Review – The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, 28th December 2017

The FerrymanThe third of our theatrical treats between Christmas and the New Year was this extraordinary production of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which had transferred from the Royal Court earlier in the year for a limited period. Such is the demand for seats that the production has already been extended twice. If you go to see this hoping to discover exactly why you shouldn’t pay the ferryman until he gets Chris de Burgh to the other side, you might be sadly disappointed. What you will get, however, is a sizzling and thrilling story set in Northern Ireland in 1981 that shows how the sectarian divide affected one particular extended family.

Aunt Maggie with the kidsNine years before, Seamus Carney went missing, leaving behind his wife Caitlin and three-year-old son Oisin. Word was that he had got on a ferry to Liverpool, but had never kept in contact with his family. The wife and son moved in with Seamus’ brother Quinn and his wife Mary, who lived in a farm in County Armagh with their several children, aged relatives, and miscellaneous livestock. Whilst they never forgot their missing husband and father, they did their best to get on with their lives. Until one day, local priest Father Horrigan is mysteriously called to Derry where he discovers that a body has been found… He knows it is undeniably Seamus but why did he meet his death, and who is this mysterious Mr Muldoon who gains both fear and respect in equal measure? The play sets itself up to be a full-throttle thriller, part whodunit, part whydunit; however, when Father Horrigan returns to Armagh to break the news to the Carney family we realise the significance of the death will be much greater than first thought.

Father HorriganJez Butterworth has created a stunningly written play about a complex family environment which Sam Mendes’ production brings to life with more depth and insight than you could imagine. The huge farmhouse kitchen extends deep into the back of the Gielgud stage; the tall, steep staircase from above disgorges more family members than you could predict down to the big table that is the focal point for the family’s activities. In one corner sits an old aunt, most of the time her mind locked in a dementia-filled prison, occasionally returning to life to amuse the children with stories of old. Opposite her sits another aunt, chain-smoking, her attention captured by the radio news and the speech of Prime Minister Thatcher talking about the IRA hunger strikers. Between them the stage is filled with children of all ages, both Carneys and their cousins the Corcorans, some of them idealists, some realists, but none of them without an opinion. Neighbour Tom Kettle drops by with apples for the children, and maybe a rabbit in his deep pockets; a simple soul but with the strength of two men, as becomes apparent as the story develops. There’s always so much going on for the audience to observe that the play constantly keeps you on your toes, despite its long length of three hours and ten minutes – at least. All human life is there, as the News of the World once boasted.

Quinn and MuldoonIf you remember the Northern Ireland troubles, as they are euphemistically referred to, that period of total distrust and thinly veiled enmity which we hope and pray will never return, you’ll probably have a sense of who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. This play will challenge those preconceptions, and make you reappraise both sides of the gulf. Few of us are all good or all bad. And who knows what someone is capable of if their homeland, or their family, or anything they hold dear are directly threatened. The play has a surprise, shocking ending that I certainly could not see coming and you’ll be applauding the curtain call with your heart in your mouth.

Sarah Greene and Will HoustonThe performance we saw, gentle reader, which was the matinee on Thursday 28th December, had a drama all of its own. On arrival we were informed that there would be two cast changes, and that chain-smoking, IRA supporting Aunt Pat would be played by Mary Keegan and that Seamus’ son Oisin would be played by Conor Gormally. All well and good, and I thought Ms Keegan in particular was stonkingly effeective as the difficult old cow, picking fights with anyone who’ll stop still, insinuating scandal and discontent within the household – a memorable and powerful performance. Then came the interval, which was scheduled for fifteen minutes. After about twenty-seven minutes, the stage manager appeared and apologised for the delay but explained that Will Houston, who was playing Quinn Carney, had been taken ill and his role would be continued by Dean Ashton. I thought Mr Houston was giving a tremendous performance as Quinn, a superb portrayal of a man who has to wear many hats – father, husband, brother in law; provider, stabiliser, role model. So I was very surprised to see that he couldn’t continue. It must be very difficult to come on during a show and assume a role that the audience has already attributed to a different actor, but Mr Ashton did a grand job, although I felt his characterisation of Quinn was a little more reserved than Mr Houston’s.

