One of the big hits of last year – but which left me cold – was Laura Wade’s Home I’m Darling, a clever construct that merged the 1950s with the present day, but which for me lacked substance, characterisation and conviction. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that I’m out of kilter on that one. I’d already seen another of Ms Wade’s plays, Posh, as performed by the University of Northampton Acting Students and a jolly good fist they made of it. Having enjoyed that, I thought I’d give Ms Wade another chance with The Watsons, a co-production between the Menier and Chichester Festival Theatre, both of whom I pretty much trust to come up with good productions and performances. And whilst you can see certain elements linking both plays – messing around with time, fooling the audience into thinking one scenario is happening when in fact another is secretly operating over and above it – I’m delighted to say that Home I’m Darling isn’t a patch on The Watsons, which is currently convincing me is one of the best new plays written in the 21st century.
If you want to miss any spoilers, skip this paragraph, although if you’re interested in seeing the play, you may well already know its trick up its sleeve. The Watsons is an unfinished book of Jane Austen’s; she started writing it in 1803 and shelved it after a few chapters. We don’t know why she stopped writing it; and the play is Laura Wade’s method of exploring this mystery and imagining what story might have evolved from the bare bones that survived. Emma, the youngest of the Watson girls, returns to the family fold much to the interest of local society, and the curiosity of her brother and sisters. Will she be courted by young Lord Osborne, whose family own the posh house? Or might she fall for the dignified poverty of Mr Howard the clergyman? Or, heavens forfend, will she choose the dashing cad Tom Musgrave? Just as she’s about to consider favourably an offer of marriage, Laura, ostensibly a maid but actually the author, crashes into the story and stops Emma from underselling herself. Once Laura has crossed the divide between Jane Austen’s characters and real life, her adaptation task is made so much harder, as the characters themselves demand a say in what happens… and the result is, literally, anarchy.
Yes, it’s a play about the creative process – something I always find extremely rewarding – bringing the creator herself up close and personal in conflict with her characters and plotline. The play gives Ms Wade a chance to explore the differences between reality and fiction; there’s delight when the characters realise they will never die, for example, but a shock when they discover they will never progress; much to the horror of ten-year-old Charles Howard, who realises he will always be a boy and never get to discover what’s hidden inside ladies’ underwear. There’s also a lot of fun to be had by bringing both the modern world and the theatre world into the characters’ lives, and each funny little idea that Ms Wade writes into the text is only ever used once, which keeps the play constantly inventive and evolving.
Despite the idea of a writer confronting his characters not being 100% original – Laura herself mentions Pirandello when chatting to David the producer on her mobile – the construction of this play is so fresh and so tight, and so beautifully carried out by a cast who do not put a foot wrong, even by the most minor of the 19 roles that pack out the tiny Menier stage, that the production is a complete joy. Ben Stones’ design helps to accentuate the differences between Austen’s era and today, with simple touches like the minimalist plastic red chair that Laura sits on to workshop the story with the cast who are all seated opposite her in regency white. I had to chuckle when I saw that her coffee cup bears the symbol of the Sheffield Crucible’s Centre Stage Loyalty club.
Even when their characters are developing way beyond what Jane Austen might have expected of them, each of the nineteenth century cast plays it absolutely straight, which intensifies the hilarity all the more. Only Louise Ford, as Laura, is allowed the space to reflect and speak in the modern manner, much to the amazement of her Georgian counterparts. It’s a beautiful performance, laden with responsibility towards Austen, the characters, the audience, everyone; delivered with embarrassed uncertainty and occasional goofiness. She is matched by Grace Molony’s Emma, at first miffed that her chance of a fine marriage has been thwarted, who grows into a delightful 200-year-old rebel, with a perfect blend of the demure and the cunning.
Paksie Vernon is excellent as the put-upon Elizabeth, Jane Booker tremendously haughty as Lady Osborne, Joe Bannister hilariously tongue-tied as her uppercrust son, Laurence Ubong Williams marvellously roguish as cad Tom, Sophie Duval delightfully pompous as Mrs Robert, Sally Bankes brilliant as the surprisingly political Nanny, and with the rest of the cast all turning in superb supporting performances. At our show, young Charles was played by Isaac Forward and he was effortlessly fantastic.
The run of The Watsons at the Menier continues until 16th November – but it’s completely sold out. I’m not surprised. Surely a West End transfer must follow; this is far too good a play and production to end here. I don’t do star ratings – but this gets a 5*!
If asked the perplexing question, What’s Your Favourite Arthur Miller?, I think most people go for The Crucible option, with perhaps a solid minority plumping for Death of a Salesman. However, way back in 1988 I took the young Miss Duncansby on a date night to see the National Theatre’s production of A View from the Bridge directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon as Eddie Carbone – and it remains one of our all-time most memorable theatrical experiences. The pre-wedding anxieties faced by the Carbone family resonated very strongly with our own familial disasters in the lead up to ours. I could fill you in on the details, but that’s probably best kept for another time.
Juliet Forster’s storming production for the Royal and Derngate, together with York Theatre Royal, arrives with many plaudits from its Yorkshire run – and quite right too. Fantastic performances, clear, lucid storytelling, usefully flexible stage design, and a story just as strongly valid today as it was in 1955. The Bridge in question is Brooklyn Bridge, which spans from smart Manhattan to down-at-heel Red Hook in Brooklyn, where immigrant labourers offload the cargo from the ships. Eddie and Beatrice play host to her cousins Marco and Rodolpho who have arrived illegally from Italy where there is neither work nor money. It’s just one of many such arrangements throughout the whole of Red Hook, and there’s only one code of conduct: you don’t snitch to the authorities. But when Rodolpho and Beatrice’s daughter Catherine become romantically entwined, Eddie’s jealousies and prejudices come to the fore.
