Review – Girl from the North Country, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 26th January 2023

Girl from the North CountryI’d heard great things about Girl from the North Country, and it got a slew of five star reviews when it first hit the West End back in 2017. It’s been touring the UK and Ireland since last summer, so I thought it would be a good plan to check it out and see what all the fuss is about. I’m not a massive Bob Dylan fan, but I know what I like and I like what I know (most of the time). Not a ringing endorsement but I was looking forward to hearing a few familiar tunes. As it turned out, of the twenty songs listed in the programme, I only knew three – I Want You, Like a Rolling Stone, and Hurricane. However, you know that old saying, if you’re going to do a cover version, make it totally different from the original so that there’s a point of doing  it. As far as I can make out, all the songs in this show are very different in sound and style from Dylan’s originals. So that’s a plus in my book.

CastThe place: Duluth, Minnesota; the time: 1934. Nick Laine is the proprietor of an old guesthouse, but it’s not making money and the banks are getting restless. His wife, Elizabeth, suffers from dementia; their son Gene is alcoholic; and their nineteen-year-old daughter Marianne is five months pregnant with no sign of the father. Nick’s having an affair with one of the guesthouse residents, Mrs Neilsen; also living there are the once wealthy Burke family, now down-at-heels due to their failed business, and their son has learning disabilities. Marianne is being romantically pursued by Mr Perry, a good fifty years her senior; there’d be no real relationship if they got married but it would make her “respectable”. One night, sheltering from a storm, arrive the Reverend Marlowe, who makes his money out of selling bibles, and Joe Scott, an ex-boxer with nowhere to go.

Mrs B and the DoctorSounds like a cross between a soap opera and the set-up of an Agatha Christie murder mystery! And that’s one of the stranger things about this production; much of it reminded me of something else. It seemed to me to struggle to find its own identity. In an attempt to forge links between Bob Dylan’s back catalogue and to create a credible dramatic storyline to deal with these various characters, it kind of falls between two stools. The music imposes itself on the action rather than growing organically from the plot; in this regard it reminded me of the recent hit Standing at the Sky’s Edge, but the relationship between the music and the story was much more balanced in that show. The structure of the play element starts with a side character, Dr Walker, introducing us to the people and their environment, and ends with him winding up events, telling us when and how they died, and how their fortunes fared. In that regard, it reminded me of the lawyer Alfieri in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, who bookends proceedings with an introduction and a wrap-up.

SingersI thought it was also revealing that the list of Dylan songs in the programme (always helpful to see in a musical) also tells us the year each song came out, and which album they’re on, presumably so that people can then follow up on the original recordings should they wish at their own leisure. Bizarrely, what the programme doesn’t tell us, is which characters/performers sing which songs. This sends a signal that the presence of the songs and their heritage is more important than the actual show. It’s almost as though it’s subtly disrespecting itself.

Elizabeth and Mr BThe overall result is a very melancholic show; there’s very little light and shade with the portrayal of the characters, all of whom are having various degrees of a rotten time, and none of whom get what they want from life. I’m not saying I want a happy ending – that wouldn’t be realistic; but perhaps neither is it realistic that not one of the characters has anything positive or pleasing happen to them.

MarianneHowever, where the show does succeed is with the musical performances – and, indeed, the performances in general. There are some tremendously beautiful arrangements in that score, courtesy of great work by Musical Supervisor Simon Hale. The music is all played live on stage, in part by the cast as a whole, but mainly by four musicians who are mostly restricted to one corner of the stage, out of sight, out of mind. Musically, it is a superbly talented cast who harmonise fantastically and come out with some amazing solo singing. Standout performances for me were from Justina Kehinde as the robustly individual Marianne, Joshua C Jackson as the majestically voiced Joe Scott, and Frances McNamee as the dementia-suffering Elizabeth, finely revealing how someone with dementia may be incapable of controlling their own behaviour but they were a strong and powerful person in their past. At our performance, the part of Mrs Neilsen was played by understudy Nichola MacEvilly and her singing voice is sensational.

Duquesne WhistleOther highlights include the wonderful staging of the song Duquesne Whistle, with Ross Carswell’s Elias dressed in other-worldly white, and Gregor Milne’s plaintive performance of I Want You as Gene loses his childhood sweetheart to another, less hopeless, man. And it’s always a delight to see one of my favourite actors, Teddy Kempner, as the awful Mr Perry, constantly proffering a measly bouquet that gets more manky day by day. Among the ensemble, Daniel Reid-Walters stood out as being a powerhouse of dance and enthusiasm.

