Review – The Comedy Crate at the Black Prince, Northampton, 16th September 2021

Comedy CrateA coincidence that the Last Night at the Black Prince for 2021 came the same week as The Last Night of the Proms? I think not. A double whammy for us all to contend with at this time of the year. And, to make it just that little bit more challenging, the pub organised a band gig in their back room to vie for our aural attention out in the garden – but we could easily ignore them as we enjoyed the company of a great line-up of comic talents.

Jamie AllertonOur host, new to us, was the enthusiastic powerhouse that is Liverpool’s Jamie Allerton; with his vocal projections the band had no chance of making an impact. He gave us a great mixture of MC welcome and interaction together with plenty of his own excellent material thrown in for good measure. He nicely played on his physical presence to ensure that none of us felt guilty about putting on a few pounds during lockdown. A lively, chatty host who made the show go with a great swing.

Brennan ReeceWe’d seen all the acts before, although first up, Brennan Reece, we’d only seen online at a Comedy Crate/Atic gig back in March. He’s a very likeable chap, who uses his camp-but-straight personality to great comic effect. He strikes up a great rapport with the audience and has some brilliant put-downs when some audience members get a little above themselves (yes Hetero John, we’re all looking at you). He reacts quickly and smartly to what goes on around him and never fears to leave behind his prepared material for a great comic opportunity, which is the mark of a great comedian.

Angela BarnesNext up was Angela Barnes, whom we saw at a Screaming Blue Murder nine years ago, since when her career has gone on a fully deserved upward trajectory. Exuding confidence and presence, she has a great attacking delivery, and her set was full of inventive new material. She’s recently married, which provides for some fun new observations; and she had a wonderful throwaway line about Prince Andrew, after which she had us all in the palm of her hand. Brilliantly funny.

Stephen BaileyOur headline act was Stephen Bailey, whom we first saw five years ago as the support act for Katherine Ryan, and his comic presence is as immaculate and perfectly presented as his good self. In the bizarre setting of the Black Prince garden, he found himself competing for lighting with the next door municipal car park, but he quickly found his stride with his trademark cheeky gayness, taking the whole event as one big hen party. Stephen is now partnered up with lawyer Rich, whose main attraction appears to be that he has a house. His set was full of brilliant comic observations, including a very nice routine about “straight pride”. A great way to end the evening.

That was indeed the last of the Comedy Crate nights at the Black Prince for this year, but their programme continues with loads of excellent acts at the Charles Bradlaugh, the Picturedrome and other local venues – all the information is here!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Endless Night (1967)

Endless NightIn which young Michael Rogers narrates his own tale of acquiring a property at Gipsy’s Acre, despite the warnings of local people that the property and land is cursed; and how he also gets to meet the girl of his dreams. They build a fabulous architect-designed house on the land; but do they live happy ever after, or does the gipsy curse ruin their lives ahead? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Vale-of-GlamorganThe book is dedicated “to Nora Prichard from whom I first heard the legend of Gipsy’s Acre.” Nora Prichard was the paternal grandmother of Mathew Prichard, Christie’s only grandson, and Gipsy’s Acre was a field located on a Welsh moorland near Pentre-Meyrich in the Vale of Glamorgan. Mathew’s grandmother lived in this location, where many years earlier a nearby gypsy encampment was cleared and the head gypsy cursed the land. Either as a result or by coincidence, it became the site of several road accidents. Endless Night was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 30th October 1967, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. In the US it was also first serialised in two parts in The Saturday Evening Post from 24 February to 9 March 1968.

William BlakeThe book begins with an epigraph – a quotation from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Endless Night.” This quotation – or at least parts of it – are repeated at times throughout the book, almost as a leitmotif; its relevance is never clear until the end.

WriterAs she entered her final decade (not that she knew it, of course!) Christie hit the ground running with this magnificent book, that you might describe as “late-flowering genius”. On average, it took her three or four months to write a novel, but she said she wrote Endless Night in six weeks. And you can tell; not because it’s slapdash or lacking in detail or finesse, but because it flows immaculately as a stream of thought. Christie must have planned this book to the minutest degree because it’s full of fake clues that the reader picks up and thinks must be significant; and full of real clues that the reader never notices. The result is an extraordinarily engrossing, deceptively simple, un-put-downable read that makes it unquestionably a Christie Classic. As I mentioned in my blog about Third Girl, I’ve never been familiar with Endless Night because we were reading it as a family at the time my father died. Whether it’s simply because I associate it with sadness, or because I (understandably) couldn’t concentrate on it properly, it’s a book that has never stayed in my consciousness; indeed, for many years, I believe I didn’t have a copy of it. I suspect that when I read it recently as part of my Christie Challenge, that might well have been the first time I’ve properly read and appreciated it. And that’s definitely been my loss, because it’s an absolutely brilliant book and probably one of her top ten.

chauffeursYou couldn’t really class this as a whodunit, more a whatshappening. It doesn’t feature any of Christie’s usual detectives, and the only police presence is a minor character who receives reports of certain strange goings-on. It’s written, crucially, in the first person; and the narrator, Michael Rogers, is a complicated guy. He’s not particularly gifted or remarkable; he hasn’t got much money, but nor does he have a work ethic. Recently he’s been working as a chauffeur, but he’s used to having many jobs, that he chucks in as soon as he gets fed up with them – one of those things that was very common in the 1960s when work was plentiful. He neither respects work nor workers: “I’ve driven a lot of people who’ve made money, who’ve worked hard and who’ve got ulcers and coronary thrombosis and many other things as a result of working hard. I didn’t want to work hard. I could do a job as well as another but that was all there was to it.”