In today’s Brexity times, immigration is a very live issue, and anything that makes us think harder about the personal problems facing immigrants and society’s attitude towards them, must be a good thing. But I was very much struck in this production how Miller was exploring not only the general subject of immigration, with questions of loyalty and family relationships, but also those perhaps more modern topics of mental health and what it is to be a man. There are four principal male characters in this play – Eddie, the family provider; Alfieri, the authoritative high achiever lawyer; Marco, the workhorse; and Rodolpho, the creative artist. Whilst Eddie would, naturally, see himself as being the pinnacle of manhood, he respects the lawyer although is “man enough” to question his opinion, and he respects the head-down, hard worker for grafting all the hours God gives to send money home to look after his children.
But he has no respect for the artist, whose strengths lie in other directions – in the arts, in entertainment, and in surreptitiously winning the hearts of all the ladies. To Eddie, Rodolpho simply ain’t right. But Miller shows us that all four of these people are “proper men” in their own ways and in their own right. The only one who fails to abide by the common code at the end of the day, is Eddie – and you sense his mental health is far from stable, with his wild and unpredictable behaviour. That’s why this play translates perfectly as a modern version of a classical tragedy, with Alfieri as the chorus and Eddie as the tragic hero. Whilst the more cerebral Alfieri and Rodolpho use their intelligence and know that conciliation is the successful way forward, it’s not the same for the more physical Eddie and Marco. When Eddie demands that Marco makes good the dishonour he cast on him, and Marco seeks vengeance for the betrayal, there’s only ever one outcome in this clash of the alpha males.
Rhys Jarman’s set is stark and comfortless, with the Carbone’s furniture arriving out of a packing case that descends from the sky, just like the crates the longshoremen unload from the ships – an Ikea ex machina, if you like. But the simplicity of the set is its strength. Even Alfieri’s office is represented by sitting on an old tea crate; and worrying prominence is given to the pole-mounted telephone stage right, always visible, but only used once, for the ultimate act of betrayal. Sophie Cotton’s opening scene background music is intriguing and atmospheric, and I was sorry not to hear more of it.
At the heart of this superb production is an immense performance by Nicholas Karimi as Eddie. At first, I thought he might be a trifle young for the role – Miller’s stage direction stipulates that he’s forty years old – but those thoughts quickly passed as I realised that his relative youth intensified the creepier aspect of Eddie’s love for Catherine. Dogmatic, unreasonable, and with a finely expressed sense of his own self-doubt, Mr Karimi is hugely watchable throughout the whole play and conveys all of Eddie’s wild emotions with a mixture of great control and maniacal turbulence.
Also threading through the production is Robert Pickavance’s tremendous portrayal of Alfieri, which elevates what could otherwise be quite a humdrum role into a genuinely tragic framework. Mr Pickavance takes instant control of proceedings, with his thoughtful, considered delivery directly slowing down the pace of the busy first scene. He has a fantastic stage presence, and it’s a commanding performance. Laura Pyper plays Beatrice with loving concern for both her husband and her niece, providing a voice of moderation in a volatile household. In her professional stage debut, Lili Miller is excellent as Catherine as her character journeys from trusting innocence to the sad realisation that she is being controlled and, you may feel, emotionally abused.
As the vulnerable outsiders offloaded like cargo into the Carbone house, Reuben Johnson and Pedro Leandro create a very effective couple as Marco and Rodolpho. Mr Johnson’s impassive expressions convey the worries and the silent heartache he has in leaving behind his wife and children; because he is the kind of man who cannot talk about his feelings, those emotions build up angrily inside. His final showdown is a great expression of aggression mixed with justice. Mr Leandro is terrific as Rodolpho; it’s tempting to make the character overly effeminate or camp but this Rodolpho is a beautifully precise portrayal of a man whose strengths and abilities take him outside the usual herd; strengths that make the longshoremen laugh, that attract Catherine, that repel Eddie and that make Marco protective of him.
Not gonna lie – on the performance we saw, the stage fight at the end was incredibly clumsy and unconvincing, but everyone can have an off night. That aside, it’s a riveting, thought-provoking drama that explores many of mankind’s worst aspects. Timely, slick and with tremendous performances, this production continues at the Royal and Derngate until October 26th, but really deserves a life hereafter.
In which Sophie Leonides decides she can’t marry Charles until the identity of her grandfather’s murderer is discovered. By chance, Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, who agrees with Chief Inspector Taverner that Charles can sit in on the investigations as his unique position of trust, bridging the gap between the family and the police, could be useful. The Assistant Commissioner has worked it all out before anyone else – but he doesn’t uncover the murderer. 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, but it begins with a foreword: “This book is one of my own special favourites. I saved it up for years, thinking about it, working it out, saying to myself: ”One day, when I’ve plenty of time, and want to really enjoy myself – I’ll begin it!” I should say that of one’s output, five books are work to one that is real pleasure. Crooked House was pure pleasure. I often wonder whether people who read a book can know if it has been hard work or a pleasure to write? Again and again someone says to me: “how you must have enjoyed writing so and so!” This about a book that obstinately refused to come out the way you wished, whose characters are sticky, the plot needlessly involved, and the dialogue stilted – or so you think yourself. But perhaps the author isn’t the best judge of his or her own work. However, practically everybody has like Crooked House, so I am justified in my own belief that it is one of my best. I don’t know what put the Leonides family into my head – they just came. Then, like Topsy, “they growed”. I feel that I myself was only their scribe.”
