Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 25th February 2022

Much Ado About NothingYou know how you wait two years for a bus and then three all come along at once? This is the fate of Much Ado About Nothing for 2022. Not only has it been chosen as the opening “Big Play” for the RSC at the beginning of the year, but there’s also a production by Simon Godwin coming at the National Theatre this summer and in September we’re seeing a production by Robert Hastie at the Crucible in Sheffield. But then it is an enduringly popular play and there’ll always be a demand for it.

BenedickMichael Balogun, who was originally cast as Benedick, withdrew from the play days before Press Night which has played a spot of havoc with the timings for its reviews. But if we have learned nothing else from the pandemic, it’s that the show must go on. And there’s no doubt about it, it’s a fascinating production. If you are a loyal reader of my random jottings, you’ll know that one of my  watchwords is that I much prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. And this is one of those occasions. Yes, for the most part, this production fails to deliver on many levels. But, my word, does it put in a brave attempt to do so, and does it have a lot of fun getting there!

Claudio Leonato and HeroSet in some kind of futuristic otherworld, traditionally this play takes place in Messina, but this dramatis personae has been no nearer Italy than an outer space Pizza Express. This is a world of glowing orbs, fanciful fruits, swirly benches and magic blackboards. No extravagance is understated in the set or the costumes, with outrageous headdresses, topiaried hairdos, gold-emblazoned tabards, a Robocop-style constabulary and formal white wellies. Hero’s wedding dress resembles a huge butterfly, while Beatrice frequently reminds you that the spirit of Xena Warrior Princess is not dead. Facial make-up includes enough glitter, swirls and highlights to make Adam Ant look like a funeral director. Characters appear descending from the Flies or via a floral walkway. It’s as though Shakespeare has been taken over by The Magic Roundabout with Ermyntrude and Zebedee as the bickering lovers.

Aruna Jalloh and Adeola YemitanDone wrong, this could look cheap, tacky and ridiculous. But it’s a huge credit to Jemima Robinson’s set and Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costume design that it comes across as innovative, luxurious and aspirational. Imagine going on holiday to this futuristic playground – you’d be on a permanent high! Femi Temowo’s accompanying music is cleverly pitched, near-outrageous, and frequently off-putting; a kind of louche jazz that suggests a whole new notational language of music that we don’t recognise yet. You’d expect magic mushrooms in the saxophone and amphetamines in the keyboard, and it’s simply, thoroughly, delightfully and disconcertingly weird.

BeatriceThere are also some terrific performances, none more so than Akiya Henry’s irrepressible Beatrice, who gives us one hilariously cantankerous appearance after another, chockfull of inventive characterisations, impetuous mischief and some brilliant physical comic business. The best scene in the whole play is where, separately, both Benedick and Beatrice overhear how the other is apparently in love with them; and Ms Henry’s contortions to hide behind or blend in with the set’s outrageously stylised vegetation so she can’t be noticed is comedy genius. By comparison, Luke Wilson’s Benedick comes across as an unusually decent sort of chap, rather reasonable and sensible. As a result perhaps there aren’t quite as many fireworks set off in the interchanges between the two characters, but at least Benedick is a beacon of sobriety in an otherwise hippy-trippy world.

Don PedraAnn Ogbomo is also outstanding as Don Pedra (minor quibble, but shouldn’t she be a Donna?) with tremendous stage presence and a gloriously authoritative voice that commands you listen and pay attention. Micah Balfour is also excellent as the manipulating Don John, and Taya Ming also impresses as a rather childlike and fragile Hero. Karen Henthorn plays the difficult role of Dogberry purely for laughs and gives us some excellent malapropisms.

Don JohnWasn’t it Shakespeare who said – and I think it was – the play’s the thing? And that, sadly, is where this production starts to fall apart. In his vision for the play, director Roy Alexander Weise has turned all his attention to the look of the thing, but not much thought has gone into its meaning. The futuristic otherworld is beautifully realised, but what light does it shed on, say, the motivations of Don John, or the common sense of Claudio, let alone whether Benedick and Beatrice have a future together? The bright façade of the production has seeped through to the plot, making almost all the characters much more lightweight and shallower. There’s little sense of the danger or tragedy that lurks beneath the surface because it’s all just a bit too nice and bland.

The Cast of Much AdoIt also bumbles and stumbles along at a very slow pace, and at three-and-a-quarter hours feels way too long. The second half in particular gets very boring at times, and feels very stop-starty with the plot progression; you feel the occasional urge to mutter just get on with it, rather than stop for another bit of music and sombre standing around. Scene changes need to be more dynamic – Act One ends with a whimper rather than a bang and no one has a clue whether to applaud or not; the movement of the actors needs to be more decisive and meaningfull; in fact, the whole thing just needs to be a lot snappier.

UrsulaDefinitely a brave failure rather than a lazy success. I hope the RSC keeps the set and costumes and uses them to much more telling effect in another play. Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 12th March.


Production photos by Ikin Yum

3-starsThreesy Does It!

Review – Menopause the Musical 2, Castle Theatre, Wellingborough, 23rd February 2022

Cast your mind back, gentle reader, to the halcyon days of the early days of 2020. Fresh shoots heralded the birth of Spring. The snowdrops of winter survival gave way to the daffodils of hope. We’d reached the 2020s and it was going to be one helluva decade. Alas, we knew not quite how helluva that would turn out to be. Menopause the Musical 2 hit the road with a few happy shows around the country, including the promise of two performances at the Castle Theatre, Wellingborough in April. But then you-know-what happened, and we were all confined to barracks with the occasional Johnson-approved exercise walk in the park (but no stopping).

Fast forward two years and the show – like so many others that got suspended in mid-air – is back on the road. And, I must say, it was well worth the wait. Menopause the Musical 2 is a deceptively modest little show that really packs a punch that I certainly wasn’t expecting. Perhaps if I’d seen Menopause the Musical 1 I might have known more what to expect. For sure, the 95%-plus female audience at the Castle Theatre last night (and what a splendid little venue it is) definitely knew what to expect. After all, most of them had either been or were going through the menopause anyway. I’m not saying you have to be a woman to enjoy this show; but, if not, being on intimate terms with a woman of a certain age helps!