Shane CorcoranThen there was what the programme describes as a “brief pause” between the second and third act, with the ushers asking us to stay in our seats as it was only about a two-minute break. After about ten minutes, the stage manager reappeared, like a valued old friend popping in to see if we were doing alright. Apologies again, but this time one of the child actors had been taken ill, so Master Thomas Harrison, who had been playing Declan Corcoran, would be replaced by Master Jack Nuttall and he was quickly getting his costume on. What on earth was going on back there? They were dropping like flies. Young Mr Nuttall was superb by the way; he had a number of quite complex – and comic – speeches early in the third act and he carried it all off brilliantly. But never before had a cast looked quite so relieved at curtain call to have actually made it to the end, nor had an audience been so grateful for the presence of the safety curtain to keep whatever lurgy was running riot away from us!

Uncle Pat in chargeThe production was notable for some other excellent performances; Sarah Greene was superb as the widowed Caitlin, enjoying what comfort she could from her close relationship with her brother in law, feisty when defending herself but dignified when she knows she cannot beat the system. Charles Dale was also excellent as Father Horrigan, desperately trying to provide as much support as he can whilst knowing that he too is beaten and could easily make things worse. Laurie Davidson gives a great performance as the progressively drunk and indiscreet Shane Corcoran, and Ivan Kaye is a disarmingly kind Tom Kettle, his seething pile of emotions never too far from the surface. There’s also a terrific performance from Stuart Graham as the quietly calculating and intimidating Muldoon. But this is a true ensemble piece, and the understanding between all the cast members, young and old, is a total joy to watch. I can’t recommend it too highly. As of today, 8th January 2018, a brand new cast is taking over until May.

P. S. When it comes to this year’s theatrical awards, this production is a shoe-in for Best Fowl in a Supporting Role.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Oslo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 27th December 2017

OsloHere’s another production that’s now closed, so there’s nothing I can say to influence your buying or not buying a ticket. Having booked for the obviously crowd-pleasing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for the Wednesday matinee, I faced a different challenge for the evening. “What are we going to see?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle. “A play called Oslo,” I replied. “And what’s it about?” “It’s about a treaty between Israel and the PLO”. Silence. “How long is it?” “Err…just under…three hours.” Another silence. “It’s a National Theatre production”, I added hopefully. A third silence. “It’s had good reviews” I added. A fourth silence, finally broken by the plaintive question, “are you sure about this?”

Oslo - complex phone callsThe fact is, I wasn’t sure at all. The prospect of three hours of negotiations between representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government hosted by Norwegian diplomats in a remote house outside Oslo bears all the signs of early grounds for divorce. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many laughs are there?

Oslo - a meeting of mindsBut that’s where you’re wrong, gentle reader, as indeed both of us were. There are loads of laughs. You wouldn’t describe it as a comedy, mind you; it’s a genuinely serious docudrama that takes us through the painstaking procedure of getting the two sides together under one roof to start talking about… well about anything really. That was the initial position that the diplomats took; if they could get individuals who take opposing views on matters of politics and nationalism just to talk about their families, or their fondness for waffles or a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, that’s got to be a start.

Oslo - Peter Polycarpou in an awkward moment of negotiationsAnd they were right. From such little acorns, as the saying goes… Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the social research Fafo Institute, and Mona Juul, official at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, go out on a limb and achieve the impossible. The audience follows, spellbound, as we see well-known political figures from both camps inexorably become involved with the talking; the arguments, the postulating, the climbdowns, the idiosyncrasies, the teasing, the jokes… Yes, jokes. Even with such high stakes, it’s fascinating to see how humour can diffuse an awkward situation, and reposition the brain into a more accepting and generous place. Get it wrong, however, and it can have the reverse effect; early in the negotiations Israeli historian and journalist Ron Pundak makes a joke at the expense of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie is infuriated. Fortunately for the peace process, Qurie is quite easily distracted by a raspberry waffle.

