Review – The Truth, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th April 2016

The TruthAs a result of The Father, Florian Zeller has become something of a star name in the world of dramatists, but I confess this is the first time I’ve seen anything he’s written. As La Vérité, this play was written in 2011 and has been performed not only in France but also Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain. As The Truth it has been translated by Christopher Hampton and now appears for the first time in the UK.

Alexander HansonWhat is the truth? Sometimes, as this hilarious and cringe-making play shows, it’s not always that easy to tell. You may be lying to your partner if you are having an affair, and presumably your co-affairee (is that a word? If not, it should be) is also lying to their partner. But is that the end of it? Are there further untruths out there? With terrific dexterity, the play shows the tangled web we weave when first we practise…well you know the rest. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving the entire game away, and that would be greatly to reduce the play’s impact; you need to come fresh to its little shocks and surprises right until the bitter end. So that’s all the plot you’re getting from me.

Frances O’ConnorAs a teaser, though, the programme gives you the play’s tight structure: seven scenes take you through the Rendezvous, Tightrope Walking, The Lie, Friendship, The Break-Up, An Explanation, and the Truth. When it’s precisely mapped out like this in advance, your mind can follow the clear route from start to finish even though you’ve no idea exactly what’s in store. This helps give the play an inexorable drive and pace, and somehow makes its final conclusion seem even more inevitable. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were thinking afterwards that this would be a most uncomfortable play to watch as a couple if either of you had had an affair. And whatever you do, don’t book this show as part of a let’s forgive and forget process; you might as well hand over the keys your house and move out straight away.

Tanya FranksLizzie Clachan’s stark and sterile set provides an excellent background for this deceptively unemotional play; no place for sentiment here. Instead all the attention is focussed on Michel getting further and further into trouble and trying to extricate himself from the mess. The text delivers cliffhanger after cliffhanger, punchline after punchline, always keeping you on your toes waiting for the next squirm; and Lindsay Posner’s clear and pacey direction helps keep the fast and furious plot development as the topmost priority.

Robert PortalWeaving its way through the web of deceit is a superb performance by Alexander Hanson as Michel. Hardly ever off stage, he self-degenerates from urbane, rather smarmy and selfish lover to quivering wreck. As he starts to realise that he is just as sinned against as sinning, his retaliations and defences become more and more ludicrous, so that he comes across as a self-pitying spoilt git without the slightest degree of empathy. It’s a beautifully funny performance, full of fantastic timing and great energy. It’s not often you see Captain von Trapp with his pants around his ankles – don’t worry, it’s all done in the best possible taste.

Alice and MichelFor the plot development and reveals to work fully, it’s necessary for the motivations of the other characters to be not quite so obvious. Frances O’Connor’s Alice, carrying on the affair with Michel behind her husband’s back, is delightfully aloof at times, providing just enough sexual allure to keep Michel coming back for more but holding back too so that we can’t quite see where she’s going. Their phone call scene where Michel has to pretend to be Alice’s aunt is a Laugh Out Loud Riot. Tanya Franks gives a great performance as Laurence, Michel’s wife, pointedly asking him difficult questions, slowly revealing she knows more than he thinks she knows, making him dig deeper to get out of his already substantial hole. And anything she might be hiding comes to the surface with subtle brilliance. Perhaps it’s only Robert Portal who slightly underplays the role of Paul, Michel’s best friend and Alice’s husband; he successfully keeps his cards close to his chest but at the same time you slightly wonder why Michel would have him as his best friend, because not quite enough of the “best friendliness” comes out in his performance. Still, maybe Paul knows something we don’t know…

Laurence and PaulBut this is a minor quibble. It’s a fascinating and hilarious play, perfectly structured, and with a marvellous central performance. One hour 25 minutes at a push; for some people that is music to their ears, so they can get on and do other things; for others (myself included) you can’t quite help the feeling of being slightly short-changed. Back in the day, that would have constituted one half of a double bill of two one-act plays. But better a short performance of this play than none. There is talk of a transfer; why not? It’s enormously entertaining and really deserves it.

Eurovision 2016 – The Grand Final

ESCThere are just six more songs left to consider that are guaranteed their Saturday night spot without any unnecessary hurdles earlier in the week. As the performance order is not yet decided I’m going to take them in alphabetical order. That will appeal to whatever OCD is in me. Again each preview will have its own star rating and its bookmaker odds courtesy of, as at 14th April. You’ve come so far! You can’t give up so soon.

France – Amir – J’ai cherché

AmirAnd here’s a fine thing. France have come up with a total smasheroony that is many people’s favourite (myself included) and is probably their best song for generations. Amir’s original album version of the song which exceeds 3 minutes is even better. But I still love the English/French mix of the lyrics and its totally overwhelming rhythms that cling on and won’t let you go. The lyrics of self-recognition and achievement are beautifully realised in the video featuring a boy ballet dancer and a girl boxer – be who you want to be, is the message. Sadly, I don’t think it will actually carry off the Grand Prix but what a splendid thing if it did. Ethnically Amir is an exciting blend of nationalities, which comes out in his musical style. A true entertainer; at the London Eurovision Party he held the title of Monsieur Charisma. 10/3 – 11/4 (coming in). *****

Germany – Jamie-Lee – Ghost

Jamie-Lee18-year-old Jamie-Lee became the first teenager to win the German version of The Voice and is obviously on her way to becoming a big favourite at home. The song has a very downbeat feel to it, with its theme of trying to rescue a dying relationship, which is at odds with Jamie-Lee’s Disney Princess with a touch of Gaga fashion sense. I reckon it lacks that vital impact that will get people’s juices flowing. The more you hear it, the better it gets, but I think it will be too late – a case of Spirits Having Flown. 40/1 – 66/1 (drifting). ***

Italy – Francesca Michielin – No Degree of Separation

Francesca MichielinFor some reason it nearly always takes me a long time to get to grip with Italian entries; apart from Fiumi di Parole, I loved that from the start. You know how Mozart is criticised in Amadeus for writing too many notes? I feel this is a song that has not enough notes but too many words. It’s like Jim Steinman has moonlighted for La Scala and come up with a soul searching epic that goes on, and on, and…. Francesca emotes her little calzini off in the video, but at the London Party I thought it lacked oomph. A musical interpretation of flogging a dead horse. 28/1 – 40/1 (steady). ***

Spain – Barei – Say Yay!

BareiAnother song with an upbeat message about getting what you want and letting no one stand in your way. And if they don’t like it, well say yay. If you know me in real life, you’ll know that I’m not above getting on the dance floor and shaking my geriatric thing but even so when I first heard this song it rather left me cold; if this is meant to create a wall of sound it needs repointing. That said, I like it much more now, and, with some wily staging, the gaps in its structure might well be hidden. The song has courted controversy for being the first ever Spanish entry sung completely in English. Whatever next, Big Macs replacing tapas? Barei’s a game lass and certainly knows how to present a song. Kurt Calleja wants his shoes back. And his dance routine. 22/1 – 40/1 (drifting). ****

Sweden – Frans – If I Were Sorry

FransThis year’s young people’s song, if I can put it that way. And after all, little Frans is just 17. I met him at the London Eurovision Party. Very polite, very quiet, and possessor of several beanies. His dad on the other hand is a complete raver. My least favourite from the ten to choose from in the Melodifestivalen final, Frans is, however, an excellent performer and really sells the song, and I’m just beginning to get it. I reckon this will go down very well with juries and young voters, but don’t expect anything from those over [insert your own age here]. It doesn’t help that, at heart, it’s a rather unpleasant song – promising all this love and tenderness, forgiveness and reconciliation, only to discover the little sh*t’s not sorry after all. Top ten certainly, top five maybe. 8/1 – 14/1 (starting to drift). ***

United Kingdom – Joe and Jake – You’re Not Alone

Joe and JakeSaved the best till last? Not quite, but not far off, in my humble opinion. Joe and Jake were certainly my choice to go forward from the UK national final (Hallelujah that we had one). The guys seem to have a great understanding of each other, and I find myself singing the song at odd moments on a far too regular basis. They harmonise well, and I really love the I, I, I….Sky, I, I sequence. Really nice, down to earth, ordinary guys too. I can’t see it on the left hand side of the scoreboard but will be crossing all digits in the hope for much better. Can’t resist a spot of Retro Britpop. You will say that patriotism is blinding my insight; maybe so, but this is my favourite UK song since Nicki French. 50/1 – 150/1 (coming in slightly). *****

As ever, I do a little counting up of the number of hits each song has received on the YouTube channel, not that it means anything at all on previous experience. These are the top ten hits as at 26th April.

10th – Russia (1603827)

9th – Spain (1746290)

8th – Serbia (1760659)

7th – Bosnia (2072256)

6th – Armenia (2707698)

5th – Malta (2707942)

4th – Azerbaijan (2874983)

3rd – France (2909088)

2nd – Australia (3053444)

1st – Poland (3532181)

Last year second place Russia came first in this table, third place Italy were 8th in this table, whereas winning song Sweden was nowhere to be seen. Azerbaijan, Australia and Spain were also in the top ten of YouTube views, just as they are this year. What stands out this year is the high placing of Poland. Worth a sneaky Each Way?

Have a great time watching the show on May 14th, wherever you are – at home with some crisps, at a party, or in Stockholm. May the best song win!

Eurovision 2016 – Semi Final Two

So here we are again, gentle reader, with a look at the eighteen songs that will battle it out in Semi Final Two. It was going to be nineteen, but then the EBU looked in the box where Romania had said it had left 16 million Swiss Francs and the damn thing was empty! So they got booted out of the contest in a hissy fit and can now only stand on the sidelines and peer with their noses pressed up against the shop window. As before, you can also see the betting odds, courtesy of (taking all the bookmakers who will give you the first four places each way, as at 26th April) and also giving each song a star rating out of 5. Let’s do this!

