Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal Theatre Northampton, 22nd January 2016

Burlesque ShowA cock-up on the ticketing front meant that I booked for the Burlesque Show on the Friday and not the Saturday, thereby making us miss out on the first Screaming Blue Murder of the season. Drat and double drat. At least it meant we saw The Burlesque Show in super duper Row C seats so that we could be at the heart of the action. As usual it was a sell-out; and you can tell it’s Burlesque night by the audience: a plethora of bohemian ladies with flowers in their hair and gentlemen wearing bowties. Alas Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t quite come up to scratch in the fashion parade. Must do better.

Peggy SuedOur hostess, as last year, was Peggy Sued, the enthusiastic and uninhibited alter ego of Miss Abi Collins. Overly acrobatic wherever possible, recalling her ten previous husbands with a hula hoop for each occasion, she has a brilliant connection with the audience, and she’s a constant joy. I’ve never been involved in a crowd-surfing event before, but I ably helped propel Miss Sued from Row B to Row D with a gentlemanly placing of my right hand on her left thigh. And then back again. She chose Stephen from a couple of rows behind to join her on stage and help her with her hoops; we’re all hoping his fiancé has forgiven him.

Immodesty BlaizeFor the ultimate in glamour, we were treated to two helpings of Miss Immodesty Blaize, if that’s not an insensitive way of putting it. She takes the Burlesque genre and delivers it with all the style, taste and panache that you could hope for. Her first act was “Venus in furs”, which involved some very expensive looking costumes and classic black feather fans. It was all very charming and seductive. Her second act, which wrapped up the show, involved her wearing what looked like a jewel encrusted nightie and was also the height of taste and decorum until she suffered a slight wardrobe malfunction, which meant her final tableau displayed a little more of her upper half than she might have expected. A true star, she nevertheless carried it off with complete aplomb, and even visually referred to it in her curtain call, when, with a quick flash, she made – shall we say – a clean breast of it. A class act in every way.

Rod LaverAlso on the bill from last year – and from three years ago – was juggler and comedy ping pong ball man Rod Laver, performing his occasionally grotesque, always hilarious, how many ping pong balls can he get in his mouth act. His white facial make up and lugubrious expression, when combined with swollen cheeks because of the balls in his mouth always reminds me of cartoon hero Droopy. DroopyIn fact, have you ever seen them on the same variety bill? In the second half, he pals up with the divine Miss Alexandra Hofgartner for their Weimar Republic cabaret act which always entertains (even if it is three times we’ve seen it now). Miss Hofgartner had earlier given us her high acrobatic act where she defies gravity by voluptuously draping herself around two thin sheets of red material suspended from the roof.

Alexandra HofgartnerThere were some new acts too. An excellent addition to the Ministry of Burlesque mix is Kiki Lovechild, a silent (well almost) clown who can convey both laugh out loud silliness and charming innocence. For his first appearance he gave us his chapeaugraphy routine, where with just a piece of felt that resembles an oversized polo mint, he recreates 20 or so different characters with varying headgear. It reminded me a little of Ennio Marchetto, rapidly changing styles with just a quick flick of his prop; very funny and inventive. For his second piece he gives us an act of almost childlike innocence, where he looks for a rare butterfly to complete his collection but realises their true worth is when they are alive rather than pinned in cases. In the end he brings them all back to life in one huge colourful flutter. It’s a really charming act, and I made sure to bring a butterfly home with me.

Kiki LovechildThere was a new Burlesque lady in the form of Oriana, who gave us a very striking strip routine that didn’t hide (why should it) her more substantial figure and who is expert in the ancient of art of making the tassels twirl in different directions. We also met Beau Dicea (I believe that was her name), who gave us a comedy burlesque routine where padded undergarments took on a life of their own. And to redress the balance of the sexes, there was also a very funny and skilful act from Edd Muir, performing strong acrobatics on a pole whilst recreating that famous Diet Coke advert. I haven’t seen as much builder’s bum since Peter Pan Goes Wrong’s Stage Manager Trevor.

Edd MuirThis was the fifth time we’ve seen the Ministry of Burlesque’s production of the Burlesque Show here in Northampton. It’s always a rumbustious combination of laughs, titillation, music and magic, and while it continues to deal all this up in generous proportions, why would you miss it? Anyone who was new to the show on Friday night will have had the most tremendous programme to enjoy. For us regulars, I admit I could have done with a few more new acts rather than the identical fare that we’ve enjoyed a couple of times before. It’s a perennial problem, isn’t it – you keep going back because you enjoy it so much, but you see the same acts which means you leave slightly less satisfied than the previous time. I can’t really complain – the old favourites are excellent, and they were still entertaining to see a second time. But I hope they ring some changes for next year’s show.

Review of the Year 2015 – The Sixth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Yet again the whole Chrisparkle team has met behind closed doors (well, I sat at my PC) to determine who should win the gongs in this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. Countless actors, musicians, dancers and writers are on tenterhooks to discover if they’ve hit the Big Time. Eligibility for the awards means I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 11th January 2015 to 14th January 2016; however, this year, shows seen abroad are ineligible (primarily because they would have won everything in their categories, which would have been boring for everyone!)

Izzy whizzy, let’s get busy.

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

In 3rd place, the exquisite artistry of the Moscow City Ballet performing Giselle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January 2015.
In 2nd place, the technical brilliance and fantastic humour of the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in their two programmes at London’s Peacock Theatre, in September.
In 1st place, for the third time in four years, the fantastic programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2014, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, Christoph Koenig conducting Beethoven Eroica and Elgar’s Violin Concerto, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Pinchas Zukerman, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in April.
In 2nd place, Alexander Shelley conducting From Paris to New York, a programme of American and Russian music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Boris Giltburg, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in November.
In 1st place, the amazing tenth Malcolm Arnold Festival, Reaching Across The Globe Gala Concert with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons, with soloists Jess Gillam and Martin James Bartlett, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

By which I mean anything else that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, the bright and jolly Cinderella at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in December.
In 2nd place, the fascinating and brilliantly executed mime drama Light, performed by Theatre Ad Infinitum at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, in February.
In 1st place, the constantly beguiling and hilarious Burlesque Show at the Royal, Northampton in January 2015.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw far fewer big name stand-up comics this year – only six, and a couple of those were below par! So here’s the top three:

In 3rd place, one of two local boys done good, the hilariously unshowbizzy James Acaster, at the Royal, Northampton in October.
In 2nd place, the other of two local boys done good, the unexpectedly spot-on Alan Carr in his Yap Yap Yap tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in May.
In 1st place, the unsurpassable wit of the amazing Dara O’Briain in his Crowd Tickler tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in May.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

As ever, a hotly contested award; we saw twenty-four comics at the Screaming Blue Murder nights last year, of whom seven made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, the avuncular and surprising Andrew Watts (11th September)
In 4th place, the now very successful and always refreshing Joe Lycett (23rd January 2015)
In 3rd place, new to us and a great find, Zoe Lyons (11th September)
In 2nd place, a previous winner and always brilliant, Markus Birdman (27th February)
In 1st place, a guy whose act just took off with amazing success, Ian Cognito (6th February)

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals; I saw thirteen, from which there was a shortlist of six, and it was very hard to pick a winner – even the shows way down the list were excellent. But a winner has been chosen! Here are the top five:

In 5th place, the fun and funky combination of great songs and performances that is Kinky Boots, that we saw at the Adelphi Theatre in December.
In 4th place, the beautiful and moving revival of the Sound of Music at the Curve Theatre, Leicester that we saw in January 2015.
In 3rd place, the revelation that was Mack and Mabel, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in August.
In 2nd place, the show I’d always wanted to see and was well worth the wait, the marvellous Show Boat at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2016.
In 1st place, the fantastic and innovative revival of Oklahoma! at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in February.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. An extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a final five from the eleven contenders:

In 5th place, the chillingly effective An Audience with Jimmy Savile, at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, in July.
In 4th place, the Marmite production which we thought worked incredibly well, Dinner with Saddam at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 3rd place, the hilarious and beautifully structured Peter Pan Goes Wrong, at the Royal Theatre, Northampton in February.
In 2nd place, the haunting and disturbing adaptation of Brave New World, at the Royal, Northampton in September.
In 1st place, the brilliantly staged and performed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in March.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw nineteen revivals, whittled it down to a very long shortlist of ten; the winner was quite easy to identify, but the runners-up were much harder:

In 5th place, a thought-provoking play that made the audience part of the experiment, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect at the Crucible Studio in Sheffield, in July.
In 4th place, the authoritative and hilarious satire on the landed gentry, Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, at the Trafalgar Studios in January 2015.
In 3rd place, the mesmerising and emotional revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, at the Curve Studio in Leicester, in October.
In 2nd place, James Dacre’s masterful staging of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Holy Sepulchre Church in Northampton in April.
In 1st place, Jonathan Kent’s stunning production of David Hare’s adaptation of Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull that made up the Young Chekhov experience, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – not many candidates this year, but the stand-out disappointment for us was Camelot the Shining City at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield in July.