1960s DollybirdHe has a poor, distant relationship with his mother; he serially dallies with several girlfriends none of whom come to anything; like most young men he’s much more interested in sex than relationships, and he just moves on to the next young woman when he’s bored – rather like his relationship with jobs. Despite all these faults, he’s strangely likeable, primarily from what you feel is the overwhelming openness and honesty of his narration. He has no misgivings about his own nature; he knows precisely who he is and what his interests are, and, unlike most men, he’s not afraid to express what he feels. In fact, he’s charmingly self-effacing: “I don’t know much about writing things down – not, I mean, in the way a proper writer would do.” He’s also surprisingly fanciful and dreamy in his imagination: “build me a house […] and I’d find a girl, a wonderful girl, and we’d live in it together happy ever after. I often had dreams of that kind.”

Question MarkBecause of the nature of this book, it’s difficult to discuss it without giving way important aspects of the story, and I really don’t want to spoil it for you. The plot has distinct parallels with two of Christie’s previous novels, which I won’t identify at this stage, but you’ll easily see it for yourself when you read it. That’s not to say it’s in any way unoriginal; it’s very much its own book, with a slow, fascinating build to a crescendo that overwhelms the reader. Once you’ve started to work out exactly what is happening, Christie deftly makes you suspect a whole raft of characters of masterminding whatever plot there is, until you realise you were wrong all along. From that point of view, it’s extraordinary.

PlymouthDespite the setting of Gipsy’s Acre being in Wales, this story is firmly Devon-based, with Michael and Ellie getting married in Plymouth; the other locations – Kingston Bishop (the village where The Towers/Gipsy’s Acre is located), Helminster and Market Chadwell, despite sounding rurally plausible, are all inventions of Christie; but we do know from Michael’s narration that the whole area is near the sea. Some of the story takes place in New York, and there are some characters in the book who are truly citizens of the world, being located in Paris, San Francisco, and so on.

Robert Louis StevensonOther references to investigate are primarily quotations from poems or songs. We’ve already seen that Blake’s “some are born to Endless Night” is a recurring theme. Ellie likes to a sing a song about a fly: “Little fly, thy summer’s play My thoughtless hand has brushed away”. This is another work by Blake, simply called The Fly, taken from his Songs of Experience. And when Michael is finally coming home from his gruelling spell in New York, he quotes “Home is the sailor, home from the sea And the hunter home from the hill”, which is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem Requiem – although Stevenson’s original line is “home from sea” rather than “home from the sea”, but it frequently gets misquoted.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money plays an important part in this book, so it’s not surprising that there are several sums that are quoted. When Michael is wandering down Bond Street, he spies a pair of shoes in a shop window that he quite likes – £15 the pair. Out of his league financially, the equivalent today would be £190. That’s expensive but probably not bad for Bond Street. Even more out of his league is the painting that he enquires about, only to discover it costs £25,000. That pretty sum is well over £300,000 today – no wonder he admired it! When Ellie bought a picture on her honeymoon in Venice, it cost the equivalent of £6, which today would be £75 or so – still quite pricey for a piece of tourist trash, but then again Venice is always expensive. Philpott is knowledgeable about the cost of domestic linen: “do you know what a linen pillow case costs? Thirty-five shillings”. That’s of course £1.75 in decimal currency, and the equivalent today would be £22. I suppose that’s not too bad if it’s top quality material. The sum of £300 was found under the floorboards in someone’s property (I shan’t mention whose at this stage) and that today would be worth £3,800. That’s quite a lot to hide under the floorboards. Ellie mentions that they paid off the oil heiress Minnie Thompson’s first boyfriend the vast sum of $200,000. Today that would be $1.6 million – or, in sterling, £1.15 million. Probably worth being bought off!

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Endless Night:

 

Publication Details: 1967. My copy is a Harper Collins Paperback, the eighth impression of the Agatha Christie Signature Edition collection, published in 2007, bearing the price on the back cover of £6.99. The cover illustration by David Wardle shows a crow flying across the moon and with some blood spattered on the white lettered title. Not that relevant, really. The Tom Adams illustration on the Fontana paperback is much more telling, with a dead owl and a knife plunged into it, with a message attached.

How many pages until the first death: 212 – but that’s misleading because the Agatha Christie Signature Edition books have much more spacing; the book is 302 pages long whereas most Christie’s normally come around the 190 mark.

Funny lines out of context: The first one for a long time. When Michael tells us that he helped Ellie get on her horse for her morning ride, what he actually says is: “I mounted her.”

Memorable characters: Far and away the most interesting and memorable character is the narrator Michael, with his complex motivations and psychological hang-ups. Ellie is inversely fascinating in that she is a very rich young woman with all the power in the world, but she is content to be a mild-mannered, undemanding person; maybe it’s a rebellion against her brash family and associates. Mrs Lee, the gipsy who is full of prophecies of doom, is memorable, although her characterisation (and that of the hedge-cutting chap Michael meets at the beginning of the book) is pure pantomime. I also liked the character of Andrew Lippincott, with his lawyerly reticence to say anything that could possibly compromise any situation; you can never be absolutely sure you know where you are with him.

Christie the Poison expert: As you read this book you don’t think that poison is going to play a part in it at all; but you’d be wrong. Cyanide is employed, but I shan’t say how or by whom!

Class/social issues of the time: Following on from Third Girl, and Poirot and Mrs Oliver grappling with the Swinging Sixties, there are a couple of references to Michael’s love- (sex-)life that continue to explore that theme of how young people live today. When he and Ellie are starting to learn about each other’s past, he says “I don’t want to know anything about what you’ve done or who you’ve been fond of” and she comes straight out with “there’s nothing of that kind. No sex secrets.” I can’t imagine the likes of Bundle (The Secret of Chimneys) or Anne Beddingfield (The Man in the Brown Suit) having that kind of conversation. As Art gained some rather louche connotations in the previous book, it continues here, with Michael describing the presentation of pictures in a window, “artily arranged with a drape of limp velvet” as “cissy”; with the best will in the world, I can’t imagine Michael being an advocate for gay rights.

