Review – The Tempest, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2nd February 2023

The TempestNews of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture off the coast of Bermuda in 1609 is thought to have been the major impetus for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of only a couple of his plays that appear to be completely original. A few years before its first performance in 1611, there had been major floods in Wales, and those early audiences would have been well aware of the dangers that water – in all its forms – could create.

Rain Sky EarthElizabeth Freestone’s new production takes our new understanding of the problems of climate change as its impetus, and it’s an alignment that makes a lot of sense. Not only is there an admirable use of green sustainability in the construction of Tom Piper’s set, his costume design (with Natasha Ward) evokes all those worrying statistics about the amount of plastics in the sea, with the spirits of Rain, Sky and Earth partially clad in old carrier bags and plastic containers. Ferdinand litter picks the rubbish on the beach (he did kindly ask our section of the audience if we had any empties) – and this litter was genuinely collected from the beach at Weston-super-mare; you’ve got to respect the fact that the RSC are walking the walk on this one.

CastI’ve always had a bit of a problem with The Tempest. It’s one of those plays where you’re familiar with the major characters, and the quotable lines, and even the main plot (there’s a tempest, an island, lots of shipwrecked people and a whole shebang of sorcery) but for me it always feels stodgy. There are a number of long speeches and protracted conversations that can make the whole thing get bogged down, and, considering it’s Shakespeare’s second shortest text (after Comedy of Errors), it can feel rather long. Above all, there is little of the usual expectation for some Shakespearean conflict, or suspense, or dramatic tension. So it’s vital to accentuate the magic to give the play its necessary dynamism.

ProsperoThere are two occasions when magic rules the Stratford stage. The first is in the extraordinary first scene – the shipwreck that Prospero has caused – where the unlucky passengers and crew are tossed, turned and terrorised at sea. It’s a truly exciting start to the show, stunningly realised and beautifully performed by everyone. The second is Ariel’s Act Three Scene Three appearance as a harpy, to frighten the living daylights out of Alonso, Sebastian and the others. The costume is fantastic – and I really liked the comic touch with Ariel’s next appearance still wearing the harpy’s claw, as though it was a quick change routine that didn’t change quickly enough. A tiny attention to detail, but it subtly reveals the artifice of the magic – very nicely done. So, is this production the stuff that dreams are made on?

Trinculo and StephanoNot entirely. Unfortunately, the problems of climate change detract from the magic. Magic is all about illusion, creating the appearance that the impossible is possible; it’s delight and wonderment, and, for want of a better word, pizzazz. Climate change is the opposite. It’s reality, it’s hardship, it’s a step towards oblivion. Magic takes something of a back seat in this production; and even when magical things happen, they’re brought back to earth by the harshness of real life – like the detritus in the spirits’ costumes.

Prospero and MirandaConsequently, the success of this production comes strongly from the incredible cast, each of whom bring the magic that might otherwise be lacking. You’ve got to start with Alex Kingston as Prospero. This is the first time I’ve seen Ms Kingston live and she is a truly charismatic stage performer. The whole show lights up whenever she’s on stage, and she brings true humanity to the role. Prospero is the one controlling force in The Tempest; everything and everyone is in his/her thrall, and Alex Kingston shows how that is completely possible. Her reading and understanding of the text is superb, and she makes the most intractable of Shakespeare’s language readily comprehensible.

FerdinandJessica Rhodes is steadily working her way towards being one of our brightest young actors – she was superb in Chichester’s Doubt last year, and her performance as Miranda here is even better. She conveys the character’s young innocence and total amazement at the presence of other people superbly well. Having Prospero as her mother, rather than her father, creates perhaps less of a “hero-worship” for the parent and more of a true devoted affection; an enviable mother/daughter relationship indeed. She is perfectly matched by Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand, an innocent abroad with an instant attraction to Miranda, and, even though we know his father is a villain, you’d be hard pressed not to be moved by his heart warming reaction to discovering Alonso is still alive.

CalibanHeledd Gwynn is superb as Ariel; she has a naturally ethereal quality that makes the character’s flighty tricksiness even more believable. This was the first time I’ve seen an Ariel who really made me believe that their true goal was to attain their freedom. This is no Puck, who’s happy to do whatever Oberon wants unquestioningly; this is a character who constantly expects this is the last time they will have to do their master’s bidding, yet is thwarted time and again. Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban, by contrast, is no savage and deformed slave, as Shakespeare would have had it – there’s nothing remotely inhuman about him, which brings him more on a par with his co-conspirators Stephano and Trinculo, but at the same time maybe brings us further away from the idea of magic. Nevertheless it’s a very strong and clear performance.

Antonio Alonso and SebastianSimon Startin and Cath Whitefield have (for me, at least) an enormous uphill struggle to make Stephano and Trinculo watchable, as I personally find those characters’ scenes rather tedious. Mr Startin’s Stephano is a clearly a distant relation to Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson; Ms Whitefield’s Trinculo is entertainingly quirky and clownish. Peter de Jersey is excellent as Alonso, as is Jamie Ballard’s Antonio; but in fact all the cast are superb – there isn’t a weak link in the chain.

All in all, a thought-provoking new production, with excellent performances. Rooted in our climate crisis as it is, the magic never really soars; but its environmental message is received loud and clear.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Five Unpublished Short Stories

Five individual short stories – four of which were reworked into other works, and which were published in the John Curran books Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making, and Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The Man Who Knew

Question MarkBelieved to have been written shortly after the end of the First World War, but before the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Never published in Christie’s lifetime, but she reworked it into The Red Signal, which was first published in issue 232 of The Grand Magazine in June 1924, and subsequently as part of The Hound of Death collection in the UK in 1933. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.

Derek Lawson returns from a theatre trip with friends to discover a revolver has been planted in one of his drawers, and a note has been scrawled on his theatre programme, don’t go home. With the news that his uncle, the Harley Street specialist Sir James Lawson has been shot, he puts two and two together, and resolves to take action to prevent himself from being accused of the crime.

Atmospheric and engaging, this (very) short story has all the hallmarks of a young writer finding her feet, establishing for herself what works and what doesn’t. It’s very limited to the bare bones of its own story, with hardly any embellishments – Christie would put that right when she created The Red Signal, which is a far, far more expansive and gripping piece of writing.

As John Curran points out, it’s extraordinary that this manuscript has survived; most haven’t. Whilst taken on its own, it’s not earth-shattering, but it is an interesting insight into Christie’s early imagination.

The Wife of the Kenite

Wife of the KeniteUnlike the other stories in this selection, The Wife of the Kenite had been published before, in The Home Magazine, in Sydney, Australia, in 1922. Since then it had gone to ground and wasn’t available in print again until its appearance in Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library in 2018.

Soldier for hire, Herr Schaefer has escaped Johannesberg and is on the run – on the lookout for a contact, Mr Henschel. He discovers Henschel’s farmhouse; he isn’t there, but his wife is. She recognises him – but doesn’t tell him; and he doesn’t recognise her. He admires a woman who reads her Bible, but can’t quite remember the significance of Chapter Four of the Book of Judges…

Starkly and powerfully written, this is an eerie tale of revenge being served best cold. Christie plays nicely on our imaginations, and we can almost see the sparse South African landscape (she had visited South Africa with Archie Christie) and sense the grit and Germanic forcefulness of Herr Schaefer and the grimness of Henschel’s wife. The final act of the story is also left to our imagination, and that works very well.

Field Marshal Jan Smuts gets mentioned twice – at the time this was written, he was Prime Minister of South Africa; and mealies is a South African term for maize plants. Voogplaat, the Belgian village that used to be where the woman lived, sounds very credible but is in fact a name made up by Christie.

As for Judges 4, verses 17 – 21: “Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’ ” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”

War crimes are never forgotten.