Reverend and EliasThere’s no question that this is a generally enjoyable show, whose musical element satisfies, soothes and intrigues. It doesn’t leap out at you as being a show to love; instead, it’s a very reserved experience, not wishing to draw attention to itself. Quality, yes; but for me there is something lacking. Joe ScottThe tour continues to Bristol, Birmingham, Belfast, Aberdeen, Norwich, Leicester and Wimbledon.

P. S. I haven’t a clue why the show is called Girl from the North Country. Yes, there is a song of that name, that features briefly in the show; but I don’t get its overall significance. Mind you, the story itself is somewhat nebulous so no other title leaps out of your imagination; so it might as well be called Girl from the North Country as anything else.

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories (1997)

While the Light LastsNine short stories, never previously published in book form in the UK, including two featuring Hercule Poirot. Additionally, the volume contains accompanying notes by Christie scholar and detective story writer, Tony Medawar. While the Light Lasts was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in August 1997. Eight of the stories had been published in the US collection The Harlequin Tea Set, in April 1997. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The House of Dreams

dreamsThis spooky little story was originally published in issue 74 of the Sovereign Magazine in January 1926. John Segrave dreams of a beautiful house, and the next day he meets Allegra Kerr with whom he falls head over heels in love. But she vows that she will never marry, and refuses to tell him why. However, recurrent dreams of the beautiful house reveal a secret that explains her silence…

This is a revised version of a story that Christie wrote when she was very young, The Dream of Beauty, which was never published, but which she considered to be the first thing that she had written that had any merit. It’s an introduction to one of the themes that would often play a major part in Christie’s works, that of the anxiety that insanity can be inherited and run riot within a family.

Reading the story with the benefit of hindsight, you can see Christie’s feel for the supernatural, which also frequently cropped up in some of her earlier works. However, you can also see that it is the product of an immature voice, trying too hard to make her points, lacking subtlety throughout. It’s littered with over-the-top, flowery language and often feels repetitious.

For example, her description of Beethoven’s Pathétique is just too much: “that expression of a grief that is infinite, a sorrow that is endless and vast as the ages, but in which from end to end breathes the sprit that will not accept defeat. In the solemnity of undying woe, it moves with the rhythm of the conqueror to its final doom.” And there are paragraphs upon paragraphs describing the same elements of the dream which definitely required some editing.

It is interesting to see how acceptable language has changed over the 100 odd years since this was written; Christie describes one of Allegra’s aunts as a “hopeless imbecile”, which today might just about be acceptable as an informal description of a mate who always gets things wrong, but here was used to describe someone with mental illness.

Allegra quotes: “ill luck thou canst not bring where ill luck has its home”; “the words used by Sieglinde in the Walküre when Sigmund offers to leave the house.” Not saying this is incorrect, but if you Google the quotation, the only reference is its appearance in this story.

Interesting to read the early Christie finding her feet – but not a lot more than that.

The Actress

stageThis entertaining little story was originally published in issue 218 of The Novel Magazine in May 1923 under the title of A Trap for the Unwary. Ne’er-do-well Jake Levitt recognises that the new acting sensation, Olga Stormer, is in fact none other than little Nancy Taylor whom he knew in the past and has an eminently blackmailable history. He sends her a letter intimating that he has recognised her and inviting her to respond. But her response was perhaps a little more than he bargained for…

This is a very enjoyable, quick and punchy story with some entertaining characterisations and nice turns of phrase. Maybe I have read too many Christies, but I did find the twist of the tale very easy to predict – but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the tale.

Olga Stormer is said to be playing the part of Cora in The Avenging Angel. The only Avenging Angel I’ve come across is a Western movie made in 1995, so I’m presuming this play comes straight from Christie’s imagination.

A well-written, tightly constructed little tale; great fun.

The Edge

EdgeThis devilishly entertaining little tale was originally published in issue 374 of Pearson’s Magazine in February 1927. Villager Clare Halliwell’s heart is broken when her childhood sweetheart Gerald marries the younger, prettier Vivien, but still hopes one day he might realise the error of his ways. When lunching in a nearby town she sees in the register that Vivien has stayed overnight with another man – and not for the first time. Armed with that knowledge, should she confront them and use the information to her own advantage, or should she stay silent?