Last year’s Chrisparkle Awards introduced two new categories for Edinburgh – best play and best entertainment. As this year we saw fifty Edinburgh productions, we now have four categories specifically for Edinburgh. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 20 plays in Edinburgh, shortlisted to the best eleven – and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the challenging and intimidating experience of Immersive Acting Movement’s Comfort Slaves (New Town Kitchen)
In 4th place, the intelligent and daring production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed by Fear No Colours (C Nova)
In 3rd place, the emotional and thought-provoking Solid Life of Sugar Water by the Graeae Theatre Company (Pleasance Dome)
In 2nd place, the play that made you think differently about rape, the very insightful Wasted by No Prophet Theatre Company (Gilded Balloon Balcony)
In 1st place, a funny, shocking and beautifully performed play that should be compulsory viewing in schools, Hungry Wolf’s A Little Respect (The Space at Surgeon’s Hall)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

My shortlist of ten absolutely superb performances by ten terrific actors who by rights should all go on to do great things yielded this top three:

In 3rd place, the challenging and powerful performance by Jack Elliot for Thief (Sweet International 2)
In 2nd place, the technically brilliant performance by Matthew Marrs for Odd Shaped Balls (Space Triplex Studio)
In 1st place, the sheer star quality of Hugh Train for Ozymandias (The Space at Jury’s Inn)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Thirteen shows but a shortlist of just four gives this top three:

In 3rd place, the enormously likeable Tats Nkonzo (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, the brilliant material and delivery of Rob Beckett (Pleasance Dome)
In 1st place, the late night laughter smorgasbord that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

The sixteen other shows in Edinburgh that don’t fall into the other categories produced a shortlist of seven and this top five:

In 5th place, the pixieland work-out that is Follow The Faun (Spotlites Studio)
In 4th place, card tricks that aren’t magic with the Card Ninja (Sin)
In 3rd place, the inventive ventriloquism of Nina Conti – In Your Face (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, great dancing, great choreography and great paintwork in Liberation (Zoo Southside)
In 1st place, Interactive Theatre International’s simply fantastically funny The Wedding Reception (B’est Restaurant)

The Edinburgh turkey, by the way, was the allegedly comic hour of bad language devoid of any humour by Alex Williamson.

Best film

Out of the five I saw last year, I’m awarding it to Suffragette.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

This is where it gets personal. Nine contenders in the shortlist, and here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Charlotte Wakefield as Laurey in Oklahoma! at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in February.
In 2nd place, Rebecca LaChance as Mabel in Mack and Mabel at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August.
In 1st place, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Maria in The Sound of Music at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, in January 2015.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Again nine fine performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Michael Ball as Mack in Mack and Mabel at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in August.
In 2nd place, Matt Henry as Lola in Kinky Boots, at the Adelphi Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Tim Driesen as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys at the Milton Keynes Theatre in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Very tough one, this one. Nineteen in the shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Tara Fitzgerald as Bella in Gaslight at the Royal, Northampton in October.
In 4th place, Gemma Chan as Ruth in The Homecoming at the Trafalgar Studio in December.
In 3rd place, Tanya Moodie as Constance in King John at the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton, in April.
In 2nd place, Ophelia Lovibond as Connie in The Effect at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield in July.
In 1st place, Charlie Brooks as both Sandra in Beautiful Thing in May and especially as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire in October, both at the Curve Studio in Leicester.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

The most hotly fought for award, with twenty-three contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Nigel Barratt as Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, in April.
In 4th place, Jo Stone-Fewings as King John in King John, at the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton, in April.
In 3rd place, James McArdle as Platonov and Lvov in Chichester’s Young Chekhov season in October.
In 2nd place, Samuel West as Ivanov and Trigorin in Chichester’s Young Chekhov season in October.
In 1st place, James McAvoy as Jack in The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios in January 2015.

Theatre of the Year.

For the range and quality on offer, as well as the comfort and enjoyment of the whole theatre experience, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year – and thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Here’s to another wonderful year of theatre in 2016!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

The Man in the Brown SuitIn which we meet Anne Beddingfeld, orphaned (if you can be orphaned at her age) and inquisitive adventuress, who witnesses the death of a man at Hyde Park Corner tube station and subsequently gets caught up in a realm of intrigue which takes her from London to Marlow to South Africa, on the hunt for the mystery man named “the Colonel”. Unsurprisingly, she does discover his identity; but rest assured gentle reader, I won’t give the game (or the name) away.

MarlowChristie dedicated the book to her husband Archie’s old teacher, E A Belcher: “To E.A.B. In memory of a journey, some Lion stories and a request that I should some day write the Mystery of the Mill House“. He did indeed have a property called Mill House – in Dorney, although in the book Christie transports it to Marlow. She based the character of Sir Eustace Pedler on Belcher, and in her autobiography recalled how she found it very difficult to flesh him out in print until she hit on the brainwave of having Pedler narrate part of the book himself. Hence the book is three quarters narrated by Anne, and one-quarter by Pedler. The two different narrative voices add to the vitality and rhythm of the book, which is a very entertaining read, even though it is at times ridiculously far-fetched.

MilitaryOne of the criticisms of the book at the time of publication is that it was not a detective whodunit in the tradition of her earlier works, but more of a general thriller. Some were disappointed to find that Hercule Poirot does not make an appearance. You wouldn’t have guessed, reading this in 1924, that the one character in it who would feature in later Christie books would be Colonel Race; for although he plays an important part in the book, he doesn’t strike me as having much of a personality that would make him worthy of future inclusion. Christie obviously thought differently, as Sir Eustace points out when describing Race: “He’s good looking in his way, but dull as ditch water. One of these strong silent men that lady novelists, and young girls always rave over”. I think it’s a shame that Anne doesn’t reappear in later books – although she’s a bit bossy and a little patronising, using the knowledge she gleaned from her late father of Palaeolithic times to bully and intimidate, she’s nevertheless a jolly girl, with lots of spirit and daring, never flinching in the face of disaster. Still, I guess she ends up happy and contented – even if in a rather unconventional lifestyle for the time – and Christie felt it was best to leave her where she settled.

NurseAlthough you get the sense that Anne hasn’t had a very exciting life before the book starts, she’s clearly a thoughtful and perceptive person who makes insightful comments on life. “”My wife will be delighted to welcome you” insists Mr Flemming, her solicitor and wannabe guardian, when he offers her the chance to live with them for a while. “I wonder if husbands know as much about their wives as they think they do. If I had a husband, I should hate him to bring home orphans without consulting me first.”” Mrs Flemming is sweetness and light when they meet, but then she overhears their conversation. “A few minutes later another phrase floated up to me in an even more acid voice: “I agree with you! She is certainly very good looking.” It really is a hard life. Men will not be nice to you if you are not good looking and women will not be nice to you if you are.” Anne and Mrs Flemming rub along as best they can under the circumstances, until it is time for Anne to leave: “she was a good, kind woman. I could not have continued to live in the same house as her, but I did recognize her intrinsic worth”. She’s cheeky with Lord Nasby, she’s resourceful enough to save Harry Rayburn’s life with her nursing skills, and she’s even able to release herself from capture by cutting through the gag that binds her; but despite all that, when it comes to the crunch she’s more traditional than you might expect, in matters of the heart and stereotypical gender roles. In conversation with Colonel Race: “”So you don’t consider women as `weak things`?” I considered. “No, I don’t think I do – though they are, I suppose. That is, they are nowadays. But Papa always said that in the beginning men and women roamed the world together, equal in strength […] that is why women worship physical strength in men: it’s what they once had and have lost.”[…] “And you really think that’s true? That women worship strength, I mean?” “I think it’s quite true – if one’s honest. You think you admire moral qualities, but when you fall in love, you revert to the primitive, where the physical is all that counts.” Perhaps it’s no surprise when Anne backs down to Rayburn’s insistence that she leaves for Beira: “This is man’s work. Leave it to me.” The intertwining narrative from Sir Eustace makes an excellent contrast because he is disreputable, and, in common parlance, something of a perve; and it feels wrong that Anne should nevertheless quite like him, but she does. Women, eh? Just can’t understand them. They always like the bad boys.

