Review – Jimeoin, Renonsense Man, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th February 2017

jimeoin-renonsense-manWith Mrs Chrisparkle having been stranded up north the night before due to Storm Doris, and me soggy with cold, we weren’t in the best frame of mind for going out to see a comedian that neither of us knew anything about. I know that Jimeoin has been going a long time, but our paths simply never crossed. I didn’t even know how to pronounce him – indeed, he doesn’t either, as he confesses early in the show.

jimeoinHowever, within a few minutes of his ambling on, mumbling a few hellos, chucking a few quirky glances here and there, I decided that this guy is probably going to be someone I’ll really get on with. He’s like a mischievous uncle, or an office prankster who can’t take anything seriously. He’d probably drive you completely nuts if you had to live with him, but as a colleague or a mate he’d be comedy gold. What’s really extraordinary is how much he can convey with just his facial expressions. As he says, he and his wife have been together for such a long time now there’s nothing much left to say so they just communicate by glances. Thus they have a series of wordless exchanges that include the useful stop talking you’re making yourself look a fool, the dishonest who farted, and the don’t you dare think of sex routine.

jimeoin2Of course, this isn’t a mime act. For two hours, Jimeoin takes patches of his life, seemingly randomly assembled, and presents us with a combination of wry, silly, insightful and just plain hysterical observations about what life is really like. And, for whatever reason, his humour just resonated perfectly with us. It must have been one of those rare occasions when we were the absolutely perfect demographic for the show. Whether he was talking about toilet brushes, or impersonating airline pilots from around the UK, or giving us a selection of brief comedy songs on the guitar, we basically just fell apart. Mrs C was literally weeping with laughter and I can confirm that it takes some comedian to make her do that.

jimeoin1If you’re sitting in the front rows and he engages you in conversation, don’t worry, it will all be charming and friendly, but bear in mind he won’t forget your name and you’ll almost certainly be cross-referenced into some other part of his routine at a later stage. His is one of those acts that feels like he’s making it up as he goes along, but I’m pretty sure there’s a well-defined sequence of routines prepared in advance. His wonderfully laconic but communicative style helps the content flow in a totally organic and unforced way, so that you just feel you’re eavesdropping on this old geezer’s meanderings. I say “old” – he’s six years younger than me, so everything’s relative.

jimeoin3There’s also a definite edge to his comedy – it’s not all soft and fluffy by any means. For example, he asks us to admire his new boots – that’s fine – and then he explains where he got them and it’s so outrageous you wonder if you can allow yourself to laugh at it. But it’s also extremely funny and aligns perfectly with the rather irreverent persona that he presents us. It’s one of a number of occasions where your laugh catches in your throat before you feel confident enough to let it rip. Despite what appears to be a perfectly relaxed delivery, the man’s wit is razor sharp and he’s constantly reacting to what goes on around him to create two hours of superbly well crafted material.

275604-jimeoinWe kept on talking about him as we walked home, as we went to bed, as we got up the next morning, as we had dinner the next evening. Definitely a contender for the funniest comedian we’ve ever seen live. He only had a few UK dates on his tour, and now he’s back to performing in Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney before coming back to the UK for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. If you ever get the chance to see him, take it!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

Lord Edgware DiesIn which the talented, beautiful but spoilt actress Jane Wilkinson, aka Lady Edgware, challenges Poirot to help her “get rid of my husband”, shortly after which Lord Edgware Dies. Well, the title told you that anyway, so it’s no surprise. Poirot and Hastings investigate this, and other, deaths but it’s only a chance remark that Poirot overhears that alerts his little grey cells to what really happened that fateful night and brings the guilty party to book. Because of this, Poirot counts this case as one of his failures; but Hastings’ narrative shows us that Poirot is being unnecessarily and uncharacteristically modest! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

skeletonThe book is dedicated to Dr. and Mrs. Campbell Thompson. Reginald Thompson, eminent British archaeologist, led an expedition to Nineveh in 1930 on which Max Mallowan worked and Agatha Christie was allowed to accompany him. It was during this dig that she wrote “Lord Edgware Dies”, and in fact, when they discovered a skeleton in a shallow grave they named him Lord Edgware in honour of the late, but fictitious, George Alfred St Vincent Marsh, fourth Baron Edgware.

Red HerringMy initial reaction to this book is that it is a brilliant read, full of great characters, an intriguing plot, a misleading denouement and it all hangs together beautifully. Red herrings abound, and, if you’re tempted to play along with Poirot and make your own guess as to whodunit, you won’t see the wood for the trees until the final few pages. Sadly, there are a few racist comments in the text that today hit you as being wholly inappropriate, but those were the times they lived in.

thirteenThe title to the American edition is Thirteen at Dinner – which was also used as the name of the 1985 film starring Peter Ustinov and Faye Dunaway. Its relevance to the story comes from Donald Ross’ observation that there were thirteen guests at the dinner party, and there are all sorts of superstitions that arise from having thirteen at dinner – arising from the account of the Last Supper in the Bible. It does concentrate on one relatively small part of the story though, and I personally don’t rate it as a title!

moustache2Poirot is on top form with all his vanity and egocentric nature on constant display. It reveals itself from the very start with Lady Edgware’s attention – and of course, Hastings cannot help himself from encouraging his friend to look even more foolish: “”You have made a hit, Poirot. The fair Lady Edgware can hardly take her eyes off you.” “Doubtless she has been informed of my identity,“ said Poirot, trying to look modest and failing. “I think it is the famous moustaches,” I said. “She is carried away by their beauty.” Poirot caressed them surreptitiously. “It is true that they are unique,” he admitted.” On another occasion, all detective work comes to a sudden halt when Poirot discovers a tiny grease spot on his clothing and rushes to procure the cleaning materials to repair his appearance. That manicured look is so important to him, and there are occasions when he picks Hastings up on his dress sense and personal grooming, like a bickering old couple.

waving-handsHowever, Poirot’s self-obsession does not mean he is not self-critical. Far from it; in this book he is devastated that it takes an overheard conversation to direct his thoughts on the right path. He precedes his denouement speech with a self-chastising preamble: “I am going to be humble […] I am going to show you every step of the way – I am going to reveal how I was hoodwinked, how I displayed the gross imbecility, how it needed the conversation of my friend Hastings and a chance remark by a total stranger to put me on the right track.” His anxiety at not being able to see through the crime clearly makes him behave rather peculiarly at times, which gives rise to Inspector Japp (back in Christie-land since we last saw him in Peril at End House) again suggesting that Poirot is losing it: “”When we got back here I started to question him. He waved his arms, seized his hat and rushed out again.” We looked at it each other. Japp tapped his forehead significantly. “Must be”, he said.”

butlerHastings is his usual self, loyal to his friend although not beyond teasing him either; talking about the attractiveness of the women at the party like a couple of (admittedly well-behaved) schoolboys, stunned by the beauty of Lady Edgware. There’s no auburn hair on offer for him to admire, just the effeminacy of Lord Edgware’s butler for him to despise in a lightly homophobic way, which comes across as rather tasteless. Together they continue to be a great team, with Poirot on one hand criticising Hastings for any number of failings (as he sees them) yet also being unusually kind to him: “as we sipped our coffee, Poirot smiled affectionately across the table at me. “My good friend,” he said. “I depend upon you more than you know.” I was confused and delighted by these unexpected words. He had never said anything of the kind to me before.” Working together, there are a number of excellently written passages where they both consider the evidence to hand, asking questions and formulating theories – or ideas, as Poirot would have it; these are the real nuts and bolts of the book that make it so satisfying.

bookstallAs narrator, Hastings offers us a facsimile, as he has done in previous novels – this time of the torn letter that appears to incriminate one particular suspect; and Hastings’ style (as passed on to us by Christie) of having a number of relatively short chapters keeps the pace of the story going at a furious rate, making it a very exciting read. There are, however, a couple of words and phrases that Christie/Hastings overuse, so that they stand out detrimentally. On several occasions, Poirot is described as looking or speaking “dreamily”. The word doesn’t have much of a meaning or much of an impact, but it’s very noticeable through its repetition. Even more annoying, there are at least eight occasions where they phrase “at anyrate” appears. It’s particularly irritating due to the contemporary spelling of “anyrate” as one word – it doesn’t appear in my copy of the OED. However, Christie redeems herself with a nice little joke when the new Lord Edgware is giving his account to Poirot of how he approached his father to ask for money. “”And I went away without getting any. And that same evening – that very same evening – Lord Edgware dies. Good title that, by the way. Lord Edgware Dies. Look well on a bookstall.” He paused. Still Poirot said nothing.” As an aside, I was uncertain in the last book, Peril at End House, whether Captain and Mrs Hastings were back in England for good or if she was still a brave lonely outpost in The Argentine. With the knowledge that a couple of days after Poirot revealed the murderer, Hastings was recalled to The Argentine and therefore missed the trial, we know that he is still only here “on business”.

