The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)

Hercule Poirot's ChristmasIn which Hercule Poirot’s plans for a cosy Christmas Eve as guest of Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, go awry when local bigwig Simeon Lee is found murdered in his locked bedroom that evening (that’s Lee’s bedroom, not Johnson’s – that would have been a very different tale). Poirot joins Johnson and local Superintendent Sugden to work out which of the Lee family Christmas visitors did the heinous deed. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Macbeth kills DuncanThe book is prefaced by a letter in the form of a dedication: “My dear James, you have always been one of the most faithful and kindly of my readers, and I was therefore seriously perturbed when I received from you a word of criticism. You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. You yearned for a “good violent murder with lots of blood.” A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder! So this is your special story – written for you. I hope it may please. Your affectionate sister-in-law, Agatha”. The James in question was James Watts, who had married Agatha’s sister Madge in 1902. He owned Abney Hall, in Cheshire, where Christie would later write The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and After the Funeral, and which she had already used as the inspiration for Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. The book also starts with a quotation from Macbeth, that reappears later in the story too: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” Of course, Shakespeare was referring to the murder of King Duncan, but it applies just as well to Simeon Lee.

ChristmasHercule Poirot’s Christmas had quite a torturous route to the bookshelves. It was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly from November 1938 to January 1939, under the title Murder for Christmas. In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in twenty parts in November and December 1938, under the slightly different title Murder at Christmas. The full book was first published in the UK on 19th December 1938 by Collins Crime Club as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1939, again as Murder for Christmas. A 1947 US paperback edition by Avon Books changed the title again to A Holiday for Murder, and it seems to me that both these latter titles are now equally used in America.

1930s CinemaThis is an exciting, well-structured book, taking place over the seven days of a Christmas week, split into seven parts (one per day) and with several smaller sections in each part. The structure gives it extra pace and also an inevitability – you know in advance, just by looking at the chapter breakdown, that everything will be solved by December 28th. What is lacking, however, for the most part, is any sense of Christmas. It’s as though Christie has taken the festive season simply as an excuse to get a warring family together, but nothing happens that would be thought of as “Christmassy”. There isn’t a big meal. There is no talk of presents. The valet goes out on Christmas Eve to the pictures like he does every Friday night, he doesn’t do anything special. Similarly, and oddly, there’s no mention of any Christmas plans by any of the police or the other staff – it’s all just like any other day, or week. Odd.

butlerChristie employs simple, third party narration throughout the whole book apart from a few paragraphs shortly before the body of Simeon Lee is discovered, where Tressilian, the butler, takes over and gives us his thoughts. It’s a very interesting device, to change the perspective and see it all through his eyes, and it breaks up the standard narration technique. But the early part of the book is very heavy with exposition, listening in to conversations between the various Lee sons and their wives, where they appear to be talking about the family structure and relationship difficulties for the first time ever – which is highly unlikely – all for the benefit of filling in some useful facts for the reader before the action really gets underway. I thought that was rather heavy-handed of Christie; she can do better!

detectiveAnother slightly disappointing element to the story is that we see very little of Poirot’s fun and games that he normally can’t resist in his previous cases. There are no conversations where you get a closer understanding of his personality; there’s little humour in his language; there’s none of his usual vanity. The only thing he does that is true to form is to create a truly exciting denouement, where your suspicions hop from suspect to suspect before he finally reveals the truth. You feel that Poirot misses Hastings in this book; he doesn’t really have another person to spark off. Colonel Johnson is a nice enough chap, but the two men don’t have that special understanding that encourages Poirot to be outspoken and candid. Superintendent Sugden is a rather bombastic bruiser of a man with none of the lightness of touch that Poirot would normally admire. So Poirot ends up being quite isolated in this story; and for the most part he could be just any old detective who was good at solving crime. Interestingly, Christie took a break from Poirot for a few years after this book; his next appearance would be in Sad Cypress in 1941. Let’s hope he comes back to form next time out.

FrancoBy late 1938, Franco’s hold on Spain, through the Spanish Civil War, was getting progressively tighter. It would only be a few months later that Barcelona, and then Madrid, would fall and he would assume complete control of the country. There had been massive amounts of bloodshed for over two years; and, of course, the Second World War would start the following year too. It was a fascinating choice on the part of Christie to have her Spanish character, Pilar, so prominent in this book. She is the second character that we meet, and a lot of time is given over to her experiences, her motivations and her personality. She talks about how back in Spain the mayor is pro-government and the priest is pro-Franco. She has seen bombs destroy houses and kill car drivers. Colonel Johnson’s comment: “can’t be very pleasant being in Spain just at present” is the epitome of English understatement. When the family are deciding whether to make a financial allowance for Pilar, Alfred isn’t keen; “he is so British”, says his wife Lydia, “he doesn’t really like Lee money going to a Spanish subject.” Whether that’s typical Christie distrust of foreigners, or a specific reaction to the war, isn’t clear. But Spain was clearly at the forefront of people’s minds at the time. Even the film that Horbury, the valet, goes to see on Christmas Eve is entitled Love in Old Seville. It’s a Christie invention, by the way, no such film exists.

Long DaleThere aren’t many references to follow up in this book. All the place names (apart from Madrid, obviously) are made up by Christie: the Lee family home is Gorston Hall, Longdale, Addlesfield, which bears no similarity to any real place I can find – there is a Long Dale in the Derbyshire Dales (and also a place in Oklahoma with the same name) but that’s about it. Mr Lee was said to have been in contact with the vice consul in Aliquara, trying to locate Pilar; there’s no such place in Spain. Colonel Johnson is the Chief Constable of Middleshire; I suppose at a push one might think that represents Middlesex. Superintendent Sugden says he comes from the nearby county of Reeveshire, which I think is no more than a play on words; reverse the two parts of the name and you get Shire Reeve, which is the derivation of Sheriff, which basically describes Sugden’s role.

Henry Wadsworth LongfellowMuch notice is taken of David Lee’s quote when his father dies: “the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.” I’d never heard this phrase before; apparently it suggests the certainty of eventual divine retribution. It’s a direct quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his translation of a 17th-century poem, Retribution, by Friedrich von Logau. But it seems to be from an original concept by Plutarch. Unusual to find such a cultured family and police force! Colonel Johnson knows of Poirot because of his superb sleuthing in the case of Sir Bartholomew Strange, better known as Three Act Tragedy; but if you can’t remember him from that tale, that’s because actually he doesn’t appear in it.

PoundIf you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that 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. In her last book, Appointment with Death, there were no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so that eliminated the need for that paragraph! However, this time round there are a couple of interesting sums. Just how rich is Simeon Lee? He is described as a millionaire twice over. So if we convert £2 million in 1938, in today’s value that works out as £94 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. So even if his sons all had to share in that inheritance, it’s still an extraordinary amount of money. His diamonds, said to be valued at between £9 – £10,000, today would be worth between £420,000 and £470,000. Definitely worth stealing.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas:

Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in March 1977, price 65p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a miserable old man surrounded by grotesquely ornate candlesticks and what appears to be the front two legs of a prancing horse – don’t quite understand that. Embellishing the picture are some red-berried sprigs of holly dripping with blood. The blood works well in the picture – not sure about the rest, not certain this one of Tom Adams’ best illustrations!

How many pages until the first death: 48. By that stage in the book – Christmas Eve – all the family members have arrived at the house and no further characters are introduced apart from Horbury’s cinema date, although we never actually meet her. As far as the reader is concerned, the death comes along just at the right time.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could discern. It isn’t a particularly funny book, to be fair.

Memorable characters:

In the same way that Mrs Boynton stands out in Appointment with Death, as being the tyrannical ruler of a subjugated family, Simeon Lee takes precisely the same role in this book. To my mind he’s not quite so striking a character because his cruelty is less psychological and more real, as a grumpy shouter of instructions and insulter of sons. But there’s no doubt that, like Mrs Boynton, he deserves everything coming his way.

Pilar is also a strong character; Christie imbues her with the exotic mystery of passionate Spain, and she has none of the English reserve that characterises so many members of the Lee family. She openly talks about how handsome Sugden is, much to his embarrassment. She makes no concession to the delicate subject of money and speaks openly about her desire for an inheritance from Simeon, which is an area where the other characters would fear to tread.

Christie the Poison expert:

Poison doesn’t play a part in this book, apart from Johnson’s recollection of the Three Act Tragedy case. This gives rise to a brief conversation about the pros and cons of solving a case where poisoning is the method. But it has no bearing on this crime.

Class/social issues of the time:

Usually one can find something in a Christie book where she propounds what she feels is the natural British (or English) distrust of foreigners. But there are very few instances of it in this book. In the conversation about poison referred to above, Poirot notes that murder by poison might be thought of as “unEnglish” – “a device of foreigners! Unsportsmanlike!” Elsewhere there’s the strangely ironic conversation between Stephen and Pilar where he says “it’s just a little bit more than tiresome, my dear. Then there’s that lunatic foreigner prowling about. I don’t suppose he’s any good but he makes me feel jumpy”. So let’s just get this straight: here we have a South African man whingeing about a “lunatic foreigner” to a Spanish woman. Funny how when you have a prejudice against someone you never question its reasonableness.

One other thread that is developed here, that you find in some other Christie books of this time, is the role of women in society. In the past Christie has shown herself to be no feminist. But in this book she changes tack halfway through. Consider the motivations of Simeon Lee’s late wife, the mother whose death the character of David can’t quite get over, often comes into question in conversations between the family members.