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball

happy_cartoon_dogThis is one of two unpublished short stories that were discovered by Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks in 2004 in an attic. John Curran suggests it was written around 1933, but never saw the light of day as Christie decided to rework and expand it into her novel Dumb Witness, published in 1937. However, it may have been written earlier than this as the majority of short stories that feature both Poirot and Hastings date from the 1920s. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.

Poirot receives an intriguing letter from Miss Matilda Wheeler asking for his help in a very unspecific sort of way; something was wrong, ever since “the incident of the dog’s ball”. But the letter has inexplicably taken a number of months to reach him. His curiosity piqued, he decides to see Miss Wheeler; however, on arrival at her house, they discover that she has died. Poirot’s not going to let that mystery go unexplained!

Although never published and clearly regarded by Christie as a stepping stone to writing Dumb Witness, The Incident of the Dog’s Ball stands up pretty well as a short story on its own. There are a couple of errors, that would no doubt have been picked up if it had been properly proof-read, but apart from that it’s an entertaining and pacey read. It’s set in the village of Little Hemel; there really ought to be a place near Hemel Hempstead that shares this name, but alas no. In any case, Christie decides to locate Little Hemel in Kent, just to confound us. And Hastings has been awarded the O.B.E.! I wonder if it was for services to detection?!

Curiously, the story has a different murderer and explanation of the crime from Dumb Witness, so even if you have read the longer novel, there’s no reason to miss out on this little gem. There are some passages of the short story that have been transported straight into the novel; and Curran points out that there is a very similar letter to Miss Wheeler’s in Christie’s short story How Does Your Garden Grow? which was featured in the collection Poirot’s Early Cases.

I think this little tale is somewhat underestimated!

The Capture of Cerberus

The Capture of CerberusThis is the other story that Rosalind Hicks found in an attic in 2004, and you can also read this one in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. It is the original twelfth story in the collection The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. The first eleven stories were originally published in The Strand Magazine, but this one was rejected. And, considering its subject matter, and the time that it was written, it’s no surprise that it was rejected. The story The Capture of Cerberus that was included in The Labours of Hercules is a completely different story, although both tales included Poirot getting reacquainted with the only love of his life, Countess Vera Rossakoff. So, again, if you’ve read The Labours of Hercules in full, that’s no reason not to read this original Cerberus story.

During a chance meeting in Geneva, Vera Rossakoff introduces Poirot to a Dr Keiserbach. Vera tells Keiserbach of Poirot’s extraordinary abilities – “he can even bring the dead back to life”. Impressed by this, Keiserbach privately later reveals to Poirot his true identity, Lutzmann; his son has famously shot the “dictator of all dictators”, August Hertzlein – but was torn to pieces by the baying mob and died on the spot. But Lutzmann is convinced that it wasn’t his son who killed Hertzlein: “he loved that man. He worshipped him […] he was a Nazi through and through.” So who did kill Hertzlein?

Given this was probably written in 1939 before the outbreak of war, it’s no surprise that the Strand magazine would have wanted this story suppressed. August Hertzlein is a clear reference to Adolf Hitler, and this story is almost unique in Christie’s works as being so obviously overtly political. Consequently, it’s a very entertaining and engrossing read, with Poirot on fine form, employing the most devious tactics to get to the truth.

It’s also superbly written, with a much more mature and adept use of language and some terrific turns of phrase, such as you would expect from the author pretty much at the height of her powers. There are some excellent new insights into Poirot’s character and beliefs. “To arouse enthusiasm was not his gift and never had been. Brains, he thought with his usual lack of modesty, were his speciality. And men with great brains were seldom great leaders or great orators. Possibly because they were too astute to be taken in by themselves.”

There’s a fascinating description of why Poirot is so attracted by Rossakoff, even though she is now older and heavily made up: “the original woman underneath the makeup had long been hidden from sight, Nevertheless, to Hercule Poirot, she still represented the sumptuous, the alluring. The bourgeois in him was thrilled by the aristocrat.”

And I was very much amused by Vera’s enthusiastic over-the-top praising of Poirot to Keiserbach: “He knows everything! He can do anything! Murderers hang themselves to save time when they know he is on their track.”

The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife

CaretakerThis unpublished story is approximately 80% identical to The Case of the Caretaker, that appears in the collection Miss Marple’s Final Cases, with very much the same story and the same solution. John Curran speculates that it was written in 1940, given its appearance in Christie’s notebooks, and you can find it in his book Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.

Here’s how I précised the story as it appears in Miss Marple’s Final Cases: “Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?” And there’s no reason to change that for this version of the story!

There are three main differences between the two versions. The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife is more openly set in St Mary Mead, with its usual cast of characters – Mrs Price-Ridley, Miss Hartnell and Miss Wetherby, rather than Mrs Price, Miss Harmon and Miss Brent. This story is told in a straightforward narrative, rather than being bookended by Dr Haydock giving Miss Marple a written-out mystery to solve to keep her spirits up whilst she’s getting over flu. And this story is expanded a little to include an interview between Miss Marple and Mrs Murgatroyd, and removes the clumsy and unlikely scene in The Case of the Caretaker where a hypodermic syringe falls out of a miscreant’s pocket.

John Curran points out – which I hadn’t recognised when I read Miss Marple’s Final Cases – that this is a precursor to Christie’s excellent 1967 novel, Endless Night.

All in all, Caretaker’s Wife is probably a better story than Caretaker, but if you’ve already read the one, there’s no real need to read the other!

And not only does that conclude my look at these five unpublished stories – and I’ll award this little selection with an overall mark of 7/10 – it also concludes my re-reading of all of Christie’s detective fiction! Thanks for sticking with me over the past eight years on this one. I can’t let this end here, so I will be back with one last summing-up of Christie’s works. What do we know of Poirot, Marple, and all the other major characters in her works? What themes and ideas did she deal with most prominently throughout her long career? And which are the best and which are the worst? I’ll be back with my final thoughts in the not too distant future – and, in the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly (2014)

Poirot and Greenshore FollyIn which that eccentric detective novelist Mrs Oliver is called in to organise a Murder Hunt at a village fete but she suspects all is not as it should be and so asks Hercule Poirot to make sense of her suspicions. All seems well at first until an unexpected murder takes place in the boathouse! Even though the victim provides Poirot a huge clue at first hand before their death, Poirot can’t see the wood for trees until the final few chapters, when all is explained. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

And if that sounds like the plot to Dead Man’s Folly, that’s because it is! Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly was originally written to pay for a church window in the chancel of St Mary the Virgin in Churston Ferrers, the church where Christie worshipped. However, as John Curran explains in his excellent notes that accompany the book, Christie’s agents found it impossible to sell the manuscript! That was because it was neither short story nor novel, and didn’t fit into the market at the time. Undeterred, Christie wrote a new short story for the church window, the similarly named but completely different Greenshaw’s Folly, that was published in the UK in the collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

Writing Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly was not wasted however, as Christie realised she could expand it into a full length novel, and that’s how Dead Man’s Folly was born. This “junior version” of the later novel wasn’t published in the UK until 2014, by Harper Collins, and with an introduction by the man with whom everyone associates Christie paperback covers, the artist Tom Adams, who died in 2019.

Dead Man's FollyIf you have already read Dead Man’s Folly, then there is no reason (other than the purely academic exercise of comparing the two texts) to read Greenshore Folly. They tell precisely the same tale, with precisely the same clues, twists and surprises, and with precisely the same murderer. If you haven’t read either, jump straight to Dead Man’s Folly and don’t bother with the earlier version. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just the whole description of the detective investigation is much more sparse and less involving. If, in the unlikely event that you’ve read Greenshore Folly but not Dead Man’s Folly, wait a few years until you’ve completely forgotten the plot and the characters, and then read Dead Man’s Folly; it will come as a pleasant surprise.

