Emlyn Williams wrote the first play I ever saw at the theatre – I was six, on my own, in the front row for the local amateur dramatics group’ production of A Murder Has Been Arranged at the Wendover Memorial Hall. I was entranced, and a lifelong love of theatre was born. Imagine a six-year-old being out on their own to see a play nowadays – you’d call in Social Services at once! Things were different in the old days. Thirty years or so later I became friends with a chap who had acted with Emlyn Williams when he was a callow youth, and Williams was a big star. He was very proud of his albeit slight association with Williams, and, remembering that he had written the first play I ever saw, I also felt a strange sort of connection.
Since then, I have seen a production of Williams’ most famous play, Night Must Fall, but never The Corn is Green; and it was never on my radar as a play I should catch up with, until I saw that the National Theatre were mounting a production with Nicola Walker in the lead role. Being a huge admirer of Ms Walker’s TV career, I jumped at the chance. That was sometime in early 2020, and – well, you know the rest. Now that the worst of the pandemic is passed (fingers crossed at least) I was thrilled to secure myself some tickets for its delayed performance. They say that good things are worth waiting for; this certainly proves that rule.
The premise of the play is pretty simple. Miss Moffat arrives at a remote Welsh village with the intention of setting up a school, so that all the local lads have an alternative to a life down the coal pits. She wants them to be able to appreciate books, to extend their minds; to give them a fuller, more rounded understanding of what life has to offer. Despite opposition, she succeeds; and her first promising pupil is young Morgan Evans, whom she encourages, and develops to such an extent that she arranges for him to sit for a scholarship to Oxford. But can a boy who’s been bred to work down the mines leave behind the dismal future that he has always been expected to follow and break out into a middle-class world of learning and self-expression?
It’s a semi-autobiographical play, and in the original production Williams played Evans; the character of Miss Moffat was based on his own teacher, Miss Cooke. And in a fascinating new twist to the play, director Dominic Cooke (no relation I presume!) has made Williams a key player on the stage. Not only does this production provide us with a performance of The Corn is Green, it also shows Williams going through the creative process, sometimes steering the production, sometimes discovering that it steers him. It’s a masterstroke of an idea and works incredibly well.
The play begins, for example, not with the house that Miss Moffat has inherited and will make into the school, but with a society ball, maybe in London, maybe in Oxford, where smart young things dance to the latest craze until the young Emlyn Williams bursts out of the proceedings, a sweaty, anxious mess, and decides to sit down at a typewriter and put his initial thoughts onto paper. As the play develops, Williams takes on the dual role of writer/director, deciding, for example, whether a character would speak in English or Welsh, whether they would enter the stage now or later, or whether the plot would twist this way or that. At one point Williams stops the show and makes the characters retrace their steps and do it differently – it reminded me of Laura Wade’s excellent The Watsons, where a character takes charge and shakes the rest of the cast into performing a different play. This extra dimension to the production allows Dominic Cooke to bring in a chorus of miners, all grubby faces and golden voices, that serve as a constant reminder of the world outside the schoolroom, never allowing Evans to forget his roots. There is also all the fun of the radio studio, with squeaking door sound effects, and actors never actually leaving the stage, just turning their back on the action. There’s a lot of façade going on, but it works a treat.
The presence of Williams also serves as a bridge between the Welsh backwaters and the smart young society things, capturing both the grit and the glamour. The humour of the story is beautifully observed, with a harsh lack of sentimentality between the characters, a dismissive reaction to parental obligations, and a delightful obsequiousness towards The Squire, the local authority figure with whom everyone wants to ingratiate themselves – and he certainly expects it. As an outsider, Miss Moffat wants none of that; but the scene where she deliberately fawns to him and flatters him, setting herself up as a mere woman who needs the strength and guidance of a capable man, is comedy gold.
I had high expectations of Nicola Walker as Miss Moffat and they were achieved in abundance. She has the most remarkably expressive face; no need for speech, but within a space of ten seconds she can show a sequence of emotions that follow naturally on from each other, going from, say, surprise to disappointment, then knowing she shouldn’t have been surprised, to seeing the funny side and then the tragic side. Basically, she can do anything! Her Miss Moffat is wonderfully no-nonsense and ruthlessly determined. At one stage she is so fixated on Evans’ Oxford career, she reminded me of that terrifying moment in Gypsy where Imelda Staunton broke into Everything’s Coming Up Roses not for the achievement of her prodigy but for her own overweening success. But Miss Moffat is also supremely altruistic – the sacrifice she is prepared to make at the end of the play is something quite extraordinary.
Gareth David-Lloyd is excellent as the ever-present Emlyn Williams, a class apart from everyone else, attempting to take charge of his characters and plot, even when his characters have other ideas. I loved Alice Orr-Ewing as the shallow Miss Ronberry, fluttering for the attention of the Squire, repelled by the baser actions of the boys. Iwan Davies is also excellent as Evans, at first cheeky and one-of-the-lads, later a serious student who wants to do well; but he wants it to be on his own terms. Saffron Coomber is superb as Bessie Watty, desperate for a glamorous life away from the humdrum of rural Wales, and there’s great support from Richard Lynch as the lugubrious, saved, Jones. Jo McInnes as the hard-working and totally unmotherly Mrs Watty, and the marvellous pomposity of Rufus Wright’s Squire.
I wasn’t sure about the final image of the scene; I understand that Williams was bisexual and had a number of liaisons with men during his marriage and after his wife died, but I still didn’t really see the relevance of his ending the show with a romantic dance with Evans. A small quibble though. This is a very clever and revealing production that breathes new life into a well-known, traditional play; and Nicola Walker is absolutely fabulous. It continues at the Lyttelton just until 11th June, so you’d better get your skates on.