SmutsSeveral times through the book Anne refers to The Perils of Pamela; presumably this is either a film or a book that has so far satisfied her need for adventure. Back in 1922 when this book is set, there was no such thing on the screen as The Perils of Pamela. There was, however, The Perils of Pauline, a series of melodramatic short films where our heroine got into tight scrapes before being rescued by a handsome man. If this is Anne’s staple entertainment, it’s really no surprise then that her views on the status of women put the sisterhood back by a number of years. Talking of 1922, it’s quite unusual for the author to pin down the actual date of a novel so precisely. In Christie’s book, The Kilmorden Castle set sail on 17th January 1922 bound for Cape Town. In reality, there is no such place as Kilmorden, let alone a castle standing there. Pedler joins the ship so that he can personally deliver secret papers to General Smuts, who was the South African Prime Minister from 1919 to 1924. It was indeed a time of social unrest in the country, with many instances of miners striking, so maybe Pedler’s rather savage desciptions of the industrial discontent (even seen from a right-wing British perspective) were not that far from the truth. The Christies had travelled round the world throughout 1922, including some time spent in South Africa, so no doubt she was keen to put to good use whatever observations she had made of the political and social situation there.

Victoria FallsIt also explains why the book at times loses focus and reminds you more of a travelogue than a thriller, the writer almost showing off about all the places they have visited. Cape Town, Johannesburg, Muizenberg, De Aar, Kimberley, Bulawayo, The Matoppos (now Matobo National Park, where Anne and Race visit Cecil Rhodes’ grave), The Karoo (the desert), The Victoria Falls, and an island on the Zambezi all feature distinctively. In Cape Town, Anne is followed round Adderley Street (one of the most notable streets in the city) and orders two coffee ice-cream sodas at Cartwright’s. The attention to detail regarding location in this book is somewhere between fascinating and overwhelming.

DiamondAs is often the case with Christie, the plot is based on an event that took place a long time in the past. In this instance, it’s the theft of some De Beer diamonds and the framing of two innocent prospectors into the bargain. These diamonds were apparently worth £100,000 when the theft took place, just before the war, according to the dancer Madame Nadina in the Prologue. That’s over £8m in today’s money. Not a bad haul; no wonder people died as a result. The other interesting sum of money that’s quoted in the book is the £87 that it costs Anne to travel 1st class on the Kilmorden Castle from Southampton to Cape Town. That’s about £3500 today. She got a bargain.

Passenger shipAlthough The Man in the Brown Suit predates Murder on the Orient Express by ten years, there were a couple of scenes that forcefully reminded me of that latter – and much better known – book. When Anne stays awake until 1am awaiting something to happen in her cabin – and it does – she is interrupted by a knock at the door by an inquiring night stewardess, whom Anne fobs off with an innocent denial. She looks down the corridor and can only see the “retreating form of the stewardess”. For some reason this strongly reminded me of the “story of a small dark man with a womanish voice dressed in Wagon Lit uniform” and a woman in a red kimono: “who was she? No one on the train admits to having a scarlet kimono. She too has vanished. Was she the one and the same with the spurious Wagon Lit attendant?” (both quotes from Murder on the Orient Express). Suspicions about the Rev Chichester also made me think of people playing parts in Murder on the OE. “If Mr Chichester had indeed spent the last two years in the interior of Africa, how was it that he was not more sun-burnt? His skin was as pink and white as a baby’s. Surely there was something fishy there? Yet his manner and voice were so absolutely it. Too much so perhaps. Was he – or was he not – just a little like a stage clergyman?” Of course, Christie would return to the idea of someone impersonating a clergyman in At Bertram’s Hotel.

Palaeolithic ManAs usual Mrs Christie gives us some unusual references, words and phrases for us 21st century types to decipher. First of all there are all Anne’s technical terms that she learned from her father, and that she uses to bamboozle opponents: “Frankly, I hate Palaeolithic Man, be he Aurignacian, Mousterian, Chellian, or anything else”. Aurignacian pertains (perhaps unsurprisingly) to Aurignac, in France, home of a Palaeolithic culture somewhere around 40,000 years ago. Mousterian relates to a period of Neanderthal Man earlier than the Aurignacian era, typified by the use of flints worked on one side only. It’s named after Le Moustier, the rock shelter area of the Dordogne. My OED states that both words were first used in the early 20th century – so Mrs Christie was spot on the ball with her up to date knowledge and terminology. Chellian, on the other hand, is a 19th century term that has fallen into disuse, but was the name given by the French Anthropologist G. de Mortillet to the first epoch of the Quaternary period when the earliest human remains were discovered, the word being derived from the French town Chelles. Anne is also into head shapes: Brachycephalic (short-headed), Dolichocephalic (long-headed) and Platycephalic (flat-headed); there may be a few more cephalics that I missed out.

AsafoetidaAnne doesn’t enjoy her first few days at sea. From the safety and security of her deckchair, she observes: “brisk couples exercising, curveting children, laughing young people”. What kind of children? To curvet – apparently – is to make a leaping or a frisking motion like a horse. When Anne retreats to her cabin she notices a dreadful smell: “Dead rat? No, worse than that….Asafoetida! I had worked in a hospital dispensary during the war for a short time and had become acquainted with various nauseous drugs.” Asafoetida is an acrid gum resin with a strong smell like that of garlic, obtained from certain Asian plants of the umbelliferous genus Ferula, and used in condiments. So now you know.

Upper BerthSir Eustace moans about having to play Brother Bill and Bolster Bar on board ship. Have you ever heard of these? I hadn’t. And after a bit of a search online and in my OED, I still can’t find anything that seems appropriate. If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know! Talk that his cabin might be haunted reminds him of The Upper Berth. This was a short ghost story published by Francis Marion Crawford in 1886 about a room on a train where passengers who have stayed overnight have died horrible deaths. And when he’s holding court telling his hunting adventures (seems in such bad taste today), he relates: “this friend of mine…was trekking across country, and being anxious to arrive at his destination before the heat of the day he ordered his boys to inspan whilst it was still dark.” Ordered them to do what? Apparently it’s a word of Afrikaans descent, meaning to yoke (oxen, horses, etc) in a team to a vehicle, or to harness a wagon. He also uses the phrase on the bust to mean “get drunk” – although I can’t see this usage anywhere else. I wonder if it’s an early example of on the p*ss?

Beche de merAnne refers to bêche-de-mer (useful if you visit the South Sea Islands). She says she doesn’t know what it is, and nor did I, so I looked it up and it’s an edible sea cucumber. I think I preferred not knowing. ““It would hardly be respectable,” said Suzanne, dimpling.” Dimpling? Does that mean making a dimple appear on your face? Apparently it does, but I’ve never come across it as a verb. Another odd word formation is: “I was to be arrested on some charge or other – pocket-picking, perhaps.” I’d never come across “pocket-picking” before. “Pickpocketing” would be a much more common phrase. I wondered if “pickpocket” was a recent word, but no, it’s been in use for 400 years. Weird one! Among the souvenirs that Anne and Suzanne consider buying are mealie bowls (South African term for maize) and fur karosses. A kaross is a cloak or sleeveless jacket like a blanket made of hairy animal skins, worn by the indigenous peoples of southern Africa (OED). Eardsley’s son is described as “quite a parti”. A what? Again from the OED: A person, especially a man, considered in terms of eligibility for marriage on grounds of wealth, social status, etc – originally a late 18th century term taken from French.

bibleAnd once again Christie shows my heathenry by offering a Bible quotation I don’t recognise. In conversation with Race, Anne says: “they win in the only way that counts. Like what the Bible says about losing your life and finding it.” A little research unearths two possible references. Matthew 10:39 – “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” But I think more likely: Luke 17:33 – “Whoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.”