This is a cracking little read and, in my opinion, one of Christie’s best short stories. It hides not one, but two stings in its tale with its rather creepy surprise ending which I certainly did not see coming! But, psychologically, it all makes sense. Even so, there is a sad reliance on a massive coincidence – that Clare should be lunching at the same hotel that Vivien had stayed in – but I guess coincidences do sometimes happen.

Set in the fictional village of Daymer’s End, and in the town of Skippington, forty miles away, there is some suggestion that they are not too far from Bournemouth. The other “real” place mentioned in the story is Algiers, where Gerald and Vivien propose to live. At the time, it would have been a rather glamorous French outpost; I don’t think many people would have it on their bucket list today, but maybe I’m wrong.

I discovered a new word: “Many of the wiseacres shook their heads and wondered how it would end.” Wiseacres? Never heard that word before. Oxford Dictionaries define it: “a person with an affectation of wisdom or knowledge, regarded with scorn or irritation by others; a know-all.” You live and learn.

In his notes, Tony Medawar makes much of the fact that this story was written shortly before Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance, and makes some allusions between that and the plot of this story. He may have a point, he may not; personally, I’m not convinced.

Terrifically entertaining story! And with a clever play on words with the title too, which you only appreciate right at the end.

Christmas Adventure

Christmas on Carnaby StreetThis amusing short story was originally published in issue 1611 of The Sketch Magazine on 11 December 1923. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as the title story in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot is a guest at a Christmas House Party, but on Christmas morning receives a note warning him not to eat any of the plum pudding. Is his life in danger, or is it a prank? And how did the Christmas Cracker jewel get inside the pudding?

It’s curious, but I enjoyed Christmas Adventure more than The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Being shorter and sparer, it quickly gets to the heart of the mystery without losing any of its fun and spirit. I understand why Christie thought to expand the story – because it’s a good one! But I prefer it in its pithier, briefer form.

There are some good characterisations – the group of young people who attempt to tease Poirot by staging a mock murder come across as a decent bunch, and the lovelorn Evelyn is a very credible character. I also liked how Emily Endicott longed for the “Good Old Days” when people enjoyed listened to their elders and betters!

Poor old Poirot was missing his pal Captain Hastings, who emigrated to Argentina at the end of The Murder on the Links He needn’t have worried – Hastings would return for many UK return trips over the years, and they will still have many more adventures together!

The Lonely God

Lonely GodThis rather charming and simple romance was originally published in issue 333 of the Royal Magazine in July 1926, under Christie’s original title, The Little Lonely God. Every day, Frank Oliver visits the British Museum, entranced by a minor figure of a nondescript God. He sees a “lonely lady” who also appears to be affected by the statue. Eventually he plucks up courage to speak to her – but will anything develop from their shared interest in this lonely God?

There’s not very much to say about this story. It’s pure romantic fiction, quite elegant and entertaining, and it’s easy to identify with its two lonely protagonists. Tony Medawar sees in this story a reflection of Christie’s interest in archaeology, but this was published a couple of years before she went on her first trip to Baghdad, so I’m not sure I would link the two that much.

I did like Frank’s encouragement to the lady that they should have buns for tea at an ABC Shop. “I know you must love buns! […] There is something […] infinitely comforting about a bun!”

Undemanding, but thoroughly pleasant!

Manx Gold

Isle of ManI’m taking this description directly from Wikipedia: “Manx Gold was one of the most unusual commissions undertaken by Christie in her career […] The idea of a treasure hunting story was prompted by a wish on the part of Manx politicians to promote tourism to the Isle of Man. Christie wrote a short story which was serialised in the Daily Dispatch in five instalments on 23, 24, 26, 27 and 28 May 1930. The story gave the clues to the location of four snuffboxes hidden on the island, each of which contained a voucher for £100 – a considerable sum in 1930. Island residents were barred from taking part. To further promote the hunt, the story was then published in a promotional booklet entitled June in Douglas which was distributed at guesthouses and other tourist spots. Although a quarter of a million copies of this booklet were printed, only one is known to have survived.” And indeed, £100 in 1930 would be the equivalent of more than £4,500.

If you haven’t already read this story, give yourself an hour, log on to your Map App and Google, and see if you can beat Fenella and Juan as they race around the Isle of Man solving the clues. I was pretty happy with myself for getting clues 1 and 2 half right – but I expect few people would solve the last two. If you’re a Brit and of a certain age, like myself, you might remember the clues on Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1 TV programme; these are even more hard to crack. Also: I couldn’t find Kirkhill on any map.