Latvia – Justs – Heartbeat

JustsSemi Final Two gets underway with Justs from Latvia and a song with so synthesised an arrangement that the notes sound like farting in an electronic bathtub. I’m confused by this song – is he going for a kind of Erasure sound? Justs appeared at the London Eurovision Party and gives a confident performance and I know this song is fancied but it kind of just passes me by. I really want to like it more than I do. OK – after about half a dozen hearings, I’m just beginning to get it. But that’s not what you want from a Eurovision song. 16/1 – 25/1 (starting to drift). **

Poland – Michał Szpak – Color of Your Life

Michal SzpakSo let’s start with a rap across the knuckles for the American spelling of Colour. Don’t think that will endear you to the British voters, Mr Szpak. Michał is definitely master of his own appearance; in fact, with that Biblical look you’d think him much more likely to walk on water than Ira Losco. I didn’t like this much when I first heard it but it is growing on me now. I rather like the song’s sentiment – it appeals to someone who’s perhaps no longer in the first flush of youth. The melody is charming – but it does remind me of something else…. But then I guess there are lots of songs that go “Oh oh oh oh”. He sang at the London Eurovision Party and definitely has a strong stage presence. I expect it will qualify. 28/1 – 40/1 (coming in). *

Switzerland – Rykka – The Last of our Kind

RykkaAnother of those songs that’s part way to being good but somehow falls short. Rykka’s an attractive girl with big hair and a very irritating way of saying “movie”. But I find if I listen all the way to the end of the song it’s like swallowing a pint of sugar paste. Switzerland have sent some brilliant songs over the past ten years. This isn’t one. 150/1 – 300/1 (steady). *

Israel – Hovi Star – Made of Stars

Hovi StarContinuing the syrup, here is Hovi Star with Made of Stars and if you feel like that’s just a little too much astronomy, I’m with you. Israel tend to send two types of song: the lively, dynamic, ethnically funky stuff that everyone loves, and variations on a dirge like this one. It’s very repetitive too. When I was playing the songs to Mrs Chrisparkle this was the one where she cried out for mercy and said she could take no more. A very pleasant melody lost inside a jelly of gloop. Did I tell you it was repetitive? 66/1 – 150/1 (steady). **

Belarus – Ivan – Help You Fly

IvanStill, no matter how sugary sweet the earlier entries, at least they don’t feature a naked man surrounded by wolves. I guess they realise the song is so weak they have to distract the viewer with something. Perfecting that “just out of the shower” look, Ivan wants to help us fly, but if he’s the pilot, I think I’ve just lost my passport. A song from another era, from another planet. It’s the wolves I feel sorry for. 150/1 – 300/1 (steady). *

Serbia – Sanja Vučić ZAA – Goodbye (Shelter)

Sanja VucicSo there’s a number of things that put you off here. The song has a title with another title (in brackets) that bears no association with the first title. The singer appears to have the Serbian equivalent of MBE after her name, although that’s apparently her group. So why isn’t she Sanja Vučić and the ZAA’s? Much more reassuring. Sanja herself is an attractive girl until she overdoes the makeup so that she looks like Cleopatra on Goth night. The song is some overblown nonsense that gets nowhere but does so with chutzpah. 18/1 – 28/1 (steady). **

Ireland – Nicky Byrne – Sunlight

Nicky ByrneWhoever produced the video made the fatal error of displaying the lyrics – that way there is no hiding place from the fact that they are mindlessly trite. That said, surely only Sergey Lazarev has similar live-performance-in-front-of-a-huge-crowd experience as our Nicky, and he’s going to be a really safe pair of lungs on the night. Actually I like this song very much. It’s upbeat, well-meaning, stays just on the entertaining side of bland, and has the nice touch that the melody goes up at the end of the chorus. He appeared briefly at the London Eurovision Party before he had to get the flight back to Ireland, but sure gave a great performance. Underrate this at your peril. 50/1 – 150/1 (steady). ****

FYR Macedonia – Kalliopi – Dona

KaliopiEveryone else has already done all the doner doner doner kebab jokes, so I won’t add to your burden. Kalliopi is, as we know from her 2012 Eurovision appearance, a really gifted singer with a powerful personality and strong stage presence. Crno I belo is a fantastic song which has stood the test of time with fortitude. Dona, on the other hand, seems lame and dated even before it’s started. Shame because she’s capable of so much more. 150/1 – 350/1 (steady). **

Lithuania – Donny Montell – I’ve Been Waiting for this Night

Donny MontellThe second of two repeat offenders on the run, it’s welcome back to Donny Montell and this time he’s left the blindfold off. As soon as I’d heard this song a few months ago I guessed instantly that it would win the Lithuanian selection show, as it’s a very easy-going, likeable tune sung by an easy-going, likeable guy. This is one of those Eurovision songs that would fit in well as a show tune. That’s not always a good thing. It’s ok to listen to a few times, but you wouldn’t want to overdo it. 80/1 – 150/1 (steady). ***

Australia – Dami Im – The Sound of Silence

Dami ImAustralia in the semis for the first time and they’ve brought in another big gun with X-factor winner, and South Korean export, Dami Im. This sound of silence has nothing to do with Simon and Garfunkel – although there may be some slight borrowings in the lyrics – and for certain Paul and Art definitely never did FaceTime. This has a strong, haunting atmosphere and relentless rhythm that really packs a punch. The chorus is repetitive, and doesn’t say much – but that somehow adds to its slightly eerie instability. Great stuff. 10/1 – 12/1 (steady). *****

Slovenia – ManuElla – Blue and Red

ManuEllaA rather racy and pacey song, the message of which is “blue is blue and red is red and you’re depressed that I wouldn’t be what you wanted me to be but I’m alright, so that’s alright then.” I’m not sure ManuElla should start volunteering at the Samaritans. She looks kinda cute in one of Sergeant Pepper’s old cast-offs. It’s okay; it’s what Mrs C would call “relentless” and she doesn’t mean that as a compliment. 150/1 – 400/1 (drifting). ***

Romania – Ovidiu Anton – Moment of Silence

Ovidiu AntonThis is where Romania would have been – but now they’re not. Actually it’s a song that I didn’t rate at all until I heard it performed live at the London Eurovision Party. Ovidiu’s a formidable chap who loves to rock and he delivers a really powerful vocal to this anthemic ballad which feels like it should be the theme to a Lord of the Rings-type fantasy. It’s a little overblown and a little over-the-top – but then again, it is Eurovision, isn’t it? Surprisingly entertaining. But, above all, not participating. ∞/1. ***

Bulgaria – Poli Genova – If Love Was a Crime

Poli GenovaThis is what you’ve been privately wondering all the time: “дай ми любовта”. That’s what she’s singing in the bit you don’t understand. It means “give me love” according to Google Translate. I thought she was singing either the sex-in-the-bath invitation of “ooh, bring me loofah” or the more mysterious whodunit suggestion of “who nicked me loofah”. Rather sad to discover neither is true. Poli teamed up with the Chipmunks for the introduction – nice of her to give work to some aged singing rodents. “If love was a crime, then we would be criminals…. They will never break us down… Our love ain’t got no pride… Together we’re untouchable…” In post-Conchita eastern Europe, this is more than just a love song, methinks. Great performer too, as I can testify from the London Eurovision Party. 18/1 – 25/1 (coming in). ****

Denmark – Lighthouse X – Soldiers of Love

Lighthouse XTypical boyband sound but perhaps not quite so typical boyband members and lyrics. Whilst the description of the group on is as pompous as it gets, they clearly are three separate artistes, combined together to make socially responsible music (whatever that is). When asked if they have a superstition before going on stage, they answer: “We gather together, look at each other, deeply in the eyes, as we agree to have fun and to sing from the heart.” OK. The song is all about “what’s the reason that we keep on hiding… take my hand and never let go…we’ll be soldiers of love”. Lyrically Bulgaria and Denmark are bookends on the same shelf. Musically, it never quite soars, but it’s pleasing enough. 80/1 – 150/1 (steady). ***

Ukraine – Jamala – 1944

JamalaSo when your non-Eurovision-watching friend says to you that Eurovision is all frothy light-hearted bubblegum, you can turn their attention to this year’s Ukrainian song which is all about acts of war and genocide; specifically, about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 and particularly about Jamala’s great-grandmother, who lost her daughter while being deported to Central Asia. There’s no doubt that it’s a moving song; nor is there any doubt that Jamala is an extraordinary singer. I’m just not sure it’s that rewarding a listen. Is it shallow of me to prefer Le Papa Pingouin? And does she really mean to say arseholes? Twice? 16/1 – 22/1 (starting to drift). ***

Norway – Agnete – Icebreaker

AgneteNow here’s a funny old thing. You’ve heard that concept of having two or three tunes spliced together in one song, and how it always works? Think again. Agnete warms us up with an enjoyably upbeat verse and gets you in the mood for a schlagertastic chorus – and then everything stops as tune #2 kicks in like a hangover. What on earth were they thinking? Mrs C almost choked on her prosecco. Once you’ve had that feeling of let-down, you never regain the original upbeat atmosphere. I don’t think this will qualify. 66/1 – 125/1 (drifting). **

Georgia – Nika Kocharov and Young Georgian Lolitaz – Midnight Gold

NIka KocharovNika Kocharov and Young Georgian Lolitaz. What a totally splendid name for a band. Unfortunately, after that, everything goes downhill. No, to be fair, the video is rather fun, with Nika as a mad professor and the group on Play-Doh instruments. Yet another example of a song that almost makes it, because it has a subtle moody vibe and decent guitar work but it just doesn’t gel together. Very non-Eurovision. 150/1 – 500/1 (steady). **

Albania – Eneda Tarifa – Fairytale

Eneda TarifaI know you’d been wondering what had happened to Youddiph’s massive dress after the 1994 contest. Well it’s turned up in Eneda’s dressing-up box and she sports it quite tastefully for headgear. That’s not the only thing that’s unoriginal about this entry. They’ve taken Rybak’s title, Antique’s concept and Aminata’s “oh-oh”s. Three minutes of moody gloom. It does nothing for me at all. 100/1 – 500/1 (steady). *

Belgium – Laura Tesoro – What’s The Pressure

Laura TesoroCheeky little Laura is only 19 and looks like a bundle of fun so why has she saddled herself with a song straight out of the 1980s? I bet she’s got loads of better numbers up her sleeve. It sounds so dated; after last year’s Belgian entry this is a massive step backwards. The lyrics also don’t make much sense. The tune is bright and breezy but never quite hits a pay-off moment. It goes so far, then pulls itself back. A musical interpretation of Catholic birth control. 80/1 – 150/1 (steady). **

And that completes Semi Final Two. Which eight songs do you think are for the jettisoning? Albania, Belarus, Georgia, Switzerland, Belgium, FYR Macedonia, Israel and Serbia is my guess. Remember to watch the second semi-final on BBC 4 at 8pm on Thursday 12th May – this time viewers in the UK can vote. Ten songs will go forward from both semis to the Grand Final on 23rd May along with six others – the Big Five and last year’s Sweden. See you tomorrow for that final countdown – and there are some good ones still to look forward to!