MTM2 Cast againCruising Through Menopause is the breezy subtitle, and our four nameless heroines, all clearly long-time pals, have joined a cruise to get away from it all (it all mainly being the men in their lives). You’ve got the flamboyant actressy one, whose main job is to advertise the cruise’s sponsor, (which I had no idea was genuine, I thought it was made up for the show); you’ve got the hippy-ish one whose fella can’t perform the simplest of domestic tasks without being talked through it; you’ve got the confident, entrepreneurial one whose son has married a right cow and who can’t remember why she walked into a room; and you’ve got the mousey downtrodden one who never goes anywhere without the ashes of her late husband and can’t imagine ever taking up with another man. Add to this the disembodied voice of the ship’s captain, whose manly continental vocal tones can turn knees to jelly, and, as the old News of the World would have said, all human life is here.

The concept is a pretty simple one. We follow them as they get on board, get settled, get eating and drinking, get relaxed, get hot and bothered, get into a karaoke competition, and finally get formal (because they’re going to share the captain’s table; be careful, Captain, that might not be all they share). They’ve all got one thing in common – the menopause; and they’re not afraid to express its delights and disappointments through the medium of song. The songs themselves are for the most part well-known old pop tunes but with changed comedy lyrics, and this is where the real fun of the show is to be found.

MTM2 in full danceThere are some genuinely hilarious re-wordings that bring the house down with both their originality and the recognition of just how damn appropriate they are. I could ruin it for you by giving the surprises away, suffice it to say, you’ll never have heard better lyrics to Holding out for a Hero, Knock Three Times or Let’s Hear it for the Boy.

MTM2 Crissy RockThe cast are a truly fun four who blend into a great ensemble, but all bring their individual talents to the fore. Susie Fenwick (hilarious in Beautiful a couple of years ago) is terrific as the flamboyant actressy one; she has a great stage presence and brings huge vitality and dynamism to the role. The hippy-ish one is played by Benidorm’s redoubtable Crissy Rock with an excellent mix of comic timing, world-weariness and experienced savvy, all distilled through her broad Scouse accent.

MTM2 CastEurovision’s Nicki French plays the confident entrepreneurial one with a wicked sense of self-deprecating humour and a brilliant rapport with the audience – and of course she has a fantastic voice to boot. For our performance, the mousey one was played by understudy Katherine Glasson – and she knocked it out of the park, with her hilarious facial expressions and a marvellous downbeat characterisation that changes from ugly duckling into a sensational swan. The show is also strongly enhanced by a fantastic musical backing track that is so full and vivid that you’d swear there was a thirty-piece band at the back of the stage.

MTM2 Crissy Rock and Rebecca WheatleyThe show went down a complete storm with the audience who were instantly on their feet at curtain call. It works a treat because it doesn’t try to be anything that it isn’t – just four talented ladies making us laugh at one of Mother Nature’s most-suffered and least-understood impositions. I hadn’t heard Mrs Chrisparkle laugh so loudly at a show for many a year. The tour continues all the way through to June – pack your Tenas and get booking!

Production photos by whoever the uncredited photographer was!

Five Alive let Theatre Thrive!

The Points of View Challenge – Warm River – Erskine Caldwell

Erskine CaldwellErskine Caldwell (1903 – 1987)

American novelist (Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre) and short story writer.

Warm River, first published in the collection We are the Living, in 1933

Available to read online here

This is the second of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s the part of their introduction that specifically refers to this story: “The other story, which is about a change in emotional perspective, is told from the newly learned point of view. By one means or another, but ultimately always by the passage of time, the speaker has arrived at the understanding of his experience he must have in order to discuss it with a neutral, watchful audience.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


Warm River


We Are The LivingOur narrator, Richard, crosses a rickety bridge over a warm river to reach the house of Gretchen, her father and her two sisters. At this point we don’t know why he’s visiting them. They’re obviously both very excited to be seeing each other, and his visit was clearly expected. Richard and Gretchen spend a long time looking at each other, not finding the right words to say. Later, Richard asks her father why it is that he has settled in this romantic location in the mountains. He says he and his late wife were born there, and lived there for twenty years, and by living there he still feels close to her and can still carry on loving her, even though she’s no longer there.

Stunned by this simple revelation of true love, Richard finds himself questioning his own reason for being there. Does he love Gretchen? He admits to himself that he can’t really say that he does, although he understands that she loves him ardently. She tries to get him to say he loves her, at least just a little – but he cannot.

They sleep separately, Gretchen promising to wake Richard in good time to get his morning train. But Richard cannot sleep. He smokes and frets. Eventually he opens his bedroom door and looks towards hers, only to find that she too is not asleep, but kneeling on her rug, crying. He is struck by how beautiful she is. Come morning, she is rushing around to get his breakfast before he leaves; but he has a fresh understanding of his emotions. “Gretchen […] don’t hurry to get me off – I’m not going back this morning – I don’t know what was the matter with me last night – I know now that I love you”. The story ends with his asking her to show him the way down to the river; “I have got to go down there right away and feel the water with my hands.”

This is a deceptively soft, slight, gentle tale which reveals much more on a second reading. At first it appears to be the story of a rather naïve and tentative chap who’s been invited in by a prospective girlfriend to meet the family, uncertain of his emotions towards the young lady, but which grow stronger and more certain as he sees more of her. However, you can also read it as though he knows exactly what he wants from that naughty night away – in fact both of them do, and it’s only when Richard can spend his time alone no more that he gets up, “stiff and erect” (Caldwell’s words, not mine) and voyeuristically spies on Gretchen. And it’s only then that he realises she’s worth more than just a one night stand.

The sensuality of everything to do with the warm river, that Richard initially fears to cross but later desperately wants to wash over his hands, reeks of sexual symbolism. Caldwell’s writing feels a little heavy-handed to me, with its constant references to the countryside, the mountains, the river, deliberately daubing the romanticism onto the canvass. I think it’s a clever tale, but I didn’t like it that much. It’s a well-regarded short story but I don’t think it would attract me to reading more of his works.

The next story in the anthology is the third of the detached autobiography stories, The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, an author whom I think of more as a poet than a short story writer. I will be interested to see what his short story skills are like!

