Robert Powell is taking Hercule Poirot on the road in the only play Agatha Christie wrote featuring the famous Belgian detective, reports CHARLES HUTCHINSON.

AGATHA Christie’s fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot appeared in 33 novels and 50 shorts stories from 1920 onwards, but only one play, her debut work for the stage, Black Coffee.

The role of Poirot, recently vacated on the small screen by David Suchet after 25 years, is being played on tour by Robert Powell in his first Christie performance.

“It’s the first one of her plays I’ve read, let alone played,” says the Salford-born actor, who incidentally once appeared in the BBC television comedy series The Detectives and has played Sherlock Holmes too, as well as secret agent Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps.

From March 31 to April 5, he will be in Poirot moustache mode at the Grand Opera House, York, in the Official Agatha Christie Theatre Company production backed by impresario Bill Kenwright. Starring alongside him will be Liza Goddard, Peak Practice star Gary Mavers and Ben Nealon from Soldier, Soldier.

The status of Black Coffee was an attraction to Powell. “There’s no other Christie play with Poirot as a protagonist as she grew not to like the character and pulled him out of other plays,” he says.

“She didn’t like other stage adaptations either, so that’s why she wrote Black Coffee in 1930, but the play hasn’t been done commercially for 60 years in this country. The reason for that in the past 25 years has been the ITV series; the Christie trust decided to sit on it rather than going into competition with the TV show.”

Playing Poirot for the first time, Powell says: “Obviously I wouldn’t do it on TV and apparently David Suchet had said he wouldn’t do Poirot on stage as it would be too tiring.”

And is it tiring? “It’s not too tiring but pretty tiring, but I think I’m fair in saying we [actors] don’t see things in the way other people see acting,” says Powell, whose 70th birthday falls on June 1.

“If you thought playing Hamlet was daunting, you would never do it. You just do it as it’s you playing it and that means it will be very different from anyone else.”

Powell joins a long line of stage and screen actors who have filled Poirot’s immaculately polished shoes: Suchet, Sir Peter Ustinov; Albert Finney, Sir Ian Holm and Alfred Molina, among them.

How will his portrayal differ from Suchet in particular? “Black Coffee is a thriller and murder mystery, but with a good deal of humour and we do have the audience laughing both with and at the characters,” says Powell. “David Suchet was deadly serious; our show is a little more human and it’s great fun.”

Christie set her play on a quintessential English country estate thrown into chaos by the murder of eccentric inventor Sir Claud Amory and the theft of his new earth-shattering formula. Arriving at the estate moments too late, Poirot immediately senses a potent brew of despair, treachery, and deception amid the estate’s occupants.

The combination of Christie and Poirot’s sole stage role has led to good houses for the tour so far, and Powell has enjoyed the bond between performer and audience. “The immediate difference from the TV series is having an immediate response from a live audience as opposed to filming it in isolation,” he says.

“You’re aware of how the audience is responding to the characters, and as I said earlier, it’s a great deal more humorous than the TV version. Christie has written Poirot humorous lines, and all I know is that the response to the show has been wonderful.”

Black Coffee is playing to “mostly grey people, in the nicest possible way”, he says. “Most theatregoers are middle aged, and even with a different play, it would be my audience, I’m afraid. People who have known me through a long career.

“We’ve even had people coming up after a show to talk about a TV series I did in the Sixties, Doom Watch, and they know more about me than I do.

“They’re very loyal and that’s a two-way thing; you can’t let them down. When you’re an actor who’s popular, you want a situation where people know that if they go to something with that actor in it, it’s not going to be bad. They will relax as they know they’re in good hands.”

In a career that has varied from playing Jesus in Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus Of Nazareth in 1977 to his long run as hospital boss Mark Williams in BBC1’s Holby City, Powell has never been interested in doing anything easy.

“If it was easy, where’s the progression?” he asks. “My agent keeps thinking, ‘That’s it’ after each role, like oarsman Steve Redgrave saying, ‘If you ever see me in a boat again, you have my permission to shoot me’.

“It was like that when I did Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell three years ago. It’s something that I should have grown out of now, putting myself under the cosh, but putting on a play is a bit like childbirth. If actors remembered what it was like each time, they would never do it again, but you forget the pain and do it again.”

Powell describes the experience of a first night as driving towards a brick wall at 80 miles an hour. “Acting is that kind of adrenalin drive,” he says.

“People ask me, when I take a play out on the road, ‘Do you enjoy the touring?’, and the answer is ‘No’, but there are elements that are enjoyable. If you’re travelling around for four or five months, you’re going to a different theatre each week rather than just the same one.”

And what could be better than a week in York in the spring?

• Robert Powell plays Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee, Grand Opera House, York, March 31 to April 5 at 7.30pm plus Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or