Call me an idiot, gentle reader – no, really, please do – but it never occurred to me that Evolution Pantomimes’ Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, written by Paul Hendy, would be identical (almost) to Jack and the Beanstalk at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, written by Paul Hendy. An intelligent person would have joined the dots, but, somehow, I didn’t. As a result I didn’t enjoy this year’s Sheffield panto – which is an annual event for us – as much as I normally do. But only because I’d seen most of it before. The same set, the same costumes, the same songs, the same jokes. Even the same bits that you thought were where the cast had made a bit of a mistake – not a bit of it, those little errors are scripted and practised to within an inch of their lives; discovering which, was a fascinating lesson in itself. So really I should just point you towards my review of the Northampton panto – click the link above – and that ought to be sufficient.
It’s not, of course. A different cast, and a different emphasis, make for a (slightly) different show. The Sheffield panto is blessed with the presence of Damian Williams as the Dame – the man who put the dame in Damian, in fact (or should that be the other way round) – returning for his 15th year as the star of the show, and he is just insanely funny. Because he is a big chap, his outlandish costumes and huge persona fill the stage more than ought to be decently possible. He owned the Elton John sequence brilliantly, and was also particularly fab in the weather-making machine, revoltingly rubbing his tummy up against the glass door. And he is the main reason we all keep coming back. Damian is Christmas!
Our Fairy Sugarsnap is Wendi Peters, in her third appearance at the Sheffield panto in six years, so she’s becoming almost as much of a recidivist as Mr Williams. She’s bright, confident and a complete natural in the world of pantomime, and does a great job. One of the few differences between this and the Northampton panto is the presence of Maxwell Thorpe as an additional character, Charlie Trot. Sheffield’s answer to Alfie Boe, he rose to stardom from busking in the streets to his appearance earlier this year on Britain’s Got Talent. Alas, I hadn’t heard of him before, and he does indeed have a terrific voice which is put to good use, especially in the singalong sequence Delilah, a pleasing paean to the Pantomime Cow. However, with the greatest respect, Mr Thorpe’s acting skills need developing so that he can hold his own amongst a strong cast, and not look out of place. Still, he is a local lad and the crowd loved him. The other main difference with this panto, by the way, is having two giants. Keeping it in the family – quite a nice trick.
One of the main problems of seeing the same production twice but with two completely different casts, is that it is virtually impossible not to compare individual performers, invidious though that may be. That said… I found Marc Pickering’s performance as the baddie, Luke Backinanger, forced and trying too hard in comparison with the effortless evil of Richard David-Caine in Northampton; although he is excellent in the boyband sequence at the end of the show, which generally worked much better in Sheffield. And, continuing the comparison, Waffle the Wonder Dog beats Izzy the Dog paws down.
Apart from that, there is still a great deal to enjoy in a tremendous show. All the classic trademark elements are there, James Harrison’s band is superb, the song selection is great, the ecological and redemption messages of the text work extremely well, and the Drone of Love continues to bring new technology to Dame Trot’s own version of Bumble. Oh, and how could I forget the giant pea? Absolutely brilliant.
An excellent panto, as always – I just wish I hadn’t already seen it elsewhere! That’s definitely a lesson for me to learn next year.
“So what’s this show about” asked Lord and Lady Prosecco en route to their annual Christmas shindig in Sheffield. “Not sure,” came my honest reply. “I think it might be Sheffield’s answer to Blood Brothers.” And, to be fair, I wasn’t that far off the mark. Both shows offer an insight into living in poor council housing, relocating to somewhere better, and surviving (or not) the Thatcher era, plus a not insubstantial dollop of melodrama, and some fabulous songs. But they’re rather surface similarities, and, deep down, it’s not really a helpful comparison.
Chris Bush loves to portray things in threes, doesn’t she? Only a few months ago we saw her brilliant Rock Paper Scissors where all three theatres within the Sheffield complex were used to tell the same story in the same real time but from three different locations/aspects. Her challenge in Standing at the Sky’s Edge is to tell three different stories over three different eras, but all of which take place in the same flat. Characters from the 60s to the 80s blend with others from the 90s and noughties and more characters from the past ten years. There’s a gorgeously staged scene where all three sets of characters eat a meal at the dining table, striding the decades, in blissful ignorance of each other. I bet Alan Ayckbourn is kicking himself for not having thought of that one.