MadnessA couple of interesting philosophical questions are raised during the course of the book. The opening scene shows new stage star Carlotta Adams performing her act which includes an impersonation of Lady Edgware – because to most people she is the American actress Jane Wilkinson. Hastings muses on this point: “Watching Carlotta Adams’ clever but perhaps slightly malicious imitation, it occurred to me to wonder how such imitations were regarded by the subject selected. Where they pleased at the notoriety – at the advertisement it afforded? Or were they annoyed at what was, after all, a deliberate exposing of the tricks of their trade?” We get to discover Jane Wilkinson’s true reaction to the impersonation later in the book. But that’s certainly a question – in a world of celebrities – that is simply never going to go away. There’s also the question of a murderer’s mental state at the time they commit the crime. Can they possibly be fully sane to commit such an act? “”All murderers are mentally deficient – of that I am assured,” said Mrs Carroll. “Internal gland secretion.”” It’s a subject Christie’s raised in the past and no doubt will do again in the future.

leadpipingThere are a few references to Poirot’s earlier cases. When the redoubtable Duchess of Merton pays a call on Poirot, she informs him that it was Lady Yardly who had told her about him. If that name rings a bell, she featured in the short story The Adventure of “The Western Star” which appears in the book Poirot Investigates. Elsewhere Poirot reminisces on a case: ““I found a clue once,” said Poirot dreamily. “But since it was four feet long instead of four centimetres no one would believe in it.”” That is largely taken to refer to a piece of lead-piping that Poirot found in The Murder on the Links. Whilst Poirot is waiting for evidence to turn up, he helps out in a few other cases, including “the strange disappearance of an Ambassador’s boots”. This sounds very much like The Ambassador’s Boots from Partners in Crime, but it is Tommy and Tuppence who solve that little mystery. Some identity confusion, perhaps?

SavoyUnusually this story takes place entirely within the confines of London. Only Inspector Japp takes a trip outside, to Paris, which he believes was a wasted journey. Apart from that, the locations of the story are at London theatres and restaurants, Poirot’s flat, Lord Edgware’s house in Regent Gate, Jenny Driver’s hat shop in Moffat Street and Jane Wilkinson’s suite at the Savoy. That magnificent building of course exists; there isn’t a Regent Gate in London as such but Prince Regent’s Gate would be about right for the Edgwares’ stately pile; again there is no Moffat Street near Bond Street; I’m not sure Ms Driver’s hats would sell that well in Moffat Road, Tooting.

duckA few references took my interest: the first, brash, appearance of young Ronald Marsh, later to become the fifth Baron Edgware, causes Mrs Widburn to declaim: “You mustn’t take any notice of him. Most brilliant as a boy in the O.U.D.S. You’d hardly think so now, would you?” I recognised that acronym instantly as I, dear reader, was also once a member of the Oxford University Drama Society. And Japp uses a delightful image which was prevalent in the 19th century but has really gone out of fashion: “Sorry M. Poirot […] But you did look for all the world like a dying duck in a thunderstorm.”

elizabeth-canningWhen the detectives are trying to work out how it could be that Jane Wilkinson was seen in more than one place at the same time, Japp recalls: “Reminds me of the Elizabeth Canning Case […] You remember? How at least a score of witnesses on either side swore they had seen the gipsy, Mary Squires, in two different parts of England. Good reputable witnesses, too. And she with such a hideous face there couldn’t be two like it. That mystery was never cleared up.” The Elizabeth Canning case was indeed real, and concerned a famous kidnapping case back in 1753 that you can read about here.

post-boxJenny Driver recollects how Carlotta Adams would send a letter every week to her sister in Washington. But on this occasion she missed the post. “”Then it is here still?” “No sir, I posted it. She remembered last night just as she was getting into bed. And I said I’d run out with it. By putting an extra stamp on it and putting it in the late fee box it would be all right.” Extra stamp? Late fee box? Indeed, this was a common practice so that you could post a letter after the normal final collection time for an extra fee. The boxes were frequently placed in railway stations. I’m not sure when this practice died out – but it must have been jolly useful.

rose-descartesAlso in the world of the hat shop Chez Genevieve, “Mrs. Lester’s coming in about that Rose Descartes model we’re making for her.” Rose Descartes? (Actually my copy reads “Rose Descrates” but I think that’s a misprint). There was an old style of rose called the Rene Descartes – a stunning orangey red. If it’s the same hue, I’m sure the hat will look fab. Anyone of my generation or older will just about remember the wonderful chain of London eateries that was the Lyons Corner House – Carlotta Adams was seen at the Strand branch at 11pm on the night Lord Edgware died. I fondly remember my dad ordering the Super Bingo meal at the branch on Coventry Street, which he enjoyed so much that he had another one for dessert! Apparently they ceased trading in 1977 – I didn’t realise it was that recent. And the evening newspaper that covers the story is called the Evening Shriek. That’s a jazzy title. The London evening papers at the time would have been the Star, News and Standard (as the paper vendors used to shout out). Maybe it’s that shouting that Christie is trying to recreate with this newspaper name.

PoundRegular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. The £100 cheque that Lord Edgware cashed the day before he died would today be worth about £5000. Moreover, the $10,000 that Carlotta refers to in her letter to her sister comes in at a whopping £146,000 at today’s rates.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Lord Edgware Dies:

Publication Details:
1933. Fontana paperback, 13th impression, published in July 1976, priced 60p. The rather creepy cover illustration by Tom Adams shows an ornate dagger with a claw finial plunged high into the neck of a grey haired male victim – presumably Lord Edgware.

How many pages until the first death: 31. A perfect length really; enough to lay some useful groundwork before getting into the meat, as it were. Of course, Lord Edgware’s death is referred to in the first paragraph, and, indeed, in the title. No one will ever be under the misapprehension that Lord Edgware survives unscathed in this book.

Funny lines out of context: as usual, words and ideas that seemed perfectly reasonably in the 1930s have acquired a different sense today:

“You don’t know my husband, M.Poirot […] He’s a queer man – he’s not like other people.”

“He seems to have taken a fancy to me[…] A man like that behind you means a lot.”

“Unfortunately, he has got a queer sort of prejudice against divorce. I tried to overcome it but it was no good, and I had to be careful, because he was a very kinky sort of person.”

“Finally, after various ejaculations, Poirot spoke.”

Memorable characters:

Jane Wilkinson/Lady Edgware is a very well drawn, very lively and very believable over-the-top character who brings the page to life whenever she appears. In his first description of her, Hastings points out her histrionic character; unusually, she even beats Poirot in the self-obsessed stakes. Mrs Widburn describes her as an egoist; Bryan Martin says she’s amoral. I see her as a real life and slightly more unhinged version of the Muppets’ Miss Piggy. Everything has to be about her or because of her. Hers is the only opinion that is to be counted, hers the only needs to be met.

Young Ronald March, the fifth Baron Edgware, is also a live wire; coming across as a leftover from a 1920s Christie novel of Bright Young Things – maybe his natural home would have been in The Secret of Chimneys. It’s a shame that a lot of what he says when you first meet him is considered so distasteful now. I think Christie intended for us to think of him as a rather charming Jack-the-Lad; however, times change (see below.)

The character of Carlotta Adams is based on the real life American dramatist Ruth Draper, who specialized in character-driven monologues and whom Christie saw give a performance that made her think “how clever she was and how good her impersonations were; the wonderful way she could transform herself from a nagging wife to a peasant girl kneeling in a cathedral” (from Christie’s Autobiography.)

Christie the Poison expert:
There is a noticeable similarity to the murder methods in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Ackroyd is killed by an antique silver dagger – Edgware by an ornate pin. In the first book, Mrs Ferrars dies through an overdose of veronal – and that is also the method used for a second murder in this book.

Class/social issues of the time:

Perhaps there are not quite so many references to the social issues in this book as in others, although there is unfortunately quite a lot of casual racism.

Lord Edgware’s housekeeper, Miss Carroll, has firm ideas about the kind of person who would and would not commit a murder. “”Had Lord Edgware any enemies?” asked Poirot suddenly. “Nonsense,” said Miss Carroll. “How do you mean – nonsense, Mademoiselle?” “Enemies! People in these days don’t have enemies. Not English people!” “Yet Lord Edgware was murdered.” “That was his wife,” said Miss Carroll. “A wife is not an enemy – no?” “I’m sure it was a most extraordinary thing to happen. I’ve never heard of such a thing happening – I mean to anyone in our class of life.” It was clearly Miss Carroll’s idea that murderers were only committed by drunken members of the lower classes.”

