Review – The Man in the White Suit, Wyndham’s Theatre, 4th December 2019

78805364_413366169569965_2790514872973000704_nA few months ago I saw that this show was coming to Wyndham’s and I thought it might make a decent matinee treat for the Squire of Sidcup and me, as he’s a big fan of Stephen Mangan and I just like seeing plays. Then came the news that the show was closing early due to poor sales – and I realised that our timing was lucky, and that we just managed to squish ourselves in to see it, before it closes on Saturday.

Kara Tointon and Stephen ManganThe Man in the White Suit is based on the film of the same name, a 1951 Ealing Comedy starring Alec Guinness. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, the British Film Institute named it the 58th greatest British film of all time. Naturally, I haven’t seen it. But I can absolutely imagine how this comic scifi tale, about an inventor who creates a fabric that neither stains nor wears out, could really have brought a sense of ludicrous hilarity to the post-war gloom. Of course, the final twist is that the fabric does deteriorate after all, and pretty rapidly too. This whole construct was not new; I remember seeing Leonard Rossiter in Feydeau’s The Purging, as part of The Frontiers of Farce at the Old Vic in 1976, where he played the manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots. They broke – to hilarious consequences.

in the pubThe Man in the White Suit film appealed to the working-class/trade union themes of 1950s comedy, the I’m All Right Jack generation that poked fun at both the Trotskyite union leaders and the toff company owners alike. Today, we have a different range of political strife to contend with; but there’s still a great divide between the haves and the have nots. There’ll always be a difference between the Brendas of this world, all hard-working labour and protecting workers’ rights, and the Birnleys, who pompously proclaim their exploitative achievements by dint of inheritance.  And in the middle, there’s the little man whose talent pulls him out of the great working masses but never brings him to the height of management; exposing him in limbo with nowhere to go. Whilst I can see the relevance of TMITWS’s story to today, its attempts to accentuate the modern relevance feel rather clunky. Some of those knowing but oblique modern references might have been better left out, and let this tale stand simply as the period piece it is.

Stephen Mangan and Richard DurdenNevertheless, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and the cast take on their task with brightness and enthusiasm, concentrating on the horseplay and plentiful slapstick moments. Director Sean Foley, who has a knack of creating amazingly successful work and amazingly disastrous work with equal measure, once more brings his eye for physical comedy, humorous effects and general lovability to his own adaptation of the original script. Michael Taylor’s set is incredibly versatile, not only cunningly creating a pub or restaurant scene together with the research laboratories, factory and the Birnleys’ stately residence, it also reveals pop out extra spaces, folding out of walls; for example, the superb 1950s sports car scene, and Daphne’s bedroom are surprising and delightful as they unfold.

Stephen Mangan as a waiterCentral to all this ludicrous mayhem is Stephen Mangan, who cuts a lovably foolish figure as Sidney Stratton, the inventor who nearly always mucks things up. Whether it’s his explosive laboratory experiments, or spilling drinks down his (or anyone else’s) lap, he always stands up for decency in the face of exploitation, and also wants the quality of everyone’s lives to be improved by scientific development and progress. He’s hard-working on stage, bumbling from one physical disaster to another, striving to talk his way out of a series of mess-ups; and it’s a very funny performance.

Kara TointonKara Tointon plays Daphne Birnley with the plummiest of accents, most vividly reminding me of the cut glass tones of the young Mrs Thatcher, deliberately pinpointing both the posh and the patronising. Daphne’s a young woman who knows her own mind, and whilst Ms Tointon is feeding us a stereotype, she’s quite believable all the same. There’s also a fabulously funny performance from Richard Cordery as Birnley, all northern pomp and circumstance, blundering his way through the proceedings; the archetypal fat cat with an interest only in himself (and protecting the virtue of his daughter).

Sue JohnstonI’d been looking forward to seeing Sue Johnston on stage, as I’m a great admirer of her ability to perform understated comedy (The Royle Family) and intelligent drama (Waking the Dead), but her role as Stratton’s drudge landlady Mrs Watson is very uninspiring and she had precious little decent material to get her teeth into. Similarly, Richard Durden’s Sir John is a pantomime villain who steps in to ensure the mill-owners scoop off the highest amount of cash from any deal. I did enjoy the musical spots from Matthew Durkan as Jimmy Rigton, together with his band as played by Oliver Kaderbhai, Elliott Rennie and Katherine Toy, creating a suitable musical accompaniment to the plot. This doesn’t quite make it a musical as such, but just lends some period character, much as the skiffle group do in One Man Two Guvnors.

singersIt’s a fun show; but it is enormously silly. At the interval, I couldn’t decide whether it was awfully brilliant, or brilliantly awful – somewhere between the two, I guess, lies the truth. I doubt whether this production will see the light of day again, but don’t go away with the feeling that it’s an out and out failure – far from it. Above all, the feeling that you take away is that you’re watching a live action cartoon, featuring broad brush characters with stereotypical characteristics working hard for your laughter. There’s no slipping on a banana skin sequence but if there had been, it would have been wholly in keeping with everything else. I’m glad I saw it.

pub singalongP. S. A theatrical first for me, in that after curtain down the audience was required to participate in a planned evacuation practice. Relatively easy for us, as we were near the end of a row right by some doors leading out into the safety of the open air. Interesting to hear all the emergency alarms though, and to see the ushers and bar staff all manning the doors and directing people to safety. Good that they do it – I’m just surprised that this is the first time in over fifty years of theatregoing that I’ve experienced such a thing!

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – The Good Liar, Northampton Filmhouse, 3rd December 2019

The Good LiarSometimes it’s easy to talk about a film or a play without giving away too many spoilers. However, in the case of The Good Liar, it’s virtually impossible. Roy and Betty meet over dinner, having been chatting on a dating website; he seems in frail health so, a few nights later, Betty allows him to stay over in her house rather than walking all the way up the stairs to his own apartment. But, actually,he’s in perfect health and appears to be part of a gang – or at least a partnership – of swindlers, defrauding greedy but stupid investors of their hard earned cash. OK – that’s not too much of an opening spoiler.

on the platformThere is, however, a basic twist to the story – and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a thriller if there wasn’t, so that in itself isn’t a spoiler. However, if you have any inkling of this twist in advance, it will completely ruin it for you. So, if you want a quick spoiler-free review, all I’ll say is that it’s enjoyable, well-performed, although with some unnecessary gore and unexpectedly bad language from Sir Ian, and, frankly, in some respects rather an unpleasant film. If you like the sound of a dramatic pairing between Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren, then you’ll love it. And who wouldn’t fancy that? Now, if you want no more spoilers, bookmark this page, go and see the film and then come back. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with dissecting it….

