Review – Six, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 30th September 2022

SixWho would have known that when we saw the comedy musical duo Hot Gay Time Machine as a guest on Mr Thing at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2018 that one half of that noble act, Toby Marlow, was on the cusp of striking the theatrical big time with his new fledgling show, Six, co-written with Lucy Moss. I’m well aware that I’m very late to this party, as Six has become a worldwide hit but this was my first time seeing it. It was also my first ever visit to the Belgrade Theatre Coventry, a partly grand, partly municipal building; and I hope it won’t be my last.

You’ll already be aware, gentle reader, that Six is a vehicle for those wives of Henry VIII to get their own back. If all you know is Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, you’ve got a big history lesson coming. But this isn’t a po-faced trawl through the textbooks, this is a bright, brash, empowering musical that brings the six women to life, gives them character and humour, plus a little petty jealousy which doesn’t seem unreasonable. Within the framework of an 80 minute, fringe-style show, Marlow and Moss have created one iconic song for each wife to express their personality, their story and their link with the Main Man.

These songs, by the way, are all pretty darn good – very catchy, very tuneful, and reasonably memorable even on just the one hearing. In addition, there are a few more songs for all the cast to join in together. Of course, Six has already acquired itself a massive cult following, so there are always plenty of connoisseurs of the show in the audience, joining in and feeling the vibe. At the end of the day, a musical always relies on its music, and this one has no problems in that department.

But more than simply giving each queen a voice, the show questions our relationship with these six characters, and how it has been moulded over the decades – indeed centuries. We band them together as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, (I blame Keith Michell – showing my age) but they have little in common apart from the fact that they all had the pleasure or otherwise of marrying the king. They were from different backgrounds, different countries, different beliefs; but history has suppressed them so that they only have one facet – whereabouts they come in the list of Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

The show is set in the here and now, on a stage in your local theatre, performed to you and the rest of your audience members. There’s no pretence for it to be anything else, and it sets up a direct relationship between us and the cast. They’re all brilliant  too – the six performers act as a superb ensemble whilst still maintaining their characters’ individual personalities. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Chloe Hart as Catherine of Aragon and Jennifer Caldwell as Anne Boleyn, but everyone puts on a terrific show. Lavishly staged, with a great lighting design, superb live playing from the band – the Ladies in Waiting – extravagant costumes and a huge sense of fun, the show comes across as full of personality, attitude and positivity. No wonder it appeals primarily to a female audience; you can forget your Spice Girls, this is real girl power.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Comedy Crate present The British Comedian Of The Year, Northampton Heat, Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 27th September 2022

BCOTYSo here’s something a bit different. At the Charles Bradlaugh last night, the Comedy Crate hosted the Northampton heat (who knew there was one?) of the British Comedian of the Year competition. Ultimate prize for the winning comic – £10,001. I guess that last pound is put in there because, like the subject matter, it’s a bit funny. Compered by Ben Briggs, nine comedians took to the stage with a ten to fifteen minutes set to win the hearts, minds and votes of the audience. Masai GrahamYes, after they had all performed we had an app through which to select our favourite two comedians. And at the end, Ben announced the two acts that would go through to the next round. Our third place choice goes forward to some kind of repechage/punch-up behind the bikesheds to see if they can also squeeze through.

Danny ClivesI can’t recall ever attending a comedy night like it. Hugely entertaining, and of course, by its very nature, full of variety. With such a short set, it’s unlikely (although not impossible) that any one performer would outstay their welcome. But that’s not a bad way of assessing which acts to vote for. Harvey HawkinsYou’ll definitely favour those, when they’d finished, you thought damn! I want more of this person! rather than those who you thought to yourself thank goodness that’s over. It’s also difficult to make a choice when you’ve seen some of the acts recently and already know their material, and then compare them with acts whom you’ve never seen before so their whole routine is as fresh as a daisy. But that’s a delicate problem for you to work out in the privacy of your own app moment.

Kirsty MunroThe structure of the night was to have three acts followed by a break, another three and a break, then the final three and a break during which you voted. A little like the Eurovision Song Contest, your appearance in the running order is oh-so-important. Jay HandleyYou don’t want to be first, you definitely don’t want to be second, you probably don’t want to be last. Halfway to two-thirds of the way through works best.

Jack GleadowAct 1 was Masai Graham, twice winner of the Edinburgh joke of the year award. He told them to us again, and yes, they’re pretty good jokes. I admire the way he can get four or five laughs out of four or five punchlines all from the same set-up. He’s a clever chap. Act 2 was Danny Clives, who announced he was unprepared for the contest, and I couldn’t work out if he was genuinely unprepared or acting unprepared. Either way, he’s got great material, nicely underdelivered. Act 3 was Harvey Hawkins, who delivered his excellent material with confidence, precision and a beautiful structure, which I always admire in a comedy set.

Kate MartinAct 4 was last minute replacement Kirsty Munro, who was very full-on with her sex-based material; tremendously confident but I think I would have died from embarrassment if she’d asked me some of the questions that she asked those in the front row. Act 5 was Jay Handley, who trades very successfully on his Jesus-lookalike status, but whose material goes much further than that and was extremely funny. Act 6 was Jack Gleadow, whose act I have seen a few times recently and includes some brilliant ideas, like the Popcorn Tindr and the differences between shopping at Primark and at Argos.

David StanierAct 7 was Kate Martin; her material centres on her height and sexuality, is extremely inventive on stage and we didn’t want her to stop. Act 8 was David Stanier, whose humour is of a very different style; he felt to me more like a children’s entertainer, with a level of surrealism into which I couldn’t really tap. Act 9 was Trevor Bickles, a London taxi driver and you can tell that from the start. Again hugely confident, great delivery and very recognisable material in that you can identify with the situations he creates for us. A good laugh indeed.

Trevor BicklesAfter quite a lot of deliberation, both Mrs Chrisparkle and I voted for the same two – and as this isn’t a secret ballot, I can tell you our choices were Kate Martin and Jay Handley. There was one other act whom we both wanted to vote for but who included one joke that we both thought was beyond the pail for the occasion, no names no pack drill. In the end, when the votes were tallied and the executive committee had run the numbers through a double checking verification procedure (I jest) the audience’s choice to go through to the next round were Jay Handley and Jack Gleadow, with Kate Martin in that perilous third place.

A fantastic night of comedy which we both really enjoyed. Hopefully this can become an annual feature!

Review – Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse, Sheffield, 24th September 2022

Accidental Death of an AnarchistWhere have the last 42 years gone? I remember seeing Accidental Death of an Anarchist back in 1980 at Wyndham’s in London as if it was yesterday (well, maybe a month ago.) I remember how it entranced me with its flagrant disregard for all the usual rules of West End comedy. I remember how it made me laugh my head off from start to finish. And I remember how it prompted me to write to Gavin Richards, who had adapted, directed and starred in it, telling him of my own family’s recent unjust and unfair brush with the law, knowing that our frustration and anger would fall on sympathetic ears. I’m still waiting for a reply on that one, mind. One of the great things about this play is how it can be moulded to reflect the issues of the day. As long as you have the one accepted constant – which is that police corruption is used to cover up their mistakes/crimes/lies/ineptitude/miscarriages of justice (feel free to add to the list) – then everything else can just neatly fall into place.

Daniel RigbyTom Basden’s adaptation of Dario Fo’s original play, at what was the Crucible Studio but is now the newly renamed Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse (that’ll quickly become just the Playhouse, mark my words) firmly places the action in the UK in 2022. I slightly regretted the almost complete eradication of all things Italian from this new version, which includes the way that Dario Fo got his characters to question Fo’s own inadequacies as a writer – so funny in the original. The Maniac used to proudly boast of his supposed association with the University of Padua; now he is (allegedly) an alumnus of Wadham College, Oxford. And with the recent electoral success of La Fascista Meloni as Italian Prime Minster, maybe they missed a trick.