Eurovision 2016 – Semi Final One

Greetings gentle reader! It’s Eurovision time again, Hip Hip… replacement. This year 42 nations of the world who are either in Europe, are out of Europe but are in the EBU, or are called “Australia”, will be competing for the glory of the Eurovision win and the honour of hosting the contest in their home country next year. Not you, Australia, get back in line – if you win, Angela Merkel’s going to host it in Berlin like a true okker. To get you up to speed, I’m here with one eye on YouTube and another on Oddschecker to bring you the 18 songs that will get the ball rolling with Semi Final One, coming all the way from Stockholm in bonnie Sweden. Let’s look at them in the order that SVT have decided; no more random draws of course, this is about as transparent as a photocopied fax from Mossack Fonseca. With each song you’ll find the betting odds taking all the bookmakers who will give you the first four places on an Each Way as at 26th April, and also I’ll give each song a star rating out of 5. Hajde da ludujemo and let’s go crazy!

Finland – Sandhja – Sing it Away

sandhjaSo we start off with Sandhja, and her song bursting with optimism and positivity. It’s the kind of song that just might make you feel better about your life, if you think of all the bad things and then just sing them away. Simples. Apparently, it’s impossible to be stressed if you’re singing. I like its message; it’s got a reasonable amount of girl power to be healthy without being overpowering; and the tune is not half bad. When the chorus kicks in that brassy accompaniment makes it sound like a forgotten album track by Swing Out Sister. The only problem with it is that it’s a wee bit forgettable. And with seventeen more songs to follow, who’s going to remember it? 100/1 – 350/1 (steady). ***

Greece – Argo – Utopian Land

ArgoTime for the annual quiz question, how on earth can Greece afford to participate in Eurovision? Maybe by taking their 2011 entry Watch My Dance, switching the verse and the chorus round the other way, trading in Loucas Yiorkas for an obscure folk group and crossing their collective fingers. Seriously, the lyrics are a rather poignant account of refugees getting a chance to jump on a plane for a better life in an Utopian Land and you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to feel a tinge of there but for the grace of God about it. To be fair, you’ll probably like it most the first time you hear it, which is not a bad thing for a Eurosong. After a couple of listens you want to slit your wrists in a vat of ouzo. 100/1 – 300/1 (steady). **

Moldova – Lidia Isac – Falling Stars

Lidia IsacLidia’s a striking lady with something of the Daria Kinzer about her; I wonder if she’ll borrow all her frocks. After all, she’s borrowed the tune from YOHIO’s Heartbreak Hotel. It’s quite upbeat and enjoyable to listen to but there’s nothing that really gets you going wow. 12 points from Romania. Well, it would have been at any rate, if they hadn’t been sent home with a flea in their ear. 200/1 – 500/1 (drifting). ***

Hungary – Freddie – Pioneer

FreddieNext up a country that in recent years has put out some terrific stuff but is just starting to go backwards. Last year Boggie was a tedefest and I reckon Freddie’s in the same category. He’s got one of those voices where you’re not entirely sure he’s going to make the note without busting some vital organ. The song limps along and after three minutes we’re put out of our misery. For some bizarre reason, this is relatively popular. Must be his Magyar charm, and his inability to tuck in his shirt. 40/1 – 80/1 (drifting). **

Croatia – Nina Kraljic – Lighthouse

NinaSo far this hasn’t been a semi-final of enormous promise, and here’s another one that almost makes it as a good song but then has a rather boring chorus to let it down. A lighthouse is meant to be a beacon to show the way; but I’d be frankly nervous about following Nina up a dark alley. The poor girl’s going to catch her death after all that rain anyway. Quite atmospheric I guess. We saw Nina perform at the London Eurovision Party, where she seemed to be wearing a tree. I have to say, it didn’t shine too much of a light. 25/1 – 66/1 (drifting significantly). ***

Netherlands – Douwe Bob – Slow Down

BobFinally, a song that sounds a little different from all the others! Douwe Bob, unlike his more famous brother Egbert, has got his mates round for a jamming session and some pool down at the local bar. He gives us a country sounding song in praise of taking it easy. I liked this the moment I heard it – and I don’t do country. Will it be the second Common Linnets? Probably not. But it’s generally appealing and will certainly qualify. 25/1 – 50/1 (steady). ****

Armenia – Iveta Mukuchyan – LoveWave

IvetaAnd now it’s time for a contender for the title Most Attractive Performer (female). Iveta’s song takes a good while to get going – including wasting a huge number of seconds on a silly sound effect about half a minute in – but once it does kick in, I rather like it. Moodily shot, the video includes Carola’s wind machine and a Viking. Plus, it has the words: “Spread a lovewave ´n my heart goes ba-ba-da-bu-who-oh-oh”. What’s not to like? A 2-minute song stretched out to 3. Don’t interrupt Iveta before she goes on stage, as she’ll be meditating with her crystals. 14/1 – 22/1 (steady). ****

San Marino – Serhat – I Didn’t Know

SerhatFrom the sublime to the ridiculous; the really, really, ridiculous. Serhat is obviously a terrific chap, and a doyen of Turkish TV for many years. Have you heard his song Je m’adore? Check it out, it’s great. Just don’t accidentally listen to his Eurovision song by mistake. I hope he doesn’t wear that stupid monocle thing. When I first heard this I found it strangely haunting; that was before they disco’d it up and now I think it hasn’t a ghost of a chance. To think this came from the team who helped create Sakis’ Shake It. How art the mighty fallen. 150/1 – 500/1 (drifting). *

Russia – Sergey Lazarev – You Are The Only One

SergeyThis year’s big favourite with the bookmakers comes from a strong performer, and with a glossy promotional video it’s clear that Russia really want the title again. And I think they could do it. Sergey has the ability to make a weak song sound like Ivor Novello. The song isn’t quite the strongest but it’s perfectly acceptable and with a combination of a good performance and millions of roubles, it could be St Petersburg 2017, Tovarich. Wonder if he’ll have a proper haircut before the event? Colgate and whitening, it’s getting exciting. 13/8 – 2/1 (steady). ****

Czech Republic – Gabriela Gunčíková – I Stand

GabrielaFollowing the Czech Republic’s return to the Eurovision fold last year with a little cracker of a song, they’re keeping up the pressure with a solid and charming ballad from the lovely Gabriela Gunčíková. Nice video; amazing what you can achieve with some Astroturf and raiding the Garden of Remembrance on a busy day. Surely this must be the country’s first qualifier to the Final. However, being wedged between Russia and Cyprus isn’t going to do it any favours. 28/1 – 40/1 (steady). ****

Cyprus – Minus One – Alter Ego

Minus OneAnother personal favourite. You can tell these guys are hard because they’re playing their electric guitars under pylons which must contravene Health and Safety even in Nicosia. With those capes, they’ve obviously escaped from a monastic order and brought the chief Abbot’s husky along for the ride. It’s a winning combination of genuinely raw guitar work that cunningly disguises a nice piece of Thomas G:son schlager. Once that tune gets stuck in your head, it doesn’t leave without a fight. Saw them at the London Party – they’re like this in real life too. 33/1 – 100/1 (drifting slightly). ****

Austria – Zoe – Loin d’ici

ZoeThe fourth in a sequence of strong songs is this delightful ditty from Austria, sung in French by an Austrian singer with Austrian parents but who was educated at the French lycée in Vienna; for no good reason apart from sheer contrariness as far as I can make out. Loin d’ici is retro, but it’s real quality retro, as Zoe channels her inner Catherine Ferry and sings of a land far from here where, searching for Paradise, they all sing. Awww. A nifty arrangement and her gamine appearance all contribute to three minutes of 1970s delight. As contemporary as a Prawn Cocktail but much more satisfying. It’s got me hooked. Of all the songs performed at the London Eurovision Party, this one went down best. Zoe was moved to tears. Her wonderful apology to the audience: “Don’t make me cry, it’s just a song for Europe.” 66/1 – 150/1 (steady). *****

Estonia – Juri Pootsman – Play

JuriYoung Juri has those typical Estonian broody looks and an expression that says if I have nothing to say I just won’t say anything. The song too has an internal brake in there somewhere that stops it from soaring. It’s a good, thoughtful lyric but with a rather reserved melody and a surprisingly dated overall sound. Is if me, or is ELO’s Mr Blue Sky trying to burst out of the chorus somewhere? On reflection – a bit boring. 100/1 – 200/1 (steady). **

Azerbaijan – Samra – Miracle

SamraThere are two types of Azeri Eurovision entry: those that grab you by the whatnots and entertain the hell out of you, and those that sink into the blandness of high production values and no substance. Sadly, Miracle falls into the latter category, with a totally forgettable verse and slightly less forgettable chorus, but it really is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. 33/1 – 80/1 (steady). *

Montenegro – Highway – The Real Thing

HighwayFor those 1% of Eurovision fans who like a bit of heavy metal or hard rock, there are two offerings this year. In Montenegro’s The Real Thing, frankly the lyrics aren’t going to win any awards, but the guitar riff that recurs with regularity throughout the song has a pretty powerful effect. Sadly, the vocals for the chorus come across as unnecessarily Neanderthal on the recording. But I like it more than I ought, and at the London Eurovision Party they completely nailed it. 200/1 – 500/1 (drifting). ***

Iceland – Greta Salome – Hear Them Calling

greta salomeIt’s the return of Greta Salome, on her own this time and with a song that I think I prefer to Never Forget. In the video, today Matthew, she’s going to be Loreen, all dark wind machine and pelvic exercises, so I hope she finds her own identity for the performance on the night. The verse has barely finished before the breathlessly upbeat chorus kicks in, with some weird and wonderful instrumentation that keeps you engaged throughout. We saw her at the London Eurovision Party and she certainly has a charming cheek about her. It’s not the best thing since sliced bread but it definitely deserves to qualify from this selection. 66/1 – 100/1 (drifting significantly). ****

Bosnia & Herzegovina – Dalal and Deen – Ljubav Je

Deen and DalalAnother return offender, this time Deen, who, twelve years on is no longer In The Disco, more on the balcony of some Art Nouveau cinema that’s to be redeveloped as a shopping centre. Definitely a game of two halves, with a rather alluring Balkan ballad enhanced by the lovely cello of Ana Rucner, only to be spoilt by a haranguing rap from Jala. As a clash of cultures it’s a brave attempt; it fails, but it only just fails. By trying to appeal to both young and old it will probably alienate both. The staging will be mightily important. 100/1 – 400/1 (steady). ***

Malta – Ira Losco – Walk on Water

Ira LoscoThe original winner of this year’s Maltese Eurosong, Chameleon, successfully changed its appearance (as they do) and now looks like Walk On Water, and, if Ira Losco can achieve that, it’ll be more than a seventh wonder. (Did you see what I did there?) It starts promisingly and implies deep water ahead, but when we get to the chorus, Ira’s paddling in a shallow pond. Disappointing. 14/1 – 20/1 (steady). **

So that’s the sum of the parts for Semi Final One. Eight songs won’t qualify and I’m going to suggest they will be: Finland, Greece, Montenegro, Czech Republic, San Marino, Moldova, Hungary and Estonia. Semi Final One is on BBC4 on Tuesday 10th May at 8pm. The UK can’t vote in that semi-final, so just watch for fun! And I’ll be back shortly with a preview of Semi Final Two. Bis später!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd April 2016

Screaming Blue MurderFirst Screaming Blue Murder for us for a few weeks and it also happened to be a birthday celebration! So when Dan Evans called out if anyone was celebrating anything I cried out an excitable “Yes!” to which he replied “oh not you…” It’s lovely to be a valued member of the audience. Actually, there were some other much more…vociferous people there who were also celebrating. My moment in the spotlight passed quickly.

