The Agatha Christie Challenge – At Bertram’s Hotel (1965)

At Bertram's HotelIn which Miss Marple assists the police in solving the assault of a forgetful cleric, discovering the mastermind of a sequence of high value robberies and identifying the true identity of the murderer of a hotel employee, all in a seemingly respectable and old-fashioned London hotel. And, like before, don’t worry, I won’t spill the beans about whodunit!

chocolatesAt Bertram’s Hotel was the second Christie I read as a kid, and I think the main reason I chose it from the bookshop was because I liked the cover illustration! The elegantly made-up ladies’ hand, concealing an expensive looking chocolate and holding a bullet as though it was a cigarette probably came across to the young Master Chrisparkle as being somewhere on the sexy/sophisticated scale. It makes a great contrast with the blurry, eerie night-time illustration of the hotel in the background, with just the lone commissionaire outside – almost as though he was going to do battle with the sophisticated lady. Not an inaccurate interpretation of events, as it happens.

DavenportThe main character in this book is really the hotel itself. Mrs Christie spends a lot of time coming back to how it’s a building of innate taste and class, providing good service to an older clientele, and recreating an Edwardian feel during what was actually the Swinging Sixties. The general unlikeliness of such an establishment spills over into a realisation that the hotel is, indeed, not all that it seems. Yes, in part it’s a real hotel, a solid building with a good reputation, with real guests and real staff; but it’s also a façade for other activities performed by dubious characters and criminals; and the two are seamlessly intertwined. Nothing is as it seems to be: “the china, if not actually Rockingham and Davenport, looked like it”. A stark contrast throughout between Edifice and Artifice.

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleBoth of Christie’s main amateur detectives are elderly, but their actual ages are not stated. Poirot (we haven’t met him yet, soon will though! in his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) is described as retired from the Belgian police force after many years of devoted service; and he has developed a limp. So he’s obviously of some age then. Miss Marple first appeared in The Murder in the Vicarage (1930), and she was in her late-sixties from the very beginning. So what age would she be in 1965? Well, not knocking 100, that’s for sure. Neither character has a real-time age-progression throughout their Christie-careers, but Miss Marple has definitely got a little older by the time this novel came around. The fortnight at Bertram’s was a holiday treat given to her by her nephew and his wife. When explaining why she chose this quaint old London hotel and not a more snazzy location, she says “I stayed there once – when I was fourteen”. When she’s later reflecting on the changes of the years, Mrs Christie tells us “it was fifty – no, nearer sixty years since she had stayed here”. I take that to indicate somewhere between 56 and 59 years; so add that to 14, and I can conclusively prove that, in 1965, Miss Marple was aged somewhere between 70 and 73 years old!

Autumn leavesBut, hovering around my mid-50s as I am, I really object to Mrs Christie declaring people to be elderly when they’re really only a little bit older than I am. Canon Pennyfather, who is a doddery, forgetful old buffoon is 63. That seems to be her favourite age to choose when she wants to impress on you how past it they are – Helen MacKenzie in A Pocket Full of Rye was the same. Interestingly, Mrs Christie herself had attained the age of 75 in 1965, and she certainly wasn’t past it. There’s another character in At Bertram’s Hotel who’s marked as elderly beyond his years – Mr Bollard of the jeweller’s shop patronised by Elvira. He is described as “the senior partner of the firm, an elderly man of sixty-odd”. Even worse, the character of Egerton, one of Elvira’s trustees with his hands on her purse strings, is 52 years old and describes himself as “well advanced in years”. I’m finding it hard to get my head around this.

Coal FireMoving on! There is a lovely air of nostalgia littered throughout this book and personally I think it’s got more than its fair share of elegant turns of phrase for a Christie novel – let’s face it, she’s not known for her literary quality. In that reverie where Miss Marple works out that it’s nearly sixty years since she’s stayed at Bertram’s, she reflects on the then and now with rather charming, delicate observations. “The out of date returns as the picturesque”, she says of the hotel, which today would be a good description of anything that we would now refer to as “retro”. The opening description of the hotel includes the fact that: “there were two magnificent coal fires; beside them big brass coal scuttles shone in the way they used to shine when Edwardian housemaids polished them, and they were filled with exactly the right sized lumps of coal”. That’s a typically nostalgic look back at how life seemed to be more pleasant in the “good old days”, whereas of course by 1965 the whole heating issue was dealt with by modern radiators, creating a much more efficient way of keeping warm. High standards of modern cleanliness too are seen as having a negative connotation: “A connecting door led to a bathroom which was modern but which had a tiled wallpaper of roses and so avoided any suggestion of over-frigid hygiene”.

FloradoraElsewhere Miss Marple reminisces about how wonderful it was to shop at the Army and Navy Stores, how you used to be able to get proper glass cloths, how you left an address for your purchases to be delivered to, and how sad it was to see that a splendid old house now has four front-door bells (so it must have been converted into four flats). Egerton’s offices are located “in one of those imposing and dignified squares which have as yet not felt the wind of change”. Even Chief-Inspector Davy seems to have his head filled of old nonsense: “Why must they call me Mary when my name’s Miss Gibbs” he muses, taking a line from a long gone musical comedy; followed by the slightly misquoted “tell me, gentle stranger, are there any more at home like you? A few, kind sir, and nicer girls you never knew”, from the 1899 musical Floradora.

Crime sceneI find this book hugely enjoyable because of its constant aside observations, its Dickensian minor characters and its gentle approach to the crimes involved. I would normally prefer something much punchier, but I guess this one is the exception that proves the rule. There’s very little in the way of cold-blooded evil; and that’s perfectly in keeping with the nature of the criminal minds at work. Well-structured and thoughtfully characterised, this is classy Agatha Christie country.

So, gentle reader, here’s the at-a-glance summary for At Bertram’s Hotel:

Publication Details: 1965. My copy is a third impression from April 1969.

How many pages until the first death: The only murder takes place on page 140. Sounds like a long time to kill, but you’re not hanging around, kicking your heels waiting for something to happen – there’s a strong sense of intrigue right from the very start.

Funny lines out of context: thin pickings in this book, on the whole. But here are some nice lines –
“There were people who would have smiled in gentle derision at this pronouncement on the part of an old-fashioned old lady who could hardly be expected to be an authority on nymphomania”.
“Where can we go and talk? That is to say without falling over some old pussy every second”.
“Mrs McCrae, Canon Pennyfather’s housekeeper, had ordered a Dover sole for the evening of his return. The advantages attached to a good Dover sole were manifold. It need not be introduced to the grill or frying pan until the Canon was safely in the house. I could be kept until the next day if necessary. Canon Pennyfather was fond of Dover sole; and, if a telephone call or telegram arrived saying that the Canon would after all be elsewhere on this particular evening, Mrs McCrae was fond of a good Dover sole herself.”
“Inspector Campbell drew his papers towards him and gave Father the ascertainable facts in so far as they had been ascertained. “Doesn’t sound as if he’d gone off with a choirboy””.
“So then we hit upon getting Dr Stokes to come and have a look at you. We still call him Dr Stokes although he’s been struck off. A very nice man he is, embittered a bit, of course, by being struck off. It was only his kind heart really, helping a lot of girls who were no better than they should be.”

Memorable characters: The central character of Bess Sedgwick is very fully written, a glamorous, flawed, sensuous woman, full of daring and attitude. “Bess Sedgwick stubbed out her cigarette in her saucer, lifted a doughnut and took an immense bite. Rich red real strawberry jam gushed out over her chin. Bess threw back her head and laughed, one of the loudest and gayest sounds to have been heard in the lounge of Bertram’s Hotel for some time”. That’s a very visual and realistic description of someone who really lives life to the full.
She doesn’t feature a lot but I also feel the receptionist Miss Gorringe is a very believable character. “She knew every one of the clientele and, like Royalty, never forgot a face. She looked frumpy but respectable. Frizzled yellowish hair (old-fashioned tongs, it suggested), black silk dress, a high bosom on which reposed a large gold locket and a cameo brooch.”

Christie the Poison expert: Nope. It’s all handguns in this one.

Class/social issues of the time: Linked to the nostalgia theme.
The smoking room is reserved for gentlemen only.
A conversation between Mr Humfries, the hotel manager, and Colonel Luscombe, a guest: “We endeavour to give people anything they ask for”. “Including seed cake and muffins, yes I see. To each according to his need – I see…. Quite Marxian”.
Miss Marple gratefully remembers how her mother steered her away from an unsuitable liaison with a young man, and reflects on the relationships between mothers and daughters nowadays: “These poor young things. Some of them had mothers, but never mothers who seemed to be any good – mothers who were quite incapable of protecting their daughters from silly affairs, illegitimate babies, and early and unfortunate marriages. It was all very sad.”
A socially awkward situation: “He remembered he hadn’t paid for it. He attempted to do so; but Henry raised a deprecating hand. “Oh no sir. I was given to understand that your tea was on the house. Mr Humfries’ orders. “Henry moved away. Father was left uncertain whether he ought to have offered Henry a tip or not. It was galling to think that Henry knew the answer to that social problem much better than he did!”
There’s a wonderful display of snobbery by Miss Gorringe towards Chief-Insp Davy, when she assumes he is just a mere sergeant; she is much more responsive towards the more junior (but better dressed) Inspector Campbell.

