down for dinner.
Act I, Scene 2
(The same, after dinner)
The time is 9.20pm. Sir Roger is enclosed in his study at the back of the hall. Dr. Sheppard was with him but Parker told Mrs. Ackroyd that he left earlier and, as far as she knows, Sir Roger is now alone. Flora follows her mother to bed and Raymond and Parker hear Sir Roger’s voice coming from the other side of the door as he somewhat stiltedly tells an unknown person that he can give them no money as they require. Blunt enters from the terrace and he and Raymond go to the billiard room. Parker switches off the hall lights and leaves momentarily but re-enters a moment later to see Flora with her hand on the study door. She tells the butler that she has said goodnight to her uncle and that he doesn’t want to be disturbed. The two leave.
(The lights are lowered during the scene and the Curtain descends for a moment, to mark the passing of three-quarters of an hour)
Parker is brought down to the terrace window by a furious knocking. It is Dr. Sheppard who states that he was at his house with Caryl and Poirot when he was phoned by Parker himself who said that Sir Roger had been murdered. A surprised Parker and Sheppard go to the locked study door and, unable to gain access, break it down. Sir Roger is within, stabbed with a dagger through the neck. Sheppard tells Parker to fetch Raymond and ring the police and to shut the study door. Parker leaves and soon Raymond rushes in, shocked at the death of his employer. Soon, Inspector Davies arrives and, by questioning, finds out that Flora must have been the last person to see Sir Roger alive. Flora insists that Poirot is called in to investigate and little time passes before the French detective arrives.
The murderer seems to have escaped through the study’s open window and the murder was committed with an ornate dagger that was often lying about the hall. Parker overheard talk of blackmail and Sheppard tells Poirot of the real cause of Mrs. Ferrars’ suicide and the letter that Sir Roger received. He and Sheppard went into the study after dinner to read it but Sir Roger had a change of mind and asked Sheppard to leave him alone to peruse its contents. Sheppard did so and found Parker just outside the door, as if he had been listening to what was happening within...
Raymond tells of the words he heard Sir Ackroyd say behind the closed door at 9.30 and Blunt also says he heard the words when he was walking on the terrace but his attention was caught by the sight of a woman in white just passing behind a hedge in the garden. Flora tells of seeing her uncle at 9.45 and she and Parker recreate what happened for Poirot. Bourne is summoned and questioned if she was the woman who Blunt saw and she confirms that she was going out to post a letter in the box by the gate. The others retire to bed and Poirot sits and smokes in the semi-darkness, looking at the dead body of Sir Roger and thinking...
(The same. Next morning)
Inspector Davies and Poirot meet back at Fernley. The call to Dr. Sheppard has been traced. It was made from the local railway station, a few minutes before the late-night express train for Liverpool left. He has also found out that the woman in the lodge house saw Ralph Paton enter the grounds at 9.25pm. The fingerprints on the dagger are yet to be tested but Poirot has a theory that they will find only the dead man’s prints on the handle. The missing letter from Mrs Ferrars is also a puzzle and Poirot summons Parker and asks him to state what is different about the study compared to when he helped break in the previous evening. Parker tells him of the differences – including the fact that the armchair was pulled out from its normal position and turned at a strange angle, something that catches Poirot's attention. Raymond is questioned about any strangers seen in the past week – the only one he can recall was a young representative from a firm of Dictaphone manufacturers called Curtis and Trout – Sir Roger was considering buying one of their machines. Poirot reveals that he found a scrap of starched material in the summerhouse and theorises that it came from the dress of Bourne who is the only person in the house who has no alibi. Mr Hammond, the family solicitor, arrives and reveals that the dead man's will leaves the majority of Sir Roger’s estate to Ralph – another motive for the murder. It is also revealed that cash to the sum of one hundred pounds is missing from Sir Roger’s room. Ralph though remains the principle suspect and Poirot tells the assembled group that he knows they are all individually hiding something from him and that he means to find the truth.