Jordan MetcalfeNevertheless, this British version still works fine, with a full panoply of the methods the British police employ to cover their collective a*ses still rigidly in place. Fear of the media, fear of losing one’s pension and fear of getting found out still rule the roost. Whilst there’s a police WhatsApp group somewhere on this earth, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is not going away. And there’s still a call to action at the end of the play, in true Fo style, with websites and QR codes for the audience to download and explore at their post-show leisure. Remember, it was Fo who created the whole idea of Can’t Pay Won’t Pay for when capitalism just gets too big for its boots.

Tony GardnerFo’s original 1970 play was inspired by the death of an anarchist railway worker, Giuseppe Pinelli, who “fell” from a police headquarters window in Milan. Apparently, the window was already open (it was midnight on a freezing cold night). Apparently, he jumped (the autopsy showed he sustained an injury to the nape of his neck during his fall). Apparently, one officer tried to hold him back and ended up with one shoe in his hand (he was wearing two shoes when he landed). Apparently, they lied. Using appropriately anarchic humour, the ridiculous excuses of the law fall away before our eyes; as a result, what is in reality a truly horrific killing by the police becomes a hilarious, nonsensical farce on stage highlighting their corruption.

Ruby ThomasThe performance we saw was only the second preview, so please take that into account, gentle reader, although I doubt there is much space for last minute changes in the production. Anna Reid has created a stark but functional fourth floor office – later to become a third floor office by means of a pen and some window shenanigans. Tom Basden’s adaptation has fifty years of police corruption to mock; the longer the time since it was first written, the more corruption there is to play with, I guess. By necessity, this police force hasn’t espoused technology to the extent they might have, because nothing looks more extravagant than loose sheets of paper in a file being flung into the air. Given the farcical unpredictability of the body of the play, Basden gives us a relatively straightforward conclusion, whereas Howard WardFo gave us two alternative endings, with the Maniac asking the audience which of them they would prefer. But the whole show is full of brilliant theatrical tricks, right from the beginning when the opening music is turned off, to the “reappearance” of the Maniac at the end – and to say more about them would just spoil it for you.

It’s a tour de force by Daniel Rigby, who gives a terrific performance as the Maniac, adopting various guises, voices and personae in his quest to befuddle the police (to be fair, not that difficult a job with this lot). It’s a very demanding role, but he squeaks so many Shane David-Josephbrilliant comic moments out of the most minor opportunities, that he’s a joy to watch. I particularly liked Jordan Metcalfe as the clearly guilty detective Daisy, shiftily avoiding gaze and readily agreeing to clutch at half-baked straws. Tony Gardner is excellent as the outwardly respectable Superintendent, with an unscrupulous ability to forget whether he was there or not, depending on where there was or what he was doing there at the time. Ruby Thomas is great as the journalist Fi Phelan, defending her inherited wealth by admitting to owning only one horse and reading The Guardian, and there’s terrific support from Howard Ward as the exasperated Inspector Burton and Shane David-Joseph as the unintelligent Constable Joseph.

As relevant and as telling as ever, the play can still make you hoot with laughter yet be aghast at its subject matter. A glorious mixture of silly and serious, and still a classic of 20th century drama. A must-see!

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 24th September 2022

Much Ado About NothingFunny how things work out. In the same way that every pantomime I expect to see this Christmas will be Jack and the Beanstalk (London Palladium, Sheffield Lyceum, Royal and Derngate Northampton, etc), every other Shakespeare production this summer has been Much Ado About Nothing – RSC, National Theatre, and now here at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, with a co-production with Ramps on the Moon. Its Sheffield run closed on Saturday, but we were lucky enough to get tickets for its final day. You’ll be pleased to know, gentle reader, that there is a UK tour to follow so you still have a chance to see it!

Much Ado - BalthasarWe were part of a big family outing, some of whom pronounce Much Ado to be their favourite Shakespeare play. I must confess that over the decades I have slowly come around to the belief that this is one of his better shows – but it has taken me a long time to get there. Perhaps I’ve just seen some not-so-good productions in the past, because the storyline never remains in my brain for long and I frequently get confused when I watch it. However, not this time; Robert Hastie’s production tells the story clearly, humorously, and, as I think it will turn out to be, memorably. After all these years, I finally “got it”!

Richard-Peralta-and-the-Company-of-Much-Ado-About-Nothing.-Photo-by-Johan-Persson.-scaledWhat makes this production stand out is the diverse mix of actors who make up the cast, including disabled, deaf and neurodiverse performers as well as non-disabled actors. It’s a production for everyone; it’s made very clear at the beginning of the performance that if any audience member wants to get up, move around, or do anything else that will help them enjoy the performance, they are welcome to do so. All the cast introduce themselves to the audience at the start, explaining who their character is, how they are dressed, and how they will communicate: some of the cast speak their lines, others sign them, or do a blend of signing and speech. The whole production is captioned as well; it’s a veritable feast of communication!

Much Ado - the hoedownIt’s set in the modern era – in Messina, allegedly, but it could be anywhere that’s reasonably well off. Leonato, the Governor of the province, has a very nice pad with what we suspect is a lovely conservatory at the back of the stage that leads out into the garden, where “much ado” takes place. There’s a charming start to the show as the various members of the cast congregate in the conservatory, only for Don Pedro (Dan Parr, excellent) to realise that whilst they’re inside looking out, we’re all sitting outside looking in at him and his friends, so he leads the cast out onto the stage with a friendly hiya. Yes, you might say this production probably isn’t for purists, but then again, Much Ado is hardly likely to tease out many purists from the general theatregoing public.

Members-of-the-Company-of-Much-Ado-About-Nothing.-Photo-by-Johan-Persson.-scaledHastie’s vision for this production, apart from the general intention to make it as accessible as possible, is to bring out the classic scenes for maximum emotional or humorous impact. For example, everyone loves those favourite scenes where both Benedick and Beatrice overhear talk that the other one is rapturously in love with them. Here, in a hilarious scene, Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato all receive professional massages whilst ostentatiously chit-chatting about Beatrice’s love for Benedick, who ends up hiding underneath one of the massage tables. In her equivalent scene, Beatrice hides in a few vacant seats in the stalls to overhear Hero, Margaret and Ursula’s gossip about Benedick’s love for her. It’s all lightly, beautifully and believably done, right down to Beatrice’s involuntary outburst of Oh Shit! when she discovers the news and realises that she has to act upon it.

Much Ado - ClaudioBut there are plenty of dark moments in Much Ado – life really isn’t just a bowl of cherries. Are they able to carry off the serious aspects of the play with the same aplomb as the comedy? As it happens, yes. The simple force of Beatrice’s forthright delivery of her instruction to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” has the effect of sending a shudder right through your bones. Taku Mutero’s Claudio changes from being a wet-behind-the-ears romantic sop into a furious brute when Hero’s alleged infidelity is revealed; he certainly knows how to spoil a party. Gerard McDermott’s avuncular Leonato, too, switches from being a rather lovable old sot into a nobleman humiliated and offended by his daughter, dismissing any sense of affection or trust in her. And Claire Wetherall’s Hero herself is remarkably eloquent in her silence – she signs all her lines; somehow it makes her plight even more tragic and unjust.

Much Ado - Dogberry and VergesThere are a few modernisations to the text that work really well – re-imagining Dogberry and Verges as Wedding Planners is a stroke of genius, and both Caroline Parker and Lee Farrell bring terrific characterisation to the roles. There’s a brilliant sequence when Dogberry threatens the villainous Borachio and Conrade (terrifically played by Benjamin Wilson and Ciaran Stewart) with an assault by hydrangeas and hops – you had to be there. There are a few other delightful throwaway moments – for example, when Seacole (the excellent Amy Helena) signs a passionate description of two lovers, Benedick is forced to remark “a bit graphic, Seacole!” to much hilarity.

Much Ado - Benedick and BeatriceOf course, so much of Much Ado revolves around the presentation of the main duo, Benedick and Beatrice, and both Guy Rhys and Daneka Etchells put in terrific performances. There’s no question that this B and B have both seen a bit of the world and are nobody’s fools; they’re past pandering to anyone else’s whims and just in it for their own self-protection. Mr Rhys is hilarious as he coyly relaxes on a massage bed, accidentally-on-purpose letting a bit of leg show to boost up Beatrice’s interest in him; and Ms Etchells has a range of fantastic facial expressions, as well as a powerful confident delivery, that leave you in no doubt as to Beatrice’s state of mind at any given point.

