Eurovision You Decide, The UK National Final at the O2 Forum, Kentish Town, 26th February 2016

Pete WatermanIt’s hard to believe but it has been six years* since the UK had a Proper National Final where the public could choose both the song and the performer that would represent the country at the Eurovision Song Contest. How well I remember the excitement of six years ago. I even wrote a blog post in amazement that the one and only Pete Waterman – oodathortit – would be in charge of our entry that year. I implored him to write a great song, to be fully involved in the process, to make us all proud. Sigh. Compare that with what actually happened. It was a rubbish song, he’d never seen a Eurovision stage since the 1980s and his support to our winning act was – let’s be charitable – invisible. To be fair, we had some excellent performers to choose from. Josh Dubovie is terrific at the Michael Buble style of music. Alexis Gerred has carved out a very successful career in musical theatre. Esma – well, having forgotten her words during the show, she’s done well to apply herself at the London School of Economics and go on to do Good Things. Josh won that contest with a song that was completely unsuited to his style; he went to Oslo with a dog’s dinner of a staging, was hung out to dry and came a stonking good last.

BlueSince then we’ve been down the road of internal selections. Blue was a good bet, and had a good song, but the vocals and the staging again let them down at the big show. Engelbert was a risky strategy, being completely the wrong kind of singer (and age); if his song had appeared anywhere other than first or second in the running order it may have got a few votes simply by being an antidote to the more regular Eurovision fayre. As it was, it was sung first and therefore was the antidote to nothing, and was bizarrely saved from last place by the much better Tooji from Norway. Bonnie was the same risky strategy; she also made a mess of the jury final and came 23rd, with a lot of help from a sympathetic Irish vote. In 2014 Molly was a step in the right direction but she made poor eye contact with the audience, and gave a thoroughly introverted performance, fully deserving of its 17th place. Last year Electro Velvet gave us a 1920s song but with a 1990s presentation – two excellent performers but just very wrong for contemporary Eurovision.

Colin BerryAnd so we reach 2016, and a proper contest in a proper venue, with six songs and performers, the majority of whom sounded perfectly contemporary to me (although what do I know) and none of them were sufficiently gimmicky to make us quake with fear when it comes to May. It was a school day, so Mrs Chrisparkle was conducting high level business meetings until 4pm and didn’t get into London until 6pm, but HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford and I had arrived earlier for a spot of lunch and the pre-show OGAE UK party hosted in the elegant surroundings of the upstairs bar at a Kentish Town Road pub. It was appropriate that OGAE should host a pre- and post- party, as for the first time Official Fan Club members had been invited to assist in selecting a song from the public submissions. Everybody involved in it was sworn to secrecy. I could tell you if I was one of the people who took part in the selection – but then I would have to kill you. And that would be an awful waste of a decent life. An early highlight of the afternoon was meeting Radio 2 and Eurovision announcing legend Mr Colin Berry, who’s every bit as avuncular and charming as you would imagine. I was also quizzed for my opinion on the National Final in an interview for Radio International, where I play a small but beautifully formed part every few weeks.

Eurovision You DecideAfter quaffing a reasonable number of alcohol units, we all walked up the road to the venue. I’d not been to the O2 Forum before – it’s a converted art deco cinema dating from 1934 and a pretty useful place to hold an event like this. We arrived shortly before 7, met up with loads of other friends, found a convenient place to stand – near the back but against a railing so we had a) a raised view above heads and b) somewhere to loll. Our host for the evening was Mel Giedroyc, a genuine Eurovision fan it seems to me; not only one of our new BBC commentators for the semi-finals but also fondly remembered for her hilarious Boyka in Eurobeat that we saw three times in 2009 (I think). Eurobeat is coming back this summer to the Edinburgh Fringe – Mrs C and I are already champing at the bit.

The panelUnlike many other countries who involve a jury as well, the UK winner was chosen purely by televote. We had an expert panel, but they were there only to give their comments and maybe guide the viewers in what they thought was the right direction. Frankly, there wasn’t a lot of time for in-depth commenting. Vocal coach Carrie Grant was perhaps the most outspoken of the three but I must say I thought some of her comments were downright weird. Choreographer Jay Revell is obviously no relation to choreographer Craig Revel Horwood, as he was the permanent nice guy of the panel, seeing the best in each entry and generally being encouraging. 1997 Eurovision winner Katrina (of the Waves) had a dodgy microphone and a tendency to shout her responses with the result that I barely heard a word she said.

Mans ZWe started the evening off with a reprise performance by last year’s winner Måns Zelmerlöw (one of the most intimidating names to type on a UK keyboard). What an entertainer that man (or should that be mån) is. Heroes remains as fresh as a daisy, and the inventive chalkguy video that runs behind him still warms the cockles of your heart. Mel interviewed Måns afterwards with ill-concealed lust. I was waiting for the Crown Prince to tell the story of how he and Måns shared a hug last year. I resolved to combat that with my story about how Elizabeth Andreassen of Bobbysocks and I flirted outrageously when we met a few years ago. One-all.

The first act was Canterbury busking duo Dulcima. He’s called Tomas, she’s called Dulcima, and they’re called Dulcima. Someone should tell Tomas to get new marketing staff. Their song is the irrepressibly infectious, thigh-slapping hoe-down tune When You Go. This is Mrs C’s favourite of the six, and I can see why. Very catchy, the kind of song that brings a smile to your face when you hear it. In the hall it sounded great. When we got home and watched the recorded programme we were amazed at how poor Dulcima’s vocals were. Weak as a parvo-puppy, I’m afraid. Carrie Grant said that she thought with their costuming and appearance she was expecting something darker. Darker? Dulcima herself looks like the hippiest folk chick out there. She’s pure Woodstock from head to toe (the festival, not the Snoopy character). She’s about as dark as Tiny Tim singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips.

The second act was ex Bad Boys Inc singer Matthew James with A Better Man. When the songs were first unveiled on Ken Bruce’s radio show I thought it sounded really contemporary (that word again) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it looks like I was just about the only one as it was the rank outsider at 40-1 (not very promising in a field of six). I thought he gave it a very good performance but you could tell it just wasn’t capturing anyone’s imagination. We were standing near his family all wearing their Vote Matthew t-shirts and no matter how much they whooped, they were never going to affect the result. Come the end of the evening they were a picture of misery, poor things.

Next came Until Tomorrow by Darline. Another country sounding song, performed by two pretty girls, Abby and Càra. Country doesn’t normally do that well in Eurovision, although pretty girls do. These were a very popular combo, but I confess I don’t like the timbre of the warble of the blonde girl. Carrie Grant criticised them for not being together enough – not a duo, more like two side-by-side soloists, and I think she was spot on. It’s not, as I thought, Darline, rhymes with Margarine, but Darline, rhymes with Northern Line. What kind of a silly name is that? Very popular in the hall and I know much enjoyed by the fans. But it wasn’t to be.

The fourth act was Karl William Lund, with Miracle. This was the entry that had been chosen by the OGAE members as their contribution to the sextet of songs. Now here’s a Marmite song if ever there was one. To many it was the obvious winner, to others it was totally dire. For me it fell between the two. I was chatting to a friend at the bar and we both agreed that it has the elements of being a great song, but it just needs a little more development. Certainly the presentation was very static and the arrangement could have done with oomphing up. However, three days on, it is the chorus of Miracle that is persistently, irritatingly, infuriatingly, and constantly re-emerging in my musical brain. There it goes again. Stop it, Karl William, you’re getting on my nerves!

The fifth act was the rather classy Bianca (no relation to Electro Velvet’s Bianca) with Shine a Little Light. Again this was popular with many of the fans, particularly the ones who like the strong female power ballad. That style isn’t entirely to my taste all the time, and whilst I thought she gave a very fine performance I just find the song a little… generic balladish to make me sit up and listen.

Last up were Joe and Jake, both alumni from The Voice, a programme that I always think I am going to enjoy but then turns out to be a complete anti-climax once the audition stage is over. Their song, You’re not Alone, is very nearly as catchy as Miracle and When You Go but performed with real commitment and joy. Of the six I concluded this was probably our best potential entry, performed by a couple of cheery lads who actually sing pretty well and have a good stage presence together. And it appears that the rest of the Great British Public agreed with me, as this will indeed be the UK’s entry for Stockholm in May 2016. You’re Not Alone, We’re in this Together – could be David Cameron and George Osborne’s next release.

