It’s been a while since I checked out the old shows, so try these for size!
Key for Two – Vaudeville Theatre, London, 20th April 1983
John Chapman and Dave Freeman’s farce had already been running for about eight months when I finally saw it. A fantastic cast headed by Moira Lister and Patrick Cargill, this was a typical 80s sex comedy, the like of which you rarely see today. I don’t have very strong memories of it, but I’m sure it was thoroughly entertaining!
Fiddler on the Roof – Apollo Victoria Theatre, London, 19th July 1983
It was still traditional that I would go and see a summer show with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, and she was very keen to see this production, as it starred the one and only original Tevye, Topol. And it would indeed be an incredibly privileged experience to see this star in the role for which he was synonymous. The production followed the original 1960s direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Very enjoyable, as you would expect. Thelma Ruby was an excellent Golde, and Maria Charles a memorable Yente.
Underground – Prince of Wales Theatre, London, 27th July 1983
I don’t think this thriller by Michael Sloan, directed by Simon Williams, got great reviews, but I really enjoyed it – it definitely raised a respectful cap to Murder on the Orient Express, if you get my drift. Set on a tube train in London that slowly grinds to a halt and goes no further, it was also a chance to see some famous and well-regarded TV stars. The cast was headed by Raymond Burr – yes A Man called Ironside – and Peter Wyngarde – yes Jason King – as well as Alfred Marks, Gerald Flood, Elspeth March and Freewheelers’ Ronald Leigh-Hunt. I’m pretty sure this didn’t last long but I have very fond memories of it.
Happy Family – Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 9th September 1983
Giles Cooper’s final play, originally produced in 1966, had a strong cast of four – Stephanie Beacham, Ian Ogilvy, Angela Thorne and James Laurenson; and was directed by Maria Aitken. Based on the contradictory motivations of a dysfunctional family, I can’t remember much about it, but I think it was pretty good. According to my ticket stubs, I saw this with three other people, but I haven’t a clue who they were!o
May Days – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre, London, October 1983.
David Edgar’s political reflections from England 1945 to England and Russia 1981, this follows the allegedly typical swing from left-wing young people becoming right-wing older people; not sure how accurate that is today. One of Edgar’s grandly sweeping plays, I remember feeling that it was outstanding at the time but, on reflection, the memories of it have faded. John Shrapnel, Antony Sher, Alison Steadman, Lesley Sharp and the late Bob Peck made it an outstanding cast.
An Evening for El Salvador – Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, 4th December 1983
I went to see this fundraising revue for the El Salvador Solidarity Campaign with my friends Mike, Lin and Dave. An amazing line-up included favourite comedy group at the time The Joeys, Emma Thompson, Julie Christie, The Flying Pickets, and Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl. Oh, for the days of being a lefty activist.
Tchaikovsky Evening with the London Symphony Orchestra, 26th February 1984
Missing out my second trip to see the brilliant Poppy once it had transferred to the Adelphi, my next show was a classical night at the Barbican, with the London Symphony Orchestra under the impressive baton of Claudio Abbado, and the Band of the Irish Guards. This programme of Tchaikovsky music included extracts from Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Nutcracker, but concentrated on the Piano Concerto No 1 with soloist Anthony Goldstone, and culminated with the 1812 Overture. I remember it being thoroughly entertaining!
Ballet Rambert – A Programme at Sadler’s Wells, London, 15th March 1984
I saw this performance by Ballet Rambert with my friends Mike and Lin. The programme consisted of Frederick Ashton’s Capriol Suite and Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan, Christopher Bruce’s Concertino, and Robert North’s Entre dos Aguas. At the time Rambert was under the direction of Robert North, who also danced in the programme – as did current director Mark Baldwin, plus great names such as Catherine Becque, Lucy Bethune, Frances Carty and Ikky Maas. It was thrilling!
Blondel – Aldwych Theatre, London, 23rd March 1984
Tim Rice and Stephen Oliver’s brilliant musical about the 12th century minstrel Blondel, and Richard the Lionheart’s European escapades. Paul Nicholas took the main role, and excellent he was too; Stephen Tate was a very kingly Richard I, and the now disgraced Chris Langham as the Assassin. I quickly bought the soundtrack album because it has some great comedy songs. Tim Rice has continued to fiddle with this show and it’s now called Lute! although it’s somewhat gone to ground. I really enjoyed it.