Much Ado - Borachio and ConradeIn a production such as this, with perhaps more people on stage at a time than you might expect, visually it does occasionally get a little messy. There were a few blocking issues, and I felt that one or two of the actors underperformed at times. But there’s no doubting the sheer joy of the production and its extraordinary sense of freshness and liberty. Now that it’s done its time at Sheffield, the production is on the road, visiting Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Ipswich, Stratford East, and Salisbury. Not sure I’ve ever seen a production quite like it! Hugely rewarding, and great storytelling.

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th September 2022

Screaming Blue MurderI expected sadly to have to sit out all this autumn’s Screaming Blue Murders as they had been changed to Saturday nights, and Mrs Chrisparkle and my Saturday nights book up very early. However, a last minute change of plan meant that we could go, so hurrah for that. And, despite the fact that this season’s Screaming Blues have been strangely omitted from the printed brochure, it was a sell-out, so they’re obviously all doing something right.

Dan EvansAnd it was a delight as always to be welcomed and entertained by the one and only Mr Dan Evans, who had his work cut out from the start by front row Shirley from Wootton, who was definitely up for a spot of interaction. We also met laid-back Sonny, Architect Andy and wise-cracking Ian. Dan did absolutely the right thing by starting the evening off with a heartfelt round of applause for Her Late Majesty – it’s always difficult to gauge the right level of respect, especially with something that’s frequently as disrespectful as a comedy gig! But it was the perfect way to recognise the official mourning period. He could then proceed with his usual brand of cheeky chatting with the audience.

Robert WhiteFirst on stage was Robert White – a true Screaming Blue regular; I worked out that this was the seventh time we’ve seen him here. Now a Britain’s Got Talent alumnus, he has the special trick of being Asperges, gay and totally lacking in inhibition. With his trusty keyboard he can whack out any number of comedy songs about any number of audience members. Despite trying hard, he didn’t manage to discover any other gays in the audience, but it didn’t stop him from delivering some classic Robert White embarrassment songs and interactions. Whether or not we weren’t quite sufficiently warmed up I’m not sure, or whether it’s that he’s normally headlining or at least second in the bill, but his material didn’t always land quite so surely as it normally does. But then, with many people feeling the loss of Her Majesty, perhaps this wasn’t surprising.

Naomi CooperNext up was Naomi Cooper, whom we’d seen four years ago, and she’s much more sure-footed with her material and delivery than she was then. She has enjoyable routines about being a “slut” (her description) and dealing with her mother. There’s no one single outstanding aspect to her act, but she sets up a nice rapport with the audience and there were lots of good laughs.

Christian ReillyOur headliner, and another act we’ve seen several times, was Christian Reilly, master of the comedy guitar parody/pastiche. With his perky straw Stetson he gives the impression of being a country and western wild boy, and his Bruce Springsteen always goes down a storm – although my favourite of the night is his idiotically brilliant Bryan Ferry. It feels effortless, although I bet it isn’t, and the audience roared their approval. A brilliant way to end the night.

The next Screaming Blue is scheduled for next Saturday and includes the brilliant Russell Hicks – gutted that we can’t be there, but you should go!

Review – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Peacock Theatre, London, 10th and 15th September 2022

TrocksThere was a time, somewhere in the lonely misery of Lockdown 1.0, when we wondered if we would ever see the Trocks again. Everything else was cancelled due to Covid – how would it ever be safe to venture out again? But here we are, just four short (or maybe long) years since their last visit, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have returned to our shores for a two week stint at the Peacock Theatre, with two different programmes, followed by a UK tour.

TrocksHow sad it was, then, that their return should coincide with the death of Her Majesty the Queen, which knocked the stuffing out of us as a nation. We saw Programme A on the matinee of 10th September, when we were all still coming to terms with her death. The usual hilarious announcement that begins each Trocks show that there will be changes to the advertised programme, largely due to the mission of mercy by esteemed dancer Natasha Notgoodenuff, to rescue a production at Le Grand Theatre de Ballet de Croydon (or somewhere equally unlikely) was missing, and was instead replaced by a two minutes silence plus standing for the national anthem.

TrocksWhilst this was completely in keeping with the mourning period, and was scrupulously observed by everyone, it was not the perfect way to start a programme of comic dance. Normally, we would be instantly laughing as an unfit von Rothbart started scampering around the stage at the beginning of the Trocks’ incomparable take on Swan Lake Act II. We’ve seen this wonderful piece of nonsense at least a dozen times and it never failed to make us laugh till we ached – until this time. It’s still wonderful and always will be; but the sadness of the day wasn’t in keeping with the pratfalls on display, and it took a long time for us all to loosen up. It did, however, allow us to witness a brand new Trock star in the diminutive but oh so powerful form of Takaomi Yoshino, who, as Varvara Laptopova, performed the most extraordinary jetés and fouettés, gaining amazing height and completely made you forget you were watching a comedy performance.

TrocksWithout a pre-show announcement, we didn’t know if there were any changes of cast or what the surprise Pas de Deux would be. Actually, it turned out to be a Pas de Trois, from Swan Lake Act I, with two majestically tall ballerinas accompanied by a teeny tiny male dancer doing his best to support them – and in the end, they gave up and hoisted him overhead in a hilarious about-turn from the usual gender roles. We then moved on to Nightcrawlers, a surprisingly stylish and slick parody of Jerome Robbins’ In The Night, with couples mixing and matching, unexpected rapid cross-stage exits and entrances, and a lot of fun to boot. It was Robert Carter’s magnificent creation Olga Supphozova who executed the Dying Swan in the age old tradition, and we finally enjoyed the ludicrously charming Walpurgisnacht, the stage littered with delightfully silly fauns, a powerful coupling between Minnie Van Driver and Jacques D’Aniels, and a scene-stealing Pan by Boris Dumbkopf (that brilliant Takaomi Yoshino again).

TrocksWe returned for Programme B on the evening of 15th September. It’s amazing what a few days can do for public spirit. No pre-show silence, but a return to the announcement of changes – and the fact that Natasha Notgoodenuff’s errand of mercy had taken her to Les Grands Ballets Imperiales de Slough. It’s funny how rattling off a few faux Russian names and the news that the ballerinas are all in a very very good mood this evening can really help the show start off on the right foot. We kicked off (indeed, it all kicked off) with Les Sylphides, an excellent example of the Trocks doing their trademark perfect combination of comedy riffs with superb classical ballet. Olga Supphozova took every opportunity to milk the show for comedy value, but there were some terrific solos too. Dmitri Legupski didn’t sober up the whole time.

TrocksAgain we enjoyed a Pas de Trois, this time from Paquita, with some genuinely brilliant dancing from Helen Highwaters (who I think should be now be made a Dame), Elvira Khababgallina (I think) and William Vanilla. The Trocks at their very best. Then came the slightly more subdued Vivaldi Suite, followed by La Supphozova dealing with the terminal fowl again, and finally Majisimas, a delightful mix of mock-flamenco and Spanish bravura with the usual comedy/classic combo.

TrocksI’m going to be controversial here. (Gasp!) I’ve checked back, and this is the 15th (and 16th) times that we’ve seen the Trocks since we discovered them in 1998. Their unique selling point has always been that combination of comedy and classical ballet perfection. However, for the first time, there were a few moments when the dancing, primarily from those dancers in a more corps de ballet role, wasn’t quite a perfect as usual. No names, no pack drill. But some of those leaps didn’t land properly and some of the usual elegance was missing. TrocksDon’t get me wrong – they’re still brilliant, and we will still see them again for a 17th time (and more!) It’s just that when you expect perfection and it’s not entirely there, it comes as a bit of a surprise.

Do catch them on their UK tour though – Canterbury, Brighton, Norwich, Nottingham, Buxton, Hull, Bradford, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Truro and Belfast, between 19th September and 29th October. Keep on Trockin’!