Some of Christie’s own personal hang-ups come through Michael’s personality; as a young working-class man with little regard for work it’s nevertheless curious that he should hold an opinion like “not just all this tame security, the good old welfare state limping along in its half-baked way”.

Michael refers to the space race: “a world where man has been able to put satellites in the sky and where men talk big about visiting the stars”. 1967, when Endless Night was published, saw both Apollo 1 and Soyuz 1 missions; two years later man walked on the moon.

The usual low-level xenophobia/racism that can be found in most Christie books is here replaced with an anti-gipsy sentiment. Mrs Lee is seen as a money-grabbing hypocrite who is only in the game for the “cross my palm with silver” aspect of fortune-telling. No opportunity is left untaken to denounce gipsies as thieves. Whilst no one ostensibly believes that the gipsy curse is to be taken seriously, there’s a devilment provided by the gipsy warnings that hangs gloomily – sometimes stagily – over the entire book.

Classic denouement:  There is no denouement in the traditional sense of the word. The story just reaches its astonishing climax organically, in its own time and manner.

Happy ending? No!

Did the story ring true? There are a number of minor loose ends that never get tied up, and a serious coincidence that is never really explored; but somehow, they don’t matter at all. Despite all the reasons why this story really shouldn’t ring true, it does. Michael’s honest, confiding and open narrative style that lulls you into accepting all the events of the book without questioning them; so the reader has absolutely no problem taking the story at face value.

Overall satisfaction rating: I very nearly read this book in one extended sitting, over the course of one day. That never happens to me! If I hadn’t had other commitments, I would have done. But I read it over two days and found it absolutely gripping. I’m very glad to have re-discovered it! 10/10 no question.

By the Pricking of my ThumbsThanks for reading my blog of Endless Night, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is By the Pricking of my Thumbs, and a chance to catch up with Tommy and Tuppence in their later years. Our last encounter with them was in 1941’s N or M? which I currently have as my least favourite Christie book – so I’m hoping for some improvement here!  As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Myra Dubois, Dead Funny, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th September 2021

Dead FunnyOn reflection, it was a bit odd that this was first time we had seen Myra Dubois, as it coincided with her (alleged) death and conducting her own funeral in person; but as she said, it wasn’t the first time someone had died on stage in Northampton (and I suspect she says that in every town she visits!) Yes, Yorkshire’s Rose has passed away, and Radio Rotherham laments this fact as we enter the auditorium to a series of amusingly inappropriate tracks in expectation for the show.

Frank LavenderAs a warm-up for the main event of the evening, we meet Frank Lavender. Who he? He’s Myra’s brother-in-law, a bluff and gruff Yorkshireman who enjoys ill-health and sports a hairstyle to rival William Gladstone. Frank’s a lugubrious but strangely likeable presence, someone who has taken to the stage even though they have none of the attributes required to be any form of entertainer. As Myra says, she only has him on as her support act so that people are ready for a laugh by the time she appears. Of course, it’s also a way for Myra, through a miraculous stage osmosis, to meet some of the audience before she takes to the stage. Frank sets himself a target to achieve about 30 laughs during his set, and Julie in the front row had to take an official tally. Julie had an amazing infectious laugh, by the way, that really helped the show bed in. He met his target, with a few groans to spare.

Myra DuboisAfter a longer than usual interval – required for Frank to transform himself into Myra – Rotherham’s favourite glamour puss arrived on stage in a scintillating white shroud, and the process of sending her to her eternal rest could get underway. It’s a funny pretext for an hour or so in Myra’s catty company, jibing with the audience with some occasionally very personal observations, getting away with some extremely iffy material because it was delivered with such panache as well as fabulous timing – as well as being extremely funny. We are treated to her glorious voice for a few numbers, in which the audience are welcome to join. There’s a marvellous sequence where audience members assist in delivering the service; it’s based on a ludicrous amount of repetition which can be a recipe for disaster in a comedy act and which some people (yes, I’m looking at you Stewart Lee) can’t get away with anymore; but this was hysterical. Myra traded banter with a few of what she calls the Acronym Community; our friend David in the second row took it all in very good heart.

Myra and EdnaNot having seen the act before, I was struck by the similarity between Frank Lavender/Myra Dubois and Les Patterson/Edna Everage. Both sets of characters are somewhere on the grotesque spectrum, with remarkable abilities to interact (in other words get away with murder) with the audience and set up great callbacks that you can’t see coming. Additionally, facially, Myra and Edna share that same heavily-lipsticked gurning pout of disgust; and both have – shall we say – heightened opinions of their own vocal range. But it’s far from a copycat act, and Myra is her own delightfully caustic comic creation. I don’t think I’m revealing any spoilers when I say that news of her own passing is revealed to be premature come the end of the show, and I’m sure Myra will be back on stage dispensing her South Yorkshire pearls of wisdom again soon. Great fun!

Myra draped over coffinP. S. A word on Covid-Care in the Underground Studio at the Royal and Derngate. We had been reticent about coming to see shows here in these pandemic times, because the studio always has been essentially an airless box, usually packed with laughing, drinking, carefree comedy punters. However, I can report that the new ventilation system, which brings fresh air in from outside, and well-spaced seating made the venue feel much safer than expected. We wore masks, most didn’t; but this made no difference to the banter and interaction between the stage and the audience. So if you’re concerned about coming to the Underground at the moment, I’d say that they’ve made every effort to make it as safe as possible.

