Another packed house for 2-and-a-half hours of fun courtesy of the Screaming Blue Murder team – the best value comedy in town. This season’s dates have been rather spread apart which means that when the next show comes around, you’re really in the mood for it. And that was all too evident this week as the audience were really up for a good time and, if I may so myself, as an audience, we were all pretty terrific.
We welcomed our usual host Dan Evans, his three amazing guests and, as ever, his two sumptuous intervals. This week Dan ended up talking to Liz and John from Earl’s Barton – the crowd couldn’t decide whether to be sniffy about them or jealous of them; the jovial man who runs the Northampton auction house (I recognised him from my auctioning days), and the front row girls who were all one-upping each other (“I’ve got a house” “well at least I’ve got a baby” etc). He handled it all with his usual remarkable bonhomie.
This was one of those great nights of comedy when you’ve seen all the acts before so you more or less know what’s coming but they were all on such cracking form that they all surprised you with their excellence. First up was Paul Pirie, whom – I have to say – we didn’t really enjoy much when we saw him here way back in 2012. However, this time he was rip-roaring sensational. He bombasts you with a ton of brilliant silly observations with a very powerful delivery, interspersed with some genuinely wacky and funny voices. He’s not one of those comics who give you thoughtful material for your brain to continue to peruse for the next few days; he’s a wham-bam thank you ma’am sort of chap – blame the Red Bull. His set was jam-packed with material, most of which I can’t remember because it was so “of the moment”; although I do remember he said he failed RE at school; which is about as impossible as failing lunch.
Next up, and another favourite, was Karen Bayley. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen Ms Bayley, and, although it’s still largely the same I’m a cougar watch out young man routine that she always gives, the passage of time meant that it still felt fresh and really funny. She did build up a fantastic rapport with the audience – and not just the women this time, which makes an enjoyable change. You sense that though her material is bawdy, deep down she’s probably quite sensitive and polite, which creates a curiously interesting stage persona. Very funny indeed.
Headlining on Friday night was Roger Monkhouse, whom we’ve also seen a few times now and who has cultivated a young fogey personality. He has a terrifically self-deprecating tone and uses it to great advantage with some rather savage observations about life and relationships, whilst dipping into the inevitable horrors of politics. His material is always solid and on the ball, and he too went down tremendously in the hall.
One of those occasions where it all came together, with host, guests and audience all on top form. Seven weeks to wait until the next one. Seven!! That’s mental cruelty.
If you can’t decide whether a comment is sexist or not, I always think it’s worth imagining what it would sound like if it was said by someone of the opposite sex. Imagine, for instance, Miss World commentaries from the 1970s spoken by a woman about a bunch of men, and it doesn’t sound right. Pretend the presenters of Strictly Come Dancing are men and then say what the female presenters say about the bare-chested male dancers as if they were talking about women. You soon come to a helpful conclusion.
When you consider those things that men are sometimes apt to say about women, or how they behave with them, or how a male-dominated society treats women, you can probably think of a number of ways in which things ought to change. Justin Audibert’s The Taming of the Shrew sheds light on the dark area of how men have traditionally ruled the roost over women in a fierce, funny and often ghastly new production.
Imagine, if you will: 1590s England is a matriarchy. Women make the decisions, women hold rank, women own all the wealth, women choose their husbands. It’s Petruchia, rather than Petruchio, who’s come to husband it wealthily in Padua. Men are adornments; chastely virtuous chattel under the dominance of their mothers until it is decreed they should wed the woman of others’ choosing. One such family is headed by Baptista Minola, with her preening, compliant younger son Bianco, who has three suitors, Lucentia, Gremia and Hortensia. The other son is the firebrand Katherine. Yes, Katherine. It’s a girl’s name. All the other swapped-gender characters have masculined or feminined their name endings, but Katherine remains Katherine. No wonder he’s upset. He must have been bullied rotten at school.
I don’t have to tell you the traditional story of the Taming of the Shrew, but in a nutshell: Lovely daughter Bianca can’t get married until dreadful daughter Katherine finds a husband. Enter Petruchio, who loves a challenge; woos her, marries her, then tames her by keeping her hungry, psyching her out, and even beating her into submission. At the end, there’s a magical transformation and she becomes the perfect wife. Put in those terms, it was high time for an alternative production. But it’s always been thought of as a comedy, because Katherine normally gives as good as she gets, and it becomes a true battle of the sexes.
And that’s where this laudable production slightly falls down. Whilst Petruchia is as alpha female as they get, Katherine himself isn’t really that awful. Yes, he has a temper, and eats like a pig; but apart from that, his general stage presence is surprisingly quiet – demure, almost. In traditional productions, the battles between Petruchio and Katherine are almost 50-50, maybe 60-40 on his side. But in this production, Petruchia wins 80-20, and rather than laugh at Katherine’s attempts to get her own back, we’re dismayed with horror at the sheer domestic abuse landed on the poor chap. Their relationship seems to have made both abuser and victim unhinged, and reminds us that women can abuse men just as easily as men abuse women. When Katherine delivers his final speech about the homely role of men, you sense this is not because his character has been transformed into a duteous, wifely fellow, but because he fears abuse and/or starvation if he doesn’t say it. It’s a shame that this Katherine isn’t feistier, as it might have been a bolder examination of what happens when you swap the traditional gender roles. As it stands, the quieter male Katherine rather lets the production off the hook as it ignores what it could have explored if it had gone a bit further.
That’s to take nothing away from the grandeur and humour of the production, especially in the first act. The traditional male roles played as redoubtable females are funny, telling, and beautifully performed; and provide a real eye-opener to the imbalance of the sexes, at least as far as this story conveys it. The second act loses some steam; I didn’t enjoy the totally irrelevant song and dance immediately after the interval, performed by characters whom we don’t recognise; and the subsequent scene between Grumio and Curtis goes on excessively long without really achieving much in the way of plot or character development. By then, the buzz of invention that had carried us into the interval had dissipated and for me the production never quite regained it.
I also found myself (unnecessarily, probably) irked by the fact that they didn’t swap the genders 100%. Why was Petruchia’s servant Grumio still a man? Why wasn’t she Grumia? The opening second act dance routine had men providing the singing with a decorative girl doing the dancing – shouldn’t the genders have been reversed? And why were the servants, who brought furniture props on and off stage, effeminate men rather than strong and able women? For a cheap laugh, I fear. A matriarchal society would surely give those important household jobs that required heavy lifting to reliable women of a lower class.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ stately set serves its purpose, with plenty of doors to provide those occasional Feydeau Farce moments. Hannah Clark’s costumes are sumptuous, where sumptuous is required, and alarming where alarming is required. Most impressive were Ruth Chan’s compositions, superbly played by the six musicians perched above the stage, which varied from madrigal to West End showtune, and everything in between. I’m sure one of the group numbers was Italy’s entry to the 1592 Eurovision Song Contest.
Claire Price dominates the stage with her tyrannical and, frankly, terrifying performance as Petruchia. Unconventional, go-getting and heartier than Captain Birdseye, her characterisation also reminded me of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flash-heart on amphetamines. I think it was the hairstyle that did it. She gives a superb portrayal of someone who’s just allowed himself unfettered access to do whatever he wants, in order to get what he wants, no matter the consequences. Scary, but brilliant. Joseph Arkley’s Katherine never has a chance against her. More petulant than petrifying, it’s a strangely introverted performance; sour faced, but not really a shrew. This is perhaps most visible in the scene where he waits for Petruchia to turn up for their wedding – sulky, and a bit put out; but not angry. Even when he throws the flowers away it’s in despair rather than fury.