Apart from a few extended conversations and some name/place name changes, both books are virtually identical up until the first murder. At that point, Dead Man’s Folly goes into much more rewarding detail about the detective procedure, whereas Greenshore Folly performs a short-cut and more or less jumps to the end.

Thematically, then, the book is on exactly the same lines as Dead Man’s Folly – so if you want to read more, please refer to my blog about it! The link is above. Like the fuller version, I think this deserves a 7/10.

We’re so very near the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge, gentle reader! All that remains is to consider five more short stories that have come to light in recent years. Four of them were printed in John Curran’s two excellent books; The Capture of Cerberus and The Incident of the Dog’s Ball in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, and Miss Marple and the Case of the Caretaker’s Wife and The Man Who Knew in Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making. Additionally, The Wife of the Kenite has been published in the collection Bodies from the Library, edited by Tony Medawar.

I’ll give them all a read shortly, and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about them soon. In the meantime, please read them too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th January 2023

Screaming Blue MurderA big welcome back to Screaming Blue Murder and their first gig of the year which had sold out well in advance. An unusual vibe this time – although quite a refreshing one – in that there were approximately 20 17- and 18-year-olds from Northampton School for Boys (who were mostly girls, and I still haven’t quite figured that out) populating the front rows. Fortunately, they threw themselves whole-heartedly into the proceedings, and (mostly) laughed their socks off all night.

Dan EvansThis presented an interesting challenge to our regular genial host, Dan Evans, who quickly got them splitting their sides. It’s true – he suggested that all the older people would be looking at fresh-faced 17-year-old Joshua, purely with the intent of harvesting his organs. Guilty as charged. It wasn’t all kiddiwinks though, with poor Mark on his own in the front row surrounded by students, plus good sport Rob, vehicle salesman Ash and his mental health nurse wife whose name I’ve forgotten, soz.

Iszi LawrenceFirst up was Iszi Lawrence, whom we’ve seen a couple of times before at Screaming Blue Murders – she always has great material, but it sometimes takes an audience a while to settle into her pattern. She has a lovely sequence about coming out as bi to her mum, and I did like the material about how she acquired her cat, grotesque sound effects and all. She gets carried away with the subject of dinosaurs, which she admits to herself isn’t funny but can be fascinating – if you’re also into dinosaurs. One of the lads from Northampton School for Boys was definitely into dinosaurs and was agreeing demonstrably with her. As for the rest of us… I’m not sure the dino material works really!

Jamie D'SouzaNext was someone new to us, Jamie D’Souza, a quirky mix of Swiss and Indian (Swindian – not from Swindon, it’s not that bad, as he said.) Immaculately funny, with a perfectly structured routine, beautifully chosen words revealing a true feel for the language, and absolutely superb timing. His whole performance is one big act of self-deprecation and it works brilliantly. So many clever throwaway lines, and he leads you up a garden path to expect an ending to a joke which turns out to be something completely different. I particularly loved his material about being hopeless and inexperienced at sex, and the idea of making “old person noises” when he sits down. Terrific – and someone we would definitely want to see again.

Jonny AwsumOur headliner, and someone who’s always an invigorating presence, was the musical comedy genius of Jonny Awsum. Uplifting, inclusive and very, very funny, he jumps from comedy song to comedy song and each one is a delight. I particularly liked his Humming Song, and he got Rob from the audience up to help him with his Rapping Rhymes sequence, which was brilliant. There’s also a song with a chorus involving a well-known TV chef; I just wonder if Mr Awsum realises the said chef died over three years ago. I guess it doesn’t matter!

A great night’s entertainment – looking forward to the next one in February; check for returns, as it’s already sold out!

Review – Girl from the North Country, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 26th January 2023

Girl from the North CountryI’d heard great things about Girl from the North Country, and it got a slew of five star reviews when it first hit the West End back in 2017. It’s been touring the UK and Ireland since last summer, so I thought it would be a good plan to check it out and see what all the fuss is about. I’m not a massive Bob Dylan fan, but I know what I like and I like what I know (most of the time). Not a ringing endorsement but I was looking forward to hearing a few familiar tunes. As it turned out, of the twenty songs listed in the programme, I only knew three – I Want You, Like a Rolling Stone, and Hurricane. However, you know that old saying, if you’re going to do a cover version, make it totally different from the original so that there’s a point of doing  it. As far as I can make out, all the songs in this show are very different in sound and style from Dylan’s originals. So that’s a plus in my book.

CastThe place: Duluth, Minnesota; the time: 1934. Nick Laine is the proprietor of an old guesthouse, but it’s not making money and the banks are getting restless. His wife, Elizabeth, suffers from dementia; their son Gene is alcoholic; and their nineteen-year-old daughter Marianne is five months pregnant with no sign of the father. Nick’s having an affair with one of the guesthouse residents, Mrs Neilsen; also living there are the once wealthy Burke family, now down-at-heels due to their failed business, and their son has learning disabilities. Marianne is being romantically pursued by Mr Perry, a good fifty years her senior; there’d be no real relationship if they got married but it would make her “respectable”. One night, sheltering from a storm, arrive the Reverend Marlowe, who makes his money out of selling bibles, and Joe Scott, an ex-boxer with nowhere to go.

Mrs B and the DoctorSounds like a cross between a soap opera and the set-up of an Agatha Christie murder mystery! And that’s one of the stranger things about this production; much of it reminded me of something else. It seemed to me to struggle to find its own identity. In an attempt to forge links between Bob Dylan’s back catalogue and to create a credible dramatic storyline to deal with these various characters, it kind of falls between two stools. The music imposes itself on the action rather than growing organically from the plot; in this regard it reminded me of the recent hit Standing at the Sky’s Edge, but the relationship between the music and the story was much more balanced in that show. The structure of the play element starts with a side character, Dr Walker, introducing us to the people and their environment, and ends with him winding up events, telling us when and how they died, and how their fortunes fared. In that regard, it reminded me of the lawyer Alfieri in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, who bookends proceedings with an introduction and a wrap-up.

SingersI thought it was also revealing that the list of Dylan songs in the programme (always helpful to see in a musical) also tells us the year each song came out, and which album they’re on, presumably so that people can then follow up on the original recordings should they wish at their own leisure. Bizarrely, what the programme doesn’t tell us, is which characters/performers sing which songs. This sends a signal that the presence of the songs and their heritage is more important than the actual show. It’s almost as though it’s subtly disrespecting itself.

Elizabeth and Mr BThe overall result is a very melancholic show; there’s very little light and shade with the portrayal of the characters, all of whom are having various degrees of a rotten time, and none of whom get what they want from life. I’m not saying I want a happy ending – that wouldn’t be realistic; but perhaps neither is it realistic that not one of the characters has anything positive or pleasing happen to them.

MarianneHowever, where the show does succeed is with the musical performances – and, indeed, the performances in general. There are some tremendously beautiful arrangements in that score, courtesy of great work by Musical Supervisor Simon Hale. The music is all played live on stage, in part by the cast as a whole, but mainly by four musicians who are mostly restricted to one corner of the stage, out of sight, out of mind. Musically, it is a superbly talented cast who harmonise fantastically and come out with some amazing solo singing. Standout performances for me were from Justina Kehinde as the robustly individual Marianne, Joshua C Jackson as the majestically voiced Joe Scott, and Frances McNamee as the dementia-suffering Elizabeth, finely revealing how someone with dementia may be incapable of controlling their own behaviour but they were a strong and powerful person in their past. At our performance, the part of Mrs Neilsen was played by understudy Nichola MacEvilly and her singing voice is sensational.

Duquesne WhistleOther highlights include the wonderful staging of the song Duquesne Whistle, with Ross Carswell’s Elias dressed in other-worldly white, and Gregor Milne’s plaintive performance of I Want You as Gene loses his childhood sweetheart to another, less hopeless, man. And it’s always a delight to see one of my favourite actors, Teddy Kempner, as the awful Mr Perry, constantly proffering a measly bouquet that gets more manky day by day. Among the ensemble, Daniel Reid-Walters stood out as being a powerhouse of dance and enthusiasm.

