Review – Flowers for Mrs Harris, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

Flowers for Mrs HarrisI remember reading about Flowers for Mrs Harris before it opened in Sheffield a couple of years back and finding that it failed to pique my interest much. Paul Gallico is a writer whose work has never drifted my way, and the bare bones of the story – post-war London charlady goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress – sounded horribly rooted in class and stereotype as well as sentimentally mushy. But then I read the reviews, and admitted to myself that I must have made a mistake.

FFMH1Now that Daniel Evans has taken over the reins at Chichester, I’m not surprised to see Flowers for Mrs H revived in the Festival Theatre, and the timing was right for Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Mrs Chrisparkle and me to incorporate it as one of our theatrical weekends. The Countess had actually read the book in her youth; I don’t think she rated it much, so it was bold of her to consent to attending.

FFMH3London, 1947; free from the tyranny of war, but not of its austerity consequences. Widowed Mrs Harris and her next-door neighbour friend, widowed Mrs Butterfield, just about scrape a living by cleaning the houses of a variety of clients, from posh Lady Dant to wannabe actress Pamela, from a cantankerous retired Major to desperate writer Bob. But it’s when Mrs H goes to Lady D’s to clean (rather than Mrs B, who’s her usual daily) that she espies a Christian Dior dress hanging up in her wardrobe; FFMH2and it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. She goes home, chats to the spirit of her dead husband (as you do) and decides then and there that she must have one. Trouble is – it’s £450 – that’s £12,500 in today’s money. It’s going to take her years and years to save. But if Mrs H is one thing, she’s tenacious. She has her dream and she’s not going to let it go. But what happens when Mrs ‘Arris gets to Paris (to almost quote the US name of the book), and just how welcome is une femme de ménage at the exclusive Dior showroom?

FFMH9The book has been adapted into this production by Rachel Wagstaff, who also adapted Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong for the stage; and given a musical score by Richard Taylor who had composed the music for the Royal and Derngate’s production of The Go-Between in 2011. To my mind this is a much more successful venture than either of those previous shows. You won’t find any linguistic or musical fireworks on display in this production; I’ve heard comparisons with Sondheim in the composition department and, personally, I think that’s way off the mark. This is not remotely Sondheimesque; there are no glitteringly memorable tunes nor starkly powerful lyrics that set your teeth on edge at the truths they reveal. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. They create a mellifluous wash-over experience, accompanying the stage actions and the storytelling, but never taking over your attention or your senses.

FFMH4Sentimental? Most definitely yes. Mushy? Surprisingly no. The characterisations throughout are very strong and it’s written with honesty and integrity so that the audience fully appreciates the motivations for what takes place. However, the story itself is delicate and sensitively told. We didn’t quite get a tear in the eye on a few occasions in the second act, but it wasn’t far off. What you do come away from this show with, is a sense that kindness and decency go a long way in making the world a brighter place; the more you give, the more you get. Despite the lack of welcome she receives in Paris, the kindness she gives spreads out like ripples in the water. Happy ending? That’s up to you to decide, depending on your own priorities in life. The colour and light that comes into her world at the end (and indeed, on to the Festival Theatre stage) are unmistakeably heart-warming and life-enhancing.

FFMH8As you would expect, the creative team have gone all out to make this a show to please all the senses. Tom Brady’s ten-piece band deliver Richard Taylor’s score with passion and depth. Lez Brotherston (who else?) has created a deceptively simple set that utilises a revolving track to create the illusion of space, distance and movement brilliantly; and the modest furniture of Ada’s London kitchen drops in and out of view with satisfyingly technical precision. There’s some very inventive use of the staircase, and – no question – some stunning frocks on display in the Paris showroom. And don’t forget those flowers. All those flowers. How can flowers be so emotional?

FFMH5At the heart of the show is a great performance by Claire Burt as Mrs Harris; battered by life’s experiences but incredibly resilient and hugely generous of spirit. Having seen Miss Burt earlier this year as Miss Littlewood, I know that she has an incredible stage presence and a wonderful way of connecting with the audience. Ada Harris doesn’t have the same brash self-confidence that Joan Littlewood does, so Miss Burt channels all her stage efforts to reflect the character’s good nature and innate decency. I must say, we were all a little concerned at the beginning because Miss Burt hit quite a few bum notes in the first ten minutes and I wondered if she was suffering with a virus; however, as the show warmed up, so did she and in the end she gave a beautiful vocal performance.

FFMH6The rest of the cast create a true ensemble, with different roles in both London and Paris. Claire Machin is particularly good as Violet Butterfield, Mrs Harris’ hot-headed friend who only wants the best for her even though she can’t always express it. Joanna Riding is an exquisitely refined Lady Dant and a beautifully flawed Madame Colbert, struggling with the status of her position in conflict with her natural warmth. Laura Pitt-Pulford is wonderful as the lovely Natasha in Paris and suitably irksome as the difficult Pamela. Louis Maskell receives the Best Wobbly Legs on Staircase Award for his brilliant performance as Fauvel, and there are also a series of enjoyable cameos from an otherwise underused Gary Wilmot. The rest of the cast all give sterling support and high-quality performances.

FFMH7I’m not sure what my expectations were of this show – but I feel that they were exceeded. In the simplest terms, it’s just all very lovely, very sweet, and very heart-warming. You’ll leave the theatre with a love for your fellow man that you might not have noticed on your way in. It’s on until Saturday 29th, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to discover it appearing on some other stage in the not too distant future.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Copenhagen, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

CopenhagenIt’s with happiness tinged with sadness that I reflect that this was our last Chichester weekend of the year. It’s a privilege to be able to visit this influential and creative theatrical hub a few times throughout the summer, mixing it in with sensational lunches at the Minerva Brasserie and an enjoyable wind-down post-show with the excellent sharing boards in the Minerva Grill; unless, like me, you don’t share your board – I have the Vegetarian Board all to myself and it’s fab!

C 8For our final visit to Chichester this year we were spoilt for company, as we had Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum to enjoy it with us. And for our first theatrical extravaganza of the day, we saw a revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, his highly successful play about an imagined get-together by quantum physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, together with Niels’ wife Margrethe, after they’d all died. They looked back at a meeting between them all in 1941 in Copenhagen.

C 7What was the purpose of their meeting? Ay, there’s the rub. The essential elements of what brought them together are played out a number of times as the characters try to get to the truth of exactly what happened and why. I’m no quantum physicist, as you’ll soon see, but apparently – according to Michael Frayn’s introductory note in the programme – the act of observation changes what’s being observed. That’s one of the implications of quantum mechanics that Bohr and Heisenberg formulated in the 1920s. Therefore, every time we go back to re-observe, Groundhog Day-like, the events of that meeting, those events, by their very nature, have changed. Have I lost you? I’ve certainly lost myself.

C 3It’s not often that a play totally bamboozles me, but I confess this one did. Mr Frayn was in the bar later that evening; we really should have asked him to tell us what it was all about, but then we would have looked completely foolish. I take comfort in the fact that more intelligent souls than me, not to mention highly experienced drama and literary critics over the years, have emerged from theatres showing this play saying, in a highly intellectual way of course, “my brain hurts”.

C 2There’s no doubt that this meeting actually happened. In 1941, Bohr’s Denmark had been invaded and subjugated by Heisenberg’s Germany, so it wasn’t the most auspicious of times to meet, even though the two had been old friends from way back. It makes small-talk difficult; when Heisenberg tactlessly suggests a skiing trip to his place in the German mountains, the Bohrs look at him like he’s completely lost his marbles. Most commentators agree that their meeting was to debate the morality of scientists working on the creation of nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was in charge of the Nazi nuclear weapons project; Bohr was a natural peacemaker who despised the thought of science being used in this destructive way. But what actually went on between the two of them, we’ll probably never know. A number of letters were written, and discovered, over the years that complicate the opinions of these protagonists. Frayn’s play is therefore an attempt to clarify, or at least suggest, how the whole meeting might have played out. I think. But I’m not sure.