There’s the young couple, Rose and Harry, starting out, the first residents of the flat, full of hope, ambition and positivity. He prides himself on being “the youngest foreman this city has ever seen” and is thrilled to be able to provide for both his wife and the child they soon hope to have. The 90s bring a family of refugees from Liberia, Grace, George and Joy, fleeing the terror of the Civil War. Unfamiliar with life in Sheffield, they have to learn the local accent, food and customs, not knowing whom to trust. And as the Estate starts to gentrify in the 2010s, a middle class Londoner, Poppy, relocates to the flat to start her life over again, following the breakdown of a relationship. We follow the first two families through their lives in the flat, until circumstances dictate that it’s time to leave. And we observe the progress made by the third resident until she comes to a life-changing moment in the here and now.
Every so often a show comes along that you can feel in your bones is Something Significant. Standing at the Sky’s Edge isn’t perfect, but Chris Bush, together with Richard Hawley’s music and lyrics, have structured such a heart-warming, thought-provoking, breath-taking piece of theatre that it stops you in your tracks. There’s no doubt that it’s an homage to Sheffield – specifically the Park Hill Estate which I’d never heard of but had to Google. It is an iconic address; a brutalist design influenced by Le Corbusier, that had slowly dilapidated over the years but is now revitalised and upmarket. However, if you’re not a Sheffield local, it doesn’t matter; you’ll still recognise that same sense of belonging that runs through this show like a stick of rock. It also doesn’t matter if you don’t get the local references. I’m not from Sheffield although I have visited the city on and off for the past forty years. Nevertheless, I confess I’d never heard of Henderson’s Relish! But the audience reaction to its mention implies that most Sheffield kids started eating it on their rusks. The opinion about the BBC that it stands for Bourgeoisie Bastards of Capitalism got a big round of applause; this is a text that is absolutely in tune with its audience.
Forget any similarities with Blood Brothers; if there is another contemporary musical with which this can be linked, it’s Come From Away – with its themes of displaced people in a new environment, relying on the kindness of strangers, emphasising all that’s good about human nature. The show takes us from 1960 to the present day, but of course the flat at the centre of the action doesn’t necessarily stop there. In forty years’ time there could be Sky’s Edge 2, with at least two new generations of residents with their tales to tell. If there’s one thing that this show tells us, it’s that, no matter what, life goes on.
When you enter the auditorium you’re greeted by Ben Stones’ delightfully expansive set, a corner edge of an apartment set in the sky (which houses John Rutledge’s excellent band) and looks down on the flat below. Suspended in the sky are the words I love you will U marry me, the famous graffiti that graced the Park Hill Estate for twenty years from 2001; they will give you a lump in your throat at the end of the show.
One of my pet hates in musicals is where a song doesn’t follow organically from the action that proceeds it and doesn’t move the story on; you should always come out of a musical theatre song in a different place from the one where you went into it, imho. Otherwise, the musical becomes all stop-start and the songs are just spacers separating one piece of action from another. Standing at the Sky’s Edge proves the exception to the rule. Remarkably, for the most part, the songs are extremely stand-alone and come across more like an ancient Greek Chorus observing and commenting on the action, rather than emerging naturally from the plot.
Yet they work brilliantly. Fortunately, this cast is blessed with possibly the best collection of singing voices you’ve ever witnessed in a show, so each number has a massive impact. Even on first hearing, there are a few songs here that will become absolute musical theatre standards in the years to come. The glorious I’m Looking for Someone to Find Me, the emotional For Your Lover Give Some Time, and the stirring Open Up Your Door are already timeless classics. But all the music is truly beautiful.
And the performances are sublime, from the main roles right down to the supporting cast. The ever-reliable Alex Young is brilliant as the middle class Poppy, coping with the culture shock of bringing Ottolenghi Aubergine to South Yorkshire; Rachael Wooding and Robert Lonsdale are terrific as the 1960s Rose and Harry, bursting with vim and vigour until fortunes turn against them; Samuel Jordan is superb as the kind-hearted Jimmy (I saw him when he was a University of Northampton student!); Maimuna Memon sings sensationally as Poppy’s ex, Nikki; and, a real star of the future, Faith Omole is stunning as Joy, with the most extraordinary voice and a performance that will break your heart. But everyone works together brilliantly – this is show is the definition of ensemble – and there isn’t a weak link in sight.