back home… I think they’ve gone. Phew! Now I can tell you what I really think. SPOILER ALERT!!! (Just in case) The strength and weakness of this film is in the casting. Sir Ian and Dame Helen are a powerful combo, and there are many exciting, tense, witty and dramatic scenes between the two. But do you really think an actor like Dame Helen would have taken a role as an elderly woman defrauded of her assets, made to look stupid and weak? Naaaa. Now, if it had been Dame Judi, she might have built up an emotional image of noble fragility and crumbled beautifully in front of us all as a downtrodden old dear. But this is Dame Helen. From the Janis Joplin-like Maggie in David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles to D.I. Jane Tennison and many roles before or after, she’s always the spunky, spiky, unpredictable, gritty strong woman. And if anyone’s going to outsmart Sir Ian’s Roy, it’s her Betty. I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought right from the start of the film that her character has her own agenda.

Mirren and McKellenRevenge is a dish best served cold, they say, and that’s proved without a doubt in this finely-detailed plot to put right a wrong over half a century old. No wonder it’s set in 2009; if it had been set in 2019, the past would probably be too distant for them to do anything about it. When you discover the elaborateness of the pre-planning, before the substance of the film gets underway, you feel both wow, that’s clever and wow, that’s far-fetched in about 50-50 measure. Nevertheless, the film does weave an enjoyably intricate web of deceit that is entertaining to observe, and, despite the occasional horror and gore, there is something delightfully British afternoon-tea about the whole thing. At times it feels like an episode of Midsomer Murders as directed by Quentin Tarantino.

THE GOOD LIARSir Ian and Dame Helen dominate the film throughout, and with acting of their quality, that’s no surprise. A very small cast adds to a sense of claustrophobia. Personally, I find it hard to watch Jim Carter and not see Mr Carson from Downton Abbey; here he plays Roy’s partner-in-crime Vincent, like a spiv Mr Carson, hair bouffoned up and with a constant eye for a cash deal. Russell Tovey plays Russell Tovey playing Stephen, Betty’s grandson, a suspicious lad with an unexpected grasp of Nazi history, who spends most of the film acting as Roy’s chauffeur with bad grace. There’s a nice performance from Mark Lewis Jones as Bryn, the hapless investor who bumbles his way through a deal and is sacrificed for his pains. But there’s no doubt the film belongs to its two big stars.

Helen MirrenMrs Chrisparkle was finding it a very unhappy film until the twist started to reveal itself; clearly she was empathising with Betty just a wee bit too much, and it’s just a bit too unimaginative to base a plot on a ruthless old git manipulating an innocent old girl. But Dame Helen isn’t an innocent old girl, never has been, never will be. Very watchable and enjoyable, a couple of moments when my dislike of violence made my stomach retch slightly, and an ending where one plot to deceive fails catastrophically and another plot succeeds miraculously. Recommended, but primarily for the acting.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – A Murder is Announced (1950)

A Murder is AnnouncedIn which Lettie Blacklock discovers that a murder has been announced in the classified ads of the local paper, and it would take place at her house on Friday October 29th. Unsurprisingly all the local gossips drop in to see what will happen… and a murder does indeed take place! The local police are mystified but fortunately Miss Marple is on hand to give valuable assistance, and the culprit is caught red-handed attempting another murder. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Blackpool SandsThe book is dedicated “to Ralph and Anne Newman at whose house I first tasted “Delicious Death!” This may have been the Ralph Newman whose family owned the gardens at Blackpool Sands in South Devon, but I can’t prove it. No matter, Delicious Death was obviously the name they gave to their homemade chocolate cake. A Murder is Announced was first published in the UK in an abridged version in eleven instalments in the Daily Express in February and March 1950. In the US, it was first published in forty-nine short parts in the Chicago Tribune from April to June 1950. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, both in June 1950.

Classified AdsHere’s an enormously entertaining book from the Christie canon. I remember absolutely devouring it when I first read it, because I couldn’t put it down and it was so completely engaging and arresting. The whole idea of advertising in the local newspaper that a murder is going to take place is so bizarre but strangely thrilling – as indeed the inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn prove as they all troop round to Lettie Blacklock’s house to see what happens. Even reading it this time, I was so intent at finishing the book because I wanted to check that my suspicions were correct (they were) that I had to re-read the last few chapters the day after, when I was less tired, so I could concentrate on the finer details. From the light-hearted first few moments, to the, frankly, hilarious farce of the first murder, and then right through to the final denoument this is a book that keeps you on your toes and never stops exhilarating you.

Whistler's MotherThe book reunites us with Miss Marple, whom we hadn’t encountered for seven years – her previous appearance was in 1943’s The Moving Finger. There may be a slight sense that she’s aged further; “she was far more benignant than he had imagined and a good deal older. She seemed indeed very old. She had snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes, and she was heavily enmeshed in fleecy wool. Wool round her shoulders in the form of a lacy cape and wool that she was knitting and which turned out to be a baby’s shawl.” All that wool and lace makes you think of Whistler’s Mother. Julia is partly right when she describes her as “the prying kind. And a mind like a sink, I should think. Real Victorian type.” Miss Marple certainly knows how to pry, but a mind like a sink? Surely not.

ForeignersWe also meet Inspector Craddock. Chief Constable Rydesdale thinks highly of Craddock, “he not only had brains and imagination, he had also […] the self-discipline to go slow, to check and examine each fact, and to keep an open mind until the very end of the case.” This “open mind” doesn’t seem to come naturally to Craddock; but what impresses me about him is his ability to recognise his own faults, his own prejudices. Whilst discussing Miss Blacklock’s domestic assistant, the wild-talking enigmatic Mitzi, Craddock confesses to Rydesdale, “I think the foreign girl knows more than she lets on. But that may be just prejudice on my part”. Miss Blacklock also believes that Craddock is prejudiced against Mitzi: “the whole idea’s absurd. I believe you police have an anti-foreigner complex.”

Margaret RutherfordShe’s right to suspect his clarity of thinking on this issue. Not only does he appear to be prejudiced against Mitzi, he’s prejudiced in favour of Philippa, because she shows class: “he was a little shaken in his suspicions of Mitzi. Her story about Philippa Haymes had been told with great conviction. Mitzi might be a liar (he thought she was) but fancied there might be some substratum of truth in this particular tale. He resolved to speak to Philippa on the subject. She had seemed to him when he questioned her a quiet, well-bred young woman. He had no suspicion of her.” Craddock would return in 4.50 From Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, and was written in to the four Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple comedy film thrillers that were produced from 1961 – 1964.