Review – The Take That Experience, Buxton Opera House, 9th September 2021

Take That ExperienceI’ll be honest with you, gentle reader, the main reason I booked to see The Take That Experience on the last night of our week’s holiday in the Peak District was finally to take a peek inside the Buxton Opera House, a building I’ve known about for decades but never seen a show there. And I have to say it’s quite a curious place. The lavish gilt decoration inside Frank Matcham’s 1903 building, as it drapes itself around the proscenium arch and the balconies and galleries, gleams beautifully with true wedding-cake magnificence, full of luxury and grandeur. The flooring, however, as you make your way to your Stalls seats, is a dull grey lino, and the Stalls Bar has all the comfort and style of a 1960s urinal. If more than three people are waiting at the bar, the queue reaches outside and gets mingled with the queue waiting to go into the Ladies’ loo, so do be careful with your orienteering skills. So, something of a mismatch, but I’m glad I’ve now chalked it off my list of Theatres I Haven’t Visited Yet.

Take That ExperienceWe’re quite partial to a spot of Take That; Mrs Chrisparkle, in particular, has been a bit of a secret fan since the early 90s. In fact, there’s no secret about it at all. The story that she was once heard shouting out I Love You Jason! may or may not be apocryphal, and may or may not have taken place at a Take That concert. In recent years we’ve seen Never Forget, which, try as we might, we never will, The Band, which was surprisingly superb, and the lads themselves at Milton Keynes. But we’d never before seen a straightforward, honest to its boots, tribute act.

Take That ExperienceIt does me no credit when I confess that I didn’t have much in the way of expectation for this show. But – guess what? – The Take That Experience does exactly what it says on the tin, providing two hours of high energy, top commitment and super skilful performance that had the pensioners of Buxton (and ourselves) on our dancing feet from the earliest possible opportunity. The show opens with “Gary”, “Mark” and “Howard” doing a few, mainly more recent, numbers, including a song that has recently become a favourite of mine, These Days, and a terrific performance of Shine fronted by “Mark”. Take That ExperienceThen we met “Robbie”, who, of all the performers, is perhaps the least physically like his famous counterpart but makes up for it with a magnetic personality, terrific rapport with the audience, and a very athletic and bouncy performance style. “Robbie” sang us a few of his solo songs; and then, after the interval, we went back in time to the original five-guy-group (welcome on stage scream “Jason”) for a thoroughly entertaining retrospective concert of all their greatest hits – every one an instantly recognisable winner.

Take That ExperienceIt certainly delivered a lot more than it promised, and we had a terrific time. If you love your Thats, you’re going to love this bunch. They’re on an extensive tour of the UK until the end of the year and I thoroughly recommend them!

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

The Points of View Challenge – Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General – Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose BierceAmbrose Bierce (1842 – 1913/4*)

*date of death uncertain, disappeared sometime after December 26th 1913

American short story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran.

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, first published in The Wasp, 1885

Available to read online here

This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. They describe Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General as “a crisscrossing of letters, with excerpts from other documents and a deposition thrown in for good measure.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General

 

WaspOn 3rd November 1861, the Secretary of War writes to the Hon. Jupiter Doke to inform him that the President has appointed him a brigadier general of volunteers. Will he accept the honour? Oh yes he will! He replies on the 9th that it will be the proudest moment of his life. The Secretary of War writes to Major General Blount Wardorg that the new Brigadier General is to be assigned to his department and is to take command of the Illinois Brigade at Distilleryville, Kentucky. Wardorg, however, deliberately instructs Doke to take a route that he knows will be ambushed; he and his men are to be an instant sacrifice. But Doke sends his wife’s cousin in his place (because Doke never likes to get that involved) and it’s poor Mr Briller who gets sacrificed.

As the letters and diary notes continue, we see that Doke has taken to his new status like a fish to water – all apart from the military skill aspect. Wardorg quickly realises that Doke’s is a woefully poor appointment and that he and his men will have to be sacrificed due to their incompetence and stupidity, with the cutting remark to the Secretary of War: “I think him a fool”. After all, Doke is the man who has been collecting 2,300 mules in preparation for each of his men to ride one into Louisville as a form of dignified Retreat. The Confederate Army generals report that a freak of nature in the form of a tornado completely wipes out their men and Doke gets the credit. However, according to the eyewitness Mr Peyton, what really happened was that, at the first sounds of the oncoming enemy, Doke jumped through a window to escape and startled the mules so badly that they stampeded down the road towards the Confederates… I guess any that survived the tornado – if there really was a tornado – were muled to death! Result: Major General Jupiter Doke.

So despite all evidence to the contrary, when the President appointed Doke as Brigadier General, he might just have chosen the right guy! Doke quickly settles in to his new high office, spending all his time enjoying his peripheral benefits, appointing and recommending family members and friends, filling up his expense claims, publishing his speeches and over-egging his heroism, leasing a prominent residence in which to instal his wife and family, and engaging his brother in law to supply arms and regalia (much as you would with PPE today). When it comes to actual military matters, his judgment is pathetic, accidentally sending men to their death, and marching his men into town to be attacked because they were taken for the enemy, and when they returned to camp the real enemy had moved in.

This is a wonderful account of how someone can be promoted way beyond their ability, yet, by a series of extraordinary accidents and misjudgements, the final outcome has them smelling of roses and decorated accordingly. Every decision Doke makes is wrong, primarily because he spends all his time reaping the cash or status benefits of his new-found authority. Bierce portrays him as a magnificent example of small-town pomposity, concealing his own ineffectuality with flattery and self-aggrandization. He never misses a chance to improve his own standing, sneaking in an application for the Gubernatorial Chair of the Territory of Idaho, moving into a “prominent residence” whilst its previous incumbent is fighting in the war, writing a nonsense account of his own heroism for publication in the newspaper. However, the truth is that he is a coward who’ll escape through a window at the first sight of the enemy.