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you about my slight reservations. First – from a production point of view – there are a couple of sequences where the sound balance between the band and the vocals was totally out of whack, and you couldn’t hear one word of what was being sung – most notably in the final song of Act One, There’s a Storm a-Coming. I also thought that the two deaths that take place in the show – no spoilers, I won’t say who – weren’t really necessary, and that, especially with the younger character, Chris Bush has created something deliberately tragic; it was almost Thomas Hardyesque in its fatalism. The same observational point could have been made without the characters dying. Perhaps, also, the show is 15 minutes too long, and some of the storylines could have progressed a little niftier. And we were also unconvinced by the plot resolution in the 2020 timeline; it’s a gloomy observation that a character who had developed so far forward would allow themselves to regress into a toxic relationship – and we just didn’t believe it of her.
All that said, there’s no doubt this is a landmark show, that absolutely puts Sheffield on the map and is fully deserving of its transfer to the National Theatre in the New Year. Congratulations to everyone on a piece of theatrical history!
It’s Panto Time again! Oh no it isn’t… oh for Heaven’s sake, grow up. The first of four pantos for us this season – and three of them are Jack and the Beanstalk. Typical isn’t it. Like the old joke about London buses, you wait ages for a Jack and the Beanstalk and then three turn up at once. The production that will be gracing the stage of the Royal and Derngate in Northampton for the festive season stars Keala Settle as Fairy Sugarsnap. That’s right! The Greatest Showman’s Keala Settle. Trouble is, I’ve never seen The Greatest Showman, and I confess I’d never heard of Ms Settle until hearing about this show. But does that matter? Oh no it doesn’t!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jack and the Beanstalk is a traditional family panto produced by that expert Maison de Panto, Evolution Pantomimes. Evolution’s fingerprints are all over this show, from having the band in one of the boxes, opening with the boys and girls of the chorus singing Bring Me Sunshine, having the dame as a self-confessed fat bloke in a dress, and including the bench scene with something scary looming behind whilst our heroes sing Always Look On the Bright Side of Life. And why not? This is a winning formula, guaranteed to make you laugh and smile. And let’s face it, Evolution produce better pantos than Qdos. There, I’ve said it.
All the required elements are there in abundance. It’s a lovely, colourful, dynamic set; terrific costumes; a three piece band under Uncle Garry Jerry that punches way above its height, and – for the most part – an extremely funny script. The songs are superbly chosen and integrated into the story, and with an appropriate musical theatre leaning considering the presence of Ms Settle. I spotted musical references to Hair, Hamilton and Les Miserables; it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more. The story ends with a lovely spot of redemption, reminding us that there is always a time when the hatred has to stop – good lesson for the kids, that. Added to which, the plotline incorporates a relevant dig at climate change concerns, which is going to appeal to your more intelligent children; and there’s a cute doggy for everyone else. There are – perhaps – a couple of scenes that haven’t quite bedded in properly yet – I don’t think the dog training scene worked particularly well, for example; but to counterbalance that there is brilliant use of new technology with the Drone of Love, which is used to find Dame Trott’s future husband in the audience; and a projection screen that enhances a couple of the scenes – and which works especially well in the boyband finale, I’ll say no more.
Bob Golding returns as Dame Trott – he’s rapidly becoming a Northampton Town Fixture, if I’m not talking Cobblers; but this is the first time I’ve seen him, and he’s a delight. Self-assured and a barrel of laughs, he has great interaction with the audience and with the rest of the cast, and he’s given some brilliant costumes to play with – none funnier than his unexpected appearance as Sir Elton John. There’s also a fantastically funny scene where he is trapped inside the weather-making machine and becomes victim to the worst the weather can do. Obvious, but hilarious.
I really liked Cara Dudgeon as Jess, our young heroine – full of pluck and attack and a terrific voice; she was ably matched by Ben Thornton’s Billy, in whose gang we all wanted to be, and Alex Lodge’s Jack, an interesting characterisation of a reluctant hero who knows he has to climb the beanstalk to save the world but is too scared to do so. The Villager boys and girls are excellent, with some great song and dance routines – I particularly liked them when they were the henchman’s zombies.