David remembers her in conversation with his wife Hilda. “”She was so sweet, Hilda, and so patient. Lying there, often in pain, but bearing it – enduring everything. And when I think of my father” – his face darkened – “bringing all that misery into her life – humiliating her – boasting of his love affairs – constantly unfaithful to her and never troubling to conceal it.” Hilda Lee said: “She should not have put up with it. She should have left him.” He said with a touch of reproof: “She was too good for that. She thought is was her duty to remain. Besides, it was her home – where else should she go?” “She could have made a life of her own.” David said fretfully: “Not in those days! You don’t understand. Women didn’t behave like that. They put up with things. They endured patiently. She had us to consider. Even if she divorced my father, what would have happened? He would probably have married again. There might have been a second family. Our interests might have gone to the wall. She had to think of all those considerations. […] No, she did right. She was a saint! She endured to the end – uncomplainingly.””

Sorry about the long quotation. But the detail into which David goes to express his appreciation of his mother’s selflessness suggests (to me) that this is a continuation of Christie’s usual anti-feminist stance. However, there’s an interesting comparison with (who else?) Pilar, who justifies what Stephen calls her “gold-digging”, when he confronts her over her attitude to Simeon’s will. (Slight spoiler alert, although it still doesn’t tell you whodunit) She tells Stephen: ““If that old man had lived, he would have made another will. He would have left money to me – a lot of money! Perhaps in time he would have left me all the money!” Stephen said smiling: “That wouldn’t have been very fair either, would it?” “Why not? He would have liked me best, that is all. […] The world is very cruel to women. They must do what they can for themselves – while they are young. When they are old and ugly no one will help them.”” This approach to a design for life doesn’t really sit comfortably with Christie’s usual moral tone but it does suggest a change in her philosophy about the role of women. For (I believe) the first time in a Christie novel, you might say sisters are doing it for themselves.

One small observation: it’s certainly a different era from today when a Superintendent of Police could be believed to be usefully spending his time visiting houses collecting for the Police Orphanage.

Classic denouement: Yes! All the suspects are present, Poirot goes through a long rigmarole explaining why everyone could have done it, only then to explain how one-by-one they didn’t do it, whilst the reader turns the pages with bated breath not knowing what to believe. It’s an extremely exciting ending, with a classic “J’accuse” moment, and an unrepentant murderer.

Happy ending? Yes. One whirlwind romance culminates in the promise of a marriage, and there’s a general sense that the majority of the family members will be able to put their problems behind them and move on.

Did the story ring true? Chance meetings and coincidences obscure the truth of the case but yes, on the whole, this is one of Christie’s more believable stories.

Overall satisfaction rating: On the plus side, it’s an exciting read, with an excellent denouement and a suitably surprising solution to the crime. On the negative side, Poirot isn’t himself; there are no references to little grey cells, no moments of breathtaking vanity. And the whole idea of the amount of blood involved playing a significant part in the story doesn’t really hold water. So for me this averages out as an 8/10.

Murder is EasyThanks for reading my blog of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas 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 Murder is Easy; my memories of this book are of reading it on holiday in Spain as a teenager and really enjoying it. I think we may be in for lots of murders! And I don’t think I can remember whodunit, which is always a bonus. As usual, 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 – Kiss of the Spider Woman, Menier Chocolate Factory, 18th March 2018

Kiss of the Spider WomanWhen I saw that the Menier’s next offering was to be Kiss of the Spider Woman, my initial reaction was – great, I’ve always wanted to see that musical. It wasn’t until a day or two before seeing the show that I discovered this is not the Kander/Ebb production from 1992 that starred Chita Rivera. This is a new dramatization by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker of Manuel Puig’s original 1976 novel, set in a Buenos Aires prison, about the developing relationship between window-dresser and film fan, Molina, and left wing political activist Valentin. The novel was originally only published in Spain and was for many years banned in Argentina. Considered Puig’s finest work, not only did it become the aforementioned award-winning Broadway musical, but Puig also adapted it as a play (1983), and it became a film in 1985.

Cast of twoBut I hadn’t seen any of its previous incarnations and I’ve never read the book, so I was completely ignorant as to the story; and, gentle reader, if you plan to see this show and also don’t know the story, then I’m going to break one of my usual rules. I normally outline at least the initial plotline; but this time I’m going to keep you in your blissful ignorance. Because both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found this an absolutely riveting piece of drama; stunning story-telling with multi-layered characters, and visually highly impactful. And it really helped that we didn’t know where the story was going.

Grace Cookey-Gam and Samuel BarnettIt’s always a delight to come to the Menier and walk down into the auditorium to see how they have rearranged everything to suit whatever new show you’re seeing. Unusually, this time, you have to walk up and into the auditorium, and then walk down to your particular row. Jon Bausor’s design for this show hits the mark from The Word Go and there is so much to take in before the play actually starts. Molina and Valentin’s cell is there in a corner; the two prisoners are on stage right from the start, quietly idling through their day. The walls to their cell are broken down and removed so we can see inside; around it, you find the most convincing representation of fresh wet mud you could ever imagine. Behind it, darkness, but which will come into use in the final scene. On a higher level, you see the walkways of the other prison cells, creating a superb, but oppressive setting of harsh, cruel prison life. You can’t imagine the prisoners in the Villa Devoto jail in Buenos Aires playing pool or benefiting from university courses.

S BarnettBut those walkways have an ulterior purpose. Molina whiles away the endless hours in prison, and entertains Valentin at the same time, by re-telling the plots of favourite old films. Andrzej Goulding’s brilliant projection design depicts these stories on the walkways, where silhouette characters act out Molina’s reminiscences. The silhouettes are real enough to fix those stories in our heads, but not so clearly defined that they replace our own imagination of what we’ve been told. It’s both technically impressive and artistically enjoyable.

Declan Bennett and Samuel BarnettAnother of the reasons why I wanted to see this was because it has been directed by Laurie Sansom, ex-Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, where he created so many memorable and extraordinary works. The last show of his we saw was the huge (in so many ways) The James Plays, where he did his usual trick of creating a seamless ensemble from a large and varied group of actors. Kiss of the Spider Woman only has three characters, so ensemble isn’t really the right word, but what Mr Sansom is so good at is creating a work where his actors have such complete trust, respect and faith in each other. You could see it in the bold relationship he created between Dionysus and Pentheus in his The Bacchae a few years ago. In this current play there are a number of scenes where Samuel Barnett as Molina and Declan Bennett as Valentin have to share a lot of intimacy and there isn’t a hair’s-breadth of awkwardness or artificiality to their stage relationship. As a result, it’s compelling and rewarding viewing; not remotely embarrassing, which would have really killed the semblance of reality.

Samuel BarnettSamuel Barnett is outstanding as Molina. Although at first he entertains us with the character’s short-tempered show-offishness, he quickly invests the character with so much kindness, and so many hidden depths, that you realise you want to find out so much more about their dreams and motivations. Mr Barnett can turn bright, cheeky comedy into sombre tragedy at the flicker of an eye. It’s a bold, funny, moving, elegant performance that stays with you long after curtain down. Declan Bennett is also fantastic as Valentin; sullen, tortured, lost in his own disgrace. It’s a superb portrayal of a powerful and charismatic leader, brought down by institutionalised deceit and corruption, and slowly, blindly, walking into the Spider Woman’s web. The third member of the cast is Grace Cookey-Gam, whose crisp and forthright performance as the warden reveals a more complex role than it might at first appear.

Declan BennettWe saw a preview, so there’s always a chance that they might change something before press night – but that would be bizarre because it works so well as it is. I know I should really wait until after press night before reviewing, but, hey, what the hell. If I can encourage you to book quickly for this stunning production before those who wait for the first night reviews, then I will have done A Useful Thing. It’s a fascinating story, delicately told by a magnificent cast and a creative team at the top of their game. Just a short season until 5th May, but surely this should have a life after Menier? Highly recommended.

D Bennett and S BarnettP. S. So, regular readers may well remember, the current trend for “no interval” is one of my pet hates. This show comes in at around 1 hour 40 minutes without an interval, and I do think the story and performances are strong enough to sustain a 20-minute break in the middle just to ensure the audience’s comfort. Those Menier benches aren’t the most luxurious in London and who wants to worry about needing to nip to the loo halfway through and then not being allowed back in to the auditorium?

P. P. S. I noticed Laurie Sansom deep in conversation with some guys as we were leaving. Should I interrupt and say hi, or should I just walk away? Of course, I said a quick hello. I told him it was great. I didn’t get around to telling him we’d be seeing his Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre in May too. One can be too much of a groupie.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – Shrek the Musical, Derngate, Northampton, 14th March 2018

ShrekI remember when Shrek the Musical hit the Theatre Royal Drury Lane back in 2011; I was so jealous of all the kids going in to see it. I loved the film (well, the first one, at any rate) and thought a musical version would be a perfect spin-off. It ran for two good years, so it must have been doing something right. This new touring production was an excellent opportunity for me to fill my Shrek-shaped knowledge gap.

Shrek-005Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire are not the first names that trip off the tongue when you think of Broadway musical writers; but Ms Tesori is responsible for the highly regarded Caroline, or Change, and Mr Lindsay-Abaire wrote the delicious Fuddy Meers amongst other works, so I reckon they should know how to put a musical together. They’ve taken the simple plot of the original film, which, if you don’t know it (gasp!) is basically: evil Lord evicts fairy-tale characters, so they end up having to live in an ogre’s swamp. Said ogre (Shrek) isn’t happy about this, so goes off to complain to the Lord, en route collecting a donkey as companion.Shrek-065 Said Lord is looking for a Princess to marry, so that he can become King. But he’s far too weak and conceited to do his own dirty work, so when Shrek arrives at his castle, he sends him off to rescue the Princess (Fiona) from her tower. But one thing leads to another and Shrek and Fiona fall in love, even though they both think the other doesn’t fancy them. Does Fiona have to marry the evil Lord Farquaad, or can Shrek put everything right just in time? Well, it is a modern day fairy-tale, so what do you think?

