Having discovered White Cobra Productions back in April when we saw their jolly Shakespeare Revue, I was keen to see what other tricks they had up their sleeve. For their current show, September in the Rain, they have left behind the world of song and dance and gone for a traditional two-hander play, written by John Godber. It was first produced back in 1983, and is largely drawn on and inspired by his own grandparents’ lives, and their annual sojourn to Blackpool for their holidays. I usually associate John Godber with more rough and ready settings, like Bouncers or Up ‘n’ Under, so to discover this rather gentle and Alan Bennett-esque play was a very pleasant surprise.
We meet Liz and Jack, an elderly Yorkshire couple, preparing to go on their week’s trip to Blackpool, and, as they reminisce about previous holidays, the play takes us back to their younger days so that we can relive many of their experiences with them. The play becomes an amalgamation of several holidays, which, whilst there are occasional sunny days, mainly reflect several Septembers in the rain (hence the title). We see their fondness for particular guest houses; fish and chip suppers (mainly takeaway, occasionally the treat of an eat-in), dealing with the donkeys on the beach; memories of their children doing daft things; and it’s all interlaced with an elaborate sequence of bickering that acts as a cement to their entire relationship.
This is one of those plays which triggers your mind and memory into recollections of events in your own childhood. We never used to go to Blackpool as a kid (far too Northern for the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s liking) but we would go to Devon, or Bournemouth, or Ramsgate; and, as Liz and Jack encourage their kids to be the first to spot the Blackpool tower from the car, we always had the race to see who could be first to spot the sea. I remember the long walks along the beaches; my dad in a deckchair barely taking off his tie; tickets for the end of the pier show; sharing tables with other holidaymakers (sometimes nice, sometimes tedious); staying up late to watch Match of the Day in the guest house’s TV lounge – televisions in your room were just unheard of! Just as Liz and Jack’s daughter Pam sings at a seaside talent show, I remember being entered for the Butlins Bognor Picture of Health contest, amongst dozens of others equally bored children. I didn’t win. I also remember being forced to wear those ghastly pacamacs that Liz and Jack sport because of the inevitable downpours associated with the English summertime. I quake with embarrassment at the memory of being caught out in the rain on the Isle of Wight one year with no rain hat (shock horror) and the only alternative the Dowager could find for me in the local shops was…. a tea cosy. I spent the afternoon with this ****ing tea cosy on my head in case I caught a cold. I should have phoned Childline.
I don’t think Liz and Jack would have been that cruel to their kids – instead they would have saved their verbal cruelty for each other. I doubt if there would be anyone who’d been on a family holiday as a kid who hadn’t witnessed their parents rip each other to shreds like Liz and Jack do. Because that generation worked really hard, and laboriously, and probably only had one week off a year, the pressure to enjoy themselves on the annual summer holiday was really intense. There’d be months and months of happy expectation, and then it would be all over in a flash. And of course holidays are never that perfect, and travel plans always go amiss somewhere along the line. So while Jack takes a relaxed and practical view of the travel plans, Liz is frantic with packing, traffic, the weather, the destination, and every minutiae in between. Once they reached Blackpool, it would be Jack’s turn to get agitated when things go wrong – the room too small, the waiter too handsome, the donkey too flea-ridden. Hs method of complaining would be virtual fisticuffs, much to the embarrassment of Liz who would far sooner see it out in silence – until she got Jack on her own, that is.
It’s a very funny, charming and nostalgic play, and you feel Kate Billingham and Richard Jordan get right to the heart of their characters. There’s something of the Olivia Colman in Kate Billingham’s portrayal of a woman who normally manages to stay just on the safe side of high anxiety but will erupt when pushed. We both loved how you could see how one little word or action would slowly but inexorably turn her from Seaside Sunshine to Tyrantosaurus Rex. I also really enjoyed her voice and characterisation for their dining companion, all toothily smirking and snaffling the last biscuit. Richard Jordan too was perfect as the taciturn Jack, in his old age rarely needing to add more to a conversation than a considered “aye” or a risky “nay”, grimacing at the world going by, not miserably, just elderly. There were some lovely exchanges between the two – for example, an excruciatingly funny scene in the deckchairs when Liz kept on insisting that Jack took various clothes off to enjoy the sun whilst he was perfectly happy minding his own business fully clad – she would have tried the legendary patience of a saint. There’s another great scene where Liz’s travel anxiety causes a car accident – I’m pretty sure Mrs Chrisparkle recognised something from her own childhood there; a memorable moment where Jack gets his own back at Liz from the top of the Blackpool Tower; and their final scene where they go back into the pub for one last drink is very heart-warming.
It’s all neatly and simply staged, with just a few chairs, props and sound effects to awaken, in the audience’s mind, their own childhood holiday memories, both affectionate and otherwise. The backdrop slides that revealed different aspects of and locations around Blackpool weren’t really necessary as our imagination did all that work for us – although I did like the image of the Ford Popular. A very charming and funny performance of a very moving and endearing play, it’s on at the cosy and intimate Playhouse theatre in Northampton until Saturday 3rd October, and then has some touring dates later in October and November which you can find here. Definitely worth catching!
The prospect of the return of Hairspray the Musical filled Mrs Chrisparkle and me with delight. We loved the original show in 2008 with Michael Ball and Leanne Jones, and remember leaving the theatre energised and upbeat. The original film, too, is a heap of fun, with the amazing Divine as Edna – casting that thereby required all future Ednas to be played by a bloke. One quick check of the creative team for this revival tells you you’re in the safest of hands, with Leicester’s Paul Kerryson directing, top-of-his-game Drew McOnie choreographing, and a cast of huge talent. So it was no surprise that the Derngate was packed to the rafters with an almost full house on Monday night for its first performance in Northampton.
I’m sure you know the story, but in a nutshell: “pleasingly plump” Tracy Turnblad longs to be a TV star but she has neither the figure nor the middle class background to break into the big time. When she tries to audition for Corny Collins’ music and dance show she comes up against the ruthless producer Velma whose sole ambition is to get her pretty but obnoxious daughter Amber into the limelight, primarily by fixing her to win the “Miss Teenage Hairspray” title. But Tracy’s natural vivacity and talent shine through and when Corny sees her perform he insists on her being in the show. We’re talking 1962 Baltimore, and there’s racial segregation everywhere you look. Prim parents, like that of Tracy’s best mate Penny, refer to “race music”, and the prejudiced Velma has an “all-white” policy for the show. One day a month is “Negro day”, when the black performers are allowed to take to the stage – no other time. Tracy tries to use her new influence to break down this barrier by organising a protest march for all the dancers on the show to demand full integration between the races. When the march gets out of hand, the police are called, they’re all arrested, but “the new Elvis”, Link, sneaks into the prison and helps Tracy escape so that she can get back to the studio just in time to win “Miss Teenage Hairspray”. In the end, segregation becomes integration in what turns out to be a very moral story where good wins through and evil is defeated.
There’s so much to enjoy this production, and a good night was had by all despite some technical problems, no doubt related to the fact that this was its first night on tour. Given that it’s Paul Kerryson in charge, perhaps surprisingly the majority of problems are down to the staging. We were in the middle of row F of the stalls – and I spoke to a friend who was in the side stalls in Row K – and we both had the same problem: you can see far too much of what’s going on in the wings. Now, you might expect that if you’re right on the edges of the seating plan; and sometimes a little hint of what’s going on is quite exciting from a stagecraft point of view. But this level of movement was distracting. The problem is that the side drapes don’t hang low enough to mask what’s going on – maybe because of the two platforms that get wheeled on and off at the sides, representing the Turnblads’ house and Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop. The band are also positioned at the back of the set, which means from time to time they are in full view, normally something that would lend an added, exciting dynamic; but during the course of the evening I looked up at them occasionally and when some band members were not playing their instruments, they simply looked bored! So that really didn’t work. I also felt that the scenery representing the prison was distracting, as it flew in and out of position just a bit too often; and I also didn’t realise that the place where Seaweed and his pals hung out was meant to be a record shop; I thought it was just a street.