Act III, Scene 1
(Hercule Poirot's Study. Four day's later, after breakfast)
Poirot is finishing a breakfast served by his French maid, Margot, when he receives a visit from Caryl and James Sheppard and then Inspector Davies in quick succession. The policeman tells Poirot that his theory that only Sir Roger’s prints would be found on the dagger handle proved correct and that Ralph is being sought by the police. Flora and Blunt arrive and, under Poirot’s insistent questioning, Flora confesses that she never saw her uncle in the study as she claimed and that she stole the missing one hundred pounds, desperate for money. Blunt, in love in Flora, chivalrously claims the money was given to him by Sir Roger but Poirot is not deceived. Breaking down, Flora is taken into the garden by the doctor and Poirot tells the Major that Flora is not in love with Ralph. She was going to marry him to escape her and her mother’s poverty. He encourages Blunt to go and comfort Flora. Dr. Sheppard is called out to a case and Poirot, left alone with Caryl, questions her over any possible nursing homes that are nearby for the use of a sick nephew. She tells him of one in nearby Cranchester. He also asks if anyone from Fernley Park called at her brother’s surgery on the day of the murder. She is insistent that no one did and, challenged, recounts the list of patients including an American steward off a liner called the Baltic who was passing through the village on his way to Liverpool. Poirot excuses himself – he has to send a cable to a friend in New York and he also tells Margot that he will not be dining at home – he is going to a "mad house"...
Act III, Scene 2
(The same. The next night, after dinner)
Poirot has had Sheppard and Caryl round for dinner. They are expecting further guests as Poirot has asked the household from Fernley to call round but his first visitor is Bourne, panicked over a newspaper report that Poirot asked Davies to insert claiming that Ralph had been arrested in Liverpool. This forces Bourne to admit that she and Ralph are married. She had confessed this to Sir Roger and he had dismissed her. Ralph came to Fernley after an urgent telegram from her but she insists they only met in the summerhouse for ten minutes and then she left him there. Poirot wants her to join the others when they arrive and Caryl insists that the former maid can stay the night at their house. She goes to make arrangements as the party from Fernley arrives. Poirot asks them to sit down as he addresses them and he first reveals Bourne’s marriage to Ralph. However the time when the two people met in the summerhouse coincided with the time that Sir Roger’s voice was heard behind the closed study door. They are therefore all puzzled as to who was with him but Poirot has another idea – no one was with him: the formal words that Ackroyd were using were intended for the Dictaphone. This creates problems for Ralph as his alibi for the time is now useless and Raymond thinks the young man should come forward and explain himself. Poirot agrees and opens the curtains to the conservatory, revealing Ralph. Poirot guessed that Sheppard met him that night, knowing that he had gone to the inn where he was staying, and had then hidden him. Poirot further deduced that a doctor would hide someone in a nursing home, hence his questions to Caryl. Ralph’s alibi is now useless and Poirot tells the assembled group that to save him the real murderer – who is one of the people in the room – must confess. They have until midday tomorrow and then Poirot will go to the police.
The others leave but a moment later Poirot suffers a small collapse and has Margot fetch back Dr. Sheppard. Poirot recovers quickly and, asking the doctor his opinion of the night’s events, is accused of playing a comedy. Poirot disagrees and confirms that he knows who the murderer is and for them there can be no escape. He takes the doctor through his thinking: The mysterious telephone call can only be judged from its result, which is that Sir Roger’s death was discovered that night instead of the next day. That means that the murderer wanted to be on the spot when the discovery was made, perhaps to retrieve something. The second puzzling fact was the armchair pulled out from its normal place in the study and that can only have been to have hidden something from sight at the moment that the room was broken into. As the Dictaphone is missing, it can only be that item which was there and, by use of a time-lock, the voice heard behind the door was not that of the living Sir Roger but a previously-made recording - the man was already dead. The murderer can only be someone who had a receptacle to carry away the machine and who had the study to himself for a moment after the discovery of the body – in other word’s, Dr. Sheppard himself.