Shrek-168There’s no expense spared on bringing this extravagant production to life; enormous sets, great costumes, a ravishing-sounding seven-piece band in the pit, some clever special effects, very groovy puppetry – the dragon is a true tour de force – and an awful lot of green make-up. The cast work together as an ensemble extremely well and there are some great individual performances; and the audience gave it a warm reception at the end.

Shrek-083But I couldn’t help conclude that it was, overall, a very peculiar show. It’s clearly targeting the children/pantomime audience, but it’s also more sophisticated than that; deconstructing fairy-tale characters a la Into the Woods, with a cross-dressing wolf and a Pinocchio with an identity crisis. It’s the kind of musical that has lots of big, showbizzy, jazz hands numbers; so much so that it seemed to me more like a modern-day parody of a, say, 1930s Busby Berkeley affair than actually having an identity of its own. When the Pied Piper has difficulty catching his rats, it’s a cue for Princess Fiona to marshal them into a rat tap-dancing act, Shrek-208all dressed up in their tuxedos and tails. I thought I was witnessing Fiona understudying Carol Channing and her 10 Stout-Hearted Men (50 points to you if you remember that). It’s as though Shrek had been handed over to Mel Brooks to create an ogre-based version of Springtime for Hitler, with all its inherent, ludicrous inappropriateness. For a modern show it just feels very anachronistic; if this is the way children get an early introduction to modern musical theatre, I feel they might being led up a very odd garden path.

Shrek-057It also feels like a rather unbalanced show, in that there’s a dream of a role in Lord Farquaad, who lights up the stage with every appearance; the performance by Samuel Holmes is so cleverly realised and beautifully undertaken, with the writers giving him all the best lines and the funniest songs. As a result, you spend the rest of the time looking forward to him coming on again, somewhat at the expense of everything else.

Shrek-287The jolly green giant (except he’s not jolly) Shrek the ogre is played by Steffan Harri; he adopts a big, gruff, Scottish accent in the style of Mike Myers’ original, and, given the fact that his make-up and prosthetics totally mask his real face, he gives a surprisingly expressive performance, revealing Shrek’s emotions and motivations much more clearly than you would expect. When he thinks that Fiona and the Donkey have been laughing at him behind his back, and that he has no chance with her romantically, his lovelorn disappointment is genuinely moving. Laura Main’s Princess Fiona combines both the youthful beauty of the classic Princess locked in a tower, with the world-weary frustration of someone who’s waited 8,423 days to meet her true love; assuming she was, say, 16-ish when she was locked up, that would make her around 40 years old today.Shrek-112 Presenting her as not quite in her first flush of youth (no slight intended) is actually more realistic than simply being yet another Rapunzel. It’s a lively, energetic performance, with a big sense of fun; and the two characters work extremely well together, for example in “I Think I Got You Beat” (“Anything you can do I can do better” for ogres), when they compete to out-fart each other. The kids loved it.

Shrek-016My favourite character in the film (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) is the Donkey, and anyone trying to emulate Eddie Murphy’s characterisation on stage is in for a tough time. Fortunately, Marcus Ayton doesn’t attempt this, and his Donkey is less cartoony but more camp than the original. With his front legs up and hoofs pointing down, you could imagine this donkey sashaying around shouting you go, gurl! But Mr Ayton has a great range of vocal nuances and facial expressions that create an excitable but genuine character and it’s a very funny performance. But unquestionably my favourite was Samuel Holmes as Lord Farquaad, not only for the physical feat of spending two and a half hours on his knees, but for his terrifically funny characterisation – the quirky asides, the barely suppressed contempt for anything that doesn’t make him look good; the perfect epitome of little man syndrome. He’s a total delight throughout.

Shrek-170It’s a very slick, professional and ebullient show, but for some reason it never hit me in the heart. Too old and cynical for this kind of thing? I hope not. Shrek is on a major tour; after Northampton it travels to Sheffield, Cardiff, Stoke, Blackpool, Woking, Liverpool, Norwich, Canterbury, Milton Keynes, Bristol, Llandudno, Nottingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Plymouth, Southampton and winding up in Leeds for Christmas and New Year.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre, 11th March 2018 – A view from the pit

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar was always one of my favourite Shakespeare plays; having read it for O level (yes, I know that ages me) it has so many passionate speeches and fascinating characters that have stayed with me all my life. But until last year I’d never seen a production; then Robert Hastie’s production at the Sheffield Crucible finally put that right. And now, like buses, here comes another one, this time directed by Nicholas Hytner at the (nearly) new Bridge Theatre adjacent to Tower Bridge.

Ben Whishaw and Michelle FairleyThey promised that the first three productions at the Bridge would each reveal the versatility of this new acting space. So far, they are true to their word. For Young Marx, Mark Thompson designed a revolving set that created a number of scenes with simple ease. Who knows how it will appear for the next production, Nightfall, which we will be seeing in May. For Julius Caesar, they’ve gutted the whole centre area to create a pit, which means you can choose either to sit in the galleries overlooking the action, or be part of it, wandering around the centre hobnobbing with the actors. And what a huge arena it turns out to be!

Julius Caesar main castI’m always a sucker for immersive staging. I think it’s because of my first ever exposure to it, when I had “promenade” tickets for the National Theatre’s Passion at the Cottesloe back in 1978. I managed to be within two feet of the moment when the late Mark McManus’ Jesus (I’ll never forget his extraordinarily piercing blue eyes) stared with equal fury and pity at Jack Shepard’s Judas, and the surge of power that came from that simple stare remains one of my all-time favourite experiences in theatre. Ever since then, I’ve always hoped for a similar experience in a promenade-type show. The nearest I’d come to it in recent years was In Your Face’s Trainspotting, which we saw in Edinburgh a few years ago.

Rock groupBut now we have this new version, and I have to say, being part of the mob is a very exciting experience! For sheer practicality, you have to check in your coats and bags before entering the auditorium but you can take in drinks and a programme – although my advice would be to keep extras to a minimum, as having to hold things becomes a bind over two hours. When you arrive in the pit, you’re suddenly in the world of a Caesar rally. Do This! read the slogans on the caps, T-shirts, badges for sale, in that modern tradition of sound bite politics, full of sound and fury signifying nothing (sorry, wrong play.) Ten minutes before the show starts, a band warms up and gives us a few rocky numbers, including Eye of the Tiger – there’s none of your hey nonny nonny here. Flavius and Marullus wade in and break up the concert, and you discover that the musicians are, in fact, Shakespeare’s First and Second Commoners, and that Mark Antony appears to be their roadie.

Sid Sagar and Rosie EdeFrom then on, the momentum builds as we see the conspirators beginning to make plans, the warning of the Ides of March, Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony’s eulogy, the battles at Philippi, and Octavius’ eventual victory. Bunny Christie’s endlessly inventive set moves up and down from the bowels of the earth, and you never know where to look next. The final part of the play brings the reality of war into sharp focus as you’re surrounded by barbed wire, the ashes of burning buildings, military vehicles and very stark murders and suicides. By the time the play has finished you are literally breathless at the excitement and stimulation of it all.

David CalderTo be fair, it’s not all fun and games in the pit. Inevitably, sometimes you will find yourself standing in Just The Wrong Place, and a whole scene will be happening hidden from your eyes because there’s an armchair in the way (tip – try not to stand at the corners of the individual moving platforms). I know that Cinna the Poet gets mauled to death by the mob (because I’ve read it) but I’ve no idea how that actually happened in this production as it takes place on ground level, and if you weren’t in the right spot, all you know is that there was a scuffle and some shouting. I know that Decius Brutus (maybe it’s Decia in this production) uses her womanly wiles to encourage Caesar to come to the Senate, but because she had her back to us, I don’t know what her expression was. However, Caesar was looking directly at us and what I do know is the he was clearly getting hot under the collar and, shall we say, restricted in the underpants.

Ben Whishaw as BrutusThe worst part of the pit experience is being regularly bellowed at by Security Officers at every scene change. “GET BACK! GET BACK! GET BACK!” or “COME FORWARD! COME FORWARD!” frequently in pitch black and with lots of pressing bodies around you. At times it doesn’t feel at all safe, and I could easily imagine a less agile person getting injured. “GET DOWN! GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” comes the cry when Caesar is shot. Fortunately I’ve lost a little weight recently; it definitely helped. Panicked by these instructions, you try to make sure that you’re standing in a safe spot, neither toppling into nor being toppled into by your fellow members of the mobile vulgus. Once you’re satisfied you’re safe, you look up at the stage area only to find the scene started ages ago and you’ve missed the first bit; and to be honest, that’s quite annoying. However, I did appreciate the fact that the security officers came on stage during the curtain call and applauded us; a nice touch, I thought. Only then did I fully accept that their hollering at me was nothing personal.

