The second stage (literally) of our three-part Blitz on the National Theatre was to see Wednesday’s matinee of Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Lyttelton Theatre – Lynette Linton’s acclaimed production of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play. Set in Harlem in 1930, Angel is a club singer who shares an apartment with her friend Guy, a clothes designer whose dream is to create extravagant outfits for his heroine, Josephine Baker, in Paris. Fired from her job and dumped by her gangster boyfriend, Guy carries her home drunk with the assistance of a handsome passing stranger. Supported by Guy, and their friends Delia (from the adjacent apartment) and Sam, a local doctor, Angel sets about picking up the pieces of her life. But then the passing stranger passes by again, this time deliberately, to see if Angel has recovered, and he doesn’t seem likely to take no for an answer…
Plays are peculiar things. A bunch of words on paper, they come to life when transferred to a stage – especially if the creative team behind the production gets it right. This is one such occasion; a superb production that – dare I say it – elevates the words on the page to a level way further than you might expect. Lynette Linton’s direction, Frankie Bradshaw’s set and especially costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music, and so on, all contribute to presenting us with the most elegant of productions. It shrieks class, although it’s far too elegant to shriek.
There’s also something about the production – and I can’t quite put my finger on why – that lures the audience into complete involvement with it. So when a character makes a really telling statement, or a very dramatic event occurs, there are audible gasps, even cries, from the audience. To create that link between us and what happens on stage is a rare gift.
However, and it’s quite a big however, I must confess that I didn’t really like the play itself that much. It feels long – I’m sure it could have shaved at least twenty minutes off without losing any of its content. It was, occasionally, a little bit boring. There are a couple of major plot events that are telegraphed a mile off. I don’t believe it’s in Delia’s character to do what she does at the end of the play (no spoilers). And the suggestion in the final scene that Angel is about to embark on some kind of Groundhog Day re-enactment of what has gone before means that nothing has changed, which is a miserable conclusion, no matter how stylishly it’s conveyed. The direction also triggered one of my pet hates, when imaginary walls that divide rooms or buildings are unnecessarily breached by an actor walking through them. No!! What are you doing!! You’ve just picked that chair up and moved it through a brick wall!
Having said that, the play is genuinely fascinating with the development of a character who is absolutely committed to the cause of a woman’s accessibility to both contraception and abortion rights, particularly as it is progressed through promoting it through the church. It also nicely examines the bigotry of the Christian right through the character of Leland, slow to recognise homosexuality in his surroundings simply because he cannot believe it exists in any environment where he might find himself.
The performances are fantastic throughout and fully justify your decision to buy a ticket! Samira Wiley, in her UK stage debut, is incredible as Angel. She is the kind of performer you simply cannot take your eyes off. No movement, no gesture is wasted; she inhabits the role so fully that you are completely convinced she is Angel. Her singing voice is superb, her emotions get you in the guts, and she’s a dab hand at the comic timing and business too. A remarkable performance. Giles Terera impresses as Guy, with an entertaining range of camp mannerisms and vocal tics that delightfully bring out the humour of the character, but also complement his kindness and his realistic ability to the cut the crap and get to the truth. Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo is brilliant as Delia, combining her earnestness with her innocence; she brings the whole audience with her on her gentle journey of love with the supportive Sam, another excellent performance from Sule Rimi. And Osy Ikhile is great as the handsome stranger Leland, the epitome of dignity and romance until the brutality of life stretches his patience too far.
The superb atmosphere that the production creates never lets up throughout the whole play, even if the play itself does occasionally leave something to be desired. But there’s a delicate mix of comedy and tragedy, fascinating character development, and an incredible connection with the audience which means the good definitely outweighs the not so good.
Production photos by Marc BrennerFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!
In our eternal quest for the best in theatre, Mrs Chrisparkle and I sneaked a couple of treat nights away in London to see all three shows currently playing at the National Theatre. We started off with the show for which I had the least expectations – but which turned out to be a seat of your pants emotional thrill-ride from start to finish – Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of Hamed Amiri’s 2020 book The Boy with Two Hearts. A co-production with the Wales Millennium Centre, it was first seen on stage in October 2021, and now, a year later, it is playing at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre to spread its message of love to brand new audiences.
A true story, Hussein, Hamed and Hessam Amiri, together with their parents Mohammed and Fariba, lived as best they could in Herat, Afghanistan, under the Taliban rule. A normal family, but as if it wasn’t bad enough living under the Taliban, they have another significant problem – oldest son Hussein is born with a rare heart condition that can only be treated by specialist surgeons in either the UK or America. After Fariba makes a speech demanding freedom for Afghan women, she becomes the target of death threats from the Taliban and the family has no choice but to escape to save their lives.
What follows is two-and-a-quarter hours of anxiety-fuelled, nail biting excitement as we desperately hope the family can make their way through Europe, at the mercy of traffickers and thieves, but also sometimes assisted by genuinely kind people. Spoiler alert – but it’s not that much of a surprise really – they do make it to the UK. But what is the hope for Hussein and his heart, and can the NHS work its wonders and give him a life?