C 1I was left merely to enjoy the interplay between the characters, the high-quality acting, and convincing arguments being made on stage that you think you understand and follow – only to discover you’ve been left behind on a new strand of arguments and you’ve already forgotten what the first one was about. I think it probably does help if you’re a quantum physicist yourself; none of us is, although between us we do have a number of first-rate intellects who can form an opinion on most things. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like we should be wearing dunce caps in the corner.

C 6Maybe one of the problems with this very wordy play is the lack of action. Three actors, three chairs and a lot of sentences doesn’t necessarily make for great drama. Fortunately, Michael Blakemore (still directing at the age of 90, goodness me!) assembled a terrific, committed and intelligent cast who convert Frayn’s text into believable conversation and reminiscence. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Paul Jesson as Bohr; a reasoning and reasonable man but quick to ire and susceptible to bluster, as older authoritative figures frequently are. C 4He delights in pointing out where his Young Pretender’s calculations and assumptions have gone wrong – he is the Master Lecturer, after all. Charles Edwards’ Heisenberg is more measured in tone, calmer in argument, with a little of the smugness you get from being on the winning side of a war (at least at that point). Umpiring the two is Patricia Hodge’s Margrethe, a solemn, contemplative character who chips in with a few pointed remarks but largely keeps her thoughts to herself unless she can see the two men completely going up the wrong path.

C 5The play has long been a success, and it has certainly succeeded in making me curious to know more about these men and their theories. Alas, its short season has now ended, but this powerful, if static, production certainly exercised our brainboxes!

Production photos by Conrad Blakemore

Theatre Censorship – 36: The Romans in Britain trial – and a wrap up.

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that although Mary Whitehouse’s prosecution against Michael Bogdanov, director of The Romans in Britain, was within the letter of the law, it certainly the transgressed the spirit of the law. NVALA agreed that it was a loophole in the law which allowed her to bring her suit in the first place. The Sexual Offences Act only provided legislation for men to be prosecuted, because it presumed only men were involved in the kind of sexual practice that the act was originally designed to prevent. Therefore, if the play had been directed by a woman, or if it had featured heterosexual rape, the act would not have been applicable. Lord Hutchinson made this point while cross-examining Graham Ross-Cornes, but it cut no ice with Mr Justice Staughton who felt it was irrelevant to the case in hand. When asked to comment on this point, John Beyer, NVALA’s Organising Secretary, stated in a letter to me dated 10th January 1983 that “the law ought to reflect the fashion for equal rights,” and so rather than close the loophole one may assume that the association would have preferred to widen and legitimise it.

There is one further point concerning the spirit of the law that could do with some clarification. Many people, including Sir Peter Hall, accused Mary Whitehouse of bringing the law into disrepute because, as he said on LBC’s Artsweek programme on 21st March 1982, “the Theatres Act of 1968 was designed to protect the theatre from private individuals or minority sects prosecuting the theatre for their own ends.” Certainly, the act was designed to form some protection for the theatre, chiefly against the ritual submission of new plays to the Lord Chamberlain’s office. It was never the intention of the 1966-67 Committee to protect the theatre from the catalogue of injustices listed in the 1909 report, except that of offending a friendly power (i.e. political censorship) which they recommended should cease. All the other categories would simply rely on the law of the land, and, as Lord Chesterfield said to Walpole, “the king’s courts are open.”

Romans in BritainHowever, the Committee also stated that any legislation should have regard to five common considerations – the right of trial by jury, the admissibility of expert evidence, the effective treatment of obscene plays, the uniform application of the law, and, especially appropriate to “The Romans in Britain” trial, the prevention of frivolous prosecutions. The Committee went on to say, as is stated in their report, “no criminal prosecution whether under statute or common law arising out of the performance of a play should take place without the order of the Attorney-General having been first obtained. Subject to this provision, any individual would have the right to take legal action against a stage performance which he considered contravened the law”.

Therefore, one can claim that when Mary Whitehouse continued to attempt to prosecute Bogdanov after the Attorney-General had specifically refused permission to prosecute under the Theatres Act, it was then that she transgressed the spirit of the law. In fact, it was only the poor wording of the Theatres Act – which in effect permitted other laws to apply to the theatre – that caused the whole legal comedy of errors in the first place. Even Mr Harrington – the magistrate at Horseferry Road who found in favour of Mrs Whitehouse – pointed out that he thought it was extraordinary that the Act had failed to exempt sexual offences at Common Law and under the Vagrancy Act.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

As Bogdanov had his costs paid for him – although Mary Whitehouse and NVALA had to pay theirs – the Theatre Defence Fund money suddenly became a useful financial weapon with which to fight for an amendment to the Theatres Act. The change that would be necessary to prevent a similar occurrence was merely to include the words “and statute law” in its list of items which have no association with the Act. Following the trial, Christopher Price, then MP for Lewisham West and Spokesman for the House of Commons Select Committee on the Arts, pledged to fight for the amendment in Parliament, and until this amendment were to be made, asked the Attorney-General to issue a nolle prosequi in all similar cases, so that, even if the theatre and the law were brought into disrepute, at least the play’s director should not be sent to prison. In a letter he wrote to me dated 14th January 1983 he confirmed that he’d had no success in this venture, saying “there is no prospect of an amendment either to the Theatres Act or the Sexual Offences Act.” Mr Price lost the 1983 general election and was never returned to Parliament.

Christopher Price in 1980

Christopher Price in 1980

Finally, to return to NVALA’s constant assertion that it was not a case about censorship, this is perhaps a rather sweeping statement whose degree of truth depends on how you define the word. Strictly speaking, “censorship” simply means the prohibition or prevention by someone to allow someone else to read or see a particular thing. The word itself implies no particular motivation, not any attribution to good or bad. It does, however, imply that the censor is invested with more power and freedom than the recipient of the material to be censored; an absolute ability to judge what is either acceptable to or required for the recipient. Mrs Whitehouse wished to prevent the general public from seeing a scene of “gross indecency” on stage at the National Theatre for no reason apart from the fact that she thought it offended public morals. Despite possibly well-meaning intent, she invited the law to act as a censor, although she denied it: “If I had the power to go into the National Theatre and stand on that stage and say, “away with all you, I will not have this on this stage”, you could accuse me of censorship.” If she had brought a successful prosecution, the effect would have been virtually the same. Whatever one’s interpretation of the case, it set a sort of precedent, and one which certainly contravened the spirit of the Theatres Act.

As for the play, despite Howard Brenton’s rather over-confident belief that “this play is going to prosper”, no management dared to present it for several years. Was that because of the quality of the play itself, or because no one knew what legal wrangles it might incur? Apart from a student production by the Bristol Old Vic School in 1994, its only professional reappearance on stage has been at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre in 2006, directed by Samuel West; theatre, cast and director survived unscathed – although the young Celt still felt the pain of invasion.

And that’s as far as my post-grad research took me. Of course, drama didn’t stop in 1982, and plays that would have sent the Lord Chamberlain reeling still took to the stage. The works of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, even One Man One Guvnor’s Richard Bean have challenged their audiences with sex, violence and all forms of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Maybe that’s some research for me to do another day.

If you’re reading this on the day it was published, 26th September 2018, it is exactly fifty years today since the introduction of the Theatres Act and the abolition of stage censorship. But where are all the flags and banners of celebration? Nowhere. So often we take our freedoms for granted! In the meantime, thank you for your time and effort and I hope that you found some of the little nuggets of interest, or enjoyed some detailed lit-crit of the big plays of Osborne, Bond and Brenton. As for me, I’m going to clear my head by watching some Disney.