Word change gameIt’s a crisp, plot-driven, fast-moving story, that moves from gentle comedy to light thriller, moments of farce (the first murder) to moments of sheer terror (the final murder). There’s even an element of Shakespearean comedy ending after the whodunit denouement is over! It has a rather silly and unnecessary epilogue, but that’s easily ignored. Character-wise, it’s interesting for the portrayal of what is obviously a lesbian couple, without the L word ever being mentioned, with the Misses Murgatroyd and Hinchliffe household. Christie gives a rather good account of them – I wonder if they were based on real people she knew. The only thing that very slightly lets it down for me is that Christie dollops a whopping great clue early on, if we care to notice it. I remember that it stared out at me instantly, the first time I read it; and, as a result, guessed the murderer even before a murder had taken place.

Hotel des AlpesAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The setting is the village of Chipping Cleghorn, in the county of Middleshire, with Little Worsdale nearby, not far from the town of Medenham Wells. All totally fictitious of course, although there are plenty of places that begin with Chipping… and Middleshire could well refer to Middlesex. Medenham Wells suggests Medmenham, just outside High Wycombe. Milchester is another nearby town; interestingly the name features in Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path, written in 1941. Coincidence, or was Christie influenced by Rattigan? The only other location to consider is the Hotel des Alpes, in Montreux, where Rudi Scherz is believed to have worked. This was indeed a real hotel and one with a fine reputation, active from 1855 to 1975.

NewspapersThere are many other references for us to consider. Let’s first look at all the newspapers that get delivered to the households of Chipping Cleghorn. The Times, the Daily Graphic, the Daily Worker, the Daily Telegraph, the News Chronicle, the Daily Mail and the North Benham News and Chipping Cleghorn Gazette. As you might guess, the latter is totally fictitious. However, the others are all real; the Times, Telegraph and Mail are all available today, whilst the Daily Graphic stopped publishing in 1932 – date-wise, that’s something a little off the mark for Christie there – the Daily Worker became the Morning Star in 1966, and the News Chronicle was published from 1930 to 1960, when it was absorbed into the Daily Mail.

Manchester TerrierMrs Swettenham comments that a family member used to breed Manchester Terriers. I’d never heard of this breed. Whilst the Kennel Club lists it as an endangered breed, there were, apparently, an average of 164 births per year between 2010 and 2016. So the numbers are on the up. Bunch’s husband, the Rev Julian Harmon, is obsessed with the story of Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes – which was completely lost on me. This seems to relate to a confusion over name translations; in any event, Ahasuerus was the King of Persia in the Book of Esther. I’m sure that’s all we need to know. Whilst we’re on the subject of funny names, the Harmons call their cat, Tiglath Pileser. He was a prominent king of Assyria in the eighth century BC, who introduced advanced civil, military, and political systems into the Neo-Assyrian Empire. So now you know.

Where was MosesMiss Blacklock is found reading Lane Norcott in the Daily Mail. Maurice Lane Norcott was a real journalist who wrote in the Daily Mail in the 1930s and 40s. Bunch’s favourite new book, “Death Does the Hat Trick”, is a spiffing title but totally fictitious, I’m sorry to say. “Where was Moses when the light went out”, Mrs Swettenham quotes her old Nannie when questioned by Craddock. “The answer, of course, was ‘In the Dark’”. This is an old American song from the latter part of the 19th century, written by Max Vernor. Some suggestions online are that the response should be “in the basement eating sauerkraut”. You decide.

Blair LeightonMiss Marple tells Sir Henry Clithering that although her nephew’s wife paints still life pictures, she prefers the work of Blair Leighton and Alma Tadema. Edmund Blair Leighton was an English painter of historical genre scenes who died in 1922, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch painter who settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. A classical-subject painter, he became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire.

Maud“Inspector Craddock could never remember if it was St Martin’s or St Luke’s Summer, but he knew that it was very pleasant…” Either way, it’s what we today would call an Indian Summer. Edmund Swettenham quotes to Philippa, “Pekes in the high hall garden, when twilight was falling, Phil, Phil, Phil, Phil, they were crying and calling”. This refers to “Birds in the high hall garden” by Tennyson, from Maud – Edmund replaces Maud’s name with Philippa’s, the romantic old thing. “That old Tanqueray stuff”, so dismissively recollected by Bunch in conversation with Miss Marple, refers to The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Pinero, a late Victorian story about a “woman with a past”. And another quote: “Julia, pretty Juliar is peculiar” comes from Robert Slaney’s A Few Verses from Shropshire, published in 1846. Not surprising that no one would recognise it today.

1948 CalendarThe play that Edmund is to have produced is entitled Elephants Do Forget; it reminds us of the title of one Christie’s last books, Elephants Can Remember, published in 1972. And one slightly odd piece of misinformation; the first page of the book makes it clear that “today” is Friday, October 29th. However, October 29th in 1950 was a Sunday. It was in 1948 that October 29th was a Friday. Maybe that’s when she was writing it and never bothered to change it.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for A Murder is Announced:

Publication Details: 1950.  Great Pan paperback, 3rd printing, published in 1959, price 2/6.  The cover illustration by Keay shows a man checking the heartbeat of another man. I presume this is meant to represent Colonel Easterbrook checking Rudi Scherz for signs of life. However, the illustration of the dead man bears absolutely no similarity to his description in the book!

How many pages until the first death: 23. However, with the classified advertisement being discussed from page one, we’re fully expecting and waiting for it.

Funny lines out of context: sadly, none in this book.

Memorable characters:

This book is full of resounding and fascinating characters. I really like Bunch; she has no unnecessary sophistication, no pretence, but she’s kind and honest and vital. “I get up at half past six and light the boiler and rush around like a steam engine and by eight it’s all done […] I like sleeping in a big cold room – it’s so cosy to snuggle down with just the tip of our nose telling you what it’s like up above […] whatever size of house you live in, you peel the same amount of potatoes and wash up the same amount of plates and all that”. She deliberately doesn’t kill a fly whilst talking to her Aunt Jane Marple, because she loves the feeling of being alive. A lovely positive character.

I also enjoy the portrayal of the Lesbian couple, Miss Hinchliffe and Miss Murgatroyd. Hinchliffe wears corduroy slacks and battledress tunic, Murgatroyd a checked tweed skirt and a shapeless pullover. They call each other by their surname and have masculine hairstyles. Although these might be stereotypes, Christie couldn’t be clearer about her intention.