Michelle Fairley and Adjoa AndohBut for every moment you miss, you grab an unexpected golden moment. I looked directly into Casca’s cynical eyes in her early discussions with Cassius. I observed Brutus standing anxiously next to me whilst Caesar was taking his seat at the Senate, no doubt working out when would be the right time to pull out his pistol. I was given a white flower by the Soothsayer to hold at Caesar’s funeral. I was in perfect position to see the body of Caesar wheeled in, when Antony reveals the wounds caused by the conspirators. I was there when he comforted the weeping citizens; I was there when he read Caesar’s will, and I joined in the cheers of the crowd. I witnessed Brutus escaping from the battle and reaching for his bottle of hand sanitiser. The other punters may well have seen all these things from the comfort of the expensive seats; but whereas they were watching a play, I was witnessing reality.

Caesar at the SenateIt’s a superb production, energising and vitalising, capturing your imagination and driving home those themes of mob rule, manipulative oratory, superstition, and political intrigue. David Calder is brilliant as the brash Caesar; you sense he’s the man who can play the media game, who knows how to orchestrate a crowd. As he marches triumphantly through the mob he comes across as someone who has just wiped the floor with his opponents and is unstoppable in his hunger for power. A perfect combination of vain and vulnerable, he should have taken his wife’s advice and stayed home but instead he ridiculed her lily-livered approach and paid the ultimate price. At the complete opposite end of the scale, Ben Whishaw is a cerebral, calm, diligent Brutus whose life is lived at a writing desk. His every step is planned, his greatest ambition, you would think, is to be considered honourable – as Mark Antony constantly points out. He’s perfect in the role, accentuating Brutus’ controlling, respectable nature; believing that the ordinary people will respond to his address at Caesar’s funeral, he magnificently misunderstands how the power of Antony’s oratory will shape the mob’s reaction.

Ben WhishawDavid Morrissey is very arresting as Antony; from the moment he gets up on stage with the rock band, his is a performance of huge vitality and inspiration. He would make a very dangerous politician in real life because you’d believe everything he said. Michelle Fairley, taking the gender-alternative role of Cassius, is very lean and hungry in her no-nonsense, careful way; a clever combination of risk-averse and ultra risky. It’s an all-round excellent ensemble performance, with great support from Adjoa Andoh as a knowing Casca, Leila Farzad a confident Decius Brutus, Fred Fergus a willing Lucius and Mark Penfold as a creepy soothsayer.

David Morrissey with the dead CaesarA memorable and exciting production, participating from the pit gives you a uniquely different experience from merely observing from the seats. I’m really glad we decided to see the show from this perspective. Julius Caesar is on at the Bridge until 15th April.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 9th March 2018

Screaming Blue MurderA sneaky extra Screaming Blue show snuck into the Underground, as the production originally scheduled for these couple of days was cancelled a few weeks back. Once again Dan Evans was in charge of a full house of Northamptonshire’s finest weirdos; I include myself in that number. We had Becky celebrating her 21st birthday along with about half the town by the sound of Dan Evansit; posh Katie with her Glaswegian-sounding pilot dad (Dan ingratiating himself in the hope of a long-haul discount); and the front row couple taking father-in-law out for the night. As usual, Dan rose to the challenge of getting us all in the mood, so much so that we didn’t have to be pre-tested to see if we could create enough welcoming decibels for each of the three acts.

Matt GreenFirst up was someone we’ve seen before but only briefly guesting in Edinburgh at Spank! and in Rob Deering’s Beat This, Matt Green. He’s a baby-faced guy whose innocent looks belie a mischievous interior. He had some excellent material about how he looks like a cherub, which leads on to the things you can say to/about a man but you can’t to a woman – and he’s absolutely right! As a good example, no one ever said to a woman, when looking at her partner, “you’re boxing above your weight there!” Mr Green has a gentle delivery but provides stories and observations that pack a punch. He creates a great rapport with the audience and he went down very well.

Harriet BraineNext was someone new to us, Harriet Braine; she specialises in comedy songs that aren’t just about farting and sex. Appropriate for Northampton, she sang a paean to the designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh to the tune of Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn – and it was very inventive and clever and the audience lapped it up; who knew we were all so cultured? (Well Northampton does have the only house in England designed by the great man). Then we had Abba’s tribute to French Impressionism, which was brilliant; one song that bombed because no one (certainly I didn’t) had a clue what it was all about; and then a comedy song about Hieronymus Bosch. Yes you read that right, the fifteenth century Dutch painter. We all really enjoyed her act, a veritable gallery of musical fine arts; I think she shocked us into appreciation, but it worked very well.

Howard ReadOur final act was Howard Read, whom we’ve seen here three times before; a very likeable chap who always comes up with funny material about being a parent, which seems particularly rewarding if you are one. As I’m not, I always slightly feel that his act isn’t really for me, but nevertheless he has plenty to keep everyone amused, with a nice self-deprecating style and the best monsters-under-the-bed lullaby you could ever wish to hear. Sometimes when he engages with any difficult people in the audience he doesn’t always win; it was a shame that Becky’s birthday party drowned out some of his material, but that’s what happens late on a Friday night in Northampton.

Excellent night’s entertainment; there’s another one later this month that unfortunately we can’t make, but I think you definitely should!

Review – The Duchess of Malfi, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 8th March 2018

The Duchess of Malfi“Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin” says T. S. Eliot. Wasn’t he just? But maybe not quite as much as Maria Aberg, whose visceral and highly stylised Duchess of Malfi opened last night at the Swan Theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bloody stage in 52 years of theatregoing. If you sit in the front row you will be issued with regulation grey blankets to cover yourselves when you return from the interval. The lady seated next to me told me that she’d heard that on its first performance, blood spurts reached as far as Row H. Fortunately I can advise that the gore has been sufficiently turned down so that it no longer has such a far-reaching trajectory.

Joan Iyiola and Paul WoodsonThere’s not a lot of plot. The Duchess (young, widowed) has been forbidden to take on a second husband by her villainous brothers The Cardinal (not a Mafia nickname even though we are set in Italy) and her twin Ferdinand, who employs Bosola, a knavish and complicitous gentleman, to spy on her. The Duchess knows her own mind and secretly weds Antonio, her steward, with whom she has three children. When the Cardinal and Ferdinand eventually twig that she has gone against their wishes, they have her murdered. And her children. And her husband is killed. And the spy. And themselves. And anyone else within a hundred kilometres of Malfi.

The Company and Joan IyiolaI jest. If you haven’t seen it before, The Duchess of Malfi is a superbly exciting and suspenseful tragedy in the Jacobean tradition, first performed around 1613, written by John Webster from source material by William Painter (his “Palace of Pleasure” from 1567) and loosely based on the true story of Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, who died in 1511. The Duchess is a feisty, independent, free-thinking spirit, a bright spark of warmth attacked by the cold rays of her enemies from all angles. Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have pass’d through most jewellers’ hands, she avers; and like diamonds, the Duchess is one tough cookie. Even when there is no hope of her survival she remains dignified and defiant to the end – I am Duchess of Malfi still is her simple self-proclamation that no one can take away from her. The Cardinal, Ferdinand and Bosola, however, show exactly the opposite traits; controlling, manipulative, double-crossing and, in the case of Ferdinand, ultimately weak-willed. The evil characters are all men; the women are all good.

The company HakaI think that’s why the production so strongly centres on the struggle between masculine cruelty and feminine virtue. There is a chorus of officers, gentlemen and other assorted guys who weave in and out of the production; gym bunnies working out and pumping iron, or a rabble of enemies to the Duchess, or a group of madmen whose only purpose is to distress and derange her. It’s as though they arrive on stage, perform a set piece, and then disperse.

Joan Iyiola and Alexander CobbIt’s very unsubtle; but then again, is it a subtle play? Cuts from the original text have certainly made it less subtle, downgrading the influence of Antonio, and removing insights into the motivation of the characters. For me, the regular appearance of the brutal male chorus doesn’t grow organically from everything else we see on stage; indeed, in a rather excellent put-down, Mrs Chrisparkle thought of them as the RSC Haka, limbering up for the next scene. After all, it isn’t as though the portrayals of the Cardinal, Ferdinand, or Antonio are excessively masculine. But there is a balance between the forces of good and evil in this play, and Maria Aberg’s vision seems to me to address the evil too strongly and not concentrate enough on the good. In its attempts to prove certain theoretical points about the nature of masculine cruelty, the actual truth of the play has got lost in places. Rather than illuminating the text, I felt it obscured it at times.

 Joan Iyiola and the CompanyThere are articles in the programme about how the music was written trying to explore masculine and feminine rhythms, and how Naomi Dawson’s set was created from ideas of masculine environments – a gym, a sports stadium and an abattoir. I’m not trying to be obtuse, but can’t women use these places too? At the time it wasn’t clear to me that the design was in part meant to reflect an abattoir setting, but in retrospect it makes so much sense. My copy of the play has as its opening scene a conversation between Antonio and Delio, explaining that Antonio has been in France, and setting the character up as the common thread that links the whole play. In something of a surprise change, the opening scene in this production shows the Duchess single-handedly dragging an oversized animal carcass across the stage; slowly, laboriously, exhaustedly. It’s then plonked upstage left, until the Duchess next appears, when she trusses up its legs and suspends them in the air from a chain.

Joan Iyiola as the DuchessAnd then, for the rest of the play, no one mentions the carcass. It’s like the elephant in the room – although apparently it’s meant to be a bull, but actually, it looks much more like an oversized rubber chicken. Now we know what caused the KFC shortage. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt and wondered what it might represent, symbolically. The Duchess’s own private burden, perhaps? Her vulnerability? Now I understand the abattoir setting, I suppose it presages her slaughter (although not her being sliced up and served on dinner tables, that’s much more Titus Andronicus.) After the interval, Ferdinand comes on and sticks his dagger into the carcass’s belly. And it starts to bleed. And it doesn’t stop. Which is where I refer you to my first paragraph, gentle reader.