Crooked House was first published in a condensed version in the US in the October 1948 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, and in the UK it was first serialised in seven abridged instalments in John Bull Magazine from April to June 1949. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in March 1949, and in the UK on 23rd May of that year by Collins Crime Club. Not only was it one of Christie’s favourites to write, but it has always enjoyed excellent critical acclaim as being one of her best.
I can remember sitting on a grassy lawn at the age of about 12, when I should probably have been watching my house team bat in the weekly cricket match, but couldn’t be arsed as the saying now goes, because I was engrossed in Crooked House and I desperately wanted to finish it. I made the classic mistake of checking ahead to see how many pages were left, and, in this book, gentle reader, if you do that, it is impossible not to discover whodunit. So if you haven’t yet read it, don’t be tempted to flip to the back pages for whatever reason. You’ll only spoil it for yourself.
The title, of course, is one of many of Christie’s works that was inspired by a nursery rhyme – there was a crooked man, who etc, etc, and they all lived together in a little crooked house. To be fair, the house itself doesn’t play that strong a part in the story, but there are other reasons why it is an extremely appropriate title. There’s no Poirot or Miss Marple in this book to come and solve the crime, and the detective team from Scotland Yard are introduced in a very casual manner. The book is narrated by Charles, so it’s all written in the first person, and Charles never actually introduces himself to us. It’s simple and stylish, broken into straightforward chapters with no chapter headings, no subdivisions, and nothing to get in the way of the flow of story-telling. Charles’ father, the Assistant Commissioner, is only ever referred to as “the Old Man”, because that’s how Charles thinks of him – we only discover his real name is “Sir Arthur” on page 73. It is Taverner who oversees the case, and a thorough, decent kind of a chap he is too. Charles describes him in the narrative as “solid, dependable, and with an air of businesslike promptitude that was somehow soothing”.
But it’s to Sir Arthur that we look for a new perspective on the art of murder in this book. Time and time again we’ve read Poirot banging on about psychology and all that. Sir Arthur would no doubt agree with Poirot’s opinions, but he has some of his own, too. “What are murderers like? Some of them […] have been thoroughly nice chaps […] Murder, you see, is an amateur crime […] One feels, very often, as though these nice ordinary chaps had been overtaken, as it were, by murder, almost accidentally. They’ve been in a tight place, or they’ve wanted something very badly, money or a woman – and they’ve killed to get it. The brake that operates with most of us doesn’t operate with them […] Some people, I suspect, remain morally immature. They continue to be aware that murder is wrong, but they do not feel it. I don’t think, in my experience, that any murderer has really felt remorse… And that, perhaps, is the mark of Cain. Murderers are set apart, they are ‘different’ – murder is wrong – but not for them – for them it is necessary – the victim has ‘asked for it’, it was ‘the only way’ […] Is there a common denominator? I wonder. You know […] if there is, I should be inclined to say it is vanity […] I’ve never met a murderer who wasn’t vain… it’s their vanity that leads to their undoing, nine times out of ten. They may be frightened of being caught, but they can’t help strutting and boasting and usually they’re sure they’ve been far too clever to be caught […] and here’s another thing, a murder wants to talk […] having committed a murder puts you in a position of great loneliness. You’d like to tell somebody all about it – and you never can. And that makes you want to all the more. And so – if you can’t talk about how you did it, you can at least talk about the murder itself – discuss it, advance theories – go over it.” Very wise words there, from the Old Man. I think it as at this point in the book that he has already concluded that he knows whodunnit. If you carefully read and analyse his thoughts, you realise there are a lot of clues there.
There are a few interesting themes in this book, mainly involving surviving everyday life in post-war Britain, which I’ll take a look at later. Otherwise, this is very much a plot-driven book, starting with the murder to be solved virtually right from the very beginning of the book, and working backwards, rather than working towards a murder – which may be chronologically more sensible but is often less fun.
As usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book is set in the village/suburb of Swinly Dean, which is close enough to London to warrant a Scotland Yard investigation rather than a local constabulary. There is no such place, but there is Swinley Forest, which covers quite a large area south of Windsor into north Surrey, so that would be appropriate for a country location still close to London. When Josephine is rushed to hospital, she is taken to Market Basing General Hospital, and Market Basing is the setting for Dumb Witness, and is also where the police are based who investigate The Secret of Chimneys; Basingstoke seems the likely real-life equivalent. Not many other locations are mentioned; Aristide Leonides is often mentioned as coming from Smyrna, which since 1930 has been better known as Izmir, in Turkey.
As for the other references, there are a number of people mentioned in this book whose identity I needed to clarify. Magda’s first appearance reminds Charles of Athene Seyler, an English actress best known for playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and one of the murderous spinsters in Arsenic and Old Lace. Athene Seyler would have been 60 years old when this book appeared; she lived on to the ripe old age of 101. Taverner admires a portrait of Aristide Leonides in the house that was painted by Augustus John. Another notable British artist, he was a major post-Impressionist who specialised in portraits. He died in 1961 aged 83.
When Sir Arthur is waxing lyrical on the nature of murderers, he brings to mind “Constance Kent, everybody said, was very fond of the baby brother she killed.” Kent was a fascinating murderer, who, at the age of 16 murdered her 4-year-old brother – this was in 1860. Investigating was the famous Inspector Whicher but public opinion demanded that Kent be released because he was working class and she was not – such a bizarre situation. She was eventually found guilty, and went to prison until she was 41. Later she emigrated to Australia and died in Sydney at the age of 100. She was still alive when this book was published.