The story improves enormously on a second reading; for 21st century British readers not that familiar with 19th century American idiom and history, it’s easy to miss a few very important details on a first reading. Bierce himself had enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry at the start of the Civil War in 1861 and had a great deal of active involvement in several battles and campaigns, so we can trust his experience when it comes to the military procedures and the type of manoeuvres that feature in this story. An excellent satire on how to muck up a war and the elevation of a clown to high office. Now, why does that ring a bell today?

The next story in the anthology, and the last of the three letter narration stories, is A Bundle of Letters by Henry James. As an English graduate, it is to my shame that I have never read any James, so it’s definitely time to put that right.

Lockdown Armchair Travel – Hanoi, Vietnam – March 2013

Coming to the end of the alphabet now, and V is for Vietnam, a country we visited as part of an Indochina tour in March 2013. We visited too many places to put them all in one armchair travel blog, so I’ve concentrated on Hanoi, the capital of the north, and with a very different vibe from most of the rest of the country. So when you think of Vietnam (or Hanoi), what do you think of? Maybe something to do with this:

The mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh dominates the city as does his legacy. But let’s start off with something a little gentler. The first thing we saw in Hanoi was an out-of-town water puppet theatre, in the village of Dao Thuc.

Puppeteers work behind the stage and under the water to bring their stories to life.

It all feels like the product of a very innocent age. The puppeteers are all local farm workers, who put the shows on in order to keep the tradition alive. At the end of the show we give them a round of applause.

And they applaud us back. After the show we were invited to go “backstage” (as it were) to see the puppets for ourselves. And, as always, they take on a sinister appearance when they’re not on stage.

Back in the city, we visited the 900 year old Temple of Literature, a Confucian sanctuary and historical centre of learning.

We also visited the Museum of Ethnology, a park containing replica buildings, textiles, musical instruments, etc, showing the diversity of people who make up the country of Vietnam.

At night, everyone seems to gather around the Hoan Kiem Lake, to engage in all sorts of pastimes. Tai Chi, exercise classes, rollerblading and breakdancing, all to a Michael Jackson soundtrack! Not what I would have expected from Communist Vietnam.

The following morning we were ready for The Big Sight. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. There’s a museum devoted to him of course, but the queue was too long for us to join.

The same applied to the mausoleum! These people are queueing to get in.

There’s no doubt it’s architecturally outstanding – in a very Soviet way.

It’s located on a vast, but otherwise empty, square, just to make it stand out. And you can’t stand too close to the building. Come back you two, you’ll get into trouble with the police!

Nearby is the more modest, and more classically attractive, Presidential Palace.

You can’t linger here either. But you can at the One Pillar Pagoda, an attractive wooden pagoda originally constructed in the 11th century, standing in an elegant lotus pond.

Before we say goodbye to Hanoi, let’s just meet some of the people. Boys will be boys, right? You just know they’re up to no good.

Everyone relies on motorbikes.

And dining is informal, taken wherever you can.

The mausoleum is patrolled by men in smart uniforms.

But farming is the heart of the country.

Much to our guide’s horror, I took a photo of a protest. He was furious, saying the police would rip the camera from me and we’d all get into terrible trouble.

We didn’t. But it was a fine example of how Hanoi had a very anxious and tense feel that the rest of the country didn’t. Instead, envy the children, who aren’t yet too worried about things!

If you’d like to read about our visit in greater detail, I wrote a blog post at the time that you can find here. Now that lockdowns are (hopefully) a thing of the past, it makes sense for this to be my last Lockdown Armchair Travel post. However, if we’re all confined to barracks again, I expect I’ll go back to the letter A and start all over again!

 

 

 

More theatre and dance memories? You impetuous thing, you! April to July 2008

  1. Nederlands Dans Theater 1 – Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 5th April 2008

Always a pleasure to see any of the NDT dance companies – and this was a tour by their Number One group, comprising of Jiri Kylian’s Wings of Wax, followed by Lightfoot Leon’s Signing Off, and finishing with Kylian’s Tar and Feathers. This would be the last time (to date) that we have seen NDT1 – let’s hope it’s not for ever!

  1. James Son of James – Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 11th April 2008

This was a fun and inventive show from the now defunct Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, full of anarchy and lunacy but tremendously exciting theatre from a hugely talented group of dancers. Really enjoyed it.

  1. Billy Elliot The Musical – Victoria Palace Theatre, London, 3rd May 2008

An unpopular opinion here, but I think the stage version of Billy Elliot is vastly inferior to the original film. Superbly staged and performed, of course, but for some reason we just didn’t connect with our Billy – I don’t know which actor it was who played it on our performance, (although I know it wasn’t young Layton Williams, I would have remembered him) and I just felt rather let down by the whole thing.

  1. Doctor Dolittle – Birmingham Hippodrome, 11th May 2008

We took our nieces to see this show, starring Tommy Steele and with all the old familiar Leslie Bricusse songs from the original film. One of those productions that I’m sure was perfectly good but I cannot for the life of me remember anything about it – not even going to see it in the first place. I must be getting old.

  1. The Good Soul of Szechuan – Young Vic, London, 17th May 2008

We’d heard excellent things about this new production by Richard Jones of Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechuan – and those excellent things were correct! An excellent translation by David Harrower, with a fantastic central performance by Jane Horrocks, with great support from the likes of Liza Sadovy and John Marquez. Enjoyed it enormously!