Reverend and EliasThere’s no question that this is a generally enjoyable show, whose musical element satisfies, soothes and intrigues. It doesn’t leap out at you as being a show to love; instead, it’s a very reserved experience, not wishing to draw attention to itself. Quality, yes; but for me there is something lacking. Joe ScottThe tour continues to Bristol, Birmingham, Belfast, Aberdeen, Norwich, Leicester and Wimbledon.

P. S. I haven’t a clue why the show is called Girl from the North Country. Yes, there is a song of that name, that features briefly in the show; but I don’t get its overall significance. Mind you, the story itself is somewhat nebulous so no other title leaps out of your imagination; so it might as well be called Girl from the North Country as anything else.

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories (1997)

While the Light LastsNine short stories, never previously published in book form in the UK, including two featuring Hercule Poirot. Additionally, the volume contains accompanying notes by Christie scholar and detective story writer, Tony Medawar. While the Light Lasts was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in August 1997. Eight of the stories had been published in the US collection The Harlequin Tea Set, in April 1997. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The House of Dreams

dreamsThis spooky little story was originally published in issue 74 of the Sovereign Magazine in January 1926. John Segrave dreams of a beautiful house, and the next day he meets Allegra Kerr with whom he falls head over heels in love. But she vows that she will never marry, and refuses to tell him why. However, recurrent dreams of the beautiful house reveal a secret that explains her silence…

This is a revised version of a story that Christie wrote when she was very young, The Dream of Beauty, which was never published, but which she considered to be the first thing that she had written that had any merit. It’s an introduction to one of the themes that would often play a major part in Christie’s works, that of the anxiety that insanity can be inherited and run riot within a family.

Reading the story with the benefit of hindsight, you can see Christie’s feel for the supernatural, which also frequently cropped up in some of her earlier works. However, you can also see that it is the product of an immature voice, trying too hard to make her points, lacking subtlety throughout. It’s littered with over-the-top, flowery language and often feels repetitious.

For example, her description of Beethoven’s Pathétique is just too much: “that expression of a grief that is infinite, a sorrow that is endless and vast as the ages, but in which from end to end breathes the sprit that will not accept defeat. In the solemnity of undying woe, it moves with the rhythm of the conqueror to its final doom.” And there are paragraphs upon paragraphs describing the same elements of the dream which definitely required some editing.

It is interesting to see how acceptable language has changed over the 100 odd years since this was written; Christie describes one of Allegra’s aunts as a “hopeless imbecile”, which today might just about be acceptable as an informal description of a mate who always gets things wrong, but here was used to describe someone with mental illness.

Allegra quotes: “ill luck thou canst not bring where ill luck has its home”; “the words used by Sieglinde in the Walküre when Sigmund offers to leave the house.” Not saying this is incorrect, but if you Google the quotation, the only reference is its appearance in this story.

Interesting to read the early Christie finding her feet – but not a lot more than that.

The Actress

stageThis entertaining little story was originally published in issue 218 of The Novel Magazine in May 1923 under the title of A Trap for the Unwary. Ne’er-do-well Jake Levitt recognises that the new acting sensation, Olga Stormer, is in fact none other than little Nancy Taylor whom he knew in the past and has an eminently blackmailable history. He sends her a letter intimating that he has recognised her and inviting her to respond. But her response was perhaps a little more than he bargained for…

This is a very enjoyable, quick and punchy story with some entertaining characterisations and nice turns of phrase. Maybe I have read too many Christies, but I did find the twist of the tale very easy to predict – but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the tale.

Olga Stormer is said to be playing the part of Cora in The Avenging Angel. The only Avenging Angel I’ve come across is a Western movie made in 1995, so I’m presuming this play comes straight from Christie’s imagination.

A well-written, tightly constructed little tale; great fun.

The Edge

EdgeThis devilishly entertaining little tale was originally published in issue 374 of Pearson’s Magazine in February 1927. Villager Clare Halliwell’s heart is broken when her childhood sweetheart Gerald marries the younger, prettier Vivien, but still hopes one day he might realise the error of his ways. When lunching in a nearby town she sees in the register that Vivien has stayed overnight with another man – and not for the first time. Armed with that knowledge, should she confront them and use the information to her own advantage, or should she stay silent?

This is a cracking little read and, in my opinion, one of Christie’s best short stories. It hides not one, but two stings in its tale with its rather creepy surprise ending which I certainly did not see coming! But, psychologically, it all makes sense. Even so, there is a sad reliance on a massive coincidence – that Clare should be lunching at the same hotel that Vivien had stayed in – but I guess coincidences do sometimes happen.

Set in the fictional village of Daymer’s End, and in the town of Skippington, forty miles away, there is some suggestion that they are not too far from Bournemouth. The other “real” place mentioned in the story is Algiers, where Gerald and Vivien propose to live. At the time, it would have been a rather glamorous French outpost; I don’t think many people would have it on their bucket list today, but maybe I’m wrong.

I discovered a new word: “Many of the wiseacres shook their heads and wondered how it would end.” Wiseacres? Never heard that word before. Oxford Dictionaries define it: “a person with an affectation of wisdom or knowledge, regarded with scorn or irritation by others; a know-all.” You live and learn.

In his notes, Tony Medawar makes much of the fact that this story was written shortly before Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance, and makes some allusions between that and the plot of this story. He may have a point, he may not; personally, I’m not convinced.

Terrifically entertaining story! And with a clever play on words with the title too, which you only appreciate right at the end.

Christmas Adventure

Christmas on Carnaby StreetThis amusing short story was originally published in issue 1611 of The Sketch Magazine on 11 December 1923. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as the title story in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot is a guest at a Christmas House Party, but on Christmas morning receives a note warning him not to eat any of the plum pudding. Is his life in danger, or is it a prank? And how did the Christmas Cracker jewel get inside the pudding?

It’s curious, but I enjoyed Christmas Adventure more than The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Being shorter and sparer, it quickly gets to the heart of the mystery without losing any of its fun and spirit. I understand why Christie thought to expand the story – because it’s a good one! But I prefer it in its pithier, briefer form.

There are some good characterisations – the group of young people who attempt to tease Poirot by staging a mock murder come across as a decent bunch, and the lovelorn Evelyn is a very credible character. I also liked how Emily Endicott longed for the “Good Old Days” when people enjoyed listened to their elders and betters!

Poor old Poirot was missing his pal Captain Hastings, who emigrated to Argentina at the end of The Murder on the Links He needn’t have worried – Hastings would return for many UK return trips over the years, and they will still have many more adventures together!

The Lonely God

Lonely GodThis rather charming and simple romance was originally published in issue 333 of the Royal Magazine in July 1926, under Christie’s original title, The Little Lonely God. Every day, Frank Oliver visits the British Museum, entranced by a minor figure of a nondescript God. He sees a “lonely lady” who also appears to be affected by the statue. Eventually he plucks up courage to speak to her – but will anything develop from their shared interest in this lonely God?

There’s not very much to say about this story. It’s pure romantic fiction, quite elegant and entertaining, and it’s easy to identify with its two lonely protagonists. Tony Medawar sees in this story a reflection of Christie’s interest in archaeology, but this was published a couple of years before she went on her first trip to Baghdad, so I’m not sure I would link the two that much.

I did like Frank’s encouragement to the lady that they should have buns for tea at an ABC Shop. “I know you must love buns! […] There is something […] infinitely comforting about a bun!”

Undemanding, but thoroughly pleasant!