KatrinaAfter a rousing rendition of Katrina’s Love Shine a Light (always a favourite), some memories of the Eurovision’s Greatest Hits show from last year and a tribute to the late Sir Terry Wogan, the result was announced by giving us just the name of the winner – no agonising “and in sixth place…..” Joe and Jake were well chuffed, the other five acts magnanimous in defeat, and the rest of us headed back to the pub to continue the post-show analysis and socialising. Just drinking really.

Mel GiedroycGood things about the night – the introductory films before each song were insightful and considered the lyrics and why the singer found them special, which I thought was a neat trick of introducing both the song and the singer in a meaningful and factual way. The fact that it was on BBC4 meant that it was under the auspices of BBC Music instead of BBC Light Entertainment and it felt like a much more credible programme. Its viewership of 678,900 may not sound many, but the average for that slot is a paltry 167,000, so it’s an improvement of something around 300%. Mel Giedroyc was an excellent host, managing the live aspect with humour and confidence, so that when things (inevitably) went wrong, she didn’t go to pieces. Among the less good things – the sound in the arena was very bassy and quite uncomfortable to listen to; I’m not sure the panel added that much to the experience; and the O2 Forum charges £3 per item for their cloakroom. You’ve never seen so many guys keep their coats on all night.

Joe and JakeBest of luck to Joe and Jake – I don’t think it’s a winner but I don’t think it’s going to shame us either. All will be decided on 14th May. However, before that, we’ve got the London Eurovision Preview Party to look forward to on 17th April, where we can listen to several of this year’s acts and see how well they measure up. Happy Eurovisioning!

*It has been pointed out that in 2010 the UK public only got to choose the singer, not the song. The last time we chose both was in 2008. Dang! My mistake. Oh well.

If the picture looks rubbish, that’s because I took it. If it looks professional and smart then it was taken by DizzyDJC on Flickr. Thanks for letting me use your photos, Dan!

Review – Alan Buribayev conducts Sheherazade, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st February 2016

Alan Buribayev conducts ScheherazadeOnce again we welcomed the return of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to the hallowed portals of the Derngate Auditorium for a programme of German and Russian music under the baton of Alan Buribayev. Mr Buribayev is new to us and cuts a dashing figure in his modernistic shiny suit. He’s one of those conductors who gets carried away with the vigour of it all and frequently ends up using his full body and not just his arms in cajoling the orchestra to give him what he wants. After real exertion he even lets out audible gasps and grunts because he’s concentrated so hard. Personally, I didn’t mind that. It makes you realise that this music business isn’t just pretty-pretty but also has its fair share of blood, toil, tears and sweat. I felt I got my money’s worth.

Our first piece was the overture to the Flying Dutchman by Wagner. I always like it when they start a concert with an overture. It just feels right. They’re designed to capture your attention, give you a lot of tuneage in a reasonably short space of time, and then leave you wanting more at the end. This overture does all that in bucket loads. An orchestral interpretation of a windswept storm-tossed sea, there were plenty of waves breaking on rocky shore to get your musical taste buds flowing. Full of attack, the violins in particular gave a terrific account of themselves; which would also be a foretaste of the excitement yet to come. A really great opener.

Alan BuribayevSecond up was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, featuring our soloist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny. With a conductor from Kazakhstan and a soloist born in Moscow, it truly was a cosmopolitan bill of fare. Who knew that Tchaikovsky only wrote one violin concerto? I’d have thought he’d have made it a speciality. But no, he wrote just the one, at great speed, and the programme notes tell us how personally liberating it was for him to produce it. It’s well known for being a real challenge to play – technically demanding to the highest degree, so it needs a fantastic soloist.

Step up to the mark Ms Bezrodny. A vision in shimmering scarlet, she took her place at the front of the orchestra like the brightest crown jewel fronting the plainest crown (and here I mean no disservice to the other musicians). Even when she’s tackling what are obviously the most challenging passages, she seems to do it with natural ease. The effort and concentration required to play the concerto come from an inner strength rather than an outward show. Her playing was extraordinary. She evinced such complex musicality from her Amati violin. Even in the hustle and bustle of the vigour of the music, she never sacrificed purity of tone; in fact she seemed to create one where you wouldn’t have thought it possible. The audience were spellbound – you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Her first movement cadenza especially was out of this world. Even though it’s frowned on to do so, a large proportion of the audience could not hold back from rapturous applause at the end of the first movement, so mind-blowing was the performance. The concerto is a stunning piece, so full of different moods and emotions, and Ms Bezrodny was more than a match for it. Everyone went into the interval gobsmacked with pleasure.

Anna-Liisa BezrodnyThe second half of the concert was devoted to a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. It’s one of those pieces that I always know that I really like, but for some reason, whenever I think of it I can never quite bring the themes to mind. I have no idea why that is, because it is a really stirring piece of music, again with so many wonderful melodies and textures. Mr Buribayev encouraged terrific performances from the entire orchestra but the contribution from the violins was just amazing. It was almost as though they had said during the interval we can’t let that soloist take all the credit, we’ve got to show them what we’re made of too – this was particularly evident in the first and final movements.

Elsewhere I thought Daniel Jemison made a particularly fine effort with his bassoon portraying the Kalendar Prince in the second movement, Suzy Willison-Kawalec’s harp contributions were beautiful and emotional, and orchestra leader Duncan Riddell gave such a superb rendition of the triumphant Scheherazade at the end, that you couldn’t take your eyes of his bow. By keeping his arms outstretched for the longest possible time, Mr Buribayev dramatically kept the silence at the end of the piece until we were literally bursting to applaud; and as conductor congratulated First Violinist at the end I could lip-read him saying to Mr Riddell the words “absolutely outstanding”, which must be high praise indeed. And who would disagree? A stunning performance from everyone involved – one of those occasions when you walk back home afterwards realising you had witnessed something very special. A brilliant night.

P.S. Shockingly, Anna-Liisa Bezrodny doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. Someone needs to do something about this!

P.P.S. This year it’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 70th birthday. They’re looking in fine fettle. Must be eating very healthily and taking lots of exercise. Congratulations to them!

Review – Ed Byrne, Outside Looking In, Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2016

Ed Byrne Outside Looking InTime for yet another in our series of seeing a comic on stage who we don’t really know that well. We’ve caught Ed Byrne occasionally on TV panel shows and he always seemed rather amusing, so we thought he was worth a punt – and we haven’t really been disappointed yet with this tactic. But in a tragic twist of fate, three days ago Mrs Chrisparkle discovered she had to fly to Zurich for the day to be hard-nosed with some business people and her flight wouldn’t get back in time for her to see the show. So she still doesn’t know for herself whether Ed Byrne is funny or not in the flesh (he is). I didn’t go to the show alone though, as my co-local blogger Mr Smallmind was up for the experience. He hadn’t seen a comic on the Derngate stage before so this would be an acid test to see if it worked for him. He also had a large glass of Shiraz before it started and I reckon he would have giggled at anything as a consequence.

Mr Byrne has a very amicable and affable style on the stage, naturally taking us into his confidence; you get the sense that every funny story he imparts about his own life and career is 100% true. You know it can’t be, and that things have to be embellished to make a good story, but nevertheless you believe him implicitly. Some comics stand stock still in the centre of the stage; others actively stride from side to side throughout their whole routine. Mr Byrne takes the middle path – I would classify his presentational style as mildly frantic. He does use a lot of bad language, but he gets away with it because it’s the bad language you would use between mates; in a strange way his F words and the one-off C word almost cemented your friendship with him.

Ed ByrneThere are two (as I see it) approaches to observational comedy – a scattergun method where you take a lot of subjects and dip into them quickly then move on, or a more concentrated style where you take fewer subjects but examine them closely. Mr Byrne is in the second category. I’ve seen some comics who take a subject, do it to death and you’re sitting there saying to yourself “FFS please let it go and talk about something else”. However, Mr Byrne doesn’t do that. He’ll take a subject like going on terrible dates and examine it thoroughly from many different angles, but always with a freshness that doesn’t give you any sense of repetition. Members of the audience were encouraged to confess their worst dating experiences – to which Terry and Rosaline were most obliging with their responses, thank you – and it was something everyone could relate to, everyone had an opinion on, and consequently everyone had their funnybone touched.

