Review – Ahir Shah, Dress, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th November 2021

Ahir Shah DressWe saw Ahir Shah’s Dots show at the Edinburgh Fringe and enjoyed his cunning blend of intelligent and political comedy so much that he won the Chrisparkle Award for Best Stand Up in Edinburgh for 2019. Naturally we decided to book for his next show, Dress, particularly as we wouldn’t have to go all the way up to Edinburgh to see him!

For Dress, Mr Shah has made a reminiscence compilation of the various stages of the last 18 months or so, and is a personal account of his lockdown/pandemic journey. We’ve all had one of these, so it’s easy for us to identify with his sequence of highs and lows, reliving the emotions, idiocies and tragedies that the last two years have dealt us. He also reflects the pandemic through a political viewpoint, making no secret of his Labour leanings and his revulsion of All Things Tory.

Ahir Shah DotsHe’s pretty much up to date, with his speculation that who knew how cheap it was to buy a Tory MP – only 100k for Owen Patterson, and he’s a proper “Shropshire White”; you would have thought they’d run into seven figures at least. His dream is to be rich enough to buy a Tory and still have Communist kids; and, if lockdowns continue, being a house-husband is a thoroughly rewarding way of life (having done it myself I can completely concur). Having spent much of 2020 cooped up at home with a go-getting but work-from-home girlfriend, he discovered the joys of soup-making and repositioning ornaments, and was never happier. We all had our own ways of coping with lockdown!

He’s a very engaging and charming chap on stage; his voice has a warmth of plummy poshness that isn’t so much evocative of a Rees-Mogg, but reminds me more of the young Tom Conti in The Norman Conquests, tittering at his own naughtiness and getting away with murder because he suggests it so politely. He’s excellent at interacting with the audience, chatting effortlessly with property developer Remy and charity-entrepreneur Sam in the front row; only for them to realise they are old friends neither of whom knew the other was going to be there that night – true serendipity! He also reinforces the fact that there has to be an interval for no other reason than, in the post-pandemic financial situation, the venue needs the income from the bar. Culture thrives on our alcoholism. At least that meant he could sample a pint of local Phipps IPA.

Despite his frequent forays into the audience, Dress is a closely-constructed, deftly scripted routine, jam-packed with callbacks and delivered with terrific comic precision. It’s a very positive show; he tells us about meeting his dad outside Tate Modern for a socially-distanced reunion just as it started to become possible to do such a thing – and I have to say I found it quite an emotional tale. If you were there at the theatre, or if you’re here reading this, the one thing we have in common is that we have all survived this far somehow. Mr Shah’s message is to cherish that fact and consider what’s gone before as a dress rehearsal for what’s to come. Enjoyable, intelligent, reflective, and with plenty to laugh about. After a couple of months’ break, his tour continues at the end of January into March. Recommended!

Review – Blue/Orange, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th November 2021

Blue OrangeWasn’t it F R David who said – and I think it was – Words Don’t Come Easy To Me? Of course, he was “just a music man”, and his “melodies were his best friend”, but his “words were coming out wrong”. It’s a common problem, and rarely seen more acutely than in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, which won both the Olivier and Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play when it first appeared in 2000. Now James Dacre, Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, has directed a new production of the play which opened in Bath a few weeks ago, visited Oxford en route, and has now finally come to its spiritual home at the Royal and Derngate.

The set-up is deceptively simple. At an NHS psychiatric hospital in London, patient Christopher is itching to leave, having already spent 28 days in its care. Dr Bruce Flaherty, under whose supervision Christopher has been treated, isn’t sure he’s ready to leave, and asks Senior Consultant Robert Smith to sit in on a final consultation for his opinion. Both Robert and Christopher are adamant that he should leave – although for different reasons. Attempting to make Christopher reveal his true mental state, Bruce offers him an orange to eat and challenges him to tell Robert what he thinks its colour is. Blue, is Christopher’s response. And the fruit inside? Also blue. He also manages to make Christopher reveal that his father is Field Marshal Idi Amin of Uganda; perhaps unsurprisingly as he was known as Dada to his friends. Robert suggests that he and Christopher should have a private consultation together. But what is the outcome of that consultation? Are Robert’s motives for wanting Christopher to leave in everyone’s best interests? Has Bruce been as correct in his dealings with Christopher as he should have? And is Christopher satisfied with the way he has been treated? You’ll have to see the play to find out!

This is a cunning play that openly exposes all its secrets without the audience realising it, and then asks us to consider what we had heard earlier and understand it now in a different light. With only three scenes/conversations, all taking place within 24 hours, and all in the same consulting room, it very nearly observes the traditional unities of classical drama. Even the requirement for any cataclysmic event to happen off-stage is recognised, with the important hospital management meeting taking place in a different room whilst we’re all enjoying the interval. It’s fascinating to see the unities being observed in a modern play. It certainly concentrates the mind.

Nevertheless, the play takes a number of themes, from the obvious coping with life in the NHS, to power struggles between colleagues, racial equality within a range of relationships and situations including that of healthcare, and trust and deception. Joe Penhall has slightly revised the play for audiences twenty years on, and for the first time the role of Robert is performed by a Black actor, which changes the racial imbalance of the play in the other direction and adds a different level of complexity to the disagreements that all the characters face. There’s also this question of words. F R David was right, they don’t come easy, or at least the right words don’t. Bruce insists to Christopher that you can’t use the word crazy anymore, and schizophrenia is a complete no-no. He will later discover that there are many other words you can’t use, even when you’re quoting someone else.

There’s no doubt this is a very wordy play; and in the first Act in particular, the conversations become extremely intense, and at times you need to keep your wits about you to make sure you follow everything that’s said. However, after the interval, the wordiness gives way to a much more emotional involvement from all three characters, the interchanges become much livelier, and the intensity changes from intellectual to pure drama. You never really know which way the plot is going to twist, and then it twists again in its final moments. It’s one of those splendid plays that become even more splendid the more you think about it after curtain down. Hidden depths, character give-aways, secret agendas continue to become clearer as you reflect on what’s happened.

Simon Kenny’s simple but effective design reveals the grey, austere consulting room, its only features being three chairs, a bowl of oranges and a water-cooler. Deliberately harsh lighting emphasises the claustrophobic box nature of the room and adds to the strangely unsettling image presented to us. Composer Valgeir SigurÞsson’s haunting incidental music creeps in softly at odd moments to unsettle us even more.

The three characters are all given tremendous performances by a sterling cast. Ralph Davis gives an excellent portrayal of a rather dishevelled but strict doctor who works all the hours under the sun in his performance as Bruce, quickly getting aggravated when his patience is tried a little too far, not realising the traps that have been set for him. Giles Terera is every bit as excellent as you would expect as the outwardly pleasant, inwardly manipulative Robert, putting his research before his patient’s wellbeing, and switching from old pal to arch enemy on the turn of a sixpence. But for me the discovery of this production is the amazing performance by Michael Balogun, whom we last saw as Macduff in Chichester (at least until the glass floor shattered). Here he plays Christopher, channelling all the emotions of a mental health patient railing against the machine, and conveying all the aspects of this complicated character from the wide-eyed innocent to the courtroom cynic.

A very strong production of a very strong play. It continues at the Royal and Derngate until 4th December- after which, who knows? But I reckon it could fit very nicely into an intimate West End theatre.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Paul Chowdhry, Family-Friendly Comedian, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd November 2021

PAUL-CHOWDHRY-FAMILY-FRIENDLYPaul Chowdhry, the legendary sweet-talkin’ bastard, comes on stage and advises us that, if we’d seen him before here at the Royal and Deansgate (sic) in Live Innit (we had), or What’s Happening White People (we hadn’t – but he didn’t mention PC’s World, which we had), he’s now a completely different person from the one before. He has reinvented himself as a family-friendly comedian. And then he proceeds to lambast the front row with a series of what I presume are Hindi swear words and body-part slang terms. He was only teasing. He hasn’t changed.

Rory O'HanlonBut I’m jumping ahead of myself because the show started with his support act, Rory O’Hanlon. We knew we’d seen him recently but couldn’t quite place when – turns out it was in the back garden of the Black Prince three months ago. He’s a terrific comic, with a typical Dublin gift of the gab, and with some very funny material. Sadly – for us – 90% of his act was what we had heard in August, so we were left to admire his comedic skills rather than actually laugh out loud at the material, as we had done the first time. Presumably he was new to everyone else as he went down a storm in the audience. With a very serendipitous turn of events, he had been bad-mouthing how horrible Coventry is, when a group of rowdy chaps turned up late and made their way to the middle of the front row. Where have you come from, asked Mr O’H. Coventry, came the answer. Thus a major part of the groundwork was set for the whole evening.