This beautiful adaptation takes this both horrific and delightful story and tells it with such lucidity and animation that it is a joy to watch from start to finish. In many ways, it’s a production like none other I’ve ever seen. For example, inventive use of projected surtitles throughout the play not only makes you aware of the continuous changing from English into Farsi and other languages, it also breathes life into your imagination to see aeroplanes taking off, or a road of busy traffic – you have to see it to appreciate it, but I’ve never seen titling used so eloquently.
Singer Elaha Soroor joins the actors on stage to provide a moody, atmospheric soundtrack of Iranian/Afghan music; this, combined with Hayley Grindle’s versatile set, Amy Mae’s evocative lighting and Amit Sharma’s creative and sensitive direction, makes for a true visual and aural feast. The writing is clear, pacey, and with a perfect balance between the humour of warm family life and the atrocity of the real world just outside; and I really liked the way the play ended up in the here and now with the brothers writing their book about their experiences.
The five actors who play the various members of the family, but also the many strangers and familiar faces they meet on their way, work as a stunning ensemble. They move seamlessly from their main character to another by a simple change of a hat or the donning of a jacket. They also drive the story forward by occasionally breaking into what I can only describe as drama-school music and movement sequences. I mention it, because whenever I have seen it done before it always looks artificial and – I don’t know, is there a polite word for wanky? But here it really works and gives the dramatic tension an extra dimension.
Each of the five actors brings immense warmth and understanding to their role. Houda Echouafni is brilliant as Fariba, constantly caring for her family, always alert to danger, always the first with both a comforting word or a disciplinary ticking-off. Dana Haqjoo, also, is superb as the father Mohammed; a natural authority, an indulgent smile, a brave planner of escapes, the ultimate in resourcefulness. Ahmad Sakhi plays Hussein; as the oldest boy he too has an authority over his brothers and conveys Hussein’s essential seriousness, an inevitability of balancing childhood fun with a life-threatening health condition. Farshid Rokey as Hamed and Shamail Ali as Hessam have the joint challenge of portraying children (Hamed is ten and Hessam is seven when the play starts) who have adulthood thrust upon them too early in life. They are all 100% convincing in their roles.
At the beginning of the interval Mrs C turned to me and said if Hussein doesn’t make it to the end, I’m going to have a bloody good cry. No spoilers again, but there’s no question this is a thoroughly emotional experience; fast paced, with the fear of disaster around every corner, and an exploration of the love within a family and by strangers outside the family. And it’s supported by a hugely creative and vigorous production with fantastic performances throughout. If you think refugee is a dirty word, this just might make you think again. It’s what theatre is all about.
It’s always a pleasure when John Simmit brings his Upfront Comedy Slam to the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. There’s always a gasp from the audience when he reveals his greatest role (financially at least) was six years in the Teletubbies as the furry green Dipsy. If only Tinky-Winky could see him now. Mr S is a great host, making us all feel very warmly welcome for what turned out to be a brilliant evening of comedy.
Our first act was Athena Kugblenu, whom we’ve seen a couple of times before, and whose act was chiefly built around the theme of working out what class you are. As someone with working class roots, middle class activities and an upper class accent, I’ve genuinely no idea what I am. She works up a great rapport with the audience, including setting up the burly chap in the front row as the butt of absolutely everyone’s jokes throughout the whole night – fortunately he’s obviously an extremely good sport! Very reliable material and delivery that never quite soars, but is always thoroughly entertaining!
Next up, and new to us, was Ali Woods. Here’s a great new find in the Comedy World. Terrific attack, original material, spinning off male mental health in unexpected directions. I loved the idea of Erectile Dysfunction being the name of a Heavy Metal Group. Immensely likeable, and a great range of characterisations for the people he references in his act. We’d really like to see him again.
After the interval came another act who was new to us, Jay Droch. Cutting a smart and dignified appearance, Jay surprised us with a mix of character based comedy and impersonations. The first few minutes of his act he concentrated on the characters in Peaky Blinders, which neither of us has seen, so these comic observations meant nothing to us. When he moved on to his political material, he was absolutely brilliant, with a menacingly ridiculous Boris Johnson, a ludicrously hilarious King Charles and, best of all, a blistering re-imagining of Rishi Sunak as a posh schoolboy skipping to the command of his grisly bullying Indian father. It was absolutely preposterous but utterly brilliant.
Our headline act, and someone we’ve enjoyed many times before, was Kane Brown, who is one of the few comics who has that brilliant ability to riff off whatever vibe the audience presents him. So he spent his entire set with fantastically funny observations about marital relationships, especially as you get older, imagining some of the audience members in the situations he describes. His is one of those acts that just washes over you in a sea of comedy, and it’s very hard to pick out any one sequence of jokes or humour that stands out because it’s all so very funny. We didn’t stop laughing the whole time – a true tonic for the soul.