Snoopy the Musical – Duchess Theatre, London, 29th March 1984
Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady’s delightful musical was great fun, totally charming, and pure escapism. In a very intimate and simple setting, it was one of those delicate theatre moments that was fun and didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t. A brilliant cast who would go on to do even better things included Mark Hadfield as Linus, Teddy Kempner as Snoopy and the late great Robert Locke as Charlie Brown.
In another of these inventive and innovative stage moves, this week the Bristol Old Vic are performing Wise Children’s production of Romantics Anonymous, to an empty auditorium but streamed through the magic of the Internet to your home – and it’s about as close to the sense of a real theatrical experience as most of us are going to get during these Covid times. Mrs Chrisparkle and I tuned in on Wednesday as that was the broadcast that was specifically geared to the Midlands, with proceeds benefiting not only the Bristol Old Vic but some Midland theatres including our very own Royal and Derngate here in Northampton. At £15 a ticket (we played fair and bought two) it’s a very reasonable price for what could – hopefully – be a tremendous theatrical experience.
And it is! Romantics Anonymous – a musical by Michael Kooman, Christopher Dimond and Emma Rice – is based on the French 2010 film Les Emotifs Anonymes, and is the story of Angélique, hopeless in relationships, devoid of confidence, but an absolute whizz at creating the perfect chocolate. When her boss M. Mercier, chocolate provider to the French cognoscenti, dies, Angélique applies for a job at The Chocolate Factory, where owner Jean-René is as awkward and hopeless as she is. However, the company is going under because they haven’t kept up with the times. Can Angélique turn around the company’s ailing fortunes – indeed, will she confess that she is the famous Mercier chocolatière – and can she and Jean-René scrape together enough self-confidence to win each other’s hearts? You’ll have to watch to find out!
Romantics Anonymous originally played at the Globe in 2017, and this production opened at the Bristol Old Vic in January 2020, to great reviews, shortly before the world fell apart. This streamed production features largely the same cast, although with a little shifting of roles. With a compact but fantasy-glamorous set by the one and only Lez Brotherston, amusing and charming choreography by New Adventures’ Etta Murfitt, a classy and witty band performance led by Nigel Lilley and crackingly quirky direction by Emma Rice, this is a delightful exploration of love and social terror that warms the cockles of your heart and makes you cheer on the characters as you encourage them to find happiness. I’m sure it was splendid to watch in the flesh, but catching it through the Internet is definitely the next best thing, and I hope that at least one of the broadcasts will be recorded for future entertainment over the years.
There are so many amusing and winning aspects to the show as a whole – here are a few of my own favourite moments. I loved how it abruptly changes from French to English; Jean-René’s hopeless attempts at self-improvement home yoga; the running gag about the Mumbler and how he unexpectedly comes to Angélique’s rescue; and the Health and Safety Advisory song at the Interval. The songs are either charming, delicate and heartfelt, or incredibly funny; two songs called (I think – difficult to identify without a proper programme) Je suis émotif, and Savoir faire specifically come to mind.
As you might expect in a production led by Emma Rice, the cast work together seamlessly as a beautiful ensemble, but with everyone’s individual talents flashing out from the stage like a series of twinkling lights. Angélique is played by the fantastic Carly Bawden, who was stunning in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady a few years back, with her gloriously pure voice and terrific stage presence. You can absolutely believe that she is a chocolate maker supreme (indeed, she proves it in the first few minutes of the show!) and she gets you on her side to will her on to greater self-confidence as the evening progresses. She is matched by the brilliant Marc Antolin, whom we loved in Emma Rice’s Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, as the tetchily awkward Jean-René. Employing all his expert clowning skills, Mr Antolin gives a superb physical performance conveying all the character’s social anxieties, but delightfully understated so that less is more. Simple effects like his deliberate flatfoot walk to and from the restaurant toilet, or his restrained facial expressions allowing his body to reveal the character’s thoughts, are just wonderful to watch.