Classic denouement: Well certainly an exciting one. In the space of a few pages, suspicion alights from one person to another to another. There’s a big showdown between Davy and the alleged murderer, who, instead of putting up their hands with an “it’s a fair cop, guv”, actually tries to escape and run away. The truth of whodunit is only revealed in the final three pages; where the murderer fails a test of decent character which makes Davy only more resolved to seek justice.

Happy ending? Not discernibly. There aren’t many people to come out of the whole sorry affair unscathed.

Did the story ring true? For the most part it’s a complete flight of fantasy. Eccentric, unlikely and rather weird. However, the characters are largely believable and many of the more interesting conversations have a definitely realistic feel.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10

The ABC MurdersSo, have you read At Bertram’s Hotel? What are your thoughts about it? Please let me know – but don’t give the whodunit game away please! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is the first Hercule Poirot book I read – The ABC Murders. If you fancy catching up with that one, I’ll be blogging my thoughts about it in a two weeks’ or so time. Thanks for reading, and happy sleuthing!

Review – Les Miserables, Imperial Theatre, New York, 18th July 2015

Les Mis, New York, 2015Cramming as much fun into a weekend in New York as possible, our next theatre trip was to see the brand new revised Les Miserables at the Imperial Theatre. I love discovering new theatres, and I really like the fact that the Imperial hasn’t been renamed! It was built in 1923 and has played host to a raft of top quality, significant American musicals over the decades. Oh Kay, The Desert Song, Song of Norway, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, all started their lives here. In relatively recent years it’s become more international with Chess, Billy Elliot and of course two engagements of Les Miserables. Any resident ghost here is going to have a songbook repertoire as long as your shroud.

Les Mis, London, 1986In the grand summer of 1986, together with the then Miss Duncansby, we overdosed on West End shows to our heart’s content, booking up all the big attractions of the time in one fell swoop and devouring them between May and October that year. One of those was Les Miserables, at the Palace Theatre; my ever resourceful archive of programmes tells me we saw it on 10th July 1986 occupying Seats A 29 & 30 in the Dress Circle. Jean Valjean was played by Colm Wilkinson (Ireland’s 1978 Eurovision singer), Javert was Roger Allam, Thénardier was Alun Armstrong, and the minor cast was littered with great names-to-be of the West End like Dave Willetts, Peter Polycarpou, Frances Ruffelle (another Eurovision connection) and Jackie Marks.

Do you hear the people singThose seats; has anyone sat in the front row of the Dress Circle in the Palace? Not good. You feel they ought to be great, but the leg room is infinitesimally tiny. Les Mis is a long show, and, with nowhere to put your knees, it feels much, much longer. At the time I used to suffer from gout occasionally – that was one such occasion. I was in such pain that I couldn’t hobble to the underground station and had to get a taxi from outside the theatre. So it’s fair to say my mind was on other things. As for Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss D) – well she will probably be the first to admit that she was perhaps just a little too young and spirited to appreciate the finer nuances of French revolutionary despair. We liked many of the songs – what’s not to like? But neither of us had any desire to see it again.

Imperial TheatreMany years later (2012) the film came out and re-sparked our interest, and I must say we really enjoyed it. So we have often thought about reappraising our rather jaded memories of Les Mis, and this new, re-orchestrated, re-designed version in New York, seemed like the perfect opportunity. It’s been described as “Les Mis for the American Idol generation”, which very nearly put me off completely. I had horrible visions of “I Dreamed a Dream” being interrupted by whoops and cheers every time there was a pause in the vocals. But I needn’t have worried. Les Miserables is a show so full of heart and integrity, sadness and valour, that the audience is stunned into reflective, appreciative silence during the performance, only to let rip with enthusiastic applause at the end of each number. And that is how it should be!

Ramin KarimlooIt’s a complicated plot, that unravels over decades, and summarising it would be a feat of fine temporal engineering. Suffice to say it’s the story of Jean Valjean, sentenced to 19 years in prison – for stealing bread, and then for trying to escape – but finally released on parole and, 8 years later, reinvented as M. Madeleine, wealthy factory owner and local mayor. Episodically he encounters the sad and abused factory worker Fantine, her daughter Cosette, duplicitous innkeepers the Thénardiers, and their daughter Eponine, revolutionaries Marius (in love with Cosette) and Enjolras, and little street urchin Gavroche. The thread linking Valjean’s lifelong story is his running enmity with Javert, the police officer who blindly pursues him seeking justice for Valjean’s escape. If you need a fuller account I suggest you check Wikipedia.

Jean ValjeanWell, what can I say? The show is absolutely stunning. You’re gripped from the first scene and it doesn’t let up until the instant standing ovation at the end. Mrs C and I took bets as to when we would finally need to fumble for the tissues – and we plumped for Bring Him Home for both of us. Fat chance! I was blubbering at the death of Fantine. That means I didn’t even get past Side One of the double album. Pathetic. There are some incredibly vivid scenes; Valjean carrying Marius through the sewers and encountering Thénardier was electric with movement, atmosphere and eeriness; and the back projection effect for the death of Javert was simply extraordinary. No simple hurling himself off the bridge onto an unseen mattress, this took suicide into another dimension. It’s a complete “hats-off” to the set and image designer, Matt Kinley. Paule Constable’s lighting also played a major part in the visual brilliance of the show – in the barricade scenes, I loved how flashing images between the gaps gave the impression of bombardment and attack; and the brief tableau for the death of Gavroche was agonisingly moving and impactful. The music is as strong as ever, and James Lowe’s orchestra demands your attention just as much as the injustice-filled plot and the extraordinary performances.

Andrew LoveFor yes, many of the performances are absolutely extraordinary. Surely for any musical theatre actor, the role of Jean Valjean must be the most desired of all. Is there a more heroic character anywhere in musical theatre? Starring as JVJ is Ramin Karimloo, personally chosen by Andrew Lloyd-Webber to play the Phantom in Love Never Dies, but also a much-loved performer as the Phantom and Raoul in the original Phantom of the Opera, as well as having played Enjolras and Marius in previous productions of Les Mis. I’d not seen Mr Karimloo before but what a superb performer he is. His voice is magnificently expressive and he has amazing control and elegance to his singing. He really projects the dignity and natural authority of Valjean; and I was right, I didn’t survive his performance of Bring Him Home, I was stifling sobs from the word go.

Erika HenningsenThe other performance that really surprised me with its emotional power was that of Erika Henningsen as Fantine, in her Broadway debut. When I think of the show in general, I think of Fantine as something of an also-ran; “I Dreamed a Dream” is a very nice song, but its impact has lessened over the years owing to its having been covered so many times by so many people. Think again. Miss Henningsen’s voice cuts through the Paris fog with immaculate clarity and beauty, and her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” reinstated it for me as a classic. She performed Fantine’s death scene with such sweet sadness that it shocked me; and when she returns at the end to help guide the dying Valjean to the other side it was almost unbearably moving. If you heard that voice beckoning you to heaven, you’d go like a shot.

Brennyn LarkFor our performance, the role of Javert was played by the understudy, Andrew Love. What a find! As strong and as determined a Javert as you could hope to see, with a fantastic voice that expresses all of the character’s bitterness and obsession. His performance of “Stars” was sensational and he had an uproarious reception at curtain call – definitely One To Watch. We also had a superb Enjolras in the shape of Wallace Smith, who really looked the part and had all the charisma needed to encourage us to man the barricades. His “Red/Black” sequence sent a shiver down your spine. Brennyn Lark cuts a truly tragic figure as Eponine, with a warm and sensuous voice that gets to the heart of the character in a way that I don’t think I’ve heard before. On My Own is a stunning song, and she gave it immense depth.

ThenardiersThe much needed comedy (tinged, of course, with depravity and cruelty) comes from the Thénardiers, performed with terrific verve by Gavin Lee and Rachel Izen. Mr Lee is a musical actor of great skill – we saw him in Mary Poppins a number of years ago and he absolutely lit up the stage in that show, tippetty-tapping all the way around the proscenium arch. His Thénardier is a light-footed, angular, mischievous villain, schmoozing his way around the bar, always on the lookout for a little jewellery to thieve; exchanging knowing glances with the audience, and constantly crossing the boundaries of decency. It’s a very athletic performance, full of physical comedy, but with no sacrifice of the splendour of his singing voice; toe-curlingly brilliant. He is matched by Miss Izen (whom I first saw decades ago in the original London cast of A Chorus Line) as his wretched partner-in-crime, a hideously overblown fashion victim, making the most of the coarse humour of the part, but still with a great voice and wonderful stage presence.