Amanda Harris’ Baptista is a grande dame, well used to opulence and having the final say, and she runs her household with beneficent, but stern, matronage. James Cooney’s Bianco is an eye-fluttering, hair-wafting fetching young cove; Mr Cooney very cleverly reflects the traditional behaviours of a Shakespearean younger woman in his movement and his stance and it’s a highly convincing performance. There’s great fun between Emily Johnstone’s super-keen Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania, her servant who acts as the lady, with all the pomp and circumstance she can muster. Amy Trigg brings out all the humour of her go-between role as Biondella, charmingly insolent with Baptista, yet trying to be a good servant; and Melody Brown gives a very strong showing as the domineering Vincentia.
But once again it is Sophie Stanton who steals the show with her brilliantly comic performance as Gremia. It’s an old cliché I know, but Ms Stanton really could make you laugh your head off reading the telephone directory. The comic timing when she’s pleading her case for Bianco’s hand; the way she introduces Cambio “from Rheims”, “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” – it’s just naturally inventive and truly a class act. She amazes you with the physicality of her ability to glide like a hovercraft, and the running gag with the sword and the scabbard is just brilliant. She’s quickly becoming one of my most favourite stage performers of all time.
In the final analysis, this production boils down to an exercise to see what a familiar situation looks like when the sexes are reversed; and from that point of view it’s successful, although I think it could have gone even further. At three hours, it’s just as well they’ve dropped the whole Christopher Sly framework story! It’s playing in repertoire in Stratford until August, but then tours alongside As You Like It and Measure for Measure in Salford, Canterbury, Plymouth, Nottingham. Newcastle and Blackpool. Very enjoyable, and worth seeing to draw your own conclusions about this unusual battle of the sexes.
There’s something about a Latin word that gives it more clout. Like when they create some expensive new cosmetic but 50% of it is tap water, the main ingredient majestically becomes Aqua. No one says aqua! Not since 55 BC. No surprise, therefore, that a 17-year-old mentally ill, sexually confused boy with a horse hang-up would scream “Eq… Eq…Equus!” from his hospital bed rather than the more traditional “Giddy up Neddy”.
Forgive me for that disrespectful introduction, because I actually have a ton of respect for this most significant 20th century play, first performed in 1973 – and I have no doubt it would have faced the wrath of the censor ten years earlier. It’s now been given a pared-down, imagination-filled production from the English Touring Theatre, starting its national tour appropriately enough at one of the most significant theatres of 20th century drama, the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s been a matter of personal shame that I have reached the grand old age of [insert grand old age here] and had never been to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. So when my friend the Squire of Sidcup announced that he wanted to see some “great plays”, and I saw that Peter Shaffer’s Equus was on at that self-same theatre, it was a no-brainer.
I’m sure you know – but in case you don’t, Magistrate Hesther Salomon refers the case of Alan Strang to psychiatrist Martin Dysart as his last chance before being locked up in prison. Strang has been found guilty of blinding six horses at a riding stable; a crime that, even today, stuns the audience into silence when they first hear it. Strang is obstructive, uncommunicative, confrontational, but clearly in need of some meaning to his life; in many ways, a typical teenager. As Dysart pushes and probes into Strang’s emotions and motivations, the truth is slowly revealed of the latter’s destructive obsession with the horse god Equus. But, in comparison, Dysart also considers his own dusty, crusty existence, where he merely observes outside life taking place without having any of his own; and, although comparisons are odious, he becomes jealous of Strang’s passionate and sensual self-expression. At the end of the play, you can draw your own conclusions as to which of them has the brighter future.
This is my third exposure to the dark recesses of Alan Strang’s mind and Martin Dysart’s own personal struggles as his psychiatrist. The first time was in a school group (that’s bold) in 1976, with Colin Blakely as Dysart and Gerry Sundquist as Strang, shortly before it closed – this was the tail end of the original production, I believe. There were bench seats at the back of the stage where we all perched, uncomfortably, but I remember it as a mesmeric experience. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the celebrated 2007 production with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe, which was probably the hottest ticket in town. However, this new production can easily hold its head up high in such prized company.
The simple, stark set adapts itself so well to represent a clinical hospital environment. Sheer white curtains drop down three sides of the stage suggesting those curtains that divide beds in a ward, but also just giving that hint of a white padded room that we associate with mental institutions. A few props, such as Strang’s hospital bed, a basic TV so loathed by his father, and an unexplained hospital trolley carrying six horses’ skulls, are all you need to fill in the gaps. The biggest and most effective prop is Jessica Hung Han Yun’s fantastic lighting design, which incorporates mysterious gloom and blood-red gore, and all moods in between. Giles Thomas’ subtle, disturbing music provides a near-constant undercurrent reflecting Dysart’s state of mind. That alone unsettles us in the audience, because it’s Strang who’s in mental torture, not Dysart, right?
Many of the actors double up their roles to represent the horses, which provides the creative team with the nice problem of how best to portray these strong, kindly equine beauties. Shaffer’s original stage directions required the actors, who wore tracksuits, to don see-through horse masks, putting them on in full view of the audience as part of a deliberate ceremonial procedure. Instead, director Ned Bennett has gone for greater realism in this production. The horse actors just wear shorts; you could consider that the equivalent of a horse’s saddle. The exposure of the strength of the actors’ limbs and torsos directly convey a more powerful impression of the unadorned strength of a horse.
Furthermore, movement director Shelley Maxwell has done an amazing job in enabling the actors to recreate a horse’s neck movements – angular but flowing, strong but vulnerable – and Ira Mandela Siobhan’s performance as Strang’s favourite horse, Nugget, physically blows your mind with its accurate suggestion of how a horse moves. He’s absolutely superb in the role. The climax scene where we see Strang’s attack on the horses also calls for incredibly expressive physical movement, with the agonising blinding of the five horses in the stable followed by Strang’s torturous, mocking, assault dance with Nugget before he too is blinded. It’s both the stuff of nightmares but also incredibly vivid and stunning to watch.
Ethan Kai gives a deeply expressive, no-holds-barred performance as the damaged Strang; initially insolent, gradually more trusting, extremely vulnerable and uncontrollably violent. It’s a brave and memorable performance. Norah Lopez Holden is also excellent as his girlfriend Jill, cheekily and excitedly suggesting a (literal) romp in the hay, and trying to smooth over the waters when it doesn’t go the way she hoped. She’s also extremely good in the hilarious scene set in the sex cinema (which ages the play somewhat). There’s excellent support from Robert Fitch as Strang’s principled-yet-hypocritical father and Syreeta Kumar as his well-meaning mother, Ruth Lass as the concerned Hesther and Keith Gilmore as the no-nonsense nurse and stable owner.