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Curtain (1975)

CurtainIn which Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings are reunited for one final time – back at the scene of their first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The old mansion is now a guest house, where Poirot is a resident, accompanied by a new valet, Curtiss. But Poirot has a surprise up his sleeve – he confides in Hastings that one of the guests is a serial murderer, and he wants Hastings to be his eyes and ears so that they can prevent another murder from taking place. There’s just one main problem: Poirot won’t tell Hastings who the murderer is! Is Hastings perceptive enough to pick up all the vital clues? Can he prevent another murder? And how will Poirot end his distinguished detective career? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

1940s calendarAs the book was written at some point in the early 1940s, when Christie was at her inventive best, but without the future knowledge of exactly when it would be published, it’s perhaps appropriate that, unusually, she didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Curtain was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1975, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it has been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1975.

Red HerringFor the contemporary reader in 1975, Curtain was a breath of fresh air, after the disappointments of Christie’s more recent publications. Much research has taken place to try to establish exactly when it was written, but it’s hard to be more specific other than early in the 1940s. To end Hercule Poirot’s career on a highlight – for the reader, if not for Poirot himself, arguably – must have been Christie’s chief goal, and so she set about writing a superbly plotted, intricate story, full of red herrings and manipulative mind-games, and a classic Christie cast of old soldiers, young whippersnappers, hen-pecked husbands and research-crazed scientists. The result is a riveting read and a denouement finale that’s very different from a traditional Christie but has you on your seat with twists and surprises.

The Mysterious Affair at StylesSetting the story back in Styles, where Poirot and Hastings had cemented their friendship back in 1916, provides a very satisfactory circular structure to their detective days together – indeed to Christie’s works as a whole. Of course, the timings mean there are all sorts of inconsistencies regarding their ages, respective health conditions and life experiences. 55 years had elapsed between the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain, and Poirot was already an old man way back then. Hastings tells us at the beginning of this book, “I had not seen my old friend for nearly a year”; whereas the last book that Hastings narrates is Dumb Witness, published in 1937 – so there’s some inconsistency there. Hastings is now widowed, his late wife buried back in The Argentine where they lived. His daughter Judith, who plays a significant role in Curtain, is only 21, which again requires the reader to have some elasticity of understanding! Hastings is, in his own words, not “Heaven help me, a clever man. I blundered – made mistakes.” Christie paints Hastings as not only a bit of a chump when it comes to helping Poirot solve the case, but also rather Neanderthal in his reaction to his belief that Judith is spending too much time with Allerton, a man whom Hastings instinctively dislikes. We know that fathers can get very possessive of their daughters, but Christie took Hastings down some very torturous paths of personal discovery! Fortunately, All’s Well that Ends Well on that front, although there is a darker aspect to Hastings’ over-the-top reaction, but that’s for further discussion after you’ve read the book!

PoirotAnd what of our much-loved and respected hero, Poirot? Of course, we see him through Hastings’ eyes, as this “limping figure with the large moustache”. But on closer inspection, “crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself about in a wheeled chair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now. His face was lined and wrinkled. His moustache and hair, it is true, were still of a jet black colour […] only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling”. And of course, age hasn’t taken its toll on Poirot’s vanity: “mercifully, though the outside decays, the core is still sound […] the brain, mon cher, is what I mean by the core, My brain, I still functions magnificently.” Good to see that some things never change. What is occasionally a little distressing is to read how Poirot rounds upon Hastings with frustration and fury at the latter’s denseness. “Go away. You are obstinate and extremely stupid and I wish that there were someone else whom I could trust, but I suppose I shall have to put up with you and your absurd ideas of fair play.” Harsh words, Hercule; particularly as Hastings is still coming to terms with his new widowed status: “I’m not much of a fellow. You’ve said I’m stupid – well, in a way it’s true. And I’m only half the man I was. Since Cinders’ death…” Still, I suppose we can extend Poirot a hand of sympathy as he gets older and more infirm; as Hastings notes, “now, when he was indeed a sick man, he feared, perhaps, admitting the reality of his illness. He made light of it because he was afraid.”

CookTimes may have moved on, but some of Poirot’s views are still firmly in the past (unsurprising, as that’s when the book was written!) In conversation with Judith, he criticises her keenness on working for Dr Franklin at the expense of finding a husband. ““Your middle finger is stained with methyliine blue. It is not a good thing for your husband if you take no interest in his stomach.” “I dare say I shan’t have a husband.” “Certainly you will have a husband. What did the bon Dieu create you for?” “Many things, I hope,” said Judith. “Le marriage first of all.””

private detectiveThere’s one curious inconsistency of Poirot’s philosophy that is at odds with his stated views in other books. Faced with the task of preventing a murder, he asserts that it is impossible to stop a murderer from carrying out their intentions; and he goes into great detail about the only possible methods one can use, and how they are all likely to fail. However, in Poirot’s Early Cases, which was published only a year earlier (albeit the tales were written much earlier), that is more or less exactly what he achieves in the story Wasps’ Nest.

scaredThis is a beautifully written book, with an extremely clever set up and tight plotting. Christie manages to achieve a sense of unease at many key moments in the story, which almost lend it a supernatural element; there is much debate, for example, to what extent the previous death that occurred at Styles has left its mark on the fabric of the building. ““The atmosphere of the place […] something wrong, if you know what I mean?” I was silent a moment considering […] Did the fact that death by violence – by malice aforethought – had taken place in a certain spot leave its impression on that spot so strongly that it was perceptible after many years? Psychic people said so. Did Styles definitely bear traces of that event that had occurred so long ago? Here, within these walls, in these gardens, thoughts of murder had lingered and grown stronger and had at last come to fruition in the final act. Did they still taint the air?”

BinocularsThere’s also the scene where Norton fumbles with his binoculars, is embarrassed about what he has accidentally seen and refuses to elucidate further; it’s a very uneasy moment and you feel that something extremely significant has happened – but you’re not quite certain why. It’s all very cunningly written, and when you discover exactly what has happened at the end of the book, all these significant moments make sense. There was a time when Christie would enjoy including what I call a “presaging moment” in her books, which always create tension and nervousness, and Curtain includes a fine example: “How little we realized then that Norton’s hobby might have an important part to play in the events that were to come.” There’s another scene when Franklin upsets a box of chocolates and they spill out on to the floor; as a Christie fan you read much more into such an event than it might necessarily warrant – will this be an opportunity for a murderer to swap a chocolate for a poisoned one, for example? As I said earlier, the book is littered with delightful red herrings.

TadcasterThere are just three locations in the book. It almost exclusively takes place at Styles House, in the village of Styles St Mary, which we know is reached by crossing “flat Essex landscape”. There’s also the setting for the Coroner’s Enquiry, and Boyd Carrington’s house. The only other location mentioned is the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, where Franklin and Judith drove to get some laboratory supplies. Tadcaster? That’s hardly convenient for Essex! I think the proof-readers didn’t do their job properly there.

AsquithNow for the references and quotations in this book. Has tings asks if there were any similarity between this case and the case of Evelyn Carlisle. This is the book Sad Cypress, published in 1940, which perhaps gives us a closer clue as to when Curtain was written. Again, I wonder if the proof-readers took the afternoon off as the character’s name is actually Elinor Carlisle. Poirot also refers to “your Mr Asquith in the last war”. Herbert Asquith was the Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916 – so you wouldn’t think of him as being from the time of “the last war” in 1975!

CowperHastings wonders who it was who wrote “the darkest day, lived till tomorrow, will have passed away”. This is a slight misquote; the original is “the darkest day, if you live till tomorrow, will have passed away” and is by William Cowper, from The Needless Alarm, 1790. There are more quotes, from Shakespeare; O, beware, my lord, of jealousy… and Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world…, both of which are spoken by Iago in Act Three, Scene Three of Othello. There is also a reference to Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes; he was an invading Assyrian general, and she was a Hebrew widow who beheaded him when he was drunk.

St John ErvineMrs Franklin wore a negligee of pale eau-de-Nil; this is a pale yellowish-green colour, said to be coined by Flaubert in the mid-19th century when France was obsessed by Egypt. And of the two clues that Poirot leaves to Hastings, one is a copy of John Ferguson by St John Ervine – this is a 1915 play by (according to Wikipedia, so it must be true) the most prominent Ulster writer of the early twentieth century and a major Irish dramatist whose work influenced the plays of W. B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. So there you go.