  1. The Cherry Orchard – Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th June 2008

Philip Franks directed this new version of Chekhov’s classic by Mike Poulton, and there were fantastic performances from a plethora of brilliant actors. Diana Rigg played Ranyevskaya, with Michael Siberry as Lopakhin, Natalie Cassidy as Dunyasha, William Gaunt as Gayev, Jemma Redgrave as Varya, John Nettleton as Simeonov-Pishchik, Maureen Lipman as Charlotta Ivanovna, and Frank Finlay as Firs, in what was I believe his final stage appearance. Immaculate and superb.

  1. Hairspray – Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 28th June 2008

The original London production had already been running for a good nine months before we finally got around to seeing it – and it was a total delight from start to finish. Michael Ball was Edna and Ian Talbot was Wilbur, with the brilliant Leanne Jones as Tracy, the excellent Ben James-Ellis as Link, and the fabulous Tracie Bennett as Velma. Many great stars of the future lurk further down the cast list, including Adrian Hansel as Seaweed, Sandra Marvin as Lorraine, and Michael Vinsen as Brad. The show’s popularity has never gone away, and why would it?

  1. Sail Away – Lost Musicals at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, 6th July 2008

Another of Ian Marshall Fisher’s fantastic rejuvenations of an old lost show, Noel Coward’s 1961 show is set in New York City, and this production included many of the Lost Musicals favourite performers, including James Vaughan, Stewart Permutt, Ursula Smith and Vivienne Martin.

 

 

 

 

  1. Twelfth Night – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College Gardens, Oxford, 12th July 2008

Bill Bankes-Jones’ hilarious production of Twelfth Night was perfect in the gardens of Wadham College, with brilliant performances throughout, although James Lavender’s Malvolio in particular was a superb mix of ridicule and despair.

  1. Eurobeat The Musical – Milton Keynes Theatre, 18th July 2008

The first of three times that we saw this particular version of Eurobeat – which is without question the original and best. Wonderfully funny presentation from Les Dennis and Mel Giedroyc, and ten fantastic parody songs; the winner that night (and on the third time we saw it) was the KGBoyz with Ice Queen for Russia, but the second time (which was the London Press Night) it was Ronan Corr’s La La La for Ireland, which remains my favourite song from this selection. A tremendous spoof, done with real heart and incredibly funny.

Review – South Pacific, Chichester Festival Theatre, 25th August 2021

South PacificA mere 18 months after we originally booked it, after the first Covid cancellation, then a further enforced rearranged date because theatre social distancing didn’t keep up with Johnson’s unfurling summer road map, seven of us eventually descended on our favourite stately Sussex city to see Daniel Evans’ new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical.

Joanna Ampil and Seabees“South Pacific? Isn’t that a cheesy old show that has no relevance to today?” I hear you ask. You’d be so wrong. My only previous exposure to the show was seeing a plucky amdram performance 25 or so years ago and a couple of well known scenes from the film; plus, of course, Morecambe and Wise’s iconic addition to the Nothing like a Dame archive. As one of our group remarked during the interval, when you see There is Nothin’ Like a Dame in the full context of the show, you realise it isn’t a cheeky and oblique comment on how nice it would be to have a bit of feminine company around you to cheer the place up. It’s actually an observation that these guys are sex-starved and desperate for a damn good rogering.

Joanna AmpilAnd that’s at the heart of why this show feels so relevant today. What, on the surface, seems rather coy and polite, conceals an undercurrent of harsh reality. When the female ensigns sing that they’re gonna wash that man right out of their hair, what they’re actually proposing is breaking up relationships and depriving children of a mother on a whim. When Bloody Mary sings of the beautiful mysterious island Bali Ha’i to Cable it isn’t just a travel advert for sun, sand and palm trees, it’s an entrapment to get him to meet her daughter Liat in the hope that they will hit it off. And when she then encourages him to talk Happy Talk to her, she’s beseeching him to agree to an arrangement between them that will rescue Liat out of their war torn Polynesian island and provide her safety in the good ol’ US of A. When he reveals that he cannot marry her because of his conservative upbringing and that a dark-skinned woman would never be accepted by his Princeton-funding family, the confirmation that Mary and Liat are second class citizens leaves both them and the audience disgusted and furious.

Gina Beck - wash that man right outa my hairBut this isn’t the main focus of the racism in this show. Our heroine, Nellie, with whom we laugh, whose spark and spirit we love and admire, whose singing enthrals us, and whom we trust will have a great loving relationship with Emile and settle down happy ever after, stuns us with her use of the C word just before the interval. No, not that C word, but one even more powerful. Discovering that Emile has two children from his Polynesian first wife, she realises that he must have had sex with a “Coloured” woman; and you can feel her shudder with disgusted horror. The realisation that she is racist drops like a bombshell before we all go out for our interval Merlots.

Dramatic openingThe show makes us re-evaluate what we assume about it right from the start, when Liat’s innocent dancing is dramatically overtaken by the American invading forces, descending from their helicopters, and running around the island, literally stamping their authority on idyllic foreign soil. No wonder Oscar Hammerstein came under the stern scrutiny of the state, who questioned his allegiance and loyalty to the United States. There is a stunning and eloquent song, You’ve got to be Carefully Taught, which explains with great simplicity how racism isn’t a natural thing but something you learn from your youth. This questioning of traditional American values was seen as Communist sympathising in some quarters, and pressure was brought on Rodgers and Hammerstein to withdraw the song from the show, but they refused. It was central to what they wanted the show to say; without this song they would have withdrawn the show. It stayed in.