Samantha HillSamantha Hill invests Cosette with child-like glee and enthusiasm for her new-found love, a sweet singing voice and genuine devotion to Valjean. I’m not sure if Chris McCarrell as Marius had a slight sore throat as I felt his rendition of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables was so reflective and so introverted, that it maybe lacked the emotional edge of some of the other performances. And a big shout out to 7-year-old (and that is young!) Athan Sporek, our Gavroche, a cheeky little imp unafraid to swagger where angels fear to tread; his gesture to the captured Javert brought the house down.

Chris McCarrellThis production is so overwhelmingly moving that, not only did we continue blubbing on the way out, we started again on the street, and, an hour or two later back in the hotel room, at the mention of the final scene, we started off all over again. It’s the combination of the purity and clarity of the voices with the obviously sad story and the emotionally charged melodies that creates a magic package that plays havoc with your tear ducts. Unbelievably good; staggeringly effective. A magnificent production.

Wallace SmithP.S. In the interval, I bought one diet coke, one sparkling water and two small bottles of still water. $25. TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS! What’s American for “Yeravinalarfincha?

P.P.S. They really do things differently in America don’t they? Unusually, there was a long queue for the Gents toilet (I mean the male restroom) during the interval. Along a corridor, up some stairs round a corner and into another room. One usher was barking out instructions which queue to join for which toilet, Athan Sporekdepending on whether you were male or female. As he was doing so, he noticed someone trying to get on to the side of the stage in order to take a photograph. Of course, no question, this is bad theatre etiquette, and I understand someone had to ask him to stop, but did we really need this usher to yell out: “SIR!! GET DOWN SIR!!” louder than any of the cast? I was expecting the poor theatregoer to have been shackled in Guantanamo Bay before the curtain call. When I finally neared the end of the queue for the toilets, I discovered another usher was beckoning people a few at a time to turn the corner into the Gents itself. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, QUICKLY!!!” he shouted, as he looked at me. I was shocked at being treated like an errant schoolchild. I’ll walk into the Gents at my own pace, thank you very much. Some people need to go on a remedial respect course. Manners maketh theatre staff.

Review – It Shoulda Been You, Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York, 17th July 2015

It Shoulda Been YouYes dear reader, Mrs Chrisparkle and I snuck in a quick weekend to New York a few days ago, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit Broadway. I think it’s actually the law that a tourist must go and see at least one Broadway show every two days they are in New York. So by seeing two shows in two days we admirably covered our legal obligations.

Brooks Atkinson TheatreWith a plethora of choices, I whittled it down to a few, and the first to come up lucky trumps was It Shoulda Been You (I know, American grammar), at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, originally the Mansfield Theatre, which was renamed in 1960 after the New York Times Drama Critic. I wonder if any theatre will be renamed the Chrisparkle in years to come? No, I don’t suppose so either. Anyway it’s a beautiful ornate theatre and our seats were slap bang in the middle of the third row of the Mezzanine – that’s Row C of the Dress Circle to you and me – and they give you a superbly clear view of the stage.

Pre-wedding arrangementsThe book and lyrics are by Brian Hargrove, and it’s directed by David Hyde Pierce, best known to us Brits as Niles from Frasier. Funnily enough, we saw Mr Hyde Pierce the last time we saw a show on Broadway, in the rather irritating Curtains, back in 2008. Mr Hyde Pierce and Mr Hargrove are also married to each other. So I think it’s fair to say this is falls under the category of “joint enterprise – keeping it in the family”. That can sometimes be an uncomfortable category, when one partner just hasn’t got the heart to tell the other partner that their contribution to the project sucks. Or, indeed, that the whole project sucks. Believe me, we’ve seen a few like that.

HairdressingBut fortunately no such conversation need take place in the Hyde Pierce/Hargrove household because the show is a complete delight. Played for laughs, you could summarise it as Hilarious New York Jewish Wedding Disaster, but there’s more to it than that. Rebecca Steinberg is getting married to Brian Howard, and the families have hired this swanky hotel for the day. Rebecca’s horrendously sniping mother Judy, and Brian’s horrendously snooty mother Georgette, don’t see eye to eye on much. Good news, then, that they have a miracle worker of a wedding planner in the form of Albert, to make sure that wrinkles are kept to the minimum. There’s an ex-boyfriend too, Marty, who discovers the wedding is taking place at the last minute, and who has no compunction about gatecrashing. And there’s Jenny, Rebecca’s sister, always the bridesmaid and never the bride, made to feel as wretched and irrelevant as possible by Judy’s tactless tongue. As you can imagine, there are last minute hitches, embarrassing moments, brides in hiding, in-laws getting drunk, and all the usual rough and tumble of a difficult wedding shebang. Somehow, the happy couple make it, and become Mr and Mrs Howard. And just as you thought they were going to live happily ever after…. I wouldn’t dream of telling you what comes next, but as Albert the wedding planner says, to a wave of hysteria from the audience, “well, I didn’t see that one coming!”

SistersThis is a show that definitely puts laughter and entertainment first. It’s great to look at, there are some funny and well performed songs, and it’s full of recognisable characters who, almost without exception, remain believable and don’t stray into caricature. It doesn’t go too deep in its soul-searching and whilst it has some interesting things to say about modern marriage and relationships in general, it does keep its nose well above water and comes out showbiz-tapping the morse code (figuratively speaking) whenever it can.

It shoulda been you, MartyAnna Louizos’ set design is a delicious multi-layered, multi-storeyed affair, easily suggesting at least eight rooms and a landing at any given time; and I really liked the corridor effect between the downstairs front and rear rooms which enables characters to move left or right through the set whilst remaining partly visible, thereby linking all the different stage areas together at the same time. William Ivey Long’s costumes look smashing, giving him plenty of scope to provide Sunday-best wedding outfits and opportunity for couture-based one-upmanship between any warring parties. Lawrence Yurman’s orchestra give the music light punchiness and musical tricks to keep the party sparky. All in all, it’s a show with very high production values.

Mother and daughterThe cast work seamlessly together to create a busy ensemble of to-ing and fro-ing wedding guests and participants, but there are a few star performers who really light up the show whenever they’re on. Heading the cast (and, we admit, the main reason for choosing to see this show) is Tyne Daly, one of Mrs C’s heroines when she was a wee girl (she was glued to Cagney and Lacey in her formative years). We haven’t seen Miss Daly live before and she’s a complete hoot. As the combustible Judy, she throws herself into delightful scenes of calculating viciousness and pretend self-effacement, with effortlessly brilliant comic timing. There’s a slight element of pantomime in the way she occasionally catches the audience’s eye to let us know she’s about to do something outrageous, but that just adds to the fun. The audience adores her, and I must say, I did too.

Groom's motherAs her opposite in the mother-in-law-from-hell stakes, Harriet Harris takes on the role of Georgette with one hand keeping her hair coiffured and the other clutching a gin and tonic. It’s a wonderfully funny performance, giving her two personas to play with: the rather wretched wife and mother, clinging on to the wreckage with alcoholic support, wallowing in her attempts to stop her son from marrying just so that she can have him all to herself, sticking with her equally manipulative husband just for the sex; and the posh, point-scoring social animal, regarding having her hair done by anyone other than Elsie as simply beneath her, ready to outsmart the Steinbergs at all opportunities, and to take joy in their discomfort. Despite having been in loads of shows over the years, Miss Harris is new to me but what a fun and assured stage performer she is.

JennyLisa Howard is fantastic as Jenny, the older sister with a beautiful heart but not (as Judy will point out) the classic figure to accompany it. She has a wonderful singing voice and she easily gets the audience on her side in her battles for what’s right. She is matched perfectly by Sierra Boggess as Rebecca; the essence of sweet and charming, also with a magnificent voice. Josh Grisetti makes his Broadway debut as Marty, and it’s going to look great on his CV. A funny, athletic performance – you can feel the audience cheer up whenever he enters the stage. If he can get the girl, any of us can – a shining beacon of hope for us all. As Albert, Edward Hibbert gets many of the best lines and squeezes as much fun as possible out of them, oozing over the top campness to great comic effect. But the whole cast give an excellent performance and it’s impossible to come out of this show without laughing your head off on the way back home. It’s due to close on August 9th, so if you are in New York, do yourself a favour and book. It’s much, much more than just a “wedding gone wrong” show.