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

Publication Details: 1975. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first paperback edition published in 1977, bearing the price on the back cover of 70p. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration simply shows a bowler hat placed atop a walking cane. Classy.

How many pages until the first death: 127. That’s a good two thirds of the way into the book, but it’s such a good read that you’re not remotely impatient for a death to investigate.

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: The book is much more interested in presenting a deeply woven plot rather than memorable characters, so there’s not much meat here. However, Hastings’ daughter Judith is an interesting character, largely because she presents herself as a highly unpleasant person, and not at all what you might expect coming from the kindly loins of Hastings. Consider this little opinion piece: “I don’t hold life as sacred as all you people do. Unfit lives, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.” Nice lady.

Christie the Poison expert: A veritable cornucopia of poisons and chemical treatments litter this book – Christie must have had a field day. Arsenic, morphine, cyanide, strychnine; plus the alkaloids of the physostigmine family, and the sleeping draughts veronal and the fictional slumberyl, all play a small or not so small part.

Class/social issues of the time: Bearing in mind that the “time” in question is probably during the Second World War, it’s fascinating to read Hastings’ description of the period – specifically in terms of no longer producing men of the standard of Colonel Luttrell – as “these degenerate days”. You’d say that was an opinion that didn’t bear much optimism for the future.

Hastings has a very tricky relationship with Judith; perhaps that has always been the way for fathers and daughters, but his possessiveness towards her becomes quite aggressive, as does her resistance to his protection. Poirot admits that “the mauvais sujet – always women are attracted to him”. As women were making their way in the workplace with much greater strides than in previous eras, it would be inevitable that they would have to learn the ways to deal with bad boys independently, and not just rush to the protection of Daddy. But all this takes a very hard toll on Hastings.

One of Christie’s traditional bugbears gets a good airing with some major discussions about divorce. There is a passage where Hastings lists and comments on the individual attitudes to divorce of many of the residents at Styles. Hastings describes himself as “essentially an old-fashioned person, yet I was on the side of divorce – of cutting one’s losses and starting afresh.” Boyd Carrington, who had had an unhappy marriage, was nevertheless against divorce. “He had, he said, the utmost reverence for the institution of marriage. It was the foundation of the state. Norton, with no ties and no personal angle, was of my way of thinking, Franklin, the modern scientific thinker, was, strangely enough, resolutely opposed to divorce. It offended, apparently, his ideal of clear-cut thinking and action.” By listing these opposing and perhaps unpredictable attitudes, Christie shows what a state of indecision society was in at the time in respect of divorce.

I did think it was an extraordinary state of affairs that someone who is convinced they have had a heart attack – Poirot, no less – would refuse to see a doctor. Perhaps there was a mistrust of the medical profession at the time? But, on the other hand, this refusal might be a clue as to the final “whodunit” aspect of the book – so I won’t say any more on the subject!

Classic denouement:  No – but it’s an absolute humdinger, where Christie reserves one of her very finest solutions till the final moment.

Happy ending? That’s a hard one to call. One couple appear to be looking forward to a happy relationship together, which is a positive result. However, there can be absolutely no doubt at all that this is the end of Hercule Poirot, and you may find that sad!

Did the story ring true? This is one of Christie’s ultimate plotting successes, so  yes, it rings absolutely true.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s one of her undoubted best – no wonder she kept it in a drawer for when it was needed! 10/10

Sleeping MurderThanks for reading my blog of Curtain, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was the last book to be published in Christie’s lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge. Next up is another book that she wrote at an earlier time and is the swansong for Miss Marple – Sleeping Murder. I can remember one vital aspect of this story – but the rest of it is a blank, so I’m looking forward to giving it a re-read. 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 – All’s Well That Ends Well, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 13th September 2022

All's Well That Ends WellAll’s Well That Ends Well – it’s a phrase we all use, but are we all familiar with the play? I suggest not; which is rather perplexing, because of the three Shakespearean Problem Plays (the others being Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida) this is the play that has the greatest potential to be a crowd-pleaser. And Blanche McIntyre’s current production for the RSC demonstrates that quality in an often hilarious, always thought-provoking, occasionally confusing way.

Helena and BertramIn a nutshell – orphan Helena was taken into care by the kindly Countess of Rossillion but has fallen in love her son, Bertram. The Countess is fine with this; Bertram not so much, as he feels his status is somewhat better than marrying “a poor physician’s daughter”. Reluctantly he weds her on the instruction of the King of France, who owes Helena a favour for having saved his life (long story). But Bertram flees to the Tuscan wars on his wedding night with his pal Parolles (who’s no better than he ought to be.) Helena follows him and tricks him into bed by pretending to be Diana, a local girl with whom Bertram has become infatuated (we need to suspend disbelief on that front). Helena becomes instantly pregnant (it worked that way in those days) and, following a public humiliation at the French court, Bertram eventually agrees to stick with Helena; thus all’s well that ends well.

King of FranceMcIntyre has brought 17th century France and Florence bang up to date with a 2022 world of social media, online gaming, smartphones and selfies. This contemporary setting works well for the play’s characterisations and interactions, and of course has the prospect of opening up the play to a younger generation of theatregoers. However, I’m not sure that Helena’s magic “prescriptions” that she dispenses to transform the health of the ailing King of France quite make sense in what must also be a world of advance scientific breakthroughs – we need to suspend disbelief on that front too. But it’s a fun concept – and, if anything, could have been taken a little further. The back projections of social media interaction never stay there for long, and I don’t think there was much in the way of trolling, which would have been very relevant!

Countess and LavacheRobert Innes Hopkins has designed a fascinating structure that looms on top of or over the stage the whole time, like a huge shuttlecock. It works pretty well – reminding you of perhaps a conservatory at the Rossillion residence, or a tarpaulined tent in the war scenes. The costumes show a nice divide between the haves and have nots – the Countess wears classy trouser suits, Bertram and the King are a dapper pair of clothes horses, and Helena makes do with something pleasant and practical from Primark. The military fatigues are stock standard camouflage gear, and Parolles comes dressed in a pseudo-military, pseudo-flamboyant outfit, reflecting the character’s shallowness and duplicity. There’s a very effective scene where Parolles gets all his kit off apart from his comic book hero underpants, and especially removes a sturdy stocky torso covering, exposing himself to the elements rather like Edgar’s Mad Tom, thereby revealing that, underneath it all, this big wannabe burly hero is actually just a bit of a weakling like you or me.

Countess and LafewSome extremely good performances brighten up the show enormously – and maybe highlight the fact that one or two of the performances are perhaps slightly tentative. Rosie Sheehy commands the stage from the start as the forthright Helena, her voice full of confidence and assertiveness, perfect for the role of the young woman who knows what exactly she wants and is determined to get it at all costs. Claire Benedict’s Countess is superbly dignified, fair-minded, and naturally gracious; it’s not surprising that she would have extended her kindness to looking after Helena.

Dumain and BertramIt struck me that Shakespeare doesn’t give the actor playing Bertram many memorable juicy lines to establish his full character, but Benjamin Westerby makes a good job of portraying his young callousness and poor decision-making. Bruce Alexander is very good as the King of France, all wheezy and feeble at first, then properly regal later; he comes into his own in the final scene where he adjudicates in the Bertram/Helena/Diana love triangle, with beautifully timed vocal tics and challenging expressions.

Parolles and the guysAmong the lesser characters I really enjoyed the performance by Simon Coates as Lafew, the old courtier who’s seen it all and naturally gets the better of a jumped-up little chappie like Parolles in a series of truly hilarious vocal skirmishes. I also loved Eloise Secker as the Younger Dumain, for whom the pricking of pomposity comes as a fine art. Perhaps best of all, Jamie Wilkes’ Parolles is a wonderful comic creation; if ever the phrase all mouth and trousers was designed to fit anyone, it would be this fellow. Mr Wilkes gives us some terrific breaking the fourth wall moments, full of braggadocio for anyone who will stop still and listen until he’s captured and becomes the biggest Squealer since Animal Farm. It’s a brilliant performance, hugely entertaining; he makes you wonder why All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t get performed more.