Thanksgiving FolliesDaniel Evans’ masterful production uses the great space of the Festival Theatre to its best advantage, emphasising both the grand scale of some of the bigger numbers and the lonely solitariness of its more introspective moments. Peter McKintosh’s versatile and constantly evolving (and revolving!) set immaculately recreates scenes such as the makeshift stage where the Ensign girls present their Thanksgiving Follies, or their simply constructed shower huts. Ann Yee’s choreography is exciting and fun in those big numbers, and Cat Beveridge’s sky high band whacks out those sumptuous tunes with a beautiful richness. Everything about the production feels like you’re truly privileged to be witnessing it.

Julian OvendenPreviously sharing the role of Nellie with Gina Beck is Alex Young, now playing her full-time. Ms Young is among my favourite performers, who never fails to bring wit and emotion to all her fantastic roles. Here she makes light work of I’m in love with a wonderful guy, Wash that man right outa my hair, Honey Bun and those delicious duets with Emile and Cable. She’s an effortless star with a great stage presence; it’s because she’s so good on stage that she still takes the audience with her on the rest of her journey after the end of Act One bombshell. She is matched by a brilliant performance from Julian Ovenden as Emile, who performs Some Enchanted Evening as though it were a brand new song that we’ve never heard before, and completely steals the show with the goosebump-creating This Nearly Was Mine, which encapsulates the heartache and havoc that idiotic racism causes. I think it’s also fair to say that he made all the ladies in our party go completely weak at the knees.

South Pacific companyRob Houchen is superb as the clean-cut, heroic Cable, giving us a stunning performance of Younger Than Springtime, and delivering the essential message of You’ve got to be Carefully Taught with devastating clarity. Joanna Ampil is a delightfully caustic streetwise Bloody Mary, nevertheless creating a beautiful vision of Bali Ha’i with her exquisite voice; and her performance of Happy Talk is one of those musical theatre revelation moments when a song that you think you know like the back of your hand is turned inside out with completely new meaning and nuance. It’s as far away from Captain Sensible as you can get.

Luther chargedIt’s essential for a production of South Pacific to cast exactly the right person for the comic-tragic role of Luther, and Keir Charles gets him down to a T. He manages to convince us that Luther is both a scamp and a villain; a conman with maybe a heart of gold – it’s hard to tell, because it’s never been tried. Mr Charles brings something of a lump to our throats with Luther’s unrequited love for Nellie; but he’s the cat with nine lives, you always know he’s going to thrive and survive somehow. All this, and fronting the Seabees’ big numbers and Honey Bun-ing it with Nellie en travestie. A fantastic performance.

SeabeesDavid Birrell and Adrian Grove bring warmth and a touch of humour to what could otherwise be the hard military presence of Brackett and Harbison; Sera Maehara is a beautiful and elegant Liat; Danny Collins (another of my favourite performers) and Carl Au give great support as Professor and Stewpot; and, on the performance we saw, Emile’s children Jerome and Ngana were enchantingly performed by Alexander Quinlan and Lana Lakha in fine voice and exuding confidence. All the very talented and extended ensemble put their hearts and souls into amazing vocal and dance performances.

Wash that Man!This is one of those rare productions where every aspect was pitch perfect. To be honest, I’d never considered South Pacific to be one of musical theatre’s greatest hits, but this production removes the veil from our eyes (and ears!) to give us a challenging, heart-warming, and massively entertaining show, and the most thrilling return to a big musical show for the Chichester Theatre. It’s only on now until 5th September, but if you can’t get to Chichester, there are still two streaming performances available on 31st August and 3rd September. In any event, I can’t imagine this will be the last we will see of this immense production – West End Transfer Please!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

The Points of View Challenge – A Novel in Nine Letters – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881)

Russian novelist, (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov) philosopher, short story writer, essayist, and journalist

A Novel in Nine Letters, first published in 1847

Available to read online here

This is the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. Here is the start of their description of this narrative style: “Each of the following stories is, to use the title of the James story, “a bundle of letters.” A letter is a written monologue, still relatively spontaneous, still addressed to a certain person for a certain reason; but of course the speaker is not face to face with his listener.” They describe A Novel in Nine Letters as “a two-way correspondence, a dialogue at a distance.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

A Novel in Nine Letters

 

Novel in nine letters (Russian edition)Pyotr Ivanitch writes to Ivan Petrovitch saying he’s been looking for him everywhere, but would he and Tatyana please come to tea. He’s also not happy about having been introduced to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, but we don’t know why. Also his son is ill and his wife is depressed. Ivan Petrovitch replies to Pyotr Ivanitch that he was at home all the time, so he has no idea why he couldn’t find him. He’s not sure what the problem is with Yevgeny Nikolaitch but wants to meet to talk it out – but now he can’t find Pyotr anywhere. Also, his wife is having a baby. Pyotr responds that he was called away because his aunt was ill – but will meet him at a mutual friend’s. Ivan replies that Pyotr didn’t turn up at the mutual friend’s, making him (Ivan) look an idiot, and accusing Pyotr of backtracking on a financial loan. Pyotr replies that it wasn’t a loan, his aunt’s dead and he’s too wounded to discuss the issues. Ivan says Pyotr’s deliberately avoiding him, deceiving him with pretend friendship, leading him on a merry dance and lying. Pyotr refuses to engage. At the end, both receive evidence that their wives have been cheating with aforementioned Yevgeny Nikolaitch and their friendship is incontrovertibly over!