Hopefully the technical issues will get quickly ironed out – there were, for example, too many moments when actors were performing unlit, and where the pauses between scenes were too long. Fortunately, the cast coped with the problems admirably; particular kudos to Jon Tsouras for deftly switching from hand-held mic to no mic and back again without a flicker of an eyebrow. I must say though this is the first time I’ve ever seen a dancer (no names, no pack drill) come on stage in a pair of trousers at least three sizes too small for him, unzipped and unbuttoned up at the top, do a few moves and then run off, not to reappear for the rest of the scene. What on earth happened there?! Had he put on someone else’s trousers? Despite that, I thought Takis’ costume design for the show was first rate, providing a stage billowing with primary colours and creating some enormously snazzy shirts and jackets of which I was thoroughly jealous.
Talking of dancing, and dancers, this is one area in which this production absolutely excels. Drew McOnie’s choreography is sparky and funny, and reaches out to the audience with a huge pair of open arms and welcomes us in. He creates dances that manage to tell a story, even within the context of a big show number, in a way that other choreographers would just create something that looks pretty. It was his choreography for the song “Run and Tell That” that was so instantly captivating and that matched perfectly the creativity of his dancers, that made you feel you were watching something really special. The whole dance ensemble are fantastic, but amongst them there is one Layton Williams, whom we saw in Lord of the Flies, who is just an amazing dancer, and for whom I predict Really Great Things.
Of course the role of Edna is really larger-than-life, and Tony Maudsley has some very big shoes to fill when you consider other performers who have taken the role before him. When he first appeared on stage, I was completely thrown as he was the spitting image of my Nan in the 1970s. Even their gravelly voices were similar. He plays Edna more demurely than I would have expected; very respectful of her maternal role, and not remotely playing up the drag aspect. I was unsure of this interpretation at first, but it worked particularly well with the show-stopping “You’re Timeless to Me”, as his surprisingly refined and elegant Edna provides a great contrast with Peter Duncan’s cheeky-chappie portrayal of Wilbur. With Mr Duncan cutting a diminutive figure in comparison to Mr Maudsley’s statuesque Edna, it was a bit like Tigger romancing Winnie-the-Pooh’s granny. I didn’t expect to have to say this, but I still think he could brighten up (maybe even camp up) his more glamorous appearances; in particular his final entrance didn’t quite have a sufficiently outrageous wow factor for me. Mr Duncan is, however, pitch-perfect throughout, conveying just the right mix of parental kindliness and general facetiousness that you would expect a joke shop proprietor-father to have.
Freya Sutton is a great Tracy; full of teenager enthusiasm, hopelessly infatuated with pop stars and delightfully open-minded and unprejudiced. She sings with great strength and charm and can turn in some wicked dance moves too. There’s a cracking performance from Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle, putting all her heart and soul (and then some more) into that big rousing number; and a funny yet very strong musical performance from Monique Young as Tracy’s dorky friend Penny, who graduates from Ugly Duckling to Beautiful Swan in front of our eyes. Jon Tsouras cuts a charismatic dash as Corny Collins, nicely massaging away the fixed grin from his face whenever the camera is turned off, and there’s excellent support from both Adam Price and Tracey Penn as the two “authority figures”. Lauren Stroud is a splendidly smart-arsey Amber, the perfect representation of what you become when you’re spoilt rotten as a child. I thought Ashley Gilmour rather underplayed the role of Link Larkin; I’m not sure I could see him as the next Elvis, to be honest, and you couldn’t really tell when he was being a louse and when a hero. There was an unintentionally hilarious moment when he came through the audience to rescue Tracy from prison. Waving his torch in all directions he called out “where are you?” to which an audience member replied “here!” and we all had to stifle our giggles.
I always love it when I see A Star Is Born performance – and this show has one in the form of Dex Lee as Seaweed. We’ve already seen him once in the incredible Scottsboro Boys but in Hairspray he absolutely shines and confirms he is a brilliant song and dance man. His voice, his dancing and his enormously likeable stage presence make for a winning combination; and he and Monique Young made a really charming young couple together. There were also brilliant contributions from the three Dynamite girls, Vanessa Fisher, Aiesha Pease and Bobbie Little. They looked gorgeous, sang like a dream and danced their little socks off.
Of course the show has lots of amazingly entertaining moments, none more exhilarating than its brilliant finale – You Can’t Stop the Beat – which, as Mrs C pointed out, is worth the ticket fee alone, and which guarantees you leave the theatre in the bounciest of moods. It also has some hard-hitting and poignant moments where it exposes the racial segregation system of the time, and its occasional uncomfortable scenes stand out as moments of telling dramatic tension. Once it’s taken a couple of days to bed in this is going to be a really slick show – fingers crossed for no more technical failures! It’s on a pretty massive UK tour right round to next May, so if you’re local to Malvern, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester, Wimbledon, Bradford, Southampton, Ipswich, Brighton, Birmingham, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Inverness, Bristol, Woking, Cardiff, Norwich, Milton Keynes, Canterbury or Stoke, I’m sure you’ll have a great time!
You can’t have enough of the Trocks, so hot on the pointe heels of last week’s show, we returned on Saturday to see their second programme, much of which will form their touring show which lasts from 6th October till 11th November. Unusually for the great traditions of Russian ballet, there was only one chyange to the yadvyertised pryogryamme, with Miss Nadia Doumiafeyva performing the role of Mystery Woman drinking at a table in Don Quixote. As usual Miss Natasha Notgoodenoff was winging her way on a mission of mercy, this time to support the ailing ballerinas at Les Grands Ballets de Croydon; and all of the ballerinas were, once again, in a very good mood that afternoon.
We started off with Les Sylphides, with our prima ballerinas in fine form, strutting their wonderful stuff, occasionally kicking each other over, bumping into each other, running to get into position, and being breathtakingly graceful whilst dealing with their avoirdupois. They were also having to negotiate their way around Sergey Legupski (Giovanni Goffredo) who had clearly taken a mixture of co-codamol and Sovietski Champagnski and was more than a danger to shipping. It’s a very funny piece, but actually what really stood out for me was the extraordinary pointe work throughout – it’s flawless, elegant and amazingly powerful. That’s the Trocks in a nutshell: outrageously hilarious, rivetingly technically brilliant.
After the first interval comes Patterns in Space, and it’s the first time we’ve seen this piece since we first started coming to see the Trocks sometime back in the last century. In a fantastically woven mickey-take of Merce Cunningham, three splendidly earnest Trocks cavort, spin, exercise, leap and do everything else in between, in a totally random and meaningless dance sequence. Meanwhile, two on-stage po-faced musicians provide the backing accompaniment, by, inter alia, popping bubble wrap, rustling paper bags, and playing the National Anthem on the kazoo. Stupid and hilarious, you spend the entire time watching the antics of the demure Miss Lariska Dumbchenko (Raffaele Morra) and the wretched Mr Yuri Smirnov (Robert Carter) cack-handedly creating sounds out of nothing, whilst you totally ignore the brilliant dancing. One to file under The Most Wicked Parodies Ever.
Next comes another real favourite, Go For Barocco. To the urgent, driving rhythms of the Brandenburg Concertos, six stalwart Trocks in sensible black dresses bump and grind their way around the stage in an athletic and funny routine that really fits the music perfectly. At times the music gets so fast that all they can do to keep up is to power-walk across the stage, which always cracks me up. It shows off all their incredible dancing skills whilst constantly injecting it with off-the-wall movements, creating a really rewarding comic ballet.
As always at the Trocks, for a special treat, one of the ballerinas will graciously consent to execute the Dying Swan for us. This time it was the vivacious and outgoing Miss Maria Paranova (Carlos Renedo), who brought out all the frantic concerns and bodily dysfunctions of a watery fowl on her last legs. She milked it for all it was worth, if that’s not too much of a mixed metaphor for you. People who clearly hadn’t seen it before were in tears of laughter. Wonderful stuff.
The programme ends with the (relatively) grandly staged Don Quixote, which we have actually seen performed by the Moscow City Ballet and it’s a perfect piece for the Trocks to lampoon. The stage is filled with an assortment of odd-bods, all of whom display their little Trockisms from time to time, just in case you’d actually forgotten you weren’t at a proper Russian ballet. As the performance develops you end up completely entranced by the pas de deux of Kitri – Miss Yakatarina Verbosovich (Chase Johnsey) and Basil – Vyacheslav Legupski (Paolo Cervellera). Their solos are simply outstanding and left the Peacock theatre audience enraptured for more.