Married blissP.S. The performance takes approximately 100 minutes – without an intermission. Regular readers might remember that I really like my intervals wherever possible. It’s an opportunity to move around, have a drink, pop to the loo and discuss the show with your nearest and dearest. It also makes more of an occasion of the show by making it last a little longer, as well as being good for the theatre’s shop/bar/snacks sales. There were two moments in this show where an interval would have fitted in perfectly. Alas, they didn’t take that opportunity.

It could only be musical comedyP.P.S. It’s really fascinating to compare British and American audiences. American audiences get so much more wrapped up in what’s happening on stage and will react more audibly and with greater vitality than us Brits. There were several moments during this show when the audience simply couldn’t contain their joy at what they were seeing on stage – and where a British audience member would simply have thought to themselves “oh yes, jolly well done”. I know that, on Broadway, if you don’t get a standing ovation at the end of the show, basically you’ve done something seriously wrong. But for me, this show fully deserved its S.O.

The brilliant production photographs are courtesy of Joan Marcus.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)

A Pocket Full of RyeIn which Miss Marple solves the murders of a rather hectoring boss and father, and other members of his family and domestic household. A goldmine, a prodigal son, a nursery rhyme, a vengeful family and an unseen boyfriend all play a part. And just so that you don’t have to worry – I won’t reveal the identity of the murderer!

Margaret Rutherford as Miss MarpleSo here we are, having finished the first of my Agatha Christie re-reads. A Pocket Full of Rye, which I always want to write as A Pocketful of Rye, which apparently is wrong. This was my first exposure to Miss Marple in print, having only known her in the form of Margaret Rutherford on screen. As I mentioned elsewhere, the wonderful Miss Rutherford was a very over-the-top version of Miss Marple, and when you read the books with her in mind, it’s like an indivisible sum – Miss Rutherford into Miss Marple simply won’t go. On a re-read, or perhaps to a new reader, it’s maybe surprising that Miss Marple doesn’t appear in the book until almost halfway through; if you think she’s going to be the central character, think again. With hindsight you realise that this Miss Marple is much more like the Joan Hickson TV version – quiet, unassuming, and with all her activity going on in the cerebrum rather than in outward shows of derring-do. When the book first appeared, Miss Marple was already an extremely well-established character, and the vast majority of Mrs Christie’s readers wouldn’t have needed much in the way of an introduction to her. But if this is the first Christie you read, then you might be slightly underwhelmed when you meet her. The only adjectives Mrs Christie gives you to describe her when she first appears are elderly, charming, innocent, fluffy and pink. Not that much to go on!

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleI must have been very confused reading this book as a child. Not only does Miss Marple not feel like Margaret Rutherford, there’s all sorts of confusions with characters’ names too. For example there’s a Mrs Fortescue, who’s also known as Jennifer Fortescue, or Mrs Percival, or Mrs Val. I bet I thought they were four different people. There’s a character called Vivian Dubois, but, in one paragraph, where he is worried that the police will find some love letters, Mrs Christie actually refers to him as Vincent (and not Vivian), presumably by mistake. I probably thought they were twins. I wonder if that’s in all copies of the book, or just an error in my copy – the last paragraph of Part One of Chapter XI refers, if you want to check! Then there are the two Fortescue brothers, Lancelot and Percival (so named because their mother was a fan of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King). I probably thought it was a nod to 60s comedy calypso performer Lance Percival. Miss Ramsbottom’s overnight guest prior to Miss Marple was a Christian missionary by the name of Dr Mary Peters. All that evangelising and a gold medal winning pentathlete too. All highly confusing.

RyeI’ve already mentioned how it was that Pocket Full of Rye was the first Christie book I read, and I do remember clearly the excitement of reading a “grown-up novel”. When you come to recollect the book though, I have to admit that it isn’t on the whole particularly memorable. Some Christies you can remember huge tracts from, including all the characterisations, the identity of the murderers and their victims, and even some of the best speeches and conversations. For me, A Pocket Full of Rye doesn’t come under that category. I couldn’t remember whodunit before I read it, and even whilst I was reading it, it didn’t come back to me. In fact I made a guess at whodunit whilst I was re-reading it – and I was wrong. So from that point of view, it’s written well enough to keep you guessing and it disguises its final reveal pretty effectively. The only thing I could remember about the book is who the victims were, and how they tied into the nursery rhyme. I don’t think it’s one of her most suspenseful reads, and it’s more of a mathematical puzzle than a character-based plot.

Gold MineWhat did strike me as interesting was a running theme that to be a murderer you must be insane. Right from the start Inspector Neele considers his suspects’ mental health: “He classified Miss Griffith as a) not the type of a poisoner, b) not in love with her employer, c) no pronounced mental instability, d) not a woman who cherished grudges.” Later, an anxious Mrs Pat Fortescue tells Miss Marple “somebody in this house is mad, and madness is always frightening because you don’t know how mad people’s minds will work. You don’t know what they’ll do next.” During the denouement conversation Inspector Neele regrets that the murderer won’t be hanged because they’re “crazy” – to which Miss Marple replies that the person is “not crazy, Inspector, not for a moment!” This delight in applying mental health labels even applies to one of the victims, whom family members want to be assessed as suffering from “G.P.I. – General Paralysis of the Insane”. That’s an old fashioned terminology you don’t hear today.

Clothes PegThere’s also a linked interchange about the nature of poisoners between Pat and Lance. “There’s something awfully frightening about a poisoner”, said Pat. “I mean it must be a horrid, brooding, revengeful mind”. “So that’s how you see it? Funny! I just think of it as businesslike and cold-blooded”. “I suppose one could look at it that way.” She resumed with a slight shiver, “all the same, to do three murders… Whoever did it must be mad.” Oh, that old chestnut again.

BlackbirdI was also not particularly impressed with these couple of sentences: “At the Pinewood Private Sanatorium, Inspector Neele, sitting in the visitors’ parlour, was facing a grey-haired, elderly lady. Helen MacKenzie was sixty-three, though she looked younger.” Sixty-three?? Elderly?? “Though she looked younger” but still considered elderly?? I’m not that far behind Helen and I still don’t think I’m middle-aged yet. But it is an interesting observation of what was considered elderly a mere 62 years ago, when this book was written.

Yew BerriesThe book isn’t over-stuffed with narrative threads but there are a couple of clever garden paths that lead you nicely astray and take your eye off a more obvious solution to the mystery. Miss Marple’s on quite good form, taking St Mary Mead as a microcosm of a world of seething emotions and all sorts of lawksamercy. Indeed, she has a personal link to one of the victims, so perhaps it’s not unsurprising that the two worlds collide.

So, gentle reader, for each of Mrs Christie’s books that I re-read I’m going to provide what I hope will be a helpful “at-a-glance” summary of how the book stacks up. See what you think about this assessment:

Publication details: 1953. My copy is a 1980 paperback by Fontana, 188 pages. In about 1979, I met a girl who was really into Agatha Christie. In order to impress her, I lent her a big carrier bag full of my Christie paperbacks. She moved. I had to spend ages finding replacement copies at car boots and charity shops. This was one of the many such copies.

How many pages until the first death: 7. That’s what I like, no hanging about.

Funny lines out of context: “there’s a sprinkling of….old pussies who love to potter round with a trowel”.
“He had that rather forced masculinity which is, in reality, nothing of the kind. He was the type of man who “understands” women.”
““Lovely legs she’s got,” said Constable Waite with a sigh. “And super nylons”.”
“I do think women ought to stick together, don’t you, Inspector Neele?”
“I began to realise, about two years after we were married, that Freddy wasn’t – well wasn’t always straight”.

Memorable characters: none outstanding; maybe Mary Dove, for her sangfroid under pressure. The way Mrs Crump is described reminded me of how you imagine Mrs White to be in Cluedo. By the way, does anyone else find it funny that the name of the Sergeant who first mentions the grain in the deceased’s pocket is called Hay? I was expecting a whole range of characters whose names were based on aspects of an arable farm.

Christie the poison expert? Yes definitely. Everything you wanted to know about taxine but were afraid to ask.

Class/social issues of the time: Quite a bit. Mrs Christie describes Yewtree Lodge as “the kind of mansion that rich people built themselves and then called it “their little place in the country”… a large solid red brick structure, sprawling lengthwise rather than upward, with rather too many gables, and a vast number of leaded paned windows. The gardens were highly artificial…” In other words, disgustingly nouveau riche.
Of a missionary visitor, Miss Ramsbottom says “black as your hat but a true Christian”. I can never quite decide if Mrs Christie was a latent racist or if it was just the mores of her time and “set”. Maybe this re-read will help me come to a conclusion. When asked about blackbirds, Lance replies “do you mean genuine birds, or the slave trade?”
Young Gerald is described as “an intellectual… he’s got a lot of unconventional and progressive ideas that people don’t like”.
Crump the butler is distrusted. For no apparent reason than for his stupid surname and the fact that he’s a butler.
You wouldn’t describe Mrs Christie as a feminist: “Adele Fortescue was a sexy piece….Her appeal was obvious, not subtle. It said simply to every man “Here am I. I’m a woman.””