A terrific night of comedy that flew by. Can’t wait till the next one!
Steve Waters’ two interweaving plays, On The Beach and Resilience, together known as The Contingency Plan, first saw light of day back in 2009 at the Bush Theatre in London. If the urgency of measures to deal with climate change was a hot topic twelve years ago, they’re off the scale today. Waters has revised the plays to bring them bang up to date – or as up to date as our daily changing political landscape allows – in this brand new production for Sheffield Theatres, directed by Chelsea Walker (On The Beach) and Caroline Steinbeis (Resilience).
We saw both plays on one day – On The Beach first, then Resilience – with a very interesting and informative panel discussion between the plays in the Playhouse including members of the creative team and scientists from the British Antarctic Survey. This helped to give the plays context and added to the sense that, if we don’t do something about it now, it really is too late. From a dramatic point of view, I’d recommend that you should see both plays, as they tell the same story from two very different angles. I also think it makes more dramatic sense if you see Resilience first; both plays end with catastrophe, but the nature of that catastrophe probably has a greater impact if you follow the political activity leading to the personal tragedy, rather than the other way round. On The Beach concentrates on domestic life on the front line of coastal vulnerability, whereas Resilience dwells on the political shenanigans of the COBRA meetings to discuss the imminent dangers. Act One of Resilience takes place the day after Act One of On The Beach; Act Two of both plays takes place at exactly the same time, five months later. Both reach the same conclusion – the inescapability of the disaster to follow. As such, you could say the plays are pretty pessimistic.
No doubt about it, it’s a curious mix, this double play. What it has unquestionably in its favour is that it’s hugely thought-provoking, and you may well be talking for days about it afterwards. It may, indeed, change your life, your priorities, and whatever steps you might take to help save the planet. One of the ways it does this is by offering you the problem in bite-size chunks. You may well not feel able to save the planet – that’s an unbelievably massive task. But you might feel you could do something to help save Norfolk. That’s where the majority of our attention is turned, as elderly eco-warriors Robin and Jenny live a simple, detached, unsophisticated life; growing their own food, brewing their own drinks, eschewing the trappings of modern life like mobile phones and the Internet.
Robin is a retired Antarctic glaciologist who has built a model to show how rising sea levels could cause a watery incursion onto their saltmarsh property; their son Will has just returned from a stint at the British Antarctic Survey, horrified at the change to the environment that he has seen out there, and determined to work directly with the government to alert them of the imminent dangers. Robin is aghast that Will is chucking in the research to work in London – and we learn more about Robin and his past that clouds his judgment of the future. As for those politicians, to what extent are they convinced by the dangers that the scientists’ research presents them, or are they more concerned with playing the electorate and doing what they know will win them votes? And are even the advisers themselves fully committed to revealing the truth, or do they also hold back for fear of aggravating their political masters?
So, a vitally important plot, and a positively thought-provoking piece of work. It’s a little disappointing, then, that there are some difficulties with the plays that hold them back from being a truly gripping dramatic experience. Act One of Resilience is, for example, very wordy. You feel that a lot could be cut or tightened up with the advisers’ dealings with Secretary of State for Resilience, Chris Casson. Some of the lines in both plays come across as rather clunky, and don’t have that recognisable sound of a genuine conversation. The water tank that dominates the stage in On The Beach becomes a burden to the play and staging once its initial use to house the model has been completed. Is it a real tank or is it a symbol of the sea or the storm? If the latter, then why do Will and Sarika say they come from the beach further downstage? If the former, why do Robin and Jenny get inside the tank and splash around? There’s an inconsistency with the way it is incorporated into the action which I feel muddles the story.
Georgia Lowe’s stark, bare, grey, platformy set suggests discomfort; otherwise, it does very little to enhance our appreciation of either location, bringing to mind neither coast nor office; it also makes it virtually impossible for any action to take place upstage. And there are some peculiar vocal inflexions from a couple of the actors: as when, for example, Geraldine Alexander’s Jenny’s line about the birds flying overhead, “must be five-hundred-odd birds”, is spoken as “five hundred odd birds” as if there were something very peculiar about them all.
That aside, the performances are good; there’s a crisp disconnect between Paul Ready’s Casson and Geraldine Alexander’s Tessa that makes for some very ugly but exciting tension; Peter Forbes is excellent in his dual roles as the troubled and brutal Robin and the unsophisticated but sincere Colin; Joe Bannister’s Will and Kiran Landa’s Sarika are full of the enthusiasm of youth with the drive to get their message home, even if that works against their own personal circumstances.
An important, but far from perfect, work given an exuberant, but far from perfect, production! Nevertheless, I’d absolutely recommend it if your climate change complacency needs a kick up the backside – this will certainly provide that.