I also really enjoyed the wide range of characterisations by Me’sha Bryan, including her wonderfully Brummie HR lady Suzanne, and Mimi in the Emotifs Anonymes self-help group. Sandra Marvin is as glorious as usual as the anxious dermatologist and Angélique’s dominating mother, and Harry Hepple’s constantly chirpy presence brings a lightness of touch to his roles as Ludo and Remi. Gareth Snook gives a great all-round performance as the magnanimous Mercier, the outrageous Marini and the hilarious Mumbler. But every member of the cast pulls out all the stops and delivers a fine and thoroughly enjoyable performance. I should also point out that the camera work that delivers these fine performances to your living room is absolutely spot on, framing scenes so that you get an overall impression of how the cast and set are interacting, and even encouraging a couple of slightly fourth-wall-breaking moments.
If Angélique creates the Jesus Christ of French Desserts, then (forgive my blasphemy) Romantics Anonymous delivers a whole gospel’s worth of positivity and love. There are still tickets available for the rest of the week here – not only do you get to see a great show, you get to support the theatre community and keep the arts alive in these perilous times. A Montelimar of magic, a Fondant of fun, a Noisette of… I dunno…. niceness. Do your heart a favour and see this show!
In which Hilary Craven, suicidal after the loss of her child and abandoned by her husband, is offered an adventure which may prove fatal – so what has she to lose? All she has to do is impersonate the wife of a missing scientist. What could possibly go wrong? Not a whodunit as such, but more a what, why and howdunit, and, as usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its main secrets!
The book is dedicated “To Anthony, who likes foreign travel as much as I do”. This Anthony is Anthony Hicks, the second husband of Christie’s daughter Rosalind. Christie was clearly very fond of her new son-in-law. In her autobiography, she writes: “I do not know what I would do without him in my life. Not only is he one of the kindest people I know – he is more remarkable and interesting character. He has ideas. He can brighten up any dinner table by suddenly producing a “problem”. In next to no time, everyone is arguing furiously.” She also reveals that Anthony came up with the title “The Mousetrap” so she clearly owed him something! Destination Unknown was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine, in October and November 1954. In the US, the novel was first serialised in the Chicago Tribune in fifty-one parts between April and June 1955 under the title Destination X. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 1st November 1954, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1955 under the title So Many Steps to Death.
Destination Unknown is one of those curious Christie concoctions that concentrates on espionage rather than murder. Her first attempt was a rattling good read in the form of the Man in the Brown Suit; and three years before Destination Unknown she created the sparklingly entertaining Victoria Jones in the brilliant They Came to Baghdad. In comparison with these two books – both of which contain lively and spirited female leads – Anne Bedingfield and Victoria Jones – Destination Unknown is rather a damp squib. The main problem is that Anne and Victoria are such fascinating and lively characters right from the start, full of spirit and daring and not remotely scared to take risks and be, frankly, naughty. Hilary Craven, however, is a very different kettle of fish. She starts the book as a shadow of her former self (a former self that we, obviously, never meet), and when she begins to liven up as a character, it’s only because she is pretending to be someone else. So Hilary doesn’t come across as a character in her own right until much later in the book, by which time a sense of uninterest in her has kicked in. It’s not coincidental that Destination Unknown remains one of Christie’s few books yet to be adapted into TV or film.
It’s very much a book that relies on its themes rather than its characters or, indeed, its story. Christie takes the opportunity to fantasise about how a secret Communist “paradise” might present itself; a hidden, nearly Utopian environment that has no hope of succeeding because of the controls placed on the individuals concerned by the Big Brother bosses. Much has been made of the fact that the book clearly gained inspiration from the real-life scandal of involving the defection of Italian scientist Bruno Pontecorvo from his work at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, to the Soviet Union. Pontecorvo’s colleague Klaus Fuchs was also arrested for espionage, imprisoned for nine years and on his release emigrated to East Germany where he continued his work as a nuclear physicist. Christie cannot conceal her own political leanings with the invention of her hidden desert laboratory, and indeed the whole structure of the book is to send Hilary into this den of iniquity and somehow reveal its secrets to the British Secret Service in a joint act of loyalty and betrayal.