Interestingly, Poirot, who normally understands the British class system so well, gets it severely wrong with his interrogation of the Duke of Merton: “”I should like to ask you outright, your Grace. Are you shortly going to marry Miss Jane Wilkinson?” “When I am engaged to marry anyone the fact will be announced in the newspapers. I consider your question an impertinence.” He stood up. “Good-morning.” Poirot stood up also. He looked awkward. He hung his head. He stammered. “I did not mean…I…Je vous demande pardone..” “Good-morning,” repeated the Duke, a little louder.”

But it’s Hastings who shows the true British class spirit when he discovers Poirot was reading the Duke’s letter upside down at the same time as stammering. “”Poirot!” I cried, scandalised, stopping him […] I felt very upset, He was so naively pleased with his performance. “Poirot,” I cried. “You can’t do at thing like that. Overlook a private letter […] It’s not – not playing the game.”

Let’s turn to a few more unpleasant aspects of the book. There’s a lot of casual antisemitism running through it, from descriptions of Rachel Dortheimer’s “long Jewish nose”, through Sir Montagu’s “distinctly Jewish cast of countenance.” It is Poirot who points out to Hastings, about Carlotta, that: “”You observed without doubt that she is a Jewess?” I had not, But now that he mentioned it, I saw the faint traces of Semitic ancestry.” But Poirot instantly relates the fact that Carlotta is Jewish to her undoubtedly having ““love of money. Love of money might lead such a one from the prudent and cautious path.” “It might do that to all of us,” I said. “That is true, but at anyrate you or I would see the danger involved. We could weigh the pros and cons, If you care for money too much, it is only the money you see, everything else is in shadow.”” Christie takes that theme a step further with Carlotta’s excitement at the $10,000 offer.

In addition to the antisemitism, our first encounter with a rather drunk Captain March includes him referring to “Chinks” and a very unfortunate few lines: “He shook his head sadly, then cheered up suddenly and drank off some more champagne. “Anyway,” he said. “I’m not a damned n*****.” This reflection seemed to cause him such elation that he presently made several remarks of a hopeful character.” Because that language is simply no longer acceptable, it prevents today’s reader from having the sympathetic view of the character of March that I am sure Christie intended us to have.

Classic denouement: Very nearly – the only thing it lacks is the moment of accusation to the guilty party, who isn’t present. But it does lead you down a delightful garden path when you think at least two other people are going to be proved the murderer before Poirot lays his Straight Flush.

Happy ending? Happy enough I think. In what has become a typical Christie finish, two of the characters end up engaged, and there’s nothing particularly bad that happens to any of the other innocent participants.

Did the story ring true? Again, true enough. It relies on one character impersonating another over a prolonged period which is rather far-fetched. Apart from that, very believable characterisation of the main people in the story help to make it feel credible.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. A strong exciting story, with fascinating characters, very nicely written and with a solution that ticks all the boxes. It would have been 10/10 if it hadn’t been for the racist comments!

The Hound of DeathThanks for reading my blog of Lord Edgware Dies 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, it’s back to the short story format with The Hound of Death; but they’re not so much detective stories as tales of the supernatural – so that should be interesting! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Monkey See Monkey Do, Richard Gadd, Leicester Comedy Festival at The Cookie, Leicester, 22nd February 2017

richard-gaddTowards the end of Richard Gadd’s extraordinary hour long performance of Monkey See Monkey Do, he turns to the audience and asks if any of us had read up about the show beforehand. Only two people put their hands up. “Must have been a bit of a shock, I guess?” he asks, eliciting a half-embarrassed, half-relieved laughing response. I didn’t put my hand up, because I took his question literally; I hadn’t read about it, but I had heard about it on a personal recommendation from someone who said this was the best show they saw in Edinburgh last year. And that’s why Mrs Chrisparkle and I braved both the southern reaches of Storm Doris and nasty head colds to see the show in person.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. To take on extremely serious subject matter and weave it into a multimedia experience, led by Richard Gadd pounding away on his treadmill for the first 45 minutes or so, is some feat. There’s loads to laugh at; there’s loads to empathise with; there are some elements that might make you recoil in horror, depending on your own personal experiences. I normally try to avoid giving much away about the material used in a comedy show, but for this account to make any sense I really have to give the game away – so if you don’t want to read the ultimate in spoilers, please come back at the next blog post!

r-gaddFirst we see Mr Gadd being chased and hounded by a monkey. It’s his monkey. It represents his own, particular burden in life. We all have a monkey or two of our own, but for the most part he’s behind bars in a zoo and we rarely have to visit him. Mr Gadd’s monkey is, shall we say, a little more persistent. Next, we see him participating in the Man’s Man Contest – an imaginary battle between ultra blokey blokes, with the truly tough challenge of multitasking four really manly tasks against the clock. He rises to the challenge, performing the first three with adept shows of true strength and masculinity. The fourth task is to sing a really manly song, something heavy metallish (sorry I’m personally not manly enough to have recognised it), and, in (almost) fine tune, he multitasks successfully to the finishing line. But wait – a steward’s inquiry – and it’s revealed that he’s taken illegal substances to finish the quest – science proves that underlying that really manly song he’s also singing the chorus to YMCA. It’s a lovely spoof on the whole manly/masculinity/man’s man idea and its general ridiculousness is extremely funny.

But, as a stark comparison, there’s a harsh reality behind it all. Six or so years ago, Mr Gadd was drugged at a party, and knew nothing of what happened next until the next morning – when he realised he had been raped. No one’s laughing now. In a series of filmed meetings with an analyst, the truth about what happened and its effects on him are slowly revealed. In tandem with this, we see him out on his fitness run, constantly anxious that anything he does might betray his perceived lack of masculinity, because the rape has robbed him of his own definition of what masculinity is. Previously, he just used to be a man; now, he no longer knows what that means. He feels that every pair of eyes that notice him can see through him and know what he did (even though it was actually done to him). He used to like the person he was, but that person no longer exists. His sexuality was messed up by the assault; now his sexual orientation is all over the place – a daily voyage of discovery.

richard-gHe meets Justin, his best friend, on his run; but Justin doesn’t say hello back. There are all sorts of reasons why that might have been but, naturally, his anxieties dictate it must mean that he doesn’t like him anymore. He meets Hannah, his ex-girlfriend, but his anxieties mean he can’t hear what she is saying to him, only his own worries about how he is presenting himself to her. In a moment that revealed one of my own insecurities, there’s a brief but brilliant sequence about how you react when you know your WhatsApp message has been received but the recipient doesn’t reply back. The man’s a seething volcano of anxieties, yet it’s such a clever construct to make this whole experience funny whilst at the same time you see how totally debilitating it is for him.

Technically it’s a fascinating piece, with a very complex audio and visual plot that at times becomes a veritable fugue of conversations, pieces of music, animal noises and other sound effects; it’s like an orchestra playing a symphony of sounds with Mr Gadd as lead soloist coming in live with the most significant passages. Some of it is addressed directly to the audience, some of it to himself, some to the cast of acquaintances that he meets along the way. No matter which, it’s always arresting, and I found myself hanging on his every word for that additional clue that would piece together the jigsaw that is his troubled soul (his description).

Richard GaddIt goes without saying that this is a very brave performance; it’s about as self-revealing as one could imagine. We’ve seen a number of comedians perform shows that take their own depression and use it as an inspiration for a routine or who create a show as a catharsis for dealing with their own mental health issues – from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dave Chawner and Damian Kingsley spring to mind. But you can’t call this stand-up, it’s more a multimedia confessional that never shies away from the damage that one event can do to a human being. At the end, Mr Gadd concludes that simply by talking about what happened you won’t kill the monkey but you’ll learn how the two of you can live together, and that’s the most excellent advice.

A show like no other – funny, moving, horrific, and with so many emotions in between. Mr Gadd’s just embarked on a tour with his monkey and they’re coming to a theatre near you. Go and see why he’s been nominated for a Chortle award for Best Show. Brilliant and unforgettable.

Review – Whoopi Goldberg, Stand Up Live, London Palladium, 11th February 2017

Stand Up LiveI only started watching live stand-up comedy in 2009, and I would say the biggest names I’ve seen would probably be Dara O’Briain, Julian Clary, Jimmy Carr, Al Murray, Reginald D Hunter, Jack Dee, Russell Brand, Sarah Millican, and Alan Carr. Splendid chaps each and every one of course, but do they count as International Stars? We saw Trevor Noah a few years ago and he has since made the big time but I certainly hadn’t heard of him when we saw him. For sheer fame, however, the name Whoopi Goldberg rather knocks all these wonderful people into the proverbial cocked hat.