After the matinee of the excellent Woman in Mind, it was time for another long-awaited premiere, Daniel Evans’ production of Local Hero, the stage version of that much loved 1983 film, starring Burt Lancaster as the stargazing oil tycoon Happer and Peter Riegert as his emissary Mac, sent to the Scottish Highlands to negotiate the purchase of an entire village so that it can be turned into one giant refinery. But as Mac grows fonder of this magical remote environment, and its quirky, lovable inhabitants, he starts to wonder if he’s doing the right thing.
I should state that the performance we saw was the first preview, and it is possibly unfair to judge the show with what you might see today now that it’s more bedded-in. It was a little slow at times and a little cumbersome moving from scene to scene, all of which I am sure will have been tightened up now. Of course, its plot won’t have changed over the past week – and it’s a story with obvious, timeless appeal. If environmental worries were a big thing in 1983, they’re off the scale now. And with the world worrying about how it’s going to pay its next fuel bill, this new version, that inter alia questions the value of the oil industry (and other similar industries), couldn’t be more appropriate.
But what does the new musical show give us, that the original film doesn’t? Sadly, the answer, I fear, is nothing. In fact, there’s something strangely sterile about this show. Rather than bringing the story right into the present time, it encapsulates and preserves it somewhere in history. Perhaps it’s the reliance on the phone box – there were no mobile phones in 1983, and it’s increasingly hard to imagine a world without them. Perhaps it’s the oddness of the set – an ugly steel backdrop onto which projections can be made, and with a beach coastline that has to be dug up by the cast from underneath the flooring of the Houston office. The steel backdrop works well for the opening number, A Barrel of Oil, as the Texan executives and traders scamper around to a scrolling back projection of 1983-style computer graphics, adding up to a suggestion of millions of dollars being flung here and there. But it feels out of place when virtually all the rest of the show is set in the sleepy natural environment of Ferness. In another interesting staging decision, most of the band are perched to the side of the audience in what appears to be an extension of the seating, thereby creating a distraction from the action on the stage – more than once did I find it more interesting to watch the keyboard player singing along to the songs rather than the cast.
So, yes, it was the first preview and allowances must be made; but you can’t change the set and you can’t change the score, wherein lies the show’s biggest weakness. When you get down to the nitty-gritty, any musical succeeds or fails on the strength of its score. And I’m sorry to say that Mark Knopfler’s new songs for the show contain no show-stopping numbers, or even anything mildly memorable. The catchiest song is Filthy Dirty Rich, which is what the villagers sing when they realise they could make a fortune from selling the village to the oil company; but it’s only memorable because that title phrase is repeated mantra-like so many times that it’s impossible to get it out of your head (and not in a good way.) Apart from that, I found the music uninspired and the lyrics depressingly uninventive and repetitive. As an example, Viktor, the visiting Russian boatman/capitalist, has a short song which, if I remember rightly, comprises of his repeating his name several times. We’re not talking Cole Porter here.
The lead role of Mac is taken by Tony award-winning Gabriel Ebert on his UK stage debut. Mr Ebert has an impressive CV as long as your arm, although he’s completely new to me. He has a genial stage presence and weaves the story along nicely but I felt his voice was a little tentative to be carrying the lead role in a musical. Paul Higgins is very good as Gordon, the village entrepreneur who does everything from running the pub, doing everyone’s accounts to probably painting and decorating your house too. I wondered if it was a coincidence that visually he has the look of the young(-ish) Denis Lawson who took the role in the film. Either way, it’s a confident and enjoyable performance.
Stealing the show in every scene, however, is the esteemed Hilton McRae as Ben, the beach-dweller who refuses to sell. There are few roles that Mr McRae can’t excel in, and here he is terrific with the character’s well-reasoned stubbornness and admirable adherence to the old values. Such as shame that Mr Knopfler has given him the bland and repetitive Cheerio Away Ye Go as his main song. The rest of the cast work well as an ensemble, and there are some entertaining moments; the beginning of the second act, for example, really gives you a feeling of what it’s like to have the mother of all hangovers.
But without a decent score to get your teeth into, and without any modernisation of the plot, the best this production can do is to offer you a different way at looking at a familiar old story; and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why you would need to do that. However – and this is a big however – I note that for the last week Twitter has been surging with love for this new production, so I completely accept this is more my problem than the production’s. It would be a sad world if we all liked the same things.
Some plays, gentle reader, hold an immense and hugely significant place in a person’s heart. I can cast my mind back to December 1986, when Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss Duncansby as she was then) and I saw Woman in Mind, starring the perfectly cast Julia McKenzie and Martin Jarvis, at London’s Vaudeville Theatre for her birthday treat. We needed the time together as the previous weekend we had got engaged but the Dowager Mrs C had a pink fit at the news and spent the next X weeks/months/years taking it out on us. Sigh. The play was memorable not only for the insight into the mind of the leading character, Susan, but also my mother’s; no wonder it’s always been a significant play for us. And that is why I had been looking forward to seeing this revival all summer long!