Manx Gold

Isle of ManI’m taking this description directly from Wikipedia: “Manx Gold was one of the most unusual commissions undertaken by Christie in her career […] The idea of a treasure hunting story was prompted by a wish on the part of Manx politicians to promote tourism to the Isle of Man. Christie wrote a short story which was serialised in the Daily Dispatch in five instalments on 23, 24, 26, 27 and 28 May 1930. The story gave the clues to the location of four snuffboxes hidden on the island, each of which contained a voucher for £100 – a considerable sum in 1930. Island residents were barred from taking part. To further promote the hunt, the story was then published in a promotional booklet entitled June in Douglas which was distributed at guesthouses and other tourist spots. Although a quarter of a million copies of this booklet were printed, only one is known to have survived.” And indeed, £100 in 1930 would be the equivalent of more than £4,500.

If you haven’t already read this story, give yourself an hour, log on to your Map App and Google, and see if you can beat Fenella and Juan as they race around the Isle of Man solving the clues. I was pretty happy with myself for getting clues 1 and 2 half right – but I expect few people would solve the last two. If you’re a Brit and of a certain age, like myself, you might remember the clues on Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1 TV programme; these are even more hard to crack. Also: I couldn’t find Kirkhill on any map.

But it remains a lively and thoroughly entertaining read; Medawar likens Juan and Fenella to the young heroes of Christie’s earlier books, and indeed to Tommy and Tuppence and I think they bear a fair resemblance. He also takes us painstakingly through the clue solutions, which is extremely helpful, and gives us all the background to the Manx tourism scheme. I found this a delightful, and indeed, unique tale!

Within a Wall

wallThis ambiguous romantic tale with a bit of a twist was originally published in issue 324 of the Royal Magazine in October 1925. Gifted painter Alan Everard is married to the dynamic Isobel Loring, but his friend Jane Howarth is also in love with him – which manifests itself in a strange manner.

Romantic, yes, but also strangely unpleasant. Isobel’s abuse of Jane’s generosity almost feels like a prostitution of her friendship. And, as Medawar points out in his notes, the ending is very ambiguous. There are all sorts of interpretations you could adopt in your own personal understanding of the story.

Christie gives one of the characters the unusual surname of Lemprière – she must have enjoyed the force of that name because she would also give it to Joyce Lemprière of The Thirteen Problems fame. That Joyce was also a painter; and would eventually marry Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West.

There’s an uncomfortable moment of antisemitism with the mention of “a small Jew with cunning eyes”, but otherwise the narration of this story is beautifully done – it’s an interesting voice that doesn’t sound like Christie’s own normal narrative style. And the £100 that Jane gives to support Alan and Isobel’s daughter Winnie would be the equivalent of £4250 today. Generous indeed.

The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest

ChestThis entertaining little story was first published in issue 493 of the Strand Magazine in January 1932. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as The Mystery of the Spanish Chest in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot’s attention is drawn to a case where a Major Rich has been accused of murdering a Mr Clayton, whose bloody body was discovered in an antique chest. Mrs Clayton is a friend of socialite Lady Chatterton who encourages Poirot to speak to her about the case, because she insists Rich is innocent. Poirot can’t resist but employ his little grey cells to get to the heart of the matter.

I’ve lifted that precis of the story from my blogpost about The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, because the two stories are identical in plot, just a couple of characters have undergone a change of name. In the Spanish Chest, Hastings becomes Miss Lemon – more appropriate for the passing of the years, and Inspector Japp becomes Inspector Miller. Apart from that, there is precious little to choose between the two accounts, merely a lengthening and a greater attention to detail in the investigation. But several of the conversations in the first tale are reproduced faithfully in the updated tale.

Hastings does, however, take the opportunity to describe Poirot’s vanity, both in behaviour and appearance, in terrific detail. “The talents that I possess – I would salute them in another, As it happens, in my own particular line, there is no one to touch me. C’est dommage! As it is, I admit freely and without hypocrisy that I am a great man. I have the order, the method and the psychology in an unusual degree. I am, in fact, Hercule Poirot! Why should I turn read and stammer and mutter into my chin that really I am very stupid? It would not be true.”

“To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy. It was hard, at these moments, to take the little man seriously.”

Just like The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, this is an excellent read.

While the Light Lasts

enoch ardenThis was originally published in issue 229 of The Novel Magazine in April 1924; the plot of this short story is similar to that of her novel Giant’s Bread, published in 1930 under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. George and Deirdre Crozier visit a tobacco plantation in Rhodesia, where George works, and where Deirdre’s first husband Tim, who died in the war, wanted to live. But when Deirdre suffers a spot of heatstroke, she is taken back to the main house by a Mr Arden, who has his own secret to share…

In comparison with the other stories, this is really little more than a fragment, but nevertheless it tells an age-old story, and it tells it rather well. The character of Enoch Arden appears in Tennyson’s poem of the same name, but also would appear in Christie’s Taken at the Flood in 1948. Moody, tragic and with a sense of guilt, this is an interesting and memorable little piece of writing.

And that concludes all nine stories in While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. A couple of rather lightweight stories are balanced with some meaty good reads, so on balance I would give this selection 7/10. Poirot and Greenshore FollyIf you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a short novel written in 1954 to raise money for a church – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly. This was published in 2014, but Christie would rework the story and create Dead Man’s Folly from it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st January 2023

Burlesque ShowIt was a warm and grand welcome back to the Ministry of Burlesque’s Burlesque Show, first seen at the Royal and Derngate a staggering twelve years ago and a regular highlight of the annual entertainment calendar ever since – at least, until Covid had other ideas. This was the first Burlesque show at the R&D post-pandemic, although I was surprised to see it has been five years since our last attendance. Is it still the must-see production to warm our winter cockles?

Sadly, not quite. Whilst it still offers an engaging and outrageous host, and a very wide-ranging selection of variety artistes, there was something rather (dare I say it) amateur about the whole proceedings on Saturday night. Instead of a well-oiled, slick programme of entertainment, it had the air of a rather ramshackle, under-rehearsed presentation, even though all the usual elements were there that have in the past been so enjoyable.

Eva von SchnippischOur hostess (she described herself as compère, but surely she should be the commère), was Eva von Schnippisch, one of the alter egos of comic actor Stephanie Ward, and she’s a loud, brash presence who encourages us all to be as naughty as we like. Straight outta 1930s Berlin, she’s great fun and kept the whole thing moving pretty well, with a few Cabaret-style songs and some excellent interaction with the audience.

lena-maeIn fact, the first half of the first half of the show (so to speak) was absolutely superb. We started off with Lena Lenman, burlesque star, doing a saucy strip routine which culminated in her being soaked in a bottle of – I want to say champagne – but I think it was cava; and most of the first few rows got their fair share of sparking spray as well. A great start.

Pete FirmanThen it was the turn of Pete Firman, the fantastic magician, who nearly always turns up in these Burlesque shows, and nearly always does precisely the same tricks, which definitely always baffle and amaze me. Each time I see Mr Firman I’m determined to keep my eye on his hands at all times, so I can see how he does that trademark trick of his – the incredible restoration of a burnt twenty pound note (in this case a fiver) from a bunch of flames into its former glory in a sealed envelope, sealed within another envelope and secreted in a zipped wallet. And every time I fail – I allow myself to get diverted by his nuts (if you’ve seen the act, you’ll understand). He’s a great asset to the Burlesque Show and always a delight to see him.

Peggy SuedNext up it was another act who has graced this stage many a time – and many a time has hosted the show – Peggy Sued, a comic creation by the superb Abigail Collins. What she can’t do with a set of hula-hoops isn’t worth doing, but she’s also a brilliant comedy acrobat with a great cocktail-glass-on-the-head trick. Massive fun and hugely entertaining.

