The play is based on her 1937 novel Death on the Nile which in itself started off as a play which Christie called Moon on the Nile. Once written, she decided it would do better as a book and she only resurrected the play version in 1942 when she was in the middle of writing the theatrical version of And Then There Were None (1943 play) and her actor friend Francis L. Sullivan was looking for a play in which Hercule Poirot might feature. Discussions took place until October as Christie was tired of the character of Poirot and wanted to exclude him from the drama altogether. She managed to persuade Sullivan of this plan when she promised to write into the play the part of a church canon for him to play.
Once backing had been found, rehearsals for the play began in January 1944 in Dundee in which Christie enthusiastically joined in, now that she was thoroughly enamoured of the theatre and its people. It premiered there on January 17 at the Dundee Repertory Theatre and the title of the play had also been changed to Hidden Horizon. For reasons not specified in her biography, these rehearsals and the plans to stage the play appear to have suffered delays to find a London theatre to take the show, once it had been tried out in the provinces. Matters were not helped by the lukewarm critical reaction to Appointment with Death when that play opened in March 1945. A further issue was the objection of an official from the Ministry of Labour to the presence of a maid in the cast of characters.
The play, with the name Murder on the Nile finally opened in the West End on March 19, 1946 at the Ambassadors Theatre, where six years later The Mousetrap would open. By this time, Sullivan was no longer in the cast.
The play features fewer characters who were derived from multiple of the book's characters; Marie Van Schuyler and Mrs Allerton are merged into the character of Helen ffoliot-ffoulkes while Cornelia Robson and Miss Bowers become Christina Grant. William Smith is a combination of Mr Fanthorp and Mr Ferguson and the three characters of Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race, Andrew Pennington become Canon Ambrose Pennefather. In addition, Simon Doyle's surname changes to Mostyn, Linnet Ridgeway is now Kay, and Jacqueline de Bellefort becomes Jacqueline de Severac. Characters taken out completely are Salome and Rosalie Otterbourne, Signor Richetti, Mrs. and Tim Allerton, Fleetwood, and Joanna Southwood. Lord Windelsham's character does not appear but he is mentioned by Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes as Lord Edgbaston.
Act 1: On the palace steamer Lotus in late afternoon.
Scene 1: The same; three days later.
Scene 2: The same; five minutes later.
Act 3: The same; the following morning.
The characters in Murder on the Nile are as follows.
- Beadsellers, pesky peddlers trying to get a buck
- Steward, the head waiter
- Helen ffoliot-ffoulkes, a wealthy snob
- Christina Grant, her niece
- William Smith, a wise-cracking "kid"
- Louise, Kay's maid
- Dr Bessner, a doctor from a country which Kay's father ruined
- Kay Ridgeway-Mostyn, the, supposedly, richest girl in England
- Simon Mostyn, her husband
- Canon Ambrose Pennefather, her uncle
- Jacqueline de Severac, her ex-best friend and Simon's ex-fiancée
- McNaught, the Lotus's captain
1946 London production
The play was directed by Claude Gurney
- Richard Spranger
- Christmas Grose
- James Roberts
- Helen Hayes
- Joanna Derrill
- Ronald Miller
- Jacqueline Robert
- Hugo Schuster
- Ivan Brandt
- Rosemary Scott
- David Horne
- Vivienne Bennett
- Walter Lindsay
Reception of the 1946 London production
Ivor Brown reviewed the play positively in the March 24, 1946 issue of The Observer: "As far as plot (intricate, of course) is concerned, the new Agatha Christie play might as well have tipped its corpses into the Thames. But Egypt offers the scene-painter a better chance (nicely taken by Danae Gaylen) and the off-stage tattoo of African percussion-music. The piece has the proper excitements of its hard-worked kind; a weakness lies in its blending of the usual mystery-mechanism with unusual human emotion. We have come to take our murders lightly in this kind of theatre; consequently a serious ending, with the guilty party nobly declining an obvious suicide at sacerdotal urgence, the better to find salvation via the scaffold, is too momentous a finale for so light a morsel of play-making. The previous and familiar appurtenance of clue and counter-clue one contentedly accepts: all this is apt enough – but must there be heaven, too? We leave with a sense of conflict. Has not the Oo-dun-it or Egyptian Butcher-bird been devoured in the last minute, by an 'Allegory on the Banks of the Nile'?"
The play was reviewed in the Daily Mirror of March 21, 1946 by Bernard Buckham who said, "An Agatha Christie play, but a poor one. Various acts of violence on a pleasure steamer and it becomes a question of 'who murdered the bride?' At this time of day such a set-ups needs to have character interest, ingenuity of plot, and excitement. This piece falls down on them all. Most of the acting fireworks fall to the lot if Vivienne Bennett, and she touches them off very cleverly."
1946 Broadway production
The play opened for a brief run at the Plymouth Theater in New York on September 19, 1946 but only ran for twelve performances before closing on September 28. The play was directed by Albert de Courville.
- C. K. Alexander as Steward
- David Andrews as Bead Seller
- Monty Banks, Jr. as Bead Seller
- Diana Barrymore as Jacqueline De Severac
- Blair Davies as Simon Mostyn
- Leland Hamilton as Egyptian Policeman
- Halliwell Hobbes as Archdeacon Pennyfeather
- Barbara Joyce as Kay Mostyn
- Edith Kingdon Gould as Louise
- Eva Leonard-Boyne as Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes
- David Manners as Smith
- Damian Nimer as Egyptian Policeman
- Joy Ann Page as Christina Grant
- Winston Ross as McNaught
- Peter Von Zerneck as Dr. Bessner
2012 U.K. tour
Performed by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, directed by Joe Harmston and the set designer was Simon Scullion. . The play toured to Bath, Brighton, Bromley, Cardiff, Cheltenham, Derby, Eastbourne, Glasgow, Guildford, Lowestoft, New Brighton, Plymouth, Richmond, Truro, Shrewsbury, Southend, Wimbledon, Windsor, Wolverhampton, and Worthing, and other locations.
- Chloe Newsome as Jacqueline
- Kate O'Mara as Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes
- Ben Nealon as Simon Mostyn
- Denis Lill as Canon Pennyfather
- Susie Amy as Kay Mostyn
- Mark Wynter as Dr Bessner
The play was published by Samuel French Ltd. in 1948 as Murder on the Nile as "French's Acting Edition No 174".