Paul WoodsonAs the actors squelch around on stage, variously murdering each other, the blood just seeps everywhere. Not just the floor but all over the costumes, on their faces, in their hair; I can only assume that the water pressure throughout Stratford drops after the show comes down as about 20 actors all huddle under the dressing room showers. Ferdinand and the Cardinal writhe on the floor together in an exhibition of what I can only describe as Blood Wrestling. Pity the Wardrobe Department; I hope they have lots of one-pound coins for the laundrette.

Aretha AyehSo gruesome is the final twenty minutes or so that the audience starts to laugh nervously, almost hysterically, at a few choice moments that you wouldn’t think of as funny – I guess that’s just a natural, human release of the tension. One poor man in the front row buried his head in his regulation blanket so firmly and refused to look at the stage for about 45 minutes, until his friend told him it was safe to come out again. Oh, I forgot to mention the first act contains a superb performance by Aretha Ayeh of I Put a Spell on you, written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – approximately 343 years after the first performance of The Duchess of Malfi.

Richard Hurst Amanda Hadingue Joan Iyiola and Will BrownNevertheless, despite the heavy-handed symbolism, the savage cuts to the text, the anachronistic add-ons and the excessive blood, it’s still a strong and powerful production. There are some striking mental images that will stick with you for ages – whether or not you want them to. Orlando Gough’s incidental music resounds with tension and fear, immaculately played by the five musicians up in the sky, and Francis Gush’s superb counter tenor performance unsettles with its eeriness accompanying the madmen scene. The Duchess’s sophisticated dresses, Antonio’s classic clerical grey, Ferdinand’s lightweight pink suit and white shirt combination and the menacing black terrorist outfits of the mob are all perfect for the roles.

 Alexander Cobb as FerdinandJoan Iyiola is a magnificent Duchess, entertainingly conveying her playful aspect, strong in her dignity, and heart-rending in her tragedy. I also enjoyed Alexander Cobb’s jittery Ferdinand; villainous through and through, but thoroughly convincing as the conspirator who denies ever having had anything to do with the plots, and very discomfiting in his descent into madness. Paul Woodson is a splendidly clean-cut Antonio, his gentle Geordie accent serving to distance himself further from the murkiness of the Calabrian court. Amanda Hadingue gives great support as Cariola, and there is decent villainy from Chris New as the Cardinal. I wasn’t quite so comfortable with Nicolas Tennant’s performance in the multi-faceted role of Bosola; to my ear he garbled quite a few of his lines and I didn’t really get a feel of quite how sinned against or sinning he was, although he does snatch the horoscope from Antonio’s back pocket rather than having Antonio accidentally drop it, as in Webster’s original, which is clearly the act of a bounder.

Alexander CobbIn the final analysis, this production is all about the visuals; Grand Guignol goes Jacobean. A feast for the senses in many respects; but you may find you need spiritual indigestion tablets to get over it. Love it or hate it, you can’t forget it. Worth going just to see how squeamish you are! It’s on in repertory until 3rd August.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Appointment with Death (1938)

Appointment with DeathIn which an American family suffer under the malign and cruel tyranny of their matriarch and it comes as no surprise that one afternoon the wretched woman is found dead as a dodo. Hercule Poirot, still continuing his travels in the Middle East (as we saw in Christie’s previous book, Death on the Nile), promises the local military chief in charge of police, Colonel Carbury, that he will solve the crime in a mere twenty-four hours, simply by interviewing the suspects and employing the little grey cells. It’s a big ask, but if anyone can do it, Poirot can. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

PetraThe book is dedicated “To Richard and Myra Mallock to remind them of their journey to Petra”. Christie makes no mention of the Mallocks in her autobiography, but a little sleuthing has uncovered that a Richard Mallock married a Myra Tiarks at the Brompton Oratory in 1936. So maybe they went to Petra for their honeymoon? Someone by the name of Richard Mallock (maybe his father, or grandfather) was also the MP for Torquay from 1886 to 1895, so this could be how Christie knew the family, with all her Devon connections. Appointment with Death was first serialised in the US in Colllier’s Weekly from August to October 1937, and in the UK in twenty-eight parts in a very slightly abridged version in the Daily Mail in January and February 1938, under the title A Date with Death. The full book was first published in the UK on 2nd May 1938 by Collins Crime Club; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later the same year.

appointmentOut of curiosity, I note that it’s one of Christie’s shortest books – coming in at just 155 pages of paperback-sized text, about the same length as The Big Four. As another aside, it’s a bit of a lame title, I feel. It doesn’t really mean anything; to an extent, any death could be referred to as an appointment with death. It’s not as though the story is littered with medics, or recruitment consultants, with whom you might make a risky appointment which results in your death! I thought I’d check out its title in some other languages; most of them translate literally as “Appointment with Death” but three are a little more expressive: “Der Tod Wartet” (Death Waits) in German; “La Domatrice” (The Tamer) in Italian, and my favourite, “Hänet täytyy tappaa” (She Must be Killed) in Finnish.

Angry MotherI’ve always enjoyed this book, for perhaps a rather alarming reason – there were some similarities between the grotesque Mrs Boynton and my own dear late mother! I certainly didn’t identify them when I first read this as a teenager, but as I grew up, got married and went my own way, I did see some Boyntonesque tendencies in her attempts to control what I did. So did my wife! Don’t get me wrong – my mother was not a cruel harridan. But I bet I’m not the only person who has read this book and has felt some personal twang of sympathy with the plight of the wider Boynton family. However, whilst the situation and atmosphere are memorable, I’ve always found it difficult to recall the details of the story. It wasn’t until I read a vital clue a good two-thirds into the book that I suddenly remembered whodunit. Of course, I wished that I hadn’t remembered, but that’s the problem of re-reading detective fiction!

Caves in PetraThere’s not a lot of action in this book – in fact, all the Boynton family seem to do is to sit around and obey the mother – and I think that gives the book a sense of claustrophobia. There’s a whole world of Middle Eastern excitement out there, and all Mrs Boynton does is sit in a cave, whilst her family stay inside tents reading. All the activity in the book takes place in the mind; truly Christie is delivering us a psychological thriller just as much as a whodunit. Poirot takes us through the characteristics and thought processes of all the suspects just as much as their actual movements, and, come the denouement, it’s by eliminating people because of their psychological profiles that he narrows the field to determine the guilty party. There’s also a sense of isolation in the book, caused by having characters from America, England, France and Belgium all in Jordan, but with little back-knowledge of their origins. It’s like they’ve been transplanted there, everyone far from home, with no particular reason. The only character (apart from Poirot) who has any kind of backstory is Lady Westholme, because we know she has recently been an MP. But we have no home-towns, previous colleagues, college backgrounds, etc, to look into and consider. It’s all very much in the here and now.

24 HoursAs psychology is to the fore, Poirot is absolutely in his element. His promise to Carbury that he will solve the crime before “tomorrow night” speaks to his supreme self-confidence and Christie’s continued exposure of his vanity. Jinny asks him if he is a well-known detective, and he simply replies “the best detective in the world” without a hint of embarrassment. “I know that M. Poirot has great powers” says Dr Gerard at one point. Poirot’s immodest reply? “I am gifted – yes.” When Sarah King queries Poirot’s priorities for solving the case, he has no time for her suggestion. “”Poirot waved a grandiloquent hand. “This is the method of Hercule Poirot”, he announced.” Grandiloquent is a perfect adjective for Poirot. Even Carbury remarks, as Poirot is preparing for his denouement, “funny feller aren’t you Poirot? […] like to dramatise things.”

top-secretThere are no other great insights into Poirot’s character in this book, but Christie concentrates on making certain conversations, confrontations and descriptions come alive to make up for the lack of physical action. There’s a really strong scene between Poirot and Nadine Boynton where it’s so clear that she’s hiding something but she refuses to tell him, pleading with him instead to let well alone. But Poirot is never prepared to turn a blind eye to a murder; no matter how beneficial it is to society as a whole, he will never participate in suppressing the truth. Once the truth is out there, it is up to the authorities to act on it in the best way they see fit; that is not Poirot’s concern. Mrs Boynton is a universally disliked character, her family are mere cruelty fodder with the heart beaten out of them; and the world is a better place for her departure. But Poirot will not look the other way.

Jerusalem Wailing WallJust as in Death on the Nile, Christie litters the book with real-life Middle Eastern locations to increase a sense of the exotic. The opening scene takes place in the Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem, still a landmark hotel of the city. The characters’ Jerusalem travels take them to Solomon’s Stables, an underground vaulted space, converted in 1996 to a Muslim prayer hall; the Mosque of Omar, situated opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Haram esh-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount in the Old City; and the Wailing Wall, still today probably the most visited sight in Jerusalem. The story moves on to the rose city of Petra, via Ma’an and Ain Musa, traditionally the site of Moses’ water spring, from where the Nabateans built channels to irrigate Petra. In 1929, a four-person team, consisting of British archaeologists Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, Palestinian physician and folklore expert Dr Tawfiq Canaan and Dr Ditlef Nielsen, a Danish scholar, excavated and surveyed Petra, which would surely have been of immense fascination to Christie, and may well have determined her to set a book here.