And so to Keala Settle, who has taken on what must be a very alien role – the vegetable fairy in a pantomime – with tremendous gusto and embraced it fully. She has an amazing singing voice which is given plenty of opportunity to let rip, and she’s full of fun and vigour. It must feel bizarre for a Broadway star to rock the stage of the R&D as a fairy with an artichoke wand, but she does a terrific job.
However, stealing every scene is the brilliant Richard David-Caine as the baddie, Luke Backinanger – he announces his name and says “let that sink in” – yes, I got the joke. Camping it up something rotten, he delivers his punchlines with a wonderful blend of knowing devilry and faux-innocence. It’s not often that the stage lights up when the baddie comes on – but it sure does here. He had us absolutely in the palm of his hand.
Loads to love in this panto – it’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd January. You’d be a fool not to. Oh yes you would!
Our last comedy gig of the year, and another trip to the Charles Bradlaugh to see what the Comedy Crate had in store for us. Our host for the evening was the inimitable Ben Briggs, who sometimes had to work hard to get some response from the full but occasionally reticent crowd. Fortunately Mr B was on top form and came out with some cracking lines. Always a pleasure when he’s in charge.
Our first act, and the only one of the three whom we had seen before, was David Morgan, whose act is strongly based on his being gay and not being shy about it. We learned a lot about his new relationship and how he’d been in the London cast of Magic Mike – maybe literally, I’m not sure. Call me picky, but I’m never quite comfortable with an act who slags off your town before they’ve created a rapport; there are a whole host of things wrong with Northampton, but you need to earn a few stripes before taking the Mick out of us all. Lots of throwaway material, most of which lands; and a very lively and bubbly persona that certainly keeps us entertained.
Next up was Eric Rushton, whose persona couldn’t be more different from David Morgan’s. His style is that of the classic underachiever and misfit who nevertheless thinks he’s cool – resulting in some very funny, laconic, self-deprecating humour that works extremely well. When he invites you to follow him on Facebook, he stands there and waits for you to get your phone out there and then, because too many people say they will and then they don’t. I loved the idea of playing Mental Health Strip Poker, and he put a fresh slant on many traditional stand-up subjects. Extremely funny, and I’d definitely like to see him again.
Our headliner act was Mick Ferry, a larger than life chap with a faux-aggressive style; you can tell he’s been about a bit and seen it all so that nothing could shock him – but he could probably shock you! Great material, very relatable, and provided the best laughs of the night. No one sleeps when he’s on.
Congratulations to the ever-expanding Comedy Crate for another year of fearless line-ups and multiple venues. Looking forward to another great new year!
In which Christie gives us six short stories featuring Miss Marple, plus two other supernatural stories, none of which had been published in the UK before in book form. Miss Marple’s Final Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1979, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
This first story was originally published in the October 1954 issue of Woman’s Journal, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories, in 1961. The way it was written and published is an interesting curiosity; it was written to raise money for the Westminster Abbey restoration appeal, and was sold to the highest bidder, the aforementioned Woman’s Journal, who never revealed how much they paid – but it is believed to be a substantial amount.
Vicar’s wife Diana Harmon comes upon a dying man in the local church; he must have been there all night clutching a wad to a bullet wound in his chest. When he sees Diana, he just says the one word “sanctuary”. Despite the efforts of the doctor, the man dies shortly afterwards. But Diana is suspicious of the man’s relatives, Mr and Mrs Eccles, who want to know all about his death and what happened to the man’s coat. That’s when Diana calls upon the assistance of her godmother, Miss Jane Marple, and together, with of course the help of the police, they solve the mystery of the man’s death.
This excellent little story, that sets up a neat and intriguing plot, is simply but effectively told, although the solution to it is perhaps a little hurried. We’ve met Diana and Julian Harmon of Chipping Cleghorn, together with their pompously named cat, Tiglath Pileser, before – they feature in A Murder is Announced which had been published a few years earlier in 1950. Inspector Craddock, who leads the police detection in that book, also appears in Sanctuary.