But it is Zubin Varla who stands out, as the professionally high-achieving and personally self-disappointing Dysart. We first see him, huddled in the corner of the stage. You think it’s going to be Strang, because that plays to our preconceptions of a mental health patient, but in fact it is Dysart, revealing from the start his discomfort in his own skin. Wretchedly dependent on his cigarettes, his analytical tactics may well pinpoint precisely Strang’s issues, but they also gapingly reveal his own. Constantly addressing the audience, you can hear the doubt and the essential sadness through both his voice and his body language. I’d be surprised if Dysart has ever been portrayed with greater eloquence or pain. It’s one of those performances where you can’t take your eyes off the actor; first rate throughout.
Equus plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 23rd March, and then goes on to Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, The Lowry in Salford, Northern Stage in Newcastle and Guildford. If you’ve never seen the play, this is a great opportunity to witness for yourself this ground-breaking work. If you have seen it before, I doubt whether you’d ever have peered so closely into Dysart’s soul, as Mr Varla allows us to see. Stonkingly good.
P. S. The Theatre Royal, Stratford East is a little island of Victorian delight in a sea of modern shopping centre. Extremely welcoming and friendly, it has a cool vibe, good toilets, and a trendy bar supporting its beautiful, intricate Victorian interior of red and gold. We sat in the middle of row D of the stalls, and, I must confess, I now know the definition of cramped. There’s not a lot of space there! And the stage is surprisingly high, so even from row D you can only just make out the floor level. But the prices are incredibly reasonable and the atmosphere is superb, even for a Thursday matinee. Very keen to go again!
P. P. S. The Squire of Sidcup was gobsmacked with the brilliance of Equus. It’s incredibly rewarding to introduce new minds to the wonders of the theatre!
In which Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant – presumably suicide. However, a year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that dining party. It takes Colonel Race, alongside Inspector Kemp, and a third law enforcement officer, to work out exactly what happened to both victims. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book bears no dedication. Sparkling Cyanide was first serialised in the US in the Saturday Evening Post from July to September 1944 under the title Remembered Death, and in the UK in the Daily Express in a heavily abridged form in July 1945 as Sparkling Cyanide – a year later than its American serialisation. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1945, and in the UK in December 1945 by Collins Crime Club. The book is an expansion of the short story Yellow Iris, that was first published in the Strand Magazine in July 1937. It also appeared in the book The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, that was first published in the US in 1939. Yellow Iris was not published in the UK until its appearance in Problem at Pollensa Bay in 1991.
This book is a curiosity. I found it quite hard to read at first; the characters and the reminiscences didn’t hold my attention, and I found it strangely easy to put down and leave for several days (ahem weeks) before picking it up again and rekindling my interest. It’s separated into three “books”, each with an introductory quotation. The first book lets us share the reminiscences of the six survivors of the first dinner party and I found it, in part, a little confusing and, basically, an unattractive read. Once we reached the point where the second death is being investigated it suddenly seemed to gain life and entertainment and I was keen to read more of it. In fact, I read the final two thirds of it in two days, which is pretty quick and determined for me.
However, there is something about it that is strangely unsatisfying. Yes, the gallop to the final post is very exciting, but it’s also (in my humble opinion) hugely far-fetched and relies on a very risky gamble; that a group of people will all act in a certain way if a certain event takes place – sorry to be vague, but I don’t want to give away the game. I’m absolutely convinced that, if I were one of that group of people, I would not have acted in the way that the murderer – or indeed the detectives – predicted. It also suffers a little from the same fate that befalls Five Little Pigs; there is a considerable amount of repetition, particularly in the first section, about things that happened in the past, and you’ve no choice but to wade through it in order to get on with the more interesting things happening in the present.
There’s one interesting aspect to this book though, and it’s very appropriate to our own times, that if you tell a lie sufficiently frequently and with sufficient conviction, it’s accepted as the truth. Just as the denouement is about to get underway, the character who has finally worked out what happened and why, gives us this clue: “Consider for yourself how much has been taken for granted on one person’s word.” At that point the reader takes up this challenge and tries to work out to whom this refers, and what facts have been taken for granted that aren’t necessarily true. When I was reading it, I couldn’t remember whodunit from my earlier readings of it; and even this clue didn’t bring me to my senses, despite my trying to solve it. But it’s true; a web of hearsay deceit has been planted under our noses and we never tumble to it. It reminded me with hideous accuracy of the politicians of our day; when no one is held accountable for the truth, preposterous lies are accepted with absolute certainty as fact.
It’s a welcome return to the excellent Colonel Race, whom we first saw in The Man in the Brown Suit, way back in 1924, where he was a spy, a detective, and a wealthy big game hunter, not necessarily in that order. He assists Poirot in Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile, although his prime interest is in political espionage rather than murder. It’s by means of a letter of introduction from Colonel Race that local police chief Colonel Carbury meets Poirot in Appointment with Death.
As a result of those previous meetings, you get the feeling that if someone has met someone else in another part of the world, Colonel Race will nearly always be a mutual acquaintance. Race only becomes involved in the Sparkling Cyanide case because he is a friend of George Barton, whose wife Rosemary may have taken her own life. When he encounters Mary Rees-Talbot as part of his enquiries, she notes that they haven’t met “since you disappeared so mysteriously from Allahabad that time”. When Inspector Kemp meets the cantankerous General Lord Woolworth alongside Race, the general spits out an anti-police polemic until he espies the Colonel, and breaks off with,”“Seen you somewhere. Now where -?” Race’s answer was immediate and came with a smile. “Badderpore, 1923.” “By Jove,” said the general. “If it isn’t Johnnie Race! What are you doing mixed up in this show?” Race smiled.” Rather like God, Race clearly moves in mysterious ways and is omnipresent.
In the Christie canon, Race is a good man; he gets things done, and isn’t afraid to put his head into the lion’s den, so to speak. And although he’s got a good brain, and patiently thinks things through, he’s also not afraid to get things wrong, in public, as he does a couple of times in this book. It’s a shame that this is the last we see of him; Christie never chose to feature him again. Even when we get to consider its original appearance as the short story Yellow Iris, in Problem at Pollensa Bay, which will be right at the end of this Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s a Hercule Poirot story – Christie changed it to Colonel Race for this book.
What of Chief Inspector Kemp? This is the only book in which he appears. We know that, as an officer from Scotland Yard, he doesn’t usually deal with common or garden murders, but the presence of Stephen and Sandra Farraday (an MP and the daughter of a Lord) numbering among the suspects, the case requires his sensitive touch. Race (naturally) is an old friend. Here’s Christie’s description of him: “Kemp was slightly reminiscent of that grand old veteran, Battle, in type. Indeed, since he had worked under Battle for many years, he had perhaps unconsciously copied a good many of the older man’s mannerisms. He bore about him the same suggestion of being carved all in one piece – but whereas Battle had suggested some wood such as teak or oak, Chief Inspector Kemp suggested a somewhat more showy wood – mahogany, say, or good old-fashioned rosewood.” Coming from a more privileged background, and enjoying the benefits of great wealth, Race is there to smooth out any rough edges that Kemp might have, intelligent, though ploddy, policeman that he is.
As usual, there are a few references to check out. First: locations. This is a very London-centric story. The Bartons and Iris live in Elvaston Square, which, sadly doesn’t exist in real life, although there is an Elvaston Mews in South Kensington, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall. Other London locations in the book are Cadogan Square, the home of the Rees-Talbot family, and Brook Street, home of the Woodworths. Both are real; in fact, Brook Street has already been used as a location in Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun; Christie must have had some personal experience of this address.