Mitzi is quite memorable; although I have to confess I find her a little irritating!

Christie the Poison expert:

Only one of the deaths in the book involves poison, an aspirin tablet being replaced by one laced with narcotics. In modern speak, we’d probably describe it today as an opioid.

Class/social issues of the time:

It’s 1950, and the after-effect of the Second World War lingers on. Mrs Swettenham, reading an advertisement for dachshunds for sale, says “I’ve never really cared for dachshunds myself – I don’t mean because they’re German, because we’ve got over all that…” I wonder if that’s truly the case. Fuel rationing continues, with the Blacklock household jokingly referring to “the precious coke” that fires the central heating; Lettie complains, “you know the Fuel Office won’t even let us have the little bit that’s due to us each week – not unless we can say definitely that we haven’t got any other means of cooking.” You used to have to get a licence from the Fuel Office in order to obtain coke. Julia reflects on how wonderful it must have been before the war when good quality coke was easily available, with no need to fill in forms. “There wasn’t any shortage? There was lots of it there?” “All kinds and qualities – and not all stones and slates like what we get nowadays”.

Food shortages also still linger; when Miss Blacklock gets Mitzi to create a Delicious Death cake for Miss Bunner’s birthday, she allows her to “use this tin of butter that was sent us from America. And some of the raisins we were keeping for Christmas”. A tin of butter? That in itself is mind-blowing today. Miss Blacklock supplies Mrs Swettenham with a supply of horse meat – our contemporary stomachs turn at this prospect. And there’s a bartering system in place to provide each other with clothing coupons: “people […] like a nice woollen dress or a winter coat that hasn’t seen too much wear and they pay for it with coupons instead of money” says Bunch. But to make up for it, households have started to acquire gramophone records. Julia thinks people are like records when they come round to the house and all say the same thing. Another after-effect of the war is the prevalence of young war widows, like Philippa. Mrs Lucas revels in treating her appallingly, giving her a smaller than usual salary, and patronising her wherever possible. And as a result Mrs Lucas can feel even more smug about her own life.

Whilst there’s still a general sense of class-based racism, it’s not as overwhelming as in some of her books. Miss Harris distrusts foreigners: “I’m always on my guard with foreigners anyway, They’e often got a way with them, but you never know, do you? Some of those Poles during the war! And even some of the Americans!” Craddock and Fletcher, his Sergeant, are both liable to mouth off about foreigners, which might make you question their ability to deliver impartial justice. “”Everyone seems to agree that this foreign girl tells whoppers,” said Fletcher. “It’s been my experience in dealing with aliens that lying comes more easy than truth telling.”” That’s some sweeping statement.

One additional subject that sets the story perfectly in its own age relates to the distrust and concern about the growing use of atomic energy. Mrs Swettenham is befuddled by the prospect. “I was just saying to Colonel Easterbrook that I thought it was really very dangerous to have an atom research station in England. It ought to be on some lonely island in case the radio activity gets loose.” An interesting line that shows both the worries and the lack of proper information or understanding about such a research station.

Classic denouement:  No, but still fascinating and exciting. We witness someone just about to be murdered but the law interrupts just in time and prevents it – and then the murderer simply falls apart. All the ins and outs of the motives and methods follow on in a subsequent chapter. There’s also an epilogue, but I don’t think it serves much purpose.

Happy ending? I guess so. There’s a wedding, and an inheritance. But a lot of people have suffered quite a bit to get to that ending!

Did the story ring true? I fear this is one of Christie’s more far-fetched stories, with an elaborate plot design that achieves an end that could have been realised in a much simpler way. There’s also one extremely hokey and unlikely moment just before the full denouement, when Miss Marple impersonates someone who has already been murdered and the shock of it tricks the murderer into letting down their guard. Is it that likely that Miss Marple is a top class mimic? Naaaaa….

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an enormously entertaining read but I think 9/10 is fair.

They Came To BaghdadThanks for reading my blog of A Murder is Announced 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 another of my favourite books, They Came to Baghdad, where high-spirited Victoria Jones has a very exciting adventure in the land of the Tigris. 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 – Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre, 30th November 2019

78301642_2527791120603364_8509818595637723136_nWhen I heard that the musical of Mary Poppins was to be revived with Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp in the main roles, I knew it was a no-brainer that I had to book – even if the show is perhaps not entirely suited for a gentleman on the wrong side of 55 (the very wrong side). But I thought the undoubted magnificence and spectacle of the production, combined with what was bound to be at least two fantastic performances, would outweigh any concerns I had for actually enjoying the show as such. Was I right? But first – isn’t the Prince Edward a delightful theatre? This was only my third ever visit, and the first time since I took the young Miss Duncansby (as she was at the time) on a date to see Chess there in 1986. Où sont les neiges d’antan?

Banks familyThere are a few finicky little ways that Mary Poppins musical varies from Mary Poppins the film, and if you’re a Poppins Purist, they might get under your skin a little. It annoys me that Let’s Go Fly A Kite appears far too early in the show, and I don’t particularly like the changed lyrics to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius – I know, I need to get a life. For most people under the age of [enter whatever you think is a reasonable age here] these quibbles are of absolutely no consequence at all. But if it interferes with your nostalgia, then it can be quite a challenge for the older audience member. The musical also makes Mary Poppins a little bit more mysterious, a little more supernatural. In the film you take the fact that Mary and Bert have known each other in the past, and will look forward to some point when they meet again in the future, rather at face value. In the show, however, it feels like they’re enigmatic overlords from a different time space continuum crossing each other’s paths like wayward comets.

CompanyAs you would expect from a lavish Cameron Mackintosh production, Mary Poppins (the show, as well as the character) looks gorgeous. From the front cloth that overspills to the sides of the auditorium, showing all the night-time windows of London, to the dolls house frontage of Cherry Tree Lane that opens out into the main rooms of the Banks residence, Bob Crowley’s design is immaculate, stunning, and takes your breath away. Graham Hurman’s twelve-piece orchestra, rather conventionally housed in a pit in front of the stage, throw themselves into those magical Sherman Brothers melodies with very pleasing enthusiasm. George Stiles’ and Anthony Drewe’s additional songs dovetail nicely into the originals, especially Mary Poppins’ prim Practically Perfect and Miss Andrew’s sadistic Brimstone and Treacle.