Within a minute of the start of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s magnificent The Father and the Assassin, Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse, has already mocked us all for only knowing about him through “that fawning Attenborough film. With Sir Ben Kingsley”. The scorn fairly drips from his lips, but we forgive him, because we are already spellbound by this cheeky chirpy chap who addresses us as though he’s Live at the Apollo, and we’re all out to have some fun. How can it be that we so easily fall for his charm and humour, this man who sets out to kill Gandhi; the Father of India, the model of humanity, the architect of non-violent protest?
Surely he’s a ruthless ogre, a tyrannical terrorist, a monster in human form? No. He’s just little Nathuram Godse, born to a Brahmin family who made him grow up as a girl because they were terrified that all the boys in the family die due to some ridiculous curse. With such an artificial start to life, no one could blame him for feeling like a fish out of water, at odds with the world. He runs away to hear his childhood hero Gandhi address a crowd; and when the nine-year-old Godse can’t pretend to be a girl anymore, who is there to dress him like a boy in a kurta pyjama and thus allow him to start his life over again? None other than the great man himself. Chandrasekhar blurs so many lines with her depiction of Godse that you cannot but admire him, and appreciate his complicated and conflicting emotions, even though we know, and he knows we know, that he’s a murderer.
Never off stage, Godse takes us through his childhood, and his relationship with his parents, through to his apprenticeship to the tailor Kishore, his introduction to nationalist agitator Vinayak Savarkar and espousal of his beliefs, the discussions and agreements that led to partition, and the perception that Gandhi is to blame. We see the assassination, and the arrests of Godse and his friend Apte. But as Godse avows to the audience at the end, “it’s better to be a Godse than a Gandhi… A Gandhi is of no use to you when tomorrow’s battles are fought with deadlier weapons. No, you’ll need a Godse. And I will rise.”
Rajha Shakiry’s simple but impressive set design is a backdrop of threads; tightly woven at one end representing a cohesive piece of material, separated at the other end to reveal the individual cotton threads that lack the skilled craftsman to make cloth. Gandhi, of course, famously spun cotton; is he the master who can make a whole from the disparate threads of the Indian subcontinent, or is he the reason the country is randomly picked apart, resulting in the personal and national horrors of partition?
A great set, costumes, lighting and so on; but the real strength of this production is that enchanted theatre environment where inspired writing and superb performance meet. Shubham Saraf is simply mind-blowing as Godse; his is a performance of enormous wit, charm, humour and intelligence. The essential challenge of the play, to win the audience onto the side of the murderer, is achieved right from the start with Mr Saraf’s masterful delivery and hugely likeable characterisation. His light-hearted attitude makes the perfect contrast with Paul Bazely’s serious Gandhi, who takes control of his scenes with a measured calmness that gives you an instant insight into the man’s charisma, and is another brilliant characterisation.
Tony Jayawardena and Ayesha Dharker are superb as Godse’s parents, fussing and protecting and trying to lay down the law as good Indian parents always do. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Jinnah by Irvine Iqbal, wiping out the memory from “that fawning Attenborough film” that Jinnah was the outright bad guy, representing him in a much more reasonable light. There’s excellent support from Ankur Bahl as the petulant tailor Kishore, and as his childhood friend Madhav; and from Dinita Gohil as his friend Vimala, who constantly returns to interrupt Godse’s narrative, questioning his beliefs and attitudes, much to his annoyance.
There are great performances also from Sagar Arya as the severe and ruthless Savarkar, encouraging unrest from Godse, and a scene-stealing turn from Nadeem Islam as Mithun, the school watchman, who tries to influence young Godse but is let down by him. But the entire cast work together extremely well and tell this beautifully written story with conviction, humour and tremendous heart.
This is one of those rare, delightful productions that you know is going to be fantastic right from the very start. The two and half hours fly by, without a duff scene or a wasted word, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle that unites Godse and Gandhi in an attempt to justify the assassination. Of course, the audience will be the judge of that. And there are one or two references that sneak in, regarding life in Britain today; some things just never change. I was riveted throughout. And with Mr Shubham Saraf, a star is most definitely born! The play continues at the Olivier Theatre until 18th June, but I’m sure it won’t be the last we see of this modern classic.
In which we meet for Tommy and Tuppence for the final time, as they have retired to the coastal resort of Hollowquay and set up home in an old house called The Laurels, accompanied by their faithful old retainer Albert and a mischievous Manchester Terrier called Hannibal. The old house still has a number of old books left by the previous owners, and as Tuppence is sorting through them, she discovers a code in one of the books that she deciphers as the message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.” But who was Mary Jordan, and who killed her? 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 “for Hannibal and his master”. Agatha Christie kept Manchester Terriers, among one of which was Bingo, and it is believed that the fictional doggie Hannibal is based on him. Presumably, his master was Max Mallowan! Postern of Fate was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1973, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later the same year. Unlike most of her other books, it doesn’t appear to have been serialised in any periodicals or magazines.
There are two possible approaches to reading this book. The first is to be charitable. Christie was 83 when this was published, and held in the highest regard by both her editors and her loyal fanbase. One can well imagine that any suggestions or reservations the editors might privately have held would have been suppressed in order not to offend the Grande Dame; and her loyal readers would buy it by the bucketful anyway. This was to be the last book she would write; her powers were waning and, by all likelihood, early signs of dementia were setting in. It was never going to be a masterpiece.
The alternative approach is to compare it in the cold light of day with her other works – and it fails dismally. As in all her later year books, it kicks off with a very inventive opening, but the follow-through just isn’t there. As with Elephants Can Remember, the book is littered with endless repetitions, only this time there are also swathes of unnecessary characters, irrelevant discussions and themes; and there are many nostalgic passages where Tommy and Tuppence recollect their former glories and best detective work of the past. When we finally come to the crunch, there’s no real denouement. As T S Eliot said in The Hollow Men, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper”.