But it remains a lively and thoroughly entertaining read; Medawar likens Juan and Fenella to the young heroes of Christie’s earlier books, and indeed to Tommy and Tuppence and I think they bear a fair resemblance. He also takes us painstakingly through the clue solutions, which is extremely helpful, and gives us all the background to the Manx tourism scheme. I found this a delightful, and indeed, unique tale!

Within a Wall

wallThis ambiguous romantic tale with a bit of a twist was originally published in issue 324 of the Royal Magazine in October 1925. Gifted painter Alan Everard is married to the dynamic Isobel Loring, but his friend Jane Howarth is also in love with him – which manifests itself in a strange manner.

Romantic, yes, but also strangely unpleasant. Isobel’s abuse of Jane’s generosity almost feels like a prostitution of her friendship. And, as Medawar points out in his notes, the ending is very ambiguous. There are all sorts of interpretations you could adopt in your own personal understanding of the story.

Christie gives one of the characters the unusual surname of Lemprière – she must have enjoyed the force of that name because she would also give it to Joyce Lemprière of The Thirteen Problems fame. That Joyce was also a painter; and would eventually marry Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West.

There’s an uncomfortable moment of antisemitism with the mention of “a small Jew with cunning eyes”, but otherwise the narration of this story is beautifully done – it’s an interesting voice that doesn’t sound like Christie’s own normal narrative style. And the £100 that Jane gives to support Alan and Isobel’s daughter Winnie would be the equivalent of £4250 today. Generous indeed.

The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest

ChestThis entertaining little story was first published in issue 493 of the Strand Magazine in January 1932. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as The Mystery of the Spanish Chest in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot’s attention is drawn to a case where a Major Rich has been accused of murdering a Mr Clayton, whose bloody body was discovered in an antique chest. Mrs Clayton is a friend of socialite Lady Chatterton who encourages Poirot to speak to her about the case, because she insists Rich is innocent. Poirot can’t resist but employ his little grey cells to get to the heart of the matter.

I’ve lifted that precis of the story from my blogpost about The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, because the two stories are identical in plot, just a couple of characters have undergone a change of name. In the Spanish Chest, Hastings becomes Miss Lemon – more appropriate for the passing of the years, and Inspector Japp becomes Inspector Miller. Apart from that, there is precious little to choose between the two accounts, merely a lengthening and a greater attention to detail in the investigation. But several of the conversations in the first tale are reproduced faithfully in the updated tale.

Hastings does, however, take the opportunity to describe Poirot’s vanity, both in behaviour and appearance, in terrific detail. “The talents that I possess – I would salute them in another, As it happens, in my own particular line, there is no one to touch me. C’est dommage! As it is, I admit freely and without hypocrisy that I am a great man. I have the order, the method and the psychology in an unusual degree. I am, in fact, Hercule Poirot! Why should I turn read and stammer and mutter into my chin that really I am very stupid? It would not be true.”

“To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy. It was hard, at these moments, to take the little man seriously.”

Just like The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, this is an excellent read.

While the Light Lasts

enoch ardenThis was originally published in issue 229 of The Novel Magazine in April 1924; the plot of this short story is similar to that of her novel Giant’s Bread, published in 1930 under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. George and Deirdre Crozier visit a tobacco plantation in Rhodesia, where George works, and where Deirdre’s first husband Tim, who died in the war, wanted to live. But when Deirdre suffers a spot of heatstroke, she is taken back to the main house by a Mr Arden, who has his own secret to share…

In comparison with the other stories, this is really little more than a fragment, but nevertheless it tells an age-old story, and it tells it rather well. The character of Enoch Arden appears in Tennyson’s poem of the same name, but also would appear in Christie’s Taken at the Flood in 1948. Moody, tragic and with a sense of guilt, this is an interesting and memorable little piece of writing.

And that concludes all nine stories in While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. A couple of rather lightweight stories are balanced with some meaty good reads, so on balance I would give this selection 7/10. Poirot and Greenshore FollyIf 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 a short novel written in 1954 to raise money for a church – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly. This was published in 2014, but Christie would rework the story and create Dead Man’s Folly from it. 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!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st January 2023

Burlesque ShowIt was a warm and grand welcome back to the Ministry of Burlesque’s Burlesque Show, first seen at the Royal and Derngate a staggering twelve years ago and a regular highlight of the annual entertainment calendar ever since – at least, until Covid had other ideas. This was the first Burlesque show at the R&D post-pandemic, although I was surprised to see it has been five years since our last attendance. Is it still the must-see production to warm our winter cockles?