WhoopiI was extremely curious to see what her one-woman stand-up show would be like, and chose to see the late-night show as, we were advised, it would be a little more no-holds-barred than her early evening show. I thought there’s absolutely no point going to see Whoopi Goldberg and opting for the holds-barred version. That would be like going to see Oh! Calcutta! and just concentrating on the recorded music.

WGThere’s no doubt there was an extremely excited buzz to the Palladium on Saturday night. There was a full crowd – naturally. When I was queueing at the bar to take some drinks in, someone asked one of the staff if they knew what the running time was. “The first show lasted ninety minutes, with no interval” we were advised. We took our Merlots in, and started chatting to the guys seated next to us. They were equally excited. “Do you think she’ll talk about Trump?” I asked. “For sure!” they replied, as if she could possibly have considered talking about anything else. Good, I said to myself; I really feel like hearing some intelligent anti-Trump material.

wg1The lights dimmed and on she came, in stripy trousers and a big white smocky top, to a tremendous thunder of applause and an instant ovation, even though she hadn’t done anything yet. She accepted the applause graciously, and after a decent pause told us to sit down because there was a curfew and she had a lot to get through! Her opening – slightly disappointing – gambit was to point out that both the US and the UK had made an enormous f*** up (her words) at the ballot box last year, so let’s just recognise it and admit there’s no point going over old mistakes. So much for that source of material, then.

wg2Instead she told us all about what life is like for a woman of 60+… well perhaps, more specifically, what sex is like for a woman of 60+; a very personal and funny account of the ups and downs of modern existence when you’re just about bus-passable. It was all full of very enjoyable observations, but, as Mrs Chrisparkle and I discussed after the show, we couldn’t really remember any one individual topic of discussion. But that didn’t matter. She has such a powerful stage presence, oozing charisma from every pore, that she could have been reading the shipping forecast, and North Utsire would never have sounded so hilarious. It was all a whirl that we let wash over us, if that isn’t a mixed metaphor.

whoopi-goldbergAfter a while she brought on David. She did explain who David was, but I can’t remember now. Anyway, he asked her a number of pre-posed questions that had appeared on her Facebook page. That’s the modern way of doing stand-up, kids. Whilst the Qs and As threw up a number of entertaining subjects and witty observations, it nevertheless acted as a drain on the accumulated energy of the show up to that point. I enjoyed it, but I also looked forward to this section ending, so that she could go back to some sure-fire stand-up. Unfortunately, it took us through right to the end of the performance, when, in a surprise twist, the show ended with a pair of unnamed twins coming on stage to sing Make You Feel My Love. It reminded me of the finale to Morecambe and Wise’s weekly TV programme, when we would welcome the grand appearance of Janet Webb thanking us for watching her show, even though she hadn’t featured earlier. Charming though the boys’ rendition of Adele’s classic was, it meant the night ended with more of a whimper than a bang.

Still – this was the first time London has seen Whoopi Goldberg do stand-up in thirty years, so it was a thrill to be there, and there’s no doubting her ability to command an audience!

P. S. I subsequently discovered the twins are called Chris and Theo. Well done, lads.

Some photos I took, the others I lifted from Ms Goldberg’s Facebook page!

Review – The Kite Runner, Wyndham’s Theatre, 11th February 2017

The Kite RunnerIt appears that I have been living under a rock for the past fourteen years because I confess, gentle reader, that I had never heard of The Kite Runner. You know, that famous book by Khaled Hosseini, published in 2003, that spent 101 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, that was adapted into the film of the same name that was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. That’s the one. Never heard of it.

the-kite-runner-3-ben-turner-and-andrei-costin-photo-robert-workmanMatthew Spangler’s dramatic adaptation of the book first saw light of day in 2009 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, San Jose, California, but didn’t appear in the UK until it was picked up by the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, and this West End run is basically the same production including many of the original cast members.

-kite-runner-nottinghham-playhouse-2013-image-robert-day_023d0b9211c81080a1a608b6bee371feIt’s the story of Amir, the son of a wealthy Afghan merchant, and his friendship with his father’ servant’s son Hassan, as boys growing up in an exclusive area of Kabul in the 1970s. Kite flying in Afghanistan (subsequently banned by the Taliban) was a popular and respected sport, and the boys would love nothing better than to spend the day in competitive fun; Amir was a great flyer, and Hassan excelled at Kite Running – knowing the precise spot where the kite would land so that he could bring it back to his master. It’s a similar relationship to that between a huntsman and his ghillie. It’s not enough simply to win the tournament, you also have to regain possession of your victorious kite. It’s like catching the boomerang again once it returns.

23306_show_landscape_large_04-kite-runnerAmir longs for recognition and love from Baba, his father, but he is a distant and strict man, who doesn’t have time for Amir’s woolly pursuits, like writing fiction, for Heaven’s sake. Amir knows the only way he will win Baba’s attention and affection will be if he wins the kite flying tournament. Hassan knows this too, and will do anything to secure the kite back for Amir; absolutely anything. But when Hassan’s unquestioning and unconditional loyalty to Amir takes him into physical danger, Amir fails to step in and prevent his friend from being harmed. And he’s going to regret that for many, many years to come. The story is full of surprises and twists and I’ve no wish to deprive you of experiencing the first-hand discovery of what happens next, so if you want to see how Amir and Hassan turn out, you’ll have to go see it for yourself.

the-kite-runner-2-ben-turner-centrephoto-robert-workman1-700x455It’s a play about loyalty and trust, love and devotion; racial and religious intolerance; the plight of refugees and the instinct for survival. It takes us from cosmopolitan Kabul in the 70s, through the 80s invasion by the USSR, the family’s resettlement in California a little later, to Peshawar in Pakistan in the mid 90s, back to war-torn Kabul under the Taliban rule before finally completing its story in California in the 21st century. At times the story takes on epic proportions, at others it’s very intimate and personal; and the unifying thread throughout the play is Amir, permanently onstage as the narrator of his own story, the focus of all the attention from child to adult.

kite-runner-panoramic-shot1-1024x397And it’s overwhelmingly emotional. At least, that’s what I felt. By the time it ended it had made me cry not once, not twice, but three times. Honestly, where was my self-respect? It’s quite uncomfortable sitting in the middle of the crowded stalls with your body going through those barely controllable convulsions you get when you really want to burst into hysterical tears but have to keep it hidden inside for the sake of decorum. Much to my surprise, Mrs Chrisparkle managed to avoid having to fight back the tears, leading her to suspect that this is more of a boys’ play than a girls’. She might be right; although the lady to her left was drowning in Kleenex barely 30 minutes in to the first act. It’s certainly a very male-centric play, if that word exists, with few female characters of any substance; but then again, that’s probably an accurate representation of Afghan society.

thekiterunner2017_02But it’s more than just a blubfest, it’s a riveting story, told beautifully, with crystal clarity and simplicity and with some immense performances that will stay with you long after curtain down. Barney George’s design pays maybe almost too much attention to those two large unfurling kites at the back of the stage. They act as a screen backdrop for swirling images and to hide backstage characters before and after they leave the stage – but, to be honest, I found them a little disruptive to the general flow of the story. Apart from that, I loved the use of the staging; the simple formality of Afghan lifestyle later to be overwhelmed by the garishness of the refugees’ arrival in California, which provides a much needed few minutes of hilarity. Hanif Khan makes a tremendous contribution to the show with his tabla playing; providing the equivalent of an overture before the play gets underway (which gets a huge round of applause) to providing constant incidental music throughout the show, never obtrusive but always atmospheric and enhancing the mood. Who knew that you could get such tuneful sounds out of drums?

thekiterunner2017_01At the heart of the play is the central performance of Amir by Ben Turner. I’ve not seen Mr Turner before but what a mesmerising portrayal he gives! The youthful Amir with a strong heart full of optimism; the older boy with his heart tainted by his selfish lack of care for his friend; the young adult tentatively getting to know the (apparently) only female Afghan in California; the wiser man lured back to Asia to see his father’s best friend and desperate for atonement for his sins; the family man trying to make the best of what remains in the post-Taliban era. Mr Turner makes you empathise with Amir both when he’s a kind, good man and when he’s more of an anti-hero. Even though the character makes some appalling errors of judgment, you still care about him. Technically brilliant throughout, with neither a foot out of place nor a vocal inflexion underplayed. Fully deserving of his instant standing ovation.

thekiterunner2017_04Andrei Costin’s Hassan is a study in devotion; like a puppy removed from its mother at too young an age, he simply worships the ground on which Amir treads, or he just wants to play. It’s a wonderful portrayal of someone who is too trusting, too self-effacing, but who almost gains strength and credibility by the extent to which he allows himself to be hurt. When Hassan is presented with those dreadful moments when the only way of supporting Amir is to sacrifice himself, Mr Costin shows us those angst-ridden flashes of pain and dismay as he accepts the inevitable, and your heart breaks for him. You’re in for some very emotional times. This is his West End debut – and boy, is it a good one.