Susan is found, dazed, possibly concussed, definitely confused, in the garden, by semi-retired Doctor Bill; he’s clearly concerned that her mind is not working as it should be, although she is perfectly confident that there’s nothing wrong at all. He goes off to get her some tea, and she is joined by her husband, brother, and daughter, all impeccably turned out for an afternoon of champers and tennis; they also reassure her nothing is wrong – all that happened was that she had stood on the garden rake and knocked herself out like some Tom and Jerry cartoon – what is she like??!! But if that’s her impossibly handsome husband, with her impossibly handsome brother and impossibly beautiful daughter, who is this grumpy old vicar with his crotchety old sister who keep barging in on her in the garden? We quickly learn that all is not well in Susan’s mind, and you can’t trust anything that you, or she, sees.
Alan Ayckbourn has written so many extraordinary plays in his lifetime that you can’t restrain him to just one masterpiece. But of all his masterpieces, this is surely one of the most masterful. His intricate plot weaving, his fooling with the audience as to what is real and what isn’t, his extraordinary understanding of a mind under pressure, of a disappointing marriage and of just how delicately to tread the balance between total hilarity and ghastly cruelty create a work of amazing tenderness and insight. It flips between pure joy and pure hell, even within the course of a sentence. Dismiss Ayckbourn as a serious writer at your peril – this is the real deal.
The special trick with this play is how Ayckbourn depicts the fact that a troubled mind can take individual facts, words, phrases, or ideas that one comes across in conversation and mix them together in an attempt to make some unified sense of them all. This enables the play to come to a riotous final scene of absolute mayhem as Susan’s subconscious pieces together nuggets of information to create a ludicrous whole that makes us laugh but disturbs her deeply; hence that perilous balance between joy and hell.
Sadly Anna Mackmin’s exquisite production has now closed, so you can’t now go and see it for yourself. If you did miss it, you really do need to kick yourself! Lez Brotherston (who else?) created a set that suggests a small patch of lawn as part of a much larger, glamorous garden; alternatively it could just be a small patch that hasn’t been nurtured and cared for as much as it deserved. Mark Henderson’s lighting creates a deep warm glow whenever Susan’s mind veers into the fantastical and returns to unadorned daylight with the harshness of reality. It’s a helpful key if you’re ever unsure as to whether what we’re seeing is real or not.
Jenna Russell was superb as Susan; the character is never off stage, as she showed us all Susan’s bewilderment, frustration, sarcasm, and the sheer hell into which she is descending; but also all the light, warmth, and kindness of the character that is being lost as her own grip on reality is declining. Nigel Lindsay was also excellent as her (real) husband Gerald, a vicar with little sense of kindness or tact, and who had given up on their relationship to spend hours researching the history of the parish.
Long-time Chichester regular Matthew Cottle was perfect as the kind but ineffectual Doctor Bill, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his own marriage was on the rocks but determined to do the best for his temporary patient; a kindness that Susan responds to as Bill starts to become part of her extra-marital fantasy. Stephanie Jacob was hilarious as the morose and vengeful Muriel, constantly imagining that her late husband Harry was sending her signs from Heaven that he still loved her. And there was excellent support from the rest of the cast including Marc Elliott as the idyllically desirable Andy – loving, handsome and a dab hand in the kitchen – and Flora Higgins as “daughter” Lucy, on her professional stage debut.
Mrs C’s eyes weren’t the only ones in the theatre that were a little moist at the end of the show. A production of a first rate play, staged with great conviction, wonderful understanding, and terrific performances. A privilege to have seen it – and it would be brilliant if the production could have a life after Chichester.
In which young Gwenda Reed has a vision that she witnessed a murder when she was a child, and Miss Marple helps her and her husband Giles to investigate if she really did see the crime – and if so, who was the murderer! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
This was the last novel to feature Miss Marple and, like Curtain, was written at some point in the 1940s, then locked away in a vault until such time that Christie wanted it to be published. As it turned out, she died in January 1976, before it was published. Also like Curtain, Christie didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Sleeping Murder was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1976, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it had been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1976.
There are some conflicting opinions as to exactly when the book was written. Originally it was thought to have been around 1940, but other evidence suggests it could be almost a decade later. I note that when the characters all go to the theatre in the early part of the book they go to His Majesty’s Theatre, which obviously dates it as pre-1952. Christie had a number of possible titles for the book; the one she preferred and intended was Cover Her Face – but unfortunately for her, P D James got in there first with her first Inspector Dalgliesh novel published in 1962. Apparently, Christie had to get the manuscript out of the vault in order to change the title.
After the success of Curtain, written when Christie’s creative skills were at their height, the book-buyers of 1976 expected something equally sensational from Miss Marple’s last case, as it had also been written many years before. Alas, this hope was rather misplaced. Much of Sleeping Murder is taken up by Gwenda and Giles painstakingly working their way around the country as amateur sleuths on the track of something they don’t quite understand, with Miss Marple acting as an emotional and cerebral associate, dispensing advice and warnings from a safe distance. Of course, one of the most exciting things about reading a whodunit – Christie or otherwise – is hoping for a big surprise at the final denouement. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in this book; the person who (I felt, at least) was the most likely to have done the crime was indeed the murderer. And although it’s nice to pat oneself on the back and bask in the glory of one’s success, one also gets to feel a little cheated out of a final surprise. So you come away from the book not only slightly disappointed by the journey to the big revelation, but also by the revelation itself.