Outside the centre of London, Chloe West lives at 15 Merryvale Court, Maida Vale and 21 Malland Mansions, Earl’s Court, is a flat where, let’s just say, Farraday pays rent but he doesn’t live there. Both of those addresses are fictitious, albeit in real-life suburbs. Ruth meets Victor at the Rupert Hotel, off Russell Square, and the Compradour, Mille Fleurs and the Luxembourg clubs and restaurants are all mentioned; but they’re all totally made up. However, Farraday asks his wife if they could go to Fairhaven for the golf – this is actually an area near Lytham St Annes on the Fylde Coast, where there is still a fine golf club bearing its name. Finally, the little place in the country that the Bartons take for the summer months is in Marlingham, Surrey; it doesn’t exist, but there is a Warlingham – just a slip of an upside-down letter separates them.
And now some other references, that I thought were worth investigating. Browne reflects on his meeting with Rosemary Barton, and concludes: “as beautiful as a houri – and probably just about as intelligent!” Maybe you already knew that houris are the virgin companions who await Muslim faithful in paradise, according to the holy Quran. I didn’t. I understand the notion that they would be beautiful; apparently that relieves them from the burden of being intelligent too. I wondered if this was an early example of islamophobia – I sense not, but am open to arguments on this one if you know better!
Anthony Browne proudly boasts to Rosemary that there was a chamberlain to Henry VIII with the same name. It’s true; Sir Anthony Browne (1500 – 1548) was appointed Master of the Horse in 1539, having proved his loyalty to the king three years earlier when he was sent to contend with the Catholic protesters during the Pilgrimage of Grace. The king so trusted him that, at the end of his life, he gave Browne a dry stamp with which to sign letters in the king’s name. Impressive!
Rosemary asks Sandra Farraday, whilst in the ladies’ toilets (even in Christie-land ladies all go to the toilets together) for a Cachet Faivre to help with her headache. This was a pain medication containing caffeine and quinine. There’s a scene in Noel Coward’s The Vortex where one of the characters asks the butler to fetch her one; and in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, hotel landlady Lottie remarks, “Half the young fellows as come here now don’t have anything except a cachet Faivre and some orange juice.” Sounds like the mid-20th century version of a Red Bull.
Lucilla Drake remembers when Eaton’s Syrup was administered as a health tonic when she was young. At one time, Eaton’s in Winnipeg had the reputation of being the largest department store in the world and was a leader in the world of mail order sales, with a wide range of tonics and medicines, including a kidney cure mixture, a sore throat mixture and a “syrup of Eucalyptus, White Pine and Wild Cherry Compound”. It was clearly a cure-all medicine; I’ve found a 1906 account of treatment of malaria which included Eaton’s syrup during convalescence. The company was acquired by Sears Canada in 1999, and the company closed down in 2018. However, the Eaton Centre in Toronto is still a go-to shopping mall.
Iris receives a proposal of marriage. However, she replies, “I’m not of age. I’m only eighteen.” Today, of course, Iris would be well within the legal maturity for marriage. However, back in 1945, you had to be 21 to get married without parental consent. Even today, there are some countries (China and the Central African Republic) where a man has to be 22 to get married, even with parental consent.
Lord and Lady Kidderminster are said to look at each other “so might Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have stared at each other with the word Iphigenia on their lips”. Very classical. I’m sure you know, but Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who commanded the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The goddess Artemis required Agamemnon to kill Iphigenia as a human sacrifice in order for his troops to reach Troy. They were tough times in those mythical days.
Colonel Race confronts one of the characters and accuses them of not being who they say they are. That person replies, “for the Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin”. I’d heard that reference before but never known its derivation. It’s from a rather crude poem called The Ladies (c.1890) by Rudyard Kipling, where a chap recollects all the women he’s slept with and concludes that, despite their differences in class and race, basically, they’re all the same.
As mentioned earlier, quotations introduce each of the three sections that make up the entire book. Part one, entitled Rosemary, begins with “what can I do to drive away remembrance from mine eyes?” which is the opening line from a poem by John Keats written in 1819. Part two, entitled All Souls’ Day, begins “that’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”, which even I remembered was a line by Ophelia in Hamlet. Part Three, Iris, begins “for I thought that the dead had peace, But it is not so…” which comes from section sixteen of Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855.
I’m sure you remember 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. Despite many times alluding to the size of Iris’ inheritance when she comes of age, there’s only one sum mentioned in this book – £200, which is the amount that Victor cons out of Lucilla. That’s around £6000 in today’s value, that the little swine took.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sparkling Cyanide:
Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in December 1989, price £3.25. The cover illustration simply shows a popped champagne cork and a calendar page for 2nd November that has been partially burned. Not sure of the significance of the burning.
How many pages until the first death: There are two ways to consider this. We discover that Rosemary died on page one. However, if you’re waiting for a real-time death, you have to wait until page 120. That sounds like a long wait; however, this impression has many more spaces and gaps in its printing than most earlier Christies. Page 120 is about halfway through the book.
Funny lines out of context: One can always rely on Christie’s somewhat archaic use of the “E” word.
“His satisfaction was short-lived, for another thought struck him with the force of a physical blow. He ejaculated out loud.”
“His name soon became known as that of a “coming” young man.”
Having been rather spoilt by Christie with her characterisations in her more recent books, this is one area where this book disappoints. You have the strong independence of Ruth Lessing, the devil-may-care bad-boy nature of Anthony Browne, and – perhaps – the political expediency and ambition of Stephen Farraday, but apart from that most of the characters are fairly bland.
Christie the Poison expert:
The clue is in the title! Although cyanide – cyanide of potassium as she refers to it – is the method of poisoning for both deaths in the book, Christie doesn’t go into much detail as to how it works or the effect on its victims. She just points out how it makes anyone who takes it turn blue – “the blue cyanosed face, the convulsed clutching fingers”, as Iris recollects. A third death is averted; however, that wouldn’t have been caused by cyanide poisoning.
Class/social issues of the time:
Most of Christie’s favourite themes crop up in this book, but only occasionally, and without great significance. Take, for instance, feminism and the role of women in society. Most of the women in this book have good social standing but only one, Ruth Lessing, could be described as independent and self-reliant. Rosemary relied on relationships; Sandra Farraday confirms that she couldn’t survive without her husband, no matter what he’d done; Iris demurely waits for life to come to her rather than the other way around. Feeblest of all, Lucilla Drake is depicted as a scatty windbag, powerless against the devious manipulations of her son.
Consider Lucilla’s assessment of George’s domestic lifestyle: “George is very well looked after at present. What more can he want, I should like to know? Excellent meals and his mending seen to. Very pleasant for him to have an attractive young girl like you about the house and when you marry some day I should hope I was still capable of seeing to his comfort and looking after his health. Just as well or better than a young woman out of an office could do – what does she know about housekeeping? Figures and ledgers and shorthand and typing – what good is that in a man’s home?” Clearly she feels that a woman’s role is simply to support a man.