thekiterunner2017_03Emilio Doorgasingh invests Baba with a forceful personality that dominates the young Amir but also lets you see his vulnerable side as his relationship with Ali and Hassan breaks down; Baba’s eventual slowdown once he reaches California is very moving to observe. Nicholas Khan is great as Baba’s friend Rahim Khan, showing Amir a warmer side to the traditional male role model, and again very moving when Amir returns to see him in Peshawar later in the play. I was very impressed with the physicality of Ezra Faroque Khan’s performances as Ali and Farid, the-kite-runner-2creating very believable and recognisable characters even before they have spoken a word, just through his movement. Antony Bunsee gives us a magnificently stern General Taheri; Lisa Zahra plays Soraya with charm and kindness; and Nicholas Karimi makes the best of his villainous opportunities as the cruel Assef, a vindictive, sadistic thug who hides his true nature with his hypocritical behaviour with Baba and Rahim. But it’s an all-round excellent ensemble who work together beautifully and there isn’t a weak link in the chain anywhere.

the-kite-runner-8-lisa-zahra-and-antony-bunsee-photo-robert-workmanMrs C said that some of the so-called surprises didn’t come as a surprise to her. Well, all I can say is that she must be psychic or something. As for me, I was simply hooked from the start to the finish, I took and accepted everything the story told me – I was putty in the production’s hands. It gave me an insight into lives I didn’t know about, and shows that those human emotions we all recognise in ourselves and our loved ones can also be found in those statistics of Islamist war victims. It’s on at Wyndham’s until 11th March and I’d highly recommend it.

Production photos by Robert Workman and Robert Day

Review – Pick of the Fest, Leicester Comedy Festival, Curve Studio, Leicester, 10th February 2017

leicester-comedy-festival-logoI think we can all agree that festivals are fun. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it? Whether it’s something massive like Edinburgh, or something tiny like the Northampton Flash Festival, the idea is that you go and see shows that may be quite short (so you can see lots in a day), financed on a shoestring, possibly for low ticket prices, at no frills venues. We’d only dipped our toe into the Leicester Comedy Festival once before, three years ago when we were amongst a lucky few to see Kevin Dewsbury’s final outing (no pun intended) of his one man show Out Now, in a back room at the Belmont Hotel. For me that was what “festival” was all about – intimate and informal, with “backstage” just as clearly visible as “stage”.

And I wonder if that’s why last Friday’s Pick of the Fest show at the Leicester Curve Studio didn’t quite work for me as a whole. We’ve seen several productions at the Studio and I’ve always really liked it as a venue – especially when we sit in the front row, because you really feel at the heart of the action. But for this show we were seated in row I (no idea why we were so far back because I’m sure I booked the tickets on the first day they became available), and the stage seemed an awfully long way away (even though it wasn’t), and that comedy club atmosphere just didn’t reach as far back as our row. Perhaps the staging was too formal, too theatre-y, and insufficiently festival-y. It just didn’t feel very relaxed.

carly-smallmanThis is one of those “compilation” shows when a number of performers come along and do some material as a promotion for their own shows on elsewhere at the festival. It’s a tried and tested formula which works well – especially with our favourite Edinburgh comedy ritual, Spank. Our host was the ebullient Carly Smallman, whom we have seen many times before and is always good value. She excels at getting to know the front few rows and poking kindly fun at their weird little ways – never cruel, unless it’s against herself, when she can indulge in devastating self-deprecation. Carly has two more shows in the festival coming up on the 17th February and the 26th February.

elf-lyons-2Our first act was someone completely new to us – Elf Lyons. She comes across as a posh girl obsessed with how she interacts with her even posher mother, who, I think we can all agree, sounds a bit of a nightmare. I enjoyed her act and she had lots of good material, although I confess I didn’t always catch all the punchlines – because I was sitting too far away, I expect. She gave us twenty minutes or so of neurotic insecurities and built up a nice rapport with the audience. Her show, Pelican, was on later that night, so if you missed it, you missed it. However, you can see what other shows she’s doing here.

paul-sinhaOur next act was an old favourite – and I hope he’ll forgive the use of the word “old”. It’s Paul Sinha, whom we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder shows before and he’s always a joy. I’d forgotten quite how dour and laconic his delivery can be; it’s almost as though the backstory to every line he says is “I know I’m a failure, but I’m surviving nonetheless”. He tells of the trials and tribulations of being a gay British Asian man who doesn’t bake, and how thrilled his parents were when he gave up his medical career to follow comedy. His material is both funny and telling in the way it challenges preconceptions and stereotypes. Of course, he has a lot to say about his appearances on TV’s The Chase; but I preferred his general observations of life, including discovering the best App to meet Asian men, and his alarming but hilarious account of being out on the loose in Barnsley. He’s a top class comic and he has a new work in progress show at the festival on Saturday 18th February.

Dane BaptisteIf Paul Sinha’s an old favourite, our next act, after the interval, was a new favourite – Dane Baptiste, whose Reasonable Doubts show we saw last year and really loved. I’m completely taken in by his slightly reserved, slightly authoritarian, slightly controlling style; the emphasis of his act is on quiet observation and making ridiculous contrasts, like when he is jealous of girls for having “gay best friends”, and wishes he could have a “lesbian best friend” as well. He, too, can make you challenge yourself on your preconceptions, and his humour also appeals to your own sense of intelligence – which it’s always nice to recognise. I can’t recall many of the ins and outs of his routine, I just let them wash over me. I’m sure he’s going to be a really big star one day. His Work in Progress show took place last Saturday, but he’s doing many more gigs over the next few weeks as you can see here.

Josh HowieOur final act is someone we’ve seen twice at Screaming Blue Murder clubs and both times I’m afraid I can’t pretend to have enjoyed his act much. This is Josh Howie – and there’s something about him that brings out the politically correct in me, as I bridle at his material that challenges the PC brigade. So if you like your comedy un-PC, you’ll probably love him. In fact, I was enjoying his routine (up to a point) until he started his material about hoping that his two-year-old son won’t turn out to be gay. And if he is gay, he’ll tell him how it’s particularly wrong to be a bottom. In fact, he’ll watch porn videos with him in order to point out which sex practices and roles are acceptable, and which aren’t. I know this is a ridiculous subject, and one which he hopes will be funny; and, to be honest, I wish I liked him more, but I found him borderline homophobic and, anyway, I just don’t get humour that hates people. His solo show was on the previous night, so again if you want to catch him, he still has some dates elsewhere on his UK tour.

So something of a mixed bag for our first venture into this year’s Leicester Comedy Festival, but I have very high hopes for the four shows we’re still to see… watch this space!

Review – Henceforward…, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th February 2017

HenceforwardAt the ripe old age of 77, you could describe Sir Alan Ayckbourn as a veritable playwriting machine with 78 full length plays to his name and more awards than you can shake a stick at. I always think of him as pretty much unassailable when it comes to creating a well-made play that pleases its audience by bringing comedy and tragedy within spitting distance of each other and then seeing who comes out on top. Even in the early years, where his comedies seem much more classically “drawing-room” or “polite sex farce”, there was always that hint of menace lurking somewhere beneath the sheets.

jerome-and-nanA few of his plays have been referred to as his “science fiction” comedies. The excellent Communicating Doors involves time travel between twenty years ago and twenty years in the future. The hilarious Comic Potential is set in a time where androids perform in soap operas. For me his worst play (that I’ve seen anyway – controversial!) Improbable Fiction deteriorates from the relative sanity of a writers’ group to a fantasy imagination trip where the fictions of the first act become the facts of the second.