So it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Man in the Brown Suit:

Publication Details: 1924. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1973. The cover illustration is the usual photo representing some of the clues or events of the book, but, interestingly, the artist got one of the details wrong. It shows the piece of paper dropped at the scene of the crime at Hyde Park Corner tube station. But it reads Kilmorden Castle 1. 7 22 and not Kilmorden Castle 17.1 22 as in the book. Sack the illustrator!

How many pages until the first death: 16; and then the second death is reported two pages later. A double whammy, one might say.

Funny lines out of context:
“In other words, the chimpanzee is a degenerate.”
“These earnest, hard-working young men with weak stomachs are always liable to bilious attacks.”
“Every now and then he galvanized himself to further efforts by ejaculating something that sounded like Platt Skeet”.

Memorable characters:
The two narrators are very lively characters, well drawn and full of quirkiness – especially Sir Eustace, with his frequent observations on the loveliness of ladies and the irritations of his colleagues.

Christie the Poison expert:
On vacation for this novel. Will no doubt be back soon.

Class/social issues of the time:

Foreigners – It wouldn’t be a Christie if she didn’t get some suspicions over foreigners in the text somewhere. Perhaps it’s no surprise that The Daily Budget is something akin to the Daily Mail of today: “In an upper room of the Mill House the body of a beautiful young woman was discovered yesterday, strangled. She is thought to be a foreigner…” Interesting that it’s not a foreigner that’s suspected of perpetrating the crime, but is the victim; it’s one of those examples of where there is a slight suspicion of “blame the victim”. Anne later goes on to interrogate the housekeeper at the Mill House. She saw the man suspected of being the murderer. “A nice-looking young fellow he was and no mistake. A kind of soldierly look about him – ah, well, I dare say he’d been wounded in the war, and sometimes they go a bit queer aftwards; my sister’s boy did. Perhaps she’d used him bad – they’re a bad lot, those foreigners.”

Also unsurprising that Pedler and his secretary Pagett have the same belief. “On the face of it, a Member of Parliament will be none the less efficient because a stray young woman comes and gets herself murdered in an empty house that belongs to him – but there is no accounting for the view the respectable British public takes of a matter. “She’s a foreigner too, and that makes it worse,” continued Pagett gloomily. Again I believe he is right. If it is disreputable to have a woman murdered in your house, it becomes more disreputable if the woman is a foreigner.”

Race – I’m still trying to make my mind up whether Christie is a latent racist or not. There are some very iffy comments that I’ve already read in the next book (see below), but I think on the whole the references to race in this book are simply the norm for the time. She uses the term “kafir” a great deal; she describes some of the souvenir tat as “absurd little black warriors” which feels a bit patronising to me; and there’s a rather awkward scene when Anne regains consciousness after an attempt on her life: “Someone put a cup to my lips and I drank. A black face grinned into mine – a devil’s face, I thought it, and screamed out.”

Classic denouement: It’s almost as though there are two denouements. The first occurs about two thirds of the way in, with the full explanation of Rayburn’s identity and his part in the story. The second, concerning the identity of “the Colonel”, slowly and excitingly becomes clear over a good twenty pages or more. And whilst it doesn’t have the classic Poirot-type set up of a room full of suspects and a man pointing “j’accuse!” it works in a much subtler and satisfying way. I had forgotten the identity of “the Colonel” and it came as quite a nail-biting surprise.

Happy ending? Of course. Anne and her man live happily ever after albeit in a rather unconventional manner and location. As for the master criminal, that person appears to get off scot-free. That might annoy the reader’s sense of justice, although Anne herself is not unhappy with the outcome.

Did the story ring true? Frankly, no! Of all the Christies I have re-read and written about so far, this is most definitely the most far-fetched. The plot leaps from coincidence to coincidence, and occasionally you have to break off and laugh at how monstrously Christie handles the reader’s credulousness.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. On the minus side you have the ridiculous coincidences that render the plot so unlikely as to make it laughable, its tendency to stray into travelogue and an awful lot of Barbara Cartland-like romantic nonsense towards the end that comes close to being nauseating. However, Christie gets away with it by having some extremely good characters, rather witty conversations and creating an old-fashioned “rattling good read”.

Secret of ChimneysThanks for reading my blog of The Man in the Brown Suit and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge it’s 1925, and time for The Secret of Chimneys. It sounds a little like an Enid Blyton adventure, but there I think the similarity ends. Still using her South African experiences, the story will also introduce us to Superintendent Battle – and that jolly girl that goes by the name of Bundle. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Show Boat, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2nd January 2016

Show BoatA dim and distant memory from my childhood is the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle playing an LP (that’s what they were called in those days) with highlights from Show Boat on one side and Roberta on the other. I remembered the tunes being, on the whole, pretty enjoyable. Pursuant to following up these memories, sometime in my 20s I discovered the album of Roberta (probably in Tower Records, remember that?) took it home, played it, hated it, and never played it again. However, I never got round to buying an album of Show Boat, and I guess the songs from that show left my conscious mind and settled somewhere in the back of my subconscious, waiting for an unlocking moment when I would finally get round to seeing a production of the show myself.

Cotton BlossomArtistic Director of the Crucible, Daniel Evans, is on his way south to taking up the reins at Chichester this summer. For his Sheffield Christmas musical swansong, he couldn’t have chosen a better production than Show Boat. Considered the first “modern” musical, it was adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel by no less than the renowned Jerome Kern and a still relatively young Oscar Hammerstein II. It was produced by the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld (of the Follies fame) and first hit the stage in 1927 with its significant multiracial cast and its, for the time, almost unique structure combining music, lyrics and libretto.

Frank and EllieThe show boat seems a quaint institution today, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America they were at the heart of bringing entertainment to communities outside the big cities. Ferber’s novel follows three generations of women through the history of running and working on one of these vessels. The musical adaptation concentrates less on the characterisation of the women and more on general life aboard the show boat, specifically the relationship between Magnolia and Gaylord from their hopeful beginnings to their somewhat desolate conclusion.

Rebecca TrehearnCaptain Andy runs the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that chugs up and down the Mississippi, full of actors, singers and dancers, backstage hands, kitchen staff and boat mechanics. Andy is married to the redoubtable Parthenia, and their daughter Magnolia is entranced by the glamour of life on board. She’s also entranced with handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal (you have to admit, these names are priceless today). Two of the boat’s leading performers, Julie and Steve, are charged with miscegenation, as it was illegal for a white man and a black woman to marry. Even though they evade the law, they are forced to leave the boat, as it was not acceptable for black people to appear before the white segregated audience. In retrospect it’s easy to see why this was such a ground-breaking show! Magnolia and Gaylord take Julie and Steve’s place, and eventually get married. They move to Chicago and have a daughter, Kim; but Gaylord’s gambling crashes out of control and, unable to support his family, he moves out. And I’ll leave the plot synopsis there because if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you!

Michael XavierI must draw your attention, gentle reader, to the fact that this is one of those edgy experiences in the theatre where some characters use the N word. It’s amazing the impact it can have on an audience. When Scout innocently blurted it out in To Kill a Mockingbird, we all winced. Its usage in Show Boat is possibly even more uncomfortable, as it both accompanies the mindless mistreatment of the black dock workers as well as the legal harassment of Steve and Julie. Still, IMHO, it’s better to include it than to sanitise the show, and, to be honest, you get great theatrical intensity out of it. Incidentally, why is it acceptable to use the N word on stage like this but that famous Agatha Christie book has now been substantially amended to And Then There Were None? I’m merely wondering about the inconsistency.

Gina BeckEnough of that, what about the score? It’s really one of history’s most rewarding musicals from a purely musical point of view. As the show started to unwrap my subconscious memories of the Dowager Mrs C singing along whilst attending to chores, I was amazed to realise how many superb and well-known songs are performed in this show. Ol’ Man River, of course, was no surprise – one of the most stirring, moving and simply beautiful songs ever to come out of musical theatre. But I couldn’t believe my ears when, just a little way into the show Gaylord and Magnolia sing Only Make Believe. It was like a sudden blast from the past hitting my auditory nerves. It’s such a sweet and touching song, and I don’t think I’ve heard it since maybe before I was a teenager. I had to fight back the urge to sing along, because all the words came to me instantly. Of course, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man is an absolute classic, and the show demonstrates how versatile it is by the number of different styles and arrangements that suit it perfectly. Bill is another sweet song that the Dowager used to perform at the drop of a hat – and is a complete show-stopper in this production. Originally written by Kern with P G Wodehouse in 1917, the words were later adapted by Hammerstein. And another old favourite suddenly appeared, that I had no idea was from this show – After The Ball. I would have put money on that being a Noel Coward song. Actually, neither is correct. It was written by Charles K Harris in 1892, and is simply borrowed for use in Show Boat, as an example of a typical type of song that might have been sung in that era. Captain Andy encourages us, the audience, to sing along – although he doesn’t actually mean us, he means the audience who were watching Magnolia perform that song in the Trocadero on that New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, I needed no second bidding and gave it my all, much to the embarrassment of Mrs Chrisparkle. I couldn’t help it. As Cat Stevens once said, I can’t keep it in, I just gotta let it out.