Magda describes Leonides reading out his will to the assembled family as “rather like the Voysey Inheritance”, which is a rather grand play from 1905 by Harley Granville-Barker. Even I can just about remember The Brains Trust, which Josephine says she listens to. This was a popular radio show where a panel tried to answer difficult questions from the audience. A bit like Question Time without the Gammon. Sir Arthur describes the late Mrs Leonides’ as being “the daughter of a country squire – an M. F. H.” I’d never heard of an MFH before and I think it does me credit. It’s a Master of Foxhounds.
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. Money has a very high place in this book, and the sums that are mentioned are somewhat mind-blowing. Leonides had apparently left his wife £100,000 in his will, bestowed an allowance of £150,000 on his son Roger, and the total value of his will was £1m. The equivalent of those three sums at today’s value would be £2.5 million, £3.75 million and £25 million. We’re not talking chicken-feed here.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Crooked House:
Publication Details: 1949. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in December 1974, price 35p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams probably gives away more of the plot and whodunit than is decent, so I’ll say no more apart from the fact that I can’t offhand particularly see the relevance of the bottle of pills.
How many pages until the first death: 4. That might be just about as immediate a death as Christie gives us in all her works. Certainly it lends an air of urgency and purpose to all the investigations that follow.
Funny lines out of context:Part of a description of where all the family members are gathered at an important meeting: “Roger was astride a big pouffe by the fireplace.”
Not certain whether he counts as memorable, but I rather like Charles the narrator. He has an elegant air about him, full of uncertainties and misgivings, thrust into some uncomfortable situations that he never sought. Magda is an amusing grande dame of the theatre; Josephine is an irksome, precocious child; and the biggest character of all, Aristide Leonides, is already dead.
Christie the Poison expert:
Two of the deaths in the book involve poison, and the first is a rather unusual choice by Christie, eserine. Today better known as physostigmine, it would have been a relatively recent commodity at the time the book was written, as it was first synthesised in 1935 and is primarily used in the treatment of glaucoma. It is the active ingredient in the West African Calabar Bean.
The other death is from the more common digitalin, which was also the fatal ingredient in Appointment with Death, derived from the common foxglove.
Class/social issues of the time:
Most of Christie’s usual themes don’t seem to surface here very much, although there is one racial slur when the elderly Edith de Haviland refers to Aristide’s wife as “a dago” and an “ugly common little foreigner”. Apart from that, the book is another that gives a good insight into how people were surviving after the war. Magda slyly acquires clothes coupons on the black market in order to continue to indulge her lavish fashion lifestyle – but it’s a struggle (and illegal). One of the reasons the family looks down on Laurence Brown is because he was a “wretched conscientious objector”, and he goes on to explain why he took that path: “what if I was afraid? Afraid I’d make a mess of it. Afraid that when I had to pull a trigger – I mightn’t be able to bring myself to do it. How can you be sure it’s a Nazi you’re going to kill? It might be some decent lad – some village boy – with no political leanings, just called up for his country’s service. I believe war is wrong, do you understand? I believe it is wrong.” I’m sure that would have been a relatively unpopular opinion at the time.
Worrying political intrigue of the day is also shown by Nannie’s opinion of who killed Leonides. “I didn’t say it was a burglar, Miss Sophia. I only said all the doors were open. Anyone could have got in. If you ask me it was the Communists […] everyone says that they’re at the bottom of everything thing that goes on. But if it wasn’t the Communists, mark my word, it was the Catholics. The Scarlet Woman of Babylon, that’s what they are.” Nannie is a prime example of the kind of person of whom one could say “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Nannie, clearly, doesn’t hold with Catholicism; Charles describes her as “a good old Black Protestant”.
There’s a very good scene where the family members discover that most of them have been disinherited by the late Mr Leonides and their acceptance and/or fury at the discovery is described in a satisfying long examination of how the love of money can damage relationships. At a time when money was, generally, scarce, having such a large windfall whipped away from under your nose would be – shall we say – a trying experience. Manners are also becoming a thing of the past; the episode of The Brains Trust that Josephine listened to, concluded that “nobody’s a lady nowadays […] the said it was ob-so-lete.”
Classic denouement: No, but it’s a uniquely exciting ending, involving a car crash and the surprise revelation of exactly what’s gone on by reading a couple of written testaments that had been prepared a long time in advance.
Happy ending? Apart from the fact that the family suffers a surprise bereavement at the end, it’s a relatively happy ending in that a planned wedding can go ahead, and there’s a definite Happy Ever After sense to the last page.
Did the story ring true? It is, perhaps, a little surprising that a written confession hadn’t been discovered by some police search; but, that aside, the murderer’s M.O. seems perfectly reasonable and this isn’t one of Christie’s stories that is riddled with unlikely coincidences.
Overall satisfaction rating:Along with other popular opinion, I can see no reason not to award this book the coveted 10/10!
Thanks for reading my blog of Crooked House 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 an oddity. I’ve been working through Christie’s oeuvre in the order in which it was published in the UK. But there was one short story that was published in the US in 1950 that was never published in the UK during Christie’s lifetime. In many ways it is one of her more significant stories, and I think now is the time to include it in this assessment of her works. It’s Three Blind Mice, which became the source for the ultra-successful play The Mousetrap. The other short stories in the collection were all printed later in the UK, so I’ll ignore the rest of them for the moment, but just concentrate on that one famous story. 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!
“So… Nigel Slater. Have you heard of him?” I asked Mrs Chrisparkle, shortly before we set off to the theatre. “He’s a chef, isn’t he?” she replied. “Yes, indeed” I said, confident as I had only Googled him a couple of hours earlier. To be honest, I hadn’t a clue who Nigel Slater was. Obviously important enough to have a play written about his toast, at any rate. And when you enter the Royal auditorium, that’s the first thing you notice – the smell of deliciously crisp, tasty toast. Torture for the coeliac Mrs C, who hasn’t had decent toast since 2004.