Dan EvansDan had plenty to contend with, with a front row half stocked with over-enthusiastic birthday partyers, and half with a party of police constables. You had to feel sorry for P.C. Tom, sat in the front row, right in the middle, and, as everyone agreed, thoroughly gorgeous looking. Every act commented on how he was a stunner. One of them even made him stand up and accept the (maybe jealous) plaudits of the crowd. He took it like a man – in other words he didn’t complain and he giggled a lot with his mate.

Chris WashingtonOur first act was bluff Northerner Chris Washington. He was new to us and, I must say, we really enjoyed his act. He took it all at a nice confident pace, and with bags of very funny material, you never doubted you were going to be in for a fun half hour. Included in his routine was an excellently bizarre weapons amnesty (in honour of the police guests I think), how men and women differ when they answer the door to the postie when they’ve just got out of bed, and the economics of dog ownership. I particularly enjoyed his mate’s CV – I’m presuming it’s not genuine but if it is, that’s terrific – and a brilliant last gag that mixes Lego with legover. An excellent start.

Amy HowerskaOur second act was Amy Howerska, whom we have seen before but as part of the hosting team of Spank! on our first visit to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. Again, extremely funny, she’s one of those comedians whose act just flies by in a whoosh of sex jokes and brilliant observations and it’s hard to pin down whether she dwelt for very long on any particular subject. She did have some great material about not being emotional because she comes from a military family, has a wide range of excellent accents, including her Eastern European bikini wax lady, and she introduced me to the concept of Penis Braille. (Not on a one-to-one basis, I should add). Bright, funny; a little challenging from time to time but all to the good.

Robert WhiteIn a change to the advertised programme, our final act was Robert White, whom we have seen three times before. He’s always been brilliant in the past, and he was brilliant again. Mixing being gay with Aspergers’, chucking in a keyboard and a penchant for comedy songs, scouring the front row for straight guys to embarrass, what could go wrong? He has one of the fastest-thinking brains imaginable, so can seemingly create brand new, person-specific comedy material at the drop of a pair of pants. Just superb.

Another excellent house saw a terrific line-up. Why don’t you come next time? 13th May if you’re wondering!

Review – The James Plays, National Theatre of Scotland, Derngate, Northampton, 16th April 2016

The James PlaysAs a Sassenach, it’s fairly shocking how Scottish history pre-1603 didn’t get taught at school when I was a lad. Everyone knows that James VI of Scotland became James I of England, but who were James I – V? Thanks to Shakespeare, we know of Macbeth, and by association Duncan, but I reckon most English people would be hard-pressed to give you the name of any other Scottish monarch. So one function of Rona Munro’s The James Plays is already sorted – filling the gaping holes in the brains of us folk south of the border with some of the missing bits of Scottish history. It’s almost a shame she confesses in the programme that she made some of it up.

James IThe James Plays were premiered in 2014 in a joint production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Edinburgh International Festival. Now they’re back for a UK and International tour, popping up for weekends in a theatre near you, where all three plays are performed on each day – James I in the morning, James II for the matinee, and James III in the evening. What struck me was how self-contained each play is. Mrs Chrisparkle and I grasped the production with all our mettle and saw all three plays on the same day – rather like we did with Young Chekhov last year. But that isn’t necessary. You don’t even need to see them in the chronological order, although the final tableau of James III makes more sense if you do.

Steven MillerEach play also has its own very distinctive vibe, with the three kings having very different personality characteristics. James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock is on a grand scale, full of warrior declamations, court scenes, a Royal Wedding, and plenty of bloody deaths. It’s the tale of the ascent of the king and his subsequent downfall. It’s the one that felt most Shakespearean to me; it’s also, by far, the funniest. Yes, you don’t expect these plays to be funny, do you? At times, James I (the play, not so much the man) is hysterically funny. James II – Day of the Innocents feels much more introverted by comparison, dealing with the shy boy king and his growing friendship with William Douglas. Once again it’s a play featuring the strategies of war and political motivations, but it’s seen more from the perspective of emotions and relationships. It also sports a tremendous trick on the audience with a repeated scene where his mother becomes his wife – you’ll have to see it to appreciate what I mean. James III – The True Mirror has an almost surreal atmosphere at times, with a king whose grasp on sanity is sometimes questionable, and a Royal court in disharmony due to adultery and financial mishandling, but ending with a more optimistic sense of what the future is going to hold.

EnsembleThe three plays are directed by Laurie Sansom and it’s a pleasure to welcome him back to the theatre where he was Artistic Director until 2013. I can’t think of a safer pair of hands to tackle this triptych of treachery than Mr Sansom. Having seen a number of his productions, I remain convinced that no one can create a pure sense of ensemble within a cast like he can. I don’t know how he does it. Maybe he adds a little cement to their breakfast cereal in the mornings. But whenever you see a Sansom show you can instantly recognise that amazing understanding between cast members which leads to a generosity of performance, a truly confident fluidity of movement, and a communal sense that they’re all in it together. You can even see this in the casting; one actor will take a major role in one of the plays, then merely be listed as ensemble in another. Not that ensemble is a second-class role when Laurie’s at the helm.

StewartsFor this production you can choose from the standard auditorium seating or tiered seating on the stage. I’m usually jealous of people who see a production from the stage because I always think they’re getting an intimate involvement with the action that I’m missing out on. That’s because, when I was 15, I went on a school trip to see Equus,- brave of the teacher if nothing else – and we were perched on on-stage benches in spitting distance of the late Colin Blakely and Gerry Sundquist and it was theatrical magic. However, it wasn’t that long ago that I retried the experiment with onstage seating for Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios and it was a total disaster. Couldn’t see a bloody thing. So this time I went with my gut reaction to take my usual Row G of the Stalls and it was the best decision. There would be a few scenes where you could not see what was going on if you were seated on stage, and you would certainly lose the overall impact of the grand spectacle. Plus, there’s a socking great sword stuck into the stage and if you were sat behind that, I doubt if you could see past the hilt.

Don't trust this familyAs I suggested earlier, you can’t pick out one star performer or role who leads the cast as you might in most standard productions. So let’s start with the kings and work backwards. James I is played by that charismatic and exciting actor Steven Miller, whom we last saw as the most convincingly manipulative Iago in Frantic Assembly’s Othello. He brings to the role a sense of innate nobility and quiet power which makes so strong a contrast with Henry V and the ruffian Stewart family whose capture he witnesses and whose company he has to endure. He really brings out the humanity of the character, trying to do the right thing and to balance his regal and family obligations. He also adds a tremendous naiveté to the whole wedding scene. I think he’s definitely One To Watch.

James IIAs James II, Andrew Rothney is totally believable as the nervous little boy shutting himself away in his kist, slowly finding his confidence to become an assertive young man. Is it wrong of me to wish that his birthmark hadn’t been shaped like the outline of Scotland? But I also thought Mr Rothney was chillingly superb as the malicious Walter Stewart in James I, scornfully patronising the king and justifying his own inhumane behaviour. Matthew Pidgeon’s James III is an increasingly disturbing portrayal of a man on the edge, constantly pushing at barriers to see what he will get away with next. With his eyeliner and ever closer interest in all things camp, he reminded me of a psychotic Tim Minchin. And his Henry V is a brilliantly rumbustious and argumentative presence, combining arrogant brutality with a surprising vulnerability. Three fantastic performances.

Andrew RothneyThese regal leaders have some feisty women to contend with too. Rosemary Boyle is brilliant as Joan, particularly in her younger days, fussing and fuming with an explosive vitality, assuming an air of responsibility whilst she’s still really just a little girl. Her torment as she is married to the unpredictable king is wonderfully portrayed in the scene where he is late – then absent – for dinner when they should be providing hospitality to the Stewarts. Blythe Duff’s Isabella is an unapologetically assertive opponent who’s not above psyching out the queen with her “soup”, but her reaction to her personal tragedy of losing her sons is genuinely heartbreaking, and her perpetual presence up in the prison is really moving. She’s also terrific as the sarcastic but also kindly Annabella, a hanger-on at court but giving much needed support to her self-hating great-nephew at the end. Malin Crépin is excellent as James III’s queen Margaret, a true survivor, combatting her liege’s excesses by distracting him with colourful scarves, carrying on the business of ruling behind his back, defeating the influence of his girlfriend with the use of the mirror, and even assuming power in his absence.

James IIIOther stand out performances include Sally Reid as the cheeky but loyal Meg, sent as a “present” to Joan and who becomes James II’s nanny; Andrew Still, outstanding as William Douglas, James II’s boyhood friend but eventual enemy; John Stahl, forceful and dominant as Murdac the Regent of Scotland prior to James I’s coronation; Ali Craig, as the aggressive and powerful Big Jim Stewart; Peter Forbes as the wretched Balvenie, picking his way through the politics to get the best deal for himself; and Daniel Cahill, as the son that James III didn’t care for and abandoned, who develops into a 14-year-old warrior and, in a very moving and brave final scene, comes to terms with his regicidal action and prepares to become James IV hereafter – kudos to you sir. But, as I said earlier, this is primarily an ensemble production and every single member of the cast gives to the day a huge commitment, great style, and brings the best out of Rona Munro’s wonderfully modern text.