Duke of Florence and armyThe final moment on stage (which I shan’t reveal) simply and effectively drives home the uncertain future that faces the young couple. This isn’t all sweetness-and-light, it’s a tale full of bitterness and disloyalty which the production conveys extremely well. I confess I occasionally lost track of what was going on, particularly with the war scenes, and the D-Rum concept, and the energy did sag occasionally. But I thought this was a very brave stab at bringing back a rarely performed play and giving it a new relevance for today. Lesson: beware of girls in fluorescent wigs at discos.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Narcissist, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 7th September 2022

The NarcissistThere’s a moment about five minutes into Josh Seymour’s excellent production of Christopher Shinn’s deeply fascinating The Narcissist, when the main character Jim, a writer and political adviser, explains why the last American election was lost by the Democrats. “To win, a candidate has to understand that the average voter is angry, scared, selfish, petty, perverse probably – but most of all […] pessimistic.” His advice is to ignore all those traditional attitudes of “we will do it better…” “you can trust in us…” or (as very recently in the UK) “I – will – deliver”, because no one will believe you. And I confess I was completely swept away by this brilliant political analysis-in-a-play, with its cynicism, insight and study of power and ambition.

Harry LloydBut Jim has a private life too, and to say it’s messy is an understatement. Every waking minute is spent juggling his temporary engagement by The Senator to get her through a series of TV debates and addresses; he’s also co-writing a book with his best friend, dealing with the end of a long-term relationship with Emma, managing a domestic battlefield between his mother, his brother and his girlfriend Harry Lloyd and Stuart Thompson(most of whom don’t like each other), plus setting up some online sexual shenanigans with The Waiter (Jim is bi, and rather actively so, it would seem). With so much activity going on, it’s inevitable that he takes his eye off the ball occasionally – and he does, with at least two dramatic consequences.

Stage podsTo emphasise the constant interchange of conversation with all the various people in Jim’s orbit, Shinn has constructed this play to give equal weight between not only interactions with others in real life, but also text messages and phone calls. At the back of Jasmine Swan’s splendidly modernistically designed stage, are various text pods; little boxes that light up when the person housed inside them is having a text conversation with Jim. Which of us can hold their hand up and say they never text others whilst having a real-life conversation with someone else?Claire Skinner I know I can’t. This presentation perfectly depicts the tricky balance between holding real life conversations and text chats at the same time, and how one’s tone can change instantly from one interaction to another. It shines an insightful light into the intricacy of this modern form of communication.

Caroline Gruber and Harry LloydIt also creates an immense challenge for the actor playing Jim – Harry Lloyd – who deals with the multifaceted conversations with effortless ease, being, for example, business-like with the Senator’s Aide, long-suffering with his mother, flirtatious with the waiter and pleading with his friend/co-writer all in virtually the same sentence. Mr Lloyd manages to make us (largely) identify with Jim as we accompany him through all these different types of conversational relationships, feeling his suffering, admiring his wisdom and abilities. He’s hardly ever off stage and puts in a tremendous performance.

Paksie Vernon and Harry LloydHe’s supported by an excellent cast; Claire Skinner’s Senator reminds you strongly of Hilary Clinton even though she’s clearly a different person, crisply requiring instant answers in words of 300 or less because she hasn’t time to waste, and steadfastly refusing to open up to let the electorate see the real her until Jim eventually succeeds at just slightly cracking her veneer. Caroline Gruber is excellent as Mom, pretending helplessness, picking at self-pity, weak until tragedy means she must either buckle under or survive. Paksie Vernon is great as Jim’s friend and co-writer Kara, balancing her own domestic crises with her workload, realising she’s always going to play second fiddle to him until she too finds herself a voice of assertiveness.

Jenny WalserStuart Thompson is also excellent as the carefully spoken Waiter, gently probing at the possibility of a sexual relationship with Jim but not standing for any nonsense from him; and Jenny Walser is also superb as the demanding, unreasonable, and petulant Cecily. There’s also great support from Simon Lennon as Jim’s wayward brother Andrew and Akshay Khanna as the Senator’s aide.

Simon LennonThe Narcissist is an interesting, perhaps curious title for the play; you might enjoy playing “spot the narcissist” as the plot develops, although to be honest, there are at least two of them, and conceivably five or six amongst the eight-person scenario. The play is red-hot where it comes to politics, interacting with the electorate, and the pitfalls of social media on both a public and private level. It also comes with a surprisingly optimistic ending, which is a pleasant bonus. I’m not quite sure the play succeeds as well with mixing Jim’s political work with his private life. There’s one, rather long, but very important scene where Jim is at home and is visited by The Waiter for a little “home-servicing”, where the energy strangely drops at first, and I found myself hanging around waiting for my interest in the story to resume. Harry Lloyd and Stuart ThompsonNothing at all wrong with the performances, or indeed the direction – the two of them chasing/retreating each other around the sofa was beautifully and funnily done – so I think the writing might just get a little bogged down there. But overall this is a fascinating and relevant modern work that has a lot to say about political and Internet discourse. Very enjoyable!

P.S. The cast seemed curiously ill-at-ease during the curtain call, as if asking each other was that all right without actually saying anything. I note that the show finished after about 2 hours 10 minutes, whereas the programme suggests it should be 2 hours 20 minutes, so I wonder if they might have an unwittingly missed a chunk of the show out! If they did, don’t worry – you got away with it!

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Edinburgh Fringe 2022 – The Final Analysis and 5* Shows

So, we did it! We saw 125 shows between 5th – 29th August and the standard was extraordinarily high. I also learned a lot about planning for a Fringe month rather than a Fringe week. For a Fringe week, you can be confident about packing as much into it as you possible can – you can always sleep on the train coming home. For a month however, you can get a burnout if you try to do too much. We found that we cancelled many of our late night shows because we were just too tired to do them justice; and we discovered that if I left too many gaps throughout the day (for meals, drinks, shopping etc) then you lose the adrenaline rush and it’s harder to pick up the enthusiasm again. This is particularly important from, say, 9pm onwards. But I am well prepared to plan next year’s Fringe already, and am ready to avoid the pitfalls I fell into this year!

But let’s look at these shows again. We saw 53 productions that you could loosely call “plays” and 18 of them were 5* status. We saw 52 shows that you could list as “comedy”, and of these 23 merited 5* – that’s a massive proportion! Additionally, 2 of the 4 dance productions we saw were 5*, 3 of the 6 Spoken Word events were 5* and, on a slightly lower proportion, 3 of the 11 “other” shows (cabaret, circus, magic, etc) gained 5* from me. At the moment, I’m finding it hard to identify my favourite, or even my favourite(s) from all these 5* productions, so let’s do a quick run-down of them, in the order that we saw them, and my on-the-spot reactions on the night:

THEATRE/PLAYS:

The MistakeThe Mistake – It’s not often that a play leaves you almost lost for words. The Mistake is a heartstopping, blistering piece of theatre, telling the story of how atomic power was developed and misused to devastating effect. Michael Mears and Emiko Ishii create a cast of characters who either caused or suffered from the 1945 attacks on Japan, using just a few props with amazing inventiveness. Vital viewing for everyone.

Feeling AfraidFeeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen – Here’s another “false testimony”- type play given a brilliant tour de force performance by Samuel Barnett who has a huge number of words to remember! You can’t know what to believe and what not to believe as he pieces together the various stages of his relationship with “The American”. Both funny and occasionally ghastly, the play holds your attention throughout; and Mr Barnett is on fabulous form.

About MoneyAbout Money – A splendid way to start the day with a very thought provoking, and brilliantly written play about poverty and responsibility amongst young people and the things they make you do. Great performances, especially from the amazing child actor Lois Hagerty. Touching and moving; it’s incredible how using just two chairs and wearing two red caps can say so much.

Mrs RooseveltMrs Roosevelt Flies to London – An extraordinary story, well told, with great vocal characterisations and a wonderful sense of humour. It’s also very informative; for example, I didn’t know FDR had polio, nor that Eleanor Roosevelt played such an important role in the declaration of human rights – still a hot topic today. An assured and very enjoyable history lesson!