Classic denouement? Not really. There’s no big showdown; the denouement takes the form of Miss Marple having a quiet, private conversation with Inspector Neele, explaining whodunit, how and why; the book ends before he confronts the murderer. Probably the best interrogation is by Neele on Dubois, where he reveals he knows the content of the first victim’s will.

Happy ending? Again not really. An innocent character is about to get a nasty shock, although another is saved from a blackmail situation. Miss Marple has a moment of triumph in the last sentence, but it’s not earth-shattering stuff.

Does the story ring true? The crime and the Sing-a-song-of-sixpence theme dovetail nicely. But Miss Marple gains access to Yewtree Lodge ridiculously easily.

Overall satisfaction rating: 7/10

At Bertram's HotelWhat do you think? Any comments welcome, but please try not to spoil the whodunit aspect for anyone who hasn’t read it.

Next book to read will be At Bertram’s Hotel, as that was the second book I read when I first discovered Mrs Christie’s work. Feel free to read or re-read and we’ll have a post-mortem in a week or two’s time!

Review – Camelot The Shining City, Sheffield Crucible (and beyond), 11th July 2015

Camelot the Shining CityWhen we go to Sheffield, gentle reader, we always like to go for a double-header – seeing a play in the afternoon and in the evening. With the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum all within a pixie’s bootie of each other, it’s not normally a challenge to find a suitable date on the calendar where at least two decent shows collide. I had really wanted to see The Effect – and I’m glad we did, because it was excellent. But what to combine it with? The only real option was Camelot The Shining City, which sounded intriguing with its promise of a cast of 150, with the audience following the action on foot from the Crucible theatre and onto the streets of Sheffield. Done well, it could be magic.

Outside the LyceumA co-production between Sheffield Theatres and Slung Low, specialists in open air/unusual places theatre, you quickly realise what a major undertaking this venture is. On arrival at the Crucible, friendly helpful ushers give you a mini-training session on how to use your headphones, as you will need them to hear what’s going on when you go outside for Acts 2 and 3. I’d already checked online in advance, and there were precious few seats left unoccupied – and indeed, when we entered the Crucible auditorium, headphones around our necks like DJs, umbrellas and coats at the ready for a potentially inclement Sheffield shower, I saw that the auditorium was fuller than I’d ever seen it before, even for major productions like My Fair Lady or Oliver! So the production is definitely tapping into some Zeitgeist or other.

Lyceum and Crucible togetherThe story begins. Bedivere is returned (from somewhere, to somewhere) and subjected to water torture and quite a lot of roughing up. We meet Bear, an attitudinal young lady who questions everything but joins a group of other young people sitting in a circle; representative of the Round Table, methinks. Bear has a tutor, Michael (I’m presuming he’s like a Merlin figure) who has a tough time keeping Bear on her books as she has visions of greatness, of leading her people into the fray and returning Sheffield to those bright days of yesteryear. She swears herself to chastity, which must be a bit of a disappointment to prospective boyfriend Luke; and she kills her General father. Michael has a degenerative disease and declines from active teacher to Stephen Hawking-lookalike within forty minutes. In amongst all these activities, every so often the stage is invaded by groups of soldiers, children, and other citizens, who march, stand, stare, look gloomy, then march off.

Fires are burningWithin about five minutes of the play starting, I was already totally confused. I understood that it was a modern take on the Arthurian legend (the clue was in the title), but even so, I didn’t get what was going on at all. I whispered to Mrs Chrisparkle, “I hope you’re following this?” to which she looked at me with bemused eyes and whispered back, “not a clue”. The speeches were all portentous and imbued with heavy significance, but lacked simple dramatic clarity. This became even more evident in the later acts when, now with our headphones in place, there were much wider spaces to look at, and whilst you were listening to someone speaking, you were looking here there and everywhere to find which actor was mouthing the same words.

War is ragingAs a result, new characters were being introduced, but you weren’t always able to identify them amongst the other 149 people around and about; and, to be honest, I couldn’t tell who half of them were. I got Galahad – I understood him. But there was another woman – who by process of elimination and clever use of the programme (but only after it was all over) – must have been Elaine, but her part in the story I never comprehended. There may have been yet another extra woman too, we weren’t sure. It struck me, whilst listening to the disembodied voices intoning these heavy, undramatic speeches, and without seeing who was talking, it was like listening to one of those really pretentious Radio 3 afternoon plays. You know the type – it probably has some literary merit if you want to look for it, and the characters speak with immaculate Standard English pronunciation, and it’s as tedious as all hell.

Bear is tyrannicalThere was also a real hotch-potch of events and elements to the play, especially in Act 2, where it seemed like the creative team just wanted to throw as much at the production as possible in the hope that some of it sticks. At times it was like watching a village fete, with the local children’s dancing teams being put through their paces; at other times it was like watching a hard hitting Channel 4 police drama, as a mob smash through the windscreen of a taxi. By the time we get to Act 3, it’s all-out war. A word of advice to anyone going to see the show – it’s vital that you position yourself for a good view of what’s going on when you get out and about onto the streets. You want the front row by the central railings in Act Two – as central as possible; and the front row of the raised lawn edge for Act Three. Don’t make the mistake we did of getting our coats on inside the Crucible when leaving Act One for Act Two. By the time we’d politely joined the queue to get out, all the decent places were taken.

BlastTia Bannon, who plays Bear, has a great stage presence, a lovely clear voice, and could melt your heart at twenty paces. This is her professional stage debut and I think she could well be One To Watch. She portrays pretty convincingly Bear’s journey from idealistic heroine to loopily self-aggrandised tyrant. I also liked Ed MacArthur as Luke – especially in Act One – you can really identify with how he surprises himself by striking it lucky to get the top girl, and he nicely brought out what little lightness and humour there was in the script. I don’t know if Oliver Senton, who played the General, had some kind of throat problem, but I felt that vocally he was underpowered. The majority of the rest of the cast are amateur/semi-professional and all gave a good account of themselves. It was just the ponderous ploddy script that let it down. So badly.

more warHalfway through Act Two I received a text. It was from Mrs C, standing in front of me. It read: “do we have 2 stay 4 the 3rd act?” I replied: “Ermmm”, although primarily my concern was her sudden decline into textspeak. I didn’t want to stay either; but the alternative would have been just drinking yet more Rioja than is probably good for us. So I vetoed the early departure, if only so I could see whether Act 3 would have more dramatic quality than Act 2. Answer: fractionally. We did however both agree it wouldn’t have been worth getting rained on for.

More blastsI’d loved to have loved it. And I’m more than happy to recognise the enormous effort that went into creating and performing it. Mrs C quoted back to me my old saying that I prefer to see a brave failure to a lazy success. True. However. There are limits. We don’t often hate shows, but this was one of them.

Review – The Effect, Studio at the Sheffield Crucible, 11th July 2015

The EffectLaughing in the face of M1 roadworks, we drove up to Sheffield for the third time this year for yet another Crucible-based theatre weekend. And what could be a more enjoyable and sociable way to start than by meeting up with Lady Lichfield and the young Duchess of Dudley at Wagamama for a yummy lunch of warm chilli chicken salad followed by white chocolate and ginger cheesecake. Add some Sauvignon Blanc into the mix et voilà! Instant delight.

The trialAll four of us headed off to the versatile little Crucible Studio, one of the best small acting spaces anywhere, which, rather like the Menier, lends its own personality to any production lucky enough to take place there. The Studio’s current offering is The Effect by Lucy Prebble, which won the Critics Circle award for Best New Play in 2013, when it was originally produced by the National Theatre. This is the first time I’ve seen anything by Ms Prebble – we missed ENRON, much to our dismay. But I can verify she is a writer of great wit and imagination, and that The Effect is a fascinating, thought-provoking play that intrigues, amuses and horrifies in equal measure.

Ophelia LovibondI’ve never been involved in a drug trial. I don’t think I know anyone who has been involved in a drug trial. And, having seen The Effect, I’m not sure I would ever want to. The scene is a science lab, where Connie and Tristan, amongst unseen others, have volunteered for a trial of a new drug, which will require their undivided presence and compliance for four long weeks. No mobile phones, no outside contact, and oppressed by near-constant supervision. Once Dr Lorna James, who’s in charge of the trial, has satisfied herself that the volunteers are indeed suitable for the task ahead, the experiment commences. Small dosages at first, followed by regularly rising dosages of the drug on trial appear to create side effects that the doctor and the Pharmaceutical company were not expecting; and Connie and Tristan fall in love. But is the trial all it seems? Is the doctor as in control as she seems? Is the pharmaceutical company as open about the trial as they seem? And is the future rosy for the two young lovers?