Mary Annabella and BalvenieExpect a day of fantastic spectacle, superbly evocative music, and thoroughly engrossing drama. The costume, and most particularly lighting departments exceed all expectations and play a truly dynamic role in the overall production. Yes, I did think the second play would have benefited from being about twenty minutes shorter; and yes, although it was highly amusing in its anachronism, I was most surprised that the court of James III was so keen on The Human League’s back catalogue. But, above all, expect a day of electric performances and riveting drama. The tour continues till June and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

P. S. I bumped into Laurie Sansom during the interval of James III. I told him he hadn’t lost it. He seemed relieved.

Review – Stuart Goldsmith – An Hour, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 15th April 2016

Stuart GoldsmithAt the risk of sounding like a broken record (that’s a reference for anyone over the age of 25) this is yet another of those occasions where we thought we’d buy a ticket for a stand-up comedy act that we hadn’t got a clue about. I knew the name Stuart Goldsmith – but I wasn’t entirely sure why. I knew he did comedy. I knew he’d been to Edinburgh. That was all.

I also knew that, as it was called “An hour”, it was due to last an hour, unless he had a support act. He doesn’t. However, the show doesn’t really last an hour either, as Mr Goldsmith invites you to stay back after a short interval and hear some more material that he’s developing, to work out if it’s funny or not, for inclusion in future shows. That’s quite an exciting procedure to be part of, and Mr G was evidently chuffed to discover that we all liked him enough for almost everyone to stay back for the mystery second half, which would also include a Q&A session. However, it’s a bit awkward to share Qs and As with someone when you haven’t got a clue who they are. And true enough, the Qs came from a few likely lads who had taken over the front row and were obviously big fans of his comedy podcast, The Comedian’s Comedian. Even though I’m pretty internet-savvy, I find it difficult to get into youtubers and podcasters. I think it’s because they don’t get listed in the Radio Times. And because I can remember records.

Stuart GSo what of Mr Goldsmith’s comedy hour? It’s extremely enjoyable, urbane, and, above all, funny. Mr G is clearly a very nice bloke even though he says he’s difficult to live with; don’t believe that for a moment. He’s precisely the kind of guy you’d like to spend a night at the pub with. Oh – maybe that’s why he’s difficult to live with… What may at first seem like a rather random ramble through various comic observations of modern life is, without doubt, a pretty tightly scripted soliloquy that has been put together with deft style and planning, and which comes in at – 55 minutes. You might actually have thought to ask for one twelfth of your ticket price back (had it not been for the freebie second half).

Amongst the topics, he picks apart those irritating Facebook friends who are constantly updating their pages with Map My Ride progress; how to tell a Starbucks from a Costa and come out looking like a winner; the Wagamama experience; holidaying on your own; and dementia. And yes, it’s still funny. In the second half, new material that he’s trying out, I thought there was too much emphasis on babies. It’s a thing I have with comics; quite often they’re of the age where they suddenly become parents and the baby brings the potential of a lot of new material into their life. Babies don’t do much for me though, and it doesn’t take me long to get bored with the concept. Sorry about that. But that’s no criticism of An Hour, because if the baby material makes it through, it will be part of the next show.

In brief, a very entertaining and likeable comedian with some top quality material. It’s also safe to sit near the front and not get overly involved in the action. Phew!

Review – King Lear, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th April 2016

King LearTime to add another King Lear to the collection. For this Made in Northampton production, which will tour to nine more theatres between now and July, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lady Lichfield, paying us a visit in a never-ending quest for culture and alcohol. She’d never seen King Lear on stage before, poor love. In previous years we’ve seen stage productions with McKellen (majestic), Postlethwaite (troubled) and Jacobi (petulant), all brilliant in their own way. And Mrs C in particular can’t forget the TV adaptation with Olivier as Lear, which had her blubbing uncontrollably when Cordelia died. I think she had hoped for the earlier adaptation where Cordelia marries Edgar and they all live happily ever after.

Michael PenningtonTo add to that pantheon of greats, we can now include Michael Pennington, whom I must confess I had never seen before. His is a fantastic Lear, extremely believable as both the self-centred and quick to ire king, and as the devastated, broken man on the blasted heath. Delightful to watch and listen to throughout, with his superbly pitched diction, his gently understated quirky visual expressions, and his gradual decline into madness. He answers the perennial question of Is Lear Really Mad with an utterly honest, wide-eyed stare of dementia that certainly convinced me. Every inch a great performance.

Who loves me bestSome Shakespeare productions can be amazingly inventive; some grow their strength from their essential traditionalism. You don’t get much in the way of traditional Shakespeare nowadays – it’s almost seen as a confession of unoriginality if you don’t place it in an anachronistic time-setting or have all the cast members the same sex. Max Webster’s production is pretty much in the classically traditional line; there is a nod to the 1920s/30s in the costumes, and Regan’s child sports a rather smart perambulator, but apart from that it is the timeless story of the powerful but vain old man who gives all to his daughters and gets less than nothing in return. It’s a good, solid production that tells its story with great clarity, pared back so that no gimmicks get in the way, although with a couple of surprising twists in a few of the scenes to keep you on your toes. However, I must say that I thought the use of music, when I noticed it, was rather heavy-handed; there’s a very Hollywood-style orchestral accompaniment to the big fight between Edgar and Edmund which completely destroyed its sense of tension. In any event, the fight itself was choreographed with a remarkable lack of realism; I briefly thought we’d been transported to a scene between Aladdin and Abanazar.

Joshua Elliott and Michael PenningtonHowever, what you come away with is a satisfactorily rewarding production, with some very fine performances, and interesting, thought-provoking interpretations of some of the roles. For me, apart from Mr Pennington, the best performance of the night was from Joshua Elliott as the Fool. Primarily, he achieved the nigh-on impossibility of making the Fool funny. He made you laugh, yet still delivered his blistering observations on Lear that hit the spot with all the precision of a Tomahawk missile; frequently all in the same sentence. Rarely have I heard the lines such as all thy other titles thou hast given away told with such simple honesty. And, with some cunning direction, the “joint-stool” line worked perfectly.

Scott KarimThat fine actor Pip Donaghy makes a perfect Gloucester, warmly trusting Edmund, heartily supporting the King, and allowing himself to be duped because of his own open nature. Gloucester features in two of the most challenging moments of the play, and I find myself looking forward to them just to see how they’ll deal with them. The first is where Cornwall blinds him – challenging due to its goriness (and this production doesn’t disappoint) – and the second is where he attempts to throw himself off a cliff that isn’t there; a truly pathetic moment (in the correct sense of the word). Again, that scene was beautifully portrayed, also thanks to the sincere and heartfelt portrayal of Edgar by Gavin Fowler.

Adrian IrvineCatherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan appear as sisters in unctuous sycophancy as they outdo each other in their hideous praise for their father, which of course all turns to dust once they have achieved power. They both absolutely look the part of butter-wouldn’t-melt, which adds to the shock of their true nature, with Miss Scott in particular resembling the evil twin of Lady Edith from Downton Abbey. Tom McGovern’s Kent is the mildest and, dare I say it, blandest of courtiers, but absolutely comes to life when pretending to be the sparky little Caius, horrendously chipper in his support for Lear. Among the more minor characters, I thought Daniel O’Keefe was excellent as the serviceable villain Oswald, hiding tight-lipped behind his status as Goneril’s steward, but physically cowardly when real life intercedes. There is a gasp moment when you really think Regan is going to seek to reward Oswald for information in a manner not entirely becoming a lady; but wet fish that he is, he doesn’t go there. Very nicely done.

Catherine BaileyScott Karim gives us a very stylish portrayal of Edmund. I normally think of Edmund as full of bluster and barely disguised anger. However, this Edmund is much more introverted; quiet, sly, taking the audience into his confidence with subtle glee. He is a Uriah Heep of an Edmund, creating slippery plans for his own personal wealth and success, and with no thought to the consequence to his high-living brother or generous father. At first I was unsure of this portrayal, but I quickly saw how extremely well it works.

Tom McGovernI am, however, less certain of the interpretation of Cordelia, by Beth Cooke. I always associate the character with purity – being the youngest, unmarried, daughter – and honesty, as she refuses to lie to her father about how much she loves him. This portrayal certainly reflects Cordelia’s honesty, as she adamantly refuses to back down to Lear’s hectoring behaviour. But purity? When, disinherited, she meets her two suitors, Burgundy and France, she’s all over Burgundy like a rash. That’s not the classic Cordelia I remember. Also, she opens the play by coming on stage and firing her shotgun at us. This appears to be a Cordelia with attitude. However, her mannered speech delivery remains fairly constant throughout the play – speaking with a slow, almost ponderous rhythm that doesn’t allow for much variety of tone or expression. She may have attitude, but she also seems to be resigned to a life of misery from the very start. I must confess, it didn’t quite work for me.

But the evening definitely belongs to Mr Pennington, who brings an accessibility and modernity to the role that makes you realise that any of your elderly relatives could easily become a Lear if the wind was in the wrong direction. A very enjoyable and rewarding evening.

P.S. Mrs C didn’t cry.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Big Four (1927)

The Big FourIn which Captain Hastings returns to England to be reunited with his old pal Hercule Poirot, and together they uncover the identities and crimes of an international group of four evil megalomaniacs aiming for world domination, and eventually put a stop to their wicked ways. Normally I make a promise not to spoil the surprise for you so that you can read this blog post before reading the book. I’m not sure that’s possible in this case. There will be spoilers!

Fu ManchuLet’s start by saying that, although this book unquestionably has a lot of fun, in many ways it’s absolutely bonkers and total balderdash. Clearly inspired by the fiendish Dr Fu-Manchu, whose earliest incarnations in print were during the First World War, this is a book that takes as its central tenet the fact that there is a group of four evil criminals, so rich and powerful that the world quakes in their path, plotting their devilish crimes against humanity from a quarry in the Italian Tyrol, like some James Bond/Austin Powers villain. The Fu-Manchu character is Li Chang Yen, known to only a few specialist orientophiles, who masterminds the group’s activities. We know this from the seventh page of the book, so I’m not giving away too many secrets here. The identities of two other members of the Big Four fall into place with relative ease, and it’s only The Destroyer, who flits in and out of the activity with almost farcical regularity, whose identity is concealed until relatively late in the day. But it’s not a whodunit – you’re not faced with a bunch of suspects and one of them is No 4 – so you might ask, where is the suspense, the tension, the thriller, the mystery? Good question.