Mr BSo far, so good – but this is where it started to unravel. Our next act was Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer. I’d never come across him before, and his is a clever act; with all the appearance of a Penny Farthing cyclist, he combines hip hop and rap with awfully decent cultured English upper class tones – resulting in what he calls chaphop. A terrific idea – but for some reason, on that night, in that audience, it just didn’t work. I think it was necessary to have a crystal clear sound system so that you could appreciate the nuance of every line of this songs, but the clever lyrics were often hard to make out. Unfortunately, the act just sucked the energy out of us all – and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both extremely bored (and rather irritated) by his performance. Certainly the crowd reaction to him was muted in comparison with the other acts. To be fair, I really enjoyed his version of David Bowie’s Starman, with which he finished his second act slot. As for the rest – well, it wasn’t for me.

Fancy ChanceWith energy drained, I was longing for the interval but first we had burlesque artiste Fancy Chance, who’s been here on and off over the years. In the first half she gave us her Alice – yes the Lewis Carroll one – which ends with a semi-strip performance. Quirky, for sure; but I couldn’t quite work out how appropriate it was to have a sexualised burlesque performance by someone representing Alice, who’s meant to be seven years old, and with the knowledge that Lewis Carroll was sexually attracted to her. It was half clever and half yucky. Her second act performance was as the (late) Artist formerly known as Prince, which we’d seen her do before, but this time it felt very straggly and uninspired. Fortunately Lena Lenman returned at the end of the show to finish off with a classic feather burlesque routine which was well worth the waiting for.

At curtain call time, Eva von Schnippisch brought the cast on to the stage for final bows. Lena Lenman (cheers); Mr B (slightly fewer cheers); Pete Firmin (“Oh no, he’s gone to catch his train”); Abi Collins (“Oh no, she’s gone too”); Fancy Chance (“Is Fancy Chance still here or has she gone too? Gone too”)… there’s no surer way of letting an audience know that the cast don’t really care about them than going missing at curtain call. Of course, if they do have to rush for trains that’s perfectly reasonable – but don’t call them out on stage just to discover they’ve gone AWOL. Just do what they do with a stand-up comedy night and say, “your acts tonight were A, B, and C, I’ve been D – goodnight!” This was a perfect example of how under-rehearsed and ramshackle the whole presentation was. They really need to smarten up that aspect of the show.

P. S. Huge kudos to front-row Mark, who was teased by virtually every member of the cast and who, by the sound of it, stayed stony-faced throughout; handsome but morose. That was until Abi Collins cajoled him up on stage to throw hoops at her, when he proved himself to be an excellent sport. He was virtually an additional member of the cast!

3-stars

Three-sy Does It!

Review – The Lavender Hill Mob, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 14th January 2022

Lavender Hill MobEight of us descended on the Chichester Festival Theatre on Saturday night for the last night of Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of the famous Ealing Comedy The Lavender Hill Mob – or at least, the last night of this leg of its UK tour, which started last October and continues for a few more weeks before they all finally get to put their feet up.  And it was with a great sense of curiosity that I attended, as I have read some extremely positive comments about the show, and also one comment (from someone whose opinion I respect) saying it was one of the worst shows they’ve ever seen. It must be Marmite!

Gold!But first, allow me to offer you a little history lesson, gentle reader – do you remember the original film? It was released in 1951, starred Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, and featured a very young Audrey Hepburn; and the British Film Institute ranked it the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. That’s some reputation! Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen it until a few weeks ago when, knowing that we were going to be seeing this new stage version, thought we ought to take a look at the film so that we would be able to make those invidious comparisons between the two that you should never do. And, indeed, it is a charming and very well-made comedy caper which we both enjoyed – although I’d never put it anywhere near the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. Not considering Genevieve is only listed 86th and Shirley Valentine doesn’t appear at all.

Aamira ChallengerIn case you don’t know – and I’m sure you do – Henry Holland is an unambitious London bank clerk, in charge of supervising the Gold Bullion deliveries from the Royal Mint. Enlisting the help of a slightly less-than-honest manufacturer of tourist trash – specifically miniature Eiffel Towers – and a couple of other petty crooks, he hatches a plan to steal the bullion bars and, using his accomplice’s workshop, convert them into Golden Eiffel Towers. But, of course, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and the main emphasis of the film (maybe slightly less of the play) is on the comedy ensuing from their failed attempts to get away with it.

Death by baguetteSo is it Marmite? Well, yes. Four of us really enjoyed it, the other four (including myself) found it a bit meh. On the plus side, I was very impressed how faithfully it reflected the original film, taking us to Rio whence Holland has fled to escape the Metropolitan Police hunting for the Brains (?) behind the big gold bullion heist. Whereas the film then flashes back to London and shows the main story, the play stays in Rio, where Holland coaxes all the ex-pats at his Club to enact the story of the crime – and they don’t need much coaxing. The film has the marvellous twist that the person to whom Holland is recounting his story throughout the film is in fact the police officer come to arrest him – whereas that twist is missing from the stage production, resulting in rather a lame ending.

Ooh la laThat said, there are plenty of laugh out loud moments – my favourite was the delightful “Calais to Dover” scene where our anti-heroes get thwarted at every attempt to follow the bunch of schoolgirls who have unknowingly purchased six genuine Golden Eiffel Towers. There’s a lot of physical comedy, but some of it seems just a trifle half-hearted. Francis O’Connor has constructed an excellent set that frames many of the elements of English country life that you might well miss if you were an ex-pat in Rio, but which adapt very nicely into the story. I loved how the two palm trees at the back of the stage became the Eiffel Tower – very innovative!

Justin EdwardsAnd there’s a very charming ensemble feel to the whole staging; one of our party thought the show felt very Am Dram, which is true but is also probably exactly what the creative team intend. These Rio Brits are not actors, they’re retired knights of the realm or ambassadors, or well-to-do Ladies; and they take on the roles of the crooks with a nice blend of their own characterisations and those of the people they are portraying. Quite clever really; but it is that sense of amateurism that basically overshadows the whole production, leaving you feeling a bit dissatisfied.

Miles JuppIs it basically a vehicle for Miles Jupp to present himself as a rather posh, well-educated, upper middle class sort of chappie, without having to do that much acting? Probably. That said, he’s very entertaining as Holland; there are also nice performances from Justin Edwards, Tessa Churchard and John Dougall as locals-cum-Londoners. Tim Sutton brings a fine touch of magic (literally) to the role of Sammy, and Aamira Challenger’s Fernanda lends a hint of what feels like Genuine Rio to the production. EiffelI felt rather sorry for Guy Burgess in the unrewarding role of Farrow the police officer, constantly having to be the onlooker and rarely taking part in proceedings.

However, I came away from the show feeling that it was all a little underwhelming, although I’m not sure that they could have done anything better with the material at their disposal. Nevertheless, there was a lot to enjoy and a lot of laughs – if not quite as many as one might have expected. It’s certainly not bad – and it’s certainly not great. The tour continues to Cambridge, Guildford, Glasgow, Bath and Truro.

Production photos by Hugo Glendinning

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Comedy Crate at the Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 12th January 2023

CC Jan 23First comedy gig of the year and a sell out night at the Bradlaugh for what turned out to be an excellent night of laughter courtesy of the Comedy Crate. Our MC for the evening was Stephen Carlin, who nicely uses his slightly dour Scottish persona to good advantage, and is excellent at riffing off the crowd with whatever fascinating nuggets they reveal. There was plenty of mileage to be gained from Darren, the audience’s self-appointed Witchfinder General, Chris, Stephen Carlinwho wouldn’t take his coat off, and the wrongly-accused-of-being-a-fascist, Holly. He had some great material about climate change and drugtaking, and took great control of the evening.

Our first act, and new to us, was Jacob Hawley, a likeable London lad with an attacking, slightly in-your-face style, living with the joy of having a lockdown baby because creating her was the only thing he and his partner could do in Jacob Hawley2020. The crowd gave him lots to work with, including having some better lines than himself, which he was happy to acknowledge! He has a great sequence about being asked to do a most unconventional gig at a Drive-In Movie, and does a brilliant impersonation of a lapdog. Very entertaining – he will be returning to the Bradlaugh for a longer gig in April.