There’s also an amusing interchange between Colonel Race and Inspector Kemp about women in society. “”Do you think she is the type to slip incriminating evidence into a girl’s handbag? A perfectly innocent girl, mind, who has never harmed her in any way? […]” Inspector Kemp squirmed uneasily in his seat and peered into his teacup. “Women don’t play cricket,” he said. “If that’s what you mean.” “Actually, a lot of them do,” said Race, smiling. “But I’m glad to see you look uncomfortable.””
The book was published at the end of the Second World War, when the nations of the world looked to their political leaders for inspiration and help to see them out of the mess of the previous six years. Whether you can tie in the character of Stephen Farraday with that inspiration, I’m not sure; but I did enjoy Christie’s gently savage description of his rise up the ranks: “At twenty-two Stephen came down from Oxford with a good degree, a reputation as a good and witty speaker, and a knack of writing articles. He had also made some useful friends. Politics were what attracted him. […] Though by predilection a Liberal, Stephen realised that, for the moment at least, the Liberal Party was dead. He joined the ranks of the Labour Party. […] But the Labour Party did not satisfy Stephen. He found it less open to new ideas, more hidebound by tradition than its great and powerful rival. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were on the look-out for promising young talent. They approved of Stephen Farraday – he was just the type they wanted. He contested a fairly solid Labour constituency and won it by a very narrow majority. It was with a feeling of triumph that Stephen took his seat in the House of Commons. […]
“Nevertheless, once the excitement of actually being in the House had subsided, he experienced swift disillusionment. The hardly fought election had put him in the limelight, now he was down in the rut, a mere insignificant unit of the rank and file, subservient to the party whips, and kept in his place. It was not easy here to rise out of obscurity. […] One needed something above ability. One needed influence. […] He considered marriage […] some handsome creature who would stand hand in hand with him sharing his life and his ambitions; who would give him children and to whom he could unburden his thoughts and perplexities. Some woman who felt as he did and who would be eager for his success and proud of him when he achieved it.” In other words, a purely self-seeking, self-interested social climber with no thought of service to the nation. It’s not difficult to see in which direction Christie’s political loyalties swung from her description of the three main parties!
There are a couple of minor moments of xenophobia and racial issues, although perhaps not as much as in some of Christie’s books. Christine Shannon explains “that’s why I don’t like Dagoes. When they’ve drunk too much they’re not a bit refined any more – a girl never knows what unpleasantness she may be let in for.” That’s an example of both using a detrimental term and stereotyping an entire range of people to one type of bad behaviour. On another occasion, George Barton tells Race about Rosemary’s death and says that the cabaret was “one of those negro shows”. With the benefit of hindsight, and remembering the popularity of the Black and White Minstrels right up into the late 1980s, that’s actually quite polite for the time.
I was interested by the suggestion that a psychiatrist – or what Christie calls “a nerve specialist […] one of these modern men” advised George that “after a shock of any kind, the trouble must be faced, not avoided” and this is – perhaps – the reason that he calls for the dinner party to be “re-run” as it were at the restaurant where Rosemary died. It’s not often that Christie expresses concern for mental health in her books; it must have been a new consideration of the time. But there’s also some very backward-looking thought processes going on, when Race attributes one of the motives for the crime to “bad blood”. A character is associated with guilt because their mother is “feeble in intellect and incapable of concentration”, their father is “weak, vicious and a drunkard” and their sister is “emotionally unstable.” “A family history of weakness, vice and instability. Predisposing causes.” Talk about judgemental! Wouldn’t go down well in a court of law today.
Classic denouement: The denouement creeps up on the reader and you find you’re at that point of the book without it having been made obvious by the writer. Granted, it’s extremely exciting, but I wouldn’t call it a classic, as the perpetrator is not present at the time and therefore cannot be accused dramatically by the detectives. And there’s also the question of the outrageously unlikely modus operandi of the crime, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph but one….
Happy ending? Wedding bells in the offing for one couple, although there is a sense of sadness at the end of the book for those who died, which means this book definitely ends in a minor key.
Did the story ring true? NO!!!! As I mentioned earlier on, the whole set-up of the crime relies 100% on a group of people acting in one particular way – like a herd instinct – when presented with a particular set of events. And I just don’t believe it. But I can’t explain that to you without giving away the game.
Overall satisfaction rating: There are a few passages where the writing is highly entertaining, and the detective investigations are highly readable. But it’s also very slow to start and is spoiled by its stupid resolution, so on balance I’m downgrading it to a 6/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Sparkling Cyanide 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 Hollow, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about the book but I do remember that a few years back we saw a stage adaptation of the story – and it was pretty awful! So I’m hoping that the original book is much better. Only one way to find out! 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!
The Balletboyz have carved out a fantastic reputation for themselves in the twenty years or so since they left the Royal Ballet. I first saw Michael Nunn and William Trevitt in a Dance Bites programme at the Wycombe Swan back in 1996, sharing the stage alongside such great names as Deborah Bull, Jonathan Cope, Adam Cooper and Dame Darcey Bussell. Their name came from a TV film they made of their creative partnership, and in about 2001 they created the George Piper Dances. But the Balletboyz label stuck, and wisely they reverted to that catchy name by which they are respected and loved today.
Them/Us is a new programme partly devised by the current group of dancers under the direction of Messrs Nunn and Trevitt, and partly choreographed by Christopher Wealdon. It’s a creative process that has worked backwards. Us, the second act of the programme, is an expansion of an original pas de deux choreographed by Mr Wealdon, which premiered in 2017 to great acclaim, designed to provide more of a narrative introduction to the existing work.
And then before the interval, Them – created by the company – is a further introduction to the later content, taking ideas from the dancers as to the very varied definitions of what Them might mean (to them, obviously). The result is an exciting and exhilarating double-act of dances, with fantastic performances of variations on similar choreographic movements, reflected between both pieces.
Them starts with six dancers, in multicoloured tracksuit-type shirt and trousers, seemingly meeting for the first time. A large and sturdy cube structure is walked into place, with which the dancers interact, walking through the spaces it provides or being enclosed by its invisible walls. The dancers each set up their own choreography with one another, whether it be handshake-type gestures, jokey gymnastics or intimate closer movement. As the dance progresses, two dancers who are already working together will attract a third to their group; and then a fourth, and eventually a chain of dancers linked by hands starts to envelop and wrap around itself. It’s almost a viscous flowing movement; it reminded me of the swirly convolutions of a model of a double helix molecule.
Although I couldn’t truly discern a clear and obvious narrative to the dance, what struck me was that it was all about individual people supporting each other. This is not one of those male-oriented dances that is all about supremacy and survival of the fittest. This is an environment where everyone matters, and conflict is replaced by care. This sense of charity and kindness continues on to Us, where the six dancers now appear more formally in long grey jackets, a little like frock coats, but their movements become freer as the jackets come off and they just appear in white shirts. The whole momentum culminates in the original duet, where the shirts are also removed and the whole final sequence reminded me of a guy looking at himself in the bathroom mirror, unsure of what he sees in his reflection; until his reflection takes over and reassures him that all will be well. Or, it could be a simple love story. Either way, it’s one of the most dynamic and tender performances you’re ever likely to see between two male dancers.