The George Orwell Challenge – Bookshop Memories (1936)

Bookshop MemoriesI rather wish I had read this essay Bookshop Memories, which first appeared in the November 1936 issue of Fortnightly magazine, before I had read and written about Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. As usual, he used his own experiences to help him write both novels and essays, and his time working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead in 1934 really informed his characterisation of Aspidistra’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock. I felt, as I was reading that novel, that Comstock really was Orwell himself, only vaguely hidden. And now that I have read his own personal account of working in a second-hand bookshop, I have no doubt that’s the case.

It’s a short and simple account of his observations about what it is like to work in a second-hand bookshop. He offers us all sorts of opinions, regarding the clientele, what sells well (and what doesn’t), the sensory overload of being surrounded by tens of thousands of books, to how it changes your own opinion about books. Having myself been a second-hand book trader (although online, not in a shop) I can recognise some truths in his writing that are as accurate today as they were in the 1930s.

Old BooksThat overwhelming sense, for instance, of being surrounded by centuries of writing, of decaying paper and musty dust. “Books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.” How true. Orwell claims that he would never have wanted to be a full-time bookseller because “while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro.” I also think there’s a lot of truth in that; and whilst I hope I never lied about the books I had for sale, I did have to dissect them scientifically in my descriptions, highlighting all the faults within a particular copy – there’s nothing worse than a disappointed book-buyer – and by doing so you miss out on conveying the magic of the thing. Certainly when I was a bookseller I was not a book-reader.

But I was still shocked by Orwell’s criticisms and sheer judginess of the customers in the shop – and it’s exactly the same snobbery and cynicism that colours the character of Gordon Comstock, which makes him so thoroughly unlikeable. It’s the first topic that Orwell takes in this essay – the kind of people who, you suspect, made every day in the shop a misery for him. If it’s not “first edition snobs”, it’s “oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks”, “the decayed person smelling of old breadcrusts”, “unmistakable paranoiacs”, “certifiable lunatics”, or “wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists”. He is so judgmental about the customers! To him they are nothing but “pests”. He definitely wasn’t created for retail work.

Ethel M Dell The Way of an EagleRather like Comstock, he is dismayed that the number one author with the library subscribers was neither Priestley, Hemingway, Walpole nor Wodehouse, but Ethel M Dell, a fairly prolific writer of romances whom the critics hated but her readers loved. The snob in Orwell gets no pleasure out of giving the people what they want, because it’s not what he thinks they should want. He’s very certain about what he thinks people should read: “Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petronius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.” The use of the phrase “manly and wholesome” seems very revealing to me – particularly when you consider how Comstock despised the artistic young man to whom he referred as Nancy in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

old-swedish-stampsThere are some general observations about life in the bookshop that, whilst still being judgmental, are perhaps not quite so offensive. He notes that they sold used stamps to stamp collectors, whom he describes as “a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums.” Whilst personally I wouldn’t call all stamp collectors strange, silent and fish-like, I have to say I’ve never met a female stamp collector, but I’m sure there must be some! I think it’s something that gets introduced to boys whilst girls are happily doing something else, and time never catches up with them.

Old Christmas CardIt’s also interesting to see that the shop made good business from the sale of Christmas Cards, although they only spent “a feverish ten days” on sale, whereas today they’d be there for at least two months. “It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited.” Some things never change, but just get worse. There’s also the very interesting observation that “in a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones” – and the authors that one borrows are very different from the authors that one buys.

“It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say. “Oh but that’s old!” and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are “always meaning to” read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand.”

Charles DickensI’m not sure that Dickens has stayed that popular 85 years later; although, yes, there are a number of Dickens that I haven’t read, and I’ve always meant to! He notes the growing unpopularity of American books – that’s a trend that’s certainly changed over the years; and the unpopularity of short stories. I’m no expert, but I sense that might still be the case.

So this a curious essay in some respects. Very personal, and one presumes Orwell is being scrupulously honest with his reader. His bookshop snobbery is quite jarring, but his factual observations about what sells and what doesn’t are fascinating. It’s written in a chatty, conversational style, that’s perhaps different from any of his previous essays which were more detached and serious in both style and content. George OrwellA very interesting accompanying piece to Keep the Aspidistra Flying!

Next in my George Orwell Challenge, and still with the essay format, is In Defence of the Novel, first published in the New English Weekly in two instalments November 1936. I look forward to reading it soon and I hope you read it too!

The Points of View Challenge – First Confession – Frank O’Connor

Frank O'ConnorFrank O’Connor (1903 – 1966)

Irish Republican Army soldier, teacher, theatre director, librarian writer of over 150 short stories (Guests of the Nation, The Majesty of Law, My Oedipus Complex).

First Confession, first published in the collection Traveller’s Samples, in 1951

Available to read online here

This is the first of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction starts: “Each speaker in the next stories tells about what happened to him in the past. Now he is in a frame of mind that has changed greatly since the time he underwent the experience he describes, a frame of mind that may even be a result of what he has learned from the experience.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


First Confession


Traveller's SamplesYoung Jackie tells us about how embarrassed he was when his grandmother came to live with the family, eating her potatoes with her hands, sneaking a jug of porter into the house, and not knowing what she’d say in front of his friends. She used to give his older sister Nora a penny from her weekly pension, but he got nothing – not that he would take it from her anyway. If she cooked dinner for the family he’d refuse to eat it.

It was coming up for the time for Jackie’s first confession and he was dreading it – mainly because of the terrifying tales of Mrs Ryan who prepared the children for their first confession and communion. She told him about people who made a bad confession and who started to burn in hell on the spot. His mother couldn’t accompany him for confession so Nora did instead – and she did everything she could to make him feel bad; his sins were so extraordinarily severe that he’d be lucky to come out of it alive.

When he finally gets inside the confessional box, he’s confused as to where she should sit or stand – and decides to climb up onto a moulding high up in the box, much to the priest’s annoyance. As a result, “I lost my grip, tumbled, and hit the door an unmerciful wallop before I found myself flat on my back in the middle of the aisle.” Nora lands him a clip around the ear in fury at his behaviour – but the priest’s reaction shocks them both.