Lucy BriersThe production is a credit to everyone involved. When you find out the sets are by Lez Brotherston, you know they are going to be superb – and they are. David White’s band produce a fantastic sound from their little subterranean cubbyhole. Alistair David’s choreography is fresh and lively, using the maximum space that the Crucible can allow and incorporating many different styles. And the amazing cast, studded with people who are absolutely at the top of their game, perform with true commitment and sincerity, producing some scenes of real raw emotion, as well as musical delight.

Emmanuel KojoIn fact I was surprised – and excited – to see so many names in the cast whose work I’ve been lucky enough to see before and have really enjoyed. Gina Beck, whom I last saw when she was pouring me a drink at the cabaret tables in the excellent Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, brings youthful enthusiasm to the young Magnolia, and dignified regret and grim determination to the sadder Magnolia of later years. She has a wonderful purity to her voice, and gives a very personal expression to all her songs. It’s a great performance. She’s matched, in the marriage stakes at least, by the fantastic Michael Xavier, who we last saw giving it large as Cornelius in the Curve’s Hello Dolly. He cuts a dashing figure as the young Gaylord – and I found his portrayal of the pitifully washed-up older man very moving. Of course, he sings with amazing resonance and clarity, and the two perform together brilliantly.

Allan CordunerEveryone who goes to see Show Boat will be looking forward to – and have high expectations of – the performance of Ol’ Man River. So no pressure there! It falls to Emmanuel Kojo to take the part of Joe, whom we last saw as one of the Scottsboro Boys, and he takes to it like the proverbial duck to water. Tremendous raw emotion, a quiet, solid dignity, highly believable as an ordinary, hard-working man with no prospect of ever bettering himself, but strangely secure in his own position. You might think that the show will centre on this song, but in fact it comes quite early on, and, although there are a couple of reprises, it’s not the essence of the show in the way that you might suspect. Joe has his Queenie, the Cotton Blossom’s cook, played by the powerful Sandra Marvin, whom we last saw dishing it out as the devious Mama Morton in Chicago. Ms Marvin gives us the moving Mis’ry’s Coming Aroun’, the uplifting Hey Feller, and, with Mr Kojo, the two of them combine with great humour and a lightness of touch for the utterly charming I Still Suits Me – think of a 1920s Mississippi version of Alesha Dixon’s The Boy Does Nothing. If the likes of Ellie and Frank are on the way up in this world, and Magnolia and Gaylord are on the way down, Joe and Queenie represent a constant level; forever working hard to stay in the same place, rather like the incessant flow of the ol’ man river itself, they just keep rolling along.

Alex Young and Danny CollinsAlex Young (brilliant in both last year’s Anything Goes and the touring High Society a few years ago gives another chirpy and cute performance as Ellie, the rising star, and she is matched by the brilliant Danny Collins, a fantastic dancer whose performances we have enjoyed both as part of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty company and Drew McOnie’s Drunk, here giving us his full stagey showdance routines. Allan Corduner is a bluff and avuncular Captain Andy, and Lucy Briers perfect as the grim and grumpy Parthy, seriously channelling what Captain Andy calls her “mean disposition”. We saw her recently equally grim and grumpy in the Young Chekhov season at Chichester, and before that in the Royal and Derngate’s Ayckbourn season back in 2009. I’d love to see her play a cheerful role for a change! I also really enjoyed the performances of Rebecca Trehearn as Julie and Bob Harms as Steve (and many other characters) – Mr Harms is getting to be a bit of a regular in Sheffield, and that can only be A Good Thing. I’m not going to mention everyone, but the entire cast get behind the show with such attack and talent that the show whizzes past in the blink of an eye.

Sandra Marvin and Emmanuel KojoAnother great Christmas Crucible production. I waited many years finally to see Show Boat on stage and it was well worth the wait! It’s on till 23rd January so you still have time to jump aboard the Cotton Blossom. My only hope now is that Daniel Evans’ successor will be equally as adept at staging these great musicals – and that Mr Evans will also have the opportunity to bring his own aptitude for musicals to the Chichester programme; that would be a win-win!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Aladdin, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 2nd January 2016

AladdinEvery year Mrs Chrisparkle and I take Lady Duncansby and her butler, Sir William, for a panto and musical weekend in Sheffield. We stay overnight (usually at the Mercure, if their rates are reasonable), do lunch, do dinner, do drinkies, star-watch in the Crucible Corner after the evening show then end up in the Mercure bar until the wee small hours. It’s a splendid tradition and we love it.

Damian WilliamsWe discovered the Sheffield Lyceum panto five years ago and wouldn’t miss it for the world. It’s unlike any other panto I know, primarily because it always stars Damian Williams as the dame, and you can’t get a more perfect casting anywhere. He does have a tendency to dominate the show, but that’s part of the fun. The Lyceum panto always books up early in the year, and the audience is always filled with children transfixed with glee in a way you rarely see.

Chris GascoyneThere are some staples from previous pantos that always get a re-run. It wouldn’t be a Lyceum panto without the Lyceum bench, featuring, in this show, Widow Twankey, Wishee Washee and PC Pongo, sitting on it to sing a super fast version of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, whilst Egyptian mummies steal in behind them, so that we can all shout out “they’re behind you!” “What? A mummy? Is there? Well, we’ll have to do it again then won’t we!” It’s a script we all know and love and the audience plays along in full voice. It wouldn’t be a Lyceum panto without a patter gag sketch – in the past we’ve seen them do puns on singers and groups, and perfumes and aftershaves – this year it was about newspapers and magazines, very cleverly weaving publication names into a running gag which, amongst other things, gave Twankey plenty of opportunity to tease Wishee about his Gay Times.

Hilary O'NeilI don’t think we got an Oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is sequence this year; but we did get Twankey, Wishee and Pongo doing the Twelve Days of Christmas, where of course the stage gets messier and messier as Pongo is subjected to (at least) 60 accurately-chucked custard pies. This year, on the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve super soakers. How thoughtful of my true love. Absolutely no one in the stalls was safe. We were in the middle of Row P – you would have thought that was far enough away from the stage to stay dry. Not a bit of it. Wishee hurtled up the right aisle splashing and soaking as he went and we all copped a complete faceful of water. Several times. Fortunately, it was very funny. I’m not known for my sense of humour when it comes to being soaked; but, through the sheer cheekiness of the performers and the resigned knowledge that we were sitting ducks, it really worked.

Wishee, Pongo and TwankeyThe main supporting cast brought with them some more running gags simply by virtue of who they were or who they were playing. Chris Gascoyne – better known for playing Peter Barlow in Coronation Street, apparently, we don’t watch it – played a hammy wannabe Shakespearian actor type of Abanazar, whose seriousness and pomposity was permanently punctured by everyone opening every conversation with him with a surprised “hello, Peter!” much to his fury. A simple device, but very funny. Hilary O’Neil (excellent in Jack and the Beanstalk in Northampton a few years ago) played the Spirit of the Ring, marking each entry with yet another very funny impersonation, so that you never quite knew who she would come on as next. Alex Winters (a CBeebies presenter not known to us!) played Wishee Washee with enthusiasm but primarily acting as “friend to the children in the audience” and straight man to Damian Williams. Eddie Elliott played the Genie as an over-the-top wise-cracking dude straight out of some American reality show – and very funny he was too. Among the rest of the cast, Jonathan Halliwell was a youthful and exuberant Aladdin, and James Mitchell a much put-upon and long-suffering Pongo. But all the cast gave great support with their singing and dancing.