Next up was Kate Martin, whom we had relatively recently seen at the same venue as she was a contestant Kate Martin(if that’s the right word) in the Northampton heat of The British Comedian of the Year. She is so sure-footed on stage, and you sense that nothing could faze her. As before, the majority of her material is based on either her height or her sexuality, and on both counts she’s not backward in coming forward. Nicely self-deprecating, which helps her to set up a brilliant rapport with the audience, and, despite having heard some of the material only a few months ago, we loved every minute.

Nathan CatonOur headline act, and someone we’ve enjoyed seeing a few times, was Nathan Caton. He opened with an inspired callback to one of Stephen Carlin’s lines, which set us up for a great set. Recently married, he had some brilliant material about the costs of a wedding, faux-resentment about his mother re-marrying, and I loved his observations about now living in a middle-class area and wearing middle-class clothes. He is so quick-witted, and he nails every comic observation so that they hit home. All killers and no fillers, as someone once said. A great way to end the night.

There’s another gig at the Bradlaugh on February 9th – you should come!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories (1991)

Problem at Pollensa BayIn which Christie gives us eight short stories, comprising two with Hercule Poirot, two with Parker Pyne, two with Harley Quin and two other tales. None of the stories had been published in book form in the UK before. Problem at Pollensa Bay was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in November 1991, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Problem at Pollensa Bay

Pollensa BayThis modest little story was originally published in the November 1935 issue of the Strand Magazine, and on 5th September 1936 in the US in Liberty Magazine, under the title Siren Business. Mr Parker Pyne is holidaying in Majorca when he is asked by English woman tourist for his help in stopping her son marrying someone she feels is unsuitable for him.

Six of the stories in Parker Pyne Investigates involve Mr P trying to avoid working with people whilst he’s on holiday, and Problem at Pollensa Bay fits perfectly into that category. Published a couple of years after the other Parker Pyne stories, we don’t learn very much extra about the unwilling detective, although he’s very forthright telling Mrs Chester to stop meddling in her son’s affairs.

The plot is very straightforward and simple, and totally compatible with Parker Pyne’s modus operandi in his previous stories. The situation is set up entertainingly and simply, Parker Pyne’s solution to the problem arrives discreetly and totally under our radar, and when you realise the garden path down which you’ve been lead, you realise how superbly Christie has misled you.

Pollensa is introduced as a very arty environment; you can feel it in her description: “Girls strolled about in trousers with brightly coloured handkerchiefs tied round the upper halves of their bodies. Young men in berets with rather long hair held forth in “Mac’s Bar” on such subjects as plastic values and abstraction in art.” All very self-indulgent, but rather charmingly so. It makes a nice juxtaposition with the conversations between the Chesters and Parker Pyne, which are a model of middle class politeness: “they talked about flowers and the growing of them, of the lamentable state of the English pound and of how expensive France had become, and of the difficulty of getting good afternoon tea.”

There is also a beautiful moment between the over-reacting Mrs Chester and the more laid back Parker Pyne: ““You must do something! You must do something! My boy’s life will be ruined.” Mr Parker Pyne was getting a little tired of Basil Chester’s life being ruined.”

However, the story is definitely damaged by a whopping coincidence that makes Christie’s life easy but makes us doubt the veracity of her yarn, when the gushing Nina Wycherley, who just happens to be staying at a nearby hotel and who just happens to know both Mrs Chester and Mr Pyne separately, just happens to meet those two people in a teashop. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

There’s also the unfortunate use of the D word, which was one of Christie’s favourite derogatory terms in the 1930s and 1940s: “the creature’s a dago. She’s impossible.”

Christie gives us loads of Majorcan locations to accentuate the realism of the story – not only Pollensa, but Palma, Soller, Alcudia, and the always hideously expensive (it was then, and is still now) Formentor. The hotels Pino D’Oro and Mariposa don’t exist, sadly, but were probably based on the Illa D’Or and the Mar i Cel, which did (and still do.)

Nothing too mentally strenuous, and no crime; but pleasant enough.

The Second Gong

J Arthur Rank GongPoirot goes out full throttle in this entertaining little story, originally published in the UK in issue 499 of the Strand Magazine in July 1932, and in  Ladies Home Journal in June 1932 in the US. It was also the basis for the novella Dead Man’s Mirror, first published in the UK as part of the 1935 collection Murder in the Mews. Poirot has been invited to meet Hubert Lytcham Roche, but when he arrives it appears that his host has taken his own life, a bullet through the head that also shattered a mirror in the room. The room is fully locked, and Inspector Reeves is sure it is suicide. But Poirot suspects foul play…

This is a pacy, no-nonsense full-on detective story in miniature, that whizzes along with an imaginative plot and ends with a classic denouement of the type that Christie fans love. There are many similarities with Dead Man’s Mirror, but Christie developed the characters more into a fuller story. But the basic structure of both stories, including the manner of the murder and the identity of the murder, is pretty much the same. It also ends with the same twist, which is here given away rather by the title The Second Gong – a little bit of Christie magic, an unexpected event that brings a smile to your face but is perfectly credible.

“I’m modern, you know, M. Poirot. I don’t indulge in sob stuff” avers Diana Cleves, the adopted daughter of the dead man. That’s an interesting character point for this decidedly tough cookie who knows her own mind and is most definitely a product of her own times.

Mrs Lytcham Roche informs Poirot that the terms of her husband’s will allows her an annual income of £3000. From today’s perspective that’s the equivalent of £150,000. I mean, she’d be comfortable, but it’s not enough to murder someone – is it?

An easy, exciting read that gets your imagination going and gives you a nice surprise ending.

Yellow Iris

Yellow IrisThis slightly odd little tale was originally published in issue 559 of the Strand Magazine in July 1937, and in the 10 October 1937 edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper under the title “The Case of the Yellow Iris” in the US. Christie would later reuse the basis of this story to expand into the full-length novel, Sparkling Cyanide. Poirot is phoned late at night with the request to attend a table at a restaurant where yellow irises are the floral centrepiece. The mysterious caller believes she is in great danger. But from what? And can Poirot get there in time to prevent foul play?

I found this story slightly odd because it sets up an apparent crime, which is then revealed to have been averted but which makes another previous non-suspicious death now a murder (perhaps) but the murderer wanders off scot-free and then the story continues for four more pages of indifferently interesting resolution. Structurally, I didn’t care for this story at all.

I was also uncertain of the timeline of the story; Poirot is telephoned at 11:30pm but then goes out to a restaurant where the Maître D’ enquires whether he would like a table for dinner – and clearly the restaurant is full of people mid-meal, mid-dance, mid-enjoying themselves. Either in those days people ate very late in London (not really a British way of doing things) or Christie didn’t really think that through.

Nevertheless, there are some entertaining moments. It starts with a pure piece of Poirotism, with his appreciation of the electric bar heater because of its symmetry rather than a “shapeless and haphazard” coal fire. We discover, through an unusual moment of embarrassment for Poirot, that he dyes his hair: ““Señora, I would not date to ask you to dance with me. I am too much of the antique.” Lola Valdez said: “Ah, it ees nonsense that  you talk there! You are steel young. Your hair, eet is still black.” Poirot winced slightly.”” And I really enjoyed this understatement: ““at once… it’s life or death…” […] There was a pause – a queer kind of gasp – the line went dead. Hercule Poirot hung up. His face was puzzled. He murmured between his teeth: “There is something here very curious.””

Poirot meets up with an old friend, Tony Chappell, at the restaurant. Christie writes their initial encounter as if Chappell were someone who might have featured regularly in her books; but I believe this is his only appearance in her works. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with the use of potassium cyanide as the weapon of choice. And the song with which the cabaret singer stuns the restaurant into silence appears to be an invention of Christie’s – which is a shame really, sounds like it could be rather good!