The plot also suffers from being based on a massive coincidence, namely that Gwenda bought the same house for her and Giles to live in that she had briefly lived in as a child. It isn’t as though she’d always lived in the same village, Dillmouth; she didn’t even realise she’d lived in England. Of all the houses in all the towns…. she had to buy the one she already knew (without knowing). Personally, I also find it hard to believe that Gwenda would overreact quite so astonishingly at watching the play The Duchess of Malfi – the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young…” sends her into apoplectics. For a young woman who is otherwise firmly in charge of her life, I find that pretty hard to believe.
Nevertheless, it’s very nicely written and acts as a decent swansong and nostalgia trip, celebrating the great lady’s status as a much loved amateur detective. Perhaps oddly, Miss Marple doesn’t seem to have aged in the same way that Poirot has. Whereas Hastings was upset at the sight of his old friend’s failing health, Miss Marple is described much as she always has been: “an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner, Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them.” Not only unchanged in appearance, but also in behaviour; she is still as independent and wily as ever, popping around all the old-fashioned shops ostensibly to buy wool and suchlike, but really trying to get as much gossip about the past as possible. No one would suspect her cunning ulterior motives.
She’s still socially active too; when we first come across her in the book, she is part of the party going to the London theatre, going out for a meal, and still socialising with her nephew Raymond West, still messing about in her garden, complaining about the unreliability of gardeners, and keeping up to date with her old friend Dolly Bantry. You wouldn’t know that the years have come and gone. It’s quite comforting to see that age has not withered her (well, not more than she was already withered!) Raymond West, however, who in some of the earlier book comes across as an insufferable prig, seems to be a little less annoying now – just generally intimidating, if you’re not used to moving in his circles, as Gwenda wasn’t. Miss Marple’s maid is Evelyn; that’s an anomaly, as in her later years she was looked after by her super-kindly Cherry.
There’s not much more to say about the book at this stage, so let’s take a look at the locations. Most of the book takes place in the Devon town of Dillmouth. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is Christie’s name for Dartmouth, but Aunt Alison’s letter makes it clear elsewhere that Dartmouth is a separate town. It’s a curious blend of fact and fiction; Dr Kennedy lives in Woodleigh Bolton, a fictional location, but there is a village called Woodleigh near Kingsbridge in Devon. Local train stops include Helchester, Lonsbury Bay, Newton Langford and Matchings Halt, all of which are completely charming names and totally fictional. The sanatorium in Norfolk is said to be near the town of South Benham; again, that’s fictional but there is a Banham halfway between Norwich and Thetford that might be the inspiration. Apart from that, Christie uses real-life locations, such as Exeter, Northumberland, and indeed the final chapter takes place in the well-known Imperial Hotel, Torquay.
“Calcutta Lodge was surrounded by a neat trim garden, and the sitting-room into which they were shown was also neat if slightly overcrowded. It smelt of beeswax and Ronuk.” Ronuk? This was a brand of sanitary polish, manufactured in Portland, Dorset, until the 1950s. Miss Marple, meanwhile, in a wool shop remarks: “I always find Storkleg so reliable. It really doesn’t shrink. I think I’ll take an extra two ounces.” I believe this is a type of wool that gives an extra grip to the body, so is suitable for socks. But I could be wrong. Please tell me if I am!
Giles quotes: “I know a hundred ways of love, and each one makes the loved one rue”. This is a slight misquote from Emily Bronte – the original is “I know a hundred ways of love, All made the loved one rue” – it’s from her untitled poem LVII that begins “Were they shepherds who sat all day on that brown mountain’s side”. And, of course, there is a quick gallop through some of Miss Marple’s earlier cases in conversation with Inspector Primer, including a reference to “a little poison pen trouble” (The Moving Finger) and a churchwarden shot in the Vicar’s study (The Murder at the Vicarage.) There’s also a slightly bizarre forward reference, with an old lady at the home in Norfolk asking Gwenda “is it your poor child, my dear?” which had been previously used in By the Pricking of my Thumbs – but which wouldn’t be written for at least another twenty years!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sleeping Murder:
Publication Details: 1976. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first Australian paperback edition published in 1978, bearing the price on the back cover of $2.50. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead woman’s face against an attractive sea- and skyscape, plus a bundle of wool with two knitting needles – which I presume is in homage to Miss Marple.
How many pages until the first death: 150. It’s a long wait, but the reader isn’t frustrated by the delay. You can sense this death coming quite a long way off.
Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.
Memorable characters: Really disappointing on this front.