Paul Chowdhry Live InnitAfter the interval, and the Coventry guys had got even more tanked up, Paul Chowdhry must have looked down on the rowdy Sikhs in the front row waving their lagers at him, and thought this is going to be a doddle. Time and again, during the course of the evening, he went back to them to take the mickey in the way that really only Mr C can. Ridiculing their speech, their behaviour, their protestations of sobriety, everything; it’s amazing how he can be so directly aggressive to individual audience members – and they love it. And so do the rest of the audience. If you go to see a Paul Chowdhry gig, so much of your time with this extraordinarily skilled and quick-witted comic will be spent with him trading the most dangerous banter with the audience, getting away with murder, spreading the comedy of offence far and wide, and, against all odds, it works so well.

Paul ChowdhryTwo things help here; one is Mr C’s superb mimicry skills, which allow him to populate his chat with a range of stereotype accents, from his posh Susan and Giles voices, and his Neanderthal Dave voice, to a full panoply of Asian imitations. His voices can be hectoring, whining, intimidating, offended, and so on; in other words, all the emotions, in all the races. The other is that he attracts such a wide variety of audience members from all races, all ages, and, particularly useful, all family groupings. Nothing can give him more scope than an extended Asian family of parents, aunties, uncles, kids, grannies and so on. As he pointed out, the lockdown rules where you could only meet six people at a time were specifically for white people. For Bengalis, six people constitutes the queue for the bathroom.

Paul ChowdhryThe show wasn’t just a sequence of audience interactions with no interconnecting theme other than insults; not quite, at any rate. As part of the show, Mr C dwelt on everyone’s lockdown and pandemic experiences, including how we now do our best to suppress a cough, which, in the good old days, would have been an open invitation for the most wallowed-in, phlegmatic and catarrh-filled airway clearing exercise – as he frequently and very audibly demonstrated. He does a brilliant take-down of those who take their vaccination advice from Nicki Minaj – probably worth your ticket price alone  – and he fantasises about a Saudi Arabian version of TV’s Naked Attraction.

Paul Chowdhry on stageIf you’re like us, you’d probably think, “I know that Paul Chowdhry is a master of the comedy of offence, and I’m going to appreciate it for what it is, and not get offended”. Wrong. Despite our best efforts, we were offended on at least two occasions, and, as Mr C also tells us, it’s as white people being offended on behalf of others – whilst those “others” are probably not in the least offended. If it’s good to be challenged in the theatre, I can’t see why it shouldn’t be good to be challenged by comedy too.

Paul CAs when we saw Live Innit, I think it’s fair to say that I enjoyed it more than Mrs Chrisparkle. Whilst still laughing lots, she finds Mr C’s repetitive and aggressive style a little overwhelming – or her killer description, relentless – whereas I either don’t notice it, don’t mind it, or just find it funny. It’s a boy thing, innit. His tour is nearing its end, with a few more dates until Nottingham on 16th December. And, despite the title, don’t bring the kids.

Review – Jayde Adams, The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 20th November 2021

Jayde-AdamsI booked this show on a risky punt when it first went on sale, when it was pretty much at the height of the pandemic and I hadn’t booked a show for months, and I really needed the sense of having something new to look forward to when it was all over – not that we’re there yet. I hadn’t actually heard of Jayde Adams before; in fact, I’d still seen nothing new about her by the time we went to see Saturday’s show.

Ballad of Kylie Jenner's Old FaceBut that was my bad, as Ms Adams clearly has a devoted following, and a history of extravagant stage performances as was revealed in the opening part of The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face, the significance of which title only became revealed as the show neared its end. I didn’t actually know who Kylie Jenner was either, but fortunately Ms Adams includes an explanatory segment for the over 50s in the show, which was damn useful. I did know the Kardashians were grotesque, but this really helped me understand just how grotesque they are.

The show is basically a comedy TED talk (or lecture, as we used to say in the old days) where Ms Adams grapples with her love/hate relationship with both the word and the concept of feminism. She loves it when it means what it’s meant to mean, and hates it when it is misappropriated by the likes of Beyonce and Jay-Z, as she revealed in a hilarious sequence describing a certain stage performance that took place (literally) Under That Word.

jayde-adams-serious black jumperShe also brings in the magical power of the Serious Black Jumper as part of her material (no pun intended). Having been advised that no one took her seriously when she was camping it up in catsuits, she donned a serious black jumper to gain gravitas and found that people’s reactions are so different. And it’s true! She gives us a number of examples of influential people wearing a serious black jumper and it certainly helps you take them seriously; especially when viewed side by side with the same person in mufti.

I mustn’t give the impression that this show is in any way po-faced or academically serious. It isn’t. It’s jam-packed full of laughs. Jayde Adams has a terrific interaction with the audience and a wonderfully natural comic persona, that’s part strong and self-assured, and part vulnerable and uncertain – just like most people really, so we identify with her easily (even us chaps).

Jayde AdamsTo conclude she ties feminism in with the concept of confidence, and gives us a healthy and positive definition of gaining confidence rather than relying on the outward fripperies of the likes of the Kardashians. It’s a powerful and overwhelmingly positive message and you leave the theatre buoyed up with dignity and optimism. And also having had a really good laugh – what more could you want? It’s always refreshing to enjoy intelligent, thoughtful comedy, and this show has it by the bucketful. This was almost the last night of the tour, just one more show left at Leicester Square – but she’s writing more material, so hopefully she’ll be touring again soon!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 19th November 2021

Screaming Blue MurderIt’s odd how the same format of three fabulous acts, two wonderful intervals and one marvellous compere can create a different vibe from show to show. There was something odd and ill at ease about October’s Screaming Blue Murder, but last Friday’s show was a crackeroony of a night. Host Dan Evans was on fine form indeed with his welcomes and entr’actes, mining the comedy out of the front rows, including Texaco Josh who was 29 but looked 13, Oundle Will who was 17 and looked 17, and Farmer Alice who, according to Dan, had to get up at 5am every day just to fill out all the refund forms, thus receiving the biggest laugh of the night.

Dan EvansAn innovative line-up featured two female comics and one male, which may be an indication of some progress where it comes to equality in comedy. We’d seen all the acts before, some more recently than others, and it’s interesting to see how they mixed and matched the same material we’ve seen before but to different effect.

Juliet MeyersFirst up was Juliet Meyers, whom I was expecting to use the C word within the first couple of minutes as she always does, but this time she didn’t – maybe she thought we were posher than we were. It wasn’t until she made a disparaging remark about our beloved Prime Minister, at which point Front Row Tom got up in a magnificent display of what appeared to be disgust which I think took us all slightly aback, only to get to the door to turn around and say by the way I agree, Boris Johnson is a massive c*nt (I may be paraphrasing). After that we were all relieved and Ms Meyers had the green light to use the C word as much as she wanted, and then everything fell nicely into place. Front Row Tom returned (he’d only nipped out to the loo), and Juliet got on with some great material about dogs’ unconditional love, Brexit in the canine world, and why men have become more tender in the bedroom. Great stuff.

James SherwoodNext up was James Sherwood, who reminds me of what David Mitchell would look like if he was just relaxing down the pub. He has a great interaction with the audience, very wry and dry, gently laconic and I really enjoyed his material regarding sex versus drugs and the pros and cons of both. He split up his act with a few musical jokes at the keyboard, which are his trademark, but for some reason they didn’t quite hit home in the way they have in the past. Nevertheless a good fun set.

Jenny CollierOur headline act was someone we’ve seen twice already this year, Jenny Collier, and I feared that listening to the same material again so soon after hearing it before would be a little disappointing. Not a bit of it. Ms Collier has honed this routine to perfection, working on the just the right words and intonations to make it as funny as possible – and she went down a complete storm. She is one of those comics who plays beautifully on her rather sweet and innocent appearance and contrasts it with the unexpected power of her material; a posh versus filthy balance, which she gauges perfectly. She uses her experience working in the NHS to great effect; has a great joke about a gag reflex; tells us about all the new Welsh words she learned this year; and ends up with a riotous routine about providing a stool sample. Left us all wanting a lot more – fabulous work.

That was the last Screaming Blue Murder for 2021, but, if we have unearnéd luck, we’ll all be back in January. See you there!

Review – Private Lives, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th November 2021

Private LivesA wise man once said, and I know he did because I was there when he said it, “every time Handel’s Water Music is performed, someone hears it for the first time – think how lucky that person is.” Judging from the average age of the theatregoers at Wednesday night’s performance of Private Lives at Chichester, I would hazard a guess that none of them was seeing it for the first time. As far as we could work out, there were no younger people at all. Is Noel Coward now confined to being entertainment for the middle class and elderly?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question as I tell you about this inaugural production of the Nigel Havers Theatre Company that started touring a few weeks ago in Bath and will continue its rigorous schedule through to April next year, with a December break for Nigel to do his regular stint at the Palladium panto.