Step in TimeIn the lead role, Zizi Strallen gives a stellar performance; she looks the part, she sings perfectly, and she brings to life Mary Poppins’ magical qualities of appearing from nowhere, knowing what you’re thinking, indulging in fun but having absolute rules that must be obeyed, and so on. There’s some nice onstage magic (literally), as when she continually takes large items out of her carpet bag; and when her powers overcome Miss Andrew so that the latter consumes her own brimstone and treacle, it’s a highly satisfying moment! Ms Strallen is mesmerising in the role. It’s also a delight to see Charlie Stemp back in a musical, as Bert the Sweep, leading some spectacular dance numbers, including the famous “dancing around the proscenium arch” act, which still looks great. And, of course, a huge cheer for the wonderful Petula Clark, still performing at the age of [let’s not mention it] as the Bird Woman.

IPetula Clarkt’s slick, it’s powerful, it’s spot-on with all its technical prowess, and it looks and sounds magnificent. So why did I feel strangely disconnected to it? Am I really now too old to enjoy this kind of show? I deeply hope not. But for me it lacked an edge, a bite; an element of true magic. When Ms Strallen sang “all around the cathedral the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares….” the music didn’t emotionally swell and I didn’t get that lump in the throat I was expecting. And I know this is going to make me sound like a miserable old curmudgeon, but the child actors playing Jane and Michael were so incredibly efficient and accurate in their characterisations that they made them too unlikeable to get pleasure from their performances. Whilst I absolutely appreciated the strengths of the entire production, I was really shocked that it left me surprisingly cold. I’d been really looking forward to it, too! I disappoint myself!

Mary and the ChildrenI should add that there are some lovely supporting performances, for example Claire Moore is fantastic as the horrendous Miss Andrew, and I really enjoyed Amy Griffiths as the put-upon and unsure Mrs Banks. In any case, I’m sure this production is going to do great business for a long time to come, and if you’ve kids this is going to be a knock-out success for them. Don’t listen to a miserable git like me whose heart is obviously getting stonier by the day!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Season, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2019

The SeasonWhat is it about New York that inspires such creativity? If you’ve never been there, you imagine the bright lights, the yellow cabs, the wisecracking cops, the Broadway shows; Macy’s and Bloomingdales; the art deco elegance of the Empire State Building, the upright nobility of Lady Liberty, carriage rides around Central Park. You imagine all the movies, all the TV series, all the plays that have their roots there. You imagine you are part of one giant creative hub. Go to New York and you will make your fortune, become a star, make your dreams reality.

DougalWhereas, of course, if you’ve been there, you know that the truth can be somewhat different. Yes, all those fantasies are possible; but if you’ve not much money, are working unsociable hours in a coffee shop, sleeping on a friend’s sofa, you can put all thoughts about glamour and showbiz out of your head, and like as not you won’t be welcome in Macy’s.

RobinFantasy meets reality in Jim Barne and Kit Buchan’s new musical, The Season, appearing for a couple more days at the Royal and Derngate, a co-production with the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, where it has already played. Dougal has flown from his home in Northampton (and why not) to New York for a weekend to attend the wedding of his long-lost Dad, who left the matrimonial home months before Dougal was born, to seek his fortune in the Big Apple. Dad is marrying Melissa, decades his junior, the old rascal. Dougal has romanticised the opportunity finally to meet his father to a heart-palpitating extent; he has fantasised about discovering an extended family, being part of somewhere glamorous, and doing all the things that a boy and his dad should do.

In New YorkHe’s met at the airport by Melissa’s sister Robin; she’s been tasked to do this, just as she’s been dogsbodied to get the wedding cake from the bakers, buy her sister’s last-minute wedding stockings, and, one senses, a lot more. But Robin has a busy schedule of her own. Her reality is the Bump and Grind coffee shop; and if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid. Managing the over-enthusiastic puppy that is Dougal is the last thing she needs. But over the course of the weekend life changes for both, in part due to his high-pressure tactics, in part due to her need to escape her doldrums. His fantasy becomes overtaken by reality, and her reality gains a glimpse of fantasy. But in which direction will the future turn? I’ll say no more about the plot, but let’s just say that neither of them could have predicted the outcome.

IAt the Chinesen many respects The Season reminded me strongly of that old Marvin Hamlisch musical, They’re Playing Our Song. Both have two characters, set in New York, where an incompatible couple find themselves attracted to each other and we see them deal with the consequences. And in both shows, the future for the two people is uncertain. But there is an element of melancholy in The Season, absent from the more showbizzy TPOS, that gives it depth and reflection. You sense there is so much in The Season that is left unsaid; there is eloquence in those gaps that really encourages your imagination to work hard to get a full appreciation of these two people’s lives.

Robin at homeAmy Jane Cook has created a brilliant set, with a centrepiece of New York bright-light signs, a stage strewn with subway signs, and a inventively used revolving stage to help give a sense of progress through the city, but which also subtly tells some stories of its own; the sequence of drinks and food trays that emerge from behind the set, for example, that explain the night at the Plaza, fills in so many details without a word being said. Grant Walsh leads a trio of musicians who provide a fabulous soundtrack to the developing story with a depth that would suggest many more people backstage.

Dougal in the hotelTori Allen-Martin and Alex Cardall create a perfect onstage partnership, with their characters’ clear, opposing personalities driving the show on with great power and vigour. Ms Allen-Martin’s Robin is a deeply troubled soul but you only get to realise this on a dripfeed basis as the show progresses; and we all get to enjoy her revenge by credit card activity. Mr Cardall is a bright, happy stage presence; an innocent abroad who takes a childlike pleasure in the simplest of activities – in fact, someone we could all learn from. The scene at the beginning of the second Act perfectly portrays the difference between the two characters; one confused, horrified, nauseous and exhausted, the other as though he were auditioning for a Kellogg’s Fruit and Fibre advert. The pair of them are both hilarious and alarming in turn; over the course of two hours you feel you’ve got to know them intimately as friends and, frankly, you worry about them.

Robin plus cakeSocial media is already demanding The Season 2 – will we find out what happens to Robin and Dougal? I rather like the fact that all their experience is contained within one weekend; that it’s one big finite flourish of experience that they can take home with them and use to enhance their separate lives. But a sequel would be good too! Hopefully this isn’t the end of the line for this fascinating couple. A fantastic little nugget of musical delight.

Review – The Boy in the Dress, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 27th November 2019

78499535_547894199335799_2318101661920264192_nHotly awaited comes this brand-new musical to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a pedigree as long as a dachshund. David Walliams’ book (his first) has been adapted for the stage by Mark Ravenhill (of Shopping and F***ing fame), with music and lyrics by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers. Directed by RSC Supremo Gregory Doran, heading the cast is the inimitable and versatile Rufus Hound, with a fabulous (and I do not use the word lightly) set by Robert Jones and a delicious-sounding band led by Alan Williams. All well and good so far!