That’s not to say that it’s unreasonable for Tommy and Tuppence to live in the past so much. To be fair, that’s a perfectly legitimate characterisation for the couple, who are now retired and have time on their hands to look back. The trouble is, you can accept it the first time they do it, but when they do it time and time again it’s very boring for the reader. On Christie’s part, it’s fairly unforgiveable of her to include in their recollections of the N or M? case the fact that she actually gives away the identity of the criminal in that book – so you definitely don’t want to read Postern of Fate before reading N or M? (not that I rate that book highly anyway!)
The book clearly required much more heavy editing than it received. There are so many extraneous conversations about irrelevant subjects, like James the Sealyham, or Great-Aunt Maria’s purse of sovereigns, wrongly marked price tags in shops, or the interminable references back to the books of their childhoods. It’s full of Tommy and Tuppence’s domestic banter about a wide range of personal matters that clearly amused Christie (and maybe does for T&T’s most loyal fans) but for most readers it simply drags the narrative down.
I feel this would have worked better as a snappy short story rather than a rather long novel. Clues are written in, very obviously, and the reader works them out much earlier than Tommy and Tuppence do. One clue – that of Oxford and Cambridge (I won’t say what its relevance is) is discussed once and then they come back to it later as if it was a brand new idea. There’s also a lack of continuity from earlier books; for example, Deborah Beresford is said to be the mother of twins but those twins turn out to be aged 15, 11 and 7 – three twins, that’s interesting! There’s a villager named Miss Price-Ridley, but in previous books the Price-Ridleys featured in Miss Marple cases such as The Body in the Library and The Murder at the Vicarage – a completely different world from that of the Beresfords. Christie also gives Hannibal, the dog, a voice, and pretends that it speaks to its owners, in a rather self-indulgent and nauseously babyish way. All in all, not my cup of tea.
Having said all that, there’s one aspect of the relationship between Tommy and Tuppence which hadn’t really been spelled out in the previous books but is very clear here – and it concerns worrying about the other’s wellbeing. Tommy has always been the solid, reliable type, and Tuppence has always been the more unpredictable, flighty partner. With increasing old age, this difference becomes a little more serious. Tommy ““worried about Tuppence. Tuppence was one of those people you had to worry about. If you left the house, you gave her last words of wisdom and she gave you last promises of doing exactly what you counselled her to do: No, she would not be going out except just to buy half a pound of butter, and after all you couldn’t call that dangerous, could you?” “It could be dangerous if you went out to buy half a pound of butter,” said Tommy.”
Albert still lives with them; now widowed, he’s their general housekeeper, cook, and general all-round factotum. He also worries about Tuppence, on Tommy’s behalf, and also for his own peace of mind. Other recognisable names are Colonel Pikeaway and Mr Robinson, both of whom we first encountered in Cat Among the Pigeons, and Mr Horsham who was also a character in Passenger to Frankfurt. In their recollections, Tommy and Tuppence remember the characters from their earlier cases, such as Jane Finn and Mr Brown, as well as (of course) their adopted daughter Betty who appeared in N or M?
There are only really two locations mentioned in the book. One is London – where Tommy regularly attends business and other meetings; the other is the completely fictional Hollowquay, home to The Laurels. Putting two and two together, Hollowquay is clearly based on Torquay.
Now for the references and quotations in this book. Many of them refer to old children’s books. The first story that Tuppence remembers reading as a child is Androcles and the Lion, told by Andrew Lang, who wrote collections of folk- and fairy-tales, the majority of which were published in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Here are the other books and authors mentioned in the book:
Mrs Molesworth (1839 – 1921), who wrote The Cuckoo Clock (1877), The Tapestry Room (1879) and Four Winds Farm (1887).
Stanley Weyman (1855 – 1928) writer of Under the Red Robe (1894) – about Cardinal Richelieu, and The Red Cockade (1895).
L T Meade (1844 – 1918) writer of girls’ stories
Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne (1882 – 1956)
Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898)
Charlotte Yonge (1823 – 1901), writer of Unknown to History (1881) and The Daisy Chain (1856)
E Nesbit (1858 – 1924) writer of The Story of the Amulet (1906), Five Children and It (1902) and The New Treasure Seekers (1904)
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope Hopkins (1894)
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894), writer of The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1888), Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and Catriona (1893).
G A Henty (1832 – 1902)
I haven’t yet been able to identify the writer or date of The Little Grey Hen.
One of the chapter titles is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. That’s a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Tommy and Tuppence have possession of an Erard Piano, named after Sébastien Érard, a piano maker from Strasbourg, considered to be amongst the finest in the world. When Tuppence is playing it, she recollects a song: “Where has my true love gone a-roaming?” but I can’t find it online anywhere – does anyone recognise the song?
Tuppence quotes “new sins have old shadows” – but she’s in error. The correct phrase is old sins cast old shadows; and it’s an old proverb. Talking of Proverbs, Colonel Pikeaway refers to the daughters of the Horse Leech, which was a phrase I’d never heard before; it comes from the Old Testament, Book of Proverbs, Chapter 30, Verse 15. At the sight of Hannibal, he also quotes “dogs delight to bark and bite” which is from a hymn by Isaac Watts: “Let dogs delight to bark and bite, For God has made them so: Let bears and lions growl and fight, For ‘tis their nature, too.” Colonel Pikeaway refers to the Frankfurt Ring business, which I can only presume is a nod to Christie’s very own Passenger to Frankfurt.
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There are only a couple of low value sums mentioned. Beatrice’s coat, that was double-priced at both £3.70 and £6, today would be priced at £31 and £50. Still very reasonable. And there’s a suggestion that someone might have offered a fiver to tamper with some wheels. A fiver then would be worth £42 today. That’s not enough to endanger a life, I wouldn’t have thought.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Postern of Fate:
Publication Details: 1973. My copy is a HarperCollins Paperback, published in 2015, bearing the price on the back cover of £7.99. I know I had an earlier copy, but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration shows a rocking horse, casting a shadow of a man in a top hat riding that very same riding horse.
How many pages until the first death: This edition has 325 pages – it’s much more spaced out and paper-greedy than the old Fontana paperbacks. The first death which is reported comes on page 46; the first (only) death that takes place during the course of the book’s narrative comes on page 213 – so that’s quite a long wait.
Funny lines out of context:
Tommy, in conversation with Mr Robinson. ““And now,” said Tommy, “now you’re the tops.” “Now who told you that?” said Mr Robinson. “All nonsense.” “I don’t think it is,” said Tommy. “Well,” said Mr Robinson, “some get to the tops and some have the tops forced upon them.” That’s one for my gay friends.
Memorable characters: Sadly none. Most of the villagers are stereotypical country bumpkins; all the characters are bland.
Christie the Poison expert: The historical death takes place as a result of foxglove leaves being mixed up with spinach leaves in the kitchen to create a rather lethal meal.
Class/social issues of the time:
One of the accidental side effects of Christie’s writing style having lost its drive and its sense of narrative, is that there are plenty of conversations where characters ramble on about things inconsequential to the story, but not their day-to-day lives. As a result, Christie provides us with something of a running commentary on the events and news of the time.
For example, regular chilly weather in the afternoons is seen as a possible side-effect of “all the natural gas they’re taking out of the North Sea.” People are exploring science, which results in them flying to the moon, or researching oxygen being supplied by the sea not the forests. Pikeaway is suspicious of Europe: “Got to keep in with the Common Market nowadays, haven’t we? Funny stuff going on there, by the way. You now, behind things. Not what you see on the surface.” He later goes on to lament “there’s always trouble. There’s trouble in every country. There’s trouble all over the world now and not for the first time.” Conspiracy theories abound: “Do we know anything about germ warfare? Do we know everything about gases, about means of inducing pollution?”
The boy Clarence attributes the shooting in Tommy and Tuppence’s garden to the Irish Republican Army. ““I expect it’s them Irish,” said Clarence hopefully. “The IRA. You know. They’ve been trying to blow this place up.”” Miss Mullins puts such events down to the rise in general lawlessness. “Sad he had to get himself done in by some of this violent guerrilla material that’s always gong about bashing someone […] Go about in little groups they do, and mug people. Nasty lot. Very often the younger they are, the nastier they are.”
In other matters, Tommy and Tuppence remark on the fact that they recently had had a census – and you sense that Christie disapproved at the state’s nosiness. There’s early 70s inflation, and the dissatisfaction with the current government; Albert observes “you wouldn’t believe it – eggs have gone up, again. Never vote for this Government again, I won’t. I’ll give the Liberals a go.” Things one used to take for granted are on their way out; “Children nowadays how are four, or five, or six, don’t seem to be able to read when they get to ten or eleven. I can’t think why it was so easy for all of us.” People don’t buy birthday cards much anymore; and even fruit isn’t what it was: “there were such wonderful gooseberries in the garden. And greengage trees too. Now that’s a thing you practically never see nowadays, not real greengages. Something else called gage plums or something, but they’re not a bit the same to taste.”
Tuppence is very proud of her handbag. “Very nice present, this was,” she said. “Real crocodile, I think. Bit difficult to stuff things in sometimes.” Anyone today who still regularly uses a real crocodile handbag would definitely suppress the fact!
Classic denouement: No – in fact there’s barely a denouement at all. We do discover some of the solutions to some of the issues, including the identity of the murderer; but it’s all written so lacking in urgency or any sense of occasion, and it’s all revealed second- or third-hand. You keep expecting a final twist, and it never happens.
Happy ending? It looks as though Tommy and Tuppence may – or may not – continue living at The Laurels, but wherever they live they’ll always be the same bantering couple who love each other’s company but probably irritate the hell out of everyone else. So I guess it’s happy for them!
Did the story ring true? In part. The code in the book and the concealment of clues in the house is something that you can just about accept. The most extraordinary coincidence is that Tommy and Tuppence happen to retire, of all places, to this particular house of secrets. It’s also surprising that its contents were not cleared before they moved in, or that the local people who know so much about what went on there haven’t done anything to publicise it. Why did no one mention the Pensioners Palace Club earlier? Why did the kids not tell their parents the things they knew?
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s very unsatisfactory. It’s a toss-up between whether this is better or worse than Passenger to Frankfurt; there’s not a lot in it. That book is more preposterous and ridiculous, but at least has quite an exciting ending. This book is just blancmange. 1/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Postern of Fate, 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 a return to the short story format, with Poirot’s Early Cases, eighteen tales published in periodicals between 1923 and 1935 and which had never (with a couple of exceptions) been published in book form in the UK before. So it will be odd but enjoyable to go back in time and revisit the early days of Poirot and Hastings. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
It’s back to the cosy and welcoming surroundings of the Albion Brewery for some Edinburgh Preview shows courtesy of The Comedy Crate, and a double bill featuring Josh Pugh and Ryan Mold. These shows are, by their very nature, work in progress, so they will always be a little rough around the edges. The comics are there to make you laugh, but at the same time, you’re there to let them know what’s funny and what isn’t! It’s a two-way street.
First up was Ryan Mold, with his WIP Generation Gap show. This is taken from the Edinburgh Fringe website and describes his show better than I can: “In the mid-80s, at 6 months old, my grandparents become my legal guardians. They showered me with love, but being guided through life by two 70-year-olds with simply no understanding of modern living was a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. I was having to take advice, navigate school and grow into a man from a generation who are clearly not up to date with the 90s trends of the internet, fashion and modern cooking. If I was ever to have a girlfriend, my grandparents’ thrifty car choice, mannerisms and “alternative solutions” would certainly not help!”
It’s a great idea for a show and Ryan shares a number of his childhood memories; the bizarre, the disastrous, and the hilarious. Effortlessly affable, he sets up a strong and confident rapport with the audience and it was a very enjoyable set. The structure of the show is absolutely in place; all that’s needed now is to bring in a few more recognisable and relatable experiences that make the audience react “yes! Absolutely!” This is quite a personal show, and you get the feeling that Ryan is sharing some very private moments, so the authenticity of his material is totally bang on. Work in progress indeed, but I’m sure the finished product will be a success. If you’re in Edinburgh over the summer, the show will be at Just the Tonic at the Mash House every day from 4th to 28th August except 15th.
After the interval, we welcomed Josh Pugh, with his show, Sausage, Egg, Josh Pugh, Chips and Beans. Again, here’s the description from the Edinburgh Fringe website: “English Comedian of the Year winner and star of Comedy Central Live and Dave’s Hypothetical. Tour support for Joe Lycett and ‘almost certain future star’ (Chortle.co.uk), Josh takes us through the past two years of his life, trying to have a baby and accidently losing Captain Tom’s birthday cards in his own unique and hilarious style. Amassing over three million views on his Twitter videos and regularly headlining the biggest clubs in the country Josh is ready to f*ck shit up this Fringe (as a friend).”
Whilst I can’t comment on his ability to fulfil that latter promise, this work in progress show is already in very good shape and only needs a few very remote tweakings to become oven-ready, as the Prime Minister would have it. It’s a great title, which gives way to his first excellent joke, but doesn’t have any relationship with the content of the set, which takes the slow progress from Josh and Mrs Pugh’s initial desire to have a baby, through the rigours of set-time sex and the ignominies of IVF, to a final happy ending. Wrapped around this tale are several other excellent comedy gems, including the way he expresses how Covid is still “a thing”, but perhaps not quite what it was; and the conjecture of the people in the hospital meeting room next door to the room where he is engaged on producing his perfectly respectable official sperm deposit. You also wouldn’t employ him in a post office sorting room! Josh has terrific delivery and energy, and I’m sure his Edinburgh show will be a scream. He will be on at Monkey Barrel Comedy every day from 3rd to 28th August except 15th and 16th.
More Edinburgh previews on the way from the Comedy Crate, including two full-day line-ups and many other splendid comedy stars. All the details are here.
Late to the party for these two History plays which opened in April whilst we were gallivanting on holiday around Scotland, but very happy to have caught up with them now. You might not recall Shakespeare writing plays called Rebellion or Wars of the Roses; that’s because they are, in fact, distillations from the great man’s Henry VI Parts Two and Three, which I was fascinated to discover were written before Henry VI Part One according to the programme, so presumably Part One is an early example of a prequel.
Picture the scene: Young and easily manipulated, Henry VI has married Margaret of Anjou. At the wedding breakfast, he’s chuffed that he’s got the girl; she’s even more chuffed that she’s got the country. But when Uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, reads the marriage treaty, he falters and can’t believe what he’s reading. It’s like the Northern Ireland Protocol but even harder to swallow. The concessions the King has made are worse than expected but Henry defends them as robust and oven-ready. Hang on, am I confusing this with News at Ten?
As a result all sorts of machinations get underway to make a play for kingship. Enemies are got out of the way (normally fatally), the crown gets passed from pillar to post; there’s even an uprising from the masses under Jack Cade. The Duke of York is the chief pretender; his three sons support his claim, although not consistently, and, by the end of the second play, (spoiler alert) young Richard Plantagenet, who would become king twelve years later, confronts the weak and mentally disturbed King Henry, and despatches him with a very vindictive knifing. Looking ahead, the RSC’s next production will be Richard III, with a continuation of the same actors in the roles that appear in both plays; I’m loving the continuity.
But that’s a matter for later in the summer. Owen Horsley’s magnificent double-production is slick, smart, haunting, and riveting. The biggest design idea, for want of a better word, is to have a roaming camera that creates a huge projection on the backdrop that closes in on the faces of the protagonists at telling moments. It’s a risky practice, but it works brilliantly, especially if you are seated in the front section of the audience, so you see it head on, as we did for Rebellion. Seated on the side, as we were for Wars of the Roses, the projection is a little harder to make out, and the camera operators on stage are a little more noticeable. Nevertheless, it’s a master stroke. It works particularly well when the camera is on the actors off-stage, such as when it follows Cade and his entourage encircling the building – very conspiratorial and alarming!
All the usual aspects of the production are done superbly, as you would expect with the RSC. Hannah Clark’s costumes, Simon Spencer’s lighting, Steven Atkinson’s warlike sound effects (I bet they make you jump) are all first rate. Sometimes I find the live music in such productions a little intrusive, but in this case it’s just perfect, performed live by six great musicians to Paul Englishby’s compositions. And – something you can’t always say with modern day Shakespeare – it’s strangely comforting to see a production that hasn’t been reset in a different time or location from what Will originally planned.
The cast are superb throughout. Central to the whole six hours is Mark Quartley as Henry, portrayed as a man who’s never at ease. A man who never wanted to be king, but longed to be a subject, this Henry is slow to react to victory, cautious in the face of adversity, prone to depression and looks to his Bible for support. Minnie Gale’s brilliant Margaret is a perfect opposite to him; demonstrative, sarcastic, not remotely reticent about showing her sexual preference for the Duke of Suffolk, to the extent that she cradles the latter’s disembodied head after it has been sliced off by a very upbeat band of pirates. Henry’s passive acceptance that his Queen is mourning the death of Suffolk more than might seem appropriate works well as a sign that he’s got bigger things to worry about. It’s worth noting that you’ll never see a larger collection of disembodied heads on stage than you do with these two plays. Kudos to the props department for making them look so like the equivalent actors. It made me wonder if they have a whole second selection of heads for when understudies are performing.
The vast supporting cast is full of excellent performances too. It’s great to see Paola Dionisotti with the RSC again and her performance as Winchester in Rebellion is a pure joy, as she carefully enunciates every word he says to the fullest richness of expression; not a syllable is wasted. Oliver Alvin-Wilson is an imposing York, Ben Hall a sneaky Suffolk, Nicholas Karimi a forceful Warwick, and Arthur Hughes a manipulative and snide Richard. There’s brilliant support (amongst others) from Richard Cant, Lucy Benjamin, Daniel Ward and Peter Moreton. Among the minor roles, Aaron Sidwell stands out as a charismatically terrifying Jack Cade, an alarming combination of Pol Pot, Arthur Scargill and Edward Scissorhands. But everyone is on top form, and the big scenes of battle impress you with their power and their sheer drama.
It’s a very intense production; we saw both halves on the same day, but I would recommend seeing them over two separate days, just to catch your breath. If there is a problem with it all, it’s that you can see one too many battle scene. I guess the only person to blame there is Shakespeare. But with so many alarums and excursions, there’s only so much warring one person can take before the appreciation of it all starts to shut up shop.
You haven’t got long to catch up with these plays; Rebellion runs in repertory until 28th May; Wars of the Roses until 4th June. Definitely worth it though!
Sometimes, gentle reader, you come away from an evening of contemporary dance and think wtf was that, and sometimes you come away with a spring in your step and a desperate desire to be forty years younger and four hundred times as sprightly. I’m delighted to say that the Balletboyz’ Deluxe falls into the latter category. An evening of exciting, stimulating, beautiful dance, with some incredibly expressive and gifted dancers, fantastic lighting, brilliant costumes and two riveting musical soundtracks to back it up.
Of course, I should have been writing this review about two years ago, but something happened in the meantime that stopped the original scheduled tour of Deluxe. What was it now? Oh yes, the pandy. But you can’t keep artistic spirit down for long, and Deluxe has bounced back, with an almost completely new cast – the Balletboyz of two years ago were disbanded, sadly – and has been touring the country since March, with just one more date after their Northampton visit.
Deluxe is structured in two parts. The first half comprises of Ripple, choreographed by Xie Xin, and is preceded by a video where she teaches the dance to members of the (original) group and explains the difficulty of creating work for an all-male group. I don’t normally appreciate explanatory media too much, I think a dance ought to stand by its own presentation, without any further explanation. And this video didn’t do much to change that opinion.
However, once it gets started you’re immediately gripped by it. I loved its depiction of the flow of movement, the ripples that can be gentle or like a giant wave. The dancers connect and separate, and come together without touching, like they are practising reiki on each other. It reflects harmony and disturbance, survival of the individual and in groups, all to Jiang Shaofeng’s superb soundtrack of discordant and disrupted strings and harsh clashing percussion. It’s mesmerising.
The second part is Bradley 4:18, choreographed by Maxine Doyle, inspired by the poetry and song of Kae Tempest. The title doesn’t refer to a missing book of the Bible, rather it’s what happens to a certain chap named Bradley at 4:18 in the morning. This is also preceded by a video – a slightly more helpful one (although, personally, I’d prefer this information to be in the programme, rather than a video which has the potential to alienate a viewer who just wants to see dance.) Six dancers take on different aspects of Bradley, at first separately, later weaving in and out of each other to show the various contradictions and behavioural patterns that go to make up one man. Bradley is a party animal, a schoolboy bully, a vulnerable team member, a drunken sloth; aggressive, big-headed, pained and lost. It’s a very clever idea and the dance pretty much nails all these individual characteristics.
If you’re looking for any particular story-telling that links the two pieces, I think you’ll be disappointed. They are simply both examples of the BBoyz’ amazing ability to convey varying emotions and all styles of dance. The dancers themselves are a hugely talented bunch, extraordinarily gifted and immensely likeable and watchable. I was especially impressed with their brilliantly synchronised sequences – every dancer performing the same move at precisely the same time, no one was a nanosecond off; incredible.
It was over ten years ago that I first spotted the young Liam Riddick at the Royal and Derngate in a programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company and I predicted he would become the Next Big Thing – and I was right. Tonight I saw another dancer who caught my eye with his extraordinarily versatility, sense of fun and expressiveness, and unbelievable agility – Seirian Griffiths. Mark my words, he will be huge in the dance world over the next few years. I was also really impressed with Kai Tomioka, whose interpretation of Bradley ranged from the aggressive to the wheedling – I shall look forward to seeing him in new work in the future. But, of course, all the Boyz are amazingly talented and turn in a great show.
Sadly, Deluxe has only one more night on its tour, in Yeovil on 19th May. But the Balletboyz are back with a bounce, and with this current cast of dancers, the future looks very bright.
Production photos by George Piper (who, if you know your Balletboyz history, doesn’t actually exist)
Five Alive, Let Dance Thrive! (Almost removed a star for the unnecessary videos, but that felt petty)
I was shocked, I tell you, shocked, to discover that it’s been over four years since we last attended an Upfront Comedy gig at the Royal and Derngate. These shows are simply great fun – two acts before the interval and another two after, all hosted by DJ and ex-Dipsy Teletubby John Simmit. John got us all relaxed and in the mood for a good night out, but it was clear he wasn’t going to put up with any Will Smith/Chris Rock nonsense from the audience. He’s from Handsworth and you don’t do that kind of thing with someone from Handsworth without deeply regretting it afterwards. He also shared his recent discovery about why white guys dance the way they do and why black guys do it their way, and – choreographically at least – how ne’er the twain shall meet!
Our first act, and someone we’ve seen many times and always enjoy, was Javier Jarquin, a Kiwi with Latin American/Chinese parentage, so there’s a conundrum if the Home Office want to send him home. Full of energy and attack, he has some truly fascinating material about the difference between it and that, and Mrs Chrisparkle particularly enjoyed his observations about how men just walk around the house pointlessly because, apparently, I do that (It isn’t pointless when I do it, just saying.) He always strikes up a great rapport with the audience and he got the show off to a terrific start.
Next up was that expert wise Brummie, Shazia Mirza, offering her wry observations on women’s position in society and the media, which included picking on good-hearted Chris in the front row, whom she named Bob, as representative of all elderly white men (he’s only 63) and why, basically, he has to be eradicated. She takes no prisoners with her tough talking satire, but brings you along with her argument in a way that makes you see subjects differently. To do that, and to be funny at the same time, is an absolute gift. However, when she was recounting a story about being on a Celebrity survival show with Bear Grylls, a rather extraordinary thing happened. I’m not sure why – a carelessly expressed phrase, or a mistimed facial expression, but she said or did something that absolutely killed the energy in the room. She worked really hard to get it back – but never quite made it. One of those strange things that sometimes happens with live comedy, even with experienced and fantastic comics like Ms Mirza.
After the interval, our next act was someone new to us, Ms Mo’Real, or, as her parents think of her, Muriel. She complains about the wasters that share her flat and don’t contribute to the rent and bills – and there’s a great punchline to that setup. She looks twenty years younger than she is, and uses that to some great comedic effect too. Her very warm and kindly stage presence helps her killer lines to hit home very effectively. And Mrs C loved her sparkly socks. A very enjoyable act whom we’d love to see again.
Headlining the evening was Internet sensation (is that still an appropriate description?) Aurie Styla, whose personality bursts off the stage with enormous energy and fun. No longer content to live in a tiny London flat he’s moved to the Bedfordshire countryside where he has several rooms in a big house and a whole new rustic lifestyle that he’s coming to terms with. Fabulous interaction with the audience, his infectious humour fills the theatre with pure joy. A brilliant way to end the evening.
There’s promise of another Upfront Comedy offering in October – I shall keep a watch on the schedules!
It wasn’t cool to like The Osmonds when I was growing up – not if you were a boy. And whilst I could recognise their style and panache, their talent and their commitment to hard work, I did find the majority of their songs insufferably slushy. They were at their best when they went rocky; Crazy Horses remains an iconic track of the 70s to this day. My own personal favourite was Goin’ Home – and I’m pleased to say it gets an airing in The Osmonds A New Musical, because when we saw the Real Osmonds (well, Jay, Merrill and Jimmy at any rate) at the Royal and Derngate a little over ten years ago it only got a shortened, perfunctory performance. My other favourite Osmonds rocky track is I Can’t Stop; that didn’t get a play in either show.
But it’s hard to underestimate how huge they were; and many of the crowd in last night’s audience were clearly teenyboppers of old, prepared to throw themselves into every routine. There’ll always be a space for something Osmondy on a stage for many years to come; and this new musical, penned by Julian Bigg and Shaun Kerrison after an original story by group member and middle brother Jay, isn’t a bad vehicle for bringing their old songs back and reviewing their career.
The show is at its best when confronting the divisions between the family members and revealing the strictures that father George’s parenting inflicted on the young boys. The Osmonds themselves are portrayed both as adults – during the main years of their chart success – but also as children, taking their first steps on the Andy Williams Show, submitting to and/or bristling under the military discipline installed in them by George. Mother Olive is a kindly, comforting figure, but has no authority over her husband. Telling moments from their childhoods are re-enacted with the adult actor and child actor side by side, effectively emphasising how what happens in childhood sticks with you all through your life. At one point, Jay refers to the family as the Mormon von Trapps – a good line; it made me think that a lot of their later problems might have been solved if only Olive had sewn them play clothes from some old curtains.
The conflicts that arose from Donny and Marie’s separate successful career are also nicely observed; I enjoyed the four brothers’ bored and uninterested recording of the backing vocals to Donny and Marie’s Morning Side of the Mountain as a very nice encapsulation of what must have felt like a huge reduction in their influence and stake in the group. Alan and Merrill’s ambitious business venture to run their own studio is shown in its ascendance but more interestingly when it collapses. There are petty arguments stemming from Alan’s ruthless running of the group – a trait inherited from his father, from Merrill’s not being allowed to marry, and the mental stresses it caused him, and from Jay’s perception that no one listened to him. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, given the pressures they must have had from being at the top of their performing tree, they didn’t argue more.
The scenes and the songs run in a chronological sequence (apart from The Proud One appearing too early and Crazy Horses too late) and are linked by an additional thread, that of Number One Fan Wendy from Manchester, who continues to send Jay fan mail throughout the years, never knowing if he saw her letters. She has an undiminishable love for Jay from afar; that special, unaccountable, irrational love that only a deep deep fan can have. Wendy’s dream to meet the great man finally comes true in a rather charming scene; I’ve no idea if this is truth, fiction, or if Wendy is simply symbolic of thousands of other girls who spilled their teenage angsts to their heroes. It would be rather rewarding if it were 100% true.
Lucy Osborne’s set is bright, relatively simple and functional; her costume designs are excellent, from the classic barbershop outfits of the young boys, through the glam rock shirts and the subtle colour co-ordination of the brothers’ performing clothes – Alan is always basically in blue, Jay in Green, etc – including their latter-day (no pun intended) drift towards country music. Bill Deamer’s choreography accurately reflects the synchronised flamboyance of the group’s original moves, and on the whole the group and the band make a pretty good stab at recreating the definitive Osmond sound.
Alex Lodge takes the central role of Jay and conveys his essential wholesome kindness and likeability, occasionally tending towards an overly cutesy and trying “niceness” that may well be an accurate portrayal of the real Jay. Ryan Anderson’s Merrill is a good portrayal of a decent man pushed to the edge by circumstance and frustration; I thought the show could have made more of his clear mental distress, but it didn’t choose to take that route. For our performance Alex Cardall played Alan, and he nailed that “older sibling” natural authority and tendency towards bossiness. Danny Nattrass is solid as the relatively uninteresting Wayne, and Tristan Whincup was our understudy in the role of Donny; good in the singing department, but I felt he sometimes looked lost in the choreography.
Charlie Allen gives a very good performance as the unyielding, monolithic George, never betraying the smallest degree of warmth; and Nicola Bryan is the perfect antidote as Olive, a soothing source of kindness who, no matter what she might privately think, knows her place is to back up anything her husband says. I really liked Georgia Lennon as Marie – her performance of Paper Roses was probably the best rendition of any of the songs in the show. It’s a song I always hated as a teenager, seeing it as the epitome of drippiness; but Ms Lennon made me see it in a different light. Great work! And then we had our supporting cast of child Osmonds, who were all terrific, with excellent interaction with the adult actors and brilliant harmonies together.
So there were many good elements to the show, but, for some reason, a lot of it left me rather cold. Many of the song performances felt a little underwhelming; that said, Let Me In built to great finale to Act One, and they absolutely nailed Crazy Horses at Curtain Call. But even my favourite, Goin’ Home, felt slightly underpowered. Some of the characterisations felt a little threadbare. Comparisons are odious, but this is no Sunny Afternoon. It lacks an essential power and spark that should be driving through the whole show; instead it moves at a sedate pace, never quite reaching top gear. But it’s genuinely not a bad night out, and if you’re inclined towards a bit of clean-living Osmond nostalgia, the show should prompt some good memories. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until Saturday 7th, and then continues its tour of the UK all the way through to December.
Stephen Sondheim may have left this earth last November, but once you let him into your heart and your life, he never goes away. My first exposure to his work was when I got to see Side by Side by Sondheim at Wyndham’s Theatre in April 1977. Even though I was only 17 years and 1 day old, I was blown away by his wit and insight – let alone those melodies. When I first started seeing the young Miss Duncansby, I recorded the double album onto cassette for her (it’s something we used to do in those days, ask your parents) and I reckon that shared admiration for the great man went some way towards sealing our relationship.
T S Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life by coffee spoons. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have measured out our years with Sondheim lyrics – and I bet we’re not alone. Rarely a day goes by when one of life’s situations isn’t best expressed by a line from one of his songs. And there were plenty of those brilliant lines on offer in Tuesday night’s Sondheim’s Old Friends gala at the appropriately renamed Sondheim Theatre (normally I dislike the practice of renaming theatres, but in this case I’ll make an exception). Ostensibly it was in aid of the Stephen Sondheim Foundation; in essence it was an excuse for some of the world’s best Sondheim practitioners to come together for one huge celebration of his output.
It’s so easy to go over the top with one’s appreciation of a great show, and words like amazing and incredible get bandied about in descriptions when what you really mean is very good, but it doesn’t sound exciting enough. However, I genuinely can’t think of the right superlatives to describe this show. It was sublime, it was thrilling, it was a constant source of delight. Not only that, it was way, way more slick than I had expected; a veritable gaudete of all the emotions that his works convey. Nothing that’s grim, nothing that’s Greek; just pure enjoyment from start to finish.
Devised and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, staged by Matthew Bourne and Maria Friedman, and choreographed by Stephen Mear; adding Sondheim’s songs to that mix, it was always going to be outstanding. The first thing that hit you was how tremendous Alfonso Casado Trigo’s 26 piece orchestra was – a classy, rich, full-bodied sound that blazed into every nook and cranny of the theatre. The programme gave us the running order of songs – forty in all – but not who would be performing them, so there was a continuous buzz about who to expect on stage next. Some of the combinations of song and singer were predictable; others were a delightful revelation.
Some of the stars had roars of welcome from the moment they set foot on the stage. Julia McKenzie stopped the show within a second or two of its starting; still an amazing voice, still a wonderfully subtle sense of humour. Red Riding Hood turned around to reveal she was Bernadette Peters – cue a lengthy appreciation. A light shone on Dame Judi Dench and she didn’t get the chance to start singing for ages, waiting for the cheering to die down. I can’t describe each of these forty performances, although each stands out as a beacon of brilliance; I can only share with you some of my personal favourites.
Rob Brydon and Haydn Gwynne gave us The Little Things You Do Together with an immaculate mix of comedy and musicality. Anna-Jane Casey, Janie Dee and Josefina Gabrielle were a perfect goofy trio for You Could Drive a Person Crazy. Bernadette Peters delivered a spine-tingling Children Will Listen. Janie Dee, Julian Ovenden, Michael D Xavier and the West End All Stars showed what a brilliantly clever multi-layered piece A Weekend in The Country is. There were sobs all over the house for Judi Dench’s heart-wrenching Send in the Clowns. Michael Ball and Maria Friedman mined all the comedy out of The Worst Pies in London and A Little Priest. Haydn Gwynne took our breath away with The Ladies Who Lunch.
After the interval, Julia McKenzie, Gary Wilmot, Rosalie Craig and many more delivered a hilarious version of Broadway Baby where competitive auditionees try to outdo each other. Sian Phillips unexpectedly joined Rob Brydon, Damien Lewis and Julian Ovenden for the last verse of Everybody Ought to Have a Maid. Petula Clark gave us a resilient and determined I’m Still Here (including a brilliant throwaway line at one of the song’s more obscure references – “Google it!”) Michael Ball’s deliciously vindictive Could I Leave You? Janie Dee’s cutely innocent The Boy From… Bernadette Peters’ awe-inspiring Losing My Mind. Imelda Staunton’s legendary outstanding Everything’s Coming Up Roses. And so very much more…
The audience was as star-studded as the cast, but I only witnessed one truly stagey moment. On my way to the bar at the interval, I was caught between Cameron Mackintosh on my left and Christopher Biggins, resplendent in white scarf, on my right; Mr B called out to Mr M Darling it’s just marvellous, and Mr M beamed a suitably chuffed smile in response. But he was absolutely right! It was indeed marvellous. I can’t see how they could ever recreate this experience again in the same way, but the montage of songs worked brilliantly, and could pack a West End theatre every night as a revue in its own right.
I’m still buzzing from it all; the thrill of that experience will take a long time to calm down. Hopefully the relay into the Prince Edward Theatre will also be used as a recording for TV broadcast, because this is a celebration that should be relived for many years. That’s it. I’m out of superlatives!