Oslo - Holst's not going to like itWriter J T Rogers stipulates in his text that the set design should be as uncluttered as possible and should work on our imaginations, so that the gaps between the scenes should be seamless. Designer Michael Yeargen took him at his word and created a very simple set, dominated by a grand pair of doors which can conceal – or reveal – negotiations on the other side. Endless wall panelling continued stage right to suggest the empty expanse of the outside world where various important figures might come and go, but we the audience never look in that direction, only focussing on the centre stage where all the important events occur. Characters also emerged from the auditorium, giving us a slightly unsettling impression of being at the heart of the negotiations. J T Rogers has his two Norwegian diplomats occasionally addressing the audience directly, emphasising that sense of us all being in it together.

Oslo - Mona and Terje together whilst Qurie looks onBecause this play very much relies on the power of the spoken word, it’s vital to have a strong, confident and eloquent cast – and this production had that completely nailed. Central to the action were Lydia Leonard as Mona and Toby Stephens as Larsen and they created a superb double act together. Mr Stephens adopted a convincing Scandinavian accent that didn’t sound too ridiculous and gave a brilliant portrayal of a man who’s comfortable with his own vanity but flexible enough to put things right when they go wrong, such as when the well-meaning housekeeper has prepared roast pork for dinner. Ms Leonard had a wonderful knowing look and a gently calculating air that suggested that she fully knew that deep down she was in charge. Two immaculate performances.

Oslo - Shimon PeresThere was also a very impressive performance by Howard Ward as Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, a man who’s not unfamiliar with the best cuts of meat served with the finest of wines, delightfully patronising and complacent until he discovers something he doesn’t like. That’s when he tends to release an uncontrollable string of four-letter words – actually the same four-letter word spoken several times, each time more frenzied than the last. Mr Ward managed to be both intimidatingly dramatic and absolutely hilarious at the same time.

Oslo - Savir has had a fewThe roles of the various negotiators were all immaculately performed and given full characterisation by a very talented team but there were two really stand-out performances. Philip Arditti, as Uri Savir, the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who is brought in to take the negotiations to a higher level, was both eerily scary and uproariously funny with his snappy delivery of Rogers’ elegant text. I’m still not quite sure how he, and/or the character, got away with that simple but effective impersonation of Arafat. Even more stunning was Peter Polycarpou’s performance as Ahmed Qurie; sinister, serious, intimidating, aggressive, yet a family man who lets down his guard and lets some light in where other angels fear to tread. And loves a waffle.

Oslo - Qurie and SavirEven though the play is set on a fixed date in the past – 1993 – the issues it raises are timeless and whilst there is tension in the Middle East, Oslo will always be relevant. Shortly before we saw the production, Donald Trump’s administration had declared it would regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. Without taking any sides in the matter, watching the play my toes curled at the insensitivity of this decision, as you witness how significant and how symbolic such actions can be. If ever you needed confirmation on how diplomacy needs a light touch, this play brings it into sharp focus.

Oslo - Hassan AsfourIf Oslo hadn’t really worked as a play, because it was too wordy, or too serious, or too undramatic, I’d have classified it as a brave failure, which is something I usually prize way higher than a lazy success anyway. But there’s absolutely no element of failure to it all. It’s ground-breaking in the way it takes what sounds like dull as ditchwater source material and creates such an exciting, suspenseful, revealing and funny play. Huge congratulations all round. You can’t go and see it in London at the moment, but I can’t imagine it will be long before this play finds another life somewhere else. Keep your eyes peeled!

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Review – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Apollo Theatre, 27th December 2017

Everybody's Talking About JamieAs has become traditional, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took ourselves off for a few days break in London between Christmas and New Year to see some shows (makes a change), have some nice meals (makes a change), and treat ourselves to something in the sales. I got three shirts and she got a jacket and trousers, if you’re interested. The first of our four post-Christmas shows was Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which I wanted to see earlier in the year in Sheffield but just couldn’t fit it in to our schedule. Two friends saw it up there and enjoyed it hugely. I have to confess though, one of the reasons I really wanted to see it is because I hadn’t been to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue for decades. Checking back, my last show there was on 29th October 1982, when I saw that very dull play Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets. It starred Hair’s Annabel Leventon, Nicholas Nickleby’s John Woodvine and Skippy’s Ed Devereaux.

jamie3But I digress. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell and his mum Margaret. Jamie featured in the BBC3 documentary about himself, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, as a teenager who wanted to go to the school prom wearing a dress. The creative team deliberately didn’t meet Jamie and Margaret until after the show had been thoroughly worked through, because they wanted the freedom to create their own characters who tell their own story. The real Jamie and Margaret didn’t actually see the show until its first night – and by all accounts it’s extraordinary how close the show is to their own real-life experience.