I was particularly impressed with the fluidity and flexibility, not only how the dancers used their bodies but also in their control of the choreographic movement throughout. Nothing was ever distorted, jarring or irrational in its movement; even when the music suggested a throb of pain or a blow to the head, everything flowed beautifully, with the effect that it made the dancers’ performances look easy – which of course, is far from the truth! That the company members possess great skill is obvious; what they also have is an enormous understanding and trust between themselves, which really becomes apparent in such a detailed and accurate performance.
The whole company dance with enormous strength, style and emotion; but, to name names, the final duet from Harry Price and Bradley Waller is stand-out sensational, and I also really enjoyed their performances alongside Liam Riddick earlier in the evening, who is on immaculate form as always. Coming up the ranks Ben Knapper performed a fantastic solo inside the cube to powerful drum rhythms and he is definitely my new One To Watch in contemporary dance. And I haven’t even mentioned the thrilling music!
A full Sadler’s Wells on a Wednesday night speaks volumes for the popularity of the company and the esteem with which it is held. After their week in London, their tour continues to Salisbury, Bromley, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Exeter, Chester, Richmond, Guildford, Glasgow, High Wycombe, Oxford, Finchley and Bristol by the end of April. Powerful and emotional – a must-see!
Ahhh, the glory days of 1977. Everything about Abigail’s Party exudes nostalgia. As soon as I saw the set, I remembered when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought a top-of-the-range fibre optic lamp for the living room. How I loved that thing! I could sit in the dark and watch it change colours for hours, just like Beverly does. Mind you, I don’t miss the endless times when little bits of glass snapped off and stuck to the carpet until, inevitably, they got stuck in my feet. Serves me right for not wearing any slippers. Nostalgia always hurts somehow.
Nostalgia isn’t just the set, either. There’s an interview in the programme with director Sarah Esdaile, where she talks about the link between the character of Beverly and Alison Steadman, who first played her. Ms Steadman was part of the cast who, with the guidance and leadership of Mike Leigh, devised the play back in 1977; indeed, at the time, she and Leigh were married. This is what Ms Esdaile took from her discussions with Mike Leigh, prior to directing the play: “there is no point in wilfully trying to move Beverly away from [Alison’s] voice because her voice is all over it […] Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice because she has been such a fundamental part of creating that character.”
And, in performance, that is both a strength and a weakness of this production. In Jodie Prenger’s highly entertaining portrayal of Beverly, she’s emphatically not, I believe, giving us a simple impersonation of Alison Steadman, because that just wouldn’t work. I remember seeing an immensely tedious production of Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier ten years ago where the lead actor just pretended to be the late Ms Wood throughout – merely to confirm what we already suspected, that only Ms Wood could do Ms Wood.
However, Ms Prenger’s voice, channelling Ms Steadman’s, does give you a feeling of nostalgia, and you can’t help but wonder whether you’d have been better off in the comfort of your own home, watching the original BBC Play for Today on DVD? That’s the elephant in the room; can you improve on (or at least do an interesting cover version of) the original, particularly if you’ve seen said original loads of times? Seven years ago we saw Jill Halfpenny in a production at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Her performance was nothing like Alison Steadman’s; she completely made it her own. And it was an irresistible eye-opener: sexy, funny, tragic, brilliant. Far be it from me to tell Mike Leigh how to stage a production of Abigail’s Party, but actually you can leave Ms Steadman at the front door and go your own way.
You also get the feeling that Beverly’s strangulated vowel sounds as expressed by Ms Prenger aren’t entirely natural; and that, vocally, it’s a bit forced, maybe a little bit pretentious. Which is a shame, because the one thing Beverly is not, is pretentious. She lives for pleasure; for booze, for smoking, for Demis Roussos, for beauty products. She dreams of reclining on the beach at Palma Nova; for her, good taste is whatever you enjoy, and she never tries to be what she isn’t. She leaves the pretentiousness to her husband Laurence, whose desperate attempts to force Van Gogh and Shakespeare on their bemused guests eventually lead to his own personal tragedy.
What Ms Prenger does achieve, brilliantly, is Beverly’s physical presence; her self-indulgent loucheness, gin-and-tonic in one hand, cheesy pineapple sticks in the other, puffing at the cigarette that protrudes sensuously from those heavily made-up lips. And, as the night carries on, she subtly re-balances her stance and walk, as she tries to hide how progressively more drunk she has become, still hoping to maintain that ever-diminishing façade of attractiveness.
She also conveys Beverly’s inner sadness and vulnerability extremely well, forcing others to conform to what she wants because she can’t bear the thought that someone else knows better than she does; spitting out her vengeance against the hapless Laurence, who clearly can no longer bear the sight of her and she hasn’t a clue why.
Designer Janet Bird’s 1970s comfortable suburban living room is filled with all the must-have items of the era. Not only the sensational optic lamp, but also a hi-fi to die for, the perfect pot plants, and a plentifully stocked drinks cabinet concealed within the teak room-divider; everything is spot-on. It is a shame that the room-divider masks a brief, but important scene between Beverly and Laurence, where she tries to make up to him and he pushes her away. I can’t imagine anyone in the audience saw it properly at all, and that feels like a basic staging error. The dinky set sits in the middle of the ginormous Derngate stage and just about holds its own there, although it would have been hugely better in the intimate confines of the Royal Theatre instead. By my reckoning, only by sitting in the absolute centre of the rows do you have a chance to see everything on stage. We were in the centre block of Row F, but on the right aisle, and had no idea there was a bathroom off stage on our side of the auditorium. Similarly, those on the left side of the centre couldn’t see the kitchen. It doesn’t hugely matter for the action in this play, but purists might be disappointed.
Apart from Beverly, the rest of the cast bring their own approaches to their characters, stamping a sometimes unexpected individual authority on them. For example, Vicky Binns’ Angela struck me as being more socially adept and good company than in previous incarnations; she’s clearly very fond of Beverly (or at least, in enormous awe of her) and doesn’t really tell her off at the end when she’s getting in the way of her paramedic act. Calum Callaghan’s Tony is extremely non-communicative and sullen, and only once does he give us a facial expression to suggest he might be willing to thrust along with Beverly’s intimate dancing. The bitterness between Tony and Ange is palpable and excruciating; and their final scene, which is pure physical comedy, works a treat. Daniel Casey (totally unrecognisable as Sgt Troy from Midsomer Murders) is perhaps a little over-frantic in his interaction with the guests and hugely patronising when it comes to the subjects of art and literature; but then again he does have to share his house with a philistine.
But it is Rose Keegan’s characterisation of Sue that comes as the big revelation in this production. Normally seen as a dowdy wallflower totally obsessed with what her daughter might be doing at her party, this Sue comes from another planet. Completely aloof and with her mind on much more than just her daughter, you can almost see her words fragment into vacuousness as they leave her lips. She reminded me of a female version of Neil the Hippy in TV’s The Young Ones. Whether it’s a class thing, and she can’t bear to be surrounded by these awful people, or whether she’s on some kind of drug-induced cloud, I’ve no idea. But she’s totally out of it. And – strangely enough – it works incredibly well. I laughed at her performance more than I laughed at anything else in the play.