Anthony TrollopeSome other references of interest: the book starts with Poirot reflecting over a story concerning the novelist Anthony Trollope, where he takes the advice of overheard criticism. Is this a true story? Apparently so! It relates to the character of Mrs Proudie in The Last Chronicles of Barset, a character of with whom Trollope was actually very pleased; but he overheard a conversation by people criticising her, and wishing she would be killed off. In Trollope’s own words: “It was impossible for me not to hear their words, and almost impossible to hear them and be quiet. I got up, and standing between them, I acknowledged myself to be the culprit. “As to Mrs. Proudie,’ I said, `I will go home and kill her before the week is over.” And so I did. The two gentlemen were utterly confounded, and one of them begged me not to forget his frivolous observations.” By all accounts, Trollope regretted the action immediately.

Chaucer's KnightIn another literary allusion, when Jefferson Cope is talking to Dr Gerard about his affection for Nadine, and says that if she wants to leave her husband for a better life, he would be there waiting for her, Dr Gerard calls him “the parfait gentil knight”. This refers to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the description of the Knight as “a verray parfit, gentil knyght” – the epitome of courtly love.

Neville ChamberlainIn the world of politics, Christie writes of Lady Westholme’s current standing, “it was highly possible that she would be given an under-secretaryship when her party returned to power. At the moment a Liberal Government (owing to a split in the National Government between Labour and Conservatives) was somewhat unexpectedly in power.” In real life, there was a National Government between 1937 – 1939, formed by Neville Chamberlain, with MPs from the Conservative, National Labour and National Liberal parties. And we think our politics are complex today! Looking at how the votes had fallen in the most recent election, a Liberal Government would have been a huge surprise. Lady Westholme also entraps Sarah in a conversation about the Litvania boundary dispute, which doubtless would have referred to the constantly changing boundaries of what is today Lithuania, with the USSR and Poland involved in eating into the territory. Today there is no dispute over Lithuania’s boundaries.

Lord_ByronSarah King asks Poirot if his investigation into the death is “a case of Roman Holiday”. The famous Audrey Hepburn film hadn’t been made yet, but the phrase comes from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and relates to the fate of a gladiator in ancient Rome, who expected to be “butchered to make a Roman holiday” while the audience would take pleasure from watching his suffering. So it’s the equivalent to modern day Schadenfreude.

DoncasterAs is often the case, there are a few references to Christie’s other books – or rather, Poirot’s previous cases. Colonel Carbury presents himself to Poirot with a letter of introduction from Colonel Race, whom we first met in The Man in the Brown Suit, then in Cards on the Table and most recently in Death on the Nile. We will also meet him one more time in Sparkling Cyanide. Race describes Poirot’s solution to the Shaitana case as “as neat a bit of psychological deduction as you’ll ever find” – referring to the murder in Cards on the Table. Elsewhere, Nadine refers Poirot to the Murder on the Orient Express when asking him to drop the case, and Miss Pierce remembers all about the ABC Murders as she was living near Doncaster at the time – that’s where Murder D was to be committed.

PoundThis may be a peculiarly anti-fiscal book, but there are no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so I can’t do my usual trick of converting them into present-day values. Maybe that’s a sign of the psychological element of this book – it’s not a question of who inherits what or who stole which necklace for a change!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Appointment with Death:

Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in July 1975, price 50p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the grim figure of Mrs Boynton sitting in the front of a cave with the red rocks of Petra all around her; and in the foreground, a lethal looking syringe. Absolutely in keeping with the story.

How many pages until the first death: 63. Christie allows an appropriate length to depicting the Boynton family at large before removing the main character from the scene. Given that it’s a short book, it’s 40% of the way in before the crime, and 60% for the solution.

Funny lines out of context: These seem to be getting fewer and fewer as we slowly progress through the 20th century. The only mildly amusing line (out of context) that I could find was Carol asking Raymond “shan’t we always be queer and different?”

Memorable characters:

Mrs Boynton stands out, as the arch-bully. In the first scenes we see her controlling her daughter Jinny, telling her that she will be ill, and telling her what she wants to do (even though she wants to do the opposite). Jinny buckles to her mother’s satisfaction. Mrs Boynton manipulates her son Raymond so that he refuses to speak to Sarah, even though he desperately wants to. She does the same to her daughter Carol. A side aspect of Mrs Boynton’s monstrous personality is that Christie slightly under-portrays the rest of the family; it’s almost as though they don’t matter by comparison.

There are also the strong and determined Lady Westholme, who Christie says “entered the room with the assurance of a transatlantic liner coming into dock” and her timid and suggestible friend Miss Pierce. One feels the characters of Sarah King and Dr Gerard ought to stand out, but I’m not certain they do. Sarah King, indeed, ought to follow the fine tradition of jolly, upstanding, go-getting Christie girls like Bundle, Tuppence or Katherine Grey; maybe it’s because she comes into some conflict with Poirot that she doesn’t quite sit at the heart of this book as you might expect her to. And Dr Gerard is, frankly, a boring pontificator. I found it very hard not to skip some of his speeches.

Christie the Poison expert:

Digitoxin is missing from the doctor’s medicine case; and Christie goes into some detail to describe the difference between it and the three other active principles of the foxglove: digitalin, digitonin and digitalein. There’s no question she knows her foxglove poisons! Mention is also made of phenacetin, a very common painkiller up until 1983 when it was largely discontinued worldwide due to its carcinogenic and kidney-damaging effects. It’s now mainly used in research and as a cutting agent in the preparation of cocaine.

Class/social issues of the time:

Distrust of foreigners as usual tops the charts as far as themes of the day are concerned, but there are also exchanges on the role of women in society to consider – if you remember, Mrs Christie is no feminist. After her first meeting with Raymond, Sarah King assumes that he is like all Americans: “merely a rude, stuck up, boorish young American!” Sarah also has little time for the French – thinking of Dr Gerard and his psychological theories, she reflects “Frenchmen were all alike […] obsessed by sex”. Lady Westholme, too, has little time for foreigners; of Mrs Boynton she says “her manner had been fairly normal – for an American of that type”.

Miss Pierce says of the “native servants”, “all these Arabs look alike to me”. But Miss Pierce isn’t the most balanced of characters, believing that political agitators are everywhere: “I suppose Mr Mah Mood – I cannot remember his name – but the dragoman, I mean – I suppose he could not be a Bolshevik agent? Or even, perhaps, Miss King? I believe many quite well-brought-up girls of good family belong to these dreadful Communists!” Miss Pierce is a Reds under the Bed kinda woman.

Perhaps a more meaningful exchange is that between Dr Gerard and Jefferson Cope when discussing how Elmer Boynton arranged it so that his wife had absolute control over the family finances. ““In my country” says Gerard, “it is impossible by law to do such a thing”. Mr Cope rose. “In America”, he said, “we’re great believers in absolute freedoms.” Dr Gerard rose also. He was unimpressed by the remark. He had heard it made before by people of many different nationalities. The illusion that freedom is the prerogative of one’s own particular race is fairly widespread. Dr Gerard was wiser. He knew that no race, no country and no individual could be described as free. But he also knew that there were different degrees of bondage.””

These fascinating few lines not only show Dr Gerard’s possibly anti-American bias, but also look further ahead, maybe to the political tensions that would bring about Second World War the year after publication. As Dr Gerard is critical of Mrs Boynton holding all the purse strings, this also reflects Christie’s own personal form of misogyny that she has shown in previous books. Another telling phrase from Gerard, that supports Christie’s view of women, comes in his first conversation with Sarah: “”To have too much power is bad for women,” Gerard agreed with sudden gravity. He shook his head. “It is difficult for a woman not to abuse power.””

Classic denouement: The denouement (and accompanying epilogue) go on for a good 27 pages, and contain surprise after surprise after surprise. You keep thinking that Poirot has identified the killer and then he goes on to explain why they didn’t do it! So it’s a very exciting read. It’s not quite a classic because you don’t have that amazing moment when Poirot points accusingly at a suspect and they wither in front of him. There’s also a twist, not dissimilar from that in Death on the Nile, which means you may not get the sense of justice being seen to be done. However, psychologically speaking, I’m sure Poirot and Gerard would agree that it’s an entirely appropriate ending.

Happy ending? Without question. In fact, the happy ending starts the moment that Mrs Boynton dies! One marriage that was on the rocks is now back on course, and there are three new marriages to appreciate as well as the birth of a glitteringly unexpected career. It’s almost like a Shakespearean comedy.

Did the story ring true? For the most part, yes, absolutely. As I said at the beginning, I found that I could really relate to the family setup, and that sense of control from the matriarchal character that meant the rest of the family had to struggle to survive. However, I’ve never believed that Lennox would have the strength and ability to break free of Mrs Boynton’s reins sufficiently to marry Nadine, given the pressure that his mother must have put on him. Apart from that, the manner of the crime and the detection all seem perfectly feasible to me.

Overall satisfaction rating:
Despite its being an old favourite, I think the lack of activity might make this not quite Classic Christie, so I’m awarding it an 8/10.

Hercule Poirot's ChristmasThanks for reading my blog of Appointment with Death 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 Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; a story of which I remember very little, except that it features an exotic character called Pilar and spans one week over a very fateful Christmas. 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 – Paul Chowdhry, Live Innit, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th March 2018

Paul Chowdhry Live InnitI can’t believe it was three and a half years ago that we last saw Paul Chowdhry doing his PC’s World show in the intimate setting of the Royal Theatre. Now he’s in the Derngate auditorium – over two nights – and virtually sold out for both shows. As he described the Derngate, that’s where the white comedians play. Only Mr Chowdhry can get away with making such remarks without causing offence because, basically, he’s just so damn funny.