Jamie1Jamie New (no longer Campbell) stands out somewhat at his school, and not just because he’s the tallest. He’s openly gay and very camp, but most of his contemporaries simply accept him the way he is. The girls are his pals, the boys swap banter with him; but he’s besties with Pritti, who’s also on the edge of school society, being the school swot and a hijab-wearing Muslim. He lives with his very supportive Mum, and gets on great with her best friend Ray. There are only three flies in his ointment: his dad, who can’t come to terms with his son’s sexuality and behaviour; school bully Dean, for whom Jamie is a natural target; and careers teacher Miss Hedge, who wants to encourage Jamie to become something that he isn’t. Jamie’s dream is to be a drag queen, and Miss Hedge can’t see a future in that; she agrees with the computer assessment that he should be a forklift truck driver (#yeahright). And then, for his 16th birthday, Jamie’s mum buys him a new pair of shoes…

ETAJ1If any show cried out Instant Hit, this is it! Dan Gillespie Sells’ (yes, he of The Feeling) music is as bright, appealing and entertaining as you might expect, and Tom Macrae’s lyrics and book (co-written with director Jonathan Butterell) are smart, witty and emotional in all the right places. The songs do just the right thing, by moving the plot forward and complementing our understanding of the characters. Anna Fleischle’s set design is crackingly effective, with what would double as Shirley Valentine’s kitchen for Jamie’s home environment and a versatile arrangement of school desks for almost everything else. And Jamie’s story has feelgood factor written through it like a stick of rock; you’d have to be very hard-hearted not to come away from this show unmoved.

ETAJ2Another great plus is that the largely unknown cast is full of surprises! Fifteen of them are making their West End debut, and their own freshness and excitement really communicates itself to the audience. The ensemble of schoolkids sing and dance with great verve and vivacity, their individual characterisations sparking off each other to great effect. Luke Baker’s Dean is far more than a mere stock villain, as he effectively portrays the character’s essential loneliness, and how out of touch he is with his contemporaries, as much as his antagonism towards Jamie. Lucie Shorthouse is a terrific discovery as the kind-hearted, conservative but feisty Pritti. It’s a great role, and she gave me an insight into a teenage Muslim girl’s life that I’ve never experienced before; plus Ms Shorthouse has a voice to die for, with a richness and maturity way beyond her years.

Jamie7There’s some genuinely fabulous drag queenery from Alex Anstey, James Gillan and Daniel Jacob as the trio Laika Virgin, Tray Sophisticay and Sandra Bollock; it comes as no surprise to find out that two of these performers have their own real-life drag alter-egos, and I’m guessing from the huge cheer for Mr Jacob at curtain call that there were a few Royal Vauxhall Tavern die-hards in the audience that afternoon! What did surprise me was to see comedy stand-up Phil Nichol, whom we’d seen trying out Edinburgh material earlier in the year, taking the role of Hugo, a.k.a. inspirational drag queen Loco Chanelle. Mr Nichol is the kind of person the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to dislike because he’s good at everything. He superbly conveys the generosity and sadness of the character with a very honest and moving performance – and he’s not backward in coming forward with the glitter either.

Jamie5Tamsin Carroll, whom we last saw as a brilliant Charity Barnum in Chichester a few years ago, again excels as the bossy but strangely vivacious Miss Hedge; it’s a difficult task to make an unsympathetic character likeable, but she achieves it. Josie Walker is extraordinary as Margaret, portraying the character’s powerful combination of support and self-doubt, and her performance of the song “He’s My Boy” almost stopped the show. There’s excellent support from Mina Anwar as the down-to-earth Ray and Ken Christiansen as Jamie’s dad, effectively conveying his brutality and cruelty whilst never becoming the panto baddie.