Henry PettigrewThe play is so beautifully and subtly written that you can interpret many of its events in different ways. For example, there’s the question of the placebo. If one of the clinical study participants is taking placebo rather than the drug, then it can’t be the drug that’s causing the side effect – can it? But maybe no one’s on placebo. Maybe it’s not only the drug that’s on trial here. And what happens if someone accidentally overdoses? Supposing one of the candidates hasn’t been fully truthful about their medical history? Supposing the pharmaceutical company and/or the doctor in charge have their own private agenda? How scientific can any trial be when you’re dealing with people, because people have their own emotions, foibles, secrets; and nothing can ever be 100% watertight. Can it? You’ll go on asking these questions for hours.

Interval time leftDaniel Evans’ direction suggests the audience are minor participants in the trial too. The stark white chairs on the stage are the same as the stark white chairs on which the audience sit. The computer readings are displayed on large screens in all four corners of the auditorium so no matter where you sit you can see them. The fifteen minute interval is counted down on a screen both inside and outside the auditorium, daring you to be late back after your half-time Pinot; nobody was, as we didn’t want to face short shrift from Dr James. All in all, you get a great sense of everyone participating in the same experiment; it’s a real shared experience.

Priyanga BurfordThe cast of four give outstanding performances, fully inhabiting the intricately drawn characters that Lucy Prebble has created. Ophelia Lovibond is simply stunning as Connie. Careful to conceal aspects of her current relationship and resentful of questions that she considers are too personal, she appears nevertheless willing to play the clinical trial game to the best of her ability. But you never quite know what her attitude to any event, any question, or any situation might be. You can read in her eyes as she processes new items of information, that she is working out what her reaction is going to be. My guess is that in every performance she is probably understanding anew each time what her character is going through; and you, the audience, are accompanying her on that rather savage journey. Emotional, anxious, uncomfortable; Ms Lovibond takes Connie through a gamut of reactions, before finally becoming a changed person; one with a purpose in life that she had previously lacked.

Stuart BunceShe is matched with an equally brilliant performance by Henry Pettigrew as Tristan. Where Connie is initially reserved and careful, Mr Pettigrew presents Tristan as an instantly self-confident, flirtatious charmer; a natural rule-breaker (not the kind of person you’d really want on a clinical trial!), a pusher of boundaries, a loveable rogue, with more than a side-dish of lock up your daughters about him. Mr Pettigrew interprets him as a really credible, adult version of a naughty schoolboy, encouraging other classmates to skip lessons and sneak off into an out-of-bounds area where they will get up to no good. MemoryTogether the two have a wonderful chemistry, and you’d swear they were either in love in real life or really, really good actors. As the play progresses and the balance of power between the two characters changes, so that Connie is more in control and Tristan’s fortunes have declined, the love still continues, albeit more in an “in sickness or in health” vein. Nevertheless, I note with amusement the first appearance of a stagey “masturbation under the bedclothes” scene since Miss Julie Walters did it to the late Richard Beckinsale in Mike Stott’s Funny Peculiar back in 1976; although if I remember rightly, her provision of erotic stimulation wasn’t limited just to her hand. You can’t beat a good “providing sex to a patient” scene for shock comic purposes.

Falling in loveConnie and Tristan are not the only twosome to have their problems in this play. There’s obviously been some history between Dr Lorna James and Toby of the Pharma. It’s never made totally clear quite what went on between them, but as a result Dr Lorna has something of a tenuous grasp on sanity; and, like Tristan, but in her own way, she too falls foul of the Pharma client. In a slightly heavy use of symbolism, Toby continues on, wrecking lives one way or another, where you might otherwise traditionally expect the drug company to look after people’s wellbeing. Priyanga Burford gives a mesmerising performance as Lorna, the doctor with a steely eye for the accuracy of the trial but who begins to fray around the edges as her ability to control comes into question. The aftermathAnd Stuart Bunce is splendidly disconnected as Toby, ostensibly reasonable and professional, but hurting too; and with just the right lack of empathy not to notice the trail of destruction in his wake.

A fascinating play, with first class performances in a stunning production. What’s not to like? It’s running until Saturday 18th July – unmissable.

The Agatha Christie Challenge

Mystery of the Invisible ThiefSo what’s the Agatha Christie challenge all about, I hear you ask? Let me explain, gentle reader. As a child I was a reasonably avid reader. Not as avid as some, but avider than others. My favourite author was Enid Blyton. Not so much the Famous Five or Secret Seven, I preferred what I referred to rather pompously as her “stand-alone novels”, like The Six Bad Boys or The Put-em-Rights. Of the “series” type books I liked the “Secret” ones – like the Secret Island, or the Secret Mountain. And I really loved The Five Find-Outers and Dog. It was my first exposure to detective fiction in print, and I found the genre instantly irresistible.

Agatha ChristieSadly, a time comes when you grow out of Enid Blyton. Every so often I would re-read the Five Find-Outers books to get that whodunit thrill. But I needed more. Then one day, I was off school, sick. I used to get terrible ear infections as a child, that would inevitably end up with my being prescribed double the adult strength dose of penicillin tablets (as a result my teeth are very striated). By the end of the week’s treatment, the penicillin would make me very moody and miserable. But to get some exercise, I used to accompany the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle on her daily trudge up the High Street in Wendover to do her grocery shopping. In the middle of all the shops was the newly opened library – a rather palatial place for its time. We popped in, with the intention of me finding something to while away my miserable time with sore ears. And that’s where I discovered Agatha Christie.

Margaret RutherfordMy only exposure to Mrs Christie at that stage had been the Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford. The Dowager loved them, and I caught her enthusiasm for them. The infectious theme tune, the outrageously over-the-top characterisation, and marvellous dénouement moments with lines like “I’ll have you know I was Ladies’ National Fencing Champion of 1931!” as the redoubtable old girl parry-riposted to save her life from the duelling murderer. But – as I was to discover – those films bore scant resemblance to any of the books, and Miss Rutherford’s interpretation of Miss Marple is, whilst totally brilliant, a complete fabrication of Mrs Christie’s original.

A Pocket Full of RyeBack to the library. They only had one Christie in stock – A Pocket Full of Rye. Hardback, grimy with previous perusers’ thumbprints, I selected it, took it home, and read it all in one day. I’m not sure quite how much of it I understood – I was only about 11, I think. But I got the drift, and I understood whodunit, although maybe not quite whydunit. But I was instantly hooked. Next time I went to the big bright shining metropolis of Aylesbury, I visited W H Smith and bought the two Christie paperbacks that looked most intriguing – At Bertram’s Hotel, and The ABC Murders. After they were read, I thought I’d tackle the book that was (allegedly) her masterpiece – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I went to a village fete and the bookstall there had three hardback Christies (sadly none with their dust jackets) – The Clocks, Crooked House, and They Came to Baghdad. Then I thought I ought to read her first book – The Mysterious Affair at Styles. And after that, I thought I’d just read whatever books came my way. I think I was in my early twenties when I’d finally read each and every one of them.

At Bertram's HotelSince then, I’ve had a regular ten-year treat. Every ten years or so, I decide to re-read all, or the majority of, her books. I did so in 1990; I did in 2001; but I realise I haven’t done so since. So I am well behind on this decade’s Christie Challenge. So I’m embarking on all the books again, and, if you can bear it, gentle reader, I’ll share my thoughts and feelings about each one as I go. As usual, I’ll re-read them in the order I originally read them. Thus I’m currently halfway through Pocket Full of Rye, and I must say, enjoying every minute! So please watch this space for some Christie blogs over the next few weeks/months/years. I’d be very happy to hear your comments about the books too, as we go. Looking forward to it!

Review – An Audience with Jimmy Savile, Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, 7th July 2015

An Audience with Jimmy SavileLike most people I would imagine, when I first heard that they were producing a play about Jimmy Savile, starring Alistair McGowan, it sounded to me like the height of tastelessness. We’ve all had our individual reactions to the Savile affair, from “I never liked him” and “I always liked him” to “he did all that charity work just to cover up his evil” and “but he did all that charity work, can he be that evil”; from “I never would have believed it” to “I always knew it” and a whole host of other reactions besides.

Park TheatreI also originally thought that taking on the role would be a kiss of death to Alistair McGowan’s career. It would have to be a superbly written and produced play to take the subject matter seriously and creatively enough not to cause any additional offence, and indeed, hopefully, to cast new light on it. Even then I thought there might be some kind of backlash. However, I think it was Mrs Chrisparkle who suggested we should see it because, after all’s said and done, it sounds utterly intriguing. It’s also on at the Park theatre, in Finsbury Park, which we hadn’t yet visited. So we booked.