Cruise shipPart of the problem is its structure, and the story of how it came to be written. Originally, it was a series of 12 short stories that had been published in The Sketch magazine three years earlier in 1924; so Captain Hastings’ return from South America happened much more quickly than it might appear if you only read this as a new book in 1927. It was a time of domestic strife for Agatha Christie. Her marriage to Archie was breaking down; she needed an income, but lacked the creative muse. Her brother in law, Campbell Christie, suggested revising the short stories into a novel; and apparently he assisted her with linking them together.

SubmarineHowever, the episodic nature of the original sequence of short stories remains very apparent when reading The Big Four. It lacks a flowing narrative; it “stop-starts” constantly, picking up and dropping characters like someone struggling with an overfull shopping bag. There’s a point in the story where Poirot is discussing the sinister group with the non-believing French Prime Minister, Desjardeaux (oh yes, Poirot moves in exalted circles in this book). Poirot tries to convince him that the threat is real, and in Hastings’ narrative, the noble captain writes: “for answer, Poirot set forth ten salient points. I have been asked not to give them to the public even now, and so I refrain from doing so, but they included the extraordinary disasters to submarines which occurred in a certain month and also a series of aeroplane accidents and forced landings.” To my mind that’s amongst Christie’s laziest writing. She’s simply making an excuse not to spend an afternoon inventing those events. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in later years, Christie herself described The Big Four to her agent as “that rotten book”. Despite its not being a traditional whodunit, and its not being a very good book, it still sold very well – as it was published a few weeks after Christie’s famous disappearance and re-appearance, which to this day remains probably her biggest mystery. As with Poirot Investigates, Christie did not write a dedication. Presumably there weren’t enough people around in her life at the time worth dedicating it to. Alternatively, maybe she didn’t want to saddle one of her friends or relatives with the dubious honour of having this book dedicated to them.

Vegetable MarrowsSo what extra does this book tell us about our detective heroes? Poirot is still living in London (unlike in the previous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where he had retired to King’s Abbot to grow vegetable marrows). He’s attracted to his next case – which would take him off to Rio de Janeiro – purely for the money, which is most unlike him. He normally prefers something to tax the little grey cells rather than something that will result in his paying tax. He is still as egotistical as ever, though: “I think he came to see Hercule Poirot, and to have speech with the adversary whom alone he must fear”. In another exchange: “”And his mistake?” I asked, although I suspected the answer. “Mon ami, he overlooked the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot.” Poirot has his virtues, but modesty is not one of them.”” Despite his incredible track record, Poirot’s contemporaries still like to make out that he’s losing his marbles. To Poirot’s cryptic comment about seeing “not with the eyes of the body, perhaps, but with the eyes of the mind”, Inspector Meadows “touched his forehead with a significant grin at me. I was utterly bewildered, but I had faith in Poirot”.

Auburn hairAs for Hastings, he’s still a wry narrator, with a penchant for girls with auburn hair – Abe Ryland’s stenographer Miss Martin takes his fancy for that very reason. But he’s also still a terrible misogynist: “it had always seemed to me extraordinary that a woman should go so far in the scientific world. I should have thought a purely masculine brain was needed for such work.” When infiltrating Ryland’s domestic staff, he notes: “I had, or course, carefully scrutinised all the members of the household. One or two of the servants had been newly engaged, one of the footmen, I think, and some of the housemaids. The butler, the housekeeper, and the chef were the duke’s own staff, who had consented to remain on in the establishment. The housemaids I dismissed as unimportant.” And we are reintroduced to Inspector Japp, whose first appearance in the book is described as “jaunty and dapper” – so there’s a portmanteau name if ever there was one.

KarerseeOne relic of the book’s origin as a sequence of short stories is that it is littered with different locations. We start off at Poirot’s residence; in The Murder on the Links, this is just an unidentified London flat, but in The Big Four we know it to be 14 Farraway Street; a road that, according to Bing Maps, doesn’t exist anywhere in the world! Mayerling, the man who turns up unannounced, is said to have escaped from Hanwell asylum. This definitely existed – and indeed, still does to an extent, as part of the original buildings are now used by the West London Mental Health (NHS) Trust. The story moves to the village of Hoppaton in Dartmoor, the home of Jonathan Whalley. Christie describes it as 9 miles from Moretonhampstead. There is no such village – but in the village of Pyworthy, near Holsworthy, I discovered an old area called Hoppatown; there’s a farm, and one or two other buildings. I expect this was Christie’s inspiration. Other locations like Market Hanford, and Hatton Chase are purely fictional. When the story ends up in the Italian Tyrol, it takes us to Karersee or the Lago di Carezza, which certainly does exist, as you can see in the lovely picture at the top of this paragraph.

CalendarOne interesting side-effect of this mammoth task that Poirot set himself is that – I think – the detection, once it has started, is the longest to come to fruition of all Poirot’s cases. It certainly is of the books I have looked at so far. It is a morning in July when Hastings reaches the White Cliffs of Dover at the end of his long sea voyage. It’s mid-January when Hastings gets the telegram to announce that his wife has been kidnapped. Poirot and Hastings meet the Home Secretary and the French Premier at the end of March, and it’s June before the final showdown in the Italian Tyrol. Often you get the feeling that Christie’s books take place over a relatively short period. Well, here’s one exception to that rule.

Jewel Robbery There are also a number of people who drift in and out of the book, and also several who are referred to, but we don’t meet. Some are people from Poirot’s past. He and Hastings refer to Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté in disapprobatory tones; you might remember their encounter in The Murder on the Links. Countess Rossakoff is clearly an old adversary, for whom Poirot and Hastings have a sneaking regard. Hastings remembers that the Countess masterminded a “particularly smart jewel robbery”. But if you had only read each of Christie’s novels, and none of her magazine publications, reading The Big Four in 1927, you wouldn’t have a clue as to who Countess Rossakoff was. They had indeed come up against the Countess a few years earlier, in the story The Double Clue, which was published in the Sketch magazine in 1923. However, it did not appear in book form in the UK until 1974, as part of the volume Poirot’s Early Cases. So I’m afraid it’s going to be a good while before we get round to reading that one. Pierre Combeau appears to be an old friend of Poirot’s who plays a tiny but crucial role in the story – but he is not referred to in any other books – so this smacks of being another rather limp device of Christie’s in this book.

ChessMme Olivier has colleagues who sound like they could have been genuinely real people, like Professor Borgoneau; I think they’re completely fictitious. There are also chess champions, whom one could believe really existed – Rubinstein, Lasker and Capablanca. And yes they did! Akiba Rubinstein was a Polish chess Grandmaster at the beginning of the 20th century. Emanuel Lasker was a German chess player, mathematician, and philosopher, who was World Chess Champion for 27 years (from 1894 to 1921). José Raul Capablanca was a Cuban chess player, who was World Chess Champion from 1921 to 1927. By combining real and fictional characters in this way, this must have brought the story to life for its first readers in a way we might find hard to appreciate today.

MarconigramAs usual there are some references that might benefit from a little research. In The Murder on the Links, one of the characters is described by a doctor as suffering from brain fever. A few years on, and medical research and knowledge increases at a fast rate in the 1920s just as it does today, and in The Big Four, Hastings suggests another character might be suffering from the same condition. Dr Ridgway retorts: “Brain fever! No such thing as brain fever. An invention of novelists!” In an attempt not to look quite so stupid, Hastings then suggests aphasia, which is a term I hadn’t heard before – but it’s a well-known condition which refers to a combination of a speech and language disorder caused by damage to the brain. Hastings refers to Poirot wanting to send “constant marconigrams”. That wasn’t a term I’d heard before, but it will come as no surprise that it was a telegraphic message sent by Marconi Radio. The term fell out of popular use around 1931.

ApacheHastings chooses not to leave the flat in case the man from the asylum returns, much to Poirot’s scorn. “”Mon ami”, he said, “if you wish you may wait in to put salt on the little bird’s tail, but for me I do not waste my time so.” That reminded me that there was an old song by the Mamas and the Papas when I was a kid called “No salt on her tail”. I didn’t know what it meant then, and up till today I still didn’t! Well apparently, if you put salt on a bird’s tail, it cannot fly away. So now you know. When investigating the disappearance of Halliday in Paris, Japp concludes: “either it’s Apache work, and that’s the end of it – or else it’s voluntary disappearance”. Apache work? Native Americans? No. In the early 20th century Apache was also a term for violent street ruffians in Paris, according to my OED.

HorsesJapp again: “it’s too bad of you, M. Poirot. First time I’ve ever known you take a toss.” Take a what? Taking a toss was literally meant to mean being thrown from a horse; so figuratively it means to fail or to suffer a major setback. New to me. And Poirot also refers to chess “tourneys”; it’s just an informal term for a tournament. Poirot observes to Hastings that there could be a number of ways in which the Big Four could “get at them”, to which Hastings replies, “an infernal machine of some kind?” I don’t know about you, but I have definitely come across the phrase “infernal machine” before without really knowing what is meant by it. At that time, it had a specific meaning of an apparatus designed to cause an explosion.

Let’s now consider my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Big Four:

Publication Details: 1927. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1980, priced 90p. The cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a Fu-Manchu type figurine. Not that imaginative.

How many pages until the first death: 9. It’s worth noting the incredibly large number of deaths in this book. Some took place before the narrative of the story started, but were still caused, directly or indirectly, by the Big Four. I’m not sure you could give a definite number of murders all in all, but it’s at least thirteen, not including the fate of the big four themselves.

Funny lines out of context: There are two, one right at the beginning, and one right at the end.

“Our conversation was incoherent and inconsequent. Ejaculations, eager questions, incomplete answers, messages from my wife, explanations as to my journey, were all jumbled up together.”

Poirot: “No, I shall retire. Possibly I shall grow vegetable marrows! I might even marry and arrange myself!” He laughed heartily at the idea, but with a touch of embarrassment. I hope…small men always admire big, flamboyant women.”

Memorable characters: Bizarrely, Li Chang Yen is probably the most memorable character – and we never get to meet him! Number 4 is memorable, for the fact that he is the master deceiver and actor – we meet him many times during the course of the book, and he is a most unusual character. The structure of the book means that we don’t get that close to the majority of the characters – but I do have a soft spot for Flossie.

Christie the Poison expert: With so many deaths it’s only to be expected that at least some of them are brought about by poison. Mayerling was killed by being forced to smell Prussic Acid, or Hydrogen Cyanide, to give it its proper name. When Poirot confronts Number 3 he threatens to use curare on her unless she does what he demands. Curare is that rather romantic (if you can use the word in this context) poison, allegedly favoured by the rural tribes of Central and South America for dipping their darts into and murdering their foes at 50 paces. The Yellow Jasmine that kills Gerald Paynter is a source of strychnine-related alkaloids – interestingly that the all wise Poirot didn’t realise the association between the two, but of course Christie did – and there are traces of antimony in Mr Templeton’s soup. So if you haven’t already read the book, I’ve really spoiled it for you now.