Please Feel Free To SharePlease Feel Free to Share – A liar gets addicted to lying by attending various self-help sessions pretending she is out of control. Very clever writing, matched by a very convincing performance. It’s also very thought provoking. Loved it!

Conflict in CourtConflict in Court – If you liked Crown Court (if you’re old enough) you’ll love this. A fascinating court case, beautifully realised, full of great interaction – and when the final truth came out the whole audience gasped! Plus you get a free pie and a pint and they were both delicious. Absolutely brilliant – really loved it!

BoyBoy – This is such an inventive way of telling an extraordinary story. Two amazingly good actors do a really strong script justice. Very moving, very sad, but also loads of humour. Never have soft toys played such a relevant role in serious drama. Just what you’d expect from the team who produced Us/Them. First class indeed.

An Audience with Stuart BagcliffeAn Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe – The story is kept secret in the promotional material and it’s important it stays that way. Suffice to say there are many twists to Stuart’s tale. But it’s blisteringly well told and there’s a fantastic performance by Michael Parker as Stuart. Only a tiny venue, so book early!

DorianDorian – Well, there’s dramatic and there’s dramatic, but this is super-dramatic! Incredibly intense, Dorian is a powerful, strongly-building adaptation that has you on the edge of your seat. I’d go so far to say this is a better adaptation of Wilde’s original than Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray. Some excellent performances, brilliant stagecraft – the fight scenes are superb – all topped off with a stunning lighting and sound design. A mini-masterpiece!

Dog ActorDog/Actor – A true masterclass in acting from Stephen Smith in this Berkoff double bill. Berkoff’s superb writing demands excellent characterisations, and that’s exactly what Mr Smith delivers by the truckload. He’s also amazing with the physical theatre – in “Dog” particularly you really got a sense of the powerful and aggressive Roy. An enthralling show!

Shoddy DetectiveA Shoddy Detective and the Art of Deception – They may call themselves Shoddy Theatre, but there’s nothing shoddy about this brilliant piece of nonsensical, physical theatre, packed with terrifically ludicrous scenes, hilarious characterisations, knockabout humour and superb stage fighting! Loved every minute of it.

Death of an AuthorDeath of an Author – A very clever premise,  excellent performances, extremely well written, and surprisingly moving. Lots to think about – and truly intriguing for literature buffs! I shan’t reveal who murdered the author…. but no jury would convict! I also liked how the detective did a spot of mansplaining!

Words Without ConsentWords Without Consent – Verbatim text of women in interviews combined with politicians’ comments on the role of women in society and the dangers faced daily from men. Extremely well staged, great use of video projections and two first rate performances. Take note of the trigger warnings; many of the things said in this production shake you to the core. A thrilling, appalling and vital work.

CandyCandy – Brilliant storytelling, both in Tim Fraser’s riveting play and Michael Waller’s spellbinding performance. At first, I thought the content of the play was going to position itself as some kind of analogy or symbol. But then I quickly decided it wasn’t that, it was just a straightforward story about a man falling in love with his mate, but only when Billy presents himself as Candy. Fascinating, thought-provoking, at times hilarious, at times deeply sad. We absolutely loved it.

Charlie WilliamsEh Up Me Old Flowers – An excellent portrayal of Charlie Williams, by Tony Marshall; and the play itself is full of great storytelling, and ultimately is remarkably moving. You don’t have to remember Charlie Williams from the 70s, but it helps if you do! The play posed fascinating questions about whether Williams was complicit in spreading racism, or did he pave the way for the likes of Lenny Henry or Gary Wilmot? I was really surprised to find I had a tear in my eye at the end. Way better than you might possibly expect!!

WilfWilf – That rare thing – a comedy that is extraordinarily creative in its subject matter, confronts headfirst disturbing issues like domestic abuse and mental illness, and is also jaw-achingly funny. Beautifully staged and performed by Michael Dylan, Irene Allan and Neil John Gibson, there’s no way this play won’t have a life beyond the Fringe. Absolutely magnificent!

ClosureClosure – Mrs Chrisparkle and I constituted the full audience! Yes, only two people in but the cast threw themselves into a great performance of a brilliant play, with very serious, challenging material, and a fabulous twist. A good old fashioned thriller, based on sexual violence. Read the trigger warnings first. We talked about it for ages afterwards! Riveting!

No Place Like HomeNo Place Like Home – Gripping tale, spellbindingly told, with superb use of video graphics that truly helped the story along. Marvellous acting – great characterisations. A feast of creativity, I’m so glad we didn’t miss this!

 

COMEDY:

ColossalColossal (Patrick McPherson) – I predict another massive word of mouth success for Patrick’s latest creation. Incredibly beautiful writing reminds you of the hip hop rhythms of Hamilton, whilst telling his own very individual story of love and deception. So many brilliant callbacks, so many surprises. Patrick turns his likeable persona inside out and challenges the audience to stick with him. And we sure do. Technically brilliant too with a terrific sound and lighting plot, which also play their part. A complete winner.

Ben Clover Best NewcomerBen Clover: Best Newcomer – The evening ended with a great show from Ben Clover, who included anti-vaxxers, Prince Andrew and Boris Johnson in his material and it all landed perfectly. The show contained an early contender for best line of the Fringe; I won’t spoil it for you but we were still chuckling about it back at the apartment. He delivers his routine with apparently effortless ease, although I’m sure most of it scrupulously hand-crafted. A fantastic show, highly recommended.

Mark ThomasMark Thomas: Black and White – Why have I never seen Mr Thomas before? Most definitely a no-Conservative zone, he dishes out brilliant political observations nineteen to the dozen and absolutely left me wanting more. He also has some memorable Barry Cryer and Bernard Cribbins jokes, God bless their souls. I had no idea I’d be singing my favourite music hall song, The boy I love is up in the gallery, by Marie Lloyd. Just a fab hour.

Hal CruttendenHal Cruttenden: It’s Best You Hear it From Me – Crammed with callbacks, this is a beautifully constructed, very personal and very impressive show, with great audience interaction; probably the best I’ve ever seen Mr Cruttenden. Perhaps he should have more marriage breakdowns, it would be great for his career!

Mary BourkeMary Bourke: The Brutal Truth – On terrific form, the legendary Ms B talks cancel culture, Britain’s Got Talent as well as giving us a massive trauma dump (her words) that she turns to comedy gold. Peppa Pig also comes in for the treatment she so richly deserves. Absolutely brilliant.

AbigoliahAbigoliah Schamaun: Legally Cheeky – Abigoliah shares the ghastly story of her visa crisis with all her trademark upbeat optimism even though at times it’s a truly sad story. She has an amazing ability to see sunshine in the rain and she conveys her joyous observations with delightful ease. Fantastic!

Tarot Cautionary TalesTarot: Cautionary Tales – What a find! Sketch comedy is alive and well and living Beside the Pleasance Courtyard! Tarot are three immensely likeable idiots who have put together just the funniest hour of nonsense. Every night they pick a member of the audience to count the number of laughs (and make other suitable notes) and, you guessed it, it was me. I counted 217 laughs but I definitely missed a few – well, you have to keep these people on their toes after all. Favourite sketches included the Elvis Impersonator and the Never Have I Ever game. Ecstatically funny!

Your Dad's MumYour Dad’s Mum – Your Dad’s Mum is a nightmarish comic creation; a social night out, with a grim compère stuck in the 70s and a woeful but feminist assistant who together take us through some deliciously lamentable games and quizzes. And it’s all absolutely brilliant! Once you get the joke – that he’s deliberately awful and she’s trying to do the best she can to make up for it – it works a treat. As the catastrophes pile up, the audience creases up! The audience hurled themselves into the fun and played along with everything that Pat and Cherrie-Ann threw at them. Just don’t ask her to do her Christmas Tree routine. Loved it!

Marcus BrigstockeMarcus Brigstocke:  Absolute Shower – Another show where the subject of stupid people comes up! Marcus Brigstocke is on brilliant form, an hour full of political satire and happy lockdown memories. I particularly loved his observation about consent issues for single people today. Extremely funny, always a pleasure.

Nina GilliganNina Gilligan: Late Developer – Nina specialises in finding fantastic new material on familiar subjects, like the Menopause, sex, relationships and so on. She has a fantastic delivery style, leading you in gently and then hitting you with a killer punchline. An excellent discovery! Loved the pigeon and Chris Whitty material – I’ll say no more.

Garry StarrGarry Starr: Greece Lightning – I sometimes wonder how funny Garry Starr could be if he wasn’t quite so inhibited. That’s a joke, by the way – there is no one on stage who leaps over all the boundaries as much as Garry Elizabeth Starr. Once again the hammy thespian brings us a no-holds barred hour of unmitigated silliness which has to be seen to be believed. Don’t think that by avoiding the front row you won’t get involved (although if you do sit in the front row you might well see much more than you had bargained for!) Utter brilliance.

Troy HawkeTroy Hawke: Sigmund Troy’d – Effortless characterisation, the mischievous Milo McCabe has formed a brilliant, creative set of material for Troy based on a random tweet that caught his imagination. With scrabble values, psychotherapy, magic numbers, shop greetings and pizza dedications, this is an extraordinarily detailed flight of fantasy. I know that by sitting in the front we were asking for it – and we got it. But so did many others! Fabulously funny!

ShamiltonShamilton – How would this troupe create a hiphop musical about a character chosen by the audience? Brilliant performance and improv with the inspired audience choice of Paddington Bear!! Absolutely hilarious. The Browns needed sexual counselling, and The Queen was called on to prevent Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman from demolishing their house. Completely nuts and completely wonderful!

Phil HammondDr Hammond’s Covid Inquiry – Dr Phil presents an excellent comedy lecture, packed with fascinating facts and opinions, jokes and observations – it’s almost as though Covid has never gone away (winking emoji). It’s also interesting to share your own covid experiences and beliefs with other audience members. Very enjoyable!

Joe WellsJoe Wells: I Am Autistic – Always one of our favourite comedians, Joe is on fantastic form with a show that gives rise to pretty much non stop laughter, mainly about autism – and yes I know it sounds unlikely. He’s a truly gifted comedian, with a beautifully crafted set, and there’s no better way to start your Fringe day!

PearPear (Patrick and Hugo McPherson) – “Are there twins in the audience, oh oh, oh oh, are there any twins in?” 🎵 🎵 I guarantee you’ll be singing that for ages.

Patrick and Hugo do an amazing double act, with a nicely structured, incredibly silly, beautifully funny show, with perfect callbacks and audience interaction. You don’t stop beaming from start to finish! Is there nothing these McPhersons can’t do?!

Robin MorganRobin Morgan: Snip Snip Bitch (WIP) – Robin is even slicker and funnier now than he was when we saw him in Leicester a couple of years ago! There’s no real narrative thread to his act, it’s just observations and memories and quirkinesses, all of which somehow combine together to create a very satisfying whole. He’s so very likeable and persuasive; you end up letting your guard down and telling him things you’d normally keep under your hat. Absolutely brilliant!

Foil Arms and HogFoil Arms and Hog:  Hogwash – At first we wondered if Foil Arms and Hog had reached their pinnacle, and were beginning to lose their way a little. A very long get-to-know the audience introduction (vital for later material) followed by a too-long sketch based on a ghost story experience, meant that half the show had already gone before we started getting into the really good material, but rest assured it’s as good as ever. I loved the suitcases on the carousel, and the long lost reunions were inspired. Three genuinely hilarious guys – you don’t get better sketch comedy.

Nish KumarNish Kumar: Your Power, Your Control – Nish Kumar comes across as a naturally funny guy but also an angry one; years of racism have taken its toll on his mental health, and he shares some of that journey with us – and you get the feeling that the journey is far from over. But it’s not all doom and gloom – in fact it’s 98% hilarious observations about politics, terrible gigs and how much he loves Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr*. An occasionally bruising (and aggressive!) watch, but always rewarding.  *not strictly true.

Sooz KempnerSooz Kempner: Playstation – Very funny – I thought we might be at a disadvantage knowing nothing about computer games, but Sooz used them as a springboard for lots of other brilliant material, all based on that natural unwillingness to grow up. Extremely funny and inventive, and excellent use of pre-recorded material. Our first time seeing Sooz Kempner, but definitely not our last.

Anna MannColin Hoult: The Death of Anna Mann – Perhaps this really is the death of Anna Mann? Whatever Colin Hoult gives her an amazing send-off in this brilliant retrospective of her lives, loves and careers. Turned out very emotional in the end! One of the best comedy shows ever.

SpankSpank! You and Goodnight – The last ever Spank! was the source of a lot of genuine emotion. We’ve loved this show over the past 8 years and it’s brought so much happiness to so many people. A wonderful last night final line up; brilliant acts who all made the night very special.

Just these PleaseJust These Please: Honestly No Pressure Either Way – Fast, slick and very very funny! Lovely silly sketches – I loved the one that featured Greyfriars Bobby – all performed to a high standard. What’s not to like?

 

DANCE:

HamletHamlet: Ian McKellen and the Edinburgh Festival Ballet – Ignore those 2* reviews. They clearly don’t understand the concept of Ballet. This is a stunning piece, superb choreography, meticulously danced, that tells the story of Hamlet clearly and thoroughly. The Prince of Denmark is split into two: one, the vocal nervous wreck played by McKellen, the other, the man who moves, played by an extraordinary dancer. I particularly loved Ophelia’s dances, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a delight. Fabulous lighting and sound too. My toes curled with pleasure throughout!

Ballet FreedomBallet Freedom of Kyiv – Audience reviews online were about 75-25 in favour of this show, but those who didn’t like it *really* didn’t like it! We thought it was terrific; inventive, dynamic choreography, danced with joy and skill, frequently very tongue in cheek, lots of dark humour and even a few instances of audience participation (and don’t think by not sitting in the front you’re safe – you’re not!) Invasion by a hostile neighbour was tastefully suggested in a few of the dances. I was very disappointed at the amount of photography and videoing from audience members, which was extremely disrespectful of both the performers and other audience members. But we loved the show!

 

SPOKEN WORD:

Rory StewartIain Dale: All Talk with Rory Stewart – Both Iain Dale and Rory Stewart were both on good form. Amongst the revelations was the fact that they both went for the Conservative nomination to stand for the constituency of Bracknell. Rory told some awful stories about Johnson that were ostensibly funny but just showed what an utter disgrace the PM is. Good questions, fascinating answers, and a surprisingly entertaining hour.

Keir StarmerIain Dale: All Talk with Keir Starmer – Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith both grilled Keir Starmer and I must say I was very impressed with the Labour Leader, much more than I expected to be. You can see he’s a thoughtful, intelligent man, he listens in full to the question then gives a most considered answer to it. I don’t think he suits the world of quick off the cuff comments; he’s much more the measured, detailed, considered kind of politician.

Devi SridharIn Conversation with… Devi Sridhar – Not entirely sure what I was expecting from Devi Sridhar, but this conversation with sports journalist Graham Spiers revealed her motivations for becoming a public health expert, her background, her opinions on a wide range of subjects and also much of the private person behind the headlines. She’s a natural at the Q&A, and it was a fascinating hour.

 

EVERYTHING ELSE:

RougeRouge – Sets the bar for all the shows in this genre. Stunning to watch, decadent in the extreme, incredible acrobatics and a silly, adult sense of humour. No more to say!

Adults Only Magic ShowAdults Only Magic Show – Sam and Justin have put together some amazing magic and framed it within this “adult only” naughty presentation, to the delight of everyone. Very funny, very naughty and very incredible! Not a clue as to how any of it was done.

Evening without Kate BushAn Evening Without Kate Bush – I didn’t really know what to expect from this show, but you come away from it with a spring in your step and gladness in your heart, as Sarah-Louise Young beguiles you into the world of Kate Bush fandom, presents some of her best loved songs in ways you have never seen before, and makes you desperate to go back to your old LPs before the night is out. She also does a pretty amazing vocal impersonation! Very inclusive and hugely enjoyable.

 

So, an amazing Fringe – we loved every minute. And who will receive the coveted Chrisparkle Edinburgh awards? We’ll have to wait until the committee sits and deliberates next January!