Christie the Poison expert: Not much here either. There is some mention of the Indian practice of “wives driving their husbands insane by datura poisoning” in the Indian courts, but that’s it. Datura is a form of Deadly Nightshade.
Class/social issues of the time: Once again we have to think of the “time” as being sometime in the 1940s rather than 1976. But there are very few issues of note in this book anyway. There’s the usual sense of xenophobia, with a number of characters repeating the thought that Leonie, the Swiss nanny, was a bit stupid because she was a foreigner; that distrust is also repeated with Mrs Fane’s scorn that her son Robert had married a Roman Catholic.
There’s also the old gardener who deplores change: “Changes all the time. People takes a house nowadays and lives in it ten or twelve years and then off they goes. Restless. What’s the good of that?” And there’s also the common theme of total distrust of anything to do with mental illness, and the sneaking suspicion that it could be inherited.
And I do have to draw your attention to the unfortunate use of the N word in a conversation with Galbraith, the old estate agent, who remembered Major Halliday. I think there was a big difference in the word’s acceptability between the 40s and 70s, so maybe it was odd that it wasn’t amended by the editors.
Classic denouement: No – instead it’s one of those occasions when the murderer reveals themselves by their own activity, attempting to kill another person, which in this particular case is thwarted by a rather comic intervention by Miss Marple.
Happy ending? Yes – in that Gwenda and Giles get to live happy ever after in their chosen home; and Miss Marple is left to carry on carrying on, undeterred by age or infirmity.
Did the story ring true? Most of the plot feels believable. The only thing I find extraordinary is that Gwenda returned unwittingly to the scene of the crime and wanted to buy it for her home.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not bad and it’s not great. An entertaining enough read, but it’s a shame the identity of the murderer is so obvious. 7/10
Thanks for reading my blog of Sleeping Murder, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was Christie’s last novel to be published, but the Agatha Christie Challenge continues with a posthumous book of short stories, Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. These had never been published in the UK before, so I’m looking forward to reading them – possibly for the first time! 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!
If you were given The Color Purple in a game of charades, you’d have your work cut out describing the genre. “It’s a book. And a film. And a musical. And it’s going to be a film musical…” Alice Walker’s 1982 novel sure inspired many other creative talents to spread the story of sisters Celie and Nettie, and their vastly different lives. It’s a story of hardship, tragedy, and abuse, yet also of self-discovery, triumph over adversity and pure joy. No wonder it’s been such an inspiration and has such a firm place in our cultural toolbox.
I’m sure you know the story, but just in case… set in the early years of the 20th century, Celie, abused by her father, has already borne two children to him, whom he instantly takes away from her. Nettie, her younger, prettier sister is inseparable from Celie. When Celie is married off to the brutal “Mister”, Nettie escapes the clutches of her father and tries to join them, but terrified of Mister she runs away, and Celie never hears from her again. Celie lives a life of drudgery and abuse until she meets the beautiful and charismatic singer Shug Avery, who has a string of partners and husbands, including on-off affairs with Mister; and the two fall in love. As the years go by, Celie grows sufficiently in confidence to abandon Mister and move in with Shug and her latest chap – but she still doesn’t find the love she craves. Fortunately, there is a happy ending, although you’re never quite sure it’s on the cards, but at the end of the show, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the 2013 production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which was intense, intimate, pared down and genuinely awesome. Tinuke Craig’s production for the Leicester Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, which has taken three long Covid-interrupted years to reach the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, is a much more expansive experience, with a lush sounding band in the orchestra pit, big set designs, and a fuller ensemble.
I know comparisons are odious and you shouldn’t do them on a theatre review. But I’m only human. There are plusses and minuses to this bigger, brasher vision for the show. On the positive side, the whole thing looks tremendous. In the big group numbers, Mark Smith’s choreography is snappy and slinky, with the whole cast covering the stage with dynamic, exciting movement. There’s no greater example of this than in the opening church service scene, which brilliantly brings to life one of those huge, outrageous deep south worship events, where everyone is animated and totally committed to following their passion. Ian Oakley’s band fills the auditorium with sumptuous orchestrations way more than their seven-strong number might suggest. Alex Lowde’s set dominates proceedings and suggests individual locations like the church, or the shops, or the patio at Mister’s ranch, whilst also providing a background for projections of crop fields, or that significant, symbolic, color purple. Whilst not in itself particularly attractive, it’s very functional and helpful for the story to unfold.
However, there is a minus side. Somehow, somewhere, in all this brash sense of theatre that hits you from all angles, so much of the pathos and tragedy of the piece falls by the wayside. The menace, that should be extreme from the likes of Mister and Pa, is lost. Take Mister’s whip, for example, that never leaves his side. That should crack and terrorise Celie, but instead it just flops onto the stage with a dull thud – frankly, that’s not going to scare anyone. Or, when Sofia is beaten up and flung in jail, that should break the audience’s heart at the sight of this strong independent woman brought to her knees by her foes; but, to be honest, Sofia looked to me like she was suffering from no more than a heavy hangover. The savagery that is at the heart of the show is simply presented as too discreet, too polite, too remote; it needs to be much more in-your-face.