ETAJ3But the night definitely belongs to John McCrea as Jamie. Instantly likeable, you’re on his side from the very start, just willing the character on to better and greater things. Mr McCrea absolutely captures that sense of uncertainty and lack of self-confidence in a young person who’s finding their way and discovering who they are. As his confidence grows so does the audience’s support, and we all go on his journey together. Mr M has an amazing stage presence and knows precisely how to wrap us all around his little finger. We hug him in his hours of need, we rejoice at his triumphs. Messrs Macrae and Butterell have written a humdinger of a role, with some brilliant lines and plenty of opportunities to shine; and Mr McCrea takes them and makes the best of them all.

Jamie6One of those rare events; a British musical that really works, performed by a stunning cast that gets it right 100%. Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and I expect they will for some time to come. Unmissable!

Production photos by Johan Persson and Alistair Muir

Review – Aladdin, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd December 2017

AladdinGreetings, gentle reader, and may I be among (probably) the last to wish you a Happy New Year. Now that the chocs are eaten and the decs are down (mine aren’t but will be soon) it’s that time of year when I have to play catch-up reviewer of all the shows we saw around the Christmas period, some of which have now closed, so there’s nothing I can say that might convince you to see them or otherwise – because it’s too late!

Aladdin4One such production was this year’s Qdos Entertainment pantomime at the Royal and Derngate, Aladdin, with its happy promotional poster of Paul Nicholas, Jaymi Hensley and Sheila Ferguson all smiling cheerily and Kev Orkian looking defiantly cheeky. Already you know it’s going to be everything you could wish for in a panto. Gosh, it even says that on the front cover of the programme. Aladdin7Last year we didn’t see the Royal and Derngate’s Jack and the Beanstalk because the promotional photo showed Simon Webbe looking grumpy, and my brain got the message this won’t be fun. There’s a lot of competition for the panto pound, and the promo has got to be right to get the audience behind it. That wasn’t; but this was. Anyway, it had Sheila Ferguson in it, so of course I was going to see it.

Aladdin6The theatre had a great vibe of happy expectation and there’s no doubt the whole audience had a great time. The sets were lively, colourful and fun, with a good mix of cartoony images as well as the more sophisticated special effects that panto audiences now expect. Do you wave at Aladdin as he rides his magic carpet out into the audience? Of course you do. Phil Dennis’ compact little band, tucked away in one of the side boxes, gave us more oomph than only three guys had any right to, and Alan Burkitt’s enjoyable choreography had just about enough West End feel to it to make all the musical numbers go with a swing.

Aladdin2As always with a panto there were a couple of standard routines that brought the house down. I loved the tongue-twisting scene where Kev Orkian’s Wishee Washee had to act as a go-between relating the linguistic horrors of the short-sleeved shirt shortage between Darren Machin’s Widow Twankey and Paul Nicholas’ Abanazar. However, the best for me was when Wishee, realising that everyone else was frozen in time, repositioned the dancers, Aladdin3the Emperor, the Princess and Widow Twankey into contorted positions to make a funny effect by pushing the last one over. When Wishee asked the boys and girls whether or not he should kiss the defenceless Princess, nearly all of them shouted back NO! which made my go on my son! sound a bit pervy, so apologies if you were offended. Mr Orkian’s teasing the cast – especially dancer Serge and the precariously balancing Aladdin9Emperor Dom Hartley-Harris, was hilarious. One thing that really was noticeable – how they don’t waste time falling in love in Pantoland. Mr Harley-Harris had the hots for Widow Twankey quicker than a gulp of Peking Tea, and as for Zoe George’s Princess Jasmine consenting to be Jaymi Hensley’s Aladdin’s gf… well, all I can say is she must be a Union J fan.

Aladdin1It was unusual, but very rewarding, to see a panto that was sung so well. Mr Hensley and Ms George’s duets were both touching and powerful; but with leads Paul Nicholas and Sheila Ferguson you knew you were going to be in for a musical treat. With a few unsurprising Marigold Hotel references between them, they really lit up the stage. Mr Nicholas still has that charismatic twinkle in his eye even if you can barely see it for his turban. Anyone hoping for a reprise of Dancing with the Captain (just me then?) would have been disappointed, Aladdin5but vocally he’s still got it and puts real characterisation and mischief into his songs. Ms Ferguson is still as pitch perfect as ever, with terrific renditions of River Deep Mountain High and the Three Degrees’ own Year of Decision, with which she closed the first half. Having had the pleasure of interviewing her a few years ago for a Eurovision radio programme (and yes, I know, she never did Eurovision) she told me how much she hated that song. Sign of a real trouper then!