Perfect if you like ballet; perfect if you like to laugh; if you like to combine the two, they can’t be beaten. Their UK tour continues to Newcastle, Southampton, Canterbury, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Inverness, Bradford, Nottingham, Brighton, Salford and Birmingham. What are you waiting for!
Something very strange was happening at the Screaming Blue Murder comedy night last Friday. For some reason, the atmosphere was really flat. We had a reasonably good-sized audience; regular host Dan Evans was on excellent form; it wasn’t even as though we had a bunch of tee-totallers in with unlubricated chuckle muscles. There was just something lacking. Maybe we all got spooked by the fact that the majority of the front row were police officers. I’m sure they were off duty; and I know for a fact they like a laugh as much as anyone. But I could already tell before Dan did his microphone stand audience response swingometer routine that it was going to be tough going to get much of a response.
We’d seen all three acts before, but I remembered them as all being very good so I hoped that the audience would still react well to them. The quiet atmosphere sadly didn’t suit our first act, James Dowdeswell, who we’ve seen twice before and had gone down a storm both times. He was our headline act on both those occasions and maybe his material works better a little later on in the evening. He still delivered his canny, witty observations with his usual quiet aplomb but they just didn’t make an impact. Plenty to smile at, but not many guffaws. Nevertheless, James gamely carried on to polite applause at the end.
When we came to our second act, Diane Spencer, whom we’d seen back in 2011, I feared the worst. The audience still seemed relatively unresponsive and she started off with a knob gag which bombed; and her surprise at its failure was very obvious. But then she did a very clever thing. She went straight for the clean material, and it started to work. She’d uncovered the fact that, as it seemed to me, the audience was a bunch of prudes. It was only when she’d won our attention and respect with her DIY routine and her stuff about gingers that everything else fell into place. She was really funny, and by the time we got to the end of her act she’d properly loosened up our inhibitions and shown us that it was perfectly acceptable to laugh at carpet burns during sex material. It must have felt like hard work for her at times, but it really paid dividends. We all went into the second interval as much happier bunnies.
We’d also seen our final act, Earl Okin, before, and by the time he came on we were ready for some big laughs. Mr Okin’s persona of being an unlikely sex symbol, together with the relaxed pace of his act of musical parody, hit our assembled funnybones like an accurately struck reflex hammer. I could imagine on some other nights that something more in-your-face and wise-cracking might have been what the people want, but for us weird bunch his subtle, teasing act was just perfect. It takes a lot of confidence to reduce a room to tears of laughter by creating jazz instrument sound effects, but he does it!
Next Screaming Blue in two weeks – here’s hoping for a more “normal” crowd!
It had been several months since we’d seen a film – for me it’s a very easy habit to get out of – so in an attempt to kickstart some moviegoing, I booked to see Gemma Bovery. We’d seen its star Gemma Arterton in Made in Dagenham last Christmas and she was ace – and our paths have crossed(-ish) more recently, more about which I cannot possibly say at this stage. (Although I will later.) So I was keen to see her on the movie screen as I understand that is where she has gained her reputation as a fine actress – although I’ve not actually seen her in a film before. Not only that but neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have read, nor seen any kind of adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovery, so we came to this film with no particular expectations or preconceptions. If you haven’t seen the film, and don’t want to know what happens, may I suggest you stop reading and please feel free to return once you’ve seen it.
In case you didn’t know, Gemma Bovery (the film) is based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name, about an English couple who move to France and live an existence that parallels Flaubert’s originals. The rather fetching Gemma attracts the jealous attention of neighbour baker, the Flaubert-obsessed Joubert, who gets more and more furious as he spies on her to discover she is having an affair with young local landowner Hervé de Bressigny. Then, when he dumps her, her libido now re-awakened, she also has it off with her ex-boyfriend Patrick, who, coincidentally, just happens to be staying with nearby friends. This spot of how’s your father is also witnessed by the feverish Joubert, whilst husband Charlie, who had at first been oblivious to her wayward behaviour, has stomped back to London in a huff. Gemma wants Charlie back, but, as she is rejecting Patrick for a second time, she chokes on some freshly baked bread that Joubert has given her; and while Patrick is trying to save her, Charlie arrives, beats him up and Gemma croaks.
If you feel that resumé of the story didn’t take the plot details sufficiently seriously, then I apologise. But, really, I found it unutterably silly. When I realised that Gemma was going to die choking on that bit of bread, my thoughts turned to Benny Hill’s 1972 epic recording, Ernie: “A stale pork pie caught him in the eye and Ernie bit the dust.” Death by Gastronomie. My guess is that the ending was meant to be ironic and moving; I found it lamentable, and not in a good way.
But I’m starting at the end. Let’s go back to the beginning, and the film as a whole. It’s not a bad film; certainly not a good one, but it’s not that woeful either. It’s well acted, well cast, it’s filmed with a nice feeling for French/English liaisons and it has a few moments of brilliance that are very funny and charming. However, it does commit the cardinal sin of being, overall, dull and boring. There isn’t enough of a narrative drive about it; Pascal Bonitzer and Anne Fontaine’s screenplay never soars. As Mrs C pointed out, if the extraordinary thing about Flaubert’s Mme Bovery is that nothing much happens, then this film is solidly representative of its inspirational muse. It has no change of pace, no urgency, no energy. It’s all very attractive and superficial but you don’t feel as though you get deep down into any of the characters – except perhaps for M. Joubert, and that’s probably down to Fabrice Luchini’s extraordinarily expressive face. As Ronan Keating might have put it, M. Luchini says it best when he says nothing at all.
The film is a joint French/British venture and, as a result, the conversations are in both French and English, with appropriate subtitling for the bits we don’t understand. Whether it’s intentional or not, I feel that is one of the strengths of the film; you hear the characters struggling to speak in a language which is not their own, or engaging fluently when in their own tongue. It emphasises the “fish-out-of-water” aspect of the characters, like Gemma and Charlie in a foreign country, or Joubert on the edges of a forbidden relationship. Of course, it also gives rise to some gentle comedy, which comes as a welcome relief.
Some of the minor plots and characters end up being the most rewarding to watch; Joubert’s bossy wife and doltish son have some of the best lines and create a very real sense of what Joubert’s home life is really like. The ghastly Rankin couple, with their mock-enthusiasm and refined condescension, expressed with their hideously posh accents, also suggest there might be a more dynamic story lurking beneath their otherwise perfect exteriors. And there’s the problem – in comparison, Gemma, Charlie, Hervé and Patrick are all pretty dull people.
It’s true, Gemma Arterton does put in a charming performance as her namesake. There’s a lot of pouting and posing, and leisurely wearing of summer dresses; so many of her scenes could just segue into a Flake advert. I’m not sure there’s that much evidence of Gemma Bovery’s motivation at any one point – just a general sense of a confined and reserved woman turning, in time, into a mischievous one. Jason Flemyng, Niels Schneider and Mel Raido as the three men in her life are virtually interchangeable. One’s good with his hands, one’s got a face like a Hummel figurine, and then there’s the other one. Fabrice Luchini is excellent as Joubert, lurching from antagonised lust to wounded puppy, seeking revenge or running away; it’s a very good portrayal of someone on the edge of a different life but not quite knowing whether to (or indeed how to) move forward. Isabelle Candelier gives a great supporting performance as his domineering and unsympathetic wife and Kacey Mottet Klein is eminently believable as their game-playing oafish teenager.
Sadly all the positives in this film don’t outweigh the negatives, and you leave the cinema mildly entertained, but glad it’s all over.
P. S. Maybe it was a premonition of what was to come, but we both agreed we’d never seen such a dire selection of trailers for future motion picture thrills. It may be some time before we head off to the cinema again….
It’s always a pleasure to welcome the Trocks back to the UK, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in two-and-a-half years, which is way too long. For this UK tour they’re starting at the Peacock Theatre in London with two one-week programmes, then taking in the rest of the country with a touring programme that combines the best of both London shows.
When you anticipate a Trocks performance, it’s the hilarious antics that you really look forward to, but you can never lose sight of the extraordinary dance talent within the company. There were some truly amazing performances in this show, at their best you won’t see better on the stage of the Bolshoi or at Covent Garden. Over the years one acquires an accumulated fondness for one’s favourite Trocks and two of my all-time favourites graced the stage at yesterday’s show; but every new tour gives you an opportunity to look out for new names, and there are plenty whom I can imagine will become firm favourites of the future.