In many ways this is a book of two halves. The first half sets up the story, introduces us to the characters, and Christie employs much lightness of touch to keep us entertained as we delve deeper into the story. However, once the story takes us to Morocco, and Hilary – in her disguise as Olive Betterton – has to survive in the lion’s den, it’s as though Christie takes her foot off the accelerator and we just coast to a not very interesting denouement. Yes, we do find out who is in charge of the operation, and yes we do discover who is guilty of what crimes (although it’s never clear in the first half of the book that we will eventually find these things out – Destination Unknown indeed), but the surrounding characters are too under-written and/or irrelevant for us to care.
That early lightness of touch deserves a little exploration, as it’s probably the best part of the book. The first few pages introduce us to a character who Christie calls “the man behind the desk”. Obviously some form of secret agent, his identity is deliberately kept from us. Many times Christie could give us his name, but still she gives him this deliberately mysterious identity. It’s only when Mrs Betterton arrives and wants to speak to him that Christie reveals that he has a name. “Oh, Mr Jessop, I do hope – is there any news?” But even then she next refers to him as “the man called Jessop”. You’re never really sure if it’s his real name or just a nom d’espionage. It’s very nicely done.
As the first part of the book gets underway, Christie employs her usual style of writing short chapters, or short divisions within chapters, to increase a sense of speed and urgency, of excitement and building tension – and it works extremely well. There’s an amusing sequence where we’re introduced to Mlle Jeanne Maricot, seen seated in the Hotel St Louis, alongside Miss Hetherington and Mrs Calvin Baker, both of whom have important roles to play in the story. Mlle Maricot, however, is just biding her time and planning an augmentation to her sex life. She has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but Christie gives her her moment in the sun, shares her inner thoughts and then “with long graceful steps Mademoiselle Maricot walked out of the small salon and out of the story.” It’s a lovely, artistically detached moment where the author confides in the reader that there’s, basically, nothing to see here. We don’t entirely believe Christie and keep expecting her to pop up in surprising moments, but she doesn’t.
There’s another stylistically self-conscious moment, where Miss Hetherington is seen “at a small table against the wall eating her dinner with a Fontana book propped up in front of her”, just as the reader might well be doing precisely the same thing. She’s teasing with us! But that lightness of touch ends with the dramatic bombshell that Hilary and her companions have arrived at the Communistic desert paradise laboratory ranch – and it’s a real shame. There’s evidence from Christie’s notebooks that she was planning They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown at the same time – and all the good bits went into the first book, sadly.
Let’s go back and examine the character of Hilary Craven. When we first meet her, she is escaping the misery of her day to day life by taking a flight to Paris. “Out of the greyness, the coldness, the dead numb misery. Escaping to the sunshine and blue skies and a new life. She would leave all this weight behind, this dead weight of misery and frustration.” But that escape is self-delusion. A few paragraphs later: “Hilary thought, “Perhaps the plane will crash… Perhaps it will never rise off the ground, then that will be the end, that will be the solution to everything.” And when she discovers that the plane to Casablanca that she should have taken from Paris – but they couldn’t get there because of fog – crashed and the passengers were killed, her first reaction is “blinding anger […] Why wasn’t I in that plan? If I had been, it would have been all over now – I should be dead, out of it all. No more heartaches, no more misery. The people in that plane wanted to live. And I – I don’t care. Why shouldn’t it have been me?” OK, we understand that Hilary has endured a huge amount of sadness and disappointment. But to present this character as the heroine of the story is very underwhelming to the reader. Rather than feeling sorry for her, or having empathy with her situation, instead you just want her to buck up her ideas and become one of Christie’s usual jovial types. It somehow just doesn’t feel right.
Now we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting with the locations. As well as using the big names of London, Paris, Casablanca and Fez, plus Heathrow and Beauvais airports, Christie bases Betterton’s workplace at Harwell, just like the real-life Pontecorvo and Fuchs. Harwell is, of course, a large village to the west of Didcot in Oxfordshire. In Casablanca, the Hotel St Louis, where Mlle Maricot pauses to regroup, appears to be a creation of Christie; but the Palais Djamai was a grand mansion in Fez that had been turned into a luxury hotel, and even today it’s still a notable member of the Sofitel chain of hotels. But otherwise there are surprisingly few locations mentioned in this book.