It was a perfect way of starting our Christmas week and everyone went home buzzing. A first-class production of an excellent panto!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Dumb Witness (1937)

Dumb WitnessIn which the great Hercule Poirot receives a commission from a Miss Emily Arundell, only to discover she had died a couple of months earlier. Together with his faithful Captain Hastings, he examines the circumstances of her death and concludes it was not as natural as the doctor had presumed. Miss Arundell had recently changed her will but had her scheming relatives known this, and did any of them decide to help her on her way to the next world? Poirot sees through the falseness and deceptions, but is he able to prevent a second death? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

wire-haired-fox-terrierThe book is dedicated “To Dear Peter, most fruitful of friends and dearest of companions, a dog in a thousand”. I’m not certain how many other books have been dedicated to animals, but it’s not inappropriate for this book. The Dumb Witness of the title is Miss Arundell’s wire-haired terrier, Bob, a playful chap with a penchant for leaving his ball at the top of the stairs, where an old lady could trip and take a tumble, with serious consequences. I can assure you, gentle reader, that Bob is not the murderer. The book was originally published in the US in The Saturday Evening Post, in seven instalments in November and December 1936 under the title Poirot Loses a Client. In the UK, it first appeared in an abridged format in the Women’s Pictorial magazine in seven instalments from February to April 1937 under the title Mystery of Littlegreen House. In book format, it first appeared in July 1937 in the UK and a little later that year in the US, still using its American title of Poirot Loses a Client.

MurderI remember this book as being one of my mother’s favourites; I think she really enjoyed the fact that the dog plays such an important role. To be fair, I think the title misleads the reader somewhat. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times but can never remember whodunit; and I think part of the reason for that is that I expect the dog to feature even more in Poirot’s grey cells procedure than he does. The title “Dumb Witness” implies that the dog actually sees the murder take place and somehow betrays the identity of the murderer by some kind of animal instinct. Well, neither is true, as far as I can make out. It’s still an enjoyable read, and Christie lays some false trails that we follow hook line and sinker; once you realise the psychological game that one of the suspects is playing, the logic of the case all falls into place quite comfortably.

liarWe don’t learn much about Poirot that we didn’t already know. He is perhaps a little more disgraceful than usual in the way that he tells so many lies in order to obtain information from the suspects, much to Captain Hastings’ embarrassment; that does lead to some amusing exchanges as he is often rumbled as the book progresses. Unusually, he is very indiscreet about some of his previous cases, and reveals the names of the murderers in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Death in the Clouds, so I would really recommend that you don’t read this book until you have read those. I can’t think why Christie would have decided to spoil so much of her own work.

moustache2There are a few humorous episodes; when he is interrogating Theresa Arundell (even though she doesn’t realise it) she decides to call him Hercule, which I don’t think anyone else in his books so far has dared to be so personal. You sense he doesn’t like it, by the way he quickly moves the conversation on. Later, Poirot becomes the butt of Miss Peabody’s humour, when she (with such impertinence!) mocks his moustache. In another scene, where Poirot (lying again) is pretending to be interested in buying a house, he encounters two estate agents of varying abilities of salesmanship, Mr Gabler and Miss Jenkins. Given the way she ridicules them, I think it’s fair to say that Mrs Christie doesn’t hold the practitioners of that profession in very high esteem.

