Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? review: A classic caper with some sadly listless performances
Agatha Christie, the “Queen of Crime”, whose novels are still adapted for the screen with machine-like regularity, knew that the question in the title of her 1934 mystery Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was too good to pass up. “You don’t know yet who Evans is going to be... Evans will come in due course,” she once wrote. “The title is fixed.” Well, after a century of intriguing readers, that central proposition is now being brought to television viewers (well, for the first time since 2011) in the form of a three-part Britbox series, starring, written and directed by Hugh Laurie.
Narnia’s Will Poulter steps into the Christieverse as Bobby Jones, a happy-go-lucky vicar’s son who finds a dying man during a round of golf. “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” the man splutters with his final breath (more like, “why didn’t you ask a less elliptical question?” buddy) and Bobby is thrust on the trail of murderers, kidnappers and dope fiends. He’s ably assisted on this adventure by Lucy Boynton’s Lady Francis “Frankie” Derwent, a childhood friend who’s turned into a noted It Girl (after last month’s The Ipcress File, Boynton is in danger of typecasting as the uppercrust girl with a taste for adventure). The stellar cast is rounded off by Maeve Dermody (a Christieverse veteran, after 2015’s And Then There Were None) as the fragile Moira, and Lovesick’s Daniel Ings as the shifty Roger Bassington-ffrench. Laurie himself takes to the stage, in the second episode, as Dr Nicholson, and he even ropes in Jim Broadbent for a cameo as Lord Marcham and invents a role for his old mucker, Emma Thompson, as his intemperate wife.
But let’s face it, Agatha Christie adaptations always have great casts. The question, in the absence of a household name like Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, is how effectively the substitute sleuths run the show, and here Evans? falters. On the page, Bobby and Frankie – a Vile Bodies-esque pastiche of the Bright Young Things – are full of pluck and gumption; on the screen, however, they are sadly listless. “Relax Jones, I wear the trousers round here,” Frankie tells Bobby, but for all that Laurie’s script tries to inject some dynamism, the performances remain flat. Not to mention the total lack of chemistry between Poulter and Boynton, made more conspicuous by the prominence this adaptation places on their fledgling romance. “Poor old Bobby Jones the vicar’s son is too far down the ladder to mix with the likes of Lady Francis Derwent,” Frankie observes, but Lady Chatterley she is not.
This slight sexing up, however, is one of few major deviations from the source material. By the standards of recent entries in the Christie adaptation canon, Laurie remains broadly faithful to both the plot and mood that made its creator the bestselling novelist in history. “We can sleuth and deduce and hypothesise, and wear belted raincoats and smoke pipes in alleyways,” declares Frankie, setting out the series’ tonal manifesto. It’s important to forewarn viewers that Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is an adventure rather than a mystery. There are no locked rooms or mustachioed detectives, though there are plenty of red herrings and final act twists. Evans? is a classic caper, flirting with the dynamics of social class in the manner of Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey or Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion.
By contrast with the BBC’s dismally gloomy adaptations of recent years – and Kenneth Branagh’s gun-toting Poirot fare – Laurie’s Evans? is eminently cheerful. But you’ll be left wishing that the vim of the story was replicated in the performances. All the same, Christie knew that those deathbed (deathbeach, more like, given he’d toppled over a cliff) gasps represented a tantalising prospect – and these three hour-long episodes transliterate enough of that stardust to carry the enterprise.