It is a trifle odd to watch a play, adapted from the autobiography of someone you’ve never heard of, and for a while I kept on thinking that I was missing something, some kind of grand identity reveal that would give added purpose to this otherwise rather private play. But I never felt the benefit of that reward. Instead for me it was a kind of voyeuristic experience, observing the childhood and upbringing of a famous person without truly understanding why I was doing it.
That said, it’s a very enjoyable, totally charming and incredibly slick production that uses its kitchen set to remarkable ends – with a very creative use of those floating island units we all envy in kitchen showrooms, although if you saw how they presented Getting Married Today in the recent production of Company, it won’t come as that much of a surprise. We meet 8-year-old Nigel helping his mother in the kitchen, devouring the wise words of Marguerite Patten; it’s obvious from the very start that Nigel has a very serious interest in cookery, this is not merely food-play. We then follow him through life’s experiences, including his first sight of a naked man (at a surprisingly young age), the confusion over boy sweets and girl sweets, the loss of his mother, his father’s remarriage and his first steps towards adulthood, both at work and in discovering his sexuality.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation is beautifully written; a delicate soufflé of words and emotions that bind perfectly and rise just as they should. Throughout the play there are occasions when nothing is actually said, but the expressions and the actions of the performers give it greater eloquence than words ever could. And, having lost a parent myself at a young age, I found its whole portrayal and understanding of childhood bereavement completely believable – and young Nigel really reminded me of myself, which was quite a shock. Plus: real cooking! Whilst some of the earlier food preparations in the play are presented, by necessity, à la Blue Peter, whatever it is that Giles Cooper cooked in the final scene – definitely involving mushrooms – wafted gloriously into the auditorium. Sit in the front row and you might get some flapjacks; the rest of us take lucky dips out of several bags of sweeties. I plumped for a roll of Fizzers, which are alarmingly noisy to open in the theatre, particularly when one hand is holding a glass of Malbec. To be frank, Fizzers and Argentinian Red aren’t the best food/wine pairing.
Central to the success of this production is a superb performance by Giles Cooper. His very clean-cut image is perfect for the young Nigel, and I remember that shorts and long socks look from my own childhood. Perfect clarity of diction, childlike (as opposed to childish) expressions and reactions, the disappointment when plans go wrong, routine behaviours, and much more – it’s a very full and credible performance of a child’s existence, and the growing awareness of life outside the kitchen as he gets older.
Blair Plant is also excellent as Dad; very formal, sometimes finding it difficult to exercise his parental skills to the best of his ability, but also wheedling like a child when he wants everything his own way. The other members of the cast take several roles. Katy Federman gives a great performance as the kindly Mum, an almost idealistically perfect mother figure, balancing her love for her child and wanting the best for him, with her own failing health – she’s also great fun as Doreen, Nigel’s first employer. Samantha Hopkins is terrific as the loathsome Joan, with whom Dad falls in love (well, in lust, really), a lascivious chainsmoking strumpet with a need to compete for affection. And Stefan Edwards is great in all the other male roles – the surprisingly uninhibited gardener, Nigel’s goofy schoolmate, and Doreen’s ballet-dancing son.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the production, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It’s a lively, honest, creative play that shows the boy turn into the man. I’m sure if you’re already familiar with the man in question, you’d get even more out of it! Toast is touring into December, so if you’re near Richmond, Brighton, Salisbury, Manchester, York, Chesterfield or Crewe, you can see The Rise and Rise of Young Nigel for yourself – tickets available here. Very slick, very enjoyable – recommended!
Calendar Girls is one of those stories that never seems to go away. First, there was the reality – the death in 1998 of John Clarke, which inspired his widow Angela to create the famous naked Women’s Institute Calendar for 2000; and again for 2004, 5, 7 and 8. Then came the 2003 film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters that won Best Film at the British Comedy Awards. 2008 saw the premiere of Tim Firth’s play at the Chichester Festival, with a feisty cast including Elaine C Smith, Sian Phillips, Lynda Bellingham and Patricia Hodge – we loved it. When we saw it a couple of years later at the Royal and Derngate, however, it had turned into a bit of a stinker; in those days I used to give a Chrisparkle Award to the Worst Play/Production of the Year (I’m not that childish or cruel nowadays), and I’m afraid it won first prize.
However, in 2015 Tim Firth joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That fame to pen Calendar Girls The Musical, which opened in Leeds that year, then received a West End transfer in 2017 and started touring in October 2018. A year later, it has finally arrived in Northampton, and we thought we’d give those daring ladies another try.
It’s now a very different entity. From the very first moment when Phil Corbitt’s John walks through a country gate and starts singing wholesomely and romantically about Yorkshire, you’re caught up in a world of country goodness, Mother Nature, solid family/friendships, and a feeling that all’s right in the world. In fact, those opening moments reminded me strongly of the beginning to Oklahoma!, a lone rural soul extolling the virtues of his beloved homeland. Mr Corbitt’s voice is warm and reassuring; Mr Firth’s lyrics are heart-warming and emotional; Mr Barlow’s melodies are strong, evocative and rewarding. And that very much sets the tone for the entire show. The performances are all very strong – particularly musically; the adaptation of the original is inventive, funny and moving; and the tunes range from the enjoyable to the memorable. Mrs Chrisparkle felt she heard shades of Blood Brothers; I sensed elements of The Hired Man. If we’re both right, that has to be a winning combination.