Other topics that were examined included the horrors of performing at a corporate gig, the horrors of the presence of children in Costa Coffee, and the horrors of seeing student doctors when you’ve got diarrhoea. Suffice to say, no one in that audience will ever look at oxtail soup in the same way again – don’t think about that for too long. Apart from discussing awful dates, where he can’t predict what curved balls people are going to throw at him, I got the sense that the show was fairly carefully scripted throughout. I rather enjoy it if a comic jumps on something the audience says and then spins off into a flight of fancy but that didn’t really happen here. However, Mr Byrne’s material is already bright and inventive enough for that not to matter.

Ed BHe’s a naturally very funny man who delivers his material with confidence and a spark, but without ever becoming overpowering or hyper. He really enjoys his time on the stage and that enjoyment transmits effortlessly to the audience. I’d definitely want to see him again! There are still a few months to go of this rather intensive tour of the UK so there are loads of opportunities to catch him at your local theatre. Do it!

Review – The Herbal Bed, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2016

The Herbal BedIf you’ve ever got a spare weekend, gentle reader, you could do no better than to book into a nice hotel in Stratford on Avon, and visit all five of the Shakespeare Properties. My recommendation would be to start off at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, then take in Hall’s Croft and New Place (although that’s currently closed for renovation) – and maybe with a side visit to the Holy Trinity Church. Then after spending Saturday night feeding your face silly and getting rat-arsed, continue the culture pilgrimage on the Sunday with a morning visit to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and then, after a light lunch, drive out to Mary Arden’s House before heading home. We’ve done it a couple of times and it’s enormous fun.

Jonathan Guy Lewis and Emma LowndesWhilst at Hall’s Croft you can see an exhibition of 17th century medicine and of course Dr Hall’s physic garden where he grew the herbs that were used to create his magic health cures. John Hall was a most respected physician and he married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607. Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed takes the true story of how their marriage was threatened by an accusation of adultery, made by a local ne’er-do-well John Lane against Susanna, accusing her of infidelity with the family friend Rafe Smith. The accusation knocks John Hall for six, and although Whelan allows us to see what he imagines did go on between Susanna and Smith, I’m not sure if you’d call it adultery. As history relates, the Halls refute the allegation and take Lane to the Ecclesiastical Court, where the case will be heard by the Bishop’s interrogator, Barnabus Goche. And I shan’t tell you what happens next – even though it is a matter of history and not Mr Whelan’s invention. Suffice to say, Susanna’s made her herbal bed – so she has to lie in it.

Philip CorreiaIt’s a fascinating, beautifully written play, with real, believable characters created out of what might otherwise just remain faceless names in a courtroom record book. It examines reputation, motives and loyalty, questions the nature and definition of infidelity, and above all shows what happens when you defy a greater authority than yourself – be it the local doctor, or the Ecclesiastical Court. It’s a little like You Can’t Fight City Hall – 1610s style. It looks at expectations of social behaviour within class, religious and professional codes; and there is a wonderful moment towards the end of the play when the value of telling the truth – or not – is explored.

Matt WhitchurchThis play has been produced by the Royal and Derngate as part of its Made in Northampton season, and co-produced with the Rose Theatre Kingston and English Touring Theatre. Director James Dacre has assembled a committed and exciting cast to create a really first class production that had Mrs Chrisparkle and me gripped all the way through. Jonathan Fensom’s simple but evocative set brings Hall’s Croft to life, and it’s amazing how the sudden appearance of one window can create the illusion of a cathedral. Valgeir Sigurðsson’s haunting music makes subtle appearances to increase the sense of danger and suspense. And there are a couple of other people that definitely merit a credit. It’s not often that I would pick out the role of “fight director” for special mention, but Terry King did something incredibly right in this production as the fight/scuffle scene, albeit brief, was the most believable and immaculately performed I have seen in a very long time. Similarly, Charmian Hoare did a great job as dialect coach as the accents were (IMHO) totally spot on and maintained perfectly throughout the whole evening.

Philip Correia, Emma Lowndes and Jonathan Guy LewisAt the heart of the production is a stunning central performance by Jonathan Guy Lewis as Hall. Authoritative but kindly, it’s a sterling portrayal of an honourable man whose decent life is within inches of collapsing, and the most he can do is to face the challenges head on, as best he can. With something of the Trevor Eve about him, he gives it great intensity with a sense of fairness – a very fine performance. Emma Lowndes is also excellent as Susanna, prim and mannerly in public, matter-of-fact and business-like with her husband, an excited little girl with special guests. You can see her eyes darting all about her head as she thinks on her feet how to extricate herself from her mess, and it’s glorious to watch her retain respectability by the skin of her teeth.

Charlotte Wakefield and Matt WhitchurchMatt Whitchurch makes a splendid young roué out of the role of Jack Lane; just one of the lads in many ways, but seeking revenge when puritanical motives turn against him. Philip Correia, who really enjoyed in The Pitmen Painters a few years ago, gives a good account of the character of Rafe Smith; seemingly puritanical yet not denying his younger, more laddish past; ashamed of his personal fallibility where it comes to earthly matters, but powerless to turn away from temptation. Charlotte Wakefield, brilliant as Laurey in last year’s Oklahoma!, brings depth and insight to the character of Hester the maid, whose evidence will be so vital during the trial. Patrick Driver is the Bishop who’s as honest and as decent a man that you could expect to find in the role.

Patrick Driver and Emma LowndesBut if I gave a Chrisparkle Award for Best Supporting Actor (and I don’t) it would very likely go to Michael Mears for his ruthlessly pious portrayal of Barnabus Goche, itching to ask difficult questions, prurient antennae attuned to discovering dirt, sniffing out scandal where it isn’t, and verging on violence with his interrogational tactics. He gave a stand-out performance in A Tale of Two Cities a couple of years ago; he’s an amazingly talented and watchable character actor. In common parlance, in the penultimate scene in the cathedral, he smashed it.

Charlotte Wakefield and Michael MearsA very exciting and engrossing play that held our grip throughout. Beautifully produced and performed, it will continue to delight audiences for the next few months as it tours Cambridge, Liverpool, Exeter, Brighton, Salford, Bath, Oxford and Kingston. Highly recommended!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th February 2016

Screaming Blue MurderI knew something had been missing from my life – this was our first Screaming Blue Night since 9th October! That’s four months Cold Turkey! So it was great to see an extremely full house last Friday night, so much so that they had to cram some extra seats curving round the front of the stage. In fact, I was at the box office earlier in the week when a chap came up to speak to the assistant next to me to book for the show, and was told, sorry, it’s sold out. The poor chap walked away very crestfallen.

Dan EvansGreat to see Dan Evans back in his rightful place as Master of Ceremonies. Ceremoniously he quizzed those poor folk in reaching distance about their jobs, relationships, homes and so on, much to their discomfort and our amusement. It’s the way these things work. It was only when it was time to start the applause to welcome on the first act that I realised something was wrong. Angling his microphone stand at semi-erect he encouraged us to roar at two-thirds of the volume of which we were capable (of). I knew the drill – starting with a faded cheer which progressively gets louder and louder. Except – silence. A split-second of horror on Dan’s face. I let out a very muted “hooray”. All on my own. Oh God, the embarrassment. Of course Dan shamed us all into a proper reception for our first act, but it didn’t feel right. And that slightly muted response set the tone for most of the rest of the evening, even with a full house. Weird or what?

Ross McGrane In an unusual turn of events, all three comics were new to us. Our first act was Ross McGrane, a jolly young fellow who you sensed was trying very hard but for whatever reason the material wasn’t coming out naturally. He never really got a good rhythm going, and a few times there was a pause that lasted just slightly longer than was comfortable. I think a drunker, meaner audience might have started heckling – but we were extremely well behaved. Too much swearing for my liking – I’m no prude, but I think the F word needs to be your backup in a humorous situation rather than replacing the humour itself. And his final gag – which took quite a long while in the setting-up – was really awfully unfunny. With some better material he could well go places. However, I really did love his line about why he was glad to have a daughter and not a son. You’ll have to guess what it is.

Eleanor TiernanSecond up was Eleanor Tiernan, who has the advantage of a rather charming Irish accent, and plenty of attack in her delivery. Again, some of her material just wasn’t quite funny enough – or maybe relevant enough. There were a few observations about Irish history and the relationship between Ireland and England that would probably have been much funnier had we been in Dublin. However, halfway through her act she turned a corner and gave us some terrific stuff. My notes read: “great vagina material” – I’ll leave you to surmise the rest. And she has a most innovative suggestion for the cause for yeast infections – really very funny indeed.