zoe-and-nanBut the first of these experimental plays was Henceforward…, which was first performed in Scarborough (naturally) in 1987 and moved to the West End in 1988. Set some time in the near future, composer Jerome lives in a rough neighbourhood of London where violent vigilantes the Daughters of Darkness (I wonder if Tom Jones demands royalties?) have replaced the police as the only law enforcement agency. Neurotic wannabe actress Zoe has been hired by Jerome from an escort agency for purposes that are unclear at first. Jerome has had “composer’s block” ever since his estranged wife Corinna took his beloved daughter Geain away (that’s Jane, but with added pretentiousness) four years earlier. If only he could convince the authorities that he and his home are suitable for looking after a child, his worries would go away and he would become artistically fecund again. In the meantime, all he has for companionship is NAN 300F – a robot nanny, obsessed with washing people’s faces and bringing them milky drinks because she is automatically programmed to recognise everyone as a child. Jerome hatches a devious plan that uses all his available resources to convince the authorities and Corinna that he can take responsibility for Geain again. What is that plan, and does it work? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

zoe-and-jeromeIf you put aside the science fiction element, you’re left with a fairly standard tale of a sad lonely man advertising for female companionship, which moves on to a Pygmalion-style farce of trying to impress the family with a beautiful girl who has no social ability unless it’s learned by rote. The science fiction element, however, gives it a fascinating window-dressing, which, with the benefit of hindsight, Ayckbourn got pretty spot-on. Giving NAN verbal instructions back in 1987 on how to do the housework could be replaced today by people asking Alexa to tell them jokes or put a record on. Unsurprisingly, when Jerome is confronted with choosing between real life or a robot, it’s not an easy decision for him to make. The Hi-tech composing board, camera security system, portable phones and oven facilities were all basically available back then (although, no doubt, cutting edge) but today are commonplace. The suggestion that a character is developing into a transgender identity must have been fairly surprising in 1987, whereas today it’s a phenomenon that most people accept without question. Plus ça change, etc.

zoeWhat I feel the play lacks – a little – is that great Ayckbournian crunch between the comic and the tragic. In this play, the tragic elements are kept at arms’ length off-stage: the dystopian society; Jerome’s mate Lupus, constantly ringing in seeking support from his old friend which is never given; the physical assault Zoe receives on the way to the flat. We the audience don’t really come into contact with these elements. What we see instead is either hilarious, or neutral; and I felt the first act in particular was too long with its scene-setting and the general disengagement of the character of Jerome. There’s no question that you can set all that to one side once the second act has begun, but it does take some patience and indulgence towards the author to get that far.

zoe-and-jeromeHowever, the play does benefit from an excellent cast. I thought Laura Matthews as Zoe was absolutely first rate all the way through. A really bright presence on stage, conveying all that nervousness of the young actress in a strange man’s house, needing a job but with no knowledge of what it would entail; crying, then laughing, then crying again within a split second or two. Her second half performance requires a completely different skillset and she performs it admirably! Bill Champion is required to be downbeat as Jerome throughout much of the first act but he comes back to life vigorously in Act Two and his alternating portrayal of self-satisfaction and frustrated disappointment is very enjoyable to watch.

corinna-jerome-and-zoeJacqueline King is brilliant as the no-nonsense, no-warmth Corinna, dominating much of the action in the second half whilst seeking to catch Jerome out any way she can; very ominously coming out of character occasionally in the first act, to add that vital ingredient of menace. Nigel Hastings makes an excellent job of presenting us with the pettiness and vanity of the pernickety safeguarding supremo Mervyn; and Jessie Hart gives us a brief but extremely effective portrayal of Geain, proving beyond any doubt how a child can change in four years.

zoe-and-geainThis production, directed by Ayckbourn himself, started at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, and still has Windsor and Cambridge to visit. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and the science fiction/robotics angle can act as a barrier to understanding the humanity lurking beneath. But it is there, the second act shenanigans are extremely funny, and at the end it’s satisfying to see everything fitting into place. Is it an optimistic ending? No, it’s as bleak as hell. But it’s right.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 3rd February 2017

Screaming Blue MurderYet again the Underground was full for the most recent Screaming Blue Murder, the best value comedy you can get for £13.50 (£12.50 with your R&D Friends’ Membership). They’re keeping the curved front rows which means you can get more people in nearer the front, which improves the atmosphere and gives the performers more options where it comes to interrogating the customers.

Dan EvansDan Evans was our host as usual, with his apparently effortless ability to make us laugh at our fellow comedy night devotees, although I’m sure it’s not really effortless. Early on, he caught a front row lady checking her watch, which was a massive fillip for his self-confidence as you can imagine. He wasn’t going to let her get away with that. Turns out she is the co-author of “Never Mind the Thigh Gap” which enabled Dan to get further embroiled in his own body image issues. Begging forgiveness that he might not have enough new material (he needn’t have worried, as he was on fire) he eluded to this very blog, gentle reader, although he fell short of pointing dramatically at me and declaiming “J’accuse!” Being outed like that is always a sticky moment though.

david-morganOur first act was David Morgan, whom we have seen before and who is always highly entertaining to watch. Much of his humour is based on his being gay and comparing straight and gay lifestyles, which, last time we saw him, really got the crowd on his side. This time, however, I felt we were a little more reserved in our responses towards him. Nevertheless, he had some lovely banter with the Netflix and Chill man in the front row and also delivered some great material about having babies. A little frantic at times, but that’s hardly a crime.

harriet-kemsleyNext up, and a change to the advertised programme, was Harriet Kemsley, who was new to us, with an engaging stage persona and some absolutely excellent original material. Unfortunately, the sound coming off the microphone gave her voice a harsh, rasping edge, but she was so good that after a while we could ignore it. We really enjoyed her tales about being engaged, although the man in the audience who proposed to his girlfriend in a French chateau put us all to shame; and amongst her other material there was a refreshing take on the Kardashians to boot. All in all, excellent and we’d happily see her again.

Markus BirdmanOur final act of the evening is the unrepentantly direct son of a preacher man, Markus Birdman, whom we have seen several times and is always a complete joy. He’s just so irrepressibly mischievous; you can never tell which way he’s going to go. This time he spent most of his act telling us what he wasn’t going to do – thereby doing it, without doing it, if you get my drift. One of his high points this time was when he pretended to a high level of political correctness before going straight into a line about two lezzas (his words) from which he extricates himself beautifully. Intelligent, unpredictable, dangerous and always extremely funny. One of the best guys on the circuit.

Four weeks till the next Screaming Blue Murder which I will be attending without Mrs Chrisparkle, as she will be accompanying Lady Duncansby to see Lee Nelson in the Derngate whilst I am with Lady D’s butler Sir William (plus many others) on his stag night. I predict a riot.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Thirteen Problems (1932)

The Thirteen ProblemsIn which we meet again Miss Marple and her detective-fiction writing nephew Raymond West; together with four friends they set up the Tuesday Night Club where each one would tell a story of an unsolved crime and the companions would have a think and come up with the identity of the criminal. Naturally, this is an exercise where they all fail dismally apart from Miss Marple, whose calm and quiet consideration of each narrative instantly sees through the mist and works out what happened and whodunit. Unlike Partners in Crime and The Mysterious Mr Quin, where the books consist of a sequence of short stories that build up to an episodically narrated novel, The Thirteen Problems feels much more like individual short stories gathered together under a simple framework, in order to create something that looks like a novel, but isn’t. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, I promise I won’t reveal any of its important secrets!

nash-pall-mallAs in those previous books of short stories, the individual tales first appeared in magazine format, either in The Royal magazine, The Story-Teller, or in Nash’s Pall Mall magazine; all first appearing between 1927 and 1931. The stories are told in largely the same order that they first appeared in those magazines, although one of two skip about a bit. The book was dedicated to Leonard and Katharine Woolley, the famous archaeologist and his wife, whom Mrs Christie met in 1928 in the Middle East, when travelling alone following her divorce. They became friends but they were never easy people, by the sound of it; and Katharine, in particular, is seen as the inspiration for a few of Christie’s more unstable female characters.

The Tuesday Night Club

corn-flour-and-waterThe first story sets the scene for the Tuesday Night Clubbers – along with West and Miss Marple, there are arty Joyce Lemprière, elderly clergyman Dr Pender, wizened little solicitor Mr Petherick, and former Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering, who, because of his police associations, is given the task of providing the first case for the club to get their teeth into. When we first met Raymond West in The Murder at the Vicarage, he was a big-headed dolt with hardly any redeeming features. Here, he is already starting to become a more approachable character; and, although he is rather smug in his surroundings and self-importance, he’s nothing like as abrasive.

However, it is Miss Marple who overshadows them all, both in her mental dexterity and in her physical appearance: “Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair.” Apart from the colour of the lace, the whole description reminds me of Whistler’s Mother.

Miss Marple’s relationship with West is rather interesting. In “The Murder at the Vicarage”, she’s preparing for him to come and stay and she’s very careful to go along precisely with everything that she thinks he will want, in a rather self-denying sort of way. In “The Tuesday Night Club” we’re starting to see that relationship loosen a little, with Miss Marple actually criticising West’s work: “I know, dear,” said Miss Marple, “that your books are very clever. But do you think that people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?” This opens the way for the others to have their own say about West’s novels. It will be interesting to watch if this less formal relationship becomes more obvious as the book progresses. Other themes that you feel might develop are the relationships between the individual Tuesday Night Club members, and also the suspicion that the police are idiots. They are, at least, in Raymond West’s own works of fiction, and Sir Henry will have his work cut out to prove it’s not the case.