Jonathan HalliwellHowever, there is a however. For some reason, that I’ve not been able to fathom, this wasn’t quite as enjoyable as previous Lyceum pantomimes. It may be that the script was not quite as funny as usual; it may be that some of the characterisation wasn’t quite as spot-on as on previous occasions. It may be (I really hope not) that we have got a little tired of the formula. Mrs C even nodded off on a couple of occasions – that really shouldn’t happen in a pantomime, it should be far too engaging and noisy for that. I think overall it just lacked a little finesse. A good example of this came at the end with the curtain calls. Mr Williams was left till last, which is fine because he is the star and we do like to give him a good round of applause – and he came to the stage, descending from the Gods on Aladdin’s magic carpet. Great idea; trouble is, when he landed at the end, there was nothing for him to do but to get slowly unharnessed by stagehands and then just nip round the back, as the curtain had already come down on the rest of the cast. What should have been a grand entrance became a graceless one.

However, don’t let this put you off booking for Snow White next Christmas – we’ll still be booking for it!

Production photos by Robert Day.

Review – Waste, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 30th December 2015

WasteThe final instalment of our post-Christmas London Theatre Splurge was to see Waste at the Lyttelton, written by Harley Granville Barker in 1907. It was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, was subsequently revised in 1927, and finally staged in a public theatre in 1936. It was high time I saw this play, having researched stage censorship in my early 20s. I still find anything to do with censorship (particularly on stage) totally fascinating, as you will realise from this review! In October 1907, 71 dramatists wrote to complain about the extent of censorship and Waste was a major catalyst for the revolt. Barker spent much of his post-Waste life campaigning for the withdrawal of stage censorship. There seemed to be a particular concern that when a serious play, which questions the establishment and makes you think, utilised subject matter which the censor would list under “dicey”, it was more likely to fall foul of the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen than, say, a drawing-room comedy with similar content. Brookfield, the individual Examiner of Plays to whom it fell to read and judge the play, loathed it so much that he dubbed it Sewage.

Charles EdwardsHenry Trebell is a very able MP, Independent and much admired; and the Tory government, under the leadership of Cyril Horsham, wants to encourage him to join the cabinet. Trebell is particularly interested in putting forward proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England – a thorny issue, but one that attracts support in certain influential areas. However, Trebell’s private life is a bit of a mess. He treats women with flirtatious contempt; as a result, most eligible women don’t touch him with the proverbial bargepole, but some women enjoy the danger of his attention. One such woman is Amy O’Connell, estranged from her once respectable husband (who’s now only gone and joined Sinn Fein, would you believe, Lord love a duck). Sometime between the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two, Trebell and Amy have had a relationship; they have parted; he has gone travelling, and returned; and she has tracked him down to his offices to announce that she is pregnant. Not the best situation for a prospective cabinet member. Worse, she insists on having an abortion. He doesn’t go along with this idea but is powerless to stop her. What happens next? I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t already know.

Olivia WilliamsIt was the whole business of abortion that was too much for the censor. The final scene of the play, which also contains rather iffy subject matter as far as the censor was concerned, was pretty much ignorable in comparison to the abortion. As long as this illegal operation (as they termed it) was being bandied about on stage, the play would remain unlicensed. Apparently particular offence was taken at the suggestion that a doctor (so revered in those days) would undertake such a procedure. Barker refused to yield to Brookfield’s pressure to “moderate” his plot and his terminology, and thus it went unperformed for almost 30 years, apart from a private performance under the aegis of the Stage Society (one of those “theatre club” ways you could use to get round the censor).

Michael ElwynEven today, abortion is a very hot topic and the subject of much debate. Disestablishment of the Church, too, is very relevant, especially with the current trend in developing faith schools, and continued uncertainty as to what part bishops should play in the House of Lords. And we still love to snigger over the sex lives of politicians, especially when it thwarts their political ambitions. There’s a lot of very meaty substance to this play and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both found it very engrossing, well-written, not without humour and extremely thought-provoking. So I was baffled when, en route to the bar for our half-time Shiraz, I overheard a guy saying to his friend: “it’s a good play but this is SO badly directed…..” and then he went out of earshot.

Paul HickeyTrue, it’s not staged like a typical Edwardian drama. There are no comfy leather armchairs, warm fires, leather-bound libraries, or French windows with glimpses of tennis courts in the distance. Instead, Hildegard Bechtler has designed a monochrome, featureless set, with huge walls that slide from side to side to compliment the Lyttelton’s own safety curtain which has always amused me with the way it goes up and down. Apart from some messy desks at Trebell’s house, props are kept to a minimum. It is rather a disquieting set-up, but I think it works, encouraging the audience to concentrate on the spoken word rather than peripherals, creating a stark and sterile environment where only black and white survives. When the walls move for scene changes, your sight is struck by the geometric shapes that are created, and with much of the stage out of sight there is a suggestion that you are literally only seeing part of the bigger picture. The design was all rather clever and eerie, and I rather enjoyed the tricks that the designer played on me, including that rather significant waste paper basket.

Charles Edwards and Olivia WilliamsThere are also some fine performances. Charles Edwards is perfect as Trebell, balancing public decency with private impropriety, married to his work, brashly defending his situation to the Tory VIPs, upset at Amy’s pregnancy but more for how it will inconvenience him than for what it does to her. Olivia Williams is also excellent as Amy, nicely spoilt and outspoken in the first scene so that you get a really good insight into her character, then rather coquettish in love in the second. Once she is pregnant she gives a great account of someone who is deeply upset and trying to hide it, knowing she will have to go into battle alone, with her reputation shattered. It’s a very moving performance.

Andrew Havill and Charles EdwardsSylvestra le Touzel gives great support as Trebell’s faithful sister Frances, trying to guide him in the right direction but in reality indulging him to make serious mistakes; it’s a very convincing portrayal of someone who has sacrificed themselves for another. There also a few terrific cameo performances – Paul Hickey as Justin O’Connell comes in unexpectedly as the soul of reasonableness, with a very fine dignified performance; Louis Hilyer is superb as the bluff and gruff self-made northerner Blackborough; and perhaps best of all Doreen Mantle as Lady Mortimer, politely observing everything that goes on but delivering some deadly lines with wicked timing; she can fill the Lyttelton with laughter with just one blink of an eye. But it’s a long and ambitious play, during which the entire cast regularly come in and out of the action, creating an excellent ensemble feel. We both particularly enjoyed the third act, where Trebell’s actions are dissected and discussed with no thought for anyone or anything but the Good of the Party. It reminded Mrs C of a Management Team meeting.

I highly recommend both the play and the production. Riveting stuff, and still very relevant today.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – War Horse, New London Theatre, 30th December 2015

War HorseThe news that War Horse would finally be closing its stable door on 12th March reminded me of our sin of omission in still not having seen it yet, and prompted me to get tickets for the matinee on 30th December. This National Theatre production opened at the Olivier in 2007, came back in 2008 and opened at the New London Theatre in March 2009, where it has been faithfully hoofing it ever since. Everyone who has seen it says how moving it is, so I wanted to see for myself how much it tugs at the heartstrings.

AlbertBased (as I’m sure you know) on Michael Morpurgo’s much acclaimed novel, the play was adapted by Nick Stafford, who, I note, also adapted the Royal and Derngate’s The Go-Between a few years ago. Looking back, although I appreciated that Mr Stafford re-worked The Go-Between so that it was completely different from its earlier incarnations, I wasn’t that convinced that his adaptation worked; but then I am a great fan of the film and the book. I’ve not read Mr Morpurgo’s book, so I don’t have that baggage of comparison to deal with. But Mr Stafford doesn’t need me to tell him he has a winner on his hands here.

Arthur and RoseCovering the years 1914 – 1918, here’s the story in a nutshell. It’s all about Joey, a horse bought at auction for the extravagant sum of 39 guineas by Arthur Narracott, determined to outbid his brother, Ted. Arthur’s son Albert is given the foal to train and to nurture and a great bond is formed between the two. In a further act of rivalry between the brothers, Ted challenges Arthur that if Joey can be taught to plough in one week, Ted will pay Arthur the 39 guineas (which he badly needs). Otherwise, Joey will be given to Ted’s son Billy. But against the odds, Albert trains Joey to plough and gets to keep him. Then the war starts, and Ted sells Joey to the army. When Albert realises that the Lieutenant in charge of Joey at war has been killed, he lies about his age and enlists in order to look after the horse. But Joey is captured, and Albert cannot find him. Will the two be reunited? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Young JoeyIf you’ve seen any promotional material about the play you will know that the representation of the horses and other animals is performed through large scale puppetry, courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company. Three actors/puppeteers control the head, the body and the hind quarters respectively of each horse, and you quickly forget they’re there. They bring the animals to life with amazing resonance, and a genuine feel and understanding of not only how their bodies move, but also how they express emotions, like love and fear. The structure of the puppets allows them to gain enormous height on stage so that, despite the very wide and rangey feel of the stage, they eclipse everything else on view. Combined with dramatic lighting and sound effects, the puppet horses are simply stunning to see.