Andre VincentOur headline act was Andre Vincent, and considerably more mature and experienced (in a good way) than either of the first two comics. He finally managed to prise good quality laughter out of our rather dour audience with nice free-flowing stories that amused and entertained and then moved on before they got too detailed. Decently self-deprecating, with a confident delivery and we all went home in a much better mood than when we arrived.

Review – Rambert Dance Company Spring Tour, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury, 11th February 2016

RambertIt’s been a couple of years since we’ve caught the Rambert team doing their thing so I thought their Spring Tour would be a perfect opportunity to catch up. Killing two birds with one stone, we also finally got round to visiting the new Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury – I say new, but it actually opened back in 2010. No excuse really, as I normally go to Aylesbury twice a week to see how the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle is getting on. Verdict? On the plus side, the seats are very comfortable, the sightlines are good from the stalls, parking is easy, and it had a busy and good-natured vibe. On the down side, it’s a bit municipal, and not remotely intimate; there would be plenty of smaller shows that would be absolutely lost in that environment. And the décor inside is….shall we say….individual.

Enough of that, let’s talk about Rambert. Their Spring Tour features seven modern dances, none of them premiered before September 2014, which certainly shows that as a breeding ground for new work it’s doing amazingly well. Our programme showcased three of them, each by a different choreographer, and each with live music – which was played with pizazz and gave an extra dimension of exhilaration to the performances.

The Three Dancers First up was The 3 Dancers, choreographed by Didy Veldman. Mrs Chrisparkle and I always used to watch out for her work when we first started seeing a lot of dance about 25 years ago – yikes, where have the years gone! And it’s a pleasure to see she’s still creating great work. The inspiration for this piece came from Picasso’s The Three Dancers, but she also drew on other aspects of his life when creating the content. The music is by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin and reminded me of Philip Glass’s work for the film Koyaanisqatsi – slightly less menacing perhaps, but equally haunting.

3 DancersGiven that it’s called The 3 Dancers, I was amused by the subversion of having six dancers on stage – a group of three in white, shadowed by another three in black. As you transfer your gaze from one group to the other, prompted by the lighting cues, you see the other group finishing off the movement that the first group started, giving it a great sense of flow. Soon the two groups integrate and then break off to form different duets. I was very impressed by the strength and precision of the first duet by Miguel Altunaga and Stephen Quildan, and by the puppet/manipulator characterisation in the second duet by Liam Francis and Daniel Davidson. The choreography was exciting and engrossing to watch, with wide arm and leg gestures stretching out in sweeping rotations. At various points the dancers were joined on stage by what appear to be enormous shards of glass shooting down from the sky. One of them made a beeline for one of the dancers who escaped from its clutches by means of deft choreography. It’s not obvious how those shards relate to the picture; perhaps they represent piercing blows to Picasso’s heart as he reflects on the fates of his three friends portrayed in it. Still, it’s a very stirring and thought-provoking piece, with much pent-up power, and beautifully performed; and it was definitely my favourite of the three items on the programme.

Strange CharmThe second dance was The Strange Charm of Mother Nature, choreographed by Rambert Artistic Director Mark Baldwin. It was inspired by a visit to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – yes science and art can come together – and I believe the dancers represent the particles used in the collider. It’s set, first, to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks and then Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3; Stravinsky reconfigured Bach’s notes to create his piece, just as the collider takes the particles and subsequently bashes all hell out of them. So you could say that the dance and the music are two ways of expressing the same concept.

Strange Charm of Mother NatureVisually it’s stunning, with the dancers wearing a sequence of full-length, multi-coloured bodysuits, and the choreography is athletic, frequently frantic, with the dancers performing both solo and in groups. Whilst it looked great and definitely showed off the dancers’ incredible skills, I nevertheless found it difficult to appreciate the vision of this piece – I couldn’t quite understand what it was all about, even though I had read the programme notes. Sometimes that doesn’t matter – but in this case I eventually decided that the whole didn’t quite add up to the sum of all its parts. I also found the change of music during the dance strangely disturbing. The Bach sounded to me like a musical non-sequitur after the Stravinsky – possibly because it always reminds me of the Trocks performing Go For Barocco, which I’m sure is not the kind of impression Mr Baldwin meant to give. Mrs C disagreed with me and found the whole dance exciting and satisfying throughout.

Transfigured NightOur final piece was Transfigured Night, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup to Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht. The inspiration for this work is a narrative poem by Richard Dehmel where a woman confesses to her lover that she is pregnant with another man’s child. Nevertheless, her lover forgives her, continues to love her and says he will love the child as his own. The dance is broken into three sections where you see three possible outcomes following a devastating disclosure. The first, concentrating on the fear of being abandoned as a result; the second, where everything is forgiven and forgotten; and the third, a compromise between the two, where despite the relationship being damaged, the lovers continue together as best they can. Or, as Mrs C succinctly put it: Relate, the ballet.

Kim Brandstrup - Transfigured NightI really enjoyed the concept and the structure of this work, with the desperate couple dancing both together and apart, making clear those moments of support and abandonment, and with nameless hordes of others dancing in the background, doubtlessly spreading rumour or name-calling. Miguel Altunaga and Simone Damberg Würtz were particularly moving as the couple in scenarios 1 and 3, broken up by a less tragic form of choreography for scenario 2, danced by Liam Francis and Hannah Rudd. If I have a criticism it would be that, to me, there wasn’t that great a difference in atmosphere between the situations in scenarios 1 and 3, and dynamic and attractive though it was, by the end of the dance I felt it was a little repetitive. Mrs C had already decided that she’d had a long enough day and decided to snooze out the last half of this particular dance. Personally, I didn’t feel it was snoozeworthy; but I did get her point. I think maybe it would have been better if Transfigured Night and The Strange Charm of Mother Nature had been reversed – you would then have had the slightly more challenging dance in the middle of the evening and the more traditionally crowd-pleasing at the end. But, hey, what do I know?

Rambert’s Spring Tour continues to Aberdeen, Mold and Brighton until March. Innovative, musically rewarding, technically strong, at times challenging – everything contemporary dance should be.

Production photos taken from Rambert’s website.

Review – Bend It Like Beckham, Phoenix Theatre, 10th February 2016

Bend It Like BeckhamI’ll be honest with you, gentle reader. I really didn’t want to see Bend It Like Beckham. I really enjoyed the film, and remember it fondly; and my reaction when I heard it was being made into a stage musical was Why Can’t They Leave It Alone and Why Don’t They Write Musicals With Brand New Source Material Anymore. So I didn’t book it. However, I saw that it won the Critics’ Circle award for Best New Musical, and that Mr Mark Shenton of The Stage whose opinion I greatly value said it was the best thing since sliced naan, and one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s colleagues said they saw it a week ago and absolutely loved it. So I cut myself a huge slice of Humble Pie and booked to see it just in time, given that it’s closing on March 5th.

The BharmasMy original decision not to see it earlier must count as one of my poorest decisions in theatregoing history. This is a completely joyous show. You come out of the theatre with a spring in your step and an aorta full of love. It’s one of those rare instances where the cast and creative team’s affection for their project runs right through it like a stick of Bombay rock. It’s perfectly cast from the top to the bottom, the songs and arrangements are catchy and memorable, and whilst there is an element of stereotyping in some of the characters, it never strays into caricature and is both completely believable and recognisable. Its themes are timeless; its message uplifting.

Lauren Samuels and Natalie DewDo you remember the original film? We’re back in 2001 and David Beckham is at the height of his sporting prowess. Jess, from a Sikh family living in Southall, is mad on him, and on playing football in general. Unbeknownst to her, she has been spotted by Jules, another soccer mad girl, who plays for the local Hounslow Harriers team. Jules arranges for Jess to get a trial with coach Joe, who is quietly impressed, and soon she is a vital part of the team. But all this tomboyishness is out of synch with Jess’s parents, Mr and Mrs Bhamra, who are keen to impress the family of their other daughter Pinky’s husband-to-be, the snooty Chopras. When Jess is forbidden to play football anymore, she is torn between her natural obligation to obey her parents and her desire to fulfil her talents. But does sari have to be the hardest word? (Apologies for that one). There is a solution – as the song says, at times everyone has to bend it. But what does Jess do? You’ll have to go and see it to find out.