After the usual introduction, and the relief of knowing that all of their ballerinas are in a very good mood this afternoon, we started with their perfect staging of Swan Lake Act II. I have been spoilt by having seen the redoubtable M. Velour Pillaux (the brilliant Paul Ghiselin) take the role of von Rothbart many times, and no one quite captures ludicrous camp scariness and the sense of physical exhaustion all that running around induces quite like him. However, I really enjoyed Vladimir Legupski (Duane Gosa) as von Rothbart, deftly controlling the wayward Odette, victoriously blowing on his sharp-shooter. We’ve seen some great Trock Odettes too, but this was the first time we’d seen Miss Nadia Doumiafeyva (Philip Martin-Nielson) and she is extraordinarily graceful and feminine, whilst remaining ruthless with the inept Benno, a fantastically funny performance by Pepe Dufka (Raffaele Morra). Our Prince was the brilliantly dour Sergey Legupski (Giovanni Goffredo) who had me in stitches from his first “mime conversation” with Odette. He did a brilliant slow walk across the stage routine. Our team of naughty cygnets also gave us a great allegro moderato, and, whilst it’s sometimes hard to identify individual Trocks in a group, I think it was Miss Maria Paranova (Carlos Renedo) who gave a particularly disobedient and impish performance. It’s always great to see how various dancers perform different parts of the dance in different ways, and I think you could watch this dozens of times and still get more out of it. Simply one of the funniest thirty minutes on any stage, anywhere.
Our Pas de Deux was Les Corsaires, and is one of those Trocks pieces where the sheer joy and artistry of the ballet completely eclipses the humour. The two dancers were absolutely brilliant – the immense strength of Araf Legupski (Laszlo Major), and the elegant grace of Miss Alla Snizova (Carlos Hopuy) – make for an amazing coupling, overflowing with pizazz and chutzpah. The Pas de Six, Esmeralda, that followed, doesn’t have a terribly interesting narrative thread – it’s just one miserable woman being unsuccessfully cheered up by four girls and a wet bloke – but, as you would expect, they do it with pure Trocks style. On the face of it, all Nina Immobilashvili (Alberto Pretto) has to do as Esmerelda is to look constantly heartbroken – which she does very well – but her pointe work is out of this world. There is also a cute running gag with supporting artiste Helen Highwaters’ (Duane Gosa) offstage fruit basket. We end the second session with the execution of the Dying Swan – this time it was Miss Eugenia Repelskii who did the deed, with refinement, a delectable sense of loss and tragedy, and severe penniferous alopecia.
Our final treat is the grand staging of Paquita, an elaborate swirling and twirling ballet by Petipa with rousing tunes by Minkus. Our wonderful ballerina was the attitudinal but pinpoint accurate Yakaterina Verbosovich (Chase Johnsey) supported by the magnificently lugubrious and almost embalmed Vyacheslav Legupski (Paolo Cervellera), who nevertheless pays sexual attention to the hairy-chested Lariska Dumbchenko (Rafaella Morra on fine form) whilst La Verbosovich isn’t looking. Embellished with a sequence of immaculately performed variations by six of the ballerinas, it’s a splendid combination of great dancing and wonderfully stupid comedy. The afternoon was wrapped up with the splendidly incongruous Lord of the Dance curtain call, with more smoke on stage than in Nigel Farage’s fantasy pub.
Brilliant fun and amazing dancing. We’ll be back for Programme 2!
In which we meet Tommy and Tuppence, who form The Young Adventurers Ltd, and through a combination of hard work and good luck prevent the evil Mr Brown from capturing secret documents that could cause a world war. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book yet, its big secret is the identity of Mr Brown and I’m hardly likely to tell you that now, am I?
So, greetings to Mr Thomas Beresford and Miss Prudence Cowley, who, as Tommy and Tuppence, are full of daring and spirit, consider everything a jolly jape and a wizard wheeze, were bred to enjoy the finest things in life but are down on their uppers and haven’t a bean to scrape together, old bean. But with Agatha Christie’s appreciation of post-war youngsters getting their act together and plundering their dressing-up box of resourcefulness, T&T are bound to succeed right from the start.
Having chosen an old man as detective in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie went for a completely different tack with this her second. Whilst Poirot is well into his seventies, T&T are described as having “united ages” which “would certainly not have totalled forty-five”. They’d both survived the First World War; Tommy, heroically injured in both France and Mesopotamia, “stuck in Egypt till the Armistice happened”, finally demobbed and job-hunting ever since; and Tuppence, a VAD nurse and a driver in London, a fine example of an upper middle class gel doing her bit. They’re frightfully good at the smart and swanky small talk of the era, and have a very playful relationship, which Christie conveys with a great sense of fun and animation in their conversations. Like John Cavendish in Styles, Tommy describes his late mother as “the mater”, and they both come from good, if impoverished, stock, with Tuppence’s father being an Archdeacon – although Tommy has a rich, but distanced, uncle. It’s clear that Christie really loves her new characters – and she writes about them so enthusiastically that we fall in love with them too.
In her autobiography, Christie reveals the trigger for writing this book. “Two people were talking at a table nearby, discussing somebody called Jane Fish. It struck me as a most entertaining name. I went away with the name in my mind. Jane Fish. That, I thought, would make a good beginning to a story – a name overheard at a tea-shop – an unusual name, so that whoever heard it remembered it. A name like Jane Fish – or perhaps Jane Finn would be even better. I settled for Jane Finn – and started writing straight away.” Inspired by the notion that overhearing one name can set a chain of events going that could overthrow civilisation as we know it, Christie embarks on a sequence of outrageously far-fetched coincidences necessary to set up the story. Let’s consider them.
Coincidence #1, that Jane Finn, a name plucked out of the obscure recesses of Tuppence’s brain, is the name of the girl who was given the secret paperwork.
Coincidence #2, that Tuppence knew intimately the pensionnat in Paris where Whittington wants to send her (Madame Colombier’s in the Avenue de Neuilly).
Coincidence #3, that Tommy knows “Mr Carter” from his days in the Intelligence Corps in France.
Coincidence #4, that of all the Jane Finns in the world, both Carter and Hersheimmer – in reply to Tommy’s vague newspaper advertisement – are thinking of the same Jane Finn as T&T and Mr Brown. I know that it’s almost 100 years ago, but, as an indication, I did a little research and there are currently 28 Jane Finns on Facebook alone.
Now that IS a coincidence. Perhaps the plotline didn’t seem quite so fanciful back in 1922. By associating it, on the very first page, with the real-life story of the sinking of the Lusitania, just seven years before the book was published, and still vivid in many readers’ minds, maybe Christie gave it a sense of reality that it lacks today.
Something The Secret Adversary has in plentiful common with The Mysterious Affair at Styles is detail. In that first novel, the detail was in the plethora of clues that dripped from each page so that you could barely read a paragraph without having to go back and check up on all the new information you had amassed before progressing further. In Adversary, it’s all about adventure and activity. No pausing for reflection here, no time to consider what Poirot’s little grey cells might make of the situation; it’s all out action and hurtling from scrape to scrape. Christie’s dedication tells you precisely what she wants the reader to get out of this book: “To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure”. That feels a bit patronising to me; but as we know from the present day, our war veterans can, like Tommy, frequently find it difficult to find suitable employment, and for most people in the early 1920s, money was very tight, and I guess they didn’t have that much excitement in their lives. So Christie let her imagination run riot and came up with this fantasy of a crime novel, where our heroes hide behind curtains, pretend to be domestic servants, scour cliff-edges for hidden documents and play up against Bolsheviks and other foreign agitators, all in the cause of tracking down the elusive Jane Finn and uncovering the true identity of Mr Brown.
And all this is set in the context of the growing relationship between Tommy and Tuppence, which Christie amusingly and rather tenderly allows to blossom under their very noses without them quite realising it. As the days pass and Tuppence hasn’t heard from Tommy (the last we read was that he had a sudden blow on the head), she gently realises how much she misses him. It starts off with her not enjoying the adventure so much without him: “for the first time, Tuppence felt doubtful of success. While they had been together she had never questioned it for a minute. Although she was accustomed to take the lead, and to pride herself on her quick-wittedness, in reality she had relied upon Tommy more than she realized at the time. There was something so eminently sober and clear-headed about him, his common sense and soundness of vision were so unvarying, that without him Tuppence felt much like a rudderless ship.”