I must admit, I had low (maybe no) expectations of this show, but I was completely wrong. It’s a blast from start to finish, whether that’s through the upbeat characterisations of the Women’s Institute members, or through the strength of the relationships portrayed between all the characters, or through a variety of high comedy scenes. It also gets the emotional sadness of John’s declining health absolutely right, which prepares us for Annie’s brave bereavement and her subsequent way forward, largely due to support from her irrepressible bestie Chris.
Whereas the play seemed interminably slow to start, the musical just gets on with it, which is a virtue all of its own. It also, extremely successfully, brings out the characters of Danny (Chris’ son), Tommo (Cora’s son) and Jenny (Marie’s daughter), who are all at school together and clumsily formulating relationships of their own. Scenes with the younger actors balance nicely with the older cast to give a fuller picture of the village environment. If I remember rightly, the play rewards us with the always hilarious taking-the-photographs scene about halfway or two-thirds way through; whereas the musical uses this as its near climax, if you’ll pardon the expression. The musical version of the naked photoshoot remains hysterically funny with inspired use of buns and some members of the cast throwing care to the wind with what they might or might not reveal.
The performances are universally excellent throughout. Sarah Jane Buckley is brilliant as Annie; musically, her delivery of the song Scarborough, where she starts to show anxiety about how life can carry on with an incapacitated John, was the show’s highlight for me. Rebecca Storm’s Chris is a hearty, confident type, full of support for her friend; Julia Hills’ repressed Ruth is a brilliant portrayal of an older woman putting on a brave front – again, another musical highlight is her hilarious (yet sad) My Russian Friend and I where she shares the source of her consolation.
Great to see Ruth Madoc on fine form as older headmistress Jessie, with just the right level of status-oriented pomposity but with warmth and humour shining through; Lisa Maxwell gives a great performance as bodily-enhanced Celia, and Sue Devaney is fantastic as always, as vicar’s daughter Cora, trying to encourage son Tommo to do as I say not as I do. On which subject, Tyler Dobbs is superb as Tommo in what I suspect is his first major professional role. Danny Howker is a nicely innocent Danny, and Isabel Caswell is a nicely knowing Jenny, which makes them a perfect pairing. But the entire cast do a great job in bringing this emotionally-charged but never maudlin – and frequently hilarious – musical to life.
Highly recommended; after Northampton, the tour continues to Blackpool, Chester, Bath and Chichester. Tickets – if there are any left – are available through the tour website here. It received a deserving standing ovation on its first night in Northampton – I can only suggest you book to discover for yourself why.
P. S. I can’t work out why this show seems to appeal almost exclusively to women. On Tuesday night I doubt whether the packed house of 1200 theatregoers had more than 20 men. Maybe men are still too scared to witness emotion? Who knows? Have a word with yourselves, guys, you’re missing out on a lot of fun!
I can’t believe it’s been five years since we last saw Russell Kane, performing his Smallness Tour at the Warwick Arts Centre. That year he won the coveted Chrisparkle Award for Best Stand-Up in competition with such comedy giants as Russell Brand, John Bishop, Paul Chowdhry and Trevor Noah. He must have been good.
And I’m delighted to say he still is! The Fast and the Curious is another full-on evening of entertainment (overrunning through sheer enjoyment by about half an hour!) where Mr Kane, in his inimitable manner, pulls apart the idiocies of life and the family dynamic into which he’s married. In his last show he talked a lot about his Mancunian fiancée; now they’re married, he’s got a whole host of other family members to contend with – Mother-in-law Yvonne, and new Auntie Christine in particular.
Amongst the other delights he has for us are his meeting with Prince Charles, a debacle in an Italian restaurant and what happened when he consulted a psychic. Mr Kane is still full of boundless energy, striding the length of the stage back and forth like a boundless rubber-band. He’s incredibly engaging, generating lively backchat with the audience, and very, very funny. Nothing more to say apart from if you can catch his tour, you really should! His tour continues into December and you can find tickets here. Spoil yourself!
You wait months for a Screaming Blue Murder then, a week later, another one comes around… not that I’m complaining. There isn’t better value, great quality comedy to be had around these parts, imho. Once again, the Underground was pretty packed, although the front rows were a bit empty because of the cowards defaulting to the back of the room, which always creates a challenge.
For one week only our host was the fantastic Maureen Younger, a feisty performer if ever there was one, whom we’ve seen on many occasions at Screaming Blues, in Edinburgh, and as part of an Upfront Comedy line-up. She likes to get to know the front rows (difficult if there’s hardly anyone there, but she persevered) and so we met big-hearted Big Tommy who threw himself into the whole evening, John the documentary-maker (we’re so metropolitan elite here, darling), posh Georgia (who wasn’t that posh after all) and the quiet couple tucked away at the far end who didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. Maureen’s a great MC, with the necessary quick brain and a host of hilarious responses, and by the time she introduced the first act, it was all going swimmingly.
We’d seen two of the acts before, so pretty much knew what to expect from them, but, unexpectedly, it turned out to be an evening of surprises. First up was Michael Legge, who was in a very in-your-face mood, delivering his quirky material with occasionally challenging faux-aggression; but all very enjoyable and you know you’re in very safe hands with the experienced Mr Legge. However…. a group of people towards the back started talking quite animatedly, clearly not paying attention to the show at all, and making it difficult for the rest of us to hear Mr Legge’s bon mots. He started to deal with it as though they were heckling him, but in fact they were simply ignoring him, and getting on with their own conversation. Mr Legge wasn’t having any of that; and then the room divided. Us nice people at the front had the show to ourselves, the ignorant idiots at the back who couldn’t be arsed to pay attention, were ridiculed and excluded. He was tempted to call a halt to his part of the act, but Mr Legge carried on with some very enjoyable material about Mrs Brown’s Boys (I’ll say no more) but the first interval arrived in an atmosphere of rather unsettling edginess.