He tells Nora off for being so cruel, and takes Jackie aside and kindly welcomes him to take his first confession, pretending to be horrified at the awful things Jackie has been keeping inside, but in reality finding it all very funny. The priest is the epitome of kindness – and when Nora finds out he has only been given Three Hail Marys (the same as her) she’s mad. “Some people have all the luck! Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good. I might just as well be a sinner like you.”

It’s a delightful little tale – O’Connor really gets under the skin of this earnest little scamp and plays with his fears only for him to be rewarded with kindness. You know that Jackie will never be scared of going to confession again! There’s clearly a lot of love – critical love maybe, but love all the same – for old Irish traditions of food and drink, family relationships, sibling rivalry and everyone’s relationship with the Church. O’Connor’s writing has a lively lightness of touch that finds the humour in unlikely places and provides the reader – whether they be Irish Catholic or not – a lot to recognise from their own childhood. I really wasn’t expecting the priest to be so kindly and friendly – perhaps that’s a lesson for me not to prejudge the characteristics of people before you’ve met them!

The next story in the anthology is the second of the detached autobiography stories, Warm River by Erskine Caldwell. This is yet another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!

The Points of View Challenge – A & P – John Updike

John UpdikeJohn Updike (1932 – 2009)

American novelist (Rabbit series of novels, The Witches of Eastwick), poet, short-story writer, art critic, and literary critic.

A & P, first published in the New Yorker magazine, July 22 1961, and then in the collection Pigeon Feathers, in 1962

Available to read online here

This is the fifth and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


A & P


Pigeon Feathers19-year-old Sammy operates one of the checkouts at A & P Supermarket. One day, he’s just ringing up some groceries for a customer when three girls walk in, all dressed in swimsuits – an unexpected delight for Sammy, who accidentally then rings up the same item twice, much to the annoyance of his customer.

His eyes follow the girls admiringly around the store; one of them, whom he calls Queenie, is particularly attractive, and it’s his lucky day when she ends up with her friends at his checkout till wanting to buy a 49c Herring snack. She offers a dollar bill from her cleavage to pay for it, when Lengel, the manager, sees the girls and marches over to them, reminding them that this is not the beach, and next time they come in, they should have their shoulders covered.

At first, Queenie blushes apologetically, but Lengel continues to make his point and she starts defending herself, saying that she’s perfectly respectably dressed. Lengel disagrees and, upset at the treatment he has dealt out to the girls, Sammy quits his job on the spot. Lengel suggests he shouldn’t act so rashly; he’s been a friend of Sammy’s parents for many years and this will be an embarrassment for everyone. But Sammy is determined, ceremoniously removing his A & P apron and bow tie, and leaving Lengel to work at the cash register.

Coming out of the store, Sammy realises the girls have gone. And the regret starts to kick in…

Short and sweet, this wry little tale is amusingly told, with excellent attention to character, particularly Sammy, Lengel and Sammy’s colleague Stokesie. Updike can produce excellent turns of phrase; I particularly enjoyed the description of Queenie’s dollar bill emerging from her costume as “having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there”.

I’ve seen analyses online that suggest the story is symbolic of anti-commercialism and that Sammy represents a voice of reason making a stand against encroaching capitalism. My own view is that this is one of those little stories that just take a slice of life at one particular moment and explores it to the full. There’s no doubt that the unexpected appearance of three girls in swimsuits in a supermarket a long way from the beach is going to cause a young man to let his mind wonder.

His surprise but real repercussion of finding himself out of a job because he did what he thought was The Right Thing will no doubt come as a shock, but as he says, “it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” I have no doubt that young Sammy will move on to bigger and better things, so I don’t think anyone needs worry about him.

The next story in the anthology is the first of four detached autobiography stories, First Confession by Frank O’Connor, yet another author about whom I know absolutely nothing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Nemesis (1971)

NemesisIn which Miss Marple is contacted “from beyond the grave” (via a solicitor’s letter, not a Ouija board) by the late Mr Rafiel with whom she worked in A Caribbean Mystery. He asks her to investigate a crime but gives no other indication of what it is or how she should do it. Piqued with curiosity, Miss Marple accepts his challenge, which results in her taking a coach tour of Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain. But are all the other passengers genuine, and what crime will Miss Marple stumble upon?  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Max and AgathaThe book is dedicated to Daphne Honeybone, who was Agatha Christie’s private secretary; after Christie’s death in 1976, she continued working for Max Mallowan.  Nemesis was first published in the UK in seven abridged instalments in Woman’s Realm magazine from September to November 1971, and in Canada in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement, in October 1971. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1971, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later that year.

Dilapidated greenhouseAfter the massive disappointment of Passenger to Frankfurt, one might have thought that Christie had run out of good stories and her usual slick storytelling style. But whilst Nemesis is far from her best work, it’s even further from her worst. With similarities to other works where a crime from the past is investigated in the present, there are some extremely good passages of writing, and some difficult subject matter is treated with delicacy and sensitivity. There are a number of hark-backs to previous books, both thematically and in the re-use of characters; but it succeeds in being a good story, with a central plot puzzle that unfolds organically and ends with an eerie, exciting denouement. There are a few moments that rather require a suspension of credibility – but it’s not as bad as some, from that perspective. A couple of the vital clues are telegraphed heavily – much as happened with Hallowe’en Party two years earlier – and as a result it’s quite easy to work out not only whodunit but their modus operandi. Nevertheless it’s an enjoyable read, and never feels like the chore that the previous book did.

GardenerIn what would be the last book that Christie wrote featuring Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), our redoubtable inhabitant of St Mary Mead is still living relatively independently, with housekeeper Cherry acting slightly more in the role of carer, which, at 81, is something Christie would herself have been sensitive to. She still has a bee in her bonnet about the difficulty of finding reliable gardeners, although it’s the new neighbour Miss Bartlett, who moans about these “elderly chaps who say they know all about gardening […] they come and have a lot of cups of tea and do a little very mild weeding.”

Red Black PulloverOne of the great things about Christie’s characterisation of Miss Marple is that we never stop learning more about her. Often in Miss Marple books, she’s sitting quietly on the sidelines, listening to conversations, gathering her thoughts together and coming to a wise conclusion, before hitting us with a big reveal. With Poirot, on the other hand, we tend to see him going over the evidence, exercising his little grey cells, and watching and listening to him putting two and two together. In this book however, we get to see Miss Marple’s thought processes, and it’s a rare insight; for example discussing the evidence of the red and black check pullover with Professor Wanstead.