Class/social issues of the time:

Even though we know that the representative from the Hanwell asylum was fake, his rough and ready attitude to his “patient” gives us a very insightful look into how mental health was treated in those days: “I’ve got reason to believe you’ve got one of my birds here. Escaped last night, he did…. ‘Armless enough. Persecution mania very acute. Full of secret societies from China that had got him shut up. They’re all the same…. If he was sane, what would he be doing in a lunatic asylum? They all say they’re sane, you know.”

Li Chang Yen is greatly feared and disliked because of the wickedness of the way he treats his enemies and also performs so-called social experiments: “experiments on coolies in which the most revolting disregard for human life and suffering had been shown”. Today we would associate that kind of activity with the Nazis – interesting that this predates the Nazi experiments by at least ten years. Similarly, Number 3’s apparent discovery of how to liberate atomic energy and use it to her advantage comes eighteen years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There’s a rather charming sequence when Inspector Meadows becomes rather prim when discussing the scene of the crime with Mr Ingles. “The other man had stepped in the bloodstains, and I traced his bloody footprints – I beg your pardon, sir.” This may be a hark back to Eliza Doolittle’s famed use of the adjective in Shaw’s Pygmalion from 1914. But certainly in the earlier part of the 20th century it was considered a very strong swear word. So Meadows feels he must apologise even when he is using it in its “proper” sense.

From the comfort of our domesticated 21st century homes comes a stark reminder of how far we’ve developed over the last hundred years or so. Poirot deduces that the butcher delivery to Granite Bungalow had happened that morning and not on an earlier day because “I found in the larder a leg of mutton, still frozen. It was Monday, so the meat must have been delivered that morning for if on Saturday, in this hot weather, it would not have remained frozen over Sunday.” Not only did people not have domestic freezers in those days, it was also assumed there’d be no deliveries on a Sunday!

In another just lightly touched upon conversation, we remember another aspect of life in 1927. “Captain Kent was a tall, lean American, with a singularly impassive face which looked as though it had been carved out of wood. “Pleased to meet you, gentlemen,” he murmured, as he shook hands jerkily. Poirot threw an extra log on the fire, and brought forward more easy chairs. I brought out glasses and the whisky and soda. The captain took a deep draught, and expressed appreciation. “Legislation in your country is still sound,” he observed.” American prohibition was in place from 1920 to 1933.

As you would expect, especially with a book that concerns itself with foreign enemies from the far corners of the globe, there are plenty of opportunities for those little xenophobic/ anti-foreigner references that Christie found hard to resist. Paynter’s Chinese servant is suspected of being his murderer, primarily because he is Chinese. “I’d bet on the Chink” says Japp, “…but it’s the motive that beats me. Some heathen revenge or other, I suppose.” Ah Ling’s appearance and speech patterns are precisely what you would expect: “The Chinaman was sent for and appeared, shuffling along, with his eyes cast down, and his pigtail swinging…. “Ah Ling,” said Poirot, “are you sorry your master is dead?” “I welly sorry. He good master.” “You know who kill him?” “I not know. I tell pleeceman if I know.” Poirot’s housekeeper Mrs Pearson announces to Hastings: “a note for you, Captain – brought by a heathen Chinaman.” Hastings commits one of the cardinal sins of racism; when he is reminded that he has met Ingles’ Chinese servant before, he remarks: “Then I had seen him before! Not that I had ever succeeded in being able to distinguish one Chinaman from another.”

It’s not only the Chinese who are in for this treatment. When they are investigating the death of chess champion Gilmour Wilson, Hastings interjects with “You suspect Dr. Savaronoff of putting him out of the way?…” “Hardly that,” said Japp dryly. “I don’t think even a Russian would murder another man in order not to be beaten at chess.” And Hastings also puts the boot in on another group of foreigners: “Extraordinary-looking Slavs were constantly calling to see him, and though vouchsafed no explanation as to these mysterious activities, I realised that he was building some new defence or weapon of opposition with the help of these somewhat repulsive-looking foreigners.” Captain Hastings would never have been suited to the Diplomatic Corps.

Classic denouement: No. It isn’t a whodunit as such, so there’s no real denouement. The identity of Numbers 2, 3 and 4 drift in during the course of the book, so there’s no grand unveiling of their names; the equivalent of the denouement is Poirot and Hastings tracking Numbers 2, 3 and 4 to their lair in Italy, which has a rather unsubtle (but useful) climax.

Happy ending? Yes, in that the world lives to survive another day, our heroes remain unscathed, and Mrs Hastings was never in danger. However, so many of the characters fall by the wayside (mainly through being murdered) that there’s not a great feeling of celebration at the end. Countess Rossakoff is reunited with her child who was left in an orphanage, so her future’s bright.

Did the story ring true? Absolute tosh! No way. It’s pure fantasy from start to finish. Even within the book’s own rules, it’s absolutely impossible that the Big Four would have been deceived into thinking that Poirot was dead. But the coincidences and double-crossings are outrageous, and the ability of Number 4 to appear and reappear in constant disguises without detection is beyond a joke. And as for the appearance of Achille Poirot…!

Overall satisfaction rating: 5/10. It’s entertaining, but nonsense.

The Mystery of the Blue TrainThanks for reading my blog of The Big Four and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move forward to 1928, and another Hercule Poirot book, The Mystery of the Blue Train. I remember enjoying this a great deal when I was young, but I can’t remember whodunit, or what it was they might have done! So I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. 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!

The Real Chrisparkle meets M. R. Carey!

I recently had the pleasure to talk to celebrated author M R Carey about his newest novel, Fellside, that was published today. Hope you enjoy our chat!

FellsideRealChrisSparkle: Greetings gentle reader! And welcome back M R Carey to the pages of The Real Chrisparkle blog! I say “welcome back” because this isn’t the first time you have graced us with your presence, is it?

MRC: Thanks for having me! No it isn’t the first time I’ve been here. It’s the first time I’ve been here under my own name though.

RCS: So it was you pretending to be Adam Blake! I knew it all along. Well thanks for taking some time from your busy schedule to talk bookish things. Since your appearance as Adam, your career has continued to blossom with the very successful Girl With All The Gifts. You must be dumbstruck at how well it has done?

Dead Sea DeceptionMRC: Yeah, very much so. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, in some ways. I’ve been writing for thirty years or so now, and doing it for a living for about half that time. The reception that The Girl With All the Gifts got wasn’t like anything in my previous experience. It’s not just about the sales figures, either. It’s the fact that I was able to write the movie screenplay, and the fact that the movie got made. That one story has completely changed my life, in all kinds of ways.

RCS: It’s amazing how just one book can turn things around! And you mention the movie, I’ve read that it’s going to open on 9th September, is that the official date?

Girl With All The GiftsMRC: Yeah, Warner’s confirmed that a few weeks ago. Very exciting! It’s actually somewhat earlier than I was expecting. The unofficial word was “some time in September or October” but with the rider that October was more likely. Now suddenly there’s an actual date and it’s only five months away. It’s hard to believe. There’s a part of me that still finds this whole sequence of events implausible enough to be a prolonged hallucination that I’m having while I’m slumped on the floor of a bar somewhere.

RCS: I guess if the barman jogs you awake with the words “come on mate, haven’t you got a premiere to go to?” you’ll know it’s true! But what’s really at the top of your agenda today is the fact that your latest book, Fellside, is just out. Would you like to tell us a bit of what it’s about? Don’t give away any surprises!

MRC: It’s a ghost story set in a women’s prison. The protagonist, Jessica Moulson, is a drug addict who accidentally kills a child. She’s high at the time, and trying to escape from an abusive relationship by burning down her flat with her violent boyfriend in it. The boyfriend gets away clean, but the young boy who lives in the flat above gets caught in the blaze and dies.

Jess is tried for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in Fellside, a privately owned “titan” prison on the Yorkshire moors. But she judges herself a lot more harshly than that. She feels that she doesn’t deserve to live after what she has done. So she decides to commit suicide.

But killing yourself in prison isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been put on suicide watch. Jess chooses to go on hunger strike, because the prison authorities can’t intervene to stop that process.

But when she’s about to die she has a vision of the ghost of the boy she killed. He saves her from dying, by means that seem to be supernatural and inexplicable. It seems that he has plans for her, and that she might have a chance to earn herself some kind of redemption if she can figure out what the ghost wants her to do and do it.

But there’s a complicating factor. Jess comes to the attention of the woman who runs all the rackets in Fellside – Harriet Grace. And Grace has plans for her too.

RCS: I was lucky enough to obtain an early copy and have read it cover to cover, and – most unlike me – I really was unable to put it down. It’s such an exciting read – in fact, probably one of the most exciting books I have ever read. Did it take you long to write?

MRC: It took a lot longer than GIRL. About eighteen months, but of course I was working on other projects for some of that time. I went through five drafts, effectively trying out different versions of Jess’s character and voice until I hit on the one that seemed best. It was hard. She’s a very difficult character to sympathise with, but in the end the story fails if you don’t. So it was important to present her strongly from the outset and to find an effective way of staging the reveals that make us revise our judgement of her as the story goes on.

RCS: I can appreciate that – and the way that the character develops through the story is definitely one of the driving factors that makes you want to keep reading. What came first in the creative process – was it wanting to write a book set in a prison, or wanting to write about someone accused of murder? Or some other aspect of the book?

MRC: I think there were two things that were in my head when I set out. One of them was the setting. I really like enclosed settings in which some of the normal rules of social interaction are suspended. The army base in GIRL was one, and obviously Fellside Prison is another.

AddictionThe other strand that was in there right from the start was addiction. I wanted to write a story about an addict fighting against her own cravings, fighting to find herself and redefine herself. I’ve had my own (mostly trivial) brushes with addiction, but I’ve also known many addicts. Some of the people who have been most important in my life have either fought against addiction and won or been destroyed by it. So I’ve thought for a long time that it was a theme I should visit and try to explore.

RCS: That’s fascinating and the exploration of addiction is something that frequently recurs in the book – and it pulls no punches where it comes to the harm it can cause. As far as the enclosed setting is concerned, I don’t think you’ve ever been to prison but I do know you used to work in a school – do you think prison and schools are similar in some ways?