It’s a relatively simple tale that Miss Marple has absolutely no trouble in solving, although the others’ solutions are way off the mark. There are mentions of both ptomaine and arsenic poisoning, so Christie The Poison Expert is safely in her comfort zone. Mr Jones’ inheritance from the death of his wife amounted to £8000, which you might be interested to know in today’s money equals just under £400,000, described by Sir Henry as a very “solid amount.” Curious though, to discover that someone would eat a “bowl of cornflour” as an invalid remedy. Apparently it would be mixed with milk into some sort of custardy paste. Sounds disgusting. Banting, which is what Miss Clark was doing, was a popular term for losing weight by excluding sugar from your diet. It was named after a Mr Banting.

The Idol House of Astarte

astarteThe next tale in my copy of the Thirteen Problems is The Idol House of Astarte, but according to the Wikipedia breakdown of the stories, next should be Ingots of Gold, with The Idol House of Astarte appearing fifth. Anyway, I digress. Dr Pender it is who tells this atmospheric tale of the apparent transformation of a sweet young thing into a moonlit priestess who warns that approaching her will cause death. Richard Haydon, who is the sweet young thing’s wannabe boyfriend, risks her warning and, as it seems, falls down dead as a result. Of course, it’s not a mystical occult death but straightforward murder and only Miss Marple peers through the web of intrigue to see the obvious solution.

There’s not a lot to add to this story. It’s set on Dartmoor, with various houseguests including a feeble daughter named Violet, thereby conjuring up images of the setting for The Sittaford Mystery. As Dr Pender gets into his stride and tells the tale, Joyce Lemprière turns on the lamps to add a sense of the mystic, and it’s fair to say that the story does come across with a great deal of superstitious atmosphere. Perhaps the background tale of the House of Astarte, the Goddess of the Phoenicians, is an early sign of Christie’s interest in archaeology – no doubt she was there when a few temples were unveiled over the years. Egyptology will get a mention in a later story.

Raymond West is still a little uncertain of how strong-minded his Aunt Jane is, but she quickly asserts herself with a clear and decisive explanation of how the murder took place. As a whole, the story is, of course, far-fetched; but the actual modus operandi of the murder is plain and clear and totally believable.

Ingots of Gold

gold-ingotsThis tale is told by Raymond West and its main contribution to the book as a whole is an excuse for a little bit of family irritation with Miss Marple. On one hand, it’s quite a complicated set up, with West going to Cornwall with a man called Newman who is an expert on sunken Spanish treasure. A ship allegedly carrying a cargo of bullion is discovered to have been attacked and the bullion taken, but no one seems to know how. Naturally Miss Marple is there to solve it in a quick and easy manner, taking the opportunity gently to ridicule her nephew at the same time.

If you like a spot of Treasure Island to your whodunits, then the tone and subject matter of this story might well appeal. It even has an off-putting local yokel who undermines West’s confidence and makes him feel all queasy. I don’t think Miss Marple would have been similarly affected. Its Cornish setting gives rise to a few obvious name changes – Polperran is a mixture of Polperro and Perranporth, Rathole is a rather unsubtle version of Mousehole and Serpent Rocks clearly represent The Lizard. When they’re so easy to interpret, one wonders why Christie bothers changing the names.

When you discover Miss Marple’s interpretation of exactly what has gone on, there is a slight sense of disappointment, as there really isn’t anything much to examine. Something of a potboiler, I would say.

The Bloodstained Pavement

blood-on-concreteThis story, told by Joyce, is an appropriate sequel to the previous tale as it also takes place in Rathole (Mousehole). Christie adds to the sense of the location by filling in her version of the village’s history at the hands of Spanish pillagers five hundred years ago, reflecting the true history of Mousehole and its involvement in the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1604. Christie would have us believe that the whole village of Rathole was destroyed apart from the Polharwith Arms; in fact it was just the Keigwin Arms in Mousehole that survived the attack.

It’s an intriguing little tale that blends paranormal activity with hardnosed, devious crime. Artist Joyce is painting a village scene when her view is interrupted, first by a man with a dowdy wife, then by an altogether more glamorous woman. In later conversation with a local fisherman, Joyce believes she sees droplets of blood forming on the pavement, as though the village’s violent past was coming back to haunt her. It must be her imagination, mustn’t it? But when she later learns that someone has suffered a tragic death swept out to sea, she knows that her vision of blood drops must have been a premonition. Miss Marple, naturally, comes to the rescue, with incisive and accurate attention to a minute scrap of detail that holds the key to the murder, despite the complaints by the men of the Tuesday Club that Joyce hasn’t given them anything like enough information to solve the crime – if crime there be.

I liked the description of Rathole: “it is pretty and it is quaint, but it is very self-consciously so”, like a number of those bijou Cornish villages. Raymond West is his usual grumpy self, picking up on Joyce’s inaccurate descriptions of the village’s past, moaning about modern tourists, and then explaining the whole crime as a symptom of indigestion. Miss Marple’s summing up regarding what really happened could almost be her motto of observations of village life: “there is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you dear young people will never realise how very wicked the world is.”

Joyce is satisfied with her picnic lunch that comprises of “a tinned tongue and two tomatoes”. I’m not sure how well that would go down today.

Motive v Opportunity

will1Mr Petherick, solicitor of this parish, is the next to tell his story – is it just me, or is this turning into Christie’s version of The Canterbury Tales? He informs us there will be no blood, just an intellectual puzzle to sort out. And he does weave a very interesting little tale, about a sentimental old man who is obviously being conned out of his estate by a charlatan psychic. With an almost Feydeau level of farce, an incriminating document (the will, of course) is placed in an envelope and then dropped out of pockets over the next couple of hours, more times than you can shake a stick at. No wonder there was plenty of opportunity for it to be tampered with.

The assembled company, as per usual, make reasonable guesses as to what actually happened but only Miss Marple gets it right. However, rather disappointingly, so did I; I think this is a very easy mystery to solve! So it depends on your own personal preference whether you like to be surprised by a mystery story, or if you like to get it right! It’s a very well written little story though – neat and compact, clear and orderly, just as you would expect from Mr Petherick.

Just out of curiosity, I thought I’d check how much the £5000 inheritance that Clode bestows on each of his nieces and nephew would be worth today – bearing in mind this was originally published in magazine format in 1928 – and it’s about £220,000. That’s still not bad.

The Thumb Mark of St Peter

haddockYou learn something every day – and probably no one better to teach you than Miss Marple. Did you know that the dark blotch above the pectoral fin on a haddock was called St Peter’s thumbprint? Did you even know that a haddock had that blotch? Me neither. How did we get so old without knowing that?

Anyway this is the sign from God that enables Miss Marple to solve her own story, which otherwise had all the other members of the Tuesday Night Club not even bothering to hazard a guess. Her niece Mabel had been in an unhappy marriage, and when her husband unexpectedly died from poisoned mushrooms, all the tongues in the village started wagging that she must have bumped him off. But Miss Marple knows Mabel to be incapable of such things, and sets her mind to work to discover the full circumstances of his death.

A number of Christie’s usual themes crop up in the story: her interest in poison is clear, with the poisoned mushrooms, the ptomaine and the pilocarpine all playing a part; the brutality of saying that insanity runs in a family; Miss Marple reprimands Raymond for profanity; and she also expresses some class differences when she points out that Mabel’s cook has a good memory: “there is nothing that class cannot remember if it tries.” Two other Marplesque idiosyncracies might be worthy of note, to see if they recur in future stories: the fact that she has no trust or belief in doctors, and that she’s very risk-averse when it comes to looking after her property. Before travelling to Mabel’s to stay with her, she says “I put Clara on board wages and sent the plate and the King Charles tankard to the bank”.

It’s actually a very well written and intriguing story that hangs together beautifully. It also takes us further into the real lives of Miss Marple’s circle, with some embarrassment for Raymond West and Joyce Lemprière at the beginning of the story, and confirmation that they are engaged at the end of it; framing Miss Marple’s tale inside the growing relationship between Raymond and Joyce works really well. This is the last tale in the “first round” of stories in this book; the next story was first published in magazine format eighteen months later, so there was a genuine break in writing between the two sequences, during which time I presume she concentrated on writing The Seven Dials Mystery.

The Blue Geranium

blue-geraniumA year has passed, and Sir Henry is staying with Colonel and Mrs Bantry, who would return several years later in the book The Body in the Library. Sir Henry suggests that Miss Marple would be a good choice for a sixth dinner party member, much to Mrs Bantry’s surprise, in a start to the story that rehashes some of the introductory nature of the first story in this book, The Tuesday Night Club, including Miss Marple’s black mittens and her fichu. The others present were glamorous actress Jane Helier and local Dr Lloyd with whom Miss Marple has an animated conversation about the workhouse (putting to the back of her mind, obviously, her previously admitted confession that she has no time for doctors.)