Hodge and HaversI’m sure you know the set-up (unless you are one of my much prized younger readers!) Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Sybil (Natalie Walter) are on their honeymoon in Deauville, as are Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Amanda (Patricia Hodge). In fact, they’re in adjacent rooms in the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda are on their second marriages; and, here’s the rub, they were formerly married to each other. Imagine the horror when they bump into each other on their adjoining balconies. It doesn’t take them long to dump their new spouses and flee to Amanda’s posh flat in Paris. Will they live happily ever after this time, or will their old cantankerousness get in the way? And will Victor and Sybil stand for it? If you weren’t there for that first night that opened the brand new Phoenix Theatre in 1930, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda, and some unknown chap called Laurence Olivier as Victor, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to catch this production and find out!

With its timeless story and glittering script, this is a deceptively difficult play to get absolutely right and a dangerously easy one to get quite wrong. It’s very easy for the star turns who inevitably play Elyot and Amanda to hog the limelight – Coward naturally made them the stars of the show and underwrote the parts of their new love interests to keep all the attention to Gertie and himself. So the play can feel quite unbalanced. In this production, it’s quite hard to imagine how Elyot and Sybil might have originally fallen for each other – I didn’t feel like they were natural bedfellows, so to speak; but you can easily see how Victor and Amanda did, which gives the story a little more depth.

Havers and HodgeThe show is 100% played for laughs, which is fair enough; but it does mean that you occasionally have to catch your breath when the arguments turn into plain and simple physical domestic abuse. Face-slapping, a 78rpm being smashed over a head, and a considerable punch to the chops all elicit slapstick laughs but it’s a startling shock to see how things were very different in 1930. From a technical point of view, by the way, the stage combat between Havers and Hodge is outstandingly realistic – fantastic work!

Simon Higlett’s design for Act One is functional but perhaps those balconies are not quite as glamorous as one might expect for such hoity-toity guests at a top class resort. The design of the Paris flat though is exquisite, a veritable flambé of velvety reds and art deco delight, and elegant furnishings without overdoing the decadent. In a nice touch, the accompanying music is all composed by Coward pre-1930, to give it an extra hint of veracity. You’d say Coward was being big-headed, but there’s no indication in the original text that the music played was his, so it’s generations-later, second-hand big-headedness!

P Hodge N HaversI think most people will have booked to see this to see for themselves how the two leads work, tussle and entertain together – and they do an absolutely splendid job. Nigel Havers cuts his usual refined figure and is a perfect voice for Coward’s witty, roué, spiteful charm. He is superb in those moments where the elegant façade shatters and the rather grubbier character comes to light – such as in his cowardly lack of resistance to Victor’s understandable aggression or when he gets his leg trapped after a spot of sofa-athletics with Amanda. Patricia Hodge is, of course, a natural for Amanda; she makes the character’s words come alive with effortless ease, and brings the house down with her complaint against Elyot’s love-making that it’s too soon after dinner. The pair share an immaculate stage presence and they work together like a dream.

Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was ageist of me to wonder how credible it is for two such theatre veterans to be playing roles that Coward would have imagined to be around thirty years old. I was only thinking out loud. But there is some relevance to the point in as much as Coward would have envisaged Victor being older than Amanda – that’s definitely not the case in this production. But it’s pretty easy to forget the age differences and take it all at face value.

Victor and SybilMs Walter and Mr Bruce-Lockhart give excellent support as the wronged other halves, Ms Walter in particular squeaking in frantic fury at the way she has been treated, only then to turn her ire on Mr B-L in the final reel. Aicha Kossoko plays Louise the maid with a sumptuous French accent. The very full midweek Chichester audience threw itself into enjoying the performance, with several long laugh moments and applause breaks for whenever Ms Hodge decided to sing. That rather old-fashioned, respectful matinee-style appreciation for a star performer or singing moment almost underlined how very dignified and classic the whole experience felt.

If the future for Coward is to attract older patrons to enjoy a nostalgia trip rather than encouraging younger theatregoers to discover his wonders, at least that’s good box office news for now, as this production is selling like hot cakes wherever it goes. Long term though, I’m wondering if his appeal will last. Things change, then change again; but Coward doesn’t, he’s constant as the northern star, being too recent to survive drastic updating but probably too historical to attract the young. Time will tell! In the meantime, this is a delightful production, riddled with expertise, delivered by several safe pairs of hands, and fully worthy of your theatre-going funds.

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968)

By the Pricking of my ThumbsIn which we’re reacquainted with amateur detectives Tommy and Tuppence, on the hunt for a missing old lady, Mrs Lancaster, who lived in the same old people’s home as Tommy’s Aunt Ada, and had given her a painting of an attractive old house. But when Aunt Ada dies, and Mrs Lancaster has been removed from her old people’s home, T & T are at a loss as to how to get the picture back to Mrs Lancaster. Cue a search by Tuppence which ends up getting her deep in trouble. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Tommy and Tuppence“This book is dedicated to the many readers in this and other countries who write to me asking: “What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence? What are they doing now?” My best wishes to you all, and I hope you will enjoy meeting Tommy and Tuppence again, years older, but with spirit unquenched!” That’s one of Christie’s rare dedications that needs absolutely no research. By the Pricking of my Thumbs was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1968, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the same year. Unusually, it doesn’t appear to have been published in magazine format, abridged or otherwise, before the Collins Crime Club edition,  unlike most Christie books.

Macbeth TextThe book begins with an epigraph – one that explains the title of the book. “By the Pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. It’s from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and is spoken by the Second Witch in Act IV Scene 1. She says it just as Macbeth is about to come on stage; and there’s no doubt that he’s something wicked.

N or MAnswering Christie’s readers question, “what has happened to Tommy and Tuppence?”, I’m delighted to report that they are in fine fettle; possibly the best we’ve ever seen them, in fact. We last saw them in the frankly abysmal N or M? way back in 1941, prior to that we hadn’t seen them since operating their detective agency in Partners in Crime. In 1941 they were frustrated at not being involved in the war effort. Now it’s 1968, and they’re definitely retired, but Tuppence still has her restless flightiness and keenness to meddle in affairs that really aren’t her own. Tommy is still both solid and stolid, a reliable background figure of good renown, who fortunately has retained his old secret service contacts from the war. And they’re still looked after by Albert, their office boy in Partners in Crime, landlord of the Dog and Duck in N or M?, and now, apparently, live-in servant and chef extraordinaire provided it’s chicken. All three of them are presented in the same bright and breezy way that we remember them.

Find the LadyOne tends to think that Christie’s writing and plotting tailed off towards the end, but following the sensational Endless Night, her follow-up By the Pricking of my Thumbs is still a pretty good read, with some fun characterisations, nice plot twists and a totally unexpected denouement. What starts out as a Find The Lady story, grows in creepiness and suspense into criminal revelations that you had no concept of at the beginning of the book. No spoilers, so I shan’t tell you if Tuppence finds her lady, but you won’t be disappointed – at least, not with the whodunit element.

Red HerringHowever, there’s no question that the book suffers from Christie’s over-use of coincidences, although at least this time they don’t compromise the crime or the detection; nevertheless, they do make a lot of the framework of the book very far-fetched. There is also one big loose end that isn’t tied up; it’s as though Christie lost sight of some of her earlier plotting as she got going with her main theme. Alternatively, you could think of the big loose end as a big red herring. That’s for you to decide! I also felt the energy of the book sagged when Tuppence is in conversation with the locals in Sutton Chancellor; not so much with the Perrys, but when she spends time with Mr and Mrs Copleigh, Tuppence gets overwhelmed by all the characters she’s forced to listen about, and so do we. Fortunately, that whole sequence ends up with an unexpected and intriguing event.

Apart from a few references to known, real London locations, the majority of the book takes place in area based around Market Basing, which had been a focal point in Dumb Witness, Crooked House, and The Secret of Chimneys. Medchester, Shaleborough, and the main village of Sutton Chancellor are all creations of Christie’s imagination. There is a Cleveland Hotel in London, which is where Mrs Johnson is said to have taken Mrs Lancaster, and there is also a George Street not too far away, but the Cleveland Hotel isn’t actually on George Street, as Christie has it.

Other references are few and far between in this book. When Tuppence is looking through Aunt Ada’s jewellery she sees a “pinky stone, it must be a ruby this time and a small diamond in the middle. Oh, of course, it’s regard. Rather nice really. So old-fashioned and sentimental.” I’d never heard of that, but Regard rings were an early form of Victorian or Edwardian engagement ring with a row of six stones that spelled out the word Regard: ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond.