Paul ChowdhryIt was, however, an odd evening in many respects, none of them Mr Chowdhry’s fault. Our two tickets in the middle of row F had been double-booked, so a couple who arrived a few minutes after us were disappointed to see a middle-aged couple settled in where they should be sat. The usherette took our tickets and said she would sort it with the Box Office. Then during the interval the duty manager informed us that the Box Office said we had cancelled our tickets back in September and had been refunded with a gift certificate. A hugely embarrassing moment, it felt like we were being accused of a theatre-ticket version of shoplifting. As it turns out we had in fact cancelled a different show but the Box Office had cancelled the wrong one. As a result we had to give up our choice seats and sit in a different area of the auditorium, where I would never normally choose to sit – and it felt a long way from the stage and lacked the usual atmosphere I would expect from a comedy gig. I wouldn’t say it completely ruined the night for us, but it didn’t do it any favours.

Julian DeaneHowever; back to the show. We started off with a support act – Julian Deane. We’d not seen him before and I rather liked his dry and subtle delivery; he has a very clever way of setting up a joke so that the punchline comes at an unexpected point in the story, that catches you out. He has some good material about being a young parent, how it’s wrong to have a favourite child, and the difference between dyslexia and paedophilia. Although he was only on for twenty minutes, he definitely made an impact and gave us lots to laugh at. I’d say that maybe he just lacks a little vocal confidence on the big stage which could turn a very good performance into a great one. But everyone enjoyed his act and we all felt thoroughly warmed up.

Paul Chowdhry with a big beardMuch anticipation for Mr Chowdhry, and when he comes on he just grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go for an hour and a half. His first topic was brilliant – and that’s the ridiculing of people who bought their tickets from Viagogo rather than from the venue. One person admitted to paying £60 for their ticket; others appeared too embarrassed to mention the cost. The Royal and Derngate were charging £20 and that’s all that needs to be said. I loved him calling out Viagogo for their greedy legalised touting; they’re a disgrace.

As usual, he then tried to establish the racial mix of his crowd; loads of Bengalis, quite a few Sikhs, a rich swathe of Gujaratis, a handful of Muslims and the rest were assorted white Daves and Tracies. Some comedians shy away from the subject of race. For Paul Chowdhry, it’s the glue that holds his act together. It’s as though he makes a collection of all the diversities within his audience and then fires them back at us during the course of the show. As always, there was this one guy…. a big Sikh gentleman who tried to get some banter going with Mr Chowdhry but had had one too many Kingfishers to even remember his own name. Such a character was a mere sitting duck for Mr Chowdhry’s colourfully-languaged retorts.

Paul Chowdhry on CrimewatchAmongst the matters for discussion were how last year Social Media went overboard saying that a Crimewatch mugshot of a kidnap suspect was the spitting image of Paul Chowdhry, and how it dogged him online for months; the esteem in which he is held by his family for being 43 and unmarried; observations on Tinder and terrorism; and the vitriol of the online trolls who loathe him and want him dead. Mr Chowdhry is never one to shy away from a tricky subject, and he treats us to a session on how he fights fire with fire when it comes to trolls. An evening with him is not for the faint-hearted or over-sensitive; it’s often uncomfortable and challenging comedy. For example, it’s been a long while since either of us heard the word “mongoloid” used in any context. If you’ve never seen him before, my advice is to take a leaf out of Lady Macbeth’s book and screw your courage to the sticking place before the show, if you’re used to any kind of gentility of language!

When Mrs Chrisparkle and I go to see a show, nine times out of ten we will generally agree on how good it was and how much we enjoyed it. Last night’s show, however, was the one in ten. Whilst I found myself carried away by Mr Chowdhry’s outrageous delivery and material, it left Mrs C cold. Maybe it was the change from the intimate venue to the large one that meant she didn’t feel so involved; maybe it was the unfortunate faffing around during the interval because of the tickets that put her off. Or maybe she didn’t feel there was quite enough material with which she felt comfortable. Whilst walking home, she did point out that he has a repetitive style of delivery which annoyed her; and it’s true, when he gets a good line, he’s quite likely to hammer it home four or five times to get maximum impact. I didn’t particularly notice it; but she did.

Paul Chowdhry on stageHowever, Mr Chowdhry did wander into one area of material that I didn’t appreciate – when he started to question depression. Maybe he was going somewhere with this but then got distracted, because, fortunately, he wandered out of that subject just as quickly as he wandered into it. But I know too many people who constantly fight depression on a daily basis to find this funny. No doubt it could be fuel for some intelligent and questioning comic material – but that didn’t happen last night. Still, that’s the thing with Paul Chowdhry – I’m sure the topics earmarked for each show are merely serving suggestions in his mind and he will always go where the audience takes him, handing out good natured abuse to all and sundry, ridiculing every Dave, Tracey and Rajesh who comes his way. As he says himself, he’s nothing if not an Equal Opportunities Offender.

At least one of us enjoyed the show! Live Innit continues its tour throughout the UK (and Australia and New Zealand) until June.

P. S. Thanks to the Box Office for sorting out last night’s ticket problems so promptly and graciously today. I can return to the Royal and Derngate with renewed confidence!

Review – Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company on tour at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2018

HamletThis was a close call! The snow meant the Royal and Derngate cancelled all performances on Friday 2nd March, including the comedy night with Adam Hess and Glenn Moore, for which we had tickets and about which I was expecting to be writing today! Big shame. Fortunately, all shows for Saturday went ahead – and I would estimate about 70% of the almost fully booked audience managed to struggle in to see the play. If they had cancelled Hamlet on the Saturday we would have had no chance of seeing it… which would have been very regrettable as this is one of those rare shows that has 5 stars written all over it within five minutes of the start. But let me not get ahead of myself…

Hamletprod3This is the first time (or the first time for ages, not entirely sure) that the Royal Shakespeare Company have taken one of their touring productions to Northampton, and I for one welcome them with open arms; with any luck this will be the start of a very fruitful co-operation between the two theatres. I also realised this is only the fourth time I’ve seen Hamlet on stage – pretty poor showing for what I always consider to be my Favourite Play Of All Time. The first time was at the National Theatre in 1976 for a four hour, uncut performance with Albert Finney as the Great Dane, Denis Quilley as Claudius, Simon Ward as Laertes and Barbara Jefford as Gertrude. I remember it mesmerised me. Then I saw an Oxford University production at the Oxford Playhouse in 1979, where, low down among the castlist, a young Tim McInnerney was a fabulously foppish Osric – definitely a forerunner to his Lord Percy in Blackadder II. In 2008 we saw the RSC production starring David Tennant – but we had tickets for when he was off sick, so we saw Edward Bennett instead and he was superb.

Hamletprod8And now this! This production was first seen in Stratford in 2016 and is now settled in its brief tour of the UK and USA. It’s a production that takes everything you would expect from a standard production of Hamlet and throws it out of the nearest window, whilst remaining delightfully true to the original characterisations and the powerful story. The only addition to the original text that I could make out was the short opening scene where we see Hamlet awarded his degree from the University of Wittenburg – so appropriate on the Derngate stage, which is where the University of Northampton graduation ceremonies take place.

Hamletprod9Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – we know this, as Marcellus tells us so. Shakespeare’s text confirms that there are invasions from Norway, and that England and France are within relatively easy reach. But where are we really? The pounding drums that permeate the production suggest Africa, as do the appearance and accents of many of the cast – all but a few of the actors are black. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in grand traditional West African robes, and Gertrude is bedecked in the splendid colourful dresses one might associate with Nigeria. However, the gravediggers sing a calypso, which suggests (to me) the West Indies; and Guildenstern, with her (yes, her) pale skin and fair hair could be taken for pure Danish through and through. So what’s all that about? No need for alarm. All we really need to know is that this is a different universe for Hamlet; the story has been taken up and replaced in a new geographical and racial setting, helping its accessibility to a whole new young, vibrant audience. However, rest assured that its age-old themes are as relevant and dynamic as ever.

Hamletprod1I don’t think I’m a purist (whatever that means) when it comes to Shakespeare, because he’s big and clever enough to survive any re-imagination of his plays, no matter what a gifted director might throw at him. But he’s also incredibly versatile at lending himself to a variety of new interpretations and, if done well, each one illuminates his plays in a different way. Simon Godwin’s extraordinary production reveals so much more about Hamlet the man than most other productions. The sight of Hamlet in his first scene, his face runny with crying and nasal mucus (sorry if you’re having lunch) said so much more about his very real and solitary grief for his late father than any smart words or sarcastic glances. His interaction with the characters who are his friends is one of true joy; you can tell he and Horatio have that kind of friendship where they could tell each other anything with the absolute trust; Horatio’s grief at his friend’s death in the final scene (oops, spoilers) was truly moving. Hamlet has a roister-doister type of friendship with the guard Marcellus; a slightly more ambivalent friendship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who prove themselves to be lousy liars when admitting that they were “sent for”. Everyone else he either distrusts or keeps up a wary distance from; seen beautifully in his brief hello to the guard Barnardo.