Yet she makes excuses for how she feels. “”Little fool,” she would apostrophize herself, “don’t snivel. Of course you’re fond of him. You’ve known him all your life. But there’s no need to be sentimental about it.”” Thirty pages later, she still hasn’t heard from him: “Her eyes fell on a small snapshot of Tommy that stood on her dressing-table in a shabby frame. For a moment she struggled for self-control, and then abandoning all presence, she held it to her lips and burst into a fit of sobbing. “Oh, Tommy, Tommy,” she cried, “I do love you so—and I may never see you again….” At the end of five minutes Tuppence sat up, blew her nose, and pushed back her hair. “That’s that,” she observed sternly. “Let’s look facts in the face. I seem to have fallen in love—with an idiot of a boy who probably doesn’t care two straws about me.””
Meanwhile, how was Tommy faring? Circumstances require that he and Julius work together a lot, and when he discovers that Julius has proposed to Tuppence, Tommy has to undergo a lot of self-examination. “Tuppence and Julius! Well, why not? Had she not lamented the fact that she knew no rich men? Had she not openly avowed her intention of marrying for money if she ever had the chance? Her meeting with the young American millionaire had given her the chance—and it was unlikely she would be slow to avail herself of it. She was out for money. She had always said so. Why blame her because she had been true to her creed? Nevertheless, Tommy did blame her. He was filled with a passionate and utterly illogical resentment. It was all very well to SAY things like that—but a REAL girl would never marry for money. Tuppence was utterly cold-blooded and selfish, and he would be delighted if he never saw her again! And it was a rotten world!”
But when it looks as though the gang have murdered Tuppence, Tommy is on high alert with distress. “”Well, I’m darned!” said Julius. “Little Tuppence. She sure was the pluckiest little girl——” But suddenly something seemed to crack in Tommy’s brain. He rose to his feet. “Oh, get out! You don’t really care, damn you! You asked her to marry you in your rotten cold-blooded way, but I LOVED her. I’d have given the soul out of my body to save her from harm. I’d have stood by without a word and let her marry you, because you could have given her the sort of time she ought to have had, and I was only a poor devil without a penny to bless himself with. But it wouldn’t have been because I didn’t care!” “See here,” began Julius temperately. “Oh, go to the devil! I can’t stand your coming here and talking about ‘little Tuppence.’ Go and look after your cousin. Tuppence is my girl! I’ve always loved her, from the time we played together as kids. We grew up and it was just the same. I shall never forget when I was in hospital, and she came in in that ridiculous cap and apron! It was like a miracle to see the girl I loved turn up in a nurse’s kit——”” And so on. I think it’s fair to say, it’s love.
As usual when reading an early Christie, I found myself checking back to the dictionary and other online references to understand some of her words that have fallen out of general use. Tommy and Tuppence first bump into each at Dover Street tube station – where is that? I can reveal that it became Green Park station in 1933. Tuppence is wearing “a small bright green toque over her black bobbed hair”. I’m sure if you’re into fashion you understand that, but I’d never heard of a toque before – it’s a small hat without a projecting brim. On another occasion, Tommy interrupts her silent chain of thought, much to her annoyance, to which Tommy retorts “Shades of Pelmanism!” The Pelman in question was one Christopher Louis Pelman, founder of the Pelman Institute for the Scientific Development of Mind, Memory and Personality in London, in 1899. Pelmanism was his system of memory training, which also involved a game where you had to memorise the positions of matching pairs of cards, face-down on a table. Largely a distant memory itself nowadays, Pelmanism had some distinguished followers, including Rider Haggard, Robert Baden-Powell and Jerome K Jerome. “There may be trouble with the A.S.E.” says the German voice that Tommy hears from his hiding place when trying to track down Mr Brown. Five points to you if you know that the A.S.E. was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, one of the “New Model” trade unions that developed in the 19th century, and whose name actually changed to the Amalgamated Engineering Union before the book had been published – Christie hadn’t kept up to date with the times there, score one against her.
Then there are a few nice phrases that we don’t see much today. When Tuppence decides to visit Sir James with Julius, this was to be her plan: “She would meet Julius, persuade him to her point of view, and they would beard the lion in his den.” How’s that? I’ve never heard that phrase before. The OED defines it as to “attack someone on his or her own ground or subject”, but by all accounts it goes back to the Book of Samuel and the story of David, a shepherd who pursued a lion that had stolen one of his sheep. David bravely seized the lion “by his beard” and killed him. So how come I’ve never come across that one before? And when Tommy and Julius discover a package of blank paper, Tommy suspects the use of sympathetic ink – say again? But apparently that was just another name for Invisible ink – I wonder why they used the word sympathetic? When Tommy writes to Mr Carter he says “something’s turned up that has given me a jar”. Given him a what? I think – but I’m not entirely certain – this is an 18th century usage meaning “given me a shock”. Fascinating use of language! But one phrase I did recognise – and I haven’t heard in years – comes when Julius tells Tommy “I must be going to Colney Hatch”. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would also use that phrase. Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum opened in 1851, and the phrase became widely used as an alternative to “I must be going mad”.
I did a little interesting extrapolation of financial values at the time. Tuppence would be the first to accept that she’s very keen on money, so I thought it would be interesting to find out how much she’s working for. We don’t quite know how much blackmail money Whittington paid Tuppence when she visits him at the offices of Esthonia Glassware, but he was willing to pay £100 for her to spend three months doing nothing in Paris. £100 in 1922 is roughly the equivalent of £4000 today, so if he paid her that much money, no wonder T&T were eating in the most expensive restaurants to celebrate. Bizarrely, Carter’s suggested salary for their detective work was just £300 a year, to both Tommy and Tuppence, which equates to just £12000 each today, just about minimum wage level. It may not have been much, but at least there was equal pay for women, which would have been highly unlikely in 1922.
So here’s my regular at-a-glance summary for The Secret Adversary:
Publication Details: 1922. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1970.
How many pages until the first death: 105. That might feel quite a long wait, but solving a murder seems somehow less important in this book that tracking down Jane Finn and uncovering the identity of Mr Brown.
Funny lines out of context:
“The movies—of course! Your American word for the cinema.” This was relatively new technology – stupid people could be confused.
“Wonder what she’s been up to. Dogging Rita most likely.” Good Lord, that’s a surprise.
“Feeling more tongue-tied than ever, Tommy ejaculated “Oh!” again.” Not sure if that’s what he said or if it was a sound effect.
Any number of lines describing Julius and his gun:
“”I rather wish that fellow would come along,” said Julius. He patted his pocket. “Little William here is just aching for exercise!””
“Tommy kept a respectful silence. He was impressed by little William.”
“”And I tell you,” retorted Julius, “that Little Willie here is just hopping mad to go off!” The Russian wilted visibly. “You wouldn’t dare——” “Oh, yes, I would, son!””
“Little Willie and I will come behind.”
Tommy and Tuppence themselves are pretty memorable, and as this book introduces them it contains a fair amount of description and idly just watching them do stuff. Apart from them, the two major characters of Julius and Sir James are nicely realised – and poles apart – with Julius a very “in-your-face” rich American and Sir James a more dignified and aloof Brit.
Christie the Poison expert:
The first death comes as a result of administering chloral, or as the doctor first thought, an accidental overdose. It was actually chloral that formed the “knock-out” element of a traditional Mickey Finn. It’s not currently licensed for use, but it can be used as a sedative. You wouldn’t describe it as a poison though.
However, the second death is simply described as someone collapsing, “whilst an odour of bitter almonds filled the air.” That’d be cyanide poisoning.
Class/social issues of the time:
Christie goes into great detail about potential political subterfuge with the fallout over the secret papers, with much speculation about the Labour movement and how it would react. At the time of writing, Britain hadn’t yet experienced a Labour government, and the fear and distaste of these Bolshevik ruffians is palpable in Christie’s writing. There is a lot of concern about the behaviour of the trade unions, which Tommy turns into a joke when he doesn’t want to start work early in the morning: “My union, Tuppence, my union! It does not permit me to work before 11 a.m.” Some things don’t change, though – there is huge disapproval of socialists with money: “Put on a thick coat, that’s right. Fur lined? And you a Socialist!”