ManservantAs is so often the case in these early books, the story is narrated by Captain Hastings, but this will be the last time his faithful friend sets down Poirot’s sleuthing in writing until Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, published posthumously in 1975, but written at the height of Christie’s powers. But to keep some continuity, we are reintroduced briefly to Poirot’s manservant George, whom he had first met in The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Men in chargeOne interesting aspect of how Christie characterises Emily Arundell is to show how, in the Victorian era when Miss Arundell was growing up, men were socially far more important than women, both in their achievements and in their general significance. Even though Charles Arundell is portrayed as a fairly amoral chap, Miss Emily still insists that he has the best of the spare rooms, because it’s correct to treat men more positively than women. Theresa can have the old nursery, she’ll be grand. It’s also fascinating to read how the pharmacy service was a very different kettle of fish in those days. Today, we go to the doctor, he gives us a prescription and the pharmacist provides the drugs. We might be involved in the decision to prescribe, but on the whole the patient has the most insignificant role in the whole administration of drugs. In Dumb Witness, Dr Tanios asks for his own “mixture” to be made up. “A very interesting mixture it was” says the pharmacist, “”one I’ve not previously become acquainted with.” The man spoke as of a rare botanical trophy. “It makes a change, sir, when you get something new. Very interesting combination of drugs, I remember….”” Can you imagine wandering into Boots and just suggesting an odd concoction to the pharmacist today? I don’t think you’d get very far.

basingstokeAs usual, there are a few references to check out. The book is set in the town of Market Basing, in Berkshire; it’s not hard to imagine that the inspiration for this name comes from Basingstoke, although that’s in Hampshire. Market Basing recurs in a number of Christie’s works, including the short story The Market Basing Mystery, which was not published in the UK until 1974’s collection, Poirot’s Early Cases, but was the forerunner for the title story in Murder in the Mews. Market Basing is also said to be close to St Mary Mead, the village where Miss Marple lives, although I always think of that as being in Kent. There’s a lot of vagueness in the Christie village environment.

SmyrnaThe Tanios family are said to have come back to the UK from living in Smyrna. That was the contemporary name for Izmir, Turkey, and during the 1930s was a hive of archaeological industry, with which Mrs Christie would doubtless have been familiar. The Tanioses are now living at the Durham Hotel, in Bloomsbury, but there’s no currently hotel with that name in London. Theresa and Donaldson enjoy a drive out to Worthem Abbey, described as one of the local beauty spots. Again, no such place exists, but with a slight letter change to Wortham Abbey, then you have such a place in Devon and also in Suffolk. Miss Lawson has now moved to 17 Clanroyden Mansions, W2. There’s no such address, but in the vicinity there is a Clanricarde Gardens, which might be the inspiration. In a moment of fury, Theresa insists that Poirot goes away… “and take St Leonards with you”. It took me ages to work out that her joke is a play on the town of St Leonards that adjoins Hastings in Sussex. Poirot thinks it’s funny. Hastings isn’t so impressed.

Boulle cabinetMiss Emily Arundell was in the habit of taking Dr Loughbarrow’s Liver Capsules. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are an invention of Christie’s – if they really had existed in real life, sales would have plummeted. And in one of the seances that Miss Lawson liked to attend, the planchette revealed that there was a mystery regarding the key to the Boule cabinet. Nothing to do with the French ball game, but rather a cabinet designed by André-Charles Boulle, cabinet maker to the King of France.

PoundAs you possibly know, I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are quite a few large sums bandied around in this book that I think bear some investigation. Theresa Arundell says she originally inherited £30,000 from her father, which would have been enough to provide a regular income of £1200 per year; but she’s spent it all and has just £221 left. As at 1937, £30,000 was the equivalent of a good £1.4m, and that regular income of £1200 would have provided at today’s rate an annual allowance of £57,000. Not bad, but not enough for Theresa. Her pathetic £221 today would be worth £10,500. No wonder she was worried. Littlegreen House is on the market for £2,850, which today would be a modest £135,000. Haven’t property prices have soared over the last 80 years? And the value of Emily Arundell’s estate? £375,000. Today that would have been a handy £18m. Worth killing for?

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Dumb Witness:

Publication Details: 1937. Pan Books paperback, 9th printing, published in 1971, price 25p. The cover illustration depicts the Tarot card of Death, which I think is a little misleading as I can’t recall tarot cards playing a part in the story at all. There’s a dog’s collar – maybe a little large for Bob, hard to say – a few pills and a nail with some thread attached – that’s more significant. It’s quite an evocative image but I’m not sure to what extent it really reflects the story.

How many pages until the first death: 1. Miss Arundell’s death is reported in the first sentence of the first page of the book. However, we then go back in time and see her conversations with her family and acquaintances, and the first four chapters of the book are written so that we almost feel she’s still alive.