Peer GyntWhen Dr Murray is telling Tommy about well-known mass murderers  who killed people they cared for, he mentions “the French woman, Jeanne Gebron, who was called The Angel of Mercy”, and “Nurse Warriner who kept a Home for elderly people.” Although they sound very convincing cases, I can’t see any reference to these people apart from in the context of this book – so this is Christie’s feverish imagination at work again. Philip Starke asks Tuppence “did you ever read Peer Gynt, Mrs Beresford?” “Who was she? Herself? The real one, the true one. Who was she – with God’s Sign upon her brow?” This isn’t a quote from Ibsen’s poem/play, but an allusion to it – when Gynt asks others “Peer Gynt? Who was he?”

PoundRegular 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. Money is unimportant in this book, and there actually only two sums referred to. Mr Copleigh says he would only pay £5 for a painting – that’s £60 today. Wouldn’t get you much. The other sum is £50 which is the value of old white fivers that were discovered in a secret compartment of a writing desk. That’s the equivalent of £600 today, which isn’t much in terms of a life’s savings. Old white fivers went out of circulation in 1961, so let’s assume they were hidden in 1960 – the equivalent of £50 in 1960 today is £800. That’s still not much.


Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for By the Pricking of my Thumbs:


Publication Details: 1968. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1971, bearing the price on the back cover of 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows an eerie broken doll in the foreground (very relevant) and a lady smelling roses in the background (not quite so relevant).

How many pages until the first death: Strictly speaking, 17 – but that isn’t a death that comes under investigation. Nor is the death announced after 31 pages – although it’s shown to be very relevant later. More relevant deaths are first mentioned after 77 pages; but if you’re waiting for an actual murder that happens in real time in the book, you’ll be disappointed.

Funny lines out of context: In conversation with Dr Murray: ““Death had resulted from an overdose of morphine.” “Good Lord!” Tommy stared and the ejaculation escaped him.”

Memorable characters: For the most part, the characters, although entertaining, are not hugely well drawn or memorable, with two main exceptions. First is Aunt Ada, a bullying hectoring old woman who distrusts Tuppence enormously, and will only talk to her nephew when she’s out of earshot – very believable and amusing. The other is the person responsible for all the crimes, so please allow me to move swiftly on without any further comment!

Christie the Poison expert: Morphine is discovered to be the cause of a death that had otherwise been considered to be due to natural causes.

Class/social issues of the time: None of Christie’s regular issues come to the fore in this book, which is in itself interesting; as it was the first time she’d written about Tommy and Tuppence for over 25 years, it’s as though she wiped the slate clean with her usual bugbears, to see if any other themes emerge. They do, although not extensively, and they can all be grouped under the heading Getting used to Growing old.

Tommy and Tuppence think about Aunt Ada as a problem; the problem caused by her old age, and who is going to look after her. “The days are past when Aunt Elisabeth, Aunt Ada and the rest of them lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants […] For the Aunt Adas of today arrangements have to be made suitable, not merely to an elderly lady who, owing to arthritis or other rheumatic difficulties, is liable to fall downstairs if she is left alone in a house, who suffers from chronic bronchitis, or who quarrels with her neighbours and insults the tradespeople.”

Other aspects of modern life prove generally irksome to older people – like the vicar of Sutton Chancellor. He bemoans the fact that the local council don’t mend the local signposts: “People who drive down these lanes aren’t usually trying to get anywhere in particular. People who are keep to the main roads. Dreadful,” he added again. “Especially the new Motorway. At least, I think so. The noise and the speed and the reckless driving. Oh well! Pay no attention to me. I’m a crusty old fellow.”

As well as local road arrangements, the vicar also objects to modernisation within the church – specifically the choice of Bible. Tuppence is looking for an Authorised Version in the church, but the Vicar can’t help her. “We don’t use that version in the church now, I’m sorry to say. One has to fall in with the bishop’s ideas, you know, and the bishop is very keen on modernisation, for young people and all that. A pity, I think.”

Another new modern-fangled invention is star-ratings on tourist accommodation. Today we’re used to seeing star ratings everywhere, but this was a relatively new thing in 1968. Tuppence asks Mrs Bligh for a recommendation for a local hotel: “It’s just a market town, you know. It doesn’t cater at all for the motoring trade. The Blue Dragon is a two-star but really I don’t think these stars mean anything at all sometimes. I think you’d find The Lamb better.”

Overall the sense you get from the social aspects of the book is a rejection of modernisation and a distrust of the complacency in the thought that life today is better because it is easier and more comfortable.

Classic denouement:  Not at all, just one of those occasions when all the truth is revealed in a private conversation between two people. Hugely entertaining and unsettling though!

Happy ending? There’s a sense of relief for Tommy and Tuppence that their lives will go back to normal, but for everyone else there’s no particular improvement in any of their lives as a result of the experiences in this book.

Did the story ring true? Try as you might, you can’t overlook the major coincidences that Christie creates in order to get the story up and running. The fact that Tuppence recognises the house in the painting. The fact that the gallery run by Tommy’s friend Robert is actually mounting an exhibition of the works of the artist Boscowan. The fact that Robert knows Mrs Boscowan and can arrange a meeting between her and Tommy. The fact that Tommy and Tuppence’s daughter Deborah read an article in the newspaper that alerted her to the possibility that her mother might be in trouble. There are probably more!

Overall satisfaction rating: If you were just awarding a score on the basis of how suspenseful and surprising the ending is, you’d have no hesitation giving this book a 10/10. However, I think I have to dock it a couple of points for all the coincidences and untied up loose ends. But 8/10 is fair and a good score!

Halloween PartyThanks for reading my blog of By the Pricking of my Thumbs, 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 Hallowe’en Party, which I remember enjoying enormously on previous readings. However, all I can remember from those previous reads is that the book features a fatal bobbing-for-apples scene; and if there are apples, there’s bound to be the return of Mrs Oliver as well as our old friend Hercule Poirot. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – The Magician’s Elephant, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 15th November 2021

I’d like to start this review with an old joke that was doing the rounds at school circa fifty years ago:

Question: What do you get when an elephant defecates (shorter words were used at the time) on a bell?

Answer:  DUNG!

The Magician's ElephantOne of the most wonderful things about theatre is that different members of the same audience can watch the same show and have so completely different a reaction to it. The Magician’s Elephant opened a couple of weeks ago to a range of mixed reviews, from 2 stars to 4 stars. At last night’s performance quite a few people gave it a standing ovation. As we were leaving the theatre, we heard one woman say to her friend that she enjoyed it more than Matilda. On the other hand, as we left the auditorium for the interval break, we heard another woman say to her child, “well, they do say that the second act is better than the first…” Such a wide range of reactions, an experience you can only get in the theatre. And it was a complete joy to be back in the happy buzz of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the first time since The Boy in the Dress almost exactly two years ago, before all that horrible pandemic interregnum.

NarratorAs a rule of thumb, I much prefer a brave failure of a production to a lazy success. However, gentle reader, it would be wrong of me to say I enjoyed something, and saw value and merit in something when neither was true. Thus, with a sad heart, I must report a serious crime to you. It happened on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last night. It involved a waste of the audience’s time, the cast’s talent, the RSC’s resources and, above all, the unforgivable theatrical crime of creating an evening of sheer tedium. Yes, I’m afraid, The Magician’s Elephant is a bit of a stinker. Shame indeed, as Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 children’s novel of the same name sounds rather a hoot. An anarchically inventive story where a boy named Peter suspects his sister (whom his guardian has told him is dead) is still alive, and a fortune-teller foresees that an elephant will lead him to her. Lo and behold, at the opera house, a magician performs a trick that makes an elephant crash through the ceiling. Surely some coincidence? How and why did it happen? Will Peter be reunited with his sister? Did the Opera House have insurance?

Queuing for the elephantFrom such inspirational lunacy Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler have distilled a book, music and lyrics totally lacking in spark, humour or emotion and have created a piece that’s as heavy and slow as a brigade of pachyderms. The constant repetition of lines within songs is abominable, and simply kills the show even before you consider any other aspects of it. As soon as one character comes up with a sentence, it gets pummelled to death by singing it again, and again, and again. (And again.) As the show went on, I tried my hardest to refrain from shouting out “noooo!” and “aaargh!” and “someone come up with another line!” at sequences like: “Follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant” which was closely followed by “don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant” ad nauseam. Bear in mind that at this stage of the show I don’t think we’d even seen the elephant yet – another problem of the show in that it’s all talk but precious little action.

Count and CountessIf I had a pound for every time the injured Mme LaVaughn bemoaned “I was crushed by an elephant” to which the magician responded with “I only meant lilies”, I could charter a private jet to Bermuda. Well, not quite, but you get my drift. The repetitions throughout were so exasperatingly boring, it was though it had been written as a punishment; stay behind after school and write fifty times, I must not follow the elephant. To be fair, there is one good song, The Count who doesn’t Count, but it’s elongated beyond elasticity so that by the end the fun of it has been extinguished. But for the most part the songs are drab, dreary and forgettable.