Christie explains that Diana had been called “Bunch at an early age for somewhat obvious reasons and the name had stuck to her ever since.” I’m not sure if one would instantly work out those obvious reasons, but I went back to A Murder is Announced and found this helpful description: “Mrs Harmon, the roundness of whose form and face had early led to the soubriquet of “Bunch” being substituted for her baptismal name of Diana…” Still not quite sure why plumpness would suggest “Bunch”, but there you go.
There are some easy clues to working out who the criminal(s) is/are, but the reason why the dying man also says “Julian” is quite satisfying, and I like the fact that Miss Marple enjoyed the “pre-war” quality of her face towel.
One slightly odd matter: the dead man had on him half a return railway ticket, but the police constable says he must have come to Chipping Cleghorn by bus. I think we can forgive this discrepancy as it was all written for charity!
A really enjoyable start to the book.
Miss Marple exercises her brain in this charming little story, originally published in issue 643 in July 1944 of the Stand Magazine in the UK under the name The Case of the Buried Treasure, and in This Week magazine on 2nd November 1941 in the US. Young Charmian and Edward were hoping to use their expected inheritance from their Uncle Mathew in order to set up home together. However, he’s hidden his riches somewhere and they don’t know how to go about finding them!
Not only does this Miss Marple short story NOT contain a murder, it doesn’t even contain a crime! Instead Miss M and her two young friends go on a treasure hunt trying to find how and where Mathew has left them an inheritance. The fact that there is no crime makes the whole story stand out and feel very clean and wholesome! There’s also a very clever solution to the mystery.
This story shows Miss Marple at her kindest and most indulgent. She can’t wait to help the nice young couple solve their conundrum – and you get the feeling it’s partly because she wants them to find the inheritance but also she’s really interested in revealing the solution, almost from an academic point of view. She makes the rather damning observation, “the depravity of human nature is unbelievable”; maybe it’s Charmian and Edward’s youthful spirit and delight that attracts her to them so much. Interestingly, if this was originally published in 1941, it was probably written around ten years after Miss Marple first appeared in her books, and a couple of years before her second appearance, in The Body in the Library.
There are quite a few interesting references to follow up. Edward says “it made me think of an Arsene Lupin story wither there was something hidden in a man’s glass eye.” Lupin, of course, was a gentleman thief in the fiction of French writer Maurice Leblanc; he first appeared in print in The Arrest of Arsene Lupin in 1905. The story that includes the glass eye is The Crystal Stopper, first published in 1912.
Miss Marple refers to the recipes of Mrs Beaton in her rather unusual route to get to the truth. ““First catch your hare – “ as Mrs Beaton says in her cookery book – a wonderful book but terribly expensive, most of the recipes begin, “Take a quart of cream and dozen eggs.”” Mrs Isabella Beaton – really Beeton – was probably the first published expert about cooking (and indeed, all domestic science), most notably in her Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.
There are a couple of old-fashioned sayings in this story. Describing something as gammon and spinach, to mean nonsense, was a phrase I’d never come across before. Actually I had… as I knew the old rhyme A Frog he Would a-Wooing go, but I didn’t realise the phrase was in the refrain. I believe the Spinach part was originally Spinnage, as in spinning a tale. But it’s an odd one really.
There’s also the phrase All My Eye and Betty Martin, which I didn’t know until I came across it in another Christie book, One Two Buckle My Shoe. This was published just a year before Strange Jest first appeared in print, so it must have been a phrase that was firmly embedded in Christie’s mind at the time!
There are a couple of financial sums mentioned in this story, but the important one is the big individual item to be inherited, which was estimated to have a value of $25,000, which today would be equivalent to about £450,000. Charmian and Edward are going to be VERY rich.
Very entertaining, undemanding, pure little story.
Tape Measure Murder
This jaunty little tale was originally published in the February 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine, under the title The Case of the Retired Jeweller, and in the November 16th 1941 edition of This Week magazine in the US. Dressmaker Miss Politt calls on Mrs Spenlow to make alterations to a dress but doesn’t answer the door – because she’s dead. Did Mr Spenlow kill his wife to inherit her money?
One wonders why anyone might commit murder in St Mary Mead, when it is inevitable that Miss Marple will get involved and guide the police to the correct deduction. In many ways, plot-wise this is a classic early Christie story in miniature, with dropped clues and red herring suspects; but she revels in an unusually massive dose of fun in the invigoratingly dramatic and humorous way in which she tells the tale. Consider, for example, how she announces that Mrs Spenlow has died: ““Nonsense,” said Miss Hartnell firmly. “She can’t have gone out. I’d have had met her. I’ll just take a look through the windows and see if I can find any signs of life” […] Miss Hartnell, it is true, saw no signs of life. On the contrary, she saw, through the window, Mrs Spenlow lying on the hearthrug – dead.”
The story enjoys reuniting us with the usual St Mary Mead suspects as well as Miss Marple – Chief Constable Colonel Melchett, Inspector Slack, Constable Palk and Miss Hartnell had all appeared in The Body in the Library. Miss Hartnell, Slack and Melchett were also in The Murder at the Vicarage, and Melchett also crops up again in The Thirteen Problems. The continuity of characters is almost comforting as you read what they get up to next.
Christie tells us that some people call Miss Marple “vinegar-tongued” – but that’s not a description of her that I recognise. Yes, of course, she is comfortable telling difficult truths when the time is right, but there’s not normally any vinegar to her style. There’s certainly none in this short story. Melchett describes Ted Gerard as an “Oxford Grouper”; the Oxford Group was a Christian organisation founded in 1921, which became very popular in the 1930s and led to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. And this is another tale in which Christie refers to Dr Crippen, hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910.
It’s a very entertaining tale written with a lightness of touch and an almost indecent sense of fun and mischief, stylistically quite unlike most of Christie’s other work.
The Case of the Caretaker
This odd little short story was originally published in the January 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the July 5, 1942 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune in the US. A gloomy, bed-ridden Miss Marple is slowly recovering from flu, so Dr Haydock gives her a puzzle to solve – a murder mystery that he has written out – apparently a work of fiction, but Miss Marple soon sees through that. She also works out the identity of the murderer. Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?
Structurally, this is something of a curiosity, as most of the story comprises of Dr Haydock’s narrative, simply topped and tailed by an introduction and Miss Marple’s conclusions. It’s a new way to express a familiar plot, and it works fine, with Miss Marple solving the mystery on the sidelines, relying only on what she’s told by someone else. The only problem with the story is that the solution to Dr Haydock’s puzzle is rather easy to guess.
One of the characters is a Miss Harmon – might she be a relative of Bunch, who appeared earlier in this collection in the story Sanctuary, as well as in A Murder is Announced? Both stories are set within the Miss Marple landscape. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with strophanthin discovered in a syringe – this was used by native African tribes used as an arrow poison, and today is often used in euthanasia.
Christie described Haydock’s challenge to Miss Marple to solve the puzzle as a “Parthian shot” – originally a hit-and-run tactic employed by the Parthian cavalry, but nicely subsumed into the English language because of its similarity to the phrase “parting shot”, which is basically what is meant here. And Harry Laxton is described as a scapegrace – I’ve heard of scapegoat, of course, but never a scapegrace. They’re not the same thing; according to my OED, a scapegrace is a young scamp or rascal, someone who escapes the grace of God. So now you know.
Guessable, but enjoyable.
The Case of the Perfect Maid
This clever and imaginative story was originally published in the April 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine under the title The Perfect Maid, and in the September 13, 1942 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune in the US. Gladys Holmes is dismissed from her position as maid to Misses Lavinia and Emily Skinner and replaced with an apparently perfect maid, Mary Higgins, who comes with excellent references. But is Mary Higgins as perfect as she seems?
This is a terrific little tale that draws you in and leaves you truly surprised by Miss Marple’s extraordinary but totally believable solution. She tricks the criminal – even before a crime has been committed – into revealing themselves with undeniable evidence. All the St Mary Mead crew are there – Haydock, Hartnell, Miss Wetherby, Inspector Slack, and even Mrs Price-Ridley gets a mention. Some new characters are introduced, living at Old Hall, a big house that has been converted into flats, including an Indian judge who insists on having a “chota hazri” – basically an early morning cup of tea and a biscuit.