This is a very entertaining battle of words and will between two “gentlemen” – Dostoevsky gives them shared names in an attempt, I think, to show that they’re interchangeable, and each as bad as the other. It’s great to see how the extreme formality and politeness of the earlier missives gets replaced by downright invective towards the end! Dostoevsky deliberately holds back with the details – what exactly did Yevgeny do to make himself such an unwelcome guest? Why was he at Ivan’s flat? (I think we know the answer to that!) Was it a loan between Pyotr and Ivan or some other kind of agreement? And at the end you ask yourself, is Anna really depressed, and who is the father of Tatyana’s baby?!

Deceptively simple, this short story merits being re-read a few times to get the full nuances of what’s being accused and what’s happening behind the scenes. Apparently, Dostoevsky wrote it over the course of one evening, to pay off a gambling debt – something that Ivan accuses of Pyotr of doing. There are some wonderful turns of phrase in these letters; my favourite is when Ivan accuses Pyotr of “shameful exactitude” for pinpointing the precise time that his aunt suffered a stroke. Over 170 years since it was written, it’s fun to imagine these St Petersburg men engaging in a vicious and bitchy spat, but the nature of their disagreement is timeless – you could just imagine how today they would be keyboard warriors of the worst kind!

The next story in the anthology is Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, by Ambrose Bierce, another writer whose work I have never encountered, so I am looking forward to reading this one!

Review – Bagdad Café, Old Vic Theatre, London, 21st August 2021

Bagdad CafeTo tell you the truth, gentle reader, the main reason we booked to see the Old Vic’s Bagdad Café, a Wise Children production directed by Emma Rice, was because we were in London anyway and this was the only show I could identify that was still offering “proper” social distancing in its theatre. And from that perspective, we weren’t disappointed at all. They did a grand job. Huge amount of space around everyone’s bubbles, a reasonable level of mask-adherence, and a sensible, double-entry access to the theatre to avoid too much criss-crossing in the lobby. Ten out of ten and five stars.

Brenda at the BagdadHowever, the show… It feels almost ungrateful to be critical of a return to live performance, created from the best possible motives, love for the theatre, one in the eye to the pandemic, and the power of kindness and love to overcome all obstacles. But sadly, this show completely missed the mark for us. We’ve not seen the original 1987 movie and by all accounts it’s a goodie. It sounds full of heart, pathos, gentle humour and a feelgood factor to soar the heights. I cannot know for sure, but I suspect, that if we had seen the movie, we might have enjoyed the show more. But that oughtn’t to be a prerequisite for any theatre production. A theatre performance should stand on its own and tell its own story, in its own way. Around us I could feel and hear the affectionate reactions of recognition from other audience members – but I’m afraid Mrs Chrisparkle and I both found that the show committed the cardinal sin of theatre; we were bored.

Phyllis - Bagdad CafeOf course, some aspects of the show are still excellent. Lez Brotherston and Vicki Mortimer’s design captured that desolate desert feel superbly, with the café itself being suggested by a battered old caravan which, when reversed, becomes the back wall and door to Jasmin’s motel room. Emma Rice’s trademark use of puppetry works very well, particularly with the creation of Salome’s fully mobile and articulated baby. Amongst the performances, Kandaka Moore lights up the stage every time she appears as Brenda’s fun-loving daughter Phyllis, her exuberant smile and total joie de vivre perfectly pitched to convey the subtle balance of the character’s innocence and thirst for experience. Ewan Wardrop works his socks off in multiple roles, most successfully as the line-dancing look-at-me sheriff Arnie who loves to be loved, but finds his star quality rejected when he has to enforce the law.

Arnie and BrendaIt’s very much an ensemble show, but Sandra Marvin (Brenda) is always a star turn in my book and I regretted how little opportunity she was given to shine with her belter of a voice and fantastic stage presence. I was also looking forward to seeing cabaret artist Le Gateau Chocolat for the first time, having heard great things about his Edinburgh fringe performances, but again much of the time he’s lurking about in a run down car slap bang in the middle of the stalls, and we only get to hear his pleasing baritone in odd moments. Musically, the show is surprisingly disappointing; there’s no doubting the excellence of the skill and quality, but it’s so repetitive! I am Calling You might be a great song, but not on the fifth, sixth, seventh hearing (I lost track). Similarly there’s only so often I could bear to hear Brenda being serenaded in absentia as a Songbird – sometimes, less is more.

Sandra MarvinThere’s a pivotal moment in the story, when Jasmin is surrounded by all the local people in her room, and they’re either doing homework, or painting, or just generally chilling in her company; and Brenda marches in, jealous, and accuses Jasmin of stealing her life; then Brenda regrets her outburst, and her and Jasmin’s friendship really begins. The trouble is, I just didn’t believe a word of it. Brenda’s retraction of her anger, and Jasmin’s acceptance of her apology just felt totally false. Come to think of it, there was a lot I couldn’t believe. All the foreigners are presented as national stereotypes, from the Australian backpacker (straight out of Men at Work’s Down Under video), a Russian with Marge Simpson’s hairdo who just says “glasnost, perestroika, Gorbachev” all the time (totally didn’t get that), and the German tourists in their starched lederhosen, as if they were extras in The Sound of Music’s Salzburg Festival. By the way, after he’s taken it off when he first comes on stage, the Australian’s backpack just sits at the corner of the stage for the rest of the show even though an unspecified amount of time passes; I know it’s not a literal presentation, but even so, that still looked messy.

Bagdad showbizWe’ve seen several Emma Rice productions – from the blissful Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, to the fabulous online Romantics Anonymous last year, as well as her work with Spymonkey and Brief Encounter, and she nearly always hits the flight of fancy perfectly. But, sadly, for us anyway, Bagdad Café just didn’t do it. Ah well, better luck next time. By the way, Saturday night’s show was the last of the normal run at the Old Vic, but there are still streaming performances this week from 25th to 28th August.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

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