DennisAnd indeed, it’s all well and good for the most part. I’ve not read Mr Walliams’ book but a quick flick at a synopsis suggests that the musical is very true to the original and is a story with its heart fixed firmly in the right place. 12-year-old Dennis is the top scorer in the school football team, but his life has been shattered by his mum walking out on the family home and leaving him with just his dad and older brother John. Whilst Dad sits around indulging in comfort food and John is out doing his own thing, there’s a big mum-shaped hole in Dennis’ life. Dad has burned all the photos of her, save one that was accidentally rescued by Dennis, where she’s wearing that yellow dress that he always associates with her. One day, whilst buying this week’s Shoot! magazine in Raj’s corner shop, Dennis spies an edition of Vogue with a beautiful yellow dress on the cover and he can’t resist buying it. Hoping to gain the attention of the most desirable girl in the school Lisa James, Dennis allows her to dress him up in her new fashion creation, an orange sequined dress; and he loves it. But how will this go down with his friends, family and headmaster? You’ll have to watch it to find out!

ExpelledIn these days where schoolchildren are being taught (quite rightly, imho) that there should be No Outsiders, and society seems to be getting less and less tolerant, this feels like a timely addition to the debate about the human condition. I’m sure there are more plays that examine what it’s like to be a cross-dresser, but this is the first I can remember since Robert Morley and John Wells’ A Picture of Innocence back in 1978, and certainly the first involving a child. Its message of acceptance is simple and clear; it doesn’t erroneously conflate it with homosexuality, and beware of anyone who doesn’t accept you as you are, because they’re likely to be hypocrites. I always guessed that a certain someone would have a guilty secret; I was right.

Lisa James and DennisAt its best, this is an irresistibly charming production, with some great flashes of humour, both spoken and physical. The prancing arrival of the posh boys’ football team has you hooting with derision. When Lisa James peeks through Dennis’ bedroom window and he asks how she got there, the hilarious simplicity of the answer almost stops the show. Then there are some great set pieces of music and dance; the Disco Symphony sequence, for instance, is brilliantly staged and the audience raises the roof in response.  The football matches are represented with some fantastic footballography, creating a balletic effect out of the beautiful game. And its impishly sudden ending is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a musical.

HawtreySo it’s a smash-hit, right? Well, no, not quite. I really wanted to love this show from my toes to my fingertips but there were elements that for me let it down. The show wavers between being played very straight and serious in some parts and as pure pantomime in others. The lump-in-the-throat provoking If I Don’t Cry, where Dennis explores his reaction to his mum’s departure, and A House Without a Mum, where the whole family comes to terms with their new status, are full of heartfelt emotion and true humanity. On the other hand, all the scenes with the ebullient shopkeeper Raj, or Darvesh’s outrageous mother, or Mr Hawtrey’s A Life of Discipline number, are pure pantomime, and the balance between the two sometimes feels a little uneasy. Of course, sometimes we have up days, sometimes down, and having a variety of styles reflects that. It’s just that the heartfelt sequences work so well and the pantomime sequences don’t always achieve that.

Darvesh's mum and companyThe story is great, and the tunes are perfectly agreeable. However, some of those lyrics – oh, good Lord. I appreciate that the show is designed to appeal to children – the suggested age for David Walliams’ book is 8- to 12-year-olds. But that doesn’t mean the words have to be dumbed down. For example: the chorus of the Headmaster’s song, I Hate Kids, blandly goes (if I remember rightly), “I hate kids, I hate kids, I really really really hate kids”. Doesn’t give us great character insight, does it? Particularly as in other scenes the headmaster is happy to declaim “Degenerate!” whenever he sees Dennis, which is a rather sophisticated word. Many of the songs throughout the show are sadly littered with inane and uninspired lyrics, and opportunities for more telling words are sacrificed in the quest for a rhyming couplet – learning/learned, turning/turned comes to mind.

RajAnd then there’s the character of Raj. It panders to every Asian shopkeeper racial stereotype under the sun, and I felt sorry for Irvine Iqbal being asked to gurn his way through a sequence of embarrassing musical clichés which wouldn’t have made the first draft of a Goodness Gracious Me sketch. Not giving too much away, I hope, but when he donned his sari I truly wanted to look away. That really didn’t work for me at all. And whilst I enjoyed Natasha Lewis’ performance as Darvesh’s Mum (she does have the best line in the show after all), it seemed clear that the adult Asians are portrayed as outrageous/grotesque figures of fun whilst most of the adult Caucasians are portrayed as ordinary, recognisable human beings. If you want to see lovable Asians on stage without patronising them, can I recommend a revival of the excellent Bend it like Beckham?

Dad with DennisDespite these not insubstantial issues, there’s no doubt that the show is immensely enjoyable, largely down to a fantastic performance from a gifted cast. For press night, the role of Dennis was played by Toby Mocrei, and he was exceptional. Full of authority, a face that conveys innocence, cheekiness, sadness and that wonderful feeling when you get the attention of the most attractive girl in the school, plus the voice of an angel (yes, Messrs Williams and Chambers aren’t the only ones who can use a cliché), the audience as one rose to give him a most deserved standing ovation at the earliest opportunity. Dennis is a dream role for a child actor and Toby was the star of the night. There are four actors playing Dennis, as there are for the role of Darvesh; ours was Ethan Dattani, also full of confidence, plaintively and affectionately reassuring Dennis that his cross-dressing didn’t make a shred of difference to their friendship in a rather emotional little scene. He also very nicely batted away his mother’s embarrassing pitchside kisses.

Jackson Laing as DennisAs one of three actors playing Lisa James, Tabitha Knowles is another supremely confident young performer; her Lisa creates a strong bond with Dennis, whom she proudly displays in the shops and at school as though he were her extravagant new pet. She also has a great singing voice, nice comic timing and a very engaging persona. And Alfie Jukes’ John is a nicely underplayed Neanderthal dumb-nut, who’ll do anything for a Magnum. I hardly recognised Rufus Hound as Dad, an unhappy, down-at-heel man who doesn’t need any further complications in his life and is insufficiently in tune with his feminine side to come close to understanding Dennis’ fondness for dresses – at first. But when he opens his heart and accepts his son, I swear a bit of grit must have got in my eye and I had to activate my tear duct.