The doctor’s motive was to protect himself – he was Mrs Ferrars’ blackmailer. Sheppard breaks down at the thought at what this will do to Caryl and Poirot reveals that he is similarly tortured by this matter as he is in love with the doctor’s sister. He suggests that the doctor takes the "cleanest" way out and Sheppard agrees and leaves. Poirot tells Caryl that he has failed to catch the murderer but that he is able to clear Ralph. Forlorn, he takes his leave of her.
Reception of London production
The review in The Times issue of May 16, 1928 began, "Another French detective! We islanders might begin to feel jealous, if we did not remember what a start Poe and Gaboriau gave our neighbours". The review questioned, "whether you can make a play out of theoretical analysis. The old melodramas based themselves upon passion: then - shall we say with William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes and Sir Gerald du Maurier's Raffles? - personality usurped its place. A pure problem has not the dramatic force of either. If we do not weary of Poirot shooting questions to left and right, Poirot with uplifted finger expounding his views to a half-circle of listeners, it is because Mr. Charles Laughton, with a little help from the text, makes a personality out of the fat and sentimental little ratiocinator. His Poirot is an admirable comedy sketch, convincingly gallic." The review stated that Lady Tree had no scope within the part given to her to invest the part of Mrs. Ackroyd with personality but "competence was all that was demanded from her, and from the rest of the cast, and it was generally forthcoming. One actor singled out for praise was Henry Daniell for his "imperturbably natural butler" however his "mystery...was not...analysed enough".
Whilst the reviewer in The Guardian of May 16, 1928 seemed to feel that the play itself showed no great originality, he was impressed with Laughton, saying "we can hardly resist the play despite its wheezy start and inability to accelerate, because M. Poirot is presented in the flesh by Mr. Charles Laughton, who, unlike much youth of brilliant hopes, continues to perform almost more than he so lavishly promised.” The reviewer concluded, "M. Poirot sifts the alibis of the assembled company, finds a scent and hunts it close. None of the other characters appears to have any more personality than is necessary for a human fragment of the puzzle. It is hardly needed. Mr. Laughton is there, and he cannot fail to entertain, whether he is in the supreme frenzy of vigilance, or relaxing over the oldest of old brandies, or making a tender gesture to a charming young lady who is as English as a rose and not, it seems, more talkative or intellectual. Scarcely the wife for Poirot, but let us not be fussy and make difficulties. Mr. Laughton is an important arrival in Crookery Nook, yet we trust he will not stay there too long. We have other uses for such an actor than to brood over the fingermarks on the dagger and discover why the parlourmaid was in the garden at the moment of the crime.”
The review in The Observer of May 20, 1928 was laudatory about the performances of J.H. Roberts and Charles Laughton. About Roberts, the reviewer said, "If ever a man succeeded by his performance in throwing an audience of determined sleuths off the scent, Mr. Roberts threw those members of the first-night audience who had not read Mrs. Christie's clever novel off it." About Laughton, the reviewer said, "Let me not be afraid to use superlatives" and then proceeded to detail why he held the view he did, concluding, "He seizes the stage and firmly controls the audience. He fills me with a sense of his power, and makes me intensely aware of him from the moment he comes on to the stage until the moment he leaves it. He is an actor."
On the play in general, the reviewer did say it, "begins badly but steadily improves; the first two scenes, which are dull and slow, might be telescoped. Mr. Morton, indeed, had a difficult job to perform in dramatising the novel, for the cleverness of Mrs. Christie's story lies not so much in the plot as in the fact that it is told by the murderer. Mr. Laughton, however, added so much to the part of Poirot that they play seemed far bigger than it is." This reviewer, unlike the others quoted, did state that the rest of the cast was also "excellent".