Review – Kinky Boots, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th September 2018

Kinky Boots the TourCyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s musical has been around for a few years now – we saw it at the Adelphi back in December 2015 – and it’s simply poetic justice that its first UK tour should start at its spiritual home here in Northampton. A massive pair of kinky boots hang suspended over the stalls bar at the Royal and Derngate, as if to prove the point! If you want to know what I think about the show itself, the set, the songs, the characters and the story, I can do no better than to refer you to my original review here.

Charlie and NicolaMrs Chrisparkle and I saw the first preview of the UK tour last Wednesday. So how is it looking, three years on, with a new cast, in a new theatre? Is this going to be a successful tour? You bet your kinky boots it will! It’s looking like a million dollars, I reckon $900,000 of which have been spent on the encrusted diamonds on the heel of a boot fit for a Milan catwalk. It’s still a great show, with its warm and life-enhancing message of acceptance and kindness. You still wonder (well I do) how a mild-mannered guy like Charlie Price ended up with such a ruthless girlfriend as Nicola; anyone who wants to tear down a shoe factory and put dozens of people out of work simply to make money by converting them into flats has got to have a streak of cruelty in there somewhere. I still despair (slightly) that it makes Northampton out to be a much worse place than it is; somewhere you escape from rather than somewhere you turn to. I still try to work out how many of the Angels are played by women… it’s still zero.

Real bootsPerhaps this time around, I realised quite how thin the plot is. Ailing shoe factory changes tack and manufactures kinky boots – in other words, fabulous, glamorous 2 feet 6 items of tubular sex that are sturdy enough to take a man’s weight. They take their product to Milan. Err… that’s it. Of course, it’s the character development that is the most interesting; and that’s the character of Lola, because Charlie is a remarkably bland character for a hero. Lola is a fabulous drag queen by night (and by day if she can wangle it) and she’s learned how to handle the tough times when she’s abused on the street (or, indeed, in the workplace). When she’s not Lola, she’s Simon from Clacton, a subdued, underwhelming husk of a man. She’s only comfortable when she kicks reality into touch and takes on her glossy mantle. But then, as we all know, life is always better when you’re in a musical.

Angels and LolaI hadn’t heard the songs again since seeing the show three years ago and I was impressed all over again; and Patrick Hurley’s nine-piece band spreads the joy beautifully with their amazing playing. However, there were times when the music was just a little too loud for the speech – it seems there’s always room to tighten up the balance just a little bit. And without mentioning any names, a couple of the female voices seemed to me way off pitch at times in the first Act; first night nerves no doubt. Anyway, no need to worry, what can seriously go wrong with a performance of Kinky Boots? It’s not as if the conveyor belts on which they dance froze and they had to stop the show!

Big numberNo, wait… that’s exactly what happened. Halfway through the big end of Act 1 number, Everybody Say Yeah, everybody said stop. It felt wrong when the Angels walked in along the conveyor belts looking rather anxious, rather than being propelled in, and, bless them, everyone tried their utmost to make a go of the scene, but pretty quickly the lights went out, the curtain came down and we were all asked to remain in our seats whilst some backstage guys got their spanners out. Unfortunately, Front of House took this as the cue to bring in the interval ice-creams (there was only a minute or so left of the first half to go) so we had the accidentally amusing sight of punters joining massive queues down the aisle only to be told that the show was just about to re-commence, so that they rapidly had to scamper back to their seats, with or without raspberry ripples. Fair play to the cast, who picked it up again halfway through the show, but I had to laugh at a few of their faces revealing a sense of enormous relief when elements of the set finally worked as they were meant to!

Lola and the AngelsAnd what of our new cast? It’s always exciting when you can say that magic phrase a star is born, although I suspect I may be late to that party already. But, in the shape of Callum Francis, this Lola is truly sensational. For sheer stage presence, as well as fantastic singing and being a great little mover, you cannot take your eyes off Mr Francis the entire night. Every time he comes on stage a little voice inside you goes “hurrah, he’s back!” He wins you over in an instant with his brilliant comic timing, engagingly over-the-top expressions, and the kindness and warmth he exudes on stage. Absolutely superb.

Lauren and CharlieIt must be very hard to hold your own against Mr Francis (if you’ll pardon the expression), but Joel Harper-Jackson does a terrific job as Charlie Price, the rather hen-pecked boyfriend who comes into his own as he starts to take responsibility for the factory. Whilst the show is full of brash and snazzy numbers, it was his performance of Soul of a Man that stood out for me as its defining moment.

LaurenThe rest of the ensemble all give great support – Paula Lane’s Lauren is sweetly excitable, Helen Ternent’s Nicola conveys a strong sense of steely determination, Demitri Lampra’s Don is suitably aggressive and there’s a wonderfully funny turn from Adam Price as the senior employee George finally letting his hair down. And of course there’s a brilliant array of Angels – not even Captain Scarlet was that lucky. But everyone gives it their all and turns in a great performance.

On the conveyor beltIt was one of those instant ovation nights – not a slow, semi-unwilling Mexican wave through the audience, but everyone got up like a shot and stayed up. Even more noticeable, after the cast had finally left the stage, no one in the audience showed the slightest interest in leaving the theatre until the band had finished the final note of their outro. That tells its own story as to how much of a good time everyone had.

I think it’s fair to predict that this tour is going to be a massive success!

Photos by Johan Persson – from the West End 2015 production.

Review – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Peacock Theatre, 15th & 20th September 2018

Trocks 2018What could be better than a return visit by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo for the first time in three years in the UK? Answer: two return visits! Let me explain; for this first venue in the Trocks UK tour, they have been holding court at the Peacock Theatre for two weeks, with two different programmes illustrating their artistry and skills. And Mrs Chrisparkle and I were lucky enough to be able to see the shows on both the matinee of 15th September (Programme A) and the evening of the 20th (Programme B). Simples!

Trocks 2018 1This is actually the eleventh season of visits from the Trocks that we’ve been delighted to see; our first exposure to them was back in 1998, when Comrade Ida Neversayneva was at the height of her powers, and young Olga Supphozova was just starting out. Today, La Supphozova is the Grande Dame of the Company, and new, younger stars are beginning to shine. Such is the way with the Trocks; every time they come back, we get a mixture of old favourites (Swan Lake Act II and the Dying Swan are an ever-present fixture) and some new delights.

Trocks 2018 2As always, we start the show with some unexpected changes in the best tradition of Russian ballet, to the extent that the cast list in the programme is virtually meaningless! I wasn’t surprised that the mysterious missing Miss Natasha Notgoodenuff was winging her way on an errand of mercy, this time to help out the ailing ballerinas of Luton. Fortunately we were reassured that all of the ballerinas were in a very good mood for our performances. I’m sure we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Trocks 2018 3Programme A kicked off, and it would be criminal if it didn’t, with Swan Lake Act II. A splendidly petulant Benno danced by William Vanilla (Noah Herron) and a suitably languid and emotionless Jacques D’Aniels (Joshua Thake) introduced us to a new star of the Trocks, the sensational Nina Enimenimynimova (Long Zou) as an immaculate Odette. If ever there was someone who embodies the spirit of the Trocks, it’s Mr Zou, because not only is he a sensational dancer – those pirouettes and placings were all brilliant – but he invests Miss Enimenimynimova with such a cheeky sense of fun; flirting with her leading man and with the audience, and delightfully taking the rise out of the classical traditions of ballet whilst giving them the utmost respect too. Superb.

Trocks 2018 4After an interval, we were treated to the dubious pleasures of Patterns in Time, with a nod to the work of Merce Cunningham. This has also long been a favourite, not because of the dancing, which each time I forget to watch, but because of the hilarious po-faced shenanigans of the two musicians, creating sound effects from everyday odds and ends. This so beautifully mocks the “sound effect” accompaniments of modern dance, and Miss Supphozova (the inimitable Robert Carter) in particular made it impossible to watch the dance – I just love all those preparations in advance for just one note played on the recorder. Hilarious.