MRC: There are obviously some strong similarities. Two groups sharing the space, one of whom is empowered while the other is mostly powerless – at least in terms of defining the rules of engagement. Prison is a total environment, though. You’re there all the time and there’s no getting away from it. So a relationship that sours or a situation that the institution sees as problematic can spill over into every aspect of your life. There’s no refuge. No way – or almost no way – to assert your own definition of yourself against the institution’s definition of you.

Another huge similarity, though, is that both schools and prisons offer roles, and behaviour sets that go with the roles. By enacting the role you can find yourself absorbing it, accepting it. You carry out the behaviours you think are expected of you, vaguely reassured by the fact that it’s the role, not your real nature, that’s in play. But of course we are what we do. You converge with the role. You become that aspect of yourself more and more. Or at least that’s the danger.

That’s another reason that enclosed and constrained settings fascinate me. I think they create pressures on our sense of self, and it’s interesting to see how people respond to that.

RCS: Certainly the traditional roles of, say, prisoner and prison officer are questioned in your book. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the person with the institutional authority who’s in the driving seat. I’m not sure Harriet Grace would ever have been the kind of person who meekly did what she was told!

MRC: No, that’s true. And partly that’s a case of the individual will, of course. But partly, too, it’s a side effect of how total institutions work. You could say that Grace chooses a role out of the many that are waiting there to be selected. There’s a point where one of the other characters, Shannon McBride, tells us about Grace’s early life, and how she escaped from being bullied by becoming a bully. She doesn’t change or question the paradigm, she just moves. It’s a confidence trick. Look, I can’t be a victim because you can plainly see that I have victims of my own…

I think this is something we see at a lot of different points in the book. People either getting trapped in a definition of themselves or rebelling and renegotiating it. The biggest contrast to Grace is probably Salazar, who allows himself to be trapped by one bad decision – and by fear – into playing a role that he absolutely hates.

RCS: Yes I admit I felt rather sorry for Salazar, even though he’s his own worst enemy – but that’s part of the human condition – frequently we are! I guessed from the start things wouldn’t turn out well for him, although I couldn’t predict what actually happened! And on that note, can I ask you about the plotting? The story twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Did you always know where it was going, or did the characters surprise you by taking you in different paths from what you expected?

MRC: I did what I always do, which is to start out with a very detailed plan but then to jump ship when a better idea came along! I think it’s probably like this for most writers. A novel is a semi-organic thing, like a cyborg. Some parts of it are built to high tolerances out of factory-hardened steel. Other bits are made of spit and sawdust. But the great thing about having a plan to start with is that it allows you to do precisely that – to deviate and experiment.

I think I had a strong sense of the journey each character would have to make, so I knew – in general terms – where they would end up. The big reveals, likewise, were fixed from the start. But some things just happened because they happened, which is part of what makes writing so exhilarating. Shannon wasn’t even mentioned in the plan, but at a certain point I pushed her into this role as Fellside’s storyteller and it seemed to work really well. So she ended up being very important. She’s the one who lets us see inside Grace’s head. She’s also the custodian of Jess’s story, although she changes it many times as her perceptions of Jess change.

Comedy and Tragedy masksRCS: That’s fascinating, I saw Shannon as rather like “Rumour” in an old pre-Shakespearean tragedy. I sense you’re rather fond of Shannon, she developed very nicely through the book! Are there any other characters of whom you are especially fond or proud that they turned out like they did? I liked the solicitor’s assistant Levine, falling for his client – albeit a rather imaginary version of his client. He’s wannabe noble but full of human failings. Are there any characters who you’d want to go for a drink with?

MRC: I liked all of them, including the really dysfunctional and scary ones! I’m very fond of Salazar. He was a challenge to write because he’s so passive and weak-willed for most of the story, facilitating what the more brutal and unprincipled characters do by not standing against them. But underneath that he has a very powerful desire to do the right thing, and we follow his progress from this position of abject surrender to a very brave decision that is still, somehow, a falling down rather than a standing up.

And I enjoyed writing both Patience DiMarta and Andrea Corcoran – people who are quietly doing their best in this hideous and messed up environment.

In terms of going out for a few pints… you know, I’d probably go for the other lawyer, Brian Pritchard. He’s a bit of a grandstander, but he’s shrewd and in his own understated way an idealist. I suspect he’d be good company.

RCS: He probably earns well too, so I’m sure he’d be generous when it was his round! As in GIRL, at the heart of the book you have a strong female character with an almost unbreakable bond with a child. Is this something we should examine psychologically about yourself? Would you like to get on my couch and tell me about your childhood?

MRC: Oh man, would I not like that!

My childhood was frankly weird. There was a fair amount of deprivation – we were very poor – and there was a fair amount of what I can only call crazy shit. My brother Dave said to me once that the scariest thing about our childhood was the sense that nobody was really in control, and I absolutely agree.

But it was a very loving family. Precarious, almost falling apart, perpetually in crisis, but loving all the same. And I think those contradictions ricochet around in everything I write. Families can save us or destroy us. Can save us AND destroy us. Parents build us up and break us down. They make it possible for us to be what we are, and yet they set the limits too.

This Be The VerseI think what I really keep picking at is the extent to which we make our own identities, and the extent to which our relationships with other people can help us or hinder us in that process. Nothing is as fulfilling or as important as love, and parental love is important at the point in our lives where we’re still learning who we are. But it’s almost inevitable that at some point you’ll have to fight against the way your parents see you. The definition of yourself that they want to give you. Otherwise you’ll find yourself becoming some edited and foreshortened form of yourself.

RCS: Thank you for your honesty sir! I completely agree that there comes that point when you have to fight your parents’ definition of who you are and take your own course in life, which is almost certainly not the same course that they had planned for you! Jess’s bond with Alex is, at first, very domineering, making those assumptions about who he really is, and what will be best for him, just in the same way you suggested your parents did for you and certainly mine did for me. Jess is certainly guilty of projecting her own fears, fantasies and desires onto Alex, moulding him into something she wants him to be, but that he basically isn’t. This also happens to Lizzie Earnshaw who’s been made into a big bad bitch but is actually as nice as pie deep down. It all goes back to what you said earlier about defining your roles and your character.

MRC: Yeah, absolutely – and sometimes that’s a very hard thing to do. Every relationship changes you. Everything you do often enough and consistently enough changes you. There’s no clear dividing line between you and the world, there’s just a permeable membrane. The trick is to maintain enough awareness of those processes to have some control over them.

RCS: There’s a very stark contrast between the gritty realism of life in the prison with the supernatural friendship between Jess and Alex. It must have been very difficult to find the right way to express their relationship, when there’s not much in the way of “reality” taking place! How did you go about finding that voice?

MRC: It was the toughest balancing act in the whole process of writing the book, and I think part of the answer is that I cheated. Once I’ve created the two worlds – Fellside, in all its grim solidity, and the dream world which is about as solid as a memory of smelling candy floss – I immediately start to interweave them. As soon as you have that moment when Jess feels Alex’s hand in hers as she’s standing on the walkway outside her cell, you have a kind of palimpsest. She’s always got a foot in both camps, and everything – arguably – is simultaneously real and not real. Or at least everything has consequences in the other world. Jess and Alex’s dream journeys raise echoes in the minds of the Goodall inmates, and the realities of life in Fellside shape and inform the things that they encounter in the dream world.

There are other forms of cheating going on too, of course, that I can’t discuss without major spoilers. But it seemed crucial to me that we should both believe and invest in the relationship between Jess and Alex in all of its stages. They help each other to survive, in real and measurable ways. That’s the core of the story. And it doesn’t stop being real (or at least I hope it doesn’t) when we realise that they’ve been fundamentally mistaken about each other.

RCS: No, absolutely, the two characters are completely interdependent and that bond is completely real, right through to the very end – which we’d better not discuss as that would really ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read it! In amongst all the greed, power, corruption, injustice, and revenge, it strikes me as being a very moral tale. The baddies certainly get their come-uppance, which feels very satisfactory for the reader. And there’s definitely a religious nuance going on there too. Is it fair to say the name of Grace was chosen with a certain degree of irony?

GraceMRC: Yeah, very much so. My original working title for the novel was State Of Grace. It’s a story about redemption, and about how far redemption is possible. And of course in that narrative Grace has some of the attributes of Mephistopheles, pulling Jess away from her goals and from her attempt to keep faith with Alex.

But I don’t know that I’d call it a moral tale. Good people get hurt and ruined too. I remember reading Kenneth Muir’s introduction to the Arden King Lear back when I was a student. Sorry, I’m not comparing myself with Shakespeare, here, I’m just borrowing an argument. Muir pointed out that by the end of the play the villains have been destroyed but they’ve taken almost all the decent characters with them. It’s as though the universe has been through some huge convulsion to purge itself of something terrible – but the violence of that purging hits everybody, leaves them all dead or walking wounded.

Having said that, there is certainly a sense of a better order starting to emerge at Fellside at the close of the book. It doesn’t just go back to the status quo.

RCS: There’s definitely a better order at the end of the book – Fortinbras has come on board and taken things under control! I see why you don’t feel it’s moral, and for sure some of the decent characters don’t survive unscathed. But they were sacrificed so that the future would be brighter. Something was certainly rotten in the state of Fellside – sorry for Hamleting up your Lear allusion! So what’s next on the cards for you, now that Fellside is out. Reclining on a chaise-longue and being fed grapes?

MRC: That would be nice! Actually I’ve never been busier in my life. I’m finishing up the next novel, Bedlam Bridge, which I’ve got to deliver in April, and at the same time I’m working on a lot of screenwriting projects which I’m trying to juggle so that I don’t lose momentum on any of them. One of them is a movie version of Fellside, which I’m hoping to get off the ground with the same production company that did The Girl with All the Gifts, and with Colm as director again.

I still write comics, too. I’ve just finished volume one of Highest House, the epic fantasy I’m writing for French publisher Glenat. Which means I should now be planning volume two…

RCS: …and I’m guessing you aren’t yet?! Wow you certainly are busy. A movie version of Fellside would be great, I can already imagine some perfect casting for the roles! And if Bedlam Bridge needs to be ready this month I’d better let you get on! Thanks very much for your time Mike, congratulations on a brilliant book, and best of luck for all your future endeavours!

MRC: Thanks to you too, RCS. It’s been a real pleasure talking.

Later edit: Bedlam Bridge, which Mike talks about here as being his next up and coming novel was of course retitled The Boy on the Bridge, the much admired prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts.