A Secret Venue, how exciting! We didn’t find out where it was until a couple of days before and I’m afraid I still can’t tell you where it was held, or else I’d have to kill you. On second thoughts, I don’t think it was that hush-hush. It was at the Albion Brewery in Kingswell Street, an attractive, atmospheric place, with excellent sightlines, proper chairs and a well-stocked bar. An excellent addition to Northampton’s comedy venues!
Our MC for the evening was Jamie Allerton, whom we saw hosting a Comedy Crate gig in the garden of the Black Prince, Northampton, last September. He’s a bright spark, a powerhouse of joie de vivre, who makes the evening go with a swing. He has a terrific rapport with the audience, getting to know us all, putting us at our ease, but with some surprisingly unexpected questions posed to us too! When he discovered that two members of the audience, with no association with each other, both worked with autistic adults, his questions to work out who was best at their job was inspired! A great host with huge energy.
Our first act was someone new to us, Slim. I reckon that’s a nickname. That’s not to say he isn’t slim, but it’s just that I can’t visualise it on a birth certificate! He has some nice material about hating school plays – I’m sure he’s not alone there – and also his occasionally vengeful life as a London bus driver. I particularly enjoyed his sequence about imagining a Jamaican war correspondent. He has a warm, approachable style and very enjoyable material, and was a very good start to the evening.
Next up was another new name to us, Alexandra Haddow, a native of Corby, now in exile in London. Lively and instantly hilarious, she has a lot of near-the-knuckle humour that she pitches perfectly. It’s a lovely idea to imagine if the kind of questions a woman faces when getting a coil fitted were also posed to a man getting Viagra. We loved her stuff about dating conspiracy theorists (having only endured the wayward beliefs of a similarly-minded taxi driver the previous day) and the problems of having to share a bed with your dad. Smart, likeable and extremely funny, we’d love to see her again.
Headline act was the brilliant Mark Simmons, whom we’ve seen a few times before and he always hits the ground running with his wonderful throwaway style. You always get multiple jokes per minute with Mark, whether they be gently surreal, painfully punful or totally outrageous. He must have the quickest of brains to bring in so many inventive brilliant lines based on what he sees and hears in the audience. On top form as usual, and a superb way to end the show.
Plenty more Comedy Crate gigs in the offing; check their website for more details!
I’m sure you’ll remember the original 1987 film Fatal Attraction, that rather over-sensational movie that was a must-see at the time, and which introduced us to the concept of the bunny boiler. James Dearden has adapted his own screenplay into this stage version, that was originally produced at the Theatre Royal Haymarket back in 2014. Reviews of this current production have varied between the ecstatic and the disastrous, so I was fascinated to see how it played out for myself!
The play has a different ending from the film; apparently, this ending was Dearden’s original draft, but pre-release market research showed that moviegoers wanted a more gutsy and vengeful ending. This version makes the characters’ motivations and responsibilities more of a grey area; and in fact Mrs Chrisparkle and I are still discussing it the next day, which must be a sign of a thought-provoking production! And, despite a few clunky aspects, we both found this play engrossing, entertaining and totally credible; we really rather liked it.
But I’m starting at the end, rather than the beginning, which doesn’t make sense. In case you didn’t know, in a nutshell: happily married Dan has a fling with editor Alex, whilst his wife Beth and daughter Ellen are out of town for the weekend. While they’re out of town, he rather goes to town, one might say. But when Alex turns out to be the clingy type who can’t accept being a one night stand, things start to get hot under the collar for Dan – and indeed his whole family. Initially he tries to balance keeping the secret from his wife and managing Alex’s expectations, but her resentment at not getting his full attention turns into something far more menacing and dangerous. And then she announces she is pregnant…
But what this production shows is that describing Alex as clingy is probably a misrepresentation of her truth. There are scenes of self-harm – and it’s important that theatregoers know this in advance – that leave you in no doubt that she is severely mentally disturbed. This may, in part, be due to the difficult miscarriage she says she suffered. Whatever the cause, her mental instability becomes the root of her manipulation, obsession and vengefulness. Where Dan has simply taken advantage of a random encounter and turned it into a sexual liaison, just another notch on the bedpost perhaps, you sense that he has unwittingly provided Alex with the promise of what she sees is a better life, and a reason for existence; clearly her high-flying editorship isn’t enough to satisfy all her needs. As her obsession with him becomes deeper and deeper, its manifestation becomes impossible to ignore; a fatal attraction indeed.
There’s also a surprise coda ending, which I couldn’t possibly tell you about because then it wouldn’t be a surprise! However, suffice to say that it addresses Dan’s laments of constantly making wrong decisions after wrong decisions, in a J B Priestley, Dangerous Corner style. The whole play lasts with you long after curtain down, as you ask yourself a series of what ifs; and you realise there’s never a definitive answer.
Morgan Large’s set comes as a shock when you first see it, all grey geometric shapes and abstract surfaces; isn’t this play set in domestic locations? But when excellent screen projections unexpectedly appear on the set, displaying phone conversations, the New York cityscape and much more besides, you realise it’s a brilliantly devised set. Paul Englishby’s incidental music is incredibly effective at heightening the tension; normally I would find so much music distracting, but in this case it becomes a vital ingredient of the storytelling.
Oliver Farnworth, as Dan, is on stage most of the time; it’s a very demanding role, commenting on his own actions in regular asides to the audience, as well as actually enacting them. He absolutely looks the part, but occasionally it feels a little as though he’s reciting the lines rather than believing in them, and I felt he lacked a little light and shade in his delivery. But it’s a powerful and clear performance and you certainly heard every word.
Unlike Louise Redknapp as Beth, who sounded a little under-amplified and occasionally you had to strain to catch everything she says. Beth is a relatively bland character for the first three quarters of the play, and it’s not until the end that she’s really given her chance to show what she’s made of. Unfortunately, I felt her important scenes lacked some emotion, and I didn’t entirely believe her fury and exasperation at what her husband has done.
Susie Amy, however, nails the character of Alex to a T. Sensual, obsessive, manipulative, disturbed – and dangerously unpredictable. She absolutely captures the character’s multi-layers, with her tragic self-harm and manic revenge, cheerfully observing how much she’s terrifying Dan. Ms Amy fills the character with great depth and understanding, and she’s far from the one dimensional characterisation that it could be. A really strong and riveting performance.
Among the supporting cast, I really enjoyed John Macaulay as the laddish Jimmy, and Tony Glasgow as the no-nonsense detective O’Rourke. Anita Booth is also excellent as Beth’s mother Joan; I liked how she has a resemblance to Hilary Clinton, which puts a new perspective on Dan’s assertion that he did not have a relationship with that woman.
Some things about the production simply don’t work. Beth and Dan’s offstage daughter is voiced by Charlotte Holden, who not only sounds at least ten years older than the eight years old that Ellen’s meant to be, but the recorded nature of her voice just sounds false in comparison with the live voices on stage. Some of the stage combat comes across as a little cumbersome, and the unavoidable blacked-out stage clearing that occurs immediately after Thumper is fricasséed is a big faff that completely destroys the tension created by the scene.
Despite these quibbles, this production offers way more than you might have expected. Most of the action is met with complete silence from the audience, but it’s not a negative silence, it’s an engrossed, concentrating, appreciative silence. It holds your attention throughout; and if you think you understand the motivations of the characters from your memories of the film, this production will make you think again. After its week in Northampton, it continues its tour to Aylesbury, Glasgow, Cambridge and York. Definitely worth catching!
It’s always a pleasure to visit the Bridge Theatre, and especially on a crisp but stunningly beautiful day like last Saturday, with the sun high in the sky giving a glorious view over Tower Bridge and the Tower of London from outside the theatre’s front door. I booked this show fairly pronto after it was announced last year because the promise of the Bridge Theatre, Ralph Fiennes and a new David Hare play is, for me, about as winning a combination as you can get.
Straight Line Crazy doesn’t tell the full story of hugely influential New York urban developer Robert Moses, but rather two significant periods in his life and career. I’d never heard of Robert Moses, apparently a very famous figure, which makes me frankly ignorant and I’m not proud of it. Act One is set in 1926 – pre-crash – where Moses has his heart set on opening up the beaches and parks of Long Island by creating new expressways for the motor car, no matter the nimbyism of the local landowners. Act Two takes us to 1955, and his proposal to carve up Washington Square Park with a road straight through the middle, which he says would alleviate the traffic congestion into Lower Manhattan.
The young Moses is brash and bold, with a propensity to start digging his new roads before he gets the official go-ahead; consultation is for wimps, problems can be glossed over with a little help from his influential contacts, and official fines are just part and parcel of his daily work. The older Moses doesn’t seem to have learned from his mistakes – in fact he doesn’t recognise that he can make a mistake; and his practice of riding roughshod over authority has developed into full-scale bullying of anyone who gets in his way.
Not only that, his personality flaws that are suggested in Act One have grown into proper monstrosity by Act Two. His misogyny, his racism and his contempt for the poor have run riot. He wants to open up parks and beaches but only for the right sort of people. No rapid transit access, just the motor car is king. And if you can’t afford a car – you can’t take advantage of his planning, simples. He brooks no criticism, under any circumstances; in the early days, his colleagues opted to be yes men, to stay in his good books and protect their own careers. Come the 1950s, Moses is surrounded by one faithful worker who has supported him throughout and sacrificed his own life and health as a consequence; another who realises they have taken their relationship as far as they can stand; and a third, younger, employee who has the guts to tell him how it is. You’re no different from anyone else, Mr Moses. Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.
Nicholas Hytner’s magnificent production uses that wonderfully adaptive thrust stage at the Bridge to perfect effect, suggesting the opulent but sterile home of the Vanderbilts, the cantankerous atmosphere of the Washington Square Park protest meetings, or – mainly – the extensive draughtsmen’s workspace at Moses’ office. David Hare has written a play dripping with telling lines, mixing humour and hideousness in equal measure, revealing its characters’ motivations and personalities with subtlety and delicacy. As always, David Hare has a lot to say, and it’s a pleasure to take it all in. There are themes of democracy and truth, prejudice and bullying, corruption and decency, community and selfishness; all woven together in Hare’s inimitable intelligent and gripping style.
The whole cast give us a masterclass in acting, but you can’t take anything away from Ralph Fiennes’ extraordinary performance as Moses. As a younger man provocative and insinuating, ambitious and determined; as an older man complacent and indulged, implacable and deaf to criticism. At a risk of sounding like Pseuds Corner, Hare provides all the ingredients for a characterisation of complexity, and Fiennes cooks them to perfection. You can’t take your eyes – or ears – off him.
Siobhán Cullen is fantastic as Finnuala Connell, the draughtswoman who must tread a fine line between her natural assertiveness and her requirement to give the boss what he needs to hear. She is accompanied by the excellent Samuel Barnett as Ariel Porter, Moses’ other long-time employee, quietly suppressing his own thoughts and needs, whilst genuinely wanting to support his boss and help him through hard times. There’s a brilliant cameo performance by Danny Webb as Governor Al Smith, full of bluster and exuberance, trying to assert his own authority over Moses but fighting to resist dipping his toes in the world of corruption.
Alisha Bailey is excellent as the young Mariah Heller, who’s not afraid of saying what she thinks (actually, she portrays perfectly that she is afraid, but is going to speak her mind anyway!) There are smart supporting performances from Guy Paul as the arrogant Vanderbilt, Alana Maria as the enraged Shirley Hayes and Helen Schlesinger as the journalist and activist Jane Jacobs, who opposed Moses’ vision of town planning and whose role in the play you might have thought would have been developed further than it is. Perhaps it would have been, in a play about his life as a whole, rather than concentrating on just these two major moments of his career.
One of those fantastic theatrical experiences where all kinds of brilliant collide together to make a superb production. Straight Line Crazy plays at the Bridge Theatre until 18th June and it’s a must.
It’s the final Screaming Blue Murder of the season, and in a last minute change of plan we welcomed James Dowdeswell as our MC. We’ve seen James many times before, as opener, as headliner, even online, but never as the MC, and he’s always great fun. News travels fast in the comedy world, and James’ opening gambit was to check if anyone was in from Wollaston, following on from my review of the fairly disastrous gig a couple of weeks ago – so that was me instantly outed in the audience, owning up to being the writer! Fortunately this crowd was a friendly, easy-going bunch, and we responded well to James’ probing into our jobs and characteristics. He’s a very amiable, welcoming and funny chap, and we all felt completely at ease with him the whole evening.
Our first act, and someone we’ve also seen many times before, both as an act and as MC, was Meryl O’Rourke, always high octane, always full of cheeky vagina jokes. It’s been twelve years since we first saw her act, and the intervening years have perhaps made her humour slightly less filthy – and it’s up to the individual whether that’s a good thing or not! Nevertheless, we still get a great insight into her married life – an assortment of farting, snoring and very occasional sex. She also has great material about the contrast between the sexual expectations of today’s young people versus those of her youth – very recognisable! She ended with a terrific visual joke regarding her Marilyn Monroe facemask. A very safe pair of hands and very funny as always.
Next up was an act new to us, Tom Taylor. His stage persona is a fascinating mix of the engaging and slightly aloof, and it works really well. Armed with a Bontempi – and not afraid to use it – he’s very silly and very funny. There’s a madcap surrealism to his material, knocking out musical non sequiturs and genuinely inspired jokes. Not afraid to go where angels fear to tread, we loved his take on the Holy Communion menu; you couldn’t possibly be offended by anything he said though as it was all done with a brilliant lightness of touch.
Our headliner, and someone we’ve seen once before and absolutely loved, was Gerry K. He’s another comic who’s so adept at taking material that you think has the potential to be really iffy but then turns it around at the last minute into something incredibly funny. Constantly inventive and surprising, he misleads us surefootedly down a familiar route only to deliver something completely unexpected. We loved how he explained how Covid ruined his Christmas, his view about mansplaining, how a Covid test resembles a pregnancy test and dozens more nuggets of comedy gold. For an east London diamond geezer he’s brilliantly self-deprecating, and he gets away with it all because he’s so likeable. A fantastic end to the show and to the season.
I’m guessing Screaming Blue Murders will return in the autumn. We’ll be first in the queue.
When is a play not a play? A possible answer to this is when it’s a Memory Cycle, which is how The Wellspring is described on the front cover of its play text. It’s always intriguing to watch a stage production that’s unusual in some way. Yes, it’s scripted, ergo, it’s a play. But when the two performers, playing a father and son, really are that very same father and son playing themselves, you know you’re going to see something out of the ordinary.
A few years ago, playwright Barney Norris worked with his father, musician David Owen Norris, on a series of interviews to tell the story of the older man’s unorthodox journey through his career in music. It was when Barney’s production of The Remains of the Day was being presented at the Royal and Derngate that it was suggested that he might work up those interviews into a play format. And this is the result – with the usual Covid-enforced delay that almost every new production has had to undergo, of course. It has the feel of a chat show, but without a host, where the guests just volunteer anecdote after anecdote without prompting. With Barney playing Barney and David playing David, you can assume they’ve got the characterisations spot on; and you can assume they’re telling the truth.
But can you? Memories can play tricks on you, and sometimes where one side believes something to be gospel, the other is convinced they’ve got it wrong; New Year’s Eves spent together – or apart – for example. On one occasion, Barney recalls hearing a rural 19th century song at a festival that blew his mind, as being such a brilliant insight into those hard times. But was it truly from that era? And if it blows you away, does it matter anyway? A lie can be much more rewarding than the truth. At the end of the play, Barney confirms that they’ve told a truth, not necessarily the truth; reality mixed with fantasy to create an end product, perhaps. Often old videotapes from Barney’s childhood are screened in the background, so that gives you an extra sense of truth. So, yes, it’s clearly autobiographical in style and presentation, but is it true autobiography? The audience must decide for themselves.
You can see why this is a Made in Northampton production. David was brought up in Long Buckby, went to Daventry Grammar School and spent much of his youthful leisure time in Northampton. Although his parents separated when he was young, Barney also spent many childhood weekends in the county, and, when he was 19, organised a music festival for his dad with gigs all around rural Northamptonshire. That local connection acts as another bridge between the Norrises and the audience.
The play is very beautifully written and performed with effortless ease. Individual moments from their past take on a whole new significance when explained in terms of the present day. I loved David’s recollections of standing on the bridge over the new M1 at Watford Gap, looking towards the north in one direction (because Watford Gap is traditionally where the north starts) and then looking south in the other (no one ever said that Watford Gap is where the south starts, but it must be by definition!) It’s one of T S Eliot’s still points in the turning world; rather like how he attributes his whole career to the one black note on the piano, B Flat, or how Barney lost his shyness when he realised it was ok for people to look at him when he was onstage in a junior school play. Tiny events such as these build into a life.
There are some great stories recounted; none as hilarious as David’s account of his appearance at the Sydney Piano Competition. There are also his tuition sessions with the scary Yvonne Lefébure in Paris, Barney’s reliving getting beaten up in Oxford, he and his friend Jeb playing Beatles songs at Stonehenge whilst an American guy scattered his wife’s ashes, and many more.
I can imagine that this is a difficult play to stage without it appearing too static. The old home movies and the constantly changing compass image work well to provide a little background movement. At one stage Barney rolls out a carpet on the stage, whilst he’s telling us about all the places in London he’s lived, even for the shortest time; a very rootless existence. The carpet emphasised his Wherever I Lay My Hat That’s my Home attitude to his rather nomadic lifestyle. A piano is onstage, for David to intersperse his recollections with snippets of music; and we see Grandad’s wonderful old music stand given pride of place next to it.
I’m not a fan of extraneous, unnecessary action on stage, and, during much of the first part of the play, we see Barney cooking – always something that an audience finds fascinating to watch. He and David sit down to eat it. But it’s never referred to in the text, we never know what he’s cooking, or why; and I did find that distracting. I also couldn’t understand why they painstakingly removed everything from sight at the end of the play; table, carpet, music stand, even the piano. It’s at odds with the concept that your memories are always with you – which is definitely one of the messages of the play. What was the point of hiding them away at the end? It felt like it was just to give the performers something to do; and whilst I understand the need for that, there also has to be a purpose to it. Just my little quibble.
The Wellspring only has a couple more nights in Northampton and then it will tour to various theatres and festivals, largely in locations that feature in their stories. Home is a moment that’s quickly lost, says Barney; afterwards you can only sail through the ghost of it. Charming, thought-provoking, and immensely nostalgic; private moments shared in that common hunt for home. At only 70 minutes with no interval, it fits neatly into a festival programme with admirable brevity of wit!
The 20th Anniversary Tour of this hugely successful show charges headfirst into Northampton for a week that’s already virtually sold out. Any show that can stimulate such anticipation and excitement is obviously doing something right. Cards on the Table time: I’m not really a fan of Queen. I know, I know, pipe down with your faux-outrage. But I’ve always found their style to be overblown and self-important; and the continued reverence about their output by the media and fans hasn’t made it any easier for me to start appreciating them. And indeed, when We Will Rock You makes direct reference to Queen it’s by elevating them to a cult religious status, which I find a right turn-off. There are a handful of their songs that I like; but the prospect of 2 hours 45 minutes of undiluted Queen made me feel bilious. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that far and away the best thing about this show is the music! More of that later…
The opening sequence strongly recalled a musical that I truly hated: Dave Clark’s Time, a pompous, vacuous show from 1986 that we endured for what felt like several hours at London’s Dominion Theatre (which is where We Will Rock You held sway for an extraordinary twelve years). I clutched my armrest wondering if I was going to hate this too. And, overall, I didn’t. But I have some big reservations about it.
Let’s accentuate the positive. Production-wise, it’s magnificent. At the back of the stage, constantly changing images, cameras, LEDs and so on provide a wonderful depth to the stage action, suggesting mood, locations, and the mindless backing masses who populate the sterile Gaga World into which the iPlanet has developed. (Bear with me). Sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed at the back of the stage is Zachary Flis’ amazing band who whack out the familiar numbers with gusto. It’s loud, by the way – very loud. At times my seat rumbled with reverberation so much I though I was preparing for take-off. Kentaur’s costumes and wigs are a production in themselves, reflecting the power of the oppressors, the simplicity of the protagonists, and the eccentricity of the Bohemians. Visually the whole thing is astounding.
There are also some fantastic individual performances. Almost entirely across the board, the female performers outshine the guys at every level. Martina Ciabatti Mennell’s Meat has a great voice and personality and brought enormous brightness to her role. As the ultimate baddie, Jenny O’Leary’s Killer Queen has an extraordinary stage presence and a belter of a voice. For me, the complete star of the show is Elena Skye as Scaramouche. The first thing Scaramouche does is sing Somebody to Love (a song I had never previously rated) and it was captivating, moving, gutsy and utterly brilliant. She is a fabulous singer, gave a fantastic characterisation to the role, and had the best feeling for the comedy of the piece of anyone in the cast.
Ah yes, the comedy. The book is by Ben Elton. The Man from Auntie. The writer of witty, satirical, provocative, inventive novels. The man behind the inspirational anarchy of The Young Ones. The creator of arguably the best sitcom every written, Blackadder (well, series 2 and 4 anyway). His job was to devise a cunning plot that incorporates Queen songs and provide entertaining bridging material between them. So was he as cunning as a fox that’s just been made Professor of Cunning at Oxford University? No. I’m racking my brain to think of a book to a musical that’s more lame and lamentable than his contribution to We Will Rock You. His hero, Galileo, speaks in song lyrics; funny the first time, but it quickly palls. And whilst the early part of the show allows for some of the songs to fit in nicely with the plot, by the time we get to the second Act all hell breaks loose and they get plonked in Wherever, whenever (damn, I’m doing it now.) Elton obviously couldn’t fit in Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions and We Will Rock You into the story, so they’re just an addition tucked into the end of the show. To be fair, there are two jokes. One is visual, when Galileo and Scaramouche decide they need to be careful when they settle down for a night of nookie. The other relates to the length of Brian May’s guitar solos. Otherwise it pootles along punfully; most of the characters are two-dimensional – those who aren’t are one-dimensional. It would need a gifted, independent director with a highly developed critical filter to keep this show on the straight and narrow. Remind me who the director is? Ah yes, Ben Elton. I don’t expect he suggested many cuts.
The plot itself also doesn’t bear much analysis. Set sometime in the future, live music is banned, and anyone who attempts to play music is punished. Hang on, isn’t that the plot of Footloose? Anyway. There’s a bunch of rebels called the Bohemians (geddit?) who are like a religious cult who believe there is a sacred text (which basically contains the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, not that they know that) and who have a few relics, including an old television and a video tape. It’s bizarre then, that, for presumably decades of misery, no one ever thought to put the video tape in the video recorder underneath the TV. Also bizarre that they mispronounce “video tape” “television” and “Brian” as though they were some long-dead foreign language, even though they pronounce everything else from that same language correctly. They’ve never heard of America, but they do understand the concept of Paris (Killer Queen lyrics) and Euro-Disney (lame joke). I’ll leave the textual analysis there, I think.
If it wasn’t for the Queen songs, the show would be dire. But then, without Queen, the show wouldn’t have existed! As a non-fan, I really enjoyed my two favourite songs Killer Queen and Don’t Stop Me Now, and Ian McIntosh as Galileo did pull out all the stops for a rousing performance of We are the Champions at the end. So it’s a resounding yes to the production values, music and star performances, and a resounding no to the book. The more you like Queen, the more you’ll like this show. But the incorporation of songs into the plot, and the “comic” element of the text made me realise what a masterpiece Mamma Mia is.
P. S. The book for Time is worse. Time thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. At least We Will Rock You doesn’t take itself seriously.
This is the third 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 continues: “Two of the stories are about the narrator’s childhood, told many years later. The other two are about adult experiences. One of them might have happened the day before it is told, but after strong feelings have cooled, the narrator’s maturity enables him to talk about them with an outsider’s detachment.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
The Use of Force
Doctor has called on the Olson family because daughter Mathilda is very sick. Although she seems “strong as a heifer”, she’s had a fever for three days. There have been cases of diphtheria at the local school so it’s important she’s checked out. Doctor asks if she has a sore throat. Apparently not, say the parents, but Doctor decides he should inspect her throat to make sure.
But Mathilda has other ideas. She refuses to engage with Doctor in any way, won’t open her mouth, and when he tries to get near, she flings her arm out and nearly breaks his glasses. At first Doctor rather admires her tenacity and independence, especially in the face of her parents’ embarrassment and annoyance at her behaviour. But as she grows more and more unreasonable, he gets progressively angrier, and, despite his better judgment decides that the use of force will be the only way he can check her throat.
Even though she’s bleeding, and shrieking in agony, Doctor continues to pin her down and “overpowered the child’s neck and jaws. I forced the heavy silver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged.” Surprise, surprise, he discovers she’s been hiding the fact that her tonsils are covered with a membrane that tells him that she’s had a sore throat for three days. Her final fury at being found out is worse than the pain of the throat.
William Carlos Williams was a physician all his life and so presumably this incident is based on a real event, or at least suggested by one. In the grand scheme of things this is a very minor incident, but it reveals to Doctor just how personally he became involved with the case – that it became war between him and his patient, and that he allowed his reactions to get out of control. “I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.”
As for Mathilda, she didn’t take defeat lying down. The last lines of the story are: “ Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father’s lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.”
What started off as a simple home visit to a patient escalated to battle of wits and strength. A minor incident perhaps, but Doctor learned a lot about himself as a result. Maybe next time he would react differently? Was the use of force justified in this case? Could it potentially have saved the girl’s life? Were the parents acting in her best interests? There are a number of questions you can ask yourself – and no obvious answers.
The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final of the detached autobiography stories, Bad Characters by Jean Stafford, of whom I have never heard!
If you happened to be strolling around the village of Wollaston on Saturday night and wondered where everyone was, 47 of them were at the Royal and Derngate to see the Screaming Blue Murder as part of local resident Claire’s birthday bash. That’s over a quarter of the entire audience! The show had been sold out weeks in advance, which is unusual; and a few minutes before the show was due to start the audience was still quite patchy. Then in came the Wollaston crowd, swelling the ranks of all the front seats, which naturally are the last to be chosen. Boisterous and lubricated, they were ready for a good time – so long as the good time involved taking notice of them.
Our genial host Dan Evans certainly had his work cut out. I should say, for everything that followed during the evening, none of it was the fault of the people from Wollaston; if there was a fault, it was down to some of the comics who should have handled the situation better. But to have so many of the crowd all know each other does put everyone at a disadvantage, as they bring with them their own dynamic, their own “house rules”. Performers, staff, the rest of the audience; we all had to struggle to assert our ability to have a good night and not feel excluded. At first, the vibe was great while Dan was getting to know them all. We discovered, for instance, that Claire has quite a big house. Big enough for an indoor swimming pool (even if it was only 10m x 5m, depth unknown), into which many of the audience had previously immersed themselves. We were also alerted to the presence of Matt, an audience member who took the opportunity to interrupt whenever he liked. When Dan joshed with the crowd with jokes that concerned themselves, it was fun and laughter all around. However, when he started to do more general material, which at any other time would be gold dust, people at the front were less interested. Fortunately the people at the back continued to laugh, but you could tell this was going to be a difficult night. There was a moment when one of the ushers came forward to mop up some spilled drink at the front of the stage and someone made a rather cruel remark at her expense. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever. We cringed in embarrassment for her.
Our first act, and someone we last saw way back in 2013, was Tania Edwards. She bases her material and stage persona on being rather posh, terribly middle-class, and deliberately bitchy with it. She discusses life with the husband who now works from home much to her annoyance, rather than the good old days when she hardly ever saw him. It’s very character-based comedy, and not many of the punchlines hit home. Changing tack, she took her attention to ridiculing the size of Claire’s swimming pool as being little more than a puddle. The non-Wollastonians in the audience hooted with laughter, the Wollastonians sat silently clearly unimpressed that one of their number had been criticised in this way. That atmosphere then spread throughout the whole crowd, and Tania didn’t find a way to regain the upper hand. As I said, this was going to be a difficult night.
Fortunately, for the second act, in came the Cavalry in the reliable form of Andy White, who did exactly what the crowd needed – grabbed us by the nuts and took control. He had Wikipedia’d Wollaston during the break, thereby publicly recognising their importance in the show, and with fantastic, assertive material, he silenced Matt and delivered a barrage of brilliant observations and jokes, ranging from the Birmingham Christmas Market, through helping his wife to give birth to the horrors of home schooling. Every line hit home; the dominators were dominated, and it was a masterclass in how to turn an evening around.
Sadly, our headline act, Anthony King, didn’t take advantage of the upswing that Andy had achieved. This was the fifth time we’ve seen him at Screaming Blue Murder shows, and in the past he’s always brought the house down with his lugubrious persona, and comedy songs with a touch of psychotic murder about them. This time, however, it just didn’t work. You could feel the energy drain from the room within a minute of his starting. Someone with his experience should surely have realised that his usual act wasn’t working so ought to have changed direction. But he didn’t. He continued, morosely, and the few laughs from those supportive members of the audience petered out. At some point during this disaster, you sensed that he had just given up, but was going to carry on regardless anyway. Drawing his act to an eventual conclusion he introduced his last song by saying “and now, to end my career…” to which a wag from Wollaston shouted out “that happened ten minutes ago” – and Anthony had no comeback. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were gripping each other’s hands with cringing desperation. And when the show finally, mercifully, finished, I’ve never heard so little desultory applause from the audience at the end of one of these evenings. It was an experience that I’m sure we’d all rather forget.
Still, hope springs eternal! The last in this season of Screaming Blue Murders is on 25th March, has a cracking line-up and is already sold out. Fingers crossed!
Time for another of those excellent comedy nights at the Charles Bradlaugh courtesy of those nice people at The Comedy Crate, who had assembled a terrific cast of funny people for our entertainment. We were a top quality audience too, which really helped the evening go with a swing!
Our MC for the night was Cally Beaton, new to us, but a very safe pair of hands to run the show. She has an excellent ability to dovetail between the acts, sometimes referring to the themes that the other comics had mentioned, and that helped the show flow very easily. One of the unifying themes of the evening was people who worked in shops and it’s amazing how something as simple as that can really catch on as a source of spontaneous comedy, and Cally mined it to the full. She has a great rapport with the audience and a very warm and friendly style, and kept the spirit of the show high octane throughout the evening.
Our first act, and someone we’ve only seen online before, was Jack Gleadow, a likeable young chap with brilliant delivery and a very pacey set. He’s another guy who instantly connects with the audience, with his unassuming but knowing style. He incorporates short sound and musical accompaniments to some of his act which works a treat. Trust me, you’ll never listen to Hot Butter’s Popcorn in quite the same way again. We also loved his observations about Primark, and how they don’t apply to Argos. Very assured, very funny.
Next up, and someone else new to us, was Arielle Souma, who plays on having that most irresistible of qualities – a sexy French accent – and mixes it with some brilliant comedy material about relationships. It’s a clever blend of physical self-deprecation and supreme self-confidence, and you can never tell which way she’s going to go at any point! We loved her take on having a relationship with someone else after your spouse has died; and she turns racism on its head to great comic effect. A terrific stage presence, she went down a storm with the audience.
Our headline act, and someone I always try to see whenever possible, was Russell Hicks, that master of creating fantasy comic scenarios from absolutely nothing. He discovered comedy gold with front row Jed and his amassed pals scattered around the audience, such as generous host Carrack, and Amir Amir (so good they named him twice?) who was interested in taking Russell’s spare hotel room. There was also a front row character named Sticky Mouse and I can’t quite remember how he gained that dubious epithet. Mr H has an extraordinary talent to think on his feet; as a result the entire audience were in hysterics the whole time. Amazing work!
The next gig at the Bradlaugh is on 14th April, but before then The Comedy Crate have an online fundraiser gig for Ukraine on Monday 14th, a new material night at the Wheatsheaf in Dallington on Tuesday 15th, and a special show on Sunday 27th at a secret venue in town. All the details can be found here!
In which celebrated author Ariadne Oliver is contacted by the prospective mother-in-law of her goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, to ask if she knew anything of the circumstances of the apparent double suicide of Celia’s parents. Suspicious of the woman’s motives, but curious about the case, she shares the information with Hercule Poirot, and they decide to see what those involved with the Ravenscrofts remember about their tragic death. Will the testimony of these “elephants” explain the deaths? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
The book is dedicated “to Molly Myers, in return for many kindnesses”. My research so far hasn’t been able to uncover a Molly Myers in Christie’s circle – perhaps you know who she is, in which case, please tell me! Elephants Can Remember was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1972, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same year. It was also published in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, the Toronto newspaper supplement, in February 1973.
Elephants Can Remember continues Christie’s gradual decline in inventiveness, writing style and thematic topics. As she got older, she seems to have become fonder of nostalgically revisiting her old books, with the stories of Five Little Pigs, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party all being quoted and recalled by Poirot and Spence. Indeed, she even occasionally adds explanatory footnotes as an aide-memoire, clarifying which old case it is that they are recalling. Some of her references were clearly old favourites, such as the case of Lizzie Borden or the Sherlock Holmes story where the parsley sank into the butter and the dog did nothing, as she has quoted them more than once before in other books. The Lizzie Borden case was cited in After the Funeral, Ordeal by Innocence and The Clocks, and the Sherlock Holmes parsley story in Partners in Crime, Hickory Dickory Dock, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and The Clocks again. The dog reference was also mentioned in Cards on the Table. It’s almost as though her thinking days are over; if it worked once, it will work again – if she actually remembered that she had referred to these cases before. She also runs out of steam early; you can measure this simply by means of the word/page count. A typical Christie in a Fontana paperback will run to approximately 192 pages. This book, same publisher and font, only gets to 160 pages.
One aspect of the book that gets done to death by repetition is the notion of elephants. If the book is about one thing, it’s memory – perhaps not surprising, given it’s written by an 82-year-old author. Poirot and Mrs Oliver are trying to solve a case that happened many years in the past, so it all depends on what people remember. An elephant never forgets, goes the saying, so they need to find as many elephants as possible. However, the adherence to this metaphor just gets dragged out endlessly throughout the book. It’s as though Christie had to write an essay where the title was How Many Times can you Substitute the word Elephant for Witness, and she diligently constantly referred to the title of the essay like a good school student. What starts out as a light-hearted notion quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome.
Nevertheless, despite the repetitiveness, the lack of inventiveness and the occasional lapse of continuity, it’s still quite an entertaining book. Admittedly, the basis of the solution is telegraphed strongly early on, so one aspect of the conclusion is easy to guess; but not the whole story, so there are still some surprises left at denouement-time. The characters are probably not as well-drawn or interesting as they ought to be, but there are some entertainingly written scenes, and it also poses a dilemma about whether honesty is always the best policy and how far you can or should take blind acceptance of the flaws of those whom you love.
As Nemesis would be the last book that Christie wrote about Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), Elephants Can Remember would be the last she wrote featuring Poirot – although Curtain was still to be posthumously published and the short story collection Poirot’s Early Cases which featured his 1920s cases that had only been published in the US was still to come. Unlike Mrs Oliver, who is still full of beans and is happy to traverse the length and breadth of the country in search of elephants (sigh), Poirot remains content to stay seated and thoughtful, and thus susceptible to Mrs O’s constant criticism that he does nothing. “”Have you done anything?” said Mrs Oliver. “I beg your pardon – have I done what?“ “Anything,” said Mrs Oliver. “What I asked you about yesterday.” “Yes, certainly, I have put things in motion. I have arranged to make certain enquiries.” “But you haven’t made them yet, “ said Mrs Oliver, who had a poor view of what the male view was of doing something.” He does, however, grandly plan a flight to Geneva – amusingly refusing Mrs Oliver’s offer to accompany him. So there is life and independence in the old dog yet.
Age may, however, be a reason why he’s no longer quite so well known as he used to be. When Mrs Oliver introduces Celia to Poirot her reaction isn’t what he normally would expect. “”Oh,” said Celia. She looked very doubtfully at the egg-shaped head, the monstrous moustaches and the small stature. “I think,” she said, rather doubtfully, “that I have heard of him.” Hercule Poirot stopped himself with a slight effort from saying firmly “Most people have heard of me.” It was not quite as true as it used to be because many people who had heard of Hercule Poirot and known him, were now reposing with suitable memorial stones over them, in churchyards.”
Just as a side note, you can see here in those two recent quotes from the book how Christie had become bogged down in repetition. Consider the dual use of the word “view” in the conversation with Mrs Oliver, and that of the word “doubtfully” in the conversation with Celia. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Wikipedia page about the book: “Elephants Can Remember was cited in a study done in 2009 using computer science to compare Christie’s earlier works to her later ones. The sharp drops in size of vocabulary and the increases in repeated phrases and indefinite nouns suggested that Christie may have been suffering from some form of late-onset dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.”
There are a few other names from the past that we catch up on in this book, primarily Superintendent Spence, who featured prominently in other Poirot stories, Taken at the Flood, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party. Spence is solid, reliable, thoughtful and helpful; he was the original investigating officer for the case. Spence provides a good function in the story without ever being a really interesting character. Another recurring chap is Mr Goby, that odd private investigator to whom Poirot subcontracts the task of finding out about the backgrounds of various suspects over the years. Goby still cannot look anyone in the face, which is an amusing observation of an essentially shifty character. But it’s hard not to consider Goby as an easy device for providing the reader with information without having to imagine how you’d go about getting it yourself. Perfect for a Christie whose powers of imagination are beginning to wane.
As usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. Poirot and Celia both live in London, Poirot, as ever, at Whitefriars Mansions (which doesn’t exist) and Celia having lived at addresses in Chelsea and off the Fulham Road, neither of which are real. The Ravenscrofts had lived at Bournemouth – undoubtedly real – but the other locations in the book, Little Saltern Minor, Chipping Bartram and Hatters Green are all fictional.
Now for the references and quotations in this book. As I mentioned earlier, Garroway refers to the case of Lizzie Borden, did she “really kill her father and mother with an axe?” She was an American woman, tried and acquitted of the murder of her parents with an axe in August 1892. Garroway also asks “who killed Charles Bravo and why?” Bravo was a British lawyer, fatally poisoned with antimony in 1876, and to this day the case remains unsolved. And Superintendent Spence refers to the Sherlock Holmes case where the parsley sank in the butter. That refers to “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1904.
In her recollections, Mrs Carstairs refers to St Teresa of Avila. She was a 16th century Spanish noblewoman who became a Carmelite nun. Poirot and Mrs Oliver share a quote, “qui va a la chasse perd sa place” – which basically means that when you leave a spot, a place, an object or anything you possessed at the time to do something else, you might lose it when you come back. It’s an old French saying.
Poirot says he is “like the animal or the child in one of your stores by Mr Kipling. I suffer from Insatiable Curiosity”. This is the story of the Elephant’s Child, in Kipling’s Just So Stories, published in 1902. And in conversation with Poirot, Celia quotes “and in death they were not divided”, thinking that it might come from Shakespeare. She’s wrong; normally if it’s not Shakespeare, it’s the Bible; and it’s the description of Saul and Jonathan in the first chapter of the Second Book of Samuel, verse 23. And finally, “the dog it was that died”, says Garroway, quoting from Oliver Goldsmith’s Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Elephants Can Remember:
Publication Details: 1972. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression of “this continental edition”, proudly boasting the words first in paperback, published in 1973, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. As a “continental edition” my guess is that I bought it on holiday in Spain! I’m afraid I can’t remember. The cover illustration very simply has an elephant stomping all over a revolver. Not terribly inventive!
How many pages until the first death: It’s only 9 pages until we discover the deaths that Poirot and Mrs O investigate, but there are no other deaths during the course of the narration.
Funny lines out of context:
““Nom d’un petit bonhomme!” said Hercule Poirot. “I beg your pardon, sir?” said George. “A mere ejaculation,” said Hercule Poirot.”
Memorable characters: The “elephants” that Mrs Oliver visits tend to merge into one and are not as memorable as they should be. Mrs Burton-Cox is frequently referred to as unpleasant and bossy, but Christie’s writing doesn’t really present her like that to us. Celia and Desmond are worthy more than interesting, but I did like Zelie, the old governess.
Christie the Poison expert: Nothing to see here.
Class/social issues of the time:
As Christie was writing much nearer to the present day – certainly in my lifetime (I was 12 when this book was published) perhaps any class or social issues of the time seem less distinct from our perspective. One significant use of language comes with the use of the N word in connection with the word brown to describe the colour of Mrs Oliver’s hat. It stands out today as an appalling choice of words, but fifty years ago it was much more acceptable.
Poirot still plays upon the general xenophobia/racism of the time and allows himself to “play the foreigner” to help get information. “Everyone tells everything to me sooner or later. I’m only a foreigner, you see, so it does not matter. It is easy because I am a foreigner.”
Apart from that, the strongest theme or concept in the book is that of memory; how reliable one’s memory is, particularly as one gets older – although people often find they remember stuff from their childhood very clearly but can’t remember why they walked into a room. Mrs Oliver confesses to Poirot that she can’t remember how long they have been friends: “Oh I don’t know. I can never remember what years are, what dates are. You know, I get mixed up.” Christie gives Mrs Oliver’s housekeeper Maria the same affliction: “…these here literary luncheons. That’s what you’re going to, isn’t it? Famous writers of 1973 – or whichever year it is we’ve got to now.”
It isn’t, however, credible when Christie does the same for the much younger Celia. Celia was at school when her parents died – which is a catastrophic thing to happen to a young person’s life. Yet when Mrs Oliver asks her what she remembers about her parents’ deaths, she replies: “nothing […] I wasn’t there at the time. I mean, I wasn’t in the house at the time. I can’t remember now quite where I was. I think I was at school in Switzerland, or else I was staying with a school friend during the school holidays. You see, it’s all rather mixed up in my mind by now.” This is nonsense! I lost my father when I was 11 and I can remember every aspect of it – it’s imprinted in my brain. There’s no way Celia would be this vague, unless she was deliberately trying to be secretive (which she isn’t.)
A knock-on effect of memory loss and, indeed, ageing – such as Christie herself was facing – is a preoccupation with how one might be looked after in one’s old age. Time was when larger families would always have space and time to look after ageing family members – but that was becoming a thing of the past. Julia Carstairs is living in a “Home for the Privileged” – what we would now describe as sheltered housing. “Not quite all it’s written up to be, you know. But it has many advantages. One brings one’s own furniture and things like that, and there is a central restaurant where you can have a meal, or you can have your own things, of course.“
Mrs Matcham had a different experience. “When I was in that Home – silly name it had, Sunset House of Happiness for the Aged, something like that it was called, a year and a quarter I lived there till I couldn’t stand it no more, a nasty lot they were, saying you couldn’t have any of your own things with you. You know, everything had to belong to the Home, I don’t say as it wasn’t comfortable, but you know, I like me own things around me. My photos and my furniture. And then there was ever so nice a lady, came from a Council she did, some society or other, and she told me there was another place where they had homes of their own or something and you could take what you liked with you. And there’s ever such a nice helper as comes in every day to see if you’re all right.”
Classic denouement: No – it’s not the kind of book to have one. However, I think Christie gives us the solution in a very charming scene, where a somewhat Deus ex Machina character arrives unexpectedly and confirms Poirot’s suspicions by telling everyone exactly what happened.
Happy ending? Certainly – the young lovers are determined to press ahead with their marriage and there’s nothing that can stop them. They’re also reunited with an old friend, with whom they can presumably now keep in contact. The old friend is also delighted to see them; but she may have ongoing concerns about whether or not she did the right thing.
Did the story ring true? You can conceivably believe that the way the double deaths occurred is credible – just about. I still think Celia’s lack of recollection is highly unlikely. What is undoubtedly believable is that those people who did remember the event all those years ago remember different – and indeed contrasting – things.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not that well written, most of the solution is telegraphed a mile off, and it’s rather repetitive. Yet it does retain a certain charm – I think 6/10 is fair.
Thanks for reading my blog of Elephants Can Remember, 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 Postern of Fate, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Tommy and Tuppence, and indeed, the last new work she was to write. Again, I can remember nothing about this book, but I understand that I shouldn’t have high hopes! 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!