Sadly, not quite. Whilst it still offers an engaging and outrageous host, and a very wide-ranging selection of variety artistes, there was something rather (dare I say it) amateur about the whole proceedings on Saturday night. Instead of a well-oiled, slick programme of entertainment, it had the air of a rather ramshackle, under-rehearsed presentation, even though all the usual elements were there that have in the past been so enjoyable.

Eva von SchnippischOur hostess (she described herself as compère, but surely she should be the commère), was Eva von Schnippisch, one of the alter egos of comic actor Stephanie Ward, and she’s a loud, brash presence who encourages us all to be as naughty as we like. Straight outta 1930s Berlin, she’s great fun and kept the whole thing moving pretty well, with a few Cabaret-style songs and some excellent interaction with the audience.

lena-maeIn fact, the first half of the first half of the show (so to speak) was absolutely superb. We started off with Lena Lenman, burlesque star, doing a saucy strip routine which culminated in her being soaked in a bottle of – I want to say champagne – but I think it was cava; and most of the first few rows got their fair share of sparking spray as well. A great start.

Pete FirmanThen it was the turn of Pete Firman, the fantastic magician, who nearly always turns up in these Burlesque shows, and nearly always does precisely the same tricks, which definitely always baffle and amaze me. Each time I see Mr Firman I’m determined to keep my eye on his hands at all times, so I can see how he does that trademark trick of his – the incredible restoration of a burnt twenty pound note (in this case a fiver) from a bunch of flames into its former glory in a sealed envelope, sealed within another envelope and secreted in a zipped wallet. And every time I fail – I allow myself to get diverted by his nuts (if you’ve seen the act, you’ll understand). He’s a great asset to the Burlesque Show and always a delight to see him.

Peggy SuedNext up it was another act who has graced this stage many a time – and many a time has hosted the show – Peggy Sued, a comic creation by the superb Abigail Collins. What she can’t do with a set of hula-hoops isn’t worth doing, but she’s also a brilliant comedy acrobat with a great cocktail-glass-on-the-head trick. Massive fun and hugely entertaining.

Mr BSo far, so good – but this is where it started to unravel. Our next act was Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer. I’d never come across him before, and his is a clever act; with all the appearance of a Penny Farthing cyclist, he combines hip hop and rap with awfully decent cultured English upper class tones – resulting in what he calls chaphop. A terrific idea – but for some reason, on that night, in that audience, it just didn’t work. I think it was necessary to have a crystal clear sound system so that you could appreciate the nuance of every line of this songs, but the clever lyrics were often hard to make out. Unfortunately, the act just sucked the energy out of us all – and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both extremely bored (and rather irritated) by his performance. Certainly the crowd reaction to him was muted in comparison with the other acts. To be fair, I really enjoyed his version of David Bowie’s Starman, with which he finished his second act slot. As for the rest – well, it wasn’t for me.

Fancy ChanceWith energy drained, I was longing for the interval but first we had burlesque artiste Fancy Chance, who’s been here on and off over the years. In the first half she gave us her Alice – yes the Lewis Carroll one – which ends with a semi-strip performance. Quirky, for sure; but I couldn’t quite work out how appropriate it was to have a sexualised burlesque performance by someone representing Alice, who’s meant to be seven years old, and with the knowledge that Lewis Carroll was sexually attracted to her. It was half clever and half yucky. Her second act performance was as the (late) Artist formerly known as Prince, which we’d seen her do before, but this time it felt very straggly and uninspired. Fortunately Lena Lenman returned at the end of the show to finish off with a classic feather burlesque routine which was well worth the waiting for.

At curtain call time, Eva von Schnippisch brought the cast on to the stage for final bows. Lena Lenman (cheers); Mr B (slightly fewer cheers); Pete Firmin (“Oh no, he’s gone to catch his train”); Abi Collins (“Oh no, she’s gone too”); Fancy Chance (“Is Fancy Chance still here or has she gone too? Gone too”)… there’s no surer way of letting an audience know that the cast don’t really care about them than going missing at curtain call. Of course, if they do have to rush for trains that’s perfectly reasonable – but don’t call them out on stage just to discover they’ve gone AWOL. Just do what they do with a stand-up comedy night and say, “your acts tonight were A, B, and C, I’ve been D – goodnight!” This was a perfect example of how under-rehearsed and ramshackle the whole presentation was. They really need to smarten up that aspect of the show.