Trocks 2018 5Then it was time for La Trovatiara (Pas de cinq) which we’ve not seen before, although I know it’s been in the Trocks’ rep for some time. This is a scene from an opera that Verdi could have written, if he was writing for a bunch of pirate girls off the coast of Tripoli. It’s brought to life superbly by the statuesque Eugenia Repelskii (Joshua Thake again) and the chirpy Guzella Verbitskaya (Jack Furlong Jr) amongst others. I particularly liked the moment when Miss Repelskii, supported herself on the heads of Marat and Sergey Legupski (Christopher Ouellette and Kevin Garcia) in order to get a proper twirl action going.

Trocks 2018 6The Dying Swan was executed by Helen Highwaters (Duane Gosa), her fluffy feathers moulting madly as she first dances, then hobbles, her way across the stage. We all played along with the ridiculous over-reaction from the audience to confirm this as the sheer pantomime delight that it is. Maybe Miss Highwaters was a little too quick to encourage our applause, and found her way on and off stage through the curtains a little too easily? Comrade Ida would have milked another five minutes out of that act.

Trocks 2018 7Our final piece was again new to me, the Underwater Scene from The Little Humpback Horse; music (which sounded a little scratchy at times) by Pugni, choreography by the great Petipa. Olga Supphozova completely stole it with an extraordinary sequence of pirouettes which left the audience thundering their applause. Beautifully danced and exquisitely costumed too – I really liked the headgear of the Medusas, like they were photobombing a bunch of jellyfish. For an encore, the Trocks turned into a kind of Tiller Girl act, with high legs kicking along to Sinatra’s New York New York.

Trocks 2018 8Programme B started with a brilliant performance of Les Sylphides, with leading man Boris Mudko completely out of it on a mix of booze and Valium, or so it seemed. Once again La Eminemimynimova was on terrific form, and I loved the brilliant mix of dance and comedy throughout – including Miss Supphozova’s sleepwalking tumble into the auditorium, and Miss Repelskii’s perpetual attempts to take charge of the whole thing.

Trocks 2018 9After another helping of Patterns in Time, we had the Pas de Six from Napoli, and some stunning choreography after August Bournonville which gave it a truly exquisite feel. Some beautiful elements danced by Miss Verbitskaya and Miss Repelskii, but for me the highlights were the two male soloists, Nicholas Khachafallenjar (Haojun Xie) and especially Boris Dumbkopf (Takaomi Yoshino) who was totally outstanding.

Trocks 2018 10Our second Dying Swan was lethally executed by Olga Supphozova, in an amazing blend of pure beauty and frantic cygnicide; an absolutely classic performance. And the evening ended with another old favourite, Raymonda’s Wedding, with guest artiste Lagavulina Skotchroksova (Graham Sheffield) as the White Lady doing it for charity, and yet more superb performances from Miss Enimenimynimova as bride Raymonda, Boris Mudko (sobered up slightly) as her groom and some beautiful combinations of various Trocks in all the other roles.

Trocks 2018 11The Trocks never fail to inspire, to entertain, to make you laugh and to make you gasp at their incredible strength, grace and agility. A worldwide treasure for us all to share! If you haven’t seen them before, no excuses, you must go! Their UK and Ireland tour takes them to Southampton, Newcastle, Hull, Dublin, Buxton, Cardiff, Canterbury, Nottingham, Inverness, Edinburgh and wrapping up in Belfast in early November. Sheer genius!

Theatre Censorship – 35: How Mrs Whitehouse got her knickers in a twist, or The Romans in Britain trial (Part 2)

Ian Kennedy QC in 1987

Ian Kennedy QC in 1987

The trial itself spread over the four days from 15th – 18th March 1982. Press and media coverage was enormous. The case divided the public, with perhaps more support for Mary Whitehouse than she usually earned in her campaigns, but still with most people in favour of the defence. On the first day, the prosecuting counsel, Ian Kennedy QC, who had taken over from John Smyth, who contracted a virus, put his case. He was most concerned to emphasise certain facts, including that the act took place in the centre of the stage in full light, implying that not only was the act particularly blatant, but also that his witness, Mr Ross-Cornes, could not be mistaken in what he saw. Kennedy also insisted that the charge was nothing to do with theatrical freedom but with gross obscenity. He emphasised, and Ross-Cornes agreed, that the fact that the audience was asked to believe that penetration was not complete, nor was the act being simulated carried to its normal physical completion, was totally irrelevant to the case. Similarly, he insisted the question of whether the play tended to deprave and corrupt, or whether it was in good or bad taste did not matter, and nor did the unquestioned fact that the performance did not take place for the sexual gratification of either the actors or the audience. As Kennedy summed up, and as reported in the Daily Telegraph on 16th March 1982: “that makes no difference, the law prohibits the commission of the act of gross indecency and it doesn’t examine the act that is done.”

Lord Hutchinson cross-questioned Ross-Cornes during the first and second days of the trial. The witness denied that he went to the play intending to view it in the worst possible light. He also denied confusing the actor’s penis with his thumb, an undeniably most important distinction under the circumstances. This was also relevant to Bogdanov’s stated difference between the simulation of homosexual rape and the illusion of it. Ross-Cornes told the court that he had not known that 99% of cases brought under the Sexual Offences Act involved the motive of sexual gratification.

Jeremy Hutchinson

Jeremy Hutchinson

However, Hutchinson’s chief line of questioning concentrated on whether or not Ross-Cornes differentiated between an act of gross indecency on the street and on the stage. All along Ross-Cornes admitted that he did not differentiate between the two. Although he conceded that three young men walking naked on a stage does not contravene any laws whereas if they were walking in the street they would be breaking the law, he thought there was no difference in the degree of obscenity between a man and a woman making love on a street and in a film or on a stage. Nor did he discriminate between bad language spoken by invading soldiers and by guests at a church tea party, nor between bad language on stage and the same words printed in a book. At the end of the second day Lord Hutchinson repeated: “Do you still stick with the idea that the thirty-second rape scene would be just the same in impact as if it had happened by itself in the street?“ Ross-Cornes’ reply was unchanging as ever: “What I intended to say was that it would be just as grossly indecent on the stage as in the street”.

To the great surprise of legal commentators – again – on the third day the judge not only threw out Lord Hutchinson’s submission that no triable offence had been committed, he also agreed that there was no difference between a simulated act on stage and a real one. This pronouncement astounded the theatrical profession who had always assumed that the presence of the stage meant that drama was obviously “unreal”. Peter Hall stated on the Artsweek programme: “I am sure there is a statute which says that you mustn’t run crap games on a pavement in the middle of the town, and somebody could actually prosecute us for doing “Guys and Dolls”, because the law has also… during this trial… said that what happens on the stage and what happens in life is one and the same thing which… is not true. The theatre is not life, it’s imitation.” Such a judgment, taken in isolation, certainly seems to threaten basic theatrical freedom, and the outrage expressed by the theatrical profession was the panicky cry of people fighting for their livelihood.

However, the surprises provided by this case did not end there. The judge’s decision on whether or not the Sexual Offences Act was applicable in this case was paramount; if he decided that it was not, then the case would have to be dropped, and if not, the case could go ahead. Having decided that the act was applicable, the prosecution lawyer decided to withdraw the case. This, of course, begged the question “why”, and naturally many rumours instantly started spreading that the bottom had fallen out of the case and that Ian Kennedy had decided to withdraw because he knew he had no chance of winning. However, the judge’s opinion patently precludes this possibility. In Mary Whitehouse’s words, as she wrote in her book A Most Dangerous Woman?, “we had established a very important legal verdict and there seemed to me absolutely no point in prolonging Michael Bogdanov’s agony.”