Peter and LutzMother always said, if you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing. Of course, as always, I will do my best to accentuate the good bits. This won’t take long. There is one very good performance by Jack Wolfe as Peter, who conveys a very real, wistful sense of loneliness, on a search for his missing sister to make his family complete again. He also has a great singing voice and an impish stage presence. I also enjoyed the performance of Miriam Nyarko as Adele, the feisty orphan with an inbuilt spirit of adventure/fantasist, possibly the only character who’s allowed to show a genuine sense of fun. Such a shame, then, that when the two are reunited as brother and sister (gasp! Who knew to look in the likeliest place to find her?) it’s a moment surprisingly devoid of emotion that registers no higher a reaction than an implied “oh, that’s nice”. Sam Harrison makes the best of the quirky Count Quintet and tries his damnedest to bring out as much humour as possible from his characterisation as a hen-pecked husband. Mark Meadows looks like he’s stepped out of another production as old soldier and Peter’s guardian Vilna Lutz, but that’s quite appropriate as the character is trapped in a post-war PTSD-style existence. It’s a shame that the production doesn’t integrate him more into the story.

Peter and the elephantAnd of course, there’s the elephant, who’s a technical treat and a slice of puppetry perfection; she looks pretty much like the genuine article and her trunk is carefully operated to cleverly express her thoughts. Sadly, the elephant only really has one thought, which is that she is sad and unwell and she wants to go home. Peter understands her plight and tells us that she is sad and unwell and wants to go home. In fact, he tells us several times. I think we understood it the first time, Peter. Sad and unwell and wants to go home? Yes. Sad and unwell and wants to go home.

Police ChiefElsewhere some of the characterisations go rather awry. Forbes Masson’s cartoony Police Chief is all light and no shade – all Keystone Kop where we could have done with the occasional whiff of Bergerac. Amy Booth-Steel’s narrator should have been a conduit between the Stratford audience she constantly chats with and a distant land of magic, but instead came across as rather smug and self-important. For our performance the role of Countess Quintet, usually played by Summer Strallen, was played by Alison Arnopp as a virtual copy of Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder 2. The endless screechy petulance wasn’t remotely endearing or entertaining even as a pantomime villain. Marc Antolin, an actor I always admire and who can create genuine magic on stage with his clown and movement skills, seems sadly restrained in his role as police officer Leo, and you only occasionally get a glimpse of his true talent.

LaVaughn Leo and MagicianThere are many underwhelming moments in this production; I choose only one to illustrate where it could have been so much better than it is. There’s a scene where Adele triumphantly gets to turn the tables on the wicked Count and Countess by strapping them down and hurling a bucket of elephant dung over them. It should be a moment where revenge is sweet and the baddies get their come-uppance. The dung should cover them and, much to their hilarious struggles to get away from it, they’re slopped with the stinky stuff. Everyone in the audience shrieks with disgusted delight. However. Instead, the Count and Countess, clearly no more strapped down than if a Christmas paper chain was securing them, get the bucket tipped over them to reveal it contains nothing more than a bit of few strands of grass or straw. It sits on the Countess’ lap and looks ridiculous. A true disappointment and an opportunity wasted.

Count Countess and AdeleA good Christmas show should be a thing of joy. What have the poor kids done to deserve this? Mrs Chrisparkle was itching to leave at the interval, which would have been a mistake for more than one reason. The interval lady was right, the second act is undoubtedly better than the first; for one thing, the plot actually progresses (whereas the first act is static and irrelevant) and there is some emotion (the first act is devoid of emotion). Regrettably, the emotion is pure schmaltz, but if you can somehow accept the tenet that the elephant is a symbol of a kinder, more wholesome society, then you might get something out of it. We couldn’t and didn’t. “Hate” is a strong reaction to a theatre production; I’ve only hated one other RSC show in the forty-five years since I first saw the company, and that was the recent Macbeth that became a prisoner to the misplaced vision of its director. But at least that had a vision, that you could disagree with. The Magician’s Elephant is rudderless, with a false sense of its own significance, and certainly of its own entertainment value. Couldn’t wait to leave.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

One wonders why they bothered

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Clue of the Black Cat (1963)

The Clue of the Black CatIn which we meet young Bobby Thiriet, living in a tiny apartment with his family in the Paris suburb of Puisay. One day his father is offered a deal that sounds too good to be true – a luxurious new apartment in the Belloy Estate. M. Thiriet parts with his savings only to realise he is the victim of a confidence trick. But Bobby, his brothers and his friends are not going to let the crooks get away with it that easily. And what is the secret of the black cat?

The Clue of the Black Cat was first published in 1963 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Témoignage du chat noir, which translates literally as The Testimony of the Black Cat, with illustrations by Prudence Seward. As “The Clue of the Black Cat”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1964, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the third printing of the American edition, printed by Pantheon Books, and dated September 1966. A few second-hand copies of this book are available to buy at the moment from the usual online sources!

Along with A Hundred Million Francs and Flood Warning, The Clue of the Black Cat was one of the three children’s books written by Berna that he himself thought were his best. The book was inspired by his own experiences at school where he worked on a school newspaper, so I think his fondness for this book is purely sentimental! But this book does have the power to inspire children to do the same – I remember how desperately I wanted to start my own school newspaper after reading this book, and I used to play at home for hours creating news pages.

Berna is still happily in his comfort zone expressing what it feels like to be part of a gang. But whereas with the previous gangs we’ve encountered (Gaby, Charloun) it’s been the oldest member who takes control, in The Clue of the Black Cat our new hero is Bobby, who is the youngest. This puts a slightly different perspective on how we experience the story. He’s also part of two gangs; he and his siblings form one, and the staff of the student newspaper form the other. The other aspect which gives this book a very distinct flavour separate from all other Berna books is its thriller/whodunit nature. It’s called The Clue of the Black Cat because the cat is the most important lead they have in trying to work out how the swindling of George Thiriet’s ten thousand francs takes place, and who the culprits are.

Like the Gaby books, Berna continues to use the juxtaposition between wealth and poverty as a strong foundation for the book. The Thiriets live in the worst part of town in the tiniest apartment and theirs is a miserable existence. When they see the apartment in the Belloy estate it’s another world for George and Bobby. The contrast between the two is tangible. The Thiriets are lucky to have a superb family relationship, and they endure their hardships with unity and self-support. They don’t show envy for those that have; but simply want justice and to have their money returned. They’re not interested in any further recriminations.

Inspector Sinet makes a return appearance, and he reveals a fascinating motivation for continuing to work alongside Bobby and the other kids. “He nearly pulled off his black hat and hurled it to the ground in rage, as in those days of the horse without a head and the street musician. But a ghostly hand restrained him. It belonged to another Sinet who had never enjoyed the happy childhood of his fellows and who felt he still had a claim to those lost years.” Sinet loves working with the gangs because it reminds him of the childhood that he never had; on a personal level, I completely understand that, because I never felt that I had a gang I could belong to, and Berna creates such a lively and engaging gang atmosphere that you feel it’s never too late to join!

Sinet defends the boys in conversation with the caretaker at the Agramon estate. It’s an excellent summing-up of their character: “They are decent, straightforward kids, not like the young toughs you read about in the newspapers. They’ve got might and right on their side, as well as a certain scorn for official procedure which I would be the last to disapprove of.” They are indeed good kids – no wonder we like them.

This was always my favourite Berna book and in fact my favourite children’s book of all time. I love the characters, I love its genuine thriller/whodunit structure, I love the enterprising newspaper spirit of the junior journos, and I love its feelgood factor at the end, with justice being done and a happy-ever-after vibe that doesn’t feel artificial or over-sentimental. I also like how Berna sets up his next book The Mule on the Motorway from the ashes of this case.

The story takes place in the fictional Parisien suburb of Puisay. This is Inspector Sinet’s new work place; when we knew him from his time sorting out Gaby’s gang’s escapades, he was based in Louvigny, but he has been promoted to Commissioner and now works in Puisay. I think it may be based on the real town of Antony.  The Parc de Sceaux, where the Belloy Estate is to be found, is a real location in the suburb of Antony in the south of Paris. In The Mule on the Motorway, which also features Bobby and Sinet, he includes a street map of his fictional Puisay. There’s a very evocative moment, when Bobby and the gang, the PSN crew and Commissioner Sinet are all on the trail of the black cat. “After half a mile the Commissioner was frankly puzzled. He had memorized the general layout of the map, and the route the cat was taking seemed to lead to nowhere. Beyond the Rungis viaduct, over the lanes of the expressway, was a drab desert of factories, waste land, and derelict warehouses. The Paris of tomorrow had not pushed its tentacles that far, and it was hard to imagine a skyscraper rising on that joyless horizon.” I love how Berna realises that, whilst the area is currently derelict, in the future it won’t be. In 1969, the food market at Les Halles relocated to Rungis and today it is the largest wholesale food market in the world.