P. S. Huge kudos to front-row Mark, who was teased by virtually every member of the cast and who, by the sound of it, stayed stony-faced throughout; handsome but morose. That was until Abi Collins cajoled him up on stage to throw hoops at her, when he proved himself to be an excellent sport. He was virtually an additional member of the cast!

3-stars

Three-sy Does It!

Review – The Lavender Hill Mob, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 14th January 2022

Lavender Hill MobEight of us descended on the Chichester Festival Theatre on Saturday night for the last night of Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of the famous Ealing Comedy The Lavender Hill Mob – or at least, the last night of this leg of its UK tour, which started last October and continues for a few more weeks before they all finally get to put their feet up.  And it was with a great sense of curiosity that I attended, as I have read some extremely positive comments about the show, and also one comment (from someone whose opinion I respect) saying it was one of the worst shows they’ve ever seen. It must be Marmite!

Gold!But first, allow me to offer you a little history lesson, gentle reader – do you remember the original film? It was released in 1951, starred Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, and featured a very young Audrey Hepburn; and the British Film Institute ranked it the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. That’s some reputation! Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen it until a few weeks ago when, knowing that we were going to be seeing this new stage version, thought we ought to take a look at the film so that we would be able to make those invidious comparisons between the two that you should never do. And, indeed, it is a charming and very well-made comedy caper which we both enjoyed – although I’d never put it anywhere near the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. Not considering Genevieve is only listed 86th and Shirley Valentine doesn’t appear at all.

Aamira ChallengerIn case you don’t know – and I’m sure you do – Henry Holland is an unambitious London bank clerk, in charge of supervising the Gold Bullion deliveries from the Royal Mint. Enlisting the help of a slightly less-than-honest manufacturer of tourist trash – specifically miniature Eiffel Towers – and a couple of other petty crooks, he hatches a plan to steal the bullion bars and, using his accomplice’s workshop, convert them into Golden Eiffel Towers. But, of course, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and the main emphasis of the film (maybe slightly less of the play) is on the comedy ensuing from their failed attempts to get away with it.

Death by baguetteSo is it Marmite? Well, yes. Four of us really enjoyed it, the other four (including myself) found it a bit meh. On the plus side, I was very impressed how faithfully it reflected the original film, taking us to Rio whence Holland has fled to escape the Metropolitan Police hunting for the Brains (?) behind the big gold bullion heist. Whereas the film then flashes back to London and shows the main story, the play stays in Rio, where Holland coaxes all the ex-pats at his Club to enact the story of the crime – and they don’t need much coaxing. The film has the marvellous twist that the person to whom Holland is recounting his story throughout the film is in fact the police officer come to arrest him – whereas that twist is missing from the stage production, resulting in rather a lame ending.

Ooh la laThat said, there are plenty of laugh out loud moments – my favourite was the delightful “Calais to Dover” scene where our anti-heroes get thwarted at every attempt to follow the bunch of schoolgirls who have unknowingly purchased six genuine Golden Eiffel Towers. There’s a lot of physical comedy, but some of it seems just a trifle half-hearted. Francis O’Connor has constructed an excellent set that frames many of the elements of English country life that you might well miss if you were an ex-pat in Rio, but which adapt very nicely into the story. I loved how the two palm trees at the back of the stage became the Eiffel Tower – very innovative!

Justin EdwardsAnd there’s a very charming ensemble feel to the whole staging; one of our party thought the show felt very Am Dram, which is true but is also probably exactly what the creative team intend. These Rio Brits are not actors, they’re retired knights of the realm or ambassadors, or well-to-do Ladies; and they take on the roles of the crooks with a nice blend of their own characterisations and those of the people they are portraying. Quite clever really; but it is that sense of amateurism that basically overshadows the whole production, leaving you feeling a bit dissatisfied.

Miles JuppIs it basically a vehicle for Miles Jupp to present himself as a rather posh, well-educated, upper middle class sort of chappie, without having to do that much acting? Probably. That said, he’s very entertaining as Holland; there are also nice performances from Justin Edwards, Tessa Churchard and John Dougall as locals-cum-Londoners. Tim Sutton brings a fine touch of magic (literally) to the role of Sammy, and Aamira Challenger’s Fernanda lends a hint of what feels like Genuine Rio to the production. EiffelI felt rather sorry for Guy Burgess in the unrewarding role of Farrow the police officer, constantly having to be the onlooker and rarely taking part in proceedings.