The secret document that T&T are trying to keep from Mr Brown could be used to bring down (and worse) the government. Mr Carter’s politics are clear. ““As a party cry for Labour it would be irresistible, and a Labour Government at this juncture would, in my opinion, be a grave disability for British trade, but that is a mere nothing to the REAL danger… Bolshevist gold is pouring into this country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution….”
Before Mr Brown is thwarted there is fear: “the 29th was the much-talked-of “Labour Day,” about which all sorts of rumours were running riot. Newspapers were getting agitated. Sensational hints of a Labour coup d’état were freely reported. The Government said nothing. It knew and was prepared. There were rumours of dissension among the Labour leaders. They were not of one mind. The more far-seeing among them realized that what they proposed might well be a death-blow to the England that at heart they loved. They shrank from the starvation and misery a general strike would entail, and were willing to meet the Government half-way. But behind them were subtle, insistent forces at work, urging the memories of old wrongs, deprecating the weakness of half-and-half measures, fomenting misunderstandings.” Once Mr Brown is defeated, “to most people the 29th, the much-heralded “Labour Day,” had passed much as any other day. Speeches were made in the Park and Trafalgar Square. Straggling processions, singing the Red Flag, wandered through the streets in a more or less aimless manner. Newspapers which had hinted at a general strike, and the inauguration of a reign of terror, were forced to hide their diminished heads. The bolder and more astute among them sought to prove that peace had been effected by following their counsels.”
Political extremists infiltrate the parties – when Carter asks Tommy to try to recognise some of the people in Mr Brown’s gang, we can see Christie’s distrust of anything other than True Blue. “You say two faces were familiar to you? One’s a Labour man, you think? Just look through these photos, and see if you can spot him.” A minute later, Tommy held one up. Mr. Carter exhibited some surprise. “Ah, Westway! Shouldn’t have thought it. Poses as being moderate. As for the other fellow, I think I can give a good guess.” He handed another photograph to Tommy, and smiled at the other’s exclamation. “I’m right, then. Who is he? Irishman. Prominent Unionist M.P. All a blind, of course. We’ve suspected it—but couldn’t get any proof.”
On a more mundane level, the class difference between, on the one hand, Tommy and Tuppence, and their soon to be long-term associate Albert, is clearly shown in their use of language. T&T are full of the swanky small talk, whereas Albert-speak is littered with “Lord!” and “Lumme!” and “Mark my words” and “Blest if I’d have known you! That rig-out’s top-hole.” Where T&T’s fantasies run to Lobster a l’américaine, Chicken Newberg, Sole Colbert or Sole á la Jeanette, Albert’s are firmly rooted in the shlock detective B-movies of the day. Some of the dramatic tension and humour of the story are created when people are engaged in activities outside their class – such as Tuppence in domestic service, or Julius shimmying up a tree.
There’s also an observation on what Christie might have termed the criminal class: “The man who came up the staircase with a furtive, soft-footed tread was quite unknown to Tommy. He was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance were new to the young man, though he was a type that Scotland Yard would have recognized at a glance.” I expect his eyes were too close together too.
And we have the usual distrust of foreigners found in a Christie novel, but here with added terrorist/intrigue/post-war flavour, and Tommy is the chief recidivist:
When Tommy first receives Julius P Hersheimmer’s card, he asks “Do I smell a Boche?” When he observes “Number 14” in Mr Brown’s gang, he says “If that isn’t a Hun, I’m a Dutchman!” And during his “bluffing” altercation with Boris, after the latter, in pure schoolboy war comic language says “speak, you swine of an Englishman,” Tommy replies “that’s the worst of you foreigners. You can’t keep calm”.
Classic denouement: Fairly protracted and elongated, covering the best part of thirteen pages, and in three distinct phases – the truth about the identity of Jane Finn, the last minute heaping of suspicion onto an innocent person, and finally the revelation of the truth. It’s definitely an exciting read. The diary confessional element to the denouement gives it an additional dimension – it was a device Christie used again in (if I remember rightly) Crooked House.
Happy ending? Very. The blossoming romance of Tommy and Tuppence results in a ham-fisted proposal, and another couple also get engaged. Not only that, but there is much rejoicing in the fact that Mr Brown’s plot has been foiled, as this means there will be continued peace and not war – and you can’t get a much happier ending than that. Oh, and Tommy gets back in touch with his rich uncle who proves himself to be a nice old geezer, who with one wave of his financial magic wand, puts all T&T’s money troubles to rest: “In future I propose to make you an allowance—and you can look upon Chalmers Park as your home.”
Did the story ring true? There’s an enormous amount of coincidence, and T&T survive by the skin of their teeth. The fact that Mr Brown is revealed to be a man of extreme intelligence, overweening self-confidence but with the Achilles’ heel of insisting on writing a diary so that he can enjoy seeing his brilliance in writing, is, I think, highly believable.
Overall satisfaction rating: 7/10. I miss the traditional “murder mystery/whodunit” aspect in this book, and, like its predecessor, I find it a little over-frantic. But there’s much to enjoy and the characterisations of Tommy and Tuppence themselves make it worth reading alone.
Thanks for reading this summary of The Secret Adversary, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell the world who Mr Brown is! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move from 1922 to 1923, with the second appearance of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings in The Murder on the Links. I read this when I was a very young man and can’t remember much about it, so I am looking forward to revisiting it. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, why not read it too? Happy sleuthing!
As we wave a sad farewell to summer (such as it was), and the days start to get a little shorter, and the leaves that are green turn to brown, the great news is that we can welcome back the return of the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights at the Royal and Derngate. This season has five jam-packed nights of stand up between September and November, four of which we are able to attend.
It was also a welcome return to our genial host Dan Evans; same suit, new gags, which is just how we like it. The first two rows on the left were taken by a big party from the school, regular attendees out of whom Dan has already taken most of the available mick, but fortunately, when he starts asking them questions, we find there’s always room for more. The rest of the front row was promisingly made up of a guy and his harem, so it was quite a surprise to discover they worked in protecting at risk kids; not a lot of humour to be derived from that then.
Our first act was new to us, the excellent Zoe Lyons. Great material, a funny, approachable persona, and a perfectly paced act – confident enough to wallow a while in the build up to a story, sharing the enjoyment of the moment with us. I loved all her observations on the daftness of life – stress-relieving shampoo, daily cleansing routines; and the utter stupidity of the notion of the “one lady owner” when it comes to buying cars. We were in hysterics. Would love to see her do a longer slot!
Next up was Andrew Watts, whom we have seen before – and whose well-received Edinburgh show I deliberately didn’t see because we knew he’d be coming here. He is a really funny chap, with his gentlemanly cricketing analogies and his way of handling those crises every man faces when clothes shopping with his woman. His material was probably 90% the same as we saw three years ago, but it’s funny enough to enjoy a re-listen. His strength is in that marvellous juxtaposition between respectable exterior and a rather sinful brain. Anyone who can get an audience member to consider necrophilia has got to be a good bet!
Our headline act was Carey Marx, again new to us, although he’s been doing this kind of stuff for a while now – and it shows, in a good way! Supremely confident, wonderfully relaxed, seemingly effortlessly pulling material out of thin air, although I’m sure it’s all well planned and performed with military precision. Reflections on manbags, the etiquette of hugging, how to refer to people of restricted growth without causing offence, and gays creating tornados all played a part. A total crowd-pleaser, with a constant high level of laughter from the start that hardly ever died down.
An amazing return for Screaming Blue, one of those delightful occasions when all four performers were on the top of their game. Can’t wait for two weeks’ time. You should come too!
I can’t believe I’ve got to the grand old age of [insert grand old age here] and have not yet read Brave New World, nor seen a film, nor a TV adaptation of it. And me an English student. It’s a disgrace. I do remember school friends devouring it, saying it was the best thing since sliced bread, but at the time I was too into my drama to lower myself to the level of mere novels. How wrong was I?
So I was very excited at the prospect of seeing James Dacre’s production at the Royal and Derngate, because I was going to fill in a major gap in my general knowledge. I also suspected it would be stunningly good. Mrs Chrisparkle had also never read the book, so like a pair of innocents we settled down in the front stalls of the Royal. There was a noticeable buzz about the place – people were clearly very curious to see how this dramatisation would work.