Hamletprod7One of those unanswerable questions that always crops up with Hamlet is – is he mad or not? There’s no question in my mind that this particular Hamlet is 100% sane all the way through. His explanation that he will only be mad north-north-west is very definite and convincing, and every scene clearly shows his manipulations and detailed planning, to bring about the downfall of Claudius and thus take revenge on the death of his father, as his father’s Ghost so clearly insisted. Paapa Essiedu, as Hamlet, is simply stunning. His ability to get to the heart of the character is so rewarding and fulfilling to the audience. His clarity of speech, the way he juxtaposes nobility with wretchedness, his lightness of humour, his depth of tragedy… it’s a blistering performance. He’s one of those actors you just can’t take your eyes off. The clarity with which Mr Essiedu takes on all those intricate soliloquies, the deliberate way in which his Hamlet picks a fight with Ophelia, the precision of his dealings with the Players, even his paint-spattered appearance in his studio, all convinced me this was a portrayal of an intelligent and witty brain, knowing exactly what he was trying to achieve, by an equally intelligent and witty actor. Hamlet’s fore-runner, Kyd’s Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy may well be mad againe but I’m pretty sure Hamlet isn’t.

Hamletprod2This production is also much funnier than any production of Hamlet has any right to be, but without taking liberties; it’s all legitimate humour, stemming from the text. Hamlet dragging out the dead Polonius with all the mundanity of helping with the shopping is hilarious. Talking of whom, this production actually made all those bumbling pomposities of Polonius genuinely funny; Laertes’ constant attempts to take his leave, but returning because his father hasn’t quite finished yet, surprised the audience with its modern irreverence. The Yorick scene is light, creative and almost bubbly in its freshness. By contrast, when this production gets dark, it gets really dark. Ophelia’s madness is performed with such deep sadness, with the observing characters visibly shrinking with embarrassment and confusion, that it really disconcerts the audience that you feel horrified – in a simple way of looking at it – that this lovely girl has come to this.

Hamletprod4Paul Wills’ magnificent design is arresting from the start. The panelled halls of Elsinore, the King and Queen’s thrones (I loved how cheekily they were redesignated as the Ladies and Gents toilets for the play within a play scene), the artistic designs of Hamlet’s hanging tapestries, are all lively and ingenious. By comparison, I loved the simplicity of depicting the offstage Ghost as simply a bright light in the distance. The costumes are superb: Gertrude’s fine large-print gowns, the Ghost’s dignified formal dress, Hamlet’s colourful painter’s suit, the military garb of the soldiers, the sharp business suits of the envoys, the fancy dress of the Players, even Rosencrantz’s office geeky look (was he meant to look like the guy from the IT Crowd?) all stand out and just make the visual presentation of the play so much more enjoyable.

Hamletprod11Clarence Smith, as Claudius, gives an excellent performance as someone who can’t quite believe his luck that his evil plan to become King was so successful, so easily. He has just the right amount of smugness for someone who’s got the power, got the girl and now wants to enjoy the fruits of his achievements. But his fright at the false fire of the murder scene performed by the Players felt genuinely horrific and from then he cuts a suitably weak figure. Hamlet almost kills him whilst praying – but such a fate is too good for him, so worthless is he. Even when presiding over the fight between Hamlet and Laertes, no one listens to him any more.

Hamletprod10Lorna Brown is a very regal queen Gertrude, full of her high office and revelling in the stimulation of a fresh husband, until Hamlet devastates her with the truth of what she has done, when her remorse is genuine. Ewart James Walters has a strong presence as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, cutting a truly noble and furious figure; and he’s also a wily and humorous gravedigger, riposting Hamlet’s questions with his unlearned wit. I enjoyed Patrick Elue’s hearty Marcellus and his statesmanlike Fortinbras; I liked how Kevin N Golding underplayed the Player King and didn’t make him out to be a pantomime character, although his portrayal of the King in the play within the play was delightfully cruel. Buom Tihngang gives an entertaining performance as Laertes, telling Ophelia how to behave whilst not anticipating doing the same himself (hence the condoms in his case) and returning as a noble, avenging foe.

Hamletprod12The play benefits from a magnificent ensemble who don’t put a foot wrong, but there are also three simply superb performances in supporting roles that I must mention. James Cooney is brilliant as Horatio; honest, supportive, constructive, Hamlet’s right-hand man always there to help, moving me (almost) to tears as he mourns at the end. Mimi Ndiweni is wonderful as Ophelia; full of schoolgirl cheek, hope, kindness as well as duty when we first encounter her; destroyed though grief later in the play when her mad transformation is truly painful to watch. But maybe best of all Joseph Mydell, a dignified Egeon in the National Theatre’s Comedy of Errors six years ago, who creates a real character our of Polonius’ nonsensical ditherings, genuinely funny as the well-meaning bighead. Mrs Chrisparkle announced at the end of the show that she “finally got Polonius” as a character. But, when all’s said and done, it’s Mr Essiedu whom you can’t get out of your mind for days.

Hamletprod6jpgThis production has almost finished its tour, with a month at the Hackney Empire coming up and then a week at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in May. I don’t do star ratings; but in this instance I’ll make an exception. This is as five star a production as you can get. Scintillating, riveting, yet so true to the classic original. Can’t recommend it too strongly.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Love from a Stranger, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2018

Love from a StrangerTime for the last production in the 2017-18 season of Made in Northampton shows at the Royal and Derngate, and Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger; probably the one I was looking forward to least. Why least? Because whilst I love to read whodunits, and watch TV detective programmes, I’m not sure murder mysteries transfer to the two-hour stage format that well. Of course, I recognise that Christie is a most bankable name, and that when you could buy tickets for the opening night of The Mousetrap, front stalls only cost two groats. But I was disappointed in the Peter James play The Perfect Murder that we saw a few years ago, and when I took Mrs Chrisparkle to see the Agatha Christie Company’s The Hollow in Milton Keynes in 2006, she threatened divorce if I ever booked for any of their shows again. I haven’t.

Helen BradburyHowever, Love from a Stranger is a very different kettle of intrigue. If the title means nothing to you, it’s adapted from Christie’s 1924 short story Philomel Cottage, that was first published in the UK in the collection The Listerdale Mystery. If you’re a regular reader you might know that I’m currently re-reading all the Agatha Christie detective books and blogging about them as part of my Agatha Christie Challenge – fortunately I couldn’t remember the details of Philomel Cottage before seeing the play, but if you intend to see it, please don’t brush up on the short story beforehand because it will completely ruin it for you!

Helen Bradbury and Sam FrenchumThis is not your regular Christie whodunit with a quaint old English lady or meddlesome Belgian detective poking their noses in other peoples’ business. Whilst it has distinct Christie traits – everything that’s wrong in the world, for example, stems from those dreadful foreigners that Christie’s characters always seem to distrust so much – this is much more of a genuine thriller. You simply don’t know where the story’s going but you sense it’s not going to end well for someone. The original play was a success in 1936 but for Lucy Bailey’s production she has moved it forward to 1958. That’s perhaps a curious, random time setting, but in a sense it proves that the atmosphere and themes of the play are timeless; and, handily, it would still be perfectly reasonable for a photography enthusiast of that time to have their own darkroom. The production has an air of austerity to it, with Mike Britton’s vision of a Bayswater flat being fairly drab and featureless; the settings and costumes, whilst superbly realised, are far less glamorous than you might think the original 1930s version of the play would offer.

Sam Frenchum and Molly LoganHaving been uncertain about this production before seeing it, I can now say that it’s a humdinger of a thriller, packed with suspense and nerve-jangling moments that keep you on your toes from the start to the finish. The whole visual and audio presentation is disconcerting throughout, with eerie music that creeps in at eerie moments; buzzing, vibrating throbs that take the otherwise realistic presentation and invest it with otherworldly significance; lights flashing whenever the camera snaps; and a set that has a mind of its own, enabling the audience to see the play from more than one perspective.

Alice HaigAt the heart of the play are two superbly performed characters – Cecily, played by Helen Bradbury and Bruce played by Sam Frenchum. Ms Bradbury delivers a marvellously controlled performance as the stifled and repressed Cecily, desperate for some excitement in her life and dreading the prospect of a staid life married to Michael. As happiness appears to blossom in her life, her joy expands as she becomes Mistress of Philomel Cottage, benevolently taking charge of her new servants but also getting increasingly concerned at her husband’s deteriorating health. She cuts a dramatic figure on stage and it’s a brilliant performance. Mr Frenchum, too, is superb as the unassuming but strangely charismatic Bruce, deftly stealing Cecily from under the nose of Michael and starting up a new life in the country. As Bruce’s role becomes more complex, Mr Frenchum takes on a truly scary persona, and the 9pm scene (if I can put it that way) between the two of them is terrifying in its suspense, physicality and constantly changing surprises.

Justin AvothBut the whole show is littered with great performances, none more enjoyable than Nicola Sanderson as the appalling but hilarious Aunt Lulu, a social-climbing skinflint who’ll always compromise her principles if it means a free tea at Fortnum’s or being impressed with a mention of the Savoy. Alice Haig also gives great support as Cecily’s friend Mavis, a slightly bland role to which she gives real heart and character. Justin Avoth as Michael is the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip in a breakdown, Molly Logan a humorously enthusiastic domestic servant Ethel, Gareth Williams a faithful old retainer as gardener Hodgson, and Crispin Redman a hearty yet sincere doctor of the old school – I wish someone like him worked at my GP practice.

Crispin RedmanTo say more would be to give away the game and that just wouldn’t be right. It’s a smashing production that builds in intensity to a stonkingly good denouement. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 17th March and then embarks on an extensive tour to Oxford, Guildford, Canterbury, Cardiff, Liverpool, Richmond, Leicester, Birmingham, Cambridge, Plymouth, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cheltenham, Glasgow, Milton Keynes, Salford and Norwich. A great night’s entertainment – don’t miss it!

Production photos by Sheila Burnett