Natasha JayetilekeI reckon everyone at some point in their life has had to make a decision to follow their dream or to follow their obligations or what society requires. So Jess’s dilemma is something we can all recognise. Do you fit in, and keep the peace, or do you “be yourself” and go where your heart leads? It isn’t always an easy decision. The Bhamras are a very traditional family – and even Mr Bhamra himself knows all about giving up on one’s dreams in order to do The Right Thing. But parents always know best, don’t they? Just like in Fiddler on the Roof, the older generation prizes Tradition, but the younger generation questions it; it was ever thus. And whilst we’re comparing this show with other musicals, I was delighted to see BILB even had its own version of an Oklahoma-style dream ballet sequence, where Jess suddenly finds herself transported to a soccer pitch, alone with David Beckham – although not in the traditional romantic sense, as Beckham shows her how to kick that curved ball. For Jess, that is definitely the dream come true.

Preeya KalidasThe show has much to say about cross-cultural liaisons – of all types – and it brilliantly depicts them in its fusion of eastern and western musical styles and dances. Done haphazardly, this could be an absolute dog’s dinner. But the amazing side-by-side sequences of wedding celebrations and football celebrations are a perfect visual mix up of the two cultures, and the use of typical Indian instruments as part of the traditional West End band creates a musical unity for your ears; as does using both Hindi and English words to the same melody. It all works incredibly well.

Tony JayawardenaMusically, of course, this is a brilliant show – you would expect nothing less with the music written by The Hired Man’s Howard Goodall, and lyrics by Phantom’s Charles Hart. The orchestration is infectious and full of character. Miriam Buether’s set is fun and authentic (although I wish there had been a way to change the score in the Hamburg match!) Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are superb, reflecting the different cultures and styles; and I particularly liked the sassy dresses the team change into for a night on the town, especially the one worn by Jules – Mrs C would look amazing in that.

Sophie Louise DannBut what really impressed me from the start were the superb performances from absolutely every member of the cast. Natalie Dew is simply brilliant as Jess; fun-loving, wide-eyed and awkward, a delightful trace of naughtiness, enthusiastic, and loving every minute of it. And she’s a stunning singer. Lauren Samuels is perfect as Jules, with her no-nonsense spirit wrestling with her internalised desires and sparring with a difficult mother. She’s also a stunning singer. Natasha Jayetileke is hugely entertaining as the domineering Mrs Bhamra – constantly making demands of her daughters whilst you know deep down she has a heart of gold; raising the significance of an aloo gobi to an art form. And guess what – she’s also a stunning singer. Preeya Kalidas is simply hilarious as the gorgeously vacuous Pinky, finding romance behind the bushes and squeaking out her innits. You won’t be surprised to learn she’s a stunning singer. And Sophie-Louise Dann creates a wonderful anxious mess of a mother in the character of Paula, with a voice like Joe Pasquale’s secret love child, agonising magnificently over the word “lesbian”, and, naturally, singing stunningly.

Lauren Samuels and the teamAnd what of the chaps? Tony Jayawardena is a brilliant Mr Bhamra, reducing the audience to hysteria with the comic timing of his throwaway lines, balancing beautifully the character’s sense of The Right Thing with his own understanding of human emotions – I thought he was terrific. For our performance, the role of Tony was taken by Rakesh Boury, Jess’s playtime pal and support – delightfully gangly and uncomfortable, and with his own very nicely confessed revelations – hashtag awks. An excellent performance. Jamie Muscato brought genuine warmth and decency to the role of Joe, and he really conveys the scariness of interacting with Jess’s family when they don’t want to hear what he has to say. Raj Bajaj is a fantastically goofy Teetu, giving it large at the engagement party; intellectually a perfect match for Pinky; strictly speaking, he really should be called Perky.

Natalie Dew and Jamie MuscatoThe fantastic ensemble includes Irvine Iqbal and Sohm Kapila as Teetu’s marvellously haughty parents, Harveen Mann, Buckso Dhillon-Woolley among the wonderfully busybody aunties, and the best-looking team of footballers I’ve ever seen. Everyone gives their all, everyone’s a great dancer, everyone’s hugely committed to the show. The onstage joy spills out into the auditorium – in fact in the interval, I saw a guy in the bar doing his version of Teetu’s dance – it was quite impressive! One of those occasions when you leave the theatre a better person from the one you went in. You’ve got until March 5th to see it – and I reckon that last night performance is going to be One Swell Party. A privilege to be there – one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

Engagement PartyP.S. It’s been years since I’ve been to the Phoenix Theatre – 32 years to be precise! I’d forgotten how charming it is.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Review – Flare Path, Oxford Playhouse, 3rd February 2016

Flare PathI’ve always had a soft spot for Terence Rattigan. I think it’s because I was so impressed when, shortly after my 17th birthday, I took myself off to London to see a production of Separate Tables starring the somewhat legendary John Mills and Jill Bennett. With a supporting cast of elderly theatricals like Ambrosine Philpotts and Raymond Huntley, it was a masterclass in acting understatement. And that is what Rattigan does best – conveying deep emotion and powerful personal dilemma in an environment where the stiff upper lip is all. I’m not sure I understood at the time the irony of casting Jill Bennett in that play – the ex-Mrs John Osborne, whose “kitchen sink” Look Back in Anger has always been seen as the antidote to Rattigan’s “well-made plays”.

Graham SeedThis was the first time I’ve seen Flare Path, although I read it in my early 20s, but I could remember very little of it. Rattigan wrote it whilst he was in the RAF and it’s based on his own wartime experiences. Flt-Lt Teddy Graham is a young officer at Milchester airbase in Lincolnshire, who has recently married an actress, Patricia. She has been performing in a play in London and therefore has not been able to support him in person on his air raids. Teddy is respected and trusted throughout the squadron, especially by his faithful Air Gunner Dusty Miller. After the run of Patricia’s play has finished, she comes up to Lincolnshire to be with Teddy. But that evening, in a local hotel, where the squadron members go after their raids to relax and regroup, Patricia and Teddy’s marriage is threatened by the sudden arrival of Peter Kyle, a Hollywood film actor with whom Patricia had a relationship before she married Teddy. Kyle wants Patricia to break it off with Teddy – and she admits she doesn’t really love her husband in the way she loved Kyle. However, just before Kyle engineers a showdown where Patricia will tell Teddy that it’s all over, Squadron Leader Swanson arrives to inform the men that their evening of relaxation with their wives is cancelled, because they’re all due out on a raid that night. What Patricia has to tell Teddy will have to wait until the morning. But what will happen overnight? And how will it change the course of events the next day? I’m not going to tell you that, you’ll have to see the play.

Lynden EdwardsIt’s a finely structured, deeply moving, rather solemn play but with occasional flashes of surprising humour. We were both struck by how the play examines the theme of sacrifice. Of course, the brave airmen who don’t come back from their missions make the ultimate sacrifice; but those left at home too must sacrifice their homes, their jobs, their lifestyles. Squadron Leader Swanson even sacrifices his sleep so that he can be there for the team when they get back from their raids. And when it comes to affairs of the heart, sometimes these too have to be sacrificed for the greater good and in the cause of simply doing the right thing. Teddy can be seen as a typical Rattigan male – on the face of it, noble; but concealing an aspect of himself of which he is not proud, or cannot come to terms – in this case, his fear of undergoing the air raid missions. Just like Separate Tables’ Major Pollock, hiding the allegations of sexually harassing women in a cinema, or indeed Rattigan himself concealing his homosexuality, Teddy’s a man with a murky secret – a flawed hero. In a few years’ time, elements of his character would develop into Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea, drunk and depressed from his wartime experiences.

Hedydd DylanDo you remember the late Brian Hanrahan’s reporting of the Falklands War back in 1982? As he watched the British Harrier jets taking off from HMS Hermes to launch the first air attack on Port Stanley, he wasn’t allowed to report the numbers of jets involved. He just, famously, said: “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back”. Such are the lives of the women waiting behind at the Falcon Hotel in Milchester. Countess Doris listens for the minute details of each aircraft flying overhead, knowing which ones are in trouble (“she’s flying on three engines. Been shot up, I expect”), and which are successfully taxi-ing after landing. They brave the blackout recriminations of Mrs Oakes as they open the curtains to watch the planes take off and land. It really gave me, as a modern audience member, who has never personally been involved with any military combat, an insight into what it must be like to be on the edges of war action – fully supportive of the war effort, but desperately worried about each and every outcome.