I’m sure you know the story, but I’ll give you a quick rundown. Set some time in the future, mankind has been streamed into five castes – alpha to epsilon – and people are no longer simply born, they are created in laboratories, hatched and decanted, then subjected to conditioning education in order to achieve a sort of mindless positivity about well-ordered life. There are no families, no close relationships – people have sex willy-nilly with whoever they want, as much as possible, because everyone belongs to everyone. Alphas take the best jobs, betas support them; gammas, deltas and epsilons are left to do the menial work, but they’re all perfectly content with their lot as they have been programmed to do so. No books, no religion, no creative thought; they’ve all been banned. Instead, you work, you take soma (a hallucinogenic drug), you go on dates. One such date is the holiday that Bernard Marx, an alpha scientist who doesn’t seem quite as alpha as he could be, takes Lenina, a beta nurse at the London Hatchery, to a Savage Reservation. These are parts of the world where this perfect order hasn’t reached, and where savages that live there lead impoverished, blighted lives. There they meet Linda, an older woman who once worked at the Hatchery, but who got left behind on a visit to the Reservation, and John, her literary-minded son. Bernard takes them back to London for research purposes, but their return leads to disaster all round. And if you want to know how it all develops and resolves itself, you’ll just have to see the play.
Aldous Huxley wrote the book in the early 1930s but its dystopian vision is still enormously relevant today. Within a few minutes of the play starting, Mrs C was guffawing at the Brave New Worldisms that she could recognise in the modern day business environment. Its portrayal of two life-systems that are at complete odds with each other can be translated into present day political, philosophical or moral systems; in fact almost any situation where you have rivalries and where people are confronted with the opposite behavioural patterns. Brave New World beautifully highlights individual hypocrisies of the people who attain high rank – very much like the works of George Orwell with whom Huxley is frequently compared – and the petty arguments between those who are clambering up the ladder to supposed greatness. But its most telling element is the growing, contrasting relationship between the creative, poetic savage John, whose ability to speak is cloaked in his knowledge of Shakespeare, and the artless, conformist Lenina, for whom the meaningless shag is the epitome of recreational achievement.
Naomi Dawson’s comfortless sets emphasise the spiritual emptiness of this new World order, with powerful use of video screens and artificial colour to create a fake sense of life and excitement. Colour is just one of the conditioning tools; the alpha men always wear grey and white whilst the beta women are always in purple and puce. The original music is by These New Puritans, an Essex band whose music, according to the programme, “ranges from the intimate to the expansive, from industrial to orchestral”. However you categorise it, their music is highly impactful, both uplifting and eerie, and really adds to the atmosphere of the production. Not having read the book, I can’t tell how faithful Dawn King’s adaptation to the original is, but it’s a compelling script that had us riveted from the start. Wryly amusing, sometimes horrifying, frequently uncomfortable, I loved how it didn’t shy away from showing us the grim horror of the aversion therapy techniques for those whose conditioning hasn’t quite succeeded; and how it took the subject of erotic play amongst children as being something to be encouraged, in order better to fit them for a subsequent life of promiscuity. In our world, where paedophilia seems to play a part in almost daily news coverage, this may feel quite a challenge to the audience.
The cast of ten form a superb ensemble – there are some wonderful group scenes where conversations take place intermittently whilst the non-participants stand frozen in time – but each cast member also shines individually in their own roles. Gruffudd Glyn is excellent as Bernard, the picked-on misfit alpha, struggling to fit in with the social norms required of him, but nevertheless keen to succeed despite his ineptitude. With his rise in celebrity status through his association with John comes increased self-confidence which Mr Glyn conveys with a real sense of joy. Yet when it ebbs away, as John refuses to play the celebrity game, and with the constant threat of being exiled to an island, Mr Glyn depicts the character’s knife-edge existence with barely concealed fear and emotional rawness. Olivia Morgan as Lenina absolutely gets the character’s beta status – enthusiastic, compliant, intent on her own ambitions and pleasure, selfish, and essentially one-dimensional. It’s a very clever performance. I really liked James Howard as Thomas the Director, full of apparent alpha leadership charisma, the corporate lame duck who reels off the right words but who will eventually be hoist by his own petard, even though that phrase would be banned in the new World order – a nice mixture of bully and sham. Sophie Ward gives a classy, authoritative performance as Controller Margaret Mond – the character is Mustapha in the original I understand, but making the Big Boss a woman is very 21st century and gives it extra bite. Dressed in grey like the men, and giving the impression of caring and enabling her team to do well, she is essentially a manipulating hypocrite who glories in the power she wields, and Ms Ward conveys this with icy assurance.
Abigail McKern is superb, as always, as Linda, the much-maligned and helpless mother in a world that dare not speak that name, providing a recognisable trace of the humanity of real life, rather than the warped one of the new World order. David Burnett is excellent as the bright and bumptious Henry, alpha through and through, embodying the new values of this valueless society. Scott Karim plays Bernard’s friend Helmholtz, subtly expressing his anxiety at also not fitting in; when he declaims his self-written poem there’s a light-bulb moment where you can see his sudden, moving, self-realisation that this is what life ought to be like. Samantha Pearl is great as Lenina’s friend and confidante Polly, and I also really liked her as the Headmistress of Eton – haven’t times changed. Theo Ogundipe as Benito is another stalwart of the new order, he’s obviously going to be next in command under Henry; and I also enjoyed his characterisation of the “guardian” of the Reservation, giving travel tips and inoculations to Bernard and Lenina as if he were some kind of Huxleyesque Club 18-30 rep.
But it is the character of John the Savage, and the performance of William Postlethwaite that shines. The character stands out as a beacon of moral decency and goodness, partly because he belongs to a world that we recognise and want to cling on to, and partly because of his firm reliance on the Bard to say the right thing. The Shakespearean quotes are an absolute joy, showing a determination to hang on to a world where love and creativity are seen as positive contributions. John is an idealistic figure, but very human too; willing to learn and to improve but unwilling to give up the things he holds dear as truth. Mr Postlethwaite is totally convincing throughout as the noble fish out of water, a lost Everyman character, and, with a great stage presence, I’m sure he’s going to be One To Watch.
Both Mrs C and I were gripped from the opening scene, spent the interval in open mouthed appreciation of what we’d already seen, and walked home at the end dumbstruck with enjoyment. A riveting story, crackingly well told, superbly acted, vividly depicted. Its run at the Royal and Derngate lasts until September 26th, but afterwards you can catch it at Edinburgh, Oxford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Blackpool and Bradford up until December 5th. It’s certainly inspired me to read the book, and a copy is already winging its way to me courtesy of those tax-dodgers at Amazon. And you can discover much more about the production at the TheatreCloud website. A co-production with Touring Consortium Theatre, this is, quite simply, one of the best productions I’ve ever seen.
For the third weekend in a row, we met up with Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters for an afternoon of culture and drama. It was the Countess who was particularly keen on seeing this production, immersed as she is in all things literary and old, and that’s not just her husband. I’d read the play when I was younger but none of us had actually seen it on stage, so it was about time we got ourselves some education. So if, like Mrs Chrisparkle, you thought Volpone was Ben Jonson’s more successful prequel to Volptwo, maybe it’s time to reacquaint yourself with some Jacobean dramatists. Whilst Shakespeare continues to make his presence felt in every outdoor summer venue and traditional theatre space at least once a year, his Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries sometimes get overlooked. For at the same time that Shakespeare was whacking out King Lear, Jonson was proposing a very different kettle of fish in the guise of Volpone.
Guise is a good word in the circumstances, because Volpone – the man – is the ultimate dissembler. In reality a hale and hearty manipulator of idiots and lover of riches, to the outside world he is a feeble old man, languishing on his sickbed, dribbling incontinently into a spittoon. When not creating that illusion, he might be pretending to be Scoto the Mountebank, or a courtroom official, or any number of bogus creations. With its carefully chosen Italianate names for its characters, Jonson created the classic satire on greed. It’s set in Venice, where Volpone (the fox) with his co-conspirator servant Mosca (the fly), attempt to outwit the wealthy Voltore (vulture), Corbaccio (raven) and Corvino (crow), to prove that fools and their money are indeed soon parted, preferably in Volpone’s direction. Innocents are drawn into his web of deceit, like Corbaccio’s son Bonario (kindly) and Corvino’s wife Celia (heavenly). In a subplot, we are introduced to Sir Politic Would-Be (at the time politic meant “scheming” or “sly”), his garrulous and airheaded wife the Lady Would-Be, and the traveller Peregrine, whose name means…er… traveller. In a very moral resolution, the good, the bad and the foolish are all shown to be precisely what they are, with the wrath of the courts coming down heavily on the transgressors; with liberation and exoneration as the reward for the wronged.