The story is beautifully written too, with a lightness of touch and deftly humorous turns of phrase. Gladys is a described as “bouncing, self-opinionated” which gives us a perfect insight into what she’s like. Miss Emily’s hairstyle is “untidily wound around her head and erupting into curls, the whole thing looking like a bird’s nest of which no self-respecting bird could be proud.”
Short, sweet, and great fun.
Miss Marple Tells a Story
This unusual but rather clever little tale was originally published in the 25th May 1935 issue of Home Journal, under the title Behind Closed Doors, although it had been previously broadcast on the BBC in May 1934, read by Christie herself, as a special commission for a radio series called Short Story. It was originally published in the US in the collection The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Marple solves a classic “locked room” murder mystery, and saves a husband from going to the gallows.
The story is unusual in that it is narrated by Miss Marple rather than Christie telling us her story. This was written quite early in Miss Marple’s career, so to speak, coming after The Murder in the Vicarage and The Thirteen Problems, but before the majority of the Marple novels. As narrated by herself, here Miss Marple comes across as a little more dithering and self-effacing than one is used to; easily distracted and wittering on about unimportant things. It’s not how I see Miss Marple; it’s almost like a development stage for Christie to get her characterisation right.
Other aspects that don’t fit in with the usual Marple landscape include the fact that she has yet another maid at this time – Gwen, and that there is a town twenty miles away called Barnchester; I believe this is the only story featuring that fictional location. However, her nephew Raymond and his wife Joan, to whom she tells her story, are consistent characters in all the Marple stories. And she does admit to preferring the art of Alma-Tadema and Leighton, as she had already explained in A Murder is Announced.
There’s one theme which fits in with many other Christie stories and novels, which is that a murderer is a murderer because of “insanity in the family”.
Curious, but entertaining.
The Dressmaker’s Doll
This is the first of two stories that were not published in my original copy of Miss Marple’s Final Cases but were added to a later edition. It was first published in the December 1958 issue of Woman’s Journal, and in the US in the June 1959 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story had previously appeared in Canada in the 25 October 1958 issue of the Star Weekly magazine.
A doll appears at a Dressmaker’s workshop. No one seems to remember how it got there, or if someone gave it to someone as a gift. The floppy doll has a habit of moving from room to room, but no one admits moving it. In the end, the people who work there become so anxious about the doll that they throw it out of a window. But will it be gone forever?
Not a crime story, more an attempt at a ghost story or supernatural tale. It’s rather repetitive, heavy-handed in its construction and conversations, and with a somewhat disappointing ending. Clearly Christie was trying to turn her hand to the supernatural – but really, this story doesn’t work well at all. However, according to John Curran in Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, she described The Dressmaker’s Doll as “a very favourite story.”
In a Glass Darkly
This spooky little tale was originally published in the US, in the 28 July 1934 issue of Collier’s Weekly. It hadn’t been published in the UK until it appeared in this volume. However, its first public appearance was when Agatha Christie read the story on BBC Radio on 6th April 1934. Sadly, no recording of the broadcast has survived.
When changing for dinner the narrator sees a vision in a mirror behind him of a man with a scar strangling a beautiful girl; of course, when he turns around, the vision is gone and all that is was there was a wardrobe. But then he goes down for dinner and sees that the beautiful girl is in fact his best friend’s sister, and that the man with the scar is her fiancé. Has he seen her future in a dream? Can he stop the man from killing her some time in the future?
This is another supernatural tale, considerably better, I would say, than The Dressmaker’s Doll, but still lacking a truly decent twist that would make it a good short story. But it nicely plays with the psychology of relationships, and is decently written.
And that concludes all eight stories in Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. On the whole, they’re very high quality – especially if you ignore the two supernatural stories at the end! Fully worthy of an 8/10, rating I would say. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box. Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is another collection of eight short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!
You’ve heard the phrase, gentle reader, The Show Must Go On; well, the Chichester Festival Theatre took that to new heights last week during their turn to show the Theatre Royal Bath touring production of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. The big selling point for this show is that real-life mother and daughter Caroline and Rose Quentin are playing fictional mother and daughter Mrs Kitty and Miss Vivie Warren. The family likeness and the real-life connection between the two would give extra frisson to Shaw’s sparring exchanges between Kitty and Vivie.