Our next act was Harriet Dyer, whom we’ve also seen before. Hers can be quite a divisive act, in that she has a very I’m mad, me persona which, depending on the mood of the audience, can either fall flat on its face or can soar the heights of surreal hilarity. Fortunately for us all, she was on brilliant form and managed to unite the divided audience in appreciation of her ludicrously funny act. She uses the physicality of her rather unruly, bendy body to great effect, as well as having some totally way-out routines, such as her brother taking an interview covered in spiders. Brilliantly funny; and for her ability to unite an unruly crowd, I think she should become the new Minister for Brexit.
Last up, and in a change of programme, we had Matt Welcome. We’d not seen him before, and he has a very different style. Laid back, inquisitive, personal; as his name suggests, he welcomes you into his world to explore a sequence of odd observations where he takes ideas to way-out, bizarre extremes. It’s all very nicely judged and cleverly thought through, and is entertaining rather than belly-laugh-triggering. If I’d been programming, I’d have put Mr Welcome on first and Mr Legge on last… although how that would have worked out with the unruly bunch at the back I don’t know.
So, all in all, a very good night, if a trifle odd one! Next Screaming Blue Murder is on 25th October, but in a triumph of comedy clashes, that’s also the night that Ben Elton has sold out the Derngate Auditorium…
We’ve seen Rob Beckett once before, performing his Mouth of the South show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. I became an instant fan of his self-deprecating warmth and total lack of starriness. Now he’s back with a new show, Wallop, giving us more insights into his madcap family life and bizarre exploits.
Rob Beckett is one of those truly gifted performers – he’s a naturally funny guy throughout and you never get the feeling he has to force a laugh, or wrack his brain for a response. He never shies away from making fun of his own appearance, whether it be his unmistakably toothy smile (he doesn’t have a resting bitch face, he has a resting happy face) or his ridiculously disproportioned body (as you’ll discover at the end of the show – no worries, it’s not X rated.) He’s also alarmingly honest with sharing his moments of utter personal stupidity, like the time he went to see Kinky Boots and thought he’d never seen such a beautiful array of sexy women – OK, to be fair, I did that too. I didn’t, however, confess it to the rest of my family…
He strikes a great rapport with the audience, although, for some reason, last Thursday night, our usually quite rumbustious Derngate audience appeared a little reticent to join in. Even late arrivals Curtis and Jill, who missed the beginning because Curtis wanted to watch the Manchester United game, didn’t follow up their initial boldness. Only upbeat Alex, a disembodied voice from a stalls right box somewhere, played along and became the authority for the night on whether Rob’s jokes and observations were sufficiently PC for a Thursday evening in Northampton.
Mr B has such a bright, positive style and delivery, that it’s impossible not to laugh and smile at virtually everything he says and does. This show is jam-packed with absolutely brilliant material, some of which he goes into a great length, other parts are virtually thrown away, but they’re all fantastic nonetheless. There’s an extensive routine where he looks back at Mary Poppins 2, which I’ve not had the….good fortune? of seeing, and had me in hysterics. But it was his material about what do you want to get out of going to the gym, including his experiences in Lake Bled that had me literally sobbing with laughter. Not fair for me to say any more, you just have to go see him. The show proved so popular that there is another date scheduled at the Royal and Derngate, on 22nd March 2020. Otherwise his tour continues right through till next June – all the info is here. Tummy-quiveringly funny – if you miss out, you’ll only have yourself to blame!
You can almost hear Frank Sinatra ringing in your ears… And now, the end is near, and so I face, the final curtain…. Yes, that sad moment we hoped would never come – next March the Richard Alston Dance Company shuts up shop for the last time, with decades of magical performances behind them that have contributed so much over the years to my personal enjoyment of contemporary dance.
I first saw a Richard Alston piece way back in 1980 when Rainbow Ripples was part of a programme danced by Ballet Rambert (as they were then called) at the New Theatre Oxford, in the company of my friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, even though they didn’t have those lavish titles bestowed on them at the time. My first encounter with the Richard Alston Dance Company was with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Wycombe Swan in 1998, featuring, as their star dancer, a young Martin Lawrance; and since then we’ve seen them no less than on fifteen occasions. These are sad times we’re dealing with here.
To wrap up their glorious place in modern dance history, they’re undertaking one final tour – the Final Edition, which, after Edinburgh last week, visited Northampton this week. The programme on Wednesday featured two new pieces and the return of two old favourites, more of which shortly. But first, for the third year running, we opened with a Curtain Raiser, Flocking, from Two Thirds Sky in collaboration with the Creative Learning department at the Royal and Derngate and Northampton School for Boys.
Flocking, choreographed by RADC alumnus Ihsaan de Banya, with Laura Gibson and Lisa Spackman, is a short but beautiful piece that echoes the sights and sounds of a coastline, with the flocking of birds, the sounds of the waves, and the movement of flotsam and jetsam, all to Zoe Keating’s superb 2010 soundtrack, Flying and Flocking. The 25 young dancers were outstanding in their crisp, creative precision of movement, expressing the choreography (which reminded me of Christopher Bruce in many ways) with confidence and artistry. It was a truly impressive experience, and each performer gave it tremendous commitment. A fantastic way to start the evening.