CVAt the end of the first day of the coach tour, Miss Marple decides to write down her thoughts and opinions about what Rafiel had expected of her. Although I don’t think she ever goes back to writing this daily journal, it provides an excellent insight into her qualities and detective abilities. In fact, in part it reads like a CV. “Murders as reported in the press have never claimed my attention. I have never read books on criminology as a subject or really been interested in such a thing. No, it has just happened that I have found myself in the vicinity of murder rather more often that would seem normal. My attention has been directed to murders involving friends or acquaintances. These curious coincidences of connections with special subjects seem to happen to people in life.” As such, she defines herself as the opposite of Poirot, who often seeks out murder to solve, providing it’s of a sufficient degree of interest for him. He loves to read of murders in the press and never stops learning more about it through books both fiction and non-fiction.

evilProfessor Wanstead reports that Rafiel had told him that Miss Marple has “a very fine sense of evil.” “Would you say that was true?” he asks her. She replies: “Yes, perhaps. I have at several different times in my life been apprehensive, have recognized that there was evil in the neighbourhood, the surroundings, that the environment of someone who was evil was near me, connected with what was happening […] it’s rather […] like being born with a very keen sense of smell […] I had an aunt once […] who said she could smell when people told a lie. She said there was quite a distinctive odour came to her. Their noses twitched, she said, and then the smell came.”

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleHowever, I’m not entirely certain that Miss Marple’s final reaction in the book – which is how she’s going to spend the £20,000 that Rafiel gives her – is entirely true to her character as we have previously known it. It is quite an amusing surprise though. I think it’s more likely to have been the kind of thing Poirot would have done. It confirms my feelings that, whilst writing this, Christie rather merged the personalities of her two most famous characters, and that this Miss Marple is something of a blended detective!

Miss Marple FencingHowever, I’d like to point you in the direction of that initial conversation in Chapter 11 between Miss Marple and Professor Wanstead, when both are tiptoeing around their subject, trying to find out how much the other one knows without revealing their own hand. Given that Christie was now 81 years old, it’s as fine a piece of conversation as she had ever written, like a gentle fencing match between two elderly guarded opponents, with very polite lunges met by a parry and a riposte. It’s a joy to read.

CaribbeanContinuing the trend that Christie had started in both Hallowe’en Party and Passenger to Frankfurt, there are a few characters whom we have met in previous books. I don’t know if this was a sign that Christie had basically run out of new characters to play with, or whether it was simply easier for her to re-use work that she’d already done. Despite being obviously absent from the book, the character of Jason Rafiel from A Caribbean Mystery is ever-present, with Miss Marple constantly trying to second-guess what it is that he wants her to do. It works really well as a story device because it provides Miss M with the double challenge of finding her way towards a crime of the past as well as then having to solve it. As part of her early investigations she meets up with his old secretary Esther Walters, for whom Rafiel has provided handsomely with a very generous inheritance – but she feels it doesn’t get her very far in working out what it was that he wanted from her.

Craddock and MarpleMiss Marple also calls on the services of taxi driver Inch, even though Inch has long retired, as she had done in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Elizabeth Temple reveals that she and Miss Marple had a mutual old friend in the figure of Sir Henry Clithering, the former Scotland Yard Commissioner, whom we first met as one of the Tuesday Club Members in The Thirteen Problems, way back in 1932, but who also reappeared in A Murder is Announced, and she worked alongside his godson, Inspector Craddock, in 4.50 from Paddington and the aforementioned Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Clithering also appears in The Body in the Library, which Miss Marple recalls in this book, when she’s passing the time of day with Miss Cooke and Miss Barrow. Thus Nemesis integrates nicely into the rest of the Marple oeuvre.

Berkeley StreetAs usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. The offices of solicitors Broadribb and Schuster are in Berkeley Street, Mayfair, a very elegant location near Green Park. The Old Manor House, where the Bradbury-Scotts live is in the charmingly named Jocelyn St Mary, which really ought to exist but is one of Christie’s rural inventions. Mrs Glynne lived thirty miles away in Little Herdsley with her late husband – also invented – and I was amused by Mrs Merrypit remembering she’d once seen the treasures at Luton Loo. I reckon she means Sutton Hoo – which although is in the east of the country as she recollects, is nowhere near Luton.

LongfellowLet’s check out the references and quotations in this book. As Christie gets older she finds the need to provide us with more and more literary quotations. At the beginning of the book Miss Marple thinks of her friendship with the late Mr Rafiel as being ships that pass in the night. That’s a saying that has won a firm place in everyone’s language. I always thought it was a proverb, but it’s actually a quote from Longfellow, from Tales of a Wayside Inn: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

Solon“Call no man happy until he is dead” murmurs Miss Marple in her conversation with Esther. According to Herodotus (so it must be true) these were the wise words of Ancient Greek statesman Solon. The gist of the full quotation is “Call no man happy until he is dead, but only lucky.” Elizabeth Temple quotes T S Eliot: “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree are of equal duration”. This is from the final section of Eliot’s fourth Quartet, Little Gidding. Chapter Ten is titled “Oh! Fond, Oh! Fair, The Days that Were” – this must be a quote, but I’m blowed if I can find what it’s from. Anyone out there know?

Thomas-ChattertonWhen Miss Marple sees a newspaper placard saying that a second girl’s body had been found in the Epsom Downs Murder case, “some lines of forgotten verse came haltingly into her brain: Rose white youth, passionate, pale, A singing stream in a silent vale, A fairy prince in a prosy tale, Oh there’s nothing life so finely frail As Rose White Youth.” This is a short poem by Thomas Chatterton.

Whatever Happened to Baby JaneMiss Marple catches sight of a book in a shop – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and says “oh dear, it’s a sad world one lives in.” That was a 1960 book by Henry Farrell that famously was made into a film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And there’s a final quote that Miss Marple cites regarding Mr Rafiel’s sense of Justice: “Let Justice roll down like waters And Righteousness like an everlasting stream.” It is from the Bible; it’s Chapter 5, Verse 24 of the Book of Amos.