The Scotsman of May 16, 1928 said, "It is a tribute to Mr Michael Morton…that during the play…one completely ignored the many weaknesses in the chain of evidence that bought the guilt home to the murderer of Sir Roger Ackroyd. The audience watched the tangled skein unravelled by the eminent French detective, M. Hercule Poirot, much in the way that an audience watches an illusionist, except that instead of the quickness of the hand deceiving the eye, the speciousness of the detective's reasoning deceived the senses. When the guilt was brought home to the least suspected person, the audience could only gasp. But the incredulity came after the theatre was left. These crime mystery plays are all much one pattern but it must be conceded that Alibi...is one of the best of its kind. It is superbly acted, the performance of Mr Charles Laughton being particularly good. Mr Laughton has a genius for getting into the 'skin' of a part."
The Daily Mirror of May 16, 1928 said of Charles Laughton's performance that, "He has that force of personality which invests his every word or movement with interest. He imparts too, a sense of reality and impending drama, to the process of cross-examining various persons. Sir Gerald du Maurier has produced the piece according to that modern fashion in which people move quietly, behave credibly and often sit with their backs to the audience when speaking."
Credits of London production
Adaptor: Michael Morton
Director: Gerald du Maurier
Charles Laughton as Hercule Poirot
Lady Beerbohm Tree (Helen Maud Holt) as Mrs. Ackroyd
Jane Welsh as Flora Ackroyd
Henry Daniell as Parker
Basil Loder as Major Blunt
Iris Noel as Ursula Bourne
Henry Forbes-Robertson as Geoffrey Raymond
Gillian Lind as Caryl Sheppard
J H Roberts as Doctor Sheppard
Cyril Nash as Ralph Paton
Norman V Norman as Sir Roger Ackroyd, Bt
John Darwin as Inspector Davies
J Smith Wright as Mr. Hammond
Constance Anderson as Margot
Laughton also starred in and directed the Broadway production, retitled The Fatal Alibi which opened at the Booth Theatre on February 8, 1932 with settings by Dale Stetson and produced by Jed Harris. It was not a success and only played for twenty-four performances, closing on March 1.
Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times reviewed the play in its issue of February 10, 1932 when he claimed that, "the minuteness of the facts involved and the meticulousness of the play construction make 'The Fatal Alibi' a rather difficult crime play to follow in the theatre". He further said that the cast was "excellent" and signalled out Laughton's performance as "an immensely entertaining exercise in poster portraiture", however, "Since Mr. Laughton enjoys playing the part, a guileless theatregoer may enjoy watching him. But colorful acting, slightly detached from the flow of narrative, can also temper a drama's illusion. In the opinion of this department, Mr. Laughton's lithographic performing has that subtle effect. It diverts attention from the play."
Credits of Broadway production
Script amendments for US production: John Anderson
Director: Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton as Hercule Poirot
Effie Shannon as Mrs. Ackroyd
Jayne Wyatt as Flora Ackroyd
Donald Randolph as Parker
Kenneth Hunter as Major Blunt
Jane Bramley as Bourne
Edward Crandall as Geoffrey Raymond
Helen Vinson as Caryl Sheppard
Moffat Johnston as Doctor Sheppard
Lowell Gilmore as Captain Ralph Paton
Lionel Pape as Sir Roger Ackroyd
Lawrence H. Cecil as Inspector Davies
Fothringham Lysons as Mr. Hammond
Andree Cordy as Margot
Publication and further adaptations
The play was first published as a Samuel French Acting Edition (No. 1177) in January 1930 (copyright 1929). In 1931, a film adaptation of the play, entitled Alibi, was produced by Twickenham Studios in England, and starred Austin Trevor as Hercule Poirot.
A radio version of the play was presented on the BBC Home Service on June 17, 1944 from 9.20 to 10.35pm as part of the Saturday Night Theatre strand. The play was adapted for broadcasting by Marjorie Pratt and produced by Howard Rose.
Not completely satisfied with the play itself, Christie decided to try her hand at playwrighting and wrote Black Coffee - a stage play not based on a previous work and again featuring Poirot. It was first presented in 1930 but after this Christie decided that Poirot was too strong a character to be portrayed on stage and removed him from all of her own subsequent adaptations of her books, however she did allow Arnold Ridley to include the character in his 1940 adaptation of Peril at End House.