According to the strict terms of law, it is not permitted for a private prosecution to be withdrawn after the presiding judge has decided that a triable offence has been committed. However, this transgression is only minor in comparison with the legal errors made on all sides of this lawsuit. The judge would not have allowed the prosecution lawyer to withdraw, apart from the fact that the defence counsel had told Bogdanov of this fact and that by means of this by-pass, the judge’s own role had been disregarded. The Attorney-General had been consulted and had decided to issue a nolle prosequi on the case. There followed further confusion and consternation, because at the time there was a good deal of legal debate as to what the exact meaning of a nolle prosequi was. Strictly speaking it is as though the case never existed and any penalties or personal judgments made in it are negated, a little like an annulment of a marriage.

However, nobody could decide whether other rulings should stand, and so nobody could decide whether the Sexual Offences Act could be brought in to prosecute a similar play in the future. NVALA insisted that the judge’s ruling did provide a precedent; Equity rather thought that it did not, but that it was reasonably likely that, given the same circumstances all over again, that the Sexual Offences Act could successfully be invoked. However, the Attorney-General cleared up most of the confusion in the House of Commons when he stated his intention behind issuing a nolle prosequi was that the judge’s ruling should apply in future cases. Doubtless if any such cases were to take place, the defence counsel would contest this in court.

At any rate, Michael Bogdanov came away from the trial without a slur on his name, and in fact he probably benefited a little from this succès de scandale. He was certainly relieved that the case against him was dropped, but he was also annoyed that he never got the chance to defend his actions, or to justify the exclusion of the theatre from this kind of law. It was ironic that, as the man at the centre of the trial, he remained silent throughout. However, he determined to join the Theatre Defence Group’s fight to amend the Theatres Act so that a prosecution like this could not be brought again.

Next Tuesday, 25th September, it will be exactly 50 years since theatre censorship was abolished. Come back then for my final blog post on the subject!

Review – Tartuffe, RSC Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18th September 2018

TartuffeHere’s a recipe for an innovative night at the theatre: first take your Molière, one of the all-time comic geniuses. He knew precisely how to structure a comedy, create larger than life but recognisable characters and put them into a ghastly but hilarious situation where they have to sink or swim. Then take two modern masters of comedy, the writers Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, responsible for such landmark TV programmes like Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42, not to mention Citizen Khan (I won’t mention Citizen Khan because it’s awful). Blend delicately and what do you get? A Tartuffe for the 21st century, set within a British Pakistani Muslim family in Birmingham. The big question is, does that soufflé rise to the occasion of translating 17th century lampooning of religious hypocrisy successfully to the here and now?

Asif KhanMon Dieu, you cannot believe how beautifully the one fits into the other! Molière’s Tartuffe (a sufficiently piercing satire to warrant the King censoring it) is a religious directeur de conscience; a kind of domestic guru who wangles his way into a well-to-do family, and convinces the Master of the Household, Orgon, that his are the words of the angels, on a direct line from God. Therefore he must be obeyed, even if that means turning a blind eye to his having it away with the lady of the household, marrying their unwilling daughter and virtually stealing the house and business from under their nose. Observing and commenting on the madness is Dorine, the maid who is the confidante of all and sundry and is more intelligent than the rest of them put together. Only when the unwitting idiot of a Master finally gets the ocular proof that his noble houseguest is a roué and a vagabond does he finally tumble to his own vain stupidity. But Tartuffe has something else up his sleeve, and tries to get Orgon arrested for possession of incriminating letters.

Michelle BonnardMessrs Gupta and Pinto have transported Orgon and his family to Small Heath, where they have become the Pervaiz family; he a wealthy businessman, on to his glamorous second wife Amira, living with his vacuous son Damee, progressively-educated daughter Mariam and his old mother Dadimaa (who is straight out of The Kumars – Meera Syal should sue). Imran Pervaiz has been transfixed by one Tahir Taufiq Arsuf (Tartuffe), whom he has brought into his house, given him as much food and drink as he wants, allowed him take control of the fabulous Home Cinema system and has become thoroughly brainwashed by his charisma. He insists that Tartuffe marries Mariam despite her already being engaged to the drippy but well-meaning Waqaas; in a misplaced religious fervour he liberates his own mind and spirit by giving all his worldly possessions to Tartuffe so that he can use it for charitable purposes (err, I don’t think so.) When Pervaiz is eventually satisfied that Tartuffe is a sham, he too realises that an incriminating document is no longer where it should be… but has Tartuffe stolen it for blackmail purposes?

Simon Nagra and Asif KhanCliché time, but Molière’s timeless creation fits into this modern setting like a hand in a glove. The idea of a charismatic zealot, whether it be religious or political, a true celebrity who takes the usual brain settings of an otherwise sensible person, and puts them through the wash, is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century. Trump, Putin, Kim on the international stage; Farage, Rees-Mogg, Corbyn on the domestic. Plus ça change, as they say. It’s no surprise that at one stage Pervaiz puts his head in his hands and wishes he hadn’t voted Leave.

Salman Akhtar and Simon NagraGupta and Pinto litter the script with countless modern references which both delight and illuminate. During two-and-a-half hours, they cover (in no particular order) female emancipation, familial tensions between generations, politics, Windrush, marital trust, faith, sexual harassment, illegal immigration, Brexit, religious hypocrisy, Islamist fundamentalism, and much more. It’s never offensive, and, certainly, it never pokes fun at Islam; its target is simply the relationship between the manipulative trickster and the idiot who believes him. Never has the phrase “a fool and his money are soon parted” been more appropriate.

Raj BajajThis adaptation gets its point across by using terrifically humorous characters and a sparky, al dente text. There are a few passages where, in more than a nod to its original writer, the speech diverts into rhyming alexandrine couplets; there’s even a passing reference to Shakespeare and some other contemporary garçon (and I think we know who that is.) I liked the very clever use of accents to help create the characters; the Brummie voices of Damee, Khalil and Usman all help to suggest that they’re (sorry to say it, Midlanders) a bit thick; whereas Mariam’s Brummie accent strangely makes her sound more intelligent – but then she is always talking about protecting the interests of women in the sub-Saharan continent and complaining about heteronormative patriarchy.

Simon NagraBretta Gerecke’s design is a nice contrast between the plush surroundings of the Pervaiz family home and stark modernistic lighting tubes that fall into place to demarcate the indoors from outdoors. Iqbal Khan’s production brings in quite a few musical moments, some of which work better than others. Raj Bajaj’s Damee clearly sees himself as some kind of rap star and he is given a couple of chances to show off his style; even more proficient is the excellent (if you like that sort of thing) beatboxing from Riad Richie as Tartuffe’s assistant, Usman. The play begins with a very loud onslaught of musical mush coming through the headphones of Darina, the Bosnian cleaner; Black Sabbath, she confides in the audience, she’s a fan. Not entirely sure I am; it’s a bit of a brutal start. Sarah Sayeed’s traditional Punjabi music has been composed to reflect particular characters in particular moods; although these leitmotifs may work on paper, I found much of the incidental music throughout the play really distracting, and frequently too loud so that it drowns out the dialogue, which is exasperating as you know you’re missing out on gems but you just can’t hear them.

Riad Richie and Asif KhanMolière knows to keep his audience waiting and it’s a full fifty minutes before we meet our eponymous anti-hero. Asif Khan (who was superb in the Royal and Derngate’s A Passage to India last January) gives us a very larger-than-life portrayal of a man appearing to be conservative and clean but in fact a mere conman. He’s dressed in the most formal Muslim clerical clothing: traditional beard as low as you dare, and a pure white abaya robe to reflect the purity of his heart (as he would like you to think). He adopts a very lilting tone of speech, as though he were part speaking, part intoning the Qu’ran. This makes him sound like a truly holy man; which only makes the sham feel worse when you see how he’s manipulating everyone around him.