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. There are two sums mentioned in the book – both fairly significant sums; the £20,000 that Rafiel promises Miss Marple if she completes his task, and the £50,000 that Esther Walters inherited from him. In today’s money, Miss Marple gets the equivalent of just under £200,000 and Esther got £500,000!


Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Nemesis:


Publication Details: 1971. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1974, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. The young me also wrote my name in the front and dated it August 1974! The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a young woman’s face obscured by a flower, and a ruined greenhouse covered by foliage. All pretty appropriate!

How many pages until the first death: 68 pages until the first reported death, 107 until the first death that happens during the course of the current story. That’s quite a long time to wait for a Christie death, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Funny lines out of context:

Sadly none.

Memorable characters: Perhaps the most memorable are the two unmarried Bradbury-Scott sisters, the scatty Anthea and the strong Clotilde. But for the most part this book is dominated by Miss Marple, with the second big influence being Rafiel from beyond the grave.

Christie the Poison expert: There is an unconfirmed suggestion that Hemlock might have been administered as part of a crime – but it’s only lightly touched upon. That’s only the second time it’s mentioned in all Christie’s works to date – the first time being in Five Little Pigs.

Class/social issues of the time:

One doesn’t tend to think of Miss Marple having latent racism or xenophobia, because she needs to keep an open mind in order to solve a crime. However, in this book she occasionally recognises it in herself. When she first joins the coach trip, she looks around her fellow passengers to see who arouses her suspicions – and none of them does, except Mr Caspar, who is described as an “excitable foreigner”. “Nobody appeared to Miss Marple likely to be a murderer except Mr Caspar, and that was probably foreign prejudice.” She recognises it for what it is.

After a conversation with him and the Misses Cooke and Barrow, her suspicions have not been allayed. “Mr Caspar, now, it would have been much easier to imagine that he might be dangerous. Did he understand more English than he pretended to? She began to wonder about Mr Caspar. Miss Marple had never quite succeeded in abandoning her Victorian view of foreigners. One never knew with foreigners. Quite absurd, or course, to feel like that – she had many friends from various foreign countries. All the same…?” And of course, there are Mr and Mrs Butler, of whom she says “such nice Americans – but perhaps – too good to be true?” Americans are also foreigners, although not on the same level of suspicion as Europeans.

I did like Christie’s description of the Bradbury-Scotts’ garden. “It had the elements of an ordinary Victorian garden”. Once more Miss Marple is reflecting back to the good old days of the Victorian era. But if this was an ordinary Victorian garden, one can only imagine an extraordinary one! “A shrubbery, a drive of speckled laurels, no doubt there had once been a well kept lawn and paths, a kitchen garden of about an acre and a half, too big evidently for the three sisters who lived here now.”

Part of Christie’s unhappiness with the world today which was seen very strongly in her previous book Passenger to Frankfurt, stems from a disapproval of the way the young people of today behave and dress. This started being most evident in Third Girl. When Dr Stokes is questioning Miss Crawford at the inquest, she is uncertain whether the figure she saw near the boulders was a man or a woman. “”There was longish hair at the back of a kind of beret, rather like a woman’s hair, but then it might just as well have been a man’s.” “It certainly might,” said Dr Stokes, rather drily. “Identifying a male or female figure by their hair is certainly not easy these days.””

There’s also a continuation of the rather uncomfortable theme today of the promiscuity of youngsters, and the sexualisation of children. The character of Nora Broad is pretty much assassinated throughout the whole of the book with the villagers’ comments about and attitudes towards her general behaviour, bearing in mind she was a schoolgirl. For example, Mrs Blackett’s view: “it was something terrible the way she went on with all the boys. Anyone could pick her up. Real sad it is. I’d say she’ll go on the streets in the end”. Or the unnamed neighbour: “She was boy mad, she was […] I told her she’d do herself no good going off with every Tom, Dick or Harry that offered her a lift in a car or took her along to a pub where she told lies about her age.”

Wanstead is guilty of uttering a terrible line about the girls of today, that would be pretty much unthinkable nowadays. “He had assaulted a girl. He had conceivably raped her, but he had not attempted to strangle her and in my opinion – I have seen a great many cases which come before the Assizes – it seemed to me highly unlikely that there was a very definite case of rape. Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be. Their mothers insist, very often, that they should call it rape. The girl in question had had several boy-friends who had gone further than friendship. I did not think it counted very greatly as evidence against him.”

Solicitor Broadribb is not much better. “Suspected of having done away with perhaps three other girls during the past year, Michael was. But evidence wasn’t so good in the other deaths – so the police went all out on this one – plenty of evidence – bad record. Earlier cases of assault and rape. Well, we all know what rape is nowadays. Mum tells the girl she’s got to accuse the young man of rape even if the young man hasn’t had much chance, with the girl at him all the time to come to the house while mum’s away at work, or dad’s gone on holiday. Doesn’t stop badgering him until she’s forced him to sleep with her. Then, as I say, mum tells the girl to call it rape.”

One other theme, that I can only touch on very lightly without issuing a major spoiler, is that one of the characters is gay and that plays a vital role in the crime. It’s never explicitly said, but it makes sense that that’s the case. I can say no more!

Classic denouement:  Reading the book, it occurred to me that the denoument might have been heavily influenced by the 1960s Miss Marple films, because Miss M gets herself into a near-death scrape that is just like the kind of thing Margaret Rutherford would have escaped from in the final reel. It’s not a classic denouement, but it is a very exciting one, where actions reveal the truth of about the crime more than words. Having said that, there are some extremely wordy passages in the post-denouement chapter, where all the explanations are made; that could have been written a little more animatedly, I feel.

Happy ending? You’d have to say yes. Justice is seen to be done, and an innocent party is released from prison – although there’s no suggestion that the innocent party is now going to live a life of law-abiding decency; quite the reverse. There’s also the happy ending of Miss Marple becoming £20,000 the richer. But I’m still not remotely convinced that what she says she’s going to do with the money is credible in the slightest.

Did the story ring true? Despite its ornate and unusual set-up, there are plenty of Christies that are more incredible than this one! Suspend your sense of disbeliefs and you can completely accept this book on face value.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It has its faults but it’s a pretty satisfying book overall and I enjoyed reading it enormously!