Berna also expresses beautifully the territorial nature of a gang, as they follow the cat. “Over the concrete arch that spanned the expressway went the whole gang, scooters and all. The boundary of Puisay passed through the middle of the bridge, and both policeman and boys felt the difference when they crossed it. Beyond was unknown country into which, close though it was, no one ever went. For the last five or six years the two adjacent suburbs, once joined by a network of friendly streets, had ben cut off from one another by the bold sweep of the expressway, as though they stood on opposite banks of a river linked only by the majestic bridge under which the main road traffic flowed day and night. Rungis was as distant as a foreign country to Charlie and his friends, and to Sinet, who had never set foot in it.” Modern developments, like the expressway, divide old communities and make life harsher to younger generations.

If I have a complaint about this book, it’s that it lacks a strong female presence. Gaby’s gang features the redoubtable Marion, to whom all the members look for inspiration and confirmation that their ideas and plans have merit. The only female characters in this book are old women, the villainous Natasha, and Charlie’s sister Lily who plays a very minor and non-feminist role, acting as secretary and typist at the PSN instead of going out on adventures. Belle, the oldest Thiriet sibling, is barely present in the book as she has left school and has a job; so, again, she doesn’t participate in the gang mentality or have any fun. The book does, however, contain cats! Perhaps replacing Marion’s dogs in this book, Berna gives us a cast of cats including Toddles and Casimir, and another nameless cat – there may even be more!


Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!


Chapter One – The Bowels of the Earth – Rue Mirandole. George Thiriet meets his son Bobby at the school gates and tells him how the plans to move into a new apartment had fallen through – again. George is embarrassed; but Bobby is resigned. Bobby suggests moving to a different suburb of Paris, but George says it’s impossible because of everyone’s work or school commitments.

As Bobby sits and waits his turn at the barber’s he pulls out a copy of PSN to read. No one had heard of it – it’s the Puisay Students News. Bobby explains: “there are three thousand of us in that barn of a place and you can’t get to know everyone. So the PSN helps us to keep in touch. Anyone can write what they like about anything – even if it’s offering a second-hand transistor in part-exchange for a guitar.” The conversation grows to George chatting about how proud he is of all his family, but they do have one severe problem – accommodation. He confesses six of them live in two tiny rooms in a basement in the worst tenement block in the Rue Mirandole. One of the men having his hair cut is none other than Inspector – now Commissioner – Sinet. Another of them criticises George for his bad money management and earnings, and the atmosphere turns sour. Bobby wishes his father wouldn’t talk about their money and accommodation troubles so openly.

However, walking home, one of the men from the barber’s shop appears and explains to George that an apartment in the beautiful Belloy Estate is to become available for them at a relatively modest rent. He is Henri Dupont, the managing director of Metropolitan Properties who own the Belloy Estate, and George and Bobby can barely believe their ears. The current tenant will look for a payment of approximately 10,000 Francs for the fixtures and fittings, which is just within George’s budget.

Dupont offers to take George and Bobby over to the apartment straight away so they can look at it. The building is sumptuous; George thinks it’s just too grand for his family, but Bobby is entranced. Mme Papadakis, the current tenant, is at home and agrees to show the Thiriets around the flat. George feels it’s too risky just to hand money over to Mme Papadakis, but Dupont steps in and says his money would be safe: “nothing can be done without Metropolitan Properties’ consent”. It’s while the adults are negotiating that Bobby notices a big black cat curled up on top of a cabinet in the corner of a room. He approaches it carefully, scratches it behind the ears, and the cat purrs with pleasure. When Bobby comes back and says he’s been making friends with the cat, Mme Papadakis says she has no cat, and the boy must be mistaken. Dupont suggests it must be a neighbour’s cat.

Walking back to Dupont’s car, he confirms that “the Belloy Estate awaits you and you can count yourselves as good as there already. Remember where we’re meeting tomorrow – Number 6, eighth floor, Apartment 12”. ““Goodbye Rue Mirandole!” Bobby cried, and danced for joy.”

Chapter Two – The Keys of Paradise. Bobby’s siblings, Belle, Jacques and Laurent have been waiting with their mother for George and Bobby to return home for dinner. They start without them; but when George and Bobby finally get home they sneak in quietly in order to spring their big surprise. As a result all the meal things get knocked off the table. But Bobby confirms the truth – they really have found an apartment for them all.

Excitedly, the family spend the evening making plans, allocating bedrooms, working out how the furniture will fit, dreaming of cool summer dinners on the balcony. The next day Jacques prepares a moving house announcement for the PSN, but he is too late – that week’s edition had already gone to press. Jacques’ friends can’t believe the family’s luck – and make Jacques feel that it will all come to nothing like all his father’s previous plans. But Bobby is 100% certain this will be their big lucky break.

They all pack furiously to get everything ready for the move tomorrow. George has gone to see Mme Papadakis with Dupont to make the payment. When they return, they can’t believe that the sale has actually gone through. Sophie has a concern about their dresser though – will it fit? Bobby is to take the bus and a tape measure to go and check whilst the rest of the family finishes packing.

 Chapter Three – Apartment 12. Without a care in the world, Bobby makes his way to the Belloy Estate, up in the lift, and down the corridor to Apartment 12. But his key doesn’t seem to work. He notices the nameplate for M. and Mme Papadakis is still screwed to the outside, so he knows he has the right apartment. He tries again, but still no luck. Then the door opens to reveal a white-haired old lady, looking surprised at Bobby with his keys. “You’ve got the wrong floor dear” she tells him. “Or perhaps the wrong building.” Bobby stammers out that his father has signed a deal to take over the apartment tomorrow and that Mme Papadakis is moving out today. “The old lady began to laugh and pulled the door wide open. “Come, come, a joke’s a joke,” she said, her cheeks going quite pink. “I am Madame Papadakis.””

Bobby can see that the apartment is fully furnished as it was before. He also sees the black cat. Bobby explains to M. Papadakis what has happened, and Papadakis realises that the family must have been the victim of a confidence trick. He starts to telephone the police as Bobby cries quietly to himself. The family arrive with a plain clothes policeman who establishes the veracity of the Papadakis’ story – that they had been away but got back today, and they do indeed own the apartment outright. The caretaker confirms that there is no Dupont, and all the flats are privately owned. They realise that somehow George was tricked into viewing an empty apartment downstairs but that has been sold to another family who are arriving in two weeks. So who has swindled George out of his ten thousand francs? It becomes a case for Commissioner Sinet.

Sinet is excited to be in his brand new police station in Puisay, and happy to be given the Thiriet case to work on, although he is alarmed at the sight of the family containing “an eleven-year-old ragamuffin hemmed in by two scowling elder brothers. All the misfortunes that had checkered his career as a police officer had been caused by birds of that feather.” He criticises George for being so gullible; “managers of property companies don’t go around offering luxury apartments to the first poor fool they meet. It’s unthinkable!”

Sinet asks Bobby to describe “Dupont” and he does, with great accuracy – he refers to him as the White Hedgehog. He also points out that Sinet would have seen him in the barber’s shop. When George then describes the woman whom they thought was Mme Papadakis, the real Papadakis’ realise it must be their old housekeeper, “the Grand Duchess”, Natasha Popova. She must have taken an impression of the keys before they fired her.

Bobby tells Sinet there was one more witness to the crime – the black cat. Mme Papadakis confirms that the cat, Toddles, belongs to them, but they took Toddles away with them, so whichever cat it was that Bobby saw in the apartment previously, it wasn’t Toddles. But he’s convinced it’s the same cat.

The family return, dejected, to their old flat, and it takes ages to do all the unpacking. George blames himself terribly for his stupidity; but the brothers vow to find out where the money is and get it back somehow. They’re determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and see justice is done!

 Chapter Four – P. S. N. Having kept quiet about the events of the previous day, the three brothers turn up at the storeroom of the PSN after school. Charlie’s network had already alerted him to the con trick, so gets the brothers to open up and explain all. Charlie is thrilled at the prospect of a really strong story for the hundredth issue of the newspaper. But reporter, writer and all purpose worker on the paper Flatfoot thinks they should deal with this story differently. “You ask your father to print two issues a week and we’ll start a twenty-five part serial – a thriller with a really good title like The Clue of the Black Cat! We can’t lose! The PSN will sell like hot cakes!” They plan to write it as a work of fiction, “translated from the English by Lily Baron”, (editor Charlie’s sister) and, because they don’t yet know the end of the story, the Thierets account will be the first two episodes, and then they’ll take it forward depending on what has been discovered by the detectives. The first edition ends with Peter Pancake (the fictional name for Bobby) turning the key in the lock to no avail.