Colonel Bantry tells the story of his friend George Pritchard, and his irritating wife Mary, who died, perhaps from shock, when the flowers on her wallpaper turned blue. Yes, it does sound rather contrived, doesn’t it? Of course, Miss Marple has a much more scientific explanation for the death. This is a story very much of its age, it simply couldn’t happen today due to modern manufacture and medical practices; so it is very much a period piece, but rather charming as a result.

Will there be more stories told by these six people chez Bantry? I think there might.

The Companion

hotel-metropoleUnlike the Tuesday Night Club, it’s becoming clear that these six stories will all be told on the same evening, at the Bantrys’ dinner party. Dr Lloyd is next to tell his tale, about two English ladies on holiday in Gran Canaria (or Grand Canary, as Christie knew it), one of whom dies in a swimming accident. It’s a fairly complex little tale that would eventually become the germ for the later book A Murder Is Announced. But it’s a satisfying read, and of course Miss Marple sees through all the red herrings with pinpoint accuracy.

The character of Jane Helier becomes a little more filled out – we now know that she is not only beautiful, but also quite thick, as she becomes confused by Miss Marple’s reference to the villager Mrs Trout, from whose behaviour Miss M extrapolates the solution to the mystery. The main thrust of Miss Marple’s arguments is always that “human nature is much the same in a village as anywhere else, only one has opportunities and leisure for seeing it at closer quarters.” But the story ends with Jane Helier sighing “nothing ever happens in a village, does it? […] I’m sure I shouldn’t have any brains at all if I lived in a village.” Well, quite.

Dr Lloyd’s polite style of speech seems rather dated now – consider how patronising this sentence sits in today’s world: “I used to walk along the mole every morning far more interested than any member of the fair sex could be in a street of hat shops.” “Mole” is an unusual and archaic word for a pier or harbour structure – mid-16th century according to my OED.

It’s quite amusing to see how exotic the Canary Islands are portrayed to the 1920s/30s reader. Jane Helier believes them to be in the South Seas (she would). It was at the Hotel Metropole in Las Palmas that Agatha Christie took refuge after her divorce from Archie, and where she wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train. Today the building acts as Las Palmas Town Hall.

The Four Suspects

fall-downstairsA smart little story, told by Sir Henry, with an introductory consideration on the nature of guilt and innocence in cases that remain unsolved; specifically, how people who are innocent of a crime may still be suspected of committing it, and therefore losing their reputation and status. This story concerns a Dr Rosen, who was found with a broken neck having fallen downstairs. But this is a case of, literally, did he fall or was he pushed? He was expecting to be assassinated by a secret, German society, not unlike the Mafia. There are four suspects, none of whom have alibis, all of whom were alone at the time of the death. Naturally, Miss Marple makes mincemeat of Sir Henry’s unsolvable crime, and Sir Henry assures the dinner guests he will do his best to ensure those who are innocent of the crime are publicly recognised as such.

There are a couple of references in this story worth checking out – Dr Rosen retires to the Somerset village of King’s Gnaton, which is an uncomfortable name and certainly doesn’t exist. There is, however, a Gnaton Hall, in Yealmpton, Devon, with which Christie may have been familiar. She also allows Sir Henry to express an opinion about class; with reference to Rosen’s German maid Gertrud, he says: “elderly women of that class can be amazingly bitter sometimes.”

A Christmas Tragedy

hatThe value of this story is in gaining more insight into the character of Miss Marple, rather than the intrigue of the story itself. Miss Marple, who takes up the story-telling baton, is concerned that she won’t tell her story very well and is likely to start rambling. This is odd, considering she had previously told the story of The Thumb Mark of St Peter in a perfectly readable and enjoyable way. But yes, in this story, Christie makes Miss Marple sound very rambling indeed, and I found it hard to follow the flow of the story, which concerns a man that Miss Marple was certain would try to kill his wife, and then she pins him down when his wife finally dies. I found her judgmental nature in this tale rather unpleasant to be honest.

Christie was obviously keen to stress Miss Marple’s age in this story – whilst she still has all her marbles in perfect working order, her ability to structure a tale was very random, to use the modern vernacular. She also stresses her old-fashioned values and sentiments, like her vehement support of the death penalty: “I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment.” Christie also uses the character of Mrs Bantry to reflect her own anti-women sexism. When Colonel Bantry remarks that none of the women has yet told a story, she replies “we’ve listened with the most intelligent appreciation. We’ve displayed the true womanly attitude – not wishing to thrust ourselves into the limelight!”

There’s also an Egyptology reference which reveals Christie’s own fascination in the subject, and the story takes place in Keston – it’s unlike Christie to set stories in real locations (apart from London of course). Keston is a small village which would have then been in Kent but now is in the London Borough of Bromley.

The story ends with a cryptic interchange between Miss Marple and Jane Helier, where it is obvious that Miss Marple has understood Miss Helier’s unspoken thoughts, which is a whole lot more than the rest of us. Will all be revealed in a later story?

The Herb of Death

foxglove1Not Parsley the Lion on a killing spree, but someone put the foxglove leaves in with the sage and onion, young Sylvia died as a result, and we’ve got to find out whodunit. This is the story told by Mrs Bantry, who feels unable to embellish and present her tale in an interesting manner, so gives us the bare bones of what happened and then the rest of the group play twenty questions trying to get to the facts. A very different approach to telling the story and a very enjoyable one – much more entertaining than Miss Marple’s rambling Christmas Tragedy, for example.

All the characters continue to play their allotted roles – Miss Helier is dim and beautiful, Colonel Bantry is hearty, Sir Henry avuncular, Dr Lloyd polite, Miss Marple ruthless. A self-contained little chapter, but Mrs Bantry’s admission at the end of the story that she has changed the names of the people involved feels like a significant confession. But does it have any knock-on effect elsewhere in the book? We shall see.

The Affair at the Bungalow

parlourmaidThe final tale of the night is told by Jane Helier, pretending at first to be about “a friend”, although she was fooling nobody, and after a while she gives up the pretence. It’s all about her, of course. It’s a story about a jewellery theft from a bungalow and framing an apparently innocent young playwright. The solution confounds everyone, even Miss Marple – but Jane Helier disappoints the group when she confesses she doesn’t know the outcome herself. There’s a good reason for that – not just her lack of intelligence – but that would be too much of a spoiler at this stage!

It’s a good story because it sheds further light on Miss Helier’s vacuous and, frankly, thick brain and how she is steeped in class prejudice; she actually says at one point: “one doesn’t look at parlour maids as though they were people”. The story also allows us to see some of Miss Marple’s kinder instincts, as she offers some secret words of wisdom to Miss Helier before leaving at the end of the evening.

Miss Helier reveals that she will be touring in Mr Somerset Maugham’s play Smith next autumn. For the record, this rather forgotten piece is a comedy in four acts that was produced at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1909.

That wraps up the evening’s excitement at the Bantry household – and it would be another eighteen months before the final story had its first publication in Nash’s Pall Mall magazine (November 1931) – just a few months before The Thirteen Problems made its first full appearance in book form.

Death by Drowning

drowningAnd the final tale is a very good story – certainly one of the best in this collection. Sir Henry is once more at the Bantry household when Miss Marple asks to see him. A local girl, Rose Emmott, has died by drowning in the local river. Everyone assumes it was an accident but Miss M knows better – but she can’t prove it. So she writes down the name of the person she thinks is responsible for the girl’s death and implores Sir Henry to use whatever influence he can to ensure justice is done. And done it is.

Christie still expresses her political and class views – she just can’t keep it in. Sandford, the main suspect, is described as a “Bolshie, you know. No morals”. On another occasion, “his speech was a little too ladylike”. Colonel Melchett, whom we also originally met in The Murder at the Vicarage, agrees that Sandford and Rose were not a good match: “Stick to your own class”, he pompously insists.

The story – and also the book – ends with Miss Marple triumphant again; as if we ever doubted it. That suggestion early on in the book that the police are idiots doesn’t really get played out – and indeed in this last story it is the police, in the form of Sir Henry, who ensures that justice is done.

All that remains is for me to give The Thirteen Problems an overall satisfaction rating of 7/10. The portentous loose ends of a few of the stories never get resolved, which is rather disappointing, and you very much get the feeling that this is a combination of previously published magazine stories rather than a whole, individual work. That said, a number of the stories are very enjoyable, and I think I only solved the case before Miss Marple on one occasion – so that makes it quite exciting.

Lord Edgware DiesWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and it’s back to Hercule Poirot. Next in line is Lord Edgware Dies, and if you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!