Elephants Can RememberThanks for reading my blog of Nemesis, 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 Elephants Can Remember, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Hercule Poirot, although the master detective would still appear a couple more times. I can remember nothing about this book, so I go into it with no preconceived ideas! 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 – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th February 2022

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIt’s a welcome return to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate for one of their increasingly traditional winter matinees! It was a very varied programme of British music, presented in front of a nicely full house – in part due to the presence of the Northampton Bach Choir, more of whom later. The stage jutted forward into the auditorium more than usual so as to accommodate the choir, but the RPO also filled the stage with more musicians than I’ve seen since before the pandemic – and it was wonderful to hear again the sound only a truly full orchestra can make.

Adrian PartingtonOur conductor for the afternoon was Adrian Partington, a dignified and avuncular-looking chap, with a deceptively laid back and unhurried style that nevertheless galvanised the orchestra into a very exciting and dynamic performance.

First off, we heard William Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture, an instantly arresting piece that delights and surprises. The orchestra took the opportunity to throw themselves into its irreverence and nautical naughtiness and it was a fantastic start to the proceedings.

After a spot of on-stage chair reallocations and repositioning, our next piece was Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op 47. It’s another very arresting, very tuneful piece that demands full commitment from its string leadership, and First Violinist Tamas Andras and Second Violinist David O’Leary (I think – it’s hard to identify individuals when they’re masked!) put in a terrific performance.

The nature of the programme meant that the interval came rather early in the afternoon, as those first two pieces barely last longer than twenty minutes together. However, that was probably unavoidable considering the main item in the programme that took up all of the second half – Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. Both the composer and the piece were new to me, although having read Sir Karl’s Wikipedia page I realise I must have heard a good deal of his music as he has collaborated with some of the most significant figures in modern music.

Rebecca BottoneThe Armed Man is an extraordinarily thrilling piece of music, taking its audience on a journey from the beginnings of war, faith to see us safely through war, to the bloody reality of war, its devastating aftermath and the realisation that Better is Peace. It was a superb performance by all the orchestra, and the choir, full of highlights. I loved the gripping percussion throughout, from the ominous war-drumming at the beginning, to the occasional surprise outburst of drums and percussion to signify gunfire. Our soprano soloist, Rebecca Bottone, was sensational in all her contributions to the piece, but perhaps most eloquently and effectively in the Angry Flames section, a sung poem by Hiroshima victim Togi Sankichi; I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “smoke” given such power and menace.

Northampton Bach ChoirCellist Jonathan Ayling received a particularly enthusiastic round of applause for his performance in the Benedictus, wringing more pity and sorrow out of a melody than you ever thought possible. As for the Northampton Bach Choir, they gave it their all as they always do; their singing of the opening section, The Armed Man, was truly haunting as it built with its repetitions, and I particularly enjoyed their performance of the Charge! Section – exciting, dangerous, riveting. Sadly The Call to Prayers (Adhaan) section was omitted for some reason, I can only assume that the Muezzin, Naeem Mahmood, was unavailable.

A thunderously enjoyable performance of a dramatic and intense piece; we loved it, and would love to hear it again! Hopefully it won’t be long before the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra make a return visit to Northampton.

P. S. I repeat my plea from the last Royal Philharmonic performance back in October 2021. Please can we go back to having old style proper printed programmes? I hate these digital things!

The Points of View Challenge – On Saturday Afternoon – Alan Sillitoe

Alan SillitoeAlan Sillitoe (1928 – 2010)

English novelist (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), short story writer (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), poet and essayist.

On Saturday Afternoon, first published in the collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, in 1959

Available to read online here (search for the title, about two thirds of the way through the document)

This is the fourth of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “First-person fiction, especially today, abounds in stories narrated by persons whose perspective and values are questionable for the reader. Is the speaker missing something? Can we accept his judgments? If we are not sure, we may wish the author had been “clearer” so that we would not be reminded of our own uncertainties about what we see and what we ought to make of what we see. Even after his travels, does Gulliver have the proper perspective?”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now! Also, a trigger warning, as the story deals with suicide.


On Saturday Afternoon


TheLonelinessOfTheLongDistanceRunnerOur 16-year-old narrator, whose name we never learn, remembers a time when he “once saw a bloke try to kill himself”. It happened one Saturday afternoon when he was ten, and he’d left the house because his dad was in a black mood and the best thing he could do if his dad was in one of his moods was to escape the house.

He saw the bloke in the yard – he hadn’t been living in the neighbourhood long. He had a rope with him. When the boy asked him what he was going to do with the rope, he replied, “I’m going ter ‘ang messen, lad”. Why? “Because I’m fed up […] and because I want to. My missus left me, and I’m out o’ work.” The man gets the boy to agree to kick the chair away from under his feet when he shows signs of struggling. The boy tells him that the rope around the light fitting wouldn’t be strong enough for the job, but the man won’t hear of it.

True enough, just when the man is dangling there and the boy has kicked the chair away, “he fell down with such a horrible thump on the floor that I thought he’d broke every bone he’d got.” When the policeman comes to cut him free, he tells him he’ll get six years for that, as taking your own life was illegal in those days. Taken to hospital, he gets a bed on the top floor. It doesn’t take long  for him to throw himself from a window on the top floor and kill himself that way.

For the boy it’s a memorable moment; he’s confident he will never be in a position where he wants to kill himself. He’ll never be that black. But he also finds it a thrilling memory – and much more exciting than watching Saturday morning shows at the pictures. He also realises his dad will never have that dark look in his eyes; so, for the boy, it’s quite an optimistic story.

Though relatively short, this is a delicately and finely written piece, which gets under the skin of both the boy and the man – and to a lesser extent, the boy’s father. You can hear the voice of the boy very clearly in the writing, with the use of Sillitoe’s local Nottingham dialect and speech structure.