As for other references: perhaps the most vital element of the story, the book refers to the discovery of ZE Fission. This is going to come as a shock, but I’m no nuclear scientist. But a quick Google suggests that Ze is a charge originally discussed by Bohr and Wheeler in 1939. I’m going to just leave that there. Olive Betterton’s last words, on the other hand, are a little clearer to understand: “Snow, snow, beautiful snow, you slip on a lump and over you go”. Whilst there are a couple of old songs that include the lyrics “snow snow beautiful snow”, I can’t find anything that includes going over a lump. So that’s a mystery to me, unless you know better?
Here’s another quote: “le long des lauriers roses révant de douces choses” – an overheard snatch of French opera, as Christie puts it. This is the Bell Song, from Lakmé, written by Leo Delibes and premiered in 1883. And there’s another: “as a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse” – a line remembered by Hilary – which is actually Chapter 4, Verse 12 of the Song of Solomon in the Bible. Hilary is asked if she has heard of “leucotomy” – “that’s a brain operation, isn’t it?” she replies. Indeed it is – it is the surgical cutting of white nerve fibres within the brain, especially prefrontal lobotomy, formerly used to treat mental illness. It’s another word for a lobotomy, now banned by most countries.
“I sent Hilary Craven off on a journey to a destination unknown, but it seems to me that her journey’s end is the usual one after all” concludes Jessop at the end of the book, in an allusion to Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night, Feste the clown sings “Journeys end in lovers meeting” – so you can already guess that it has a happy ending.
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. However, this is not that kind of a book, and there are no sums of any significance mentioned – even though the desire for great richness is a key to the why and wherefore of the plot.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Destination Unknown:
Publication Details: 1954. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixteenth impression, dated June 1976, with a price of 60p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a surreal, Dali-esque landscape with figures in the mountainous backdrop (which could evoke the Atlas Mountains), a trail of pearls – which is significant – a figure with a deathly stare (might be Adams’ impression of a leper, unsure) and some frog/toad images which I don’t understand in the slightest.
How many pages until the first death: 37 – but it really isn’t that kind of book at all.
Funny lines out of context: just one, involving Christie’s favourite “E” word.
“”God bless my soul,” ejaculated the American Ambassador.”
Again, this is where the book severely falls down. Its characters are solidly one-dimensional, acting out their roles within the structure of the book but without ever bursting into interesting or remarkable life.
Christie the Poison expert:
Again, poison plays a very minor part in one aspect of the book but it’s fairly general and I don’t think Christie had to research much to include it.
Class/social issues of the time:
As discussed earlier, much of the book concentrates on what was seen as the growing threat of Communism and Christie’s imagination creates a Communist paradise where everything in the world looks good outwardly but actually is a façade, and a society that stifles and suppresses creativity. On the surface, the scientists have everything they need to perform amazing work, but in reality they find it hard to be inspired. Even the non-scientific Hilary can sense this: “she had felt first, when introduced into the Unit, a blinding panic, a horrible feeling of imprisonment and frustration, and the fact the imprisonment was camouflaged in circumstances of luxury had somehow made is seem all the more horrible to her.”
The book starts in the Secret Service offices, so the political element of the book is there right from the beginning. Jessop says of Betterton that he had the “usual left-wing tendencies at the period when everyone had them”, revealing a dismissive attitude to socialism that’s present throughout the book. When we start to meet the other team members who will be based in the Atlas Mountains secret paradise, their politics are highly questionable. Fräulein Needheim refers to the local Berber women as “a slave race. They are useful to serve their betters, but no more.” When questioned by Hilary as to the harshness of this judgment, she goes on “I have no patience with sentimentality. There are those that rule, the few; and there are the many that serve.”