However, I came away from the show feeling that it was all a little underwhelming, although I’m not sure that they could have done anything better with the material at their disposal. Nevertheless, there was a lot to enjoy and a lot of laughs – if not quite as many as one might have expected. It’s certainly not bad – and it’s certainly not great. The tour continues to Cambridge, Guildford, Glasgow, Bath and Truro.

Production photos by Hugo Glendinning

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Comedy Crate at the Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 12th January 2023

CC Jan 23First comedy gig of the year and a sell out night at the Bradlaugh for what turned out to be an excellent night of laughter courtesy of the Comedy Crate. Our MC for the evening was Stephen Carlin, who nicely uses his slightly dour Scottish persona to good advantage, and is excellent at riffing off the crowd with whatever fascinating nuggets they reveal. There was plenty of mileage to be gained from Darren, the audience’s self-appointed Witchfinder General, Chris, Stephen Carlinwho wouldn’t take his coat off, and the wrongly-accused-of-being-a-fascist, Holly. He had some great material about climate change and drugtaking, and took great control of the evening.

Our first act, and new to us, was Jacob Hawley, a likeable London lad with an attacking, slightly in-your-face style, living with the joy of having a lockdown baby because creating her was the only thing he and his partner could do in Jacob Hawley2020. The crowd gave him lots to work with, including having some better lines than himself, which he was happy to acknowledge! He has a great sequence about being asked to do a most unconventional gig at a Drive-In Movie, and does a brilliant impersonation of a lapdog. Very entertaining – he will be returning to the Bradlaugh for a longer gig in April.

Next up was Kate Martin, whom we had relatively recently seen at the same venue as she was a contestant Kate Martin(if that’s the right word) in the Northampton heat of The British Comedian of the Year. She is so sure-footed on stage, and you sense that nothing could faze her. As before, the majority of her material is based on either her height or her sexuality, and on both counts she’s not backward in coming forward. Nicely self-deprecating, which helps her to set up a brilliant rapport with the audience, and, despite having heard some of the material only a few months ago, we loved every minute.

Nathan CatonOur headline act, and someone we’ve enjoyed seeing a few times, was Nathan Caton. He opened with an inspired callback to one of Stephen Carlin’s lines, which set us up for a great set. Recently married, he had some brilliant material about the costs of a wedding, faux-resentment about his mother re-marrying, and I loved his observations about now living in a middle-class area and wearing middle-class clothes. He is so quick-witted, and he nails every comic observation so that they hit home. All killers and no fillers, as someone once said. A great way to end the night.

There’s another gig at the Bradlaugh on February 9th – you should come!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories (1991)

Problem at Pollensa BayIn which Christie gives us eight short stories, comprising two with Hercule Poirot, two with Parker Pyne, two with Harley Quin and two other tales. None of the stories had been published in book form in the UK before. Problem at Pollensa Bay was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in November 1991, 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!

Problem at Pollensa Bay

Pollensa BayThis modest little story was originally published in the November 1935 issue of the Strand Magazine, and on 5th September 1936 in the US in Liberty Magazine, under the title Siren Business. Mr Parker Pyne is holidaying in Majorca when he is asked by English woman tourist for his help in stopping her son marrying someone she feels is unsuitable for him.

Six of the stories in Parker Pyne Investigates involve Mr P trying to avoid working with people whilst he’s on holiday, and Problem at Pollensa Bay fits perfectly into that category. Published a couple of years after the other Parker Pyne stories, we don’t learn very much extra about the unwilling detective, although he’s very forthright telling Mrs Chester to stop meddling in her son’s affairs.

The plot is very straightforward and simple, and totally compatible with Parker Pyne’s modus operandi in his previous stories. The situation is set up entertainingly and simply, Parker Pyne’s solution to the problem arrives discreetly and totally under our radar, and when you realise the garden path down which you’ve been lead, you realise how superbly Christie has misled you.

Pollensa is introduced as a very arty environment; you can feel it in her description: “Girls strolled about in trousers with brightly coloured handkerchiefs tied round the upper halves of their bodies. Young men in berets with rather long hair held forth in “Mac’s Bar” on such subjects as plastic values and abstraction in art.” All very self-indulgent, but rather charmingly so. It makes a nice juxtaposition with the conversations between the Chesters and Parker Pyne, which are a model of middle class politeness: “they talked about flowers and the growing of them, of the lamentable state of the English pound and of how expensive France had become, and of the difficulty of getting good afternoon tea.”