Funny lines out of context: Slim pickings, I’m sorry to say. Nothing to report.

Memorable characters: Emily Arundell is a well-drawn, fully believable character; you feel you understand her motivations and her old-fashioned ways very well – even though she dies in the first sentence! The amoral Charles and Theresa are also very vivid. And I was very entertained by the mischievous Miss Peabody, ridiculing Poirot’s moustache and not believing his story about writing a biography of General Arundell.

Christie the Poison expert:
Christie employs her knowledge of and interest in poisons to very good effect in this book. We discover that the gardener uses arsenic and is surprised by how much of the bottle has been used. Dr Tanios is known to buy a bottle of chloral from the pharmacist; this has been the cause of death in Christie’s previous books, The Secret Adversary, The Seven Dials Mystery and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? But it’s what Miss Lawson believes was the ectoplasm leaving Miss Arundell’s body during the final séance that really nails Christie’s poison credentials; I won’t give the game away by explaining it, but suffice to say, it’s NOT ectoplasm!

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s really only one of Christie’s betes noir that gets a hammering in the book – and it really does get a hammering – and that’s the xenophobic distrust and dislike of foreigners. It’s everywhere. The Greek Dr Tanios comes in for most of the prejudice:

“Emily Arundell’s people, who were what is known as “service people”, simply did not marry Greeks”.

“Bella had married a foreigner – and not only a foreigner, but a Greek. In Miss Arundell’s prejudiced mind a Greek was almost as bad as an Argentine or a Turk. The fact that Dr Tanios had a charming manner and was said to be extremely able in his profession only prejudiced the old lady slightly more against him. She distrusted charm and easy compliments. For this reason, too, she found it difficult to be fond of the two children. They had both taken after their father in looks – there was really nothing English about them.” I believe this is the first instance of Christie recognising that her characters’ racism is in fact true prejudice and not just a nice middle-class trait.

In the words of Isabel Tripp: “Not that I’ve anything to say against Mrs Tanios – she’s quite a nice woman, but absolutely stupid and completely under her husband’s thumb. Of course, he’s really a Turk, I believe – rather dreadful for an English girl to marry a Turk, I think, don’t you? It shows a certain lack of fastidiousness.”
And in the words of Miss Lawson (ironically in conversation with the Belgian Poirot): “Of course, Dr Tanios pretends to be very fond of his wife and he’s quite charming to her. His manners are really delightful. But I don’t trust foreigners. They’re so artful!”

Miss Lawson doesn’t care who she recklessly offends with her blanket racism. “If he’d been an Englishman, I would have advised her – but there, he isn’t an Englishman… And she looks so peculiar, poor thing, so – well, so scared. What can he have been doing to her? I believe Turks are frightfully cruel sometimes.” “Dr Tanios is a Greek.” “Yes of course, that’s the other way about – I mean, they’re usually the ones who get massacred by the Turks – or an I thinking of Armenians?”

Poirot also receives some prejudice; consider this conversation between Miss Peabody and the great detective: “”Goin’ to write a book, eh?” “Yes.” “In English?” “Certainly – in English.” “But you’re a foreigner. Eh? Come now, you’re a foreigner, aren’t you?” “That is true.” She transferred her gaze to me. “You are his secretary, I suppose?” “Er – yes,” I said doubtfully. “Can you write decent English?” “I hope so.””

Classic denouement: In a sense. There’s an important person missing, which slightly detracts from the full drama, but it can’t really be avoided!

Happy ending? You don’t really get a sense of natural justice, tying up the loose ends, so it’s not really that happy an ending, and a few of the characters have a rather mournful future to look forward to. Nevertheless, two other characters appear to be happy in their new lives. And Bob gets a surprise ending too.

Did the story ring true? Not especially. The manner in which Emily Arundell’s first accident took place is, I feel, highly unbelievable. The characters are very believable though.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an enjoyable story but I think it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, so I’m giving it 7/10.

Death on the NileThanks for reading my blog of Dumb Witness 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 is another big one – Death on the Nile. I can’t remember too much about the book but I’m very familiar with the Peter Ustinov film, so I can remember whodunit even before starting to re-read. So that will be an interesting experience! 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!