It’s not just Needheim who repels Hilary with their views. Dr Barron affirms that he could destroy a continent with the poisonous content of one little phial. “She had said to him: “But could you ever do that? Actually really do it?” And he replied, looking at her with faint surprise: “Yes. Yes of course, if it became necessary.”” She accuses Peters of wanting to destroy an old world, as a result of his declaration that “we’ve got to have World Peace, World Discipline, World Order.” And Ericsson affirms to her “we must conquer the world. Then we can rule […], we few who count. The brains. That is all that matters.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a few instances of xenophobia in this book. Miss Hetherington believes that hotels abroad should only be inhabited by the English and she gets most upset when she discovers foreigners also use them. The observations made about the members of the party flying to the Atlas Mountains are very much seen in terms of their being French, American, Norwegian, German and English. There’s also a post-war throwback regarding Miss Jennson, when Andy Peters asks “did I, or did I not, catch a hint of the Heil Hitler there?”
In what is more an observation on current social issues, I was amused that there were only six people on board the flight. It’s as though they were in their own Covid times!
It doesn’t show a great sense of empathy with mental health to suggest that going on a reckless mission where you might die is a good alternative to suicide!
Classic denouement: No, it’s a weak fizzle. Not that there’s much to “dénoue” anyway. The brains behind the Communist camp are revealed relatively early, and the final twists in the last few pages are of comparatively low interest, and if you’re looking for an unexpected individual to be responsible for some grand deception – you’ll be disappointed.
Happy ending? I guess so – Hilary finds a reason to live, which has got to be a positive outcome. And love may be on her horizon.
Did the story ring true? From my own perspective, it’s utter balderdash and complete nonsense.
Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a pacy start and some nicely written early passages, Christie quickly gives up on the narrative and I couldn’t wait for it to end. A generous 5/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Destination Unknown 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 one of my all-time favourite Christie books, Hickory Dickory Dock, and I can’t wait to get back into its tale of deception and murder within a student’s hostel community. 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!
It was only two weeks ago that we last came to the Black Prince to watch a comedy night in their back garden courtesy of The Comedy Crate. But two weeks is a long time in live comedy, so it was a delight to return for another show last night. I’m still working out whereabouts is the ideal position to sit, and, for this show we sat centrally but four tables back – and on reflection that was probably a little far from the performers for Optimum Atmosphere. Note to self: get closer next time. Still, our table was a riot, with Mrs Chrisparkle on the gluten-free beer, and Lord and Lady Prosecco together with Prinz Mark von Köln tucking into the drinks delicacies on offer from both bars. I, of course, was abstemious… ahem.
Our MC this week was Will Duggan, someone we’ve not seen before, but he’s a lively spark and an amiable chap who strikes up a great rapport with the crowd. He devoted his stage time largely to getting to know the people near the front, and they were the usual motley crew of out-of-work singers, retirees and apparent prison inmates (not really, I’m sure.) There was also a chap who took a couple of the acts by surprise by his incredibly boyish features despite being the grand old age of 23. Indeed, he really did look like this was way past his bedtime. Mr D kept things moving at a nice pace and set up a few cunning callbacks for the comics to pounce on later.
Our first act was Sarah Callaghan, who has a nicely confiding (and confident) style, letting us in to the secrets and undercurrents of her domestic life, with her close relationships with both her niece and her mother – and the wisdom of being a smoker under such circumstances. Lots of intelligent but funny family-type observations, and she’s proud to be a pessimist which creates some more good sequences. She has her own take on the #metoo movement, and I very much enjoyed her parting material about flying over the Grand Canyon. We’ve seen her a couple of times before including in Edinburgh where she mixed comedy with poetry – very successfully. Perhaps she didn’t think Northampton to cope with poetry! Anyway, her act was very enjoyable and nicely paving the way for what was to come.
Second up was the brilliant Bobby Mair; we’d seen him at a Screaming Blue Murder three years ago. And although his characterisation is the same – that of your friendly local psychopath who can be trusted to say the wrong thing if at all possible – I’m pretty sure it was all fresh new material and absolutely top quality stuff. I particularly relished his routines about mental health – a subject matter on which many comics might teeter perilously – but he totally smashed it. One member of the audience suggested that we all have some mental illness, which was the cue for him to do a perfect putdown using a brilliant analogy. I loved his observations about narcissists and Trump (yes, the two in the same breath) – and I didn’t want him to stop. Fantastic.