Alistair McGowanBeing brought up in Wendover, near Aylesbury, Jimmy Savile was a fairly familiar sight in the 70s and 80s in our neck of the woods. He’d often go jogging the couple of miles from Stoke Mandeville to Wendover and back again, although he never came into the pub that my parents ran. After the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle retired, she started volunteering at the Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injuries Centre. As a result she frequently saw him there. I don’t think she had any knowledge of what he was getting up to, and although she found it amusing working side by side with a celebrity, and he used to refer to her as “My friend Violet”, she didn’t like him very much. On one occasion when she felt the supervisors had been hard on her for something she had or hadn’t done – I can’t remember the details – she appealed to him to intervene but he refused to take her side. Sadly the Dowager has suffered from dementia for the last eight years, so she doesn’t know what scandal was going on all around her – I’d have loved to have talked to her about it in light of the recent revelations.

Robert PerkinsLike most people of my age, I grew up with Savile on the radio and TV. I was one of those youngsters who really liked him. I particularly used to look forward to his Double Top Ten Show on Radio 1 on Sunday lunchtimes, and I have no doubt he was a gifted broadcaster. I wasn’t too much enamoured with Jim’ll Fix It – it was ok, but a bit “goody-two-shoes” for my taste. Retrospectively, that’s ironic, isn’t it? By the time he was in his 80s he certainly looked like a parody of himself. He seemed generally grumpier – and vainer – but yes, when he died, I felt a pang of sorrow.

Leah WhitakerI’m dwelling on those memories and personal thoughts because that’s precisely what you have to juggle with when you watch Jonathan Maitland’s Audience with Jimmy Savile. From my side perch in Row A of the circle at the Park 200 (fantastic view by the way) it was equally fascinating to witness the audience’s ongoing reactions to the play as it was to watch the play itself. Savile was, and as a spectre still is, loathsome, evil, calculating, manipulative, cruel, heartless, vicious; in fact, if you think of any adjective with negative overtones, he probably falls into that category. So to watch an audience, watching a play, where a much-loved TV presenter is falling over himself with niceness, to present a tribute programme to that wretch, is fairly strenuous on the nausea reflux. When Savile comes out with quips and jokes, those trademark catchphrases and his avuncular (shudder) approaches to any “young ladies” in the audience, where once they would have been greeted with polite and/or knowing titters, the Park audience watch him in stony silence, arms crossed, mouths rooted in downturned disapproval. As you can imagine, Alistair McGowan’s impersonation of Savile is top notch quality, Charlotte Pagewhich makes his direct looks and asides to the audience even more uncomfortable to deal with. He almost challenges some audience members to react; they don’t; he turns away and carries on with his speech; the audience member feels the heat is off and they smile guiltily to their companions. It’s a fascinating study of an audience under pressure.

Graham SeedAt 85 minutes, with no interval, this play is one of the few instances when I think having no interval is a good thing. You don’t want the audience discussing it amongst themselves half-time and openly deciding how to deal with it; this is challenging, go-it-alone audience territory. The play takes the structure of one of those flattering and adulatory TV endurance tests, “An Audience With….” I’m sure you’ve seen them. An Audience with some ageing star beyond their best but still with a reasonably fond personal following, where they meet old friends and acquaintances, and other stars “in the bizness”, who say hideously nice things about their target. In Jonathan Maitland’s take on this format, as the show (within a show) progresses, you get to realise first-hand that this eccentric, charitable and amusing Sir Jimmy, OBE, is in fact a bully, an abuser of young women, violent in both deed and word, and has dubious friends to say the least. Scenes of this “accolade” show are interspersed with the developing story of Lucy, raped by Savile whilst she was in hospital at the age of 12. You see her battling to convince her father that her allegations are true, approaching a newspaper editor with her story, and his subsequent dealings with Savile; coping with an unwilling police force who are more keen to point out that she will be ripped apart in court than to consider the victim or the crime itself; and finally confronting Savile with the truth about what he did.

Cast in rehearsalI had read reviews before seeing the play that suggested that opinions were divided as to the play itself. Some thought it was challenging and well written, others thought it was completely lacking in drama. Personally, I thought it was oozing with drama from the start. At the beginning you have Savile, in control, in demand, in excelsis almost, contrasted with Lucy, unable to finish sentences without crying. By the end, Lucy is in control, challenging Savile directly, firmly and assertively making her point; whereas we’ve seen Savile decline, both physically and reputatively, through his associations, his dressing-room activities, his argumentative and defensive interviews, and his final visible lack of control. The play is very nicely balanced, cunningly written to reflect Savile’s own cunningly constructed answers to difficult questions, and with a final scene that Mrs C found extremely moving.

Leah Whitaker in rehearsalAt the heart of the play is Alistair McGowan’s performance – a fantastic impersonation, but never played for laughs; this is serious drama and Mr McGowan gives us Savile’s voice saying the kind of things we never heard him say in real life. So this is not mere impersonation but a full characterisation of an evil man, barely concealing his evil from an adoring public. I really enjoyed Mr McGowan’s performance – after the initial shock (for there definitely is one) of seeing Savile almost alive again, I found myself smiling at Mr McGowan’s portrayal of his eccentricities because they are cleverly done and they do bring you back to a time when one used to find Savile funny. I felt as though I ought to stop smiling, in honour of those people whom he abused. But that’s one of the tricky things about challenging drama – you never quite know how you’re going to react until you’re actually confronted with it. In my defence, I also found his portrayal quite disgusting too – the tacky shell suit, the unkempt straggly hair; and there’s a final scene where he’s removed his track suit bottoms and is just in a pair of short shorts, which goes to emphasise the lascivious threat he could pose to anyone weaker than himself. Thoroughly unpleasant – but superbly well done.

Downstairs barLeah Whitaker gives a very strong and heartbreaking performance as Lucy, picking up the pieces of a ruined life, and permanently running aground each time she seems to get closer to justice. I found her compelling and emotional, a very thoughtfully and honestly portrayed representation of a typical Savile victim, if there is such a thing. Robert Perkins was excellent in many of the supporting roles; I particularly liked him as the Newspaper Editor (where he reminded me slightly of Max Clifford, which is bizarre in itself), and as Savile’s slimy pal Ray Teret, lending great credibility to the old saying about how you can judge a person’s character by the company they keep. Charlotte Page also gave great support, especially as Alice, the researcher who’s also the recipient of Savile’s odious attention, D S Goldstein where she tries her hardest to be supportive to Lucy but also has to make her face unwelcome facts; and as Clare, the Stoke Mandeville representative, unctuously blinded by Savile’s celebrity, almost eerily serenading him with a quick blast of the Jim’ll Fix It theme. The final member of the cast is the splendid Graham Seed, as Savile’s TV inquisitor Michael Sterling, more concerned about how he himself will look on camera than posing any really searching questions to Savile.

Upstairs barThere’s no doubt this is an uncomfortable and challenging play to watch, but it really helps you, the audience member, come to terms with how you feel about Savile; and you definitely come out of the theatre with a greater appreciation of the personal tragedies he caused and the way he manipulated the media and society to get what he wanted. Strangely enjoyable, and for all the right reasons. Plus Mrs C and I are delighted to have discovered the Park theatre, and can’t wait for another excuse to go!

Review – Immune, Royal and Derngate Young Company CREATE, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 4th July 2015

ImmuneWhen I booked for this production a number of months ago, it was just called “A New Play”. But I had already come to the conclusion that you can really trust the Royal and Derngate’s Young Company to deliver top quality entertainment through the power of drama, performed with maturity beyond their years. So I was happy for them to surprise me with their new offering, no matter what it might be.

Production photosOver the course of the last year the Young Company has divided in two – the Immerse group worked with the Actors’ Company on Aftermath, a play that explored Northampton’s involvement in the First World War, and most recently Kontakt, where individual members of the audience sat at a desk opposite a young actor, for a private yet shared fifty minute journey of personal transactions. Both were wonderful productions. For Immune, the Create group has workshopped various methods of story-telling and direct address on stage and fed back to writer Oladipo Agboluaje for him to start working on this “new play”. In addition, two other groups of young actors, from the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, have been through the same process, to help create a brand new work which will have three individual productions at each of the theatres, each with their own director, set designer, and sound designer. So this is not a touring production, but a different realisation of the same play by three different creative groups. It would be really fascinating to see them all.

Picked-on CraigSo what’s Immune all about then? A day that starts very ordinarily, and ends very extraordinarily. Monday morning at school. The fights and the friendships. The fancyings and the funnies. The secrets and the rivalries. The mates and the gossips. It’s a school, but it could be any environment where a group of people are made to spend the day together – on a course, in an office, on a holiday tour, and so on. You know to expect the intertwined relationships, and the typical characters. The girl who says nothing. The boy who follows Jesus. The girl who’s the brainbox. The boy who’s always picked on. The girl who knows that shaking out her hair makes her look attractive. The boy who is only known for being a knobhead. They’re all here.