Not the best Poirot story, if truth be told.

The Harlequin Tea Set

Harlequin Tea SetIt is not thought that this fascinating, mystic short story ever received magazine publication in either the UK or US. In book form, its first appearance was in Macmillan’s Winter’s Crimes No 3, published in 1971; and in the US it was first published in a short story collection – The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories – by Putnams in April 1997. This collection contained the short stories that would be published in the UK in 1997 in the collection While the Light Lasts.

Mr Satterthwaite’s car breaks down en route to stay with an old friend and his family, and whilst he is waiting for the mechanic to fix the problem, he goes in to the Harlequin Café that he noticed as he was driving by. He wondered if his old friend Mr Quin might turn up – and sure enough, he does. Satterthwaite tells Quin about the friend whom he is going to stay with – and invites Quin to come too, but Quin refuses, trusting Satterthwaite entirely to do something “for someone else […] I have the utmost faith in you.” When he reaches his destination, he becomes engrossed in his friend’s family and their comings and goings. But somehow, he knows something is going to happen – and then something that Quin said before they parted finally makes sense. And Mr Satterthwaite definitely does do the right thing.

This is a curious short story without question. As a whole, you come away from it feeling very satisfied, your mystic curiosity piqued by the extraordinary symbiotic relationship between Quin and Satterthwaite. More than ever, you’re sure that Quin is Satterthwaite’s alter ego, a side of himself that he’s never allowed to express, a side that wants to come out and enable himself to do extraordinary things. At the same time, you also feel that quite a lot of this story is mere filler. Satterthwaite dithers and fusses and achieves nothing over several pages and I confess he was trying my patience severely during the first half of this tale; although I did enjoy the amusing car-based introduction to the story.

Satterthwaite refers to the last time that he saw Quin – “a very tragic occasion” he calls it. The last story in the volume The Mysterious Mr Quin is Harlequin’s Lane; however, the last to have been originally published in magazine format is The Man from the Sea. However, I do believe it is Harlequin’s Lane to which they refer. The lack of earlier magazine publication makes it more difficult to date the writing of this story. An awareness that smoking gives you cancer and a reference to smoking “pot” might suggest that this was written in the 1960s. Characters have lived in but returned from Kenya because, “well you know what happened in Kenya”. This could refer to the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s or the declaration of independence in 1963.

A key clue to the solution of this particular story is “daltonism”, which was a term used for colour-blindness named after John Dalton (1766 – 1844) who was one of the first researchers into the condition. The story takes place in the villages of Doverton Kingsbourne and Kingsbourne Ducis, both of which sound tremendous but neither of which is real.

Unsettling, intriguing – but occasionally dithery and slow.

The Regatta Mystery

RegattaThis simple and perhaps predictable story originally featured Hercule Poirot, but was rewritten by Christie to feature Parker Pyne instead, originally appearing in May 3, 1936 edition of the Hartford Courant in the US, and in the Strand Magazine, in the UK, later that year. Hatton Garden diamond trader Isaac Pointz entertains a group of people in Dartmouth, and all goes well until 15 year old schoolgirl Eve tells him she has discovered the perfect way to steal his priceless jewel, the Morning Star. Everyone humours the child with her imaginings, until she fumbles the diamond whilst handling it – and no one can find where it landed!

Probably the most entertaining aspect of this story is the speed and ease with which Mr Parker Pyne solves the mystery. No detailed investigation or visit to the scene of the crime for him; merely listening and running the facts of the case through his computer of a brain is all it takes. At the same time that’s a weakness, because there’s no sense of investigation, no first hand interrogation of the suspects, which is what makes most crime thrillers enjoyable. The story is all build up and no denouement.

It all takes place in Dartmouth, at the Royal George Hotel – in real life, the Royal Castle Hotel, where Christie was but one of several notable guests. Very little more needs to be said about this story – except that, perhaps, the Morning Star diamond, that Pointz carries around with him, which is valued at £30,000 in 1936, would today have an equivalent value of around £1.5 million. No wonder it was desirable to unscrupulous souls.

The Love Detectives

private detectiveThis underwhelming little tale was first published in issue 236 of The Story-Teller magazine in the UK in December 1926 under the title of At the Crossroads. This was the first of a series of six stories in consecutive issues of the magazine titled The Magic of Mr. Quin. The remaining five would later form part of the book, The Mysterious Mr. Quin in 1930. The plot has similarities to 1930 Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage. The story was first published in the US in Flynn’s Weekly in October 1926, with the title The Love Detectives.

Whilst visiting his friend Colonel Melrose, who also happens to be the local Chief Constable, Mr Satterthwaite and he are called out to the scene of a murder – and, on the way, their car has a minor altercation with another vehicle driven, apparently, by none other than Mr Harley Quin. Quin accompanies them to the scene of the crime and encourages Satterthwaite to play an active role in the investigation. Sir James has been killed, and both his wife and her friend confess to the crime, in an attempt to protect the other. But they are both wrong as to the method with which Sir James was dispatched. So it must have been his valet or his butler?

The story starts well and even with the hugely coincidental meeting between Satterthwaite and Quin, which is always par for the course, the set up of the crime is intriguing and enjoyable. But the investigation comes across as slight and hurried, and I didn’t really enjoy it much.

There are several Colonel Melroses in Agatha Christie’s works, and they are all Chief Constables, but it’s generally felt that they’re not all the same person. I rather liked the characterisation of this Colonel Melrose; a no-nonsense, sporty type. When Lady Dwighton and Delangua are comforting each other, Christie writes of him: “Colonel Melrose cleared his throat. He was a man who disliked emotion and had a horror of anything approaching a “scene”.” He’s rather the opposite of Satterthwaite, who’s at home with emotions, and regarded the fact that the murdered man was killed by a statue of Venus as “food for poetic meditation.”

Satterthwaite introduces Quin to Melrose by reminding the latter of the Derek Capel case. This is the first story in The Mysterious Mr Quin collection – The Coming of Mr Quin.

Not a lot to entertain the reader here, I don’t think.

Next to a Dog

happy_cartoon_dogThis very slight tale was first published in The Grand Magazine in the UK in September 1929 and in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Widow Joyce Lambert seeks a job as a governess but won’t give up her dog, Terry, who was given to her by her late husband. Her only option appears to be to marry the rich but horrible Arthur Halliday. She agrees to do so, provided she can bring Terry with her. But Terry has an accident and is badly injured…

A very nondescript story, to be honest. It shows the unconditional love between loyal dog and loyal owner, but that’s about it!

Magnolia Blossom

Magnolia blossomThis interesting little story was first published in the UK in issue 329 of the Royal Magazine in March 1926. The story first appeared in book form in the UK in the 1982 collection The Agatha Christie Hour, to tie in with a dramatisation of the story in the television series of the same name. It was first published in the US, like Next to a Dog, in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Vincent Easton is hoping that Theodora Darrell will leave her husband and run away with him to a new life in the Transvaal. She keeps her appointment to meet him at Victoria Station, and all seems to be going Vincent’s way until she sees a newspaper headline reporting that her husband’s business was facing a financial crisis – sudden crash – serious revelations – and she tells Vincent she must go back to him. But what happens when she does return to her husband?

This story is a little more promising than Next to a Dog, but not much. It sets up a very interesting dilemma for Theodora, and you think it’s just going to be a woman having to choose between her husband and her lover. But it goes in a darker direction than that; betrayal can work in more than one direction. But the resolution of the story is sadly underdeveloped and hits you with all the force of a damp lettuce.

And that concludes all eight stories in Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. In comparison with the previous volume, Miss Marple’s Final Cases, despite a couple of stronger stories, they’re overall rather disappointing and slight, and I cannot give this selection more than a 6/10 rating. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is the final collection of nine short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. The stories were originally published in magazine format between 1923 and 1932. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!