Our headline act was the sublime Paul Sinha, whom we’ve seen a few times before, and was indeed the recipient of the Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Murder Stand-up for both 2010 and 2012. Ever since he’s been a big name on TV’s The Chase, he’s referred to the show as part of his act to some extent, and so he did this time too. However, you could say that a lot has happened in his life over the past few years – including getting married and being diagnosed with Parkinson’s – and he’s come up with a very creative way of funnelling all that personal material into the act; by telling the story of the past few years by means of verse and (occasional) song. If the prospect of that might make you cringe a little, rest assured it works superbly. It’s such a deftly-written and structured routine, full of wonderful side cultural references, with the full range of modern day heroes from Priti Patel to Gemma Collins (I use the word heroes inadvisably on purpose) – and we all absolutely loved it. Full of hilarity but also full of pathos – an irresistible combination. After it was all over, we left the venue on a warm mental comedy high.
One more Comedy Crate night at the Black Prince coming up on 8th October, including the Noise Next Door whom we saw at the Leicester Comedy Festival last year and are incredible. You have to come too!
As this wonderful year whirls its merry way into September, a few more live events continue to emerge from the mist. Hurrah that this includes the second visit of The Comedy Crate team to the extensive back garden at the Black Prince pub in Northampton, for another night of comedy. This time Mrs Chrisparkle and I were not only accompanied by Lord and Lady Prosecco, together with heir to the Prosecco estate, Prinz Mark von Köln, but also our friend Dr Eurovision (one of our few friends to have their own nickname and not one supplied by me!) Fortunately the rain decided to give us a break but in any case we would have been protected by that big marquee so your only chance of getting wet is queueing for a beer or a Sauvignon Blanc.
Things started a little late as, by 7pm, scheduled kick-off time, our headline act hadn’t actually left home yet – a mere 90 miles away. Therefore we had a couple of changes, but comedy thrives on the seat of its pants! Our MC for the evening was the irrepressible Archie Maddocks, whom we’ve seen three times before doing spots at the Edinburgh Fringe (ah, Edinburgh Fringe… Où sont les neiges d’antan?) and he’s always terrific fun. He sparked off the punters in the tables closest to the stage (I say stage, I mean patch of grass) and over the course of the evening kept us entertained with his quirky observations including how he resents sharing his name with a member of the Royal Family, the behaviour of his elderly grandad, and a wonderful new take on Toy Story.
Our first act was Lindsey Santoro, a new name to us, a Birmingham lass with pink hair and no inhibitions. She brims with confidence as she regales us with some terrific material, mainly about sex, including a brilliant physical performance of shenanigans in a jacuzzi. Very very funny and she got the evening off to a cracking start.
Next up, and in a change to the advertised programme, was local comic hero Ben Briggs, whom we last saw a few months ago at the Leicester Comedy Festival (let’s hope that comes back next year but I remain doubtful at the moment!) Coaxed back to perform for us with just an hour’s notice, he admitted he was completely unprepared but his natural sense of performance and back catalogue of brilliant material still provided a very funny set of tough-delivered, heavily ironic and biting comedy. He’s in his element when bantering with the crowd and did a terrific job.
Our headline act was Tom Binns, in his alter ego as Hospital DJ supremo Ivan Brackenbury. Although he’s been around for a while and has had a number of TV appearances, we’ve never seen either Mr Binns or Mr Brackenbury before – our bad. He had us in riots of laughter from the very start with his appalling tactless mix of revealing the patients’ embarrassing conditions and then playing a totally inappropriate record for them. But it’s a much more clever – and funny – act than those bare bones might suggest. Like the ghastly love child of Timmy Mallett and Jonathan King, Brackenbury is a brilliant comic creation – totally convincing, terrifically creative, and more excruciating than Matt Hancock defending Tony Abbott. I didn’t want him to stop.
We all had a marvellous time, and, guess what, there’s another one in two weeks headed by the magnificent Paul Sinha. See you there!