Great in theory; however, sadly, last week Caroline Quentin was indisposed with some horrible lurgy. Good news: she had an understudy. Bad news: the understudy was also off sick. Tuesday’s performance was cancelled, but the cavalry arrived in the form of Charlie Ives, who is the understudy for the part of Vivie, who boldly saw the show through, book unobtrusively in hand, enabling us all to enjoy a great night at the theatre. Yes, we had to suspend disbelief that this young actor was old enough to be Vivie’s mother, but theatre’s all about pretence, isn’t it? And I really commend the Chichester Theatre for giving patrons the option of swapping their seats for a performance later in the week or having a credit or refund. That’s going beyond the call of duty. There’s never a guarantee that any one performer will be able to appear at any one performance. So Bravo to Chichester, and a huge Bravo to Charlie Ives. More of the performances later….
“Shaw, who understood everything save the human heart.” That was the title of the essay I had to write in my first year at university, trying to work out where Shaw’s strengths and weaknesses lie. It is odd how Shaw pussyfoots around the subject of sex; he’s perfectly comfortable with second-hand allusions to the extra-marital how’s your father between Kitty and the Reverend Samuel, because we don’t have to see it. But when it comes to Frank and Vivie, together in front of our noses, he goes all coy and childlike, with Frank’s most explicit suggestion being that they cuddle up together under a pile of leaves. No wonder Vivie’s unimpressed.
The ”human heart” element apart, this remains a thoroughly engrossing and ever relevant play, with Mrs Warren’s actual profession never being explicitly mentioned – but clearly, she’s a madam of a brothel with branches all over Europe and an excellent businesswoman to boot; making enough money to drag herself out of childhood poverty to pay for a fine education for her daughter. That fine education has created a Thoroughly Modern Vivie, who admires her mother for her tenacity and resilience, and can even tolerate knowledge of the profession itself. What she can’t take is that her mother is still active in the business. Rather like Shaw’s treatment of the past liaison between Kitty and the Rev, it’s ok whilst it’s in the past, but not ok when it’s in the present.
There’s an enormously telling speech from the horrendous Sir George Crofts where he reveals to Vivie, “do you remember your Crofts scholarship at Newnham? Well, that was founded by my brother the M.P. He gets his 22 per cent out of a factory with 600 girls in it, and not one of them getting wages enough to live on. How d’ye suppose they manage when they have no family to fall back on? Ask your mother.” Everything has its price, and there’s a price to pay for everything. Prostitution is/was an ugly word, ugly enough to cause the censor to prohibit the public performance of the play for over thirty years. But it pays the bills. And today there are tens of thousands of people in proper jobs but not earning enough to live on. Plus ça change…
David Woodhead has designed an effective but relatively simple set (great for touring) with the first three acts set firmly in the outdoors, with Vivie’s house and the Reverend Samuel’s church both almost comically tiny and bijou, to be replaced in the final act by the very workaday and unglamorous offices where Vivie works. Anthony Banks directs the play with laudable straightforwardness – Shaw’s words do all the talking in this piece.
Sadly, as you will realise, I can’t comment on Caroline Quentin’s performance, but Rose Quentin (who looks remarkably like Caroline did in Men Behaving Badly), is terrific as Vivie, direct, determined, but occasionally letting us see the vulnerability she strives to conceal. Simon Shepherd is excellent as the slimy Crofts, oozing his way around the stage in the hope of attracting Vivie, and the ever-reliable Matthew Cottle is also great as the Reverend who is full of fallibility. I thought Stephen Rahman-Hughes struggled a little to find the role of Praed; it’s not an easy role because Shaw doesn’t give you much to go on. But Peter Losasso is superb as the likeable but wet Frank, a waster and a parasite but such pleasant company.
But in our performance the night belonged to Charlie Ives. Taking on the role of Kitty with such short notice, she threw herself into the play with gusto, giving us all the character’s brassy confidence, mother-from-hell-type bossiness, but still with a great sense of humour and a definite twinkle in her eye; 80% of the time you totally forgot that she wasn’t Caroline Quentin and was reading the script and she definitely held the evening together, rather than her supporting cast holding it together for her – if that make sense. I admit, we were tempted to cancel seeing the show, and taking the theatre’s generous offer of a credit. But I am so glad we didn’t. A very good production of a still very relevant play, it continues its tour through to April 2023.