CompanyElsewhere there’s an effective pantomime-villain performance from Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey, strictly one-dimensional and played for laughs, and a nicely loopy performance from Charlotte Wakefield as the useless French teacher Miss Windsor. And I loved Ben Thompson’s very human operation of Oddbod, the dog who farts when he gets excited. There’s one lovely moment when he lets one rip and then looks accusingly at the audience as if to ask, “come on, which of you did that?”

I wanted this to be a great show; I guess I’ll have to make do with it being a very good show. But I’m sure it’s going to be a terrific hit with Christmas families and school parties. It’s playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8th March 2020, but I’m sure that’s not the last we’ll see of sharp-shooting Dennis and his shimmying gown. And, on press night at least, the evening belonged to young Master Mocrei.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd November 2019

Sally Anne HaywardAnother packed house at the Underground for our last Screaming Blue Murder of the year. Instead of our usual host, Dan, in the hot seat was Sally-Anne Hayward, whom we’ve seen many times before but never as an MC – and damn fine she was too. I loved her material about the whining office victim, which may seem cruel at first but then develops into a brilliant analysis of that kind of person. As she probed the audience for their interesting facts and jobs, she struck gold by first approaching Jasmine, with whom we all played a guessing game as to what she did for a living. You’d never guess it in a million years, btw. Her boyfriend, Winner, was also an easy target for some audience-ribbing.

Brendan DempseyIn what was always going to be a sensational line-up, our first act was the fantastic Brendan Dempsey, whom we last saw at Screaming Blue five years ago. He has such a commanding manner with the audience, so full of authority yet subtle and engaging. He has a brilliant sequence where he explains the reason why he and his wife can’t have children; plus some delightfully tasteless but extremely funny material on the benefits of having a disabled child. With his polite and well-mannered delivery, he’s able to sneak in some very challenging and often ludicrous material en route, and the act works brilliantly well.

Diane SpencerIn a change from the advertised programme, next was a welcome return to Diane Spencer, another comic whom we’ve seen several times and who surprises the audience with a delicious balance of posh Sloaney performer and some hard-hitting X-rated material to great comic effect. She offers some insights into the art of keeping stepchildren, and she goes into blow-jobs in great detail (apologies if you’re eating). I really enjoy her style and her unpredictability, and she went down very well with the audience.

Russell Hicks Headlining the evening was the magnificent Russell Hicks, who only has to come on to deliver a few lines, then allow himself to be sidetracked by whatever the audience throws at him – which usually results in comedy gold. This time we had a lady called Jo from Canada who had got steadily more inebriated as the evening wore on; and the audible plea from her friend during Mr Hicks’ set – “no, don’t get your tits out, Jo” – was all he needed. Added to this, there was an extraordinary tale from another (rather posh) lady who recounted the tale of her flashing her bosoms at a passing Virgin express train from a canal boat at Watford Gap. No one can weave such bizarre extras into their Screaming Blue Murderact like Mr Hicks, and he gave us half an hour of full-on belly laughs, so much so that we were still laughing (and hurting with it) the next morning.

In a word, classic. Screaming Blue Murders resume on January 10th with a superb line-up; we’ll be there, and so should you.

Review – Jonathan Pie, The Fake News Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st November 2019

Jonathan Pie Fake NewsThere was much excitement in the Chrisparkle household at the prospect of seeing Jonathan Pie live on stage. We’ve loved his irascible, foul-mouthed diatribes against politicians of all ilks on his regular short viral videos. In these days, heaven knows we need some decent satire, and Mr Pie goes a long way to fill that gap. Lord and Lady Prosecco were excited too, as were my friends HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford, and the Squire of Sidcup, both of whom had travelled to witness the comic experience.

JoJo SutherlandBut I’m getting ahead of myself. Mr Pie had a support act, in the form of JoJo Sutherland, a formidable lady with a firm grip on her audience and a string of strong material to back it up. She doesn’t pussyfoot around sensitive subjects; in fact, in order to check on whether her daughter is having sex or not she checks the extent of her downstairs depilation before she allows her out. She delivers with great attack and confidence, and the majority of her stuff is extremely funny. However, and nothing against Ms Sutherland, I wasn’t sure she was the right choice to support Jonathan Pie. Her material concentrates heavily on sex – and by no means in a prudish way – whereas you associate Mr Pie with political commentary, and I felt there was no crossover where an audience revved up for JP would be ready for Ms Sutherland’s down-and-dirty observations of life. And, given the fact that the Derngate auditorium was pretty packed, with at least a thousand people in there, I felt that the audience’s reaction was a trifle on the reserved side.

Jonathan PieAfter a massively confused interval – where the ushers were suggesting we all go back into the auditorium because we didn’t break at the time they were expecting, and as a result no interval drinks were ready and we were all should we stay or should we go in our half-time dithering – we resumed our seats for Jonathan Pie. It’s called The Fake News Tour because – well, obviously really – there’s a lot of it about. However, I’m not sure fake news played that much of a part in his comedy lecture. And yes, it did feel like a lecture, which is no bad thing provided you’re flexible with everything you want to say.

J PieHere’s the scenario: world-renowned political commentator and presenter linkman Jonathan Pie has been sacked by the BBC. Shock, horror. Mr Pie has gone on the road to explain to his faithful followers how it all went wrong. And this is the vehicle he uses to share all the political vitriol that you would expect. And there’s no doubt, the show is packed with horrifyingly accurate political insights and observations that make us all cringe and despair about the quality of our political leaders. It also asks interesting questions on how a public figure can fall from hero to zero with one misplaced quote, one moment where their guard was let down and they reveal an aspect of their personality that is unpalatable to the general public. The current discourse about the Prince Andrew Newsnight interview is a great real life equivalent.

Jonathan PDespite all these good intentions and a strong performance, I must confess, gentle reader, to feeling a little disappointed. What works incredibly well in a four-minute video, when delivered at a frantic pace for over an hour, becomes what Mrs C calls relentless. After a while you start to feel mentally tired, and you find you’re no longer concentrating on what he says. There’s very little light-and-shade to the performance, and Pie’s own personal anger at the world – even occasionally at his family – rather overwhelms the whole show. You also get the sense that the show is scripted to the nth degree, and that nothing would move him from his prearranged routine. That kind of lecture can feel imprisoning rather than enlightening. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t quite it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy and laugh at in this show; but we all were hoping for just a little more. There are four more shows left in his UK tour – in Peterborough, Bournemouth, Bath and Plymouth; go see for yourself and make your own mind up!