With its completely original plotline, many consider this to be one of the finest Jacobean plays – certainly of the comedies. It is, however, rather long-winded. Structurally it starts with an elaborate opening scene where Volpone and Mosca fleece and con the three fools individually, and I sense that the more you emphasise the differences between these three characters, the funnier it is. It then breaks away to the street scene where Sir Politic and Peregrine have their conversation, giving Volpone and his entourage time to re-create themselves as Scoto and his team, which gives rise to a lengthy performance by Volpone-as-Scoto, encouraging his audience to buy his amazing cure-all oil. Finally, Volpone wins the attention of Celia – which is what all this has been leading up to. Benjo allows Scoto to rule the stage, and extemporise at length – and I really do mean at length. My own feeling is that it was because the original Volpone was played by Richard Burbage who was the Laurence Olivier of his time; the longer he was on stage, the happier the audience would be. Once Corvino has taken his revenge on Celia for her sassy behaviour but nevertheless agreed to offer her to Volpone for sex – yes this is quite an adult Jacobean comedy – humiliation and disgrace is the inevitable outcome for all concerned.
Trevor Nunn has created an updated version of Volpone for the RSC. No sense of Venetian gondolas and canals remain in this stark modern environment, where entrycams show us who’s knocking at Volpone’s door, video projections display the allegedly sick Volpone’s feeble heartbeat and erroneous blood pressure readings, and with a click of a button we can even see the stock exchange figures scroll past whenever Volp wants to play the markets. Overhead cameras show the sexy modern bed on which he plans his liaison dangereuse with Celia – you can just imagine that he would threaten to upload a coital video to YouTube in order to extort extra dosh. Sir Politic Would-Be points out how many followers he has on his iPad; and Lady W-B is followed everywhere by a camera crew. For me, the most effective use of the camera was during the court scene, where Volpone stops the proceedings to have a little private soliloquy whilst everyone else stands stock still as if frozen in time. The camera that was targeted on the judge also freezes and goes from colour to black and white, then resumes in colour again when life carries on. A relatively simple effect perhaps, but really arresting.
Not only is this a modern, technological age Volpone, it’s also a world where celebrity rules, which gives plenty of opportunities for telling juxtapositions between the 17th and 21st centuries. The programme credits translator and updater-extraordinaire Ranjit Bolt with “script revisions”. There are certainly plenty of these, most notably perhaps in the Scoto scene where the majority of Jonson’s original text has been replaced by a brand new speech. Fair enough; that’s in keeping with it being a cadenza-like sequence where the words and gestures play to the actor’s strengths and allow him simply to entertain to the full. However, I think it’s regrettable that Mr Bolt decided to retain Jonson’s original concept of this being a long scene. Funny and innovative as it is, it really does go on too long for no apparent plot progression benefit. It’s like one of those interminable drum solos in a concert that shows off the performer’s skills and range, and is very entertaining whilst it lasts, but then when you move on you can hardly remember it. As an aside, I realised when watching this scene the derivation of the word mountebank – because Volpone sets up a bench/table (bank) and stands on top of it (mounte) to deliver his spiel. You probably knew that already.
But where the production and its technological vision really works is with the characterisation of Lady Would-Be. A vacuous glamour-puss from the Katie Price/Made in Chelsea stable, she preens and pouts her way through the show whilst always ensuring the camera gets her best side. Her attendants are make-up girls and hair stylists, haute couture-shopping bag carriers and minders. Living life for her reality show, everything is captured on film until such time as she might be seen in a bad light, when she turns off the charm (such as it may be) and the cameraman gets the unsubtle call to “cut”. A great source for humour, and totally in keeping with the modernised version of the character, it was particularly funny in the courtroom when Lady W-B realised the trial was being televised, and thus kept bobbing about like a Hallowe’en apple trying to remain in shot. You can even follow her on twitter @LadyP_W.
At the heart of the play is a bravura performance by Henry Goodman as Volpone. He is perfect for the role, being very experienced at playing the dominating central character of many a fine production. We saw him in Chichester as Arturo Ui and he was mesmeric. In the course of this play he has to perform many parts, all of them Volpone. His transitions from one to another are seamless. It’s particularly enjoyable in the opening scene where he quickly changes from the fit-as-a-fiddle fox to the invalid in his domestic hospital bed. In a split second he ages about forty years; in “All the world’s a stage” terms he goes from the fifth age of the Justice in fair round belly, to the seventh, sans everything, in a snap. But all his characterisations are rounded, individual, and well considered to give maximum comedy value. It’s a very fine performance.
Buzzing around Volpone is Mosca, the fly, or, as more pejoratively termed, his parasite. Mosca is a constant presence, reliably assisting Volpone with his mischief and crookedness, darting here and there to serve and to misrepresent. He is His Master’s Voice where it comes to liaising with the three fools, trying to out-donate each other where it comes to adding to Volpone’s collection of riches. It’s an assured and cheeky performance by Orion Lee on his RSC debut, very believable as Volpone’s Rottweiler in his dealings with the outside world; just maybe when the tide turns and Mosca is in the ascendant, trying to outwit his master, he lacks a certain gravitas in the courtroom scenes.
Of the three dupes attempting to get their mitts on Volpone’s legacies, I was most impressed by Miles Richardson as Voltore the lawyer, with a good level of pomp and decency, which gets blown apart in the courtroom scenes where he is run ragged by attempting manipulation after deviation. He gives a great comic performance. A chip off the old block, he has much of his father Ian Richardson’s slightly lugubrious stage presence which is perfect for the humiliation of his general unravelling. Matthew Kelly is a very stern and unyielding Corvino, which works very well when he’s dominating his wife, but I felt there wasn’t a lot of light and shade in his performance. Geoffrey Freshwater’s Corbaccio is a deaf and doddery old thing, and, despite it being a good performance it makes you realise that, as a character, it’s something of a one-trick pony. Once you’ve laughed at his deafness a few times, there’s not a lot left to laugh at.
There are, however, some terrific other performances. The always excellent Steven Pacey as Sir Politic Would-Be is an avuncular and persuasive presence in his rich but tasteless clothes, stringing out fanciful plots and nonsensical concerns to the mild amusement and subsequent deep annoyance of Peregrine, an energetically youthful portrayal by Colin Ryan. In this modernised version, Sir Politic doesn’t get disguised in a tortoise shell but is squeezed into one of his wife’s outfits, make-up and beard at sixes and sevens, looking like Conchita Wurst after a hard night on the town. Mr Pacey carries off his shame with a nice mixture of anger and resignation. He is matched by the wonderful Annette McLaughlin as Lady Would-Be, capturing all that essential hollowness of a wannabe reality star, a bitch when thwarted, control freak par excellence, the true definition of beauty being skin-deep. Her stand up argument with Peregrine is theatrical bliss.
Jon Key, Ankur Bahl and Julian Hoult give good outlandish support as Volpone’s triumvirate of servants, representing the full range of humankind – you have to ask yourself, why Volpone does choose to be surrounded by a dwarf, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch? What was in the person spec for those job descriptions? Their mini-shows to entertain Volpone are well performed but, rather like the Scoto scene, tend to act as a pause-button to the play as a whole rather than driving on the drama – but that’s Jonson’s fault. Andy Apollo and Rhiannon Handy as Bonario and Celia don’t have a lot to do apart from outraged indignation, but they do it very well.
You come away from this production part impressed, part exhausted; the modernisation works well provided you don’t mind liberties being taken with a sacred text – not that it’s that sacred – and it offers several excellent performances. On the other hand, the play lasts three hours ten minutes, which is quite an ambitious project if you’ve just had a nice lunch with a bottle of Chablis, and you do get the feeling that there were some self-indulgences that could have been stripped away to bring it in at a more reasonable two and a half hours. But nevertheless it’s enjoyable and inventive, and when everyone gets their come-uppance at the end, you feel that justice has been done. Only a few more performances left, so you’d better get in quick.