The first of the company pieces was the return of Richard Alston’s beautiful Brahms Hungarian, a deceptively complex and witty mix of Hungarian gypsy dance with classical ballet moves – I’m sure I saw a nod to Le Corsaire in there somewhere. With the women in summery floral dresses and the men in trendy waistcoats, this dance has all the visual beauty you could want. Pianist Jason Ridgway deftly plays Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in their non-orchestrated version, which gives the whole dance an extra layer of elegance. The partnerships between the dancers all worked extremely well, but for me, the standout performances were, as they were throughout the whole evening, by Joshua Harriette (my One To Watch from last year) and Ellen Yilma.
After an interval, our next dance was a revival of Richard Alston’s 2015 creation, Mazur, danced with enormous expression and gentlemanliness by Joshua Harriette and Nicholas Shikkis. Using the example of how Chopin’s Mazurkas reminded the composer of his homeland when he was abroad, it’s a dance about a meeting of minds between friends, maybe more, sharing what they have lost. Messrs Harriette and Shikkis brought great warmth and balance to this piece and the occasional flash of humour, whilst executing it with technical mastery; and once again the dance benefited from Jason Ridgway’s charming and expressive playing.
Next up was Martin Lawrance’s new piece – and his final creation for the company – A Far Cry. In the programme notes he states that a far cry is “when you want to express its difference from something familiar” – and sums up his feelings of loss that the company is going to close. This beautiful dance emanates both sorrow and loss; the significance of the image of the fading burning sun on the backdrop towards the end of the dance was not lost on me. The choreography itself is a mix of the majestic and the manic; majestic when the dancers are confidently going through their steps, manic when they’re rushing around, rather like lost frenetic molecules, scrambling for survival. A very effective and compellingly moving work.
After a second interval, our final dance was Richard Alston’s new piece, Voices and Light Footsteps, danced by the whole company in ten movements to the music of Monteverdi – a mixture of orchestral, instrumental pieces and stunning madrigals. This time the women are in stunning satin evening dresses, whereas the guys are comparatively scruffy which I thought looked slightly odd. The dance itself is very haunting, very mellifluous; the dancers frequently break into small groups of three and these trios work together very creatively, suggesting relationships or themes that might not be there when just two dancers are partnered together. The combination of the music and the movement had a very relaxing effect, providing an almost cosy ending to the programme, and to the company’s work.
If you’re lucky enough to be near Brighton, Swansea, Bromley, Aldeburgh, Woking, Glasgow, Warwick, or the company’s home base at The Place, in addition to Bern in Switzerland – good for you, you have one last chance to see the company on this tour between now and November. Can’t deny it though – I’m gutted that this is the end. I’m sure that both Sir Richard and Martin Lawrance will continue to create fantastic new works in the future, but I don’t know where we’ll go to find them. To all the dancers, choreographers, designers and musicians who have given us such pleasure through the company over the years, I have just one word to say to you. Bravo!
If you’ve not seen The Woman in Black before, then, unless you’re under, say, 21 years old, what have you been doing all your life? She’s been menacing the West End for thirty odd years, intimidating The Actor who has been hired to help bring Arthur Kipps’ (no, not that Arthur Kipps) tale up to scratch so that he can perform it to a few family and friends and exorcise his memories.
On an almost empty set, with just a wicker basket, a clothes rail and a rather ominous door, Kipps starts to tell us about his experience as a young solicitor, visiting Eel Marsh house in its lonely location at the end of a murky, mysterious causeway, to examine the papers of the late Mrs Drablow. He’s not very good as a performer, so The Actor whom he has engaged to direct him, brings him out of his shy nervous shell so that he starts to relive those days. As the story develops, the Actor plays Kipps, and Kipps plays everyone else. It’s a play that works almost totally on the imagination, and is so much the stronger for it. Indeed, there is a programme note by the director that reveals if they had more money to spend on the original budget, it could have been a much more lavish production, which would almost certainly have killed it dead.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen this play, the last time being in the same venue seven years ago. It’s a play you can go back to, time and time again, because each time you see it, you get a little extra out of it. It might get scarier; it might get funnier; it might get more serious; it might get more flippant. The truth is, all these aspects are written into the late Stephen Mallatratt’s terrific adaptation of Susan Hill’s book. I’m wondering though, if there have been a couple of recent “updates” to the text – that leave something to be desired. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall Crythin Gifford being located in the county of “ahem-ahem-ahem-shire” (which sounds unnecessarily vague). And when The Actor repeats his claim that he’ll make an Olivier out of Kipps yet… well, a hundred years ago, which is when the production is meant to be set, Oliver would have been 12. Someone hasn’t thought that through properly.
Putting that aside, it’s a gripping play, with constantly surprising staging and lighting effects that you will, have no doubt, find unsettling! It also benefits from two highly accomplished performances in this new touring production. Robert Goodale’s Kipps grows from a respectful but timid little man with no sense of occasion into a confident, virtuoso performer, presenting a full cast of characters with great versatility and creativity. I particularly enjoyed his sullen, world-weary Keckwick the pony-and-trap driver, and Jerome the pompous local representative. Daniel Easton plays The Actor with a decent blend of actorly arrogance and genuine self-discovery. Looking and sounding for all the world like a young Hugh Bonneville, Mr Easton completely makes you forget that he’s playing an Actor playing the role – very impressive.
The Woman in Black always attracts a large number of school crowds, and last Monday’s performance was no exception. However, I’m delighted to report, that these children were way better behaved than those we encountered in 2012. Screaming was kept to a minimum, and all the phones were put away. They’ve either got some really sadistic teachers or were simply much more involved in the play than in the evening out; either way, win-win.
This production is touring to 22 more theatres up and down the country, continuing right through to May 2020. Check their website to find the venue closest to you. No excuse not to see it then!