Afternoon at the Seaside is a light-hearted one-act mystery by Agatha Christie. The whole action takes place on the beach at Little-Slippyng-on-Sea, and the plot concerns the theft of an emerald necklace from a hotel room. But it’s inconsequential, especially since etiquette demands that nobody describing one of Dame Agatha’s plays should disclose the secret of whodunnit.
The two characters who have a claim on our attention are Bob Wheeler, ‘a terrific wag, and sure to be the life and soul of any gathering’, and Noreen Somers, ‘a good-looking, rather blowsy woman of thirty-odd with enormous vivacity’. In the first production, the parts were played by David Langton, a decade before he found television fame as Mr Bellamy in Upstairs Downstairs, and Australian actress Betty McDowall:
The play opened at London’s Duchess Theatre on December 20, 1962, after a short tour of the English provinces, as part of an anthology of three short plays entitled Rule of Three, directed by Hubert Gregg.
Triple-bills like this are notorious in the theater because audiences tend to assume that one of the three items is weaker than the other two. The reviewer for the journal Plays and Players cast Afternoon at the Seaside in that invidious role:
‘a tasteless collection of cheap laughs and cheap effects. It is enough to say that it was based on the assumption that henpecked husbands, bikinis, French accents, Cockney accents, double-takes and bras are the staff of comedy.’
The reviewer, incidentally, was a trainee BBC director named Frank Cox who got his first assignment a year later, directing the thirteenth ever episode of Doctor Who.
Well, from our very specific point of view I guess the worst thing you can ever say about any play is that it doesn’t have a spanking scene in it. That’s King Lear, The Cherry Orchard and Death of a Salesman all damned in a trice, then! But that rule of thumb also means there was at least one good thing about the production of Afternoon at the Seaside that Frank Cox saw and hated. The only thing is … we can’t give Agatha Christie any of the credit for it!
Let’s start with a bit of business that Dame Agatha did write. Bob and Noreen, both dressed for the beach, are flirting and discussing the joys of a seaside holiday
NOREEN (kneeling and taking a bathing cap from her beach-bag): Oh, well, I’m going in for my second dip. Come on, Bob.
BOB: Too bloomin’ cold.
BOB: Women don’t feel the cold. (Eyeing her.) Too well covered.
He smacks her bottom.
NOREEN: You give over.
And off they go into the beautiful briny sea (or, if you prefer, onto a ramp downstage left and into the stalls).
So far, so scripted. The main purpose of the banter and bottom-smacking is to give the beach’s resident Mrs Grundy something to complain about. She gets a bit more material later when Bob and Noreen return, both wet from their swim and Bob still complaining about the cold.
NOREEN (drying herself): Oh, you! Soft – that’s what you are.
BOB (crossing to her and showing his muscles): Soft? Me? Feel those muscles.
Noreen drops her towel. Bob picks her up, twirls her round and they sit.
NOREEN: Oh, I’m all dizzy.
BOB: Oh! I’ve done myself an injury!
That, at least was what Dame Agatha wrote. But in the 1962 production, when Bob picked up Noreen, he took advantage of her upturned position to do something more than just twirl her round:
It’s only a horseplay spanking, of course, and – without giving away any secrets – it does later emerge that Noreen deserves to be spanked. But if you should ever find your local amdram group putting on Afternoon at the Seaside, don’t go along expecting to see anything similar, because it’s not in the script!
If you really want to see an Agatha Christie spanking, of course, you need to watch the 2012 French movie based on her Partners in Crime stories, entitled Associés Contre le Crime, and starring André Dussolier and Catherine Frot – though what happens to Catherine is not so much frottage as fessée…