But the real case is moving slowly. George spends every evening combing through suspect photos; detectives have been to the barbers, and the Belloy Estate; even the Papadakis’ have brought a case against the villains as they discover some items have been stolen from their apartment. And Bobby is upset that he feels the writers are ignoring the cat, and the special relationship that should had formed between it and Peter Pancake. By the end of the second episode, interest in the story is at fever pitch – and the writers have brought the black cat back to add to the suspense – but there are still no official developments in the case.

However, that night Sinet gets a call from the caretaker at the Belloy Estate, M. Breton. He confirms that he has also seen a black cat in the basement of the building. But it definitely isn’t Toddles. Sinet tells Breton that he must catch the beast!

Chapter Five – The Trail of the Black Cat. Friday’s issue of the PSN sells like hot cakes, and Charlie’s editorial leader shocks the school: “The Pancakes and their four children, Sybil, Herbert, Sam and Peter, are no mere creatures of our imagination. The three boys are your schoolmates at the Lycée Alfred-Jarry. Perhaps one of them is in your class; you may even be sitting net to him. We have exposed their distress in all its nakedness and you have taken this courageous family to your heart. Do not withdraw your sympathy from Jacques, Laurent, and Bobby Thiriet. They belong to us; they are part of our daily lives.” The rest of the article implored the readership to do what they can to investigate and help the family’s cause. “We call upon your initiative ad your ability to pick up the scent and stick to it. Success, we are sure, will crown our joint efforts.”

Other articles are entitled “What Are the Police Doing?”, “Housing and Crime!”, “Do You Know These Two?” with drawings of the Grand Duchess and the White Hedgehog, and there is a call for anyone who has any information to bring it to the attention of the PSN straight away. Finally there is a drawing of the black cat, who is captioned to say “I alone know who the Grand Duchess and the White Hedgehog really are […] I’m only a black cat like thousands of others, but if you should happen to come across me, I will lead you straight to the gentleman who poses as a public benefactor and to the lady who denied my existence to Bobby Thiriet’s face.” As a result, the PSN offices are swamped with visitors. One boy, Poussard, identifies the White Hedgehog as the maths teacher, M. Vacherin (or Freckleface, as he called him). Poussard is given the job of confronting Freckleface and asking for his alibi. But Bobby confirms that M. Vacherin is not the guilty party.

Meanwhile Sinet goes to the basement of the Belloy apartment block to see if the black cat makes an entrance. He does, at 8pm. He purrs at Sinet, who makes friends with the cat. Bobby, too, is watching and starts tailing Sinet, who is tailing the cat. He goes to the 8th floor, and heads straight for Apartment 12.

Chapter Six – The Clarinetist.  The cat sits outside No 12 and mews loudly. Eventually the door opens and Mme Papadakis comes out. “There he is, the little rascal! […] come in, you naughty kitty! Come say hello to Toddles!” She takes the second cat indoors. Sinet spots Bobby and they unite over the common cause of trying to work out what’s going on. They reflect on how perhaps the Papadakis’ are not as innocent as they seem – they’re not that upset about the theft of their assets, after all. They agree that the cat is key to their investigations.

Bobby convinces Sinet that he should knock at the door and simply ask for the cat – and to make sure it’s the right one. Unsure at first, he decides to throw himself into the adventure. Mme Papadakis is furious at his demands, ridiculing him with the suggestion that he should want to arrest a cat. Sinet bellows so loudly that the cat makes a bolt for the door, escapes past Sinet and Bobby and makes a run for it, hurtling down the staircase. Mme Papadakis closes the door in Sinet’s face.

Also in the corridor is a clarinetist, apparently waiting for other band members to play music. Sinet hurries him along. After all the adventures, Bobby reveals that he has realised that one of the cats – “the crooks’ cat” – has a very thin gold chain around its neck. It has a disc on the chain too, but the cat escaped too quickly for Bobby to take a look at it.

Chapter Seven – Extra! Meanwhile, the PSN are going to release a Sunday four-page special devoted entirely to the black cat. But they need a big story for the back page. A boy called Belmont makes a case that the whole crime against the Thiriets was premeditated: “was it just by chance that the White Hedgehog was in Fred’s barbershop on the same evening as Bobby and his father? […] the way the confidence trick was worked shows that it had all been planned beforehand and wasn’t just to catch the first person who came along […] someone knew Monsieur Thiriet’s difficulties, and it looks as though he found out all about his timetable too.” But who might be in on the deal? Fred for one. Laurent arranges to go for a haircut to check out the lie of the land.

The next visitor to the PSN offices is 80-year-old Mme Deuzy, who has recognised the picture of the Grand Duchess. She says she’s none other Mme Papadakis. Jacques explains that she must be mistaken, but Mme Deuzy is adamant. She first met her the previous spring when she was trying to find a home for her own cat – named Toddles! When a pompous lady came to collect the cat she introduced herself as Mme Papadakis – but Charlie intercedes in the tale and explains that must be Natasha Popova whom she met. But Mme Deuzy saw her in the street six months later and accosted her over the cat, demanding to know where she lives and wanting to see it. The local baker’s boy recognised her as Mme Papadakis and knew her address – No 6, Apt 12, Belloy Estate – and said she’s one of the worst payers in town. Mme Deuzy went to her apartment; she met Toddles there; and she hopes she goes to prison!

Mme Deuzy has provided PSN with their big back page story. But what about the headline. Like all sensationalist journalists they’re not above inventing facts for their own purpose. And what do they choose? Black Cat Murdered.

Chapter Eight – The Death of the Black Cat. Bobby is back at the Belloy Estate, where he sees the musician again, looking out of place as he sports a Tyrolean feather hat. He seems to recognise him from somewhere else. Sinet is also there, waiting for M. Breton to let them all down to the basement with the boilers, where the black cat likes to rest in the warmth. The heat was burning, and the roar was deafening. Bobby knew the cat was there because he had seen the glitter in its eyes, but was hiding. Just as they were leaving to search elsewhere, the cat makes a bolt for it. Ending up on the eighth floor landing, the elevator opens to reveal the clarinetist. The cat is right in front of him. He opens his music case, and two shots ring out. One is a direct hit, and the cat appears to be dead. The marksman grabs the chain off its neck, and makes off.

By the time Sinet and Bobby reach the cat, it’s struggled halfway down the stairs, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Sinet is furious and Bobby is hearbroken. But cats have nine lives, and Bobby takes him home to care for him. It seems as though the PSN headline has almost come true.

Chapter Nine – A Gentleman Called Dupont Whilst Laurent is waiting at Fred’s for a haircut, the barber’s youngest son and occasional assistant, Gaston, arrives, a music case under his arm. “How did the rehearsal go?” asks Fred. “My clarinet played like a dream” he replies. After his haircut, Laurent returns to the PSN offices. “Didn’t see anything odd”, he reports. However, he lets slip that his hair was done by Gaston, who’s a clarinetist with the Wild Cats of Puisay. Lily, Charlie and the others instantly recognise the significance of this and head off to see Sinet.

Charlie and the PSN team tell Sinet of their discovery – but he already knows, as the man having his haircut next to Laurent was a plain clothes policeman. Belmont suggests they try a new tack – trying to identify the M. Dupont that the White Hedgehog impersonated. And lo and behold, Dupont is in Sinet’s office at the same time. Charlie challenges Dupont to recognise the picture of the White Hedgehog in the PSN – and he does. He identifies him as Papadakis. They met at a cocktail party and exchanged business cards, but Dupont tore Papadakis’ up as he didn’t trust him.

Belmont has another flash of inspiration. ““Bobby’s the only one of us who really knows this mystery cat […] it feels at home on the Belloy Estate, but its instincts could be fooled by its surroundings. In other words, it thinks it’s at home because its home surroundings are exactly the same.” The idea had already crossed Sinet’s mind. He had not dared pursue it, for thirty years in the Force had only served to strengthen his ability to stick to the wrong theory, and boys who were too clever made him uneasy.”

And what of the cat? He slept in the bedroom at Rue Mirandole. Bobby slept also, his mind at rest, full of the “excitement (that) came from being part – every minute of the day and night – of this unexpected adventure.”