TopthornAs for the story itself, it portrays the bond between man and horse with great simplicity, dignity and affection. You get the feeling there hasn’t been a lot of affection or purpose in young Albert’s life to date, and as a result Joey becomes more or less everything to him. On the face of it, his joining up so that he can follow Joey to war, is at best reckless and at worst pointless. When he gets there, the play doesn’t shy away from conveying the horrors of the battlefield; and although there’s nothing too graphic, it nevertheless pulls you up short and creates a great contrast with the rural idyll of Devon that went before. This is what Albert is prepared to put himself through to be reunited with Joey.

JoeyCall me hard-hearted, but I did feel that the story got bogged down a little in the second act. The scenes that centred on the character of Emilie, the French farm girl who assists the German Officer Müller to look after the horses, for me, at least, dragged somewhat. Nevertheless, Müller is an interesting and strangely challenging character, showing that even Wartime Germans can be kind to animals and can love their families. And was it moving? Well, I did find it generally quite raw on the nerves, but nothing more; until the penultimate scene, when the floodgates opened. Fortunately, I was far from the only one in the auditorium reaching for the Kleenex. A woman in the row in front almost had to be helped out. Mrs Chrisparkle teased me for my emotional reaction; then a little while later confessed that she too had something in her eye. Yeah, right.

Ploughing victoryThere were some very good performances; it goes without saying that the three teams of puppeteers who portrayed Joey, both as a horse and a foal, and Topthorn, another war horse, were technically amazing. James Backway was brilliant as Albert, a very honest, open and idealistic portrayal of a young man willing to risk everything. Alasdair Craig made a very good job of teasing with our patriotic emotions by portraying Müller as a recognisably decent man. Simon Wolfe and Jayne McKenna conveyed the reserve and frustrations of Albert’s parents with very great credibility. And I did enjoy the performance of Alan Francis as Sgt Thunder; we’ve seen Mr Francis three times before as a stand-up comic at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton, and his comic delivery as a stand-up definitely proves itself to be a transferable skill where it comes to comic acting. Colm Gormley was a good Ted Narracott but I did find it difficult to understand everything he said. At one stage I thought he was talking about “pleb” – in fact he said it several times and it never made any sense. It was only in the subsequent scene where Albert was teaching Joey to “plough”, that I understood what he meant. That’s accents for you. One final big up for Ben Murray, as the “Songman”, acting as a unifying thread between the scenes with his very evocative and enjoyable folk singing.

Nicholls is deadAn emotional show, and I’m very glad we finally caught it. I believe the War Horses are being put out to pasture for a year or so after the production closes but there will be a UK tour sometime in 2017. You can’t keep a good Joey down for long.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Review – The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios, 28th December 2015

The Homecoming“Got anything planned for this afternoon?” asked the bright young podiatrist earlier, as she committed acts of creamy lubrication to my battered old tootsies. “I’m going to write about a play we saw over Christmas” I replied. “Which play?” “A 1965 play by Harold Pinter called The Homecoming.” “What’s it about?” “Well…” I paused. “It’s about a father, and his three sons, two of them live with him, and the third one, he comes back to see them – that’s the homecoming of the title – and he brings his new wife with him.” I paused again. “And then the whole family uses her. For, erm, sexual purposes.” I felt the podiatrist just lose a slight grip of my foot. “That’s… odd,” she said warily. “Yes,” I replied. “What’s odder is that the wife seems perfectly happy about the arrangement.” She put my foot down and looked me in the eye. “That is odd”. “I believe it’s meant to be symbolic of something,” I lamely added; “symbolic of what, though, I haven’t quite worked out yet.”

Ron CookThere’s no denying it, this is a very odd play. Back when I was fifteen I took it on myself to read all of Pinter’s plays that he had written to date – that took me up to No Man’s Land. I found his landscape of veiled threats, black comedy, wretched lives and hidden pasts weirdly stimulating and captivating. But none of his plays surprised or intrigued me more than The Homecoming. A man brings his wife back to meet his family and before long they’re planning how they’re going to make money out of her by setting her up in Greek Street, and how they’re going to pass her round the family as though she were a blow-up doll. Meanwhile she doesn’t move a muscle to dissuade them from this new arrangement, and her husband goes back to their sons by himself with little apparent sense of rejection – indeed, it’s he who suggests that she will have to “pull her weight financially” if she stays.

John SimmWhy? Why would this be a natural conclusion to the story for any of the characters involved? OK, it’s an all-male household, and no doubt since the wife/mother Jessie passed away there hadn’t been much of an outlet for some “male needs” to be attended to (although thinking in terms of mother/son relationships, that’s a bit yukky). You can try to attribute all sorts of motivations and meanings to the play; maybe Teddy is bringing back his wife as some fertility sacrifice for the Greater Good of the Family. Alternatively, maybe she’s just a slag. Mrs Chrisparkle thinks Ruth is mentally ill, which, if true, creates a whole new scenario of abusive relationships to consider. No matter which way you look at this play, its outcome inhabits a completely alien morality.

John Simm in redThe production – which works extremely well, I hasten to add – is full of portentous light and sound effects which really add to a sense of stylised drama and crisis. This encourages the audience, I think, to look for meaning and significance where, perhaps, there really is none. Pinter’s stage directions, whilst by no means sparse, don’t give any indication of symbolism or other meanings. Things simply are what they are. You may choose to invest this play with meanings; the missing back wall might represent the missing female influence; the “homecoming” might be Ruth’s “coming home to herself”. But I think this is a play you can overcomplicate. Maybe it is just a glimpse into the machinations of one slightly weird family. If you think that renders the play banal, perhaps its strength is actually its ability to recognise its own banality. Having said all that – see the postscript below for another possibility.

Ron Cook going upstairsA mark of a good Pinter production is how they handle the pauses. If the pauses feel unnatural, or as though someone’s forgotten their lines, they’re not doing it right. If the pauses feel natural, or even better, if you don’t notice them at all, then they’ve got it spot on. Interestingly, given that Jamie Lloyd has directed this production within a very stylised framework (lights, bangs, a vivid red frame surrounding the set) the conversations flow perfectly. Certainly the very naturalistic performances make an intriguing contrast with the otherwise artificial presentation, which leaves you, the audience member, feeling unnerved and ill at ease.

Gary KempMax, the patriarch of the family, is played by Ron Cook and it’s a role he was born to play. Max is the archetypal “nasty little man”, full of sarcasm, self-pity, and bullying aggression, and Mr Cook conveys those characteristics with deadly credibility. There are a couple of passages where the text suggests that Max might have been, shall we say, “over-friendly” with his sons on bath nights or when “tucking them up” in bed, and that lingering sense of misdemeanour hangs horribly successfully in the atmosphere. I loved – if that’s the right word – his changes of vocal tone from gruff antagonist to wheedling beggar. It’s a fantastic performance.

Gemma ChanAlso superb, and notable for his vocal performance, is John Simm as Lenny. We saw Mr Simm in another Pinter play, Betrayal, in Sheffield a few years ago and he is one actor who you feel really understands what the writer is getting at. Mr Simm plays Lenny as rather superior, rather cunning and definitely self-centred (a chip off the old block one might say) and gives him a slightly whiny, spivvy voice; he reminded me of a cat, playfully teasing his mouse, letting it get so far, whilst at any minute he might unleash a lethal swipe. He’s a control freak; and when he loses control – as in some of his dealings with Ruth – Mr Simm really makes you feel his discomfort.