Claire AndreadisMrs Chrisparkle and I were chatting during the interval. “You know it’s not going to end well, don’t you” she suggested. I agreed. Every indication was that at least some of our brave boys were not going to see it to the final curtain. But, without giving too much of the game away, you can appreciate that the original 1942 audience might not have warmed to too tragic a finale, and I don’t suppose Rattigan wanted theatregoers sobbing in the aisles every night. If you’re after a happy ending, you might be lucky.

Daniel FraserSo what of this production by the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions? It seems very faithful to the original, dividing up Rattigan’s three acts into the current popular requirement for two, by bringing in the interval between Scenes One and Two of the second Act. I enjoyed the adherence to Rattigan’s original stage direction of having aircraft noises and communication sounds carrying on all through the interval, which keeps the audience in the zone whilst fighting over their ice-creams. “Wiggy Jones” has been replaced by “Betty” but that’s hardly material. Hayley Grindle’s set changes the position of the reception desk from Stage Right to Stage Left and brings the ever-burning fire more to the centre of the action, but otherwise is barely changed from the original. The sound effects – on which the play relies quite heavily – are authentic and crystal clear. For our performance, we had text captions either side of the stage which I have to say is an innovation that I really like. I think my hearing’s okay on the whole, but sometimes you can really benefit from having accents clarified or quickly spoken sequences visually presented to you.

Jamie HogarthA strong, mature play like this with some meaty roles cries out for some top quality performances; and this is where it gets a little disappointing. I think the production has a new cast for its 2016 tour and some of the scenes haven’t quite bedded down properly yet. It’s not badly performed by any means, but a couple of the more important roles were, for me, a little wooden and didn’t quite convey everything that I think Rattigan would have intended. To be honest, Lynden Edwards as Peter Kyle didn’t make the role particularly interesting. When he translated the Count’s letter for Doris, I sensed you should have been overwhelmed with emotion of some sort – but you weren’t really. I wouldn’t say it was like reading a shopping list, but you would have suspected an actor like Kyle would have put a little more expression into it. In some of the earlier scenes too, I just didn’t feel Polly HughesMr Edwards quite got it. Hedydd Dylan, as Patricia, was also rather slow to get going in her role, although by the time we reached the final scene I thought she brought out all the appropriate self-doubt and emotional turmoil.

William ReayFortunately, there were also some excellent performances. I was really impressed with Daniel Fraser as Teddy, a confident and credible performance as the archetypal hero playing the game whilst deep inside feeling distraught. His breakdown scene was tremendously moving and believable. I’ve not seen Mr Fraser before and I think he could be One To Watch. Claire Andreadis gave us a very bubbly Countess Doris, amusingly conveying her starstruck-ness in the presence of Peter Kyle, yet resolute and strong in the face of the apparent death of her husband. Jamie Hogarth was excellent as Dusty Miller, balancing friendliness and respect with his Skipper, whilst gently remonstrating with his wife for her uselessness on buses; the embodiment of salt of the earth. Audrey Palmer was delightfully frosty as the proprietor Mrs Oakes, and the ever-reliable Graham Seed was perfect as Swanson, the senior officer who was more of a friend than a superior, yet could command his men effortlessly when needs must.

Audrey PalmerDespite any reservations about the performances, Flight Path still comes across as an engrossing and emotional play, with timeless themes and a huge amount of dignity. Whilst somewhere in the world airmen are still flying bombing raids to attack the enemy, this play will never go away. Congratulations, Sir Terence, your play still rocks! The tour continues throughout the UK until May.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

Secret of ChimneysIn which we meet chancer and adventurer Anthony Cade, who helps Scotland Yard solve the mysteries of identifying both jewel thief “King Victor” and a royal assassin. It’s a thoroughly jolly jaunt, and Anthony Cade certainly experiences almost everything one can experience within the space of 218 pages. Naturally you can safely read this article and I won’t give anything away regarding whodunit. Promise!

Blitz HotelOnce again Christie travelled further afield for her next adventure. Picking up from where The Man in the Brown Suit left off, and using her recently acquired familiarity with southern Africa, we first meet Mr Cade and his pal Jimmy McGrath on the streets of Bulawayo, which in itself constitutes Coincidence Number One of several. But unlike that earlier book, which starts in England and ends in Africa, this one works the other way round, and it’s not long before Cade, impersonating McGrath, is staying at the Blitz (yes, not the Ritz) Hotel and snooping around the great and the good of British Governmental society. Christie continues to tease us by denying us (again) the return of Hercule Poirot. Instead, Cade himself dons the mantle of amateur sleuth and works alongside Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard. Battle would reappear in four more books over the next twenty years; Mr Cade, for reasons that are self-evident when you reach the end of this book, doesn’t. A shame, perhaps, because Cade is a much more entertaining character in comparison with stolid old Battle.

Abney HallChristie dedicated the book to “my nephew, in memory of an inscription at Compton Castle and a day at the zoo”. The nephew in question was James Watts, who would become Conservative MP for Manchester Moss Side in the 1959 election – only to die two years later at the age of 57. My guess is that the zoo was Paignton Zoo, which had only opened in 1923. But most commentators don’t believe that Compton Castle is the basis for Chimneys – that honour goes to Abney Hall in Cheadle, owned by Christie’s brother in law, James, the father of the aforementioned nephew. Certainly grand country mansions like Abney Hall feature throughout Christie’s career, from Styles, through Chimneys to The Mousetrap’s Monkswell Manor. Chimneys of course, is the Caterham family seat, and the previous Lord Caterham was at one point Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Today the Foreign Secretary lives at Chevening House in Kent – but that tradition only began in the 1960s. So we can’t associate Chevening with Chimneys, alliterative though it would have been.

Koh-I-NoorEveryone knows about the Koh-i-noor diamond. It’s currently set in the Queen Mother’s crown, on display at the Tower of London. It came into the possession of the Royal Family after the British conquest of the Punjab in 1849. Unsurprisingly, the governments of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran have all laid claim to ownership of the jewel – but the Queen’s not budging on this one. In Chimneys, Jimmy recollects that Count Stylptitch announced that “he knew where the Koh-i-noor was”, implying that it was not, actually, at the Tower of London (in those days it was set in Queen Mary’s crown) – and indeed, it is revealed that King Victor has stolen the Koh-i-… “”Hush Battle!” George glanced suspiciously round him. “I beg of you, mention no names. Much better not. If you must speak of it, call it the K.”” So Christie is nicely playing with reality here by pretending that the K has been stolen – when we presume it hadn’t.

Chateau de BreteuilThe book also features a nice mix of real locations and pretend ones. As mentioned earlier, Chimneys is probably based on Abney Hall, but does not exist itself per se. The local police are based at Market Basing, which doesn’t exist but in your mind’s eye you cross Market Harborough with Basingstoke, and you get a well-to-do market town. As an aside, The Market Basing Mystery is a short story featuring Hercule Poirot and Inspector Japp (but not Battle) that was first published in The Sketch in May 1925, subsequently part of the collection The Under Dog and other Stories that was published in 1929. Virginia Revel’s home address is listed as 487 Pont Street, London; in real life Pont Street exists, a fashionable street not far from Harrod’s – but the numbers don’t go up that high. Anthony Cade discovers that Mlle Brun’s reference came from the Chateau de Breteuil, and so goes to meet Mme de Breteuil to confirm it. Fascinatingly, the Chateau exists, and the family of the Marquis de Breteuil still live there today. It was where the Entente Cordiale first had its origins, and back in 1912, the Prince of Wales – later to be Duke of Windsor – stayed there for four months to learn French. So there’s a huge slice of reality in this (admittedly minor) aspect to the book. No wonder Anthony found nothing wrong with Mlle Brun’s reference. When Cade goes on the run to Langly Road Dover, the mysterious address on the mysterious piece of torn paper, I don’t know how he finds the house because the road itself doesn’t exist.