And that answers the question I asked earlier. Despite an assumption that you might know the play intimately, and despite the lingering Steadmanism of Beverly, there’s always something fresh to be discovered in a new version. Yes, a lot of its darker side gets lost in the quest for comedy. Still, for all its occasional faults, I really enjoyed this production. It’s already been touring for a few weeks, and after its visit to Northampton, it goes on to Blackpool, Aylesbury, Liverpool, Dartford, Manchester and Edinburgh in time for Easter. Time for a top-up?
“You’re a very good listener,” says the vacuous Polly to the arch manipulator Frances, in Lucinda Coxon’s gripping and joyful adaptation of Harriet Lane’s first novel, Alys Always, a preview of which we saw on Saturday afternoon. Polly doesn’t know the half of it; she has a great memory too. Frances has a gifted brain; in its deepest recesses she files away all the facts and feelings (names, passcodes, ages, hiding places for keys, etc) that she chances upon through everyday conversation that one day might, just might, come in useful. But does she use this gift for the greater good of mankind? Not exactly.
Frances is wasted in her day job – a sub-editor in the Books department at The Questioner Newspaper; in other words, a general dogsbody who spends her day feeding the meter for more senior employees’ cars, making the drinks for meetings, and hoping that the Departmental Head might one day remember her name. But a random experience changes all that. She witnesses a car accident late one night; she rushes to the scene to try to help but can only hear the accident victim talking to her from her trapped car. They have a brief conversation, where Frances does her best to calm her; but there’s nothing she can do apart from keep her company until the ambulance arrives. The victim is Alys – pronounced Alice – and she doesn’t survive.
But it turns out that Alys was the wife of Laurence Kyte, the most marketable thriller writer in town; and when the police suggest that Frances meet the family as part of a “closure” initiative, it’s probably an invitation she shouldn’t pass up. Particularly when it turns out that her boss is also at Alys’ memorial. Alys’ daughter Polly becomes especially attached to Frances; and as the latter’s influence within the Kyte family blossoms, so does her ability to spot personal opportunities that will do her no harm whatsoever, and her position in the office can take on a more significant role.
I haven’t read the novel, but it’s a truly engrossing and unpredictable story, with snappy, crisp (and sometimes excruciatingly wicked) dialogue, sparkling wit and a winning performance from Joanne Froggatt who introduces us, simple idea by simple idea, to the darker side of the unassuming office girl; so that we, the audience, don’t sit there tutting and criticising her devious planning, but in fact rather approve of how she tricks the foolish people around her to make a better life for herself. Morally we’re on very shaky ground here; but Ms Froggatt convinces us that it’s all just a bit of fun, and, if we were in her shoes, which of us would be that squeaky clean?
The blank wall that greets us when we arrive in the auditorium is used for various arty projection backgrounds, the majority of which quirkily suggest the location and/or mood for each scene so that we never need more than a few tables and chairs to be sure of our location. The mood is further enhanced by Grant Olding’s moving and haunting compositions, played live with style and panache by Maddie Cutter.
Robert Glenister is excellent as the morose and mournful Laurence Kyte, apparently plunged into emotional darkness by Alys’ death, although it’s not too long before he’s, shall we say, back to his old tricks. Ms Coxon has been generous with the script to Mr Glenister and he delivers some brilliantly sour one-liners and wallows in fabulous hypocrisy. I guffawed loudly at the observation about picking your way past the homeless to get to Hatchard’s before feeling incredibly guilty at finding it funny – ouch.
I really enjoyed Simon Manyonda’s arsy Oliver, the big-headed book reviewer who’s insufficiently aware of his own shortcomings; Joanna David’s calming but business-like Charlotte, the housekeeper-cum-literary agent with a guilty secret; Leah Gayer’s needy and irritating millennial Polly (a cracking West End debut that’s all character and no caricature); and Danny Ashok’s ever-hopeful but maybe too principled Sid.
There’s also a wonderful performance from Sylvestra le Touzel as Literary Editor Mary; like a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Margo Leadbetter, she bosses her underlings, but cultivates any story opportunity whilst always being seen to be On Top. She underplays the character’s savagery to perfection; and teases out riotous laughter when she offers Frances “flat white or latte… and a little pastry?” Those office politics and ingratiating tactics are so well observed.
But it’s Joanne Froggatt who carries off this superb play with a truly entertaining, insightful, comic and devastatingly ruthless performance. Her connection with the audience works incredibly well – she spends most of the play talking to us, so it’s no surprise that we’re behind her all the way – even when she’s forcing people’s hands and deliberately misleading them. What a little imp she is! Hugely enjoyable, beautifully written and structured, fantastic performances; an absolute gem. It’s only on at the Bridge Theatre until 30th March, but surely it should somehow have a life thereafter?
Fashionistas, help me; I can’t remember, is Retro in or out this year? Whatever, it’s definitely in chez Judy and Johnny, where she spends her day dressed in her best 1950s garb, preparing meals for her beloved on a 1950s stove, using ingredients distilled into 1950s packaging, cleaning the floor with her 1950s carpet sweeper, and preparing 1950s cocktails for Johnny when he comes home from work.
But this is not the 1950s. This is today; and in her search to find her true self, Judy has espoused her favourite decade 100%. No interior design out of place, from the TV to the telephone, the sofa to the fridge, everything is genuine 1950s. Her only day-to-day link with the modern world in her home is her laptop, because she relies on eBay and Amazon to furnish her with her outdated, second-hand necessities. And, despite her spirited defence of her way of life, it’s all very sad.
Anna Fleischle has gone to town in creating her delightful 1950s set. When we see it, as we enter the auditorium, with its dolls’ house frontage, it suggests both a perfect idyll, but also a plaything, a façade. However, when the front of the house flies up and Judy comes along and physically pushes the front door into place to reveal a proper, lived-in home, we discover this is genuinely her real life. Visually, it’s both amusing and stunning, with excellent attention to detail, from the pineapple ice-bucket to the starburst mirror. The superb 50s styling of Judy’s clothes make for an obvious contrast with the modern-day outfits worn by everyone else who comes to her house. There’s a moment in the second act when the set comes to life and switches from “half-renovated” to “fully-DIY’d” and receives a round of applause all for itself.
And I think that’s the key to the whole play. On the face of it, it’s quirky, funny, outrageous even. But when you get under the surface, there’s not actually a lot going on. I can sum up the plot quite simply: Woman takes voluntary redundancy in order to live out 1950s fantasy existence; runs out of money, goes back to work. That’s it. The rest of the play is padded out, watching Judy interact with the outside world in the form of her friend Fran, her mother Sylvia and Johnny’s boss Alex. None of them really “get it” – Fran is supportive of her lifestyle, but bemused; Sylvia thinks she’s an idiot; and Alex suspects that whatever it is that Judy’s got, Johnny might catch it. Johnny blames the fact that he was passed up for promotion on Judy’s 50s obsession which made Alex feel uneasy – and he’s probably right.
In fact, it may well be that Judy’s mental health is in question here, revealing some need to turn her back on reality and escape into her own little cocoon. However, if that is the case, then it appears to be one of the most easily treated mental illnesses ever recorded; simply by happily skipping off to work at the end of the play, it implies she’s cured. I think the play is also trying to send a message about feminism – but I can’t quite work out what that message is. All the way through, it’s Judy who’s in the driver’s seat. She decides to leave work, she decides to devote herself full-time to running her fantasy household, she decides to conceal their debt from Johnny, she decides to go back to work. As a couple, she’s takes the assertive role, and he’s the passive one. But despite that, she’s not happy, and she doesn’t achieve what she wants. Don’t push too hard, your dreams are china in your hand? Not sure.