I take two things away from this story. One is the simple, matter-of-fact determination of the man to take his own life; quietly, unsensationally, calmly. It’s not only the public school alumni who espoused the stiff-upper-lip where it comes to men’s emotions; the man’s inability to say much about his plight shows that it’s a problem that transcends the class system. The other is the undisguised thrill that the boy feels to be witnessing real life drama like this, getting an almost voyeuristic pleasure from what promises to be the man’s last act on earth. He’s not particularly interested in the man’s reasons – although he feels it’s only polite to ask; he just wants to see the final action. The man is also perfectly happy for the boy to witness it; indeed, to participate in it, by kicking the chair away. When he fails to make a clean job of it, the boy is rather disgusted with the man’s inadequacy. When he hears how the man later threw himself out of the hospital window he feels both glad and sad about it. Finally, he also realises that if he’d witnessed the act now, at the age of sixteen, he would have found it a much more horrific and stressful experience. But for a 10-year-old, it was something new to brighten up an otherwise dull Saturday.

It’s an interesting little tale; the reader has a rather curious sense of detachment to it all, partly because the narrator is so emotionless about the whole experience, partly because it took place six years ago, and partly because we learn very little about the victim himself. It’s just one of life’s little tragedies. Life moves on.

The next story in the anthology is the fifth and final of the subjective narration stories, A & P by John Updike. This is another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!

Review – Hairspray, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st January 2022

HairspraySome shows are like comfort food. When times are tough you have a longing for their reassurance, their positivity, their reminder of the Good Old Days, and their sheer effervescent sense of fun. Hairspray is one such show and is back on the road again with a UK tour and is packing them out at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday 5th February.

Edna, Wilbur and TracyLike all the best musicals, this one is deceptively ferocious at heart. Behind its cutesy bubble gum facade is a portrayal of racial prejudice and segregation. Terms like “coloured music” and “negro day” hit you hard and land uncomfortably in the context of an upbeat goofy show, But coming together in the name of music and fun can wipe away injustice, and once the young people start dancing together, it’s unstoppable. You can’t stop the beat, in fact.

Wilbur and TracyYou probably know the set-up already: Tracy Turnblad longs to be a TV star but she has neither the figure nor the middle class background to break into the big time. When she tries to audition for Corny Collins’ music and dance show, she comes up against the ruthless producer Velma whose sole ambition is to get her pretty but obnoxious daughter Amber into the limelight, primarily by fixing her to win the “Miss Teenage Hairspray” title. But Tracy’s natural vivacity and talent shine through and when Corny sees her perform he insists on her being in the show.

Full castIn 1962 Baltimore there’s racial segregation everywhere, and Velma has an “all-white” policy for the show. Tracy tries to use her new influence to break down this barrier by organising a protest march for all the dancers on the show to demand full racial integration. The march gets out of hand, the police are called, they’re all arrested, but “the new Elvis”, Link, sneaks into the prison and helps Tracy escape so that she can get back to the studio just in time to win the coveted title. In what turns out to be a very moral story, good wins through and Velma and Amber are left licking their wounds.

Tracy in full swingPaul Kerryson’s production first saw light of day at the Leicester Curve a few years back and has the big benefit of Drew McOnie’s choreography, which drives forward the story of the songs just as much as the lyrics do, rather than being a mere attractive accompaniment to them. The dance routines are true to the 1960s era and invested with a terrific physicality and liveliness that’s a joy to watch. You’ve got to be as fit as a fiddle to do justice to this choreography, but the whole cast is up to the task and nail it. Danny Belton’s band are full of zest as they bring out the best of Ben Atkinson’s musical arrangements of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score, and there are plenty of musical highlights that thrill the audience, from the opening ebullience of Good Morning Baltimore, the lyrical insight of Run and Tell That, the heart-warming charm of You’re Timeless to Me to the ultimate finale You Can’t Stop the Beat that sends everyone out into the cold night with joy in their souls, and still has them singing it the next day.

Wilbur and MotormouthThe original film starred Divine as Edna and since then it’s always been a given that she should be played by a bloke in a dress. Not entirely sure why; it just is. For this tour, Edna is played by Alex Bourne, who cuts a very statuesque figure, positively looming over everything and everyone else on stage; I’m surprised he doesn’t get a nosebleed up there. He’s made the (I think) wise decision not to feminise his voice at all, and he’s a great exponent of musical theatre with a terrific stage presence. His/her Wilbur is played by Norman Pace, a big favourite with the audience; emphasising the wide-eyed innocence and buffoonery of the character. In their own little way, Edna and Wilbur are such a force for good; decent, honest, kind, generous people, so we love spending time with them and their endearing little foibles, brought out perfectly in their rendition of You’re Timeless to Me, which had exactly the right amount of fooling around and fourth-wall breaking.

Tracy and EdnaRebecca Thornhill is absolutely stunning as the vicious Velma, an elegant vision of arrogance and cruelty, often being carried aloft by a group of men as a representation of her effortless superiority. She brings out both the humour and the horror of the character perfectly. And Brenda Edwards, with a voice that could move mountains, returns to reprise her role as Motormouth Maybelle, winning our hearts with a sensational performance of I Know Where I’ve Been that brings the house down.

TracyHairspray is a show that always gets the best out of its young performers –  it’s a perfect place to spot stars of the future. For our performance, understudy Joshua Pearson played Link Larkin, and he was foot- and pitch-perfect all the way through, absolutely getting the character’s blend of stage-arrogance but real life kindness; he did a brilliant job. You can’t take your eyes off Charlotte St Croix whenever she’s onstage as Little Inez, a diminutive powerhouse of attitude and voice. Rebecca Jayne-Davies shows great versatility as the much put-upon Penny Pingleton who blossoms into an assured young woman, and there’s great work from Reece Richards as Seaweed, Jessica Croll as Amber and all the guys and girls of the Ensemble.

Velma and her crewBut there’s no doubt that the night belongs to Katie Brace as Tracy, in her professional debut. Full of zing and charm, bursting with personality, terrific singing and dancing and wholly believable in a role where it would be so easy to go way over the top into pantomime. She’s a complete ray of sunshine and definitely a star of the future.

EdnaIt’s impossible not to be wowed by this show and carried away with its upbeat vibe. It’s not like Mrs Chrisparkle to be the first on her feet with an ovation but there was no holding her back last night. A night of genuine warmth, fun and masses of feelgood factor. Hairspray is alive and well and living in Northampton, and it would be a crime to miss it!


Production photos by Mark Senior

Five Alive Let Theatre Thrive!