1920s partyWhat marks this book apart from Mrs Christie’s previous offerings is its constant sheer light-heartedness. It’s a very flippant book; the tone is light comedy throughout. Even Christie herself admits it’s money for old rope: “Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.” Tongue in cheek, Christie couldn’t be bothered to provide a description of Chimneys house herself: “Descriptions of that historic place can be found in any guidebook. It is also No 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursday, coaches come over from Middlingham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. In view of all these facilities, to describe Chimneys would be superfluous.” Butlers bring tea and cakes amongst the corpses of the murder victims. Characters like Bundle, with lines like: “mother got tired of having nothing but girls and died” might make you think of PG Wodehouse. Plot escapades where a character sneezes and almost alerts the bad guys to the presence of the good guys at the Council Chamber at Chimneys bring to mind something out of one of Mr Ben Travers’ Aldwych farces. Conversations such as “I say Virginia, I do love you so awfully – “ “Not this morning, Bill. I’m not strong enough. Anyway, I’ve always told you the best people don’t propose before lunch” could easily be dropped into Noel Coward’s Private Lives or something similar. Caterham is portrayed as an old buffoon, Cade as a dashing hero, Lemoine as an over-excitable Frenchman, the King’s valet Boris as a hammy actor and Baron Lolopretjzyl insists on ending each sentence with a verb in the best Germanic tradition so that he comes across as Yoda’s long lost cousin; laughing at foreigners it is. Cade’s pet name for him of Baron Lollipop is pure Wodehouse/Travers.

AssassinIt’s also incredibly patronising. The whole story centres on the little known and purely fictional Balkan state of Herzoslovakia. The name is clearly a portmanteau of two other eastern European countries, and it’s designed to represent some kind of Ruritanian backwater, out of which clever English people can take the Mickey. We’ve already seen how characters like the Baron and Boris are figures of fun. Herzoslovakians are described by Lomax as “most uncivilized people – a race of brigands”. Cade gives us a very dismissive description of the country: “Principal rivers, unknown. Principal mountains, also unknown, but fairly numerous. Capital, Ekarest. Population, chiefly brigands. Hobby, assassinating kings and having revolutions”. Cade and McGrath are also merciless with their use of the word “dago”. I guess in 1925 it didn’t have the same racist overtone it does today, but following their conversations with the word littered in almost every sentence makes for extremely uncomfortable reading: “just pulled the dago out of the river”; “any name’s good enough for a dago”; “dagos will be dagos”.

PassportThe character of Herman Isaacstein provides opportunities for some playful yet distinctly anti-Semitic name-calling, with Caterham referring to him Ikey Hermanstein, and even Bundle calling him “Fat Iky”. Part of Caterham’s comic persona is his distrust of foreigners and unwillingness to mix: “I don’t get on with Canadians, never did – especially those that have lived much in Africa!” Constable Johnson is disappointed that the murder victim at Chimneys wasn’t a decent Englishman. ““I’m sorry it were a foreigner” said Johnson, with some regret. It made the murder seem less real. Foreigners, Johnson felt, were liable to be shot” – an interesting take on blame the victim. And this patronising and insulting tone isn’t just reserved for “foreigners”. Women too, are seen as very much second-class citizens in the eyes of Lomax: “it has occurred to me… that a woman might be very useful here. Told enough and not too much, you understand. A woman could handle the whole thing delicately and with tact – put the position before him, as it were, without getting his back up. Not that I approve of women in politics – St Stephen’s is ruined, absolutely ruined, nowadays. But woman in her own sphere can do wonders. Look at Henry’s wife and what she did for him. Marcia was magnificent, unique a perfect political hostess.”

Royal Prince CrownAnother verbal trick that works well in this book, and happily doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, is the 1920s small talk, and in particular its gift for fine understatement. When Battle informs Cade that the gentleman who was murdered was a royal personage, Cade simply replies: “that must be deuced awkward”. The understatement really emphasises the sense of the ridiculous. Here, Virginia is trying to find someone to ask advice as she sits at home with a murdered man. ““Oh damn!” cried Virginia, jamming down the receiver. It was horrible to be shut up with a dead body and to have no one to speak to.” Even Battle succumbs to this style, as he explains why the equerry, Captain Andrassy, did not come to Chimneys with the Prince: ”it’s perfectly simple. He stayed in town to make arrangements with a certain lady, on behalf of Prince Michael, for next weekend. The Baron rather frowned on such things, thinking them injudicious at the present stage of affairs, so His Highness had to go about them in a hole-and-corner manner. He was, if I may say so, inclined to be a rather – er – dissipated young man.”

memoirsWhen you have stories like this that are almost a century old, I think it’s interesting to convert any financial values mentioned to what they would be worth today – it gives you a better understanding of the size of rewards, or blackmails and so on. There are only a couple of instances of this in the book, but the £1000 that Jimmy would receive for the safe delivery of Count Stylptitch’s memoirs is worth about £42,500 today – that’s a pretty good reward. When Virginia allows herself to be blackmailed just to see what it feels like, she pays over £40 – and that’s the equivalent today of £1,700. That’s a pretty hefty petty cash tin she’s got.

St StephensChristie often uses words, phrases and references that were obviously fully understandable back in the day but have not kept pace with time. When Anthony remembers the first occasion he met Jimmy, he describes rescuing him from cannibals, saying it was a “very nice little shindy”. Shindy? Well, replace it with the more modern “shindig” and you have your meaning. Lomax’s observation that “St Stephen’s is ruined” mentioned a little earlier I believe must refer to St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. In a harkback to the Kilmorden Castle of The Man in the Brown Suit, Anthony’s arrival back in England is confused by Bill when he checks the itinerary of the Carnfrae Castle instead of the Granarth Castle. All these liners are fictitious, but the Union Castle line, which ran them, was certainly real, and only ceased trading in 1977.

Evening DressVirginia asks her maid to pack her “new Cailleux evening dress”. I think this is a made-up fashion designer. There was a model by the name of Barbara Cailleux but she was active in the 1950s and so it can’t refer to her. However, if you know more, please let me know! Cade in conversation with Battle, reflecting on the open middle window, says “either he was killed by someone in the house and that someone unlatched the window after I had gone to make it look like an outside job – incidentally with me as Little Willie…” Julius in The Secret Adversary uses the same name for his gun. Not quite sure of the reference here, but Little Willie was the name given to the first tank prototype constructed in 1915. However, if you think Cade is referring to anything else, again please let me know! I was amused at Cade’s use of the phrase all will be gas and gaiters, primarily because it reminded me of that great 1960s comedy series, but it did make me wonder where the phrase came from. It’s the invention of Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby. A nameless old gentleman who is courting Miss La Creevy uses it to suggest that everything will be wonderful.

PanhardBundle’s two young sisters who are looked after by Mlle Brun are named Dulcie and Daisy, “like the song, you know. I dare say they’d have called the next one Dorothy May”. This refers to a song written by A L Harris, entitled “Three Green Bonnets”, published in 1901 and made famous by none other than Dame Nellie Melba. “”You modern young people seem to have such unpleasant ideas about love-making,” said Lord Caterham plaintively. “It comes from reading The Sheik,” said Bundle. “Desert love. Throw her about, etc. “ “What is The Sheik?” asked Lord Caterham simply. “Is it a poem?” Bundle looked at him with commiserating pity.” The Sheik, of course, was the archetypal desert romance novel written by Edith Maude Hull and published in 1919. It was the source for the famous film starring Rudolph Valentino. Bundle, as a modern woman, is happy to get behind the wheel of the Panhard – and clearly is a reckless driver. I confess I hadn’t heard of Panhards before. Rene Panhard was a pioneer of the motor car industry in France, his first vehicle being sold in 1890. They look rather nice, as you can see in this photograph.

WorstedCan anyone help me with the phrase: “I retire worsted”? Cade says it to Lemoine when he’s baffled. And Bundle says to Virginia, “I hate that man with his prim little black beard and his eyeglasses…. I hope Anthony does snoo him. I’d love to see him dancing with rage.” Snoo doesn’t appear in my OED and possible definitions of it on Urban Dictionary all seem unlikely. Any ideas? And to explain the reference to King Victor’s Bertillon measurements, I refer you to my blog about The Murder on the Links.