The show is at its best when it presents us the story with simplicity and clarity, such as the pivotal moment when Celie finally stands up to Mister, to the whoops and applause of the audience. But there were a few scenes where it wasn’t that easy to follow what was going on. This was not helped by a very mushy sound amplification. It wasn’t that the band was too loud for the voices, but that the sound we heard had insufficient clarity. At times it was like we had gone back to the days of Mono rather than Stereo. To be fair, this problem was hugely improved in the second act – so I guess this might be attributable to first night getting-in glitches. But there were a few other irritating aspects, like the downstage right prop table being visible to half the audience at the beginning of Act Two, and many of the costumes being in dire need of a good ironing. Minor points, I accept, but they accumulate.
The show very much succeeds or fails on the strength of the performer who plays Celie, and we’re onto a winner with the amazing Me’sha Bryan. We saw her online in Romantics Anonymous during the lockdowns and she was impressive then – but there’s no doubt she’s a star in the making. I know it’s a cliché to say she has the voice of an angel, but – actually – if you heard an angel sing, it would sound like Ms Bryan. I particularly liked how she subtly aged during the course of the show, from being a very young girl in the opening scenes to quite a mature lady at the end – simple, effective, convincing. My only criticism would be – and I think this would be a directorial choice rather than in the acting – the younger Celie is so used to tragedy and cruelty that, simply to survive, she takes everything so much in her stride, hiding her sadness from the real world, womaning up and getting on with life. The trouble is, by concealing her emotional state from the audience, it’s harder for us to tap into it and feel the tragedy of her existence. Nevertheless, she puts on a great performance and it’s worth coming to see the show for her alone.
Aaliyah Zhané is also extremely good as Nettie; she also has a beautiful singing voice, and her duets with Ms Bryan are perfect. I enjoyed Ahmed Hamad’s Harpo, bringing a little of the decency and humour out of the role; although (call me a prude if you like) I felt the “sexual chemistry” between him and Anelisa Lamola’s Sofia went a little over the top. The ensemble worked together extremely well – for me, both Karen Mavundukure as Doris and swing Alex Okoampa stood out.
A game of two halves, then. The dramatic tension and emotional heartstrings after the interval increased hugely to create a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the show; it’s just that some of the journey getting there was a little bumpy. But it’s still a fine spectacle and you’ll be talking about Me’sha Bryan for days!
Who would have known that when we saw the comedy musical duo Hot Gay Time Machine as a guest onMr Thing at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2018 that one half of that noble act, Toby Marlow, was on the cusp of striking the theatrical big time with his new fledgling show, Six, co-written with Lucy Moss. I’m well aware that I’m very late to this party, as Six has become a worldwide hit but this was my first time seeing it. It was also my first ever visit to the Belgrade Theatre Coventry, a partly grand, partly municipal building; and I hope it won’t be my last.
You’ll already be aware, gentle reader, that Six is a vehicle for those wives of Henry VIII to get their own back. If all you know is Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, you’ve got a big history lesson coming. But this isn’t a po-faced trawl through the textbooks, this is a bright, brash, empowering musical that brings the six women to life, gives them character and humour, plus a little petty jealousy which doesn’t seem unreasonable. Within the framework of an 80 minute, fringe-style show, Marlow and Moss have created one iconic song for each wife to express their personality, their story and their link with the Main Man.
These songs, by the way, are all pretty darn good – very catchy, very tuneful, and reasonably memorable even on just the one hearing. In addition, there are a few more songs for all the cast to join in together. Of course, Six has already acquired itself a massive cult following, so there are always plenty of connoisseurs of the show in the audience, joining in and feeling the vibe. At the end of the day, a musical always relies on its music, and this one has no problems in that department.
But more than simply giving each queen a voice, the show questions our relationship with these six characters, and how it has been moulded over the decades – indeed centuries. We band them together as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, (I blame Keith Michell – showing my age) but they have little in common apart from the fact that they all had the pleasure or otherwise of marrying the king. They were from different backgrounds, different countries, different beliefs; but history has suppressed them so that they only have one facet – whereabouts they come in the list of Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.
The show is set in the here and now, on a stage in your local theatre, performed to you and the rest of your audience members. There’s no pretence for it to be anything else, and it sets up a direct relationship between us and the cast. They’re all brilliant too – the six performers act as a superb ensemble whilst still maintaining their characters’ individual personalities. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Chloe Hart as Catherine of Aragon and Jennifer Caldwell as Anne Boleyn, but everyone puts on a terrific show. Lavishly staged, with a great lighting design, superb live playing from the band – the Ladies in Waiting – extravagant costumes and a huge sense of fun, the show comes across as full of personality, attitude and positivity. No wonder it appeals primarily to a female audience; you can forget your Spice Girls, this is real girl power.