You might be getting the message, gentle reader, that I didn’t care for this play very much. Sadly, that’s true. Despite its initial impact – that opening scene ends with a delightful coup de theatre – I began to get a little bored, which for me is the cardinal sin for a play. None of the characters is particularly likeable, except Judy’s tell-it-like-it-is mother Sylvia, who tries desperately to appeal to her daughter to see sense and take control of reality. As she says, unless you were a straight white male, the 50s were shit. Why celebrate that time of rationing and dreariness now? It’s not unlike the current fad for pro-Brexiteers to hanker after the good old days of the Second World War; we survived it then, we can survive it now. But, as Sylvia tries to make Judy see, it’s clearly a smokescreen for something else. Doesn’t she want to achieve more than mere survival?
Got political there, soz. Nearly everyone else in the play – Johnny, Fran, Alex – is portrayed with only modest, vanilla characterisation so we don’t really know much about them; and Marcus is clearly a sex pest but only has a minor involvement in the story. As for Laura Wade’s writing, it’s quite funny in parts, but probably not funny enough to think of it as a proper comedy. Any serious attempt to draw out a feminist – or indeed anti-feminist – argument in the play gets bogged down and befuddled. In the end, this is simply a story of someone making a decision to do something; then realising they were wrong and changing their mind; then moving on. Happens all the time, doesn’t it? I sense there’s a good play lurking under the surface here, but Home I’m Darling isn’t it.
Katherine Parkinson is one of our most intelligent and insightful stage performers and she makes the best of the role of Judy, revealing the character’s inner frustrations and ambitious motives, but even she can’t make it soar. Susan Brown is excellent as Sylvia, dishing out her caustic bonmots and the stage certainly brightens up when she comes on. Sara Gregory gives a nicely perplexed performance as Johnny’s boss Alex, out of her depth in weirdo-land.
But I’m afraid I was distinctly unimpressed with the whole thing. Happy to accept that I’m out of kilter on this one as it received rapturous applause from the audience and the critics have rated it highly. After its short stay at the Duke of York’s, it’s having a mini-tour to Bath and the Lowry in Salford, before returning to its birthplace from last summer, Theatr Clwyd.
P. S. Perhaps my reaction was in part to the uncomfortable nature of the Duke of York’s Theatre. Yes, it looks beautiful, but the bars and public areas are cramped and the toilets few-and-far-between. Go to the loo before you arrive!
Often, gentle reader, when it comes to writing about a stage adaptation of a book or a film, I have to confess to having neither read nor seen its earlier manifestations. However, on this occasion, my confession is that I have indeed read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning 1989 novel (at the time I used to read as many Booker Prize nominees as I could) and even seen the Merchant Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Of course, I can’t remember a thing about either of them – apart from the fact that they were both good. For this current Made in Northampton production (co-produced with Out of Joint and the Oxford Playhouse), Barney Norris (he of Nightfall fame) has adapted Ishiguro’s novel and created a beautifully crafted, elegantly realised play which deftly weaves the story’s two timelines so you can’t see the join.
In brief (and the plot is simple, so this is indeed brief), Stevens is the butler at Darlington Hall – once the seat of Lord Darlington – but now owned by an American, the ex-Senator Lewis. Lewis gives Stevens a few days off, so Stevens motors down to the West Country to find his ex-colleague, Mrs Benn, who was once housekeeper at the Hall. Of course, in those days, she was Miss Kenton; and Miss Kenton used to hold something of a torch for Mr Stevens. But Mr Stevens was either too cold-hearted to notice it, or too devoted to his Master to allow a third party to intervene in his life. Mrs Benn has written to Stevens to inform him that her marriage to Mr Benn is on the rocks. Will Stevens track her down and whisk her away to a life of bliss in their autumnal years? Or will his natural reserve come to the fore so that he merely seeks to employ her as a housekeeper back at Darlington Hall? I couldn’t possibly say.
The play accurately reflects the flashbacks of both the book and the film by having today’s story, of Mr Stevens travelling down to Cornwall, played alongside yesterday’s story, of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton running the house, with Lord Darlington inviting political bigwigs to the Hall for pre-Second World War negotiations. At first, my companions – Mrs Chrisparkle and the Squire of Sidcup – were both perplexed at the presentation and didn’t know who was what nor what was where. I, naturally, saw through the time travel ploy instantly; a matter of a good education, I guess. Once you do get the hang of the timescale swopsies, it all falls into place very satisfactorily.
Lily Arnold’s simple but highly effective design recreates a stately home awash with full length mirrors (and with perpetual rain) by having panels that slide into place to create the illusion of rooms, hallways, and, indeed, the West Country pub where Mr Stevens has to overnight en route. There are mirrors at the back, too, which really come into their own in the very final moments of the play as Stevens walks towards them, having been bombarded by the voices from his past from all over the auditorium; a sound engineer’s dream, it’s like discovering Stereo all over again.
At the heart of the production is Stephen Boxer as Stevens; never off-stage, even when he’s not part of the action he’s lurking at the back as the discreet butler par excellence. It’s an immaculate performance, full of reserve and contemplation, discretion and control. Almost imperceptibly, he changes from the formal, upright butler of the past to the slightly more relaxed, aged Stevens of the present; the merest of stoops, the softest of shuffles, a hint of more facial expression, slightly less clipped enunciation – a masterclass. He is matched by Niamh Cusack’s excellent performance as Miss Kenton, the assertive housekeeper who knows she’s good at her job, politely resenting interference and appalled at the growing antisemitism of the age – plus ça change, sadly. Ms Cusack also excels as the Mrs Benn of today, slightly worn down by the experiences of a difficult married life, and with an affectionate fondness for nostalgia. However, she’s not lost any of her assertiveness, as Mr Stevens discovers to his well-concealed shock.
The rest of the cast double up to cover many different roles between the two timescales, sometimes transforming from one to another before your very eyes, and with impressive impact. Stephen Critchlow’s saloon bar Harry quickly flips into the square-shouldered, cynical Sir David; Sadie Shimmin’s pub landlady Mrs Taylor adopts class and elegance as Mme Dupont, and Miles Richardson’s formal Lord Darlington becomes the avuncular Dr Carlisle with one twist of the heel. These are all confident, assertive performances. Snappy and impressive, their timescale switches are particularly effective at keeping the narration moving along nicely, especially in the second act. If I’m honest, there were a couple of moments in the first act where plot progress felt a little sluggish, but after the interval the pace picked up with gusto.
Additionally, Pip Donaghy brings a lump to the throat as the ever-faithful but increasingly frail Stevens Senior; Patrick Toomey is a prickly Senator Lewis (but one who always has an admiration for Mr Stevens) and Edward Franklin a superbly wet-behind-the-ears young Reginald, for whom Stevens is appointed as official Birds and Bees adviser.
Smart, elegant, convincing; this production tells its simple tale with class and clarity and boasts some terrific performances. After its run at Northampton, the tour continues to York, Bury St Edmunds, Southampton, Guildford, Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. A neat spin on a traditional format, it’s well worth catching.