There is also a beautiful moment between the over-reacting Mrs Chester and the more laid back Parker Pyne: ““You must do something! You must do something! My boy’s life will be ruined.” Mr Parker Pyne was getting a little tired of Basil Chester’s life being ruined.”

However, the story is definitely damaged by a whopping coincidence that makes Christie’s life easy but makes us doubt the veracity of her yarn, when the gushing Nina Wycherley, who just happens to be staying at a nearby hotel and who just happens to know both Mrs Chester and Mr Pyne separately, just happens to meet those two people in a teashop. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

There’s also the unfortunate use of the D word, which was one of Christie’s favourite derogatory terms in the 1930s and 1940s: “the creature’s a dago. She’s impossible.”

Christie gives us loads of Majorcan locations to accentuate the realism of the story – not only Pollensa, but Palma, Soller, Alcudia, and the always hideously expensive (it was then, and is still now) Formentor. The hotels Pino D’Oro and Mariposa don’t exist, sadly, but were probably based on the Illa D’Or and the Mar i Cel, which did (and still do.)

Nothing too mentally strenuous, and no crime; but pleasant enough.

The Second Gong

J Arthur Rank GongPoirot goes out full throttle in this entertaining little story, originally published in the UK in issue 499 of the Strand Magazine in July 1932, and in  Ladies Home Journal in June 1932 in the US. It was also the basis for the novella Dead Man’s Mirror, first published in the UK as part of the 1935 collection Murder in the Mews. Poirot has been invited to meet Hubert Lytcham Roche, but when he arrives it appears that his host has taken his own life, a bullet through the head that also shattered a mirror in the room. The room is fully locked, and Inspector Reeves is sure it is suicide. But Poirot suspects foul play…

This is a pacy, no-nonsense full-on detective story in miniature, that whizzes along with an imaginative plot and ends with a classic denouement of the type that Christie fans love. There are many similarities with Dead Man’s Mirror, but Christie developed the characters more into a fuller story. But the basic structure of both stories, including the manner of the murder and the identity of the murder, is pretty much the same. It also ends with the same twist, which is here given away rather by the title The Second Gong – a little bit of Christie magic, an unexpected event that brings a smile to your face but is perfectly credible.

“I’m modern, you know, M. Poirot. I don’t indulge in sob stuff” avers Diana Cleves, the adopted daughter of the dead man. That’s an interesting character point for this decidedly tough cookie who knows her own mind and is most definitely a product of her own times.

Mrs Lytcham Roche informs Poirot that the terms of her husband’s will allows her an annual income of £3000. From today’s perspective that’s the equivalent of £150,000. I mean, she’d be comfortable, but it’s not enough to murder someone – is it?

An easy, exciting read that gets your imagination going and gives you a nice surprise ending.

Yellow Iris

Yellow IrisThis slightly odd little tale was originally published in issue 559 of the Strand Magazine in July 1937, and in the 10 October 1937 edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper under the title “The Case of the Yellow Iris” in the US. Christie would later reuse the basis of this story to expand into the full-length novel, Sparkling Cyanide. Poirot is phoned late at night with the request to attend a table at a restaurant where yellow irises are the floral centrepiece. The mysterious caller believes she is in great danger. But from what? And can Poirot get there in time to prevent foul play?

I found this story slightly odd because it sets up an apparent crime, which is then revealed to have been averted but which makes another previous non-suspicious death now a murder (perhaps) but the murderer wanders off scot-free and then the story continues for four more pages of indifferently interesting resolution. Structurally, I didn’t care for this story at all.

I was also uncertain of the timeline of the story; Poirot is telephoned at 11:30pm but then goes out to a restaurant where the Maître D’ enquires whether he would like a table for dinner – and clearly the restaurant is full of people mid-meal, mid-dance, mid-enjoying themselves. Either in those days people ate very late in London (not really a British way of doing things) or Christie didn’t really think that through.

Nevertheless, there are some entertaining moments. It starts with a pure piece of Poirotism, with his appreciation of the electric bar heater because of its symmetry rather than a “shapeless and haphazard” coal fire. We discover, through an unusual moment of embarrassment for