Gemma Chan and Ron CookGary Kemp – whose programme biog completely omits any reference to Spandau Ballet, which is weird, I’d be very proud if I’d written those songs – feels nicely out of place as the returning son Teddy, reassuring himself with the surroundings of the family home, having (allegedly) gone to America some time ago to become a Professor of Philosophy. He’s a fish out of water both in terms of his old family and his wife, as there seems to be no closeness between them. He comes across as a man full of worries, which, given the circumstances, seems quite appropriate; and when he leaves at the end, it’s as though he knew this would be the outcome all along. In a role where the audience is looking for some kind of recognisable normality and comfort, he refuses to give it; which emphasises the overall sense of unease. Nice work.

John Simm and Gemma ChanFor the performance we saw, the role of Sam was taken by his understudy, Geoffrey Towers, and he was extremely good. Perhaps the one character in the play with any sense of decency, you could just feel that he hated every moment of living in that household, with his belligerent brother constantly impugning his masculinity. John Macmillan plays Joey, the youngest brother, the one for whom the family wit and intelligence ran out before he was born. Demolition by day, boxer by night, his punch-drunk accent strayed slightly into caricature I felt; but maybe that was the idea.

John MacmillanBut it’s Gemma Chan’s characterisation of Ruth that is the star of the show. Initially ill at ease, once she comes back from her “breath of air”, and she meets Lenny, she’s completely in command; gently manipulative, precise in her actions, clear in her language but oh so ambiguous in her meaning. After Lenny has challenged Teddy to explain what a table is, philosophically speaking, there’s a wonderful scene where Ruth intimates her own brand of personal philosophy. When she talks of moving her leg, it’s just a movement; but her underwear moves with it, so it might have greater significance. She moves her leg to demonstrate. It’s a simple action, but so sexually charged that you could hear the legendary pin drop. It’s a beautifully controlled, expressive and stunning performance.

An engrossing and enjoyable night at the theatre – but it’s still a very odd play.

P.S. Ruth’s leg movement might also be Pinter’s way of telling you that you can view this play simply on face value or with a greater significance – and both might be correct. Or not. What do you think?

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Kinky Boots, Adelphi Theatre, 28th December 2015

Kinky BootsGreetings gentle reader! I trust you had a splendid Christmas and New Year’s break. During the holidays Mrs Chrisparkle and I snuck our way in to see six productions – well, we paid to see them, we didn’t steal in and hope no one would notice. So I’d better start writing about them!

On the conveyor beltFirst up was a trip to the Adelphi Theatre for the matinee performance of Kinky Boots on Monday 28th December. For what it’s worth, in my forty-eight years of theatregoing, these tickets were the most expensive we’ve ever paid for a show – £95. That got us central seats in Row J of the Stalls, and in all fairness they were very good seats indeed. I’m quite fond of the Adelphi; it was one of the first London theatres I visited as a child (to see Charlie Girl in 1969), and it’s quite a treat to enjoy the building if you like a spot of Art Deco.

Lola and the AngelsI had a special interest in seeing this show; not because I’m (particularly) into kinky boots, but because I am a Northampton lad. The only other play or show that I can think of that is set (in part) in Northampton is a couple of scenes in Shakespeare’s King John. It’s so easy to decry one’s hometown – you only have to go to a comedy night when the visiting comic shouts out “What’s Northampton Like?” and at least a sizeable minority will shout back “it’s sh*t!” That happens everywhere. But I really like Northampton. It’s friendly, it’s attractive, it’s varied, it’s well located, it’s good value and it’s a beacon of excellence in The Arts. In my opinion, it’s not remotely sh*t. Shame, then, that one of the characters in Kinky Boots can’t wait to get away from the place and move to happening London, and another of the characters is so Neanderthal and prejudiced in his outlook that he gives the place a bad name. I’ve noted in the past that Northampton audiences may not be the world’s most sophisticated but we are never prejudiced! I remember thinking how great it would have been if Kinky Boots had been premiered at the Royal and Derngate. However, having seen it, I actually think that would have been a considerable mistake as the jibes about the place could easily rub a loyal East Midlander up the wrong way.

Lauren and CharlieNeither of us had seen the film on which the musical is based, but if you need one, here’s a brief outline. Young Charlie Price is heir to a shoe and boot factory in Northampton – Price and Sons. Charlie has no interest in following the family career, and his girlfriend, Nicola, is even less interested (she’s the one who can’t wait to get out). However, Charlie’s father (and director of the business) unexpectedly dies and it’s up to Charlie either to take on the mantle of the factory, or let it fizzle out and with it plunge all the staff into unemployment. Faced with that problem, and much to the dismay of his girlfriend, Charlie decides to give the factory a go. But it’s haemorrhaging money left right and centre. It’s only when he meets Lola – a particularly fabulous drag queen – that he gets the idea of specialising the business into the production of 2 feet 6 inches of tubular sex; a.k.a. glamorous boots that will specifically take the weight of a hefty bloke. Lola is recruited as designer and they aim to launch the range of kinky boots at a fashion show in Milan. But the course of true footwear manufacture never runs smooth, so will their quest be a hit or a miss? Will Charlie establish a successful change in the business, or will it just fold, and become a site for redevelopment into swanky flats as his girlfriend wants. You’ll have to watch the show to find out.

LaurenSometimes shows are precisely as good as you expect them to be; sometimes they’re not the sum of their parts. This is one of those happy occasions where it genuinely exceeds the sum of its parts! It has an excellent pedigree: book by Harvey Fierstein (surely no one’s going to get under the skin of a drag queen as expertly as Mr Fierstein) and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper (the perfect combination of bright pop music and funny/clever/optimistic lyrics). It’s directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, provider of pizazz to such fun shows as Legally Blonde, La Cage Aux Folles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Peter White’s band fairly whacks out the songs with gusto, and David Rockwell’s set is immensely satisfying, from the absolutely perfect depiction of the façade of a typical Northampton Footwear Factory, to a seemingly fully functioning workshop set up inside. The inventive use of factory conveyor belts to create a dynamic and moving platform on which to dance was one of the most enjoyable things I’d seen all year!

Big numberThere are some terrific performances which really bring the show to life – and no more so than the central character of Lola, played by Matt Henry. He brings such personality and joy to the stage that it’s impossible not to smile with him all the way through the show. There’s no mistaking that he’s a big bloke, Lola’s no shrinking violet; and it comes as no surprise that she has a mean uppercut when it comes to defending herself in the boxing ring. Mr Henry has a magnificent voice and stage presence and really does carry the show with him all the way. When he dresses and appears as his true self – Simon from Clacton – it’s amazing how he visibly self-diminishes into a meek and subdued person; it’s as though he is playing two characters. I also really loved the performance of Amy Lennox as Lauren, the factory worker who takes Charlie to task and challenges him to make a go of the business. She has a brilliant song, The History of Wrong Guys, which is pure Cyndi Lauper, where she tries her utmost not to fall in love with Charlie – and then gives up trying. It’s extremely funny but also very sincerely and rather movingly performed.

Real bootsKillian Donnelly plays Charlie Price with surefooted ease. Although he’s the main character, it’s not the most interesting role, as much of what takes place happens to him or for him rather than by him. But I did enjoy the developing friendship between him and Lola and there’s no doubt that Mr Donnelly is a very safe pair of hands and has a great voice. Amy Ross plays his girlfriend Nicola with a nice degree of hard-heartedness; Jamie Baughan takes on the role of Don, the homophobic Neanderthal, which can’t be an easy experience in a show like this, and you really believe what a nasty piece of work he is. The six actors who play The Angels also make very convincing and entertaining drag queens. In fact, I’ll let you into a secret – it was only when I read the cast list during the interval that I realised the performers were all men. I thought that probably at least one was; and maybe a couple of the others looked a bit rough; but I had no idea they all were! Simple, innocent me.

Charlie and NicolaAll in all a very entertaining and well produced show which kept the audience happy throughout. I can even forgive it (just about) for being so negative about Northampton. I’m sure it will do great business!

Angels and LolaP.S. Those flats that Nicola wanted to create from the shell of the factory – they’re described as luxury riverside apartments. Riverside? Yes, we do have the good old River Nene but it goes nowhere near the Boot and Shoe Quarter (as the Council has rechristened The Mounts). Back to the drawing board with that one, literally.

In the officeP.P.S. We discovered that the husband of an ex-colleague of Mrs C went to school with the original Kinky Boots Man on whom this story is based. Fiction and fact colliding in the streets of Northamptonshire, who would have believed it? Apparently the factory has closed again. Ah well, at least they made a good musical out of it.

Production photos by Johan Persson.