Chapter Ten – Sunday News The Sunday Extra edition of the PSN was full of the news of the attack on the black cat. Charlie’s headline had the fictional cat admitting that the Belloy Estate seemed like home, but wasn’t – as per Belmont’s suggestion. Meanwhile, the vet had removed the bullet from the real cat, who was convalescing on a large portion of cod. After a dessert of cream and a good after dinner nap, the cat is alert, and bounds into action, scratching on the window. Bobby is unsure about letting him out, but eventually is convinced it’s the right thing to do. Once the whole PSN gang have been stationed outside ready to follow the cat, Bobby lets him out. Once they’ve established which direction he’s going, they’re on his tail. Drawing up the rear is Sinet, who’s never been following a suspect like this before. The cat boldly wanders on over the bridge over the expressway, out of Puisay and into Rungis.

The cat heads straight for an estate that looks exactly like Belloy – but isn’t! Its layout and setting, even the trees planted around it, look identical. Bobby follows the cat inside, and it slumps itself down outside Apartment Five at Building No Six. A plump woman hears him cry outside and instantly throws the door open. “Casimir! […] You’ve had Auntie so worried and poor Uncle’s spent the last twelve days trying to find you in all the back alleys of Rungis”. Charlie unfolds his copy of the PSN and asks if she has seen these people before. “Of course, I know them well […] a charming couple” He’s on the stock exchange. Such a sensible man. I’m going to cash in my savings bonds to buy Puerto Rican oil shares. I’ll double my money in a year.” They decline the old lady’s invitation to a tea party but only after she has given them the name of the couple: Vladimir and Natasha Gorine, who have been renting an apartment opposite for a month. “I shall miss them terribly when they go.”

Chapter Eleven – The Hedgehog’s Gift to Charity Meanwhile Sinet has taken up observation in the Caretaker’s office in front of the building. The Caretaker is suspicious of the boys’ motives, but Sinet defends them and tells him they are the police’s best chance of catching the fraudsters. “You can be pretty sure those boys have worked it all out already and have decided to get back what’s owed to them by hook or by crook.” Twenty of them were stationed around the apartment block, ready to act.

Having ascertained that the hedgehog and Natasha were in, the boys all gathered round and summoned them to the door. “We’re selling raffle tickets for the Winter Vacation Fund” says Charlie. The Hedgehog is about to slam the door on them when he thinks twice and asks them about their methodology of going door-to-door mob-handed. They explain the part each one plays, and then Laurent challenges him to make a contribution. Bobby watches him with fury. “Even a hardened confidence man has moments of weakness which make him fall into the same state of mental blackout as his victims.” The Hedgehog buys a ticket.

Chapter Twelve – The Biter Bit As Vladimir enters the apartment to get a coin, the boys all follow him in. Natasha is reclining with a cigarette watching television and both are extremely annoyed that the boys have entered without permission. Belmont tells him that they think he should give them more than a franc. Bobby suggests ten thousand francs – and for that they’ll see that the pair win the raffle. Slowly the boys reveal that they know that the Gorines are responsible for tricking the Thiriets out of their money; and the pair start to get very anxious. Natasha runs off to a bedroom and starts to prepare for an escape. She’s halfway out of the window when a boy outside makes to help her exit – she retreats back inside. She tries the kitchen door, but two other boys are waiting there to prevent her. Charlie confronts Vladimir for the full amount – the crook knows the game is up but says he hasn’t got the money to hand. Charlie lets slip that Fred and his nephew were arrested last night. Eventually Vladimir throws the money at Belmont and the boys depart – leaving Vladimir and Natasha to recriminate with each other where the whole scheme went wrong.

Still aiming to escape, Vladimir goes to his car only to find that the wheels have been removed and a cat’s head has been painted on each of the doors! So they ring for a taxi. Then Uncle and Auntie from next door catch up with them and offer them Casimir. They say they’re going away for a few days. When they get to the apartment block foyer there are about fifty people there watching them. They get into the taxi – only to discover Commissioner Sinet is in the front seat and he’s taking them to the police station.   

Chapter Thirteen – Merry Christmas! Charlie holds an impromptu party at the PSN offices. A friend of Laurent’s, Dauphin, reports that he has seen Sinet take the two suspects into the police station. But Charlie’s concerned as to how the new developments will affect the PSN reports of the crime. He’s going to make it become more and more like fiction so as to stay different from the mainstream media. What comes after a black cat? “It doesn’t matter if it’s a horse, a dog, a sheep, piglet, canary or fish, the important thing is to bring it into a story and to keep it there until the readers have had enough.” Bobby remembers a story he had read last week about a mule strolling along the expressway. “In the end the poor old thing got himself run over down by the Chevilly bridge. Where did he come from? Where was he going? Nobody knows, and needless to say his owner’s keeping quiet.”

Christmas has returned to the Rue Mirandole. The decorations are up, the drinks are bought. Now for Father George Thiriet to hear the good news. But he has a surprise for them too – he’s found a new apartment!

Sinet tells Bobby that the Hedgehog and the Grand Duchess will face at least five years behind bars. And he has a surprise for Bobby – a black cat. “It’s the cat that Uncle was bringing home to Auntie at the very moment that Casimir came back to his own hearth. They very kindly gave him to me, and I took him out of the goodness of my heart. I’m passing him on to you in the hope that you won’t be too hard on the the confounded purrer. Take him away! His basket’s on my hatstand.” Bobby leaves Sinet on the understanding that he’ll be back to look further at the case of the mule on the expressway.


Mule on the MotorwayTo sum up; this wonderful read is a superb blend of whodunit and children’s adventure, with a very satisfying ending which leads on to Berna’s next book, so we know this is not the last we will see of Bobby and his brothers. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book that has been telegraphed in the final chapters of this book, Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l’autoroute du sud, translated into English as The Mule on the Motorway. Surprisingly it took four years for this next book to emerge; in any event, I can’t wait to re-read it and share my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

Review – Sarah Millican, Bobby Dazzler, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th November 2021

SarahMillican_BobbyDazzlerShe may be from South Shields, but I think we should welcome Sarah Millican in as one of Northampton’s adopted daughters, as her Bobby Dazzler show last night was the first of three that she will be performing at the Royal and Derngate (18th and 21st November shows still to come) as well as having had a couple of secret gigs in their Underground studio to hone the show into perfection as Work in Progress nights. Much more of this and she’ll be supporting the Cobblers and pronouncing Cogenhoe correctly.

Gearoid FarrellyShe came on to do a little welcoming warm up before introducing her support act, Gearoid Farrelly. A name new to us, he’s a cheeky chap from the Emerald Isle, with a confiding style and ebullient personality, who spun some entertaining tales of seeing Shania Twain in Dublin (not to be recommended apparently, although primarily not because of Shania Twain) and how a gay man’s insecurities come to the fore when having to deal with a “real man” in a DIY store. Good delivery, heaps of confidence and he did a great job.

Sarah MillicanWhen Sarah Millican returned she encountered a bit of a problem – a loud, drunken woman in the upper boxes who had no compunction about constantly engaging in conversation with her. Not a heckle, nothing spiteful, but an absolute bloody nuisance. Several times she stopped Ms Millican in her flow and it really sapped the energy of the audience and made us feel uncomfortable. She wasn’t deterred by Sarah’s put-downs or admonitions, but, fortunately, she was eventually encouraged to sober up somewhere outside (preferably at home) – pity that didn’t happen sooner rather than later.

Sarah MillicanOnce that was out of the way, it left Sarah Millican free rein to discuss all her favourite usual topics – the things that happen to a woman in her mid-40s, interaction (both domestic and romantic) with her husband, fondness for confectionary self-indulgence, and the confidence to be herself, which she transmits to the audience, boosting our self-confidence too.

Sarah MThere’s probably no other comic in the world who’s so comfortable discussing the most private aspects of the human body – especially the female of the species. We’ve all got bodies, we’ve all got bits and bobs of various shapes and sizes, and Sarah Millican has no inhibitions when it comes to using them as items of mirth. Not content with leaving it there, she lingers over the smells, textures and general misfunctions that flesh is undoubtedly heir to. As a result, her material reflects everyone’s experience, and the laughter she creates is that of personal recognition. No human condition is out of bounds, resulting in the laughter frequently extending into groans of delighted disgust and general ewww, while Ms Millican, her face a picture of innocence, waits for us to regain our composure.

Sarah MillicanThe show is precisely scripted, with well-planned callbacks and deft use of mots justes, all apart from one section, where she invites the audience to share their moments of pandemic madness. One woman learned how to sew; another slung her husband out of the house. But my favourite was the man who chucked his job in as an operations director because after three and a half months he still didn’t understand what the job meant, and went back to his old job – as an operations manager. We also learned about Sarah Millican’s special and perhaps tongue-in-cheek involvement with the Couch to 5K App – and what it would be like to have yourself spur you on with faux-encouragement.

A hugely enjoyable comedy night out in a pair of the safest hands in the business. Sarah Millican’s tour continues right the way round to December 2022, would you believe, but I’d get in there quick with your booking if I were you!