Zainab HasanThe whole cast put in tremendous performances. Simon Nagra is great as Imran Pervaiz; there’s an element of Omid Djalili in his delivery, but it’s none the worse for that. His wonderment at Tartuffe’s general gloriousness is a delightfully comic turn, and it makes a painful contrast with his fury at his family’s determination to cross him, insisting his daughter marry the wretch and banishing his son from the family home. Sasha Behar makes for a glamorous and fiery Amira, well able to take care of herself, and she brings out all the comic potential from the scene where she’s trying to trap Tartuffe so that her husband can see the deceit for himself. Raj Bajaj is excellent as the well-intentioned but essentially useless son Damee, either grinning inanely at life or trying to solve problems by fisticuffs; and Zainab Hasan is superb as daughter Mariam, proudly independent but fully knowing that she should obey her father, even though he is condemning her to a life of misery.

James ClydeAmong the supporting cast there are some great performances from James Clyde, as family friend Khalil, wont to pontificate ad nauseam much to everyone’s exhaustion, and from Salman Akhtar as the hapless Waqaas, firing up with anger at the prospect of losing his Mariam but essentially unable to fight his way out of a paper bag. And the whole show is held together by a star performance from Michelle Bonnard as Darina, keeping up lengthy conversations with the audience (even hoovering under their seats after the interval), taking the mickey out of her employer’s bromance, seeing right through Tartuffe’s pretence, and generally getting away with murder – but also looking after their interests, as is seen in the very last second of the play.

Amina ZiaAn immensely refreshing night out at the theatre – and you’re in awe of how neatly Molière’s original fits so neatly into the totally different environment. Hats off to everyone involved for a tremendous achievement. Tartuffe remains in rep at the Swan Theatre until 23rd February. Don’t miss it!

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

The Agatha Christie Challenge – N or M? (1941)

N or MIn which we encounter Tommy and Tuppence, frustrated by the fact that no one wants them to help with the war effort, until a trusted contact comes along and offers Tommy a position he can’t resist. Tuppence isn’t to know about it, but of course she finds out and accompanies him. Can they identify the Fifth Columnist working undercover in an English seaside town? Of course they can! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit – or rather, who the undercover agent is!

Common PrayerThe book bears no dedication, and, according to Christie’s autobiography, she saw it as a kind of sequel to her earlier Tommy and Tuppence novel, The Secret Adversary. N or M? was first published in the US in a condensed version in the March 1941 issue of Redbook magazine, and in the UK an abridged version was serialised in Woman’s Pictorial from April to June 1941, under the title Secret Adventure. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1941, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November the same year. The title is taken from a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer which asks, “What is your Christian name? Answer N. or M.” I’m not sure that the Book of Common Prayer holds the key to this particular case though.

Boring babyI could remember absolutely nothing about this book, and when it came to re-reading it now, I can see why. This is the dullest, most unmemorable book I have encountered on my Agatha Christie Challenge so far. Its plot is thin, and if you’re waiting for a nice juicy murder, you’ll have a long wait. There are several tedious sequences when the reader is subjected to endless reports of the activities and meaningless gurgling of little baby Betty Sprot. True, Betty has a significance to the story as a whole, but Christie dwells on the baby talk for far too long, and I found these scenes thoroughly boring. Interestingly, Christie wrote it at the same time as she was writing The Body in the Library, which would appear the following year. I wonder if she suffered a lack of concentration or commitment as a result? It will be fascinating to re-discover whether The Body in the Library shows any such signs too.

Second World WarThere’s one thing that this book does very well, and that is to suggest to the modern reader what it must have been like to live through the early years of the Second World War; the anxieties, the paranoia, the fears, the restrictions. Christie sets the book in the spring of 1940. Speculation is rife: the current Blitzkrieg is the German’s last effort, Hitler is so deranged the war will be over by August. Characters are thought to be Nazi sympathisers; especially the German refugee who acts so mysteriously. It’s difficult to get from village to village unless you’re a local, because all the signposts have been taken down to make it difficult for German parachutists. Letters arrive in the post bearing a censor’s mark. The people who bought Smuggler’s Rest were all foreigners – they didn’t speak a word of English. “Don’t you agree with me that sounds extremely fishy?” asks Commander Haydock, illustrating the general paranoia of the time.

Bletchley_ParkIn a moment of real-life paranoia, Christie was herself investigated because she named one of the characters in the book Major Bletchley, and it was suspected that she was giving away knowledge of the secret codebreaking work underway at Bletchley Park. Christie always maintained that she chose the name after travelling through Bletchley station on the train; and she died before the nature of the work undertaken at Bletchley Park was revealed to a curious world. Did she have insider knowledge? We’ll never know.

White QueenChristie makes her presence felt in the story on a couple of occasions; when Tuppence first arrives at the guest house “Sans Souci”, and everything seems purely above board and without any suspicion, Christie makes her own observation: “To believe in Sans Souci as a headquarters of the Fifth Column needed the mental equipment of the White Queen in “Alice”.” More annoyingly, there is a scene early on when Tommy and Tuppence, both undercover at the guest house, take time out to compare notes and discuss the characters living there: “”Now,” said Tuppence. “I’ll tell you some of my ideas.” And she proceeded to do so.” But she doesn’t tell us! That’s either deceitful of Christie, withholding observations and information from the reader, or, at best, simply lazy, with her not being bothered. Either way, it irritated me; I didn’t feel that Christie was playing fair with her readers.

KnittingSo how are Tommy and Tuppence getting on? It’s been twelve years since we saw them in Partners in Crime, but somehow since then they have acquired grown-up children and have aged considerably more than twelve years; ah, the magic of fiction. Tommy is too old to be called up, much to his grievance; Tuppence too is only considered good enough to knit for the nation. That’s not how they see themselves. Their erstwhile assistant Albert is still on the scene; he’s now married and runs The Duck and Dog pub in South London.

Be like dad keep mumTommy is still rather plodding and perhaps not the brightest tool in the box, but what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in derring-do. Tuppence is still unpredictable, flighty and playful. When she realises she will have to tell lies in this particular operation, she confesses: “I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest, I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.” She’s also thoughtful and more understanding than most. Despite the fact that “there’s a war on” she feels sympathy for individuals on the other side. “I hate the Germans myself. “The Germans” I say, and feel waves of loathing. But when I think of individual Germans, mothers sitting anxiously waiting for news of their sons, and boys leaving home to fight, and peasants getting in the harvest, and little shopkeepers and some of the nice kindly German people I know, I feel quite different. I know then that they are just human beings and that we’re all feeling alike.” An unpopular opinion at the time, I’ll wager.

BournemouthThere’s not a lot of interesting material for us to discuss in this book, so let’s move on to having a look at the place names to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of Christie’s imagination. The story is set in the seaside town of Leahampton, which doesn’t exist but I see from other commentators that it is widely meant to represent Bournemouth. Other nearby locations include Leatherbarrow and Yarrow, neither of which exist as towns or villages but are mentioned in road names in the Maghull/Sefton areas of Merseyside, which is curious. Tuppence’s Aunt Gracie lives in Langherne, Cornwall; again, a completely fictitious location.

dismal desmondLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. The wartime setting is enhanced by references to Dismal Desmond and Bonzo; Dismal Desmonds were referred to in Parker Pyne Investigates, and Bonzo was the famous cartoon dog. Tuppence gains her kindness towards others from thinking of Nurse Cavell – Edith Cavell, sentenced to death during the First World War for helping 200 Allied soldiers to escape, and whose watchword was “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. Meanwhile, Sheila Perenna tells Tommy that her father was a follower of Casement in the First World War – that would be Roger Casement: poet, Irish nationalist and leader of the Easter Rising.

Sisera“So, Tuppence thought, might Joel have looked, waiting to drive the nail through the forehead of sleeping Sisera.” Who? I can do no better than to refer you to our friends at Wikipedia (so it must be true): Sisera was commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, who is mentioned in Judges 4-5 of the Hebrew Bible. After being defeated by the forces of the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali under the command of Barak and Deborah, Sisera was killed by Jael, who hammered a tent peg into his temple. Nasty.