La France roseThere are a couple of significant passages in the book where characters are visiting the Rose Garden. The reader doesn’t realise the significance until much later in the book. I wondered, when reading this passage, whether the types of rose mentioned exist in real life: Madame Abel Chatenay, Frau Carl Drusky, La France, and Richmond. Well yes they do! Madame Abel Chatenay is a pink, climbing hybrid tea rose introduced in 1917. Frau Carl Drusky is less easy to trace but it does get a mention in an old newspaper article about a “Penrith Garden” from 1915 (that’s Penrith, New South Wales.) La France was introduced way back in 1867. The Richmond rose, though, I cannot trace – unless any keen rose growers out there know different!

David and UriahAnd once again Christie shames me for my lack of Bible knowledge. Virginia says of the time that Prince Michael wanted to marry her – although she was already married – that “he had a sort of David and Uriah scheme all made out”. Not David Copperfield and Uriah Heep, but Uriah the Hittite, married to Bathsheba, whom King David fancied something rotten and impregnated, so he murdered him. Chapter 11 of the Second Book of Samuel has all the details.

And now I give you my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Secret of Chimneys:

Publication Details: 1925. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1956, priced 2/-. I rather like its colourful and melodramatic cover!

How many pages until the first death: 56; and then the second death comes ten pages later. Although both are relevant to the story, much more is made of the second death than the first!

Funny lines out of context:
“McGrath poured out his own drink, tossed it off with a practised hand and mixed a second one.”
“It was the waiter, Giuseppe. In his right hand gleamed a long thing knife. He hurled himself straight upon Anthony, who was by now fully conscious of his own danger. He was unarmed and Giuseppe was evidently thoroughly at home with his own weapon.”
“You’re a man in a thousand, Battle. Either you have taken an extraordinary fancy to me or else you’re extraordinarily deep”.

Memorable characters:
Plenty. This is where the book scores well. Anthony Cade is a wise cracking chap, matey with his mates, charming with the girls; risk-taking, heroic, noble and thoroughly aspirational. And there’s a surprise up his sleeve kept for the end of the book which makes him even more extraordinary. Virginia Revel is also a very spirited, daring character and the two spark off each other very well. I also liked the ploddingly decent Bill, and Boris the bodyguard/servant is as camp as a row of tents. Bundle is full of 1920s spirit, and Lord Caterham an amusingly lean and slippered pantaloon.

Christie the Poison expert:
Still on vacation. This book is all to do with gunshots.

Class/social issues of the time:

The main background to the book is the political stability of the fictitious Herzoslovakia. On the one hand you have the threatening behaviour of members of the Comrades of the Red Hand and on the other you have the British government supporting the reinstatement of the monarchy under Prince Michael Obolovitch. With all the monarchists seen as thoroughly decent, if occasionally eccentric, and all the republicans as lunatic criminal obsessives, it’s not hard to see where Christie’s sympathy lie.

Christie also reveals her belief in that old adage that people may be socialists in their youth, but once they grow up a bit, they see sense. That’s how she characterises Cade: “it was rather pleasant to be back in London again. Everything was changed of course. There had been a little restaurant there – just past Blackfriars Bridge – where he had dined fairly often, in company with other earnest lads. He had been a Socialist then, and worn a flowing red tie. Young – very young.” Bundle is emphatically a socialist – at least according to her father.

Foreigners/Race Relations – A massive amount of anti-foreigner material as I outlined earlier, that can actually make you feel extremely uncomfortable reading it, even though you know that in the day it wasn’t considered anywhere like as offensive as it comes across today. No race or country seems to go without criticism. Towards the end there is a brief conversation between two characters that feels very uncomfortable today: “Merciful God in heaven! He has married a black woman in Africa!” “Come, come, it’s not so bad as all that…she’s white enough – white all through, bless her.”

Classic denouement: Yes – you see Cade going about hither and thither, inviting people to join him at Chimneys later that evening and you know that it’s going to result in a classic showdown. What appears to be one crime is cunningly broken down into two parts, which adds to the excitement and protraction of revealing all the relevant secrets. I couldn’t remember the story nor whodunit when I first started to read; but about sixty pages before the end there was a scene that prompted me to make a guess as to the identity of King Victor – and I was right. However, there’s a wonderful build-up in the denouement where, right before the end, you have a sudden doubt and think that just maybe it could be someone else. Then you find out you were right all along. It’s a beautifully written scene.

Happy ending? Yes – if more than a trifle far-fetched. One couple get married just before the end of the book, and although that’s all jolly good for them, other people are left behind probably feeling slightly heartbroken.

Did the story ring true? It is far-fetched, and generally preposterous, but, on reflection I reckon it could all just about happen.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It is a very exciting read, and with some great characterisation, and full of twisty turns in the plot. I would have scored it higher had it not been for the fact that a) I did guess the identity of King Victor and b) the anti-foreigner remarks that litter the book really make you squirm at times.

Thanks for reading my blog of The Secret of Chimneys 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 1926, and it’s a biggie – for many, her masterpiece – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Hercule Poirot – I’ve missed the old chap over the last couple of books! 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 – We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at David O’Doherty, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th January 2016

David O'DohertyThere’s a decided buzz about going to see a comedian when you haven’t a clue who he is – it’s a distinct risk, because humour is very subjective, and although whoever it is you’ve chosen to see might be top of their tree technically, they simply might not be your cuppa tea. I really enjoy taking these leaps of comic faith, and, so far, we haven’t really been disappointed. If you hadn’t guessed, gentle reader, the talent that is Mr David O’Doherty had previously passed me by, as we hadn’t seen him on TV, and we hadn’t caught him at Edinburgh. However, he had some very fine reviews on Chortle, so it was more than worth taking a punt. And it paid dividends, in droves.

He meanders on to the stage in a very unshowbizzy way; in fact he’s what the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called a scruffy urchin. As he himself points out, if you’re expecting a big build-up, you’ll be disappointed. But it’s that quietly unassuming, realistic persona that really makes you warm to him. Within a few minutes, you really feel he’s one of us (whoever we are, of course.) He got great mileage from the fact that, whilst he was on the stage of the charming and elegant Royal Theatre, Jersey Boys were pounding the boards upstairs at the Derngate auditorium, and trusted that no one had got mixed up as to which show they were seeing. A pretend rivalry between the two shows became a brilliant running thread that developed throughout the evening; I loved the suggestion that the two shows had to finish at different times because otherwise us O’Doherty Boys would beat up the wussy Jersey Boys in the foyer, as though we were re-enacting some scene from West Side Story.

DODWe both enjoyed Mr O’Doherty’s relaxed, natural style; no over-the-top McIntyre-like pacing or skipping from one end of the stage to the other, and no gimmicks – just his little Bontempi keyboard that he plays probably about as badly as I would, to sing his hopelessly funny songs about how life is basically rubbish and why does everything go wrong. You sensed there was a script lurking in there somewhere; at times, particularly after the interval, it came to the fore, but some of his best material emerged when he’s just freewheeling and thinking off the top of his head. He’s clearly got an amazingly lively brain as he spins off on delightful tangents, exploring if there’s anything funny there – and there usually is. He does involve the audience, but not over-much; you needn’t worry that you will become the star of the show if you sit in the front row, although 14 year old Jack might occasionally have hoped the earth would open up and swallow him.

Amongst Mr O’D’s comedy nuggets were observations on how e-cigarettes are really unsexy, Rod Stewart’s ability to think on his feet, mobile phone advertisements; and comparing the problems of a 40 year old (Mr O’D is 40) and a 20 year old. Specifically, if a 20 year old’s phone gets stolen they’ll be embarrassed about the naked selfies and videos; but what were the equivalent concerns of a 40 year old twenty years ago? He has some longer material when he recalls the day when they counted the votes in the Irish referendum about equal marriage. It branches out into all sorts of bizarre avenues, which are mostly not at all what you might expect, but very funny.

David O'DPerhaps one of the elements that makes an evening in Mr O’D’s company so enjoyable is that he’s easily recognisable as any number of one’s own friends and acquaintances. He reminded Mrs C of an Irish ex-colleague; he reminded me of one of our Irish friends; and he also put me in mind of a teacher back in the 1970s – a little hairy Irish chap whom everyone loved because his clothes were tatty and he looked thoroughly degenerate, so different from the other dignified but run-of-the-mill teachers – one of us, in fact. By the end of the evening you think of Mr O’D as someone you’d really look forward to going out for a pint with.

He’s touring the UK, Ireland and Australia between now and April – go and see him and for some genuinely funny material in the company of a really decent bloke.