ResponsibilitiesSo this very ordinary day starts with all their usual interactions, but particularly going through the videos that they have (or haven’t) filmed for Creativity Day at the end of the week. Then they have to go to boring Mr Brown for a boring chemistry lesson. Two boys start a fight (as they do) which causes some chemicals to be knocked over. They react (the chemicals, not the boys) and create smoke and gas, there’s a flurry of coughing and gasping, but with the windows finally opened, it seems as though there’s no harm done. But then they find that one of the class has received acid burns, and is in hospital; and later on, there are more serious – not to say apocalyptic – repercussions for other school members, and the wider environment; for the town; for the country. One ordinary day. One tiny mistake. One apocalypse. It could happen.

FightsTechnically it’s both a demanding and rewarding production, with the cast being called on constantly to change the scenery themselves, wheeling panels around, locking boxes into place, sliding doors together, all in full view of the audience, and all done with immaculate calm and accuracy. In performance, I also really loved the device whereby the whole cast stand up and chant together the lines of the otherwise unseen teachers and adults. It created a nice distinction between the reality of the human emotions raging through the main characters and the almost robotic and anonymous other characters, devoid of emotion. Very effective.

LaughterThe Young Company have once again worked hard to give us a tremendous performance, with great insight into the characterisations, some wonderful comic timing, and a real feel for the horror of the apocalypse. They work together as a terrific ensemble, and are very supportive and generous to each other on stage. If you’ve seen any of them before in previous productions, it’s very rewarding to appreciate their progress both as performers and as people. For instance, over four years ago we saw Luke Nunn (who plays Samson) in The Years Between, a rather spellbinding Daphne du Maurier story about a war widow who discovers she isn’t. Master Nunn was excellent in that, and today Mr Nunn is developing into a really assured and talented actor. Immune requires a lot of direct interaction with the audience, and he has that ability to take us into his confidence, as if he’s only talking to you, down to a Tee. Jakub Madej, who played (correct me if I’m wrong) the communist Dmitri in Aftermath, brings his imposing stage presence and superbly projected voice to the role of Albert, the workshy fantasist member of class. There’s a genuinely funny and realistic performance by Owen Howard as the hapless Craig, pretty much useless at everything, but a true survivor, (that is, if any of them do…). And possibly the most natural performer of the whole cast is Jarzinho Rapoz as Eric, who communicates instantly motivation, characterisation and thought processes with just one simple roll of the eyes or jokey facial expression. Definitely one to watch.

Teachers v CraigEsme Joy Allen is a complete scene stealer with her brilliant performance as Bella, desperate to get Peter’s attention, fully aware of how she can manipulate and influence others, but as vulnerable as anyone else when the chemical spillage gets out of hand. I really liked Scarlett Jordan as Denise, big on intelligence and big on hair, very convincingly expressing that sense of power you assume when people think you are a natural leader, but without being big-headed about it. When she discovers that the problem is more than she alone can solve, her sense of inadequacy is painful – and engrossing – to watch; great characterisation. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed that probably the best performance of all came from Bethany Priddy as the eloquent and emotional Bonnie, trying to protect her dad’s reputation (even though she knows he’s in the wrong), and confronted by what actually happens to him as a result of the apocalyptic nightmare. A technically terrific, and really moving performance. But all the cast members gave wonderful performances and contributed to a very entertaining, not to mention scary, evening. Congratulations to everyone involved.

Any hope for the future?So all in all, a gripping production combining a very likeable and talented cast with an excellent play, both funny and frightening. It’s finished its run at the Royal and Derngate now, but it is still to play at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 23-25 July and the Theatre Royal Plymouth from 19-22 August. If the play has one message, it is – I guess – that you should live each day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right. Cherish your relationships, make peace with your enemies and be true to yourself. Don’t get bitter about the pathetic little things – there’s a bigger picture out there, and that’s the one that really counts. Oh, and always keep the windows open and don’t knock over the chemicals.

Independent Traders of Northampton – Independence Day Independents’ Day Fair at the Guildhall – 4th July 2015

Love Northampton FairIf you’ve read my previous two blog posts, gentle reader, you’ll know that last Saturday was not only Independence Day in the USA but also Independents’ Day in Northampton, when 30 or so local businesses stalled out in the beautiful setting of the Guildhall to promote their products and services and to tempt us with their food and drink. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were keen to try out any freebies on offer (we are only human, after all) and to learn about any local traders whom we haven’t yet discovered.

In the GuildhallI did feel a little sorry for all the different people who were getting married that day as they posed on the steps for their photos whilst us punters tried to sneak past them – but there was also the courtyard access to the side which meant we didn’t disrupt them too much. Some very eclectic weddings took place whilst we were there; one had a vintage VW Campervan as their vehicle, all ribboned up and gleaming, whilst another had a vehicle breakdown pick-up truck! Maybe their original car broke down en route.

The first stall we discovered that was offering something new (for us at least) was Bite Me Spices, a little company that creates a wide range of blended spices, perfect if you’re into your home cooking of Asian dishes. We’re more the ping-a-microwave-meal or go out for dinner types, but were very taken with their range of sauces which ranged from the subtle to the well-spicey. Everything they supply is gluten-free, which is heaven to Mrs C’s ears. So we bought a three-pack of spices and look forward to trying them. Their website has several tasty-looking recipes too.

In the courtyardStill in food mode, out in the courtyard was an enticing looking stall with food from Nuovo and Papa Cino’s. Twice we huddled around this stall trying to get a look-in, but other determined food tasters got there first so we never actually got the chance to try. Obviously the keenness of the other customers told its own story. Instead we moved on to the stall from the Dining Room, part of the complex at the Mackintosh House at 78 Derngate. They were promoting their afternoon teas, with a special discount of 20% off for Midweek bookings until 1st August. As well as the traditional afternoon tea, they also offer afternoon tea with Pimms and afternoon tea with Prosecco. We thought of a number of friends who would find that a sheer pleasure. It’s essential to book in advance, and if you tell them in advance about any food allergies, they will cater for that too. Looks lovely!

The stall from NN Café were offering a range of delicious coffee frappés. We’d never tried this before but gave it a go. Mrs C loves an iced tea – personally I think they’re revolting, so I was a little unsure about this. But it was great, like a coffee flavoured milk shake. I had mine flavoured with gingerbread, Mrs C had hers with caramel. I think on balance the caramel won, but they were both excellent. We sat in the courtyard under the sun and had a very restful quarter of an hour with our drinks.

Wine ConnectionBack inside we noticed all the local producers of booze were attracting a lot of attention. In addition to Phipps Brewery, there were Two Birds, the gin and vodka makers from Market Harborough offering all their little bottles of flavoured yumminess, Warner Edwards, whose Rhubarb gin we had heard a lot about – and tasted, and it is sensational; and Saxby’s, who had a selection of three local ciders to try – one traditional apple cider, one with added blackcurrant juice and another with added plum juice – that was my particular favourite. We bought half-a-dozen to keep us happy on the warm summer nights ahead. And there was of course plenty of wines to taste at the Wine Connection’s stall – the independent wine shop at 11 Derngate – with the promise of a further tasting of Portuguese wines back at their shop (which we enjoyed on the way home). One of the wines we tasted was a rosé Sancerre – we all agreed it was To Die For.

We spoke to the people at Haycock and Tailbar, the trendy underground cocktail/supper room at 15 Derngate, and salivated at the prospect of their fantastic sounding steaks. We met a lady from Alflora Luxe Gifts, at 18 Market Walk, and were particularly impressed with their stunning bouquets and floral gifts. There were plenty of ladies’ accessories on offer from the people at Voni Blu, The Dressing Room, and the Wardrobe; cheeses from St Giles Cheese, and even a massage service – but I can’t remember who offered that! We spoke to a man who was promoting ginger sweets, perfect for settling those upset tummies you get on holiday (we bought a couple of boxes in advance for our next India trip, although I think they may all be eaten before then because they’re really tasty too) – you can buy those in the Northampton Health Store at 50 The Drapery.

ChataAnd there was a stall from the Polish restaurant, the Chata, in St Giles Street, where I tried some of their new offerings that will be part of a new “Polish Breakfast” range. Simply mixed together and served on a biscuit, they were sensational. One was a combination of mackerel and cream cheese – delicious – the other also included a cheddar cheese and some onion, and that one was just heaven. I’m going to be down there like a shot when they start selling those. They had some gluten-free cheesecake for Mrs C – always a pleasure – and I tried some of their strawberry cake too, which was moist and flavoursome and yummy.

So I hope you enjoyed the fair if you managed to get to the Guildhall on Saturday afternoon – we certainly didn’t need any extra lunch, with all those tasty offerings! It certainly showed the wide range of independent traders we have in Northampton, and the high quality of their products, services and know-how. As a result, we certainly have many more ideas about where to shop and what to buy in future!