Nine of diamondsIn that game of Bridge that almost drives Tuppence to distraction, Mrs Cayley lays down the nine of diamonds. “’Tis the Curse of Scotland that you’ve played there!” says Mrs O’Rourke. I’d never heard about the Curse of Scotland as being a nickname for the Nine of Diamonds. Even as far back as 1708, you can find this description in an old book: “Diamonds as the Ornamental Jewels of a Regnal Crown, imply no more in the above-nam’d Proverb than a mark of Royalty, for Scotland’s Kings for many Ages, were observ’d, each Ninth to be a Tyrant, who by Civil Wars, and all the fatal consequences of intestine discord, plunging the Divided Kingdom into strange Disorders, gave occasion, in the course of time, to form the Proverb.” So now you know.

Home GuardMajor Bletchley goes to see the film “The Wandering Minstrel” and Christie is at pains to tell us how he criticises its military inaccuracy. However, the only films bearing that name at that time was a comedy short and this definitely wasn’t the same film that the Major saw. And there are a few mentions of the LDV – nothing to do with vans, this was the Local Defence Volunteers that later became much better known as the Home Guard. “Remember your Dickens? Beware of widders, Sammy”, quotes Major Bletchley to a perplexed Miss Minton. I had no idea to what this referred – it’s a conversation between Pickwick Papers’ Mr Weller Snr and his son (and not a proper quotation!)

BlondelSee if you can spot the word that looks wrong: “They want people who are young and on the spot. Well, as I say, mother got a bit hipped over it all, and so she went off down to Cornwall to stay with Aunt Gracie…” Hipped? It’s actually a really strange word for a young character of the time to say. According to my OED, it means depressed or low-spirited, and is an archaic 18th century colloquialism. (Longfellow: what with his bad habits and his domestic grievances he became completely hipped.) “There is time to weep after the battle” says Mr Grant, encouragingly, to Tuppence. I can’t locate that as being a direct quotation (all these characters are misquoting things, I wonder if that was the characters’ or Christie’s laziness?) but the nearest I can find is good old Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 Verse 4, “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. I’m more sure-footed on the reference to Blondel and Berengaria; Blondel was a troubadour linked to King Richard I, or, perhaps more accurately, his queen Berengaria.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for N or M?:

Publication Details: This takes a little research, as my copy does not bear a date, but is clearly a cheap copy with its poor quality paper and print setting. My only clue is to take the list of books by Christie that has been promotionally listed on the inside front cover, and the book with the latest publishing date in that list is They Do It With Mirrors, which was first published in 1952. Her following book, After the Funeral, was published in 1953 but that’s missing from the list. Therefore, I deduce this is either from 1952 or 1953! Published by the Crime Club as a “White Circle Pocket Novel”, the Art Deco inspired cover shows two demonic figures, one armed with a knife and one with a gun. The cover bears absolutely no resemblance to the content of the book at all! But that’s because Christie’s White Circle Pocket novels always had the same design.

How many pages until the first death: A massive 104. And even then, we see at first hand who shoots who, so there’s no element of detective whodunitry.

Funny lines out of context: Showing the importance of differentiating between an adverbial clause and an unhyphenated noun.

“Tea was the next move and hard on that came the return…”

Memorable characters: Frankly, none of the characters interested me in the slightest, I thought they were all very vacuous.

Christie the Poison expert: No references to poison made either!

Class/social issues of the time:

As mentioned earlier, the strength (if any!) of this book is its commentary on living in wartime Britain, which is interesting to the modern reader who has never lived through such days. Given the fact that it was largely seen as a battle between democracy and fascism, Major Bletchley’s observation about how the army is run is curious: “How are we gong to win the war without discipline? Do you know, sir, some of these fellows come on parade in slacks – so I’ve been told […] it’s all this democracy […] you can overdo anything. In my opinion, they’re overdoing the democracy business. Mixing up the officers and the men, feeding together in restaurants – faugh! – the men don’t like it…”

The other Christie bête-noir, that of sexism, continues to rear its ugly head. At the beginning of the book, Tommy laments that he is of no use to the war effort. Tuppence sympathises, but Tommy adds: “it’s worse for a man. Women can knit, after all – and do up parcels and help at canteens”. Talk about sexual stereotyping! Mind you, Major Bletchley is no better: “Women are all very well in their place, but not before breakfast.”

And here’s a generalisation to consider: “Albert was not given to the exercise of deep reasoning. Like most Englishmen, he felt something strongly, and proceeded to muddle around until he had, somehow or other, cleared up the mess.”

Classic denouement: No, it’s very straggly. In our search of N and M, one of them is identified with still 40 pages (over 20%) of the book still to be read. The two other revelations are more of a surprise, but I think I was so bored by the rest of the book that they didn’t impress me much.

Happy ending? Yes. Tommy and Tuppence resume their continued wedded bliss and there’s no doubt they are a devoted and affectionate old couple. And there are two other characters who will clearly be “getting it together” in the near future.

Did the story ring true? There appears to be one massive coincidence that stretches your credibility beyond a joke; but once you understand the full picture you realise it wasn’t a coincidence at all. And in fact, in many ways, this is one of the most believable Christie books. It’s dull in the same way that real life is dull. So you may well find yourself wishing it was less believable!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a few positive aspects, I generally did not enjoy this book at all, and if it had been the first Christie I ever picked up, I doubt I would have ever read another. I’m going to be generous and give it a 3/10.

The Body in the LibraryThanks for reading my blog of N or M? 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 The Body in the Library and the welcome return of Miss Marple in what was at the time only her second full-length case. 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!

Theatre Censorship – 34: Simulated sodomy, or The Romans in Britain trial (Part 1)

Romans in BritainOn 24th October 1980, the Attorney-General sent a lawyer to the theatre to watch a performance of The Romans in Britain. The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) did the same, asking John Smyth QC to witness the activity on the stage and form his own conclusion. On his return, Mr Smyth said he had been shocked by the play and recommended that NVALA’s legal adviser, Graham Ross-Cornes, should ask the Attorney-General to take action against the play and insist on its withdrawal. A month later the Attorney-General’s reply was received, to the effect that he would neither prosecute the play nor permit NVALA to do so. When asked why, he simply replied that he did not believe that the case would be successful. This split the two sides in the argument even wider. NVALA became even more determined to prevent the play from continuing and the National Theatre regarded the decision as an official condonation of the production.

It is not difficult to see why the case might have failed. The prosecution would have been brought under the 1968 Theatres Act which states “a play shall be deemed to be obscene if, taken as a whole, its effect was such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to attend it.” It is very rarely that these woolly words are exposed as the meaningless drivel they are. The problem with any prosecution brought under this paragraph is one of proof and criterion. In these circumstances, what is depravity and corruption? In terms of morality, it’s hard to define what corruption really is. And, even if you can define these terms, how can they be proved to have happened?

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

There seems to be four or five possible reactions to the play and most particularly the rape scene. One can appreciate the symbolic meaning of the rape as signifying invasion by an alien culture and accept the scene as writer Howard Brenton intended it. This would not involve any depravity or corruption, as one would not view the incident in sexual terms, but purely symbolic. Those people who were shocked by it and found it offensive would voluntarily detach themselves from the play, stop watching it, and stop thinking about it. Perhaps they might walk out, in which case they would no longer be present to face depravity or corruption. Some people might feel that the whole scene was ludicrous and either out of embarrassment or simply because of the inept choice of metaphor, find it funny. This reaction would mean they wouldn’t take it seriously, and would mentally block any seriousness about it. Perhaps as a result they might be accused of condoning such sexual violence; but above all, laughter is a defence mechanism to protect oneself, and one would be most unlikely to be corrupted by laughter.