Review – Ardal O’Hanlon, The Showing Off Must Go On, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th November 2019

Ardal O'Hanlon The Showing Off Must Go OnArdal O’Hanlon is a name that isn’t necessarily always on everyone’s lips – but his face is, and his character of Father Dougal in Father Ted will live on until humanity is no more. Mr O’Hanlon’s problem is that he was just so good as Father Dougal that no one wants to believe that he isn’t Father Dougal. And that’s his opening bid in his new show The Showing Off Must Go On, currently touring. He gets irritated at being mistaken for Dougal – yet his first (extremely funny) anecdote illustrates just how like Dougal he really is. You’re gonna have to face the fact, Mr O’H; in the same way that My Lovely Horse will always be a possibility for next year’s Irish Eurovision entry, Father Dougal is the gift that keeps on giving.

Brodi SnookBut I’m running away with myself. First on, we had a support act in the shape of Brodi Snook, an Australian comic whose name sounds more like one of those healthy 1970s Scandinavian crispbreads. Ms Snook is a smart little powerhouse of strong contemporary material, but with a calm, gentle delivery that belies the savagery of her observations. The Derngate auditorium is a vast and lofty place and I think Ms Snook’s style would probably be more suited to an intimate venue. But she gave us a good show and it was an enjoyable hors d’oeuvres before the main course.

AOHWe last saw Mr O’Hanlon six years ago, where his soft, relaxed style oozed over you like a comfy duvet. Today, I felt his stand-up had more attack, and more bite, and was probably the better for it. Nevertheless, I still feel he’s exactly what the late Sir Terry Wogan would have been like if he’d gone for a stand-up comedy career. Jocular, knowing, confiding; relating many of his comic observations to his family life and noting how, once you reach 50, you really don’t care about what anyone else things. For example, I loved his sequence of how most people have a Bucket List of things they want to do whereas he has a F**kit List of things he has no intention of doing.

A O HOne fairly unusual aspect of his comedy is that, unlike most comics, his material hardly ever strays into the bedroom – apart from one teenage reminiscence of passing round the only dirty magazine in Ireland, with an unexpectedly whambam punchline. With an air of part-innocence and part-resignation, Mr O’H confesses his perfect night would be to stay up late watching TV and eating crisps, and I completely get where he’s coming from. He pushes tentatively at the door of Brexit, to see how we react; wisely he decides not to enter in too far.

Ardal O'Hanlon tourWith a stage backdrop of posters advertising his previous gigs, there’s a charming disconnect between the pizzazzy showbiz world of comedy and sitcom, and this mild, unremarkable middle-aged man talking about a range of domestic observations that we can all recognise. Technically, it’s a pretty fantastic performance, with a very rewarding number of callbacks coming home to roost at the end, a confident clear delivery and a very amiable persona doing the talking. There are a few terrific belly-laughs, but for the most part it’s simply an enjoyable meander through life’s idiocies. His UK tour continues through to next March and, honestly, why wouldn’t you want to see yer man do his stuff?

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Blind Mice (1950)

Three Blind MiceIn which a murderous plot in London, where the murderer whistles Three Blind Mice as his signature tune, resumes at Molly and Giles’ remote country guesthouse, Monkswell Manor, whilst they are cut off due to an immense snowfall. Will the police prevent a second death? This was the short story that two years later became The Mousetrap. And, as usual, if you haven’t read the story – or indeed, seen the play – don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Three Blind Mice Sheet MusicThree Blind Mice was first published in the US in the May 1948 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, and subsequently in the book Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1950. It has never been published in the UK in any format. The other short stories in the collection were all printed later in the UK, so I’ll ignore the rest of them for the moment in this relatively short blog post! Christie had decided that Three Blind Mice should not be published in the UK until the West End run of The Mousetrap had ended. The Mousetrap, of course, opened in 1952 and is still going strong to this day, and publishers have continued to respect Christie’s request. The story bears no dedication, but begins with the well-known nursery rhyme: Three Blind Mice, Three Blind Mice, See how they run, See how they run, They all ran after the farmer’s wife, She cut off their tails with a carving knife, Did you ever see such a sight in your life, As Three Blind Mice. Rather gruesome in terms of representing a murder!

The MousetrapAt 82 pages, Three Blind Mice is more of a novella than a short story, and is considerably longer than the eight other stories in the collection. However, because it’s written with approximately 90% of the text as conversation, and hardly anything in the manner of description, it’s very quick and exciting to read. There are very few differences between the substance of Three Blind Mice and that of The Mousetrap. The same characters in Three Blind Mice also appear in The Mousetrap, with the exception of Mrs Casey – Mrs Lyon’s landlady at the beginning of the story, the two witnesses who pick up the notebook in London, and Inspector Parminter who is in charge of the investigation in London. Giles and Molly’s surname changes from Davis to Ralston, and there is a character in The Mousetrap – Miss Casewell – who doesn’t appear in Three Blind Mice. There’s also a subtle (but important) change in one of the character’s back stories – but I can’t tell you what that is without giving the game away. Apart from that, they’re pretty much identical.

Crooked HousePrimarily, it’s a whirlwind whodunit, but with a few typically Christie themes thrown in for good measure. Like Crooked House before it, Molly and Giles are faced with the challenges of running a post-war house with limited means; so they stock up with emergency tinned food, she has illegally “borrowed” clothing coupons so that she could buy a coat, and the coke that they use to stoke up the fire to power the radiators is packed out with stones to bulk it up cheaply. Post-war suspicions about other people’s war record also come to light. Mrs Boyle suspects Wren is a conscientious objector (like Laurence Brown was in Crooked House), and there are discussions about desertion from the army, and the stigma attached to that, which will linger no doubt for several years.

The location of the London murder is Culver Street, and the witnesses were working on nearby Jarman Street; neither of these are genuine London addresses, nor is the village of Harpleden in Berkshire which is the nearest to Monkswell Manor Guest House. On the subject of money, Molly and Giles charge 7 guineas a week to stay at the guesthouse, which rate appears to include all food. That’s the equivalent of approximately £175 per week today. Good value, I’d say, even if you do risk getting murdered.

Not much more for me to add, except that it’s a terrifically exciting read and, if you’re one of those people who still don’t know whodunit, the denouement will knock you sideways. Has to be a 10/10 from me!

A Murder is AnnouncedThanks for reading my blog of Three Blind Mice 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 A Murder Is Announced, which I remember reading at school and successfully identifying the murderer because I picked up a vital clue. I was so pleased with myself! I remember it being an enjoyable read so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. 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!