Even if the scene were to excite a member of the audience sexually or pornographically, one could claim – and this a matter of much debate – that that person was already depraved and corrupt anyway and that the play made no particular difference to their already established outlook. Only if a dangerously impressionable person with no criminal record were to go out and commit homosexual rape as a result of the performance could the play decisively be said to have been proved to have depraved and corrupted this person. In any case, this mythical miscreant would have to be so impressionable; reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery would be as likely a cause for them to commit murder. The legal viability of the Theatres Act obviously has its limits.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

After the Attorney-General’s refusal to prosecute or grant permission for others to prosecute, NVALA was left with two options. Either they could drop the case and admit defeat, which is certainly what the Attorney-General would have preferred, or they could take out a private prosecution against director Michael Bogdanov under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Section Thirteen of this Act stated: “It is an offence for a man… to procure the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.” At the time, the charge of procuration carried a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. This was the course of action that Mary Whitehouse took. It’s interesting to note that Section Thirteen of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act was repealed by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, and the charge of procuration is no longer an offence.

Michael Bogdanov’s reaction was one of surprised annoyance. In the LBC Artsweek programme broadcast on 21st March 1982 he stated: “I felt that she was pursuing to an illogical end a case that she had got obsessed with, and therefore had not due regard to the circumstances and the occasion of the play.” This comment is at odds with Mary Whitehouse’s denial after the trial that she would prosecute “The Romans in Britain” again if it were to be presented at a different theatre. Her words were: “I’m not interested in chasing a particular play”.

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

There were two aspects of the case which captured the attention and imagination of the public. The first, which was frequently used against Mary Whitehouse, was the fact that she was going to all the trouble of privately prosecuting Michael Bogdanov, and running the risk of incurring very expensive legal costs if she failed, when she had never actually seen the play herself. This struck many as hypocritical and censorial, because she was attempting to influence what other people could see from a position of ignorance, depriving herself of first-hand knowledge of the matter in question. She defended her position by saying that she had been told in full by her representatives who had seen the play all about it, and that therefore she knew enough. She said that quite simply she had no wish to see it; and she considered that if she did go to see it that would benefit her opponents in the argument. They would say that she’s been to see it and she hasn’t been depraved and corrupted by it, so why should anyone else? I’m sure she was right on this particular point.

The second aspect which stirred public interest was to what extent was the homosexual rape on stage “real”. It had always been taken for granted by the public that the rape had been simulated, but accounts of the scene made it sound very real indeed. Bogdanov cavilled over the use of the term “simulation”. From the Artsweek programme: “I don’t believe you can simulate buggery… like you don’t believe the woman can really be sawn in half, you can’t simulate that, you can only create the illusion of it… a leading lady and a leading man are not necessarily in love; in fact they might hate each other, and one might have bad breath and the other a pimple on the upper lip and neither of them actually likes kissing each other but one says to the other “I swear I will love you for ever” and he kisses her, and that is the simulated kiss. But actually, you can create the illusion of a kiss; you can take somebody’s face in your hands and you can appear to kiss them but actually your thumbs have masked the fact that you’re kissing your thumbs, not their lips.” He preferred to use the term “illusion”, because “simulation” refers too closely to physical appearance instead of how the act appears to the mind. Bogdanov also insisted that the physical positions of the actors meant that “biologically it was impossible for it to have occurred”.

Six months after the decision had been taken by Mary Whitehouse to prosecute under the Sexual Offences Act, in June 1981, the charge was heard at Horseferry Road Magistrates Court in London. Bogdanov was represented by Lord Hutchinson who was the defence lawyer in the Lady Chatterley trial in 1961, which gave the whole affair an additional frisson for the general public. It also, subconsciously, emphasised the censorship nature of the case. Much to the surprise of theatrical and legal commentators, the magistrate decided that the theatre was not exempt from the Sexual Offences Act and that there was, indeed, a case to answer. Therefore, he committed Michael Bogdanov for trial at the Old Bailey. The legal commentators were especially baffled since the paragraph cited from the Sexual Offences Act, under which the charge was brought, was originally designed to prevent sexual acts taking place in public lavatories.

The theatre world generally regarded this decision as an insult, and it became a matter of pride for bodies such as the National Theatre Board, the newly-formed Theatre Defence Group and the Actors’ Union Equity to fight the charge tooth and nail. A fund was set up, called the Theatre Defence Fund, whose chief object was to raise money to fight the case and pay for Bogdanov’s trial costs if necessary. A most lucrative way of raising this money was the organisation of a chain of readings of “The Romans in Britain” at theatres up and down the country, at which audiences would donate however much they wished. Interestingly, NVALA made no comment about these readings, which showed that it wasn’t their intention to silence the play itself. It was also evidence of the fighting spirit of the theatre world who saw it as a legal way of showing defiance. This was especially true of the group of actors at the Oxford Playhouse who daily staged a reading of a transcript of that day’s proceedings in court, thereby creating theatre out of the theatre, so to speak. This continued despite a warning from the judge Mr Justice Staughton that they might be in contempt of court.

More about the trial in my next blog post.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2018

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah and Huzzah, it’s the return of Screaming Blue Murder! After those dark Friday evenings of the summer (well, they were quite light actually, but you get my meaning) where all you could do was to relax in the sunshine and fresh air, eat healthy salads and drink homemade fruit smoothies, it’s a welcome back to spending Friday nights in a dark, overheated cellar room at the Royal and Derngate, knocking back the vino collapso and enjoying the finest comedy on the circuit.

Dan EvansAnd it was a welcome back to our usual genial host, Dan Evans, who was on fine form as he set us all at our ease, including Ian who was celebrating his 57th birthday (youngster!) and the attractive young couple in the front row – it turned out that she was a trainee social worker specialising in child safeguarding, and he worked in recruitment for Help for Heroes, trying to get ex-forces people back into work. As you can imagine, the scope for taking the mick out of them was minimal!

James BranThis was one of those rare occasions when all three comedians were new to us. First up was James Bran, a likeable young chap with a rather cerebral approach to his comedy, which we both appreciated. He had some good material about living in the technological age and a great story about dealing with those “have you been involved in an accident” calls. He built up a nice confident rapport with the audience, and, whilst it was never wet-your-pants hilarious, it was intelligent, well structured, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Rob KempOur next performer, and a change to the original line-up, was Rob Kemp. He’s another really likeable performer with tons of zest and a really positive approach to his act. He’s clearly naturally a very funny guy but his material is more than somewhat on the eclectic side. He started to lose us (and he knew full well this was happening) when he tackled what I’m sure was a very clever parody of the 1982 movie The Thing. However, unless you’re really au fait with the film – and I reckon 99% of us weren’t – so much of it went over our heads. It was a shame because you could tell there was so much preparatory work that went into his act but sadly a lot of it was wasted on us! So although he largely missed the mark, he was still strangely admirable!

Sean MeoOur headline act was Sean Meo, a former professional snooker player but that was some time ago and does not feature in his act. He has quite a dour, semi-aggressive persona, and he spends his act constantly walking from side to side across the stage, like a frustrated caged tiger. His material is devastatingly funny, but not for everyone; he opened with some brilliantly comic observations about ISIS, at which one member of the audience took offence, shouted out “you should be ashamed of yourself” and stormed out. I can completely understand that; if your son had died in Helmand Province, for example, you’re unlikely to find that kind of stuff funny. However, Mr Meo simply carried on, making the observation that she made the mistake of taking it seriously, and to his absolute credit, it didn’t affect the comedy flow in any way. The best way I can describe his entire set is as being superbly offensive – I’m sure you’ve got the idea. His timing is immaculate, his delivery sure-fire. You have complete confidence in his ability to hit the comedy nail on the head again and again. We thought he was fantastic, and would definitely seek him out again.

As always, a fabulous night of comedy, with a sell-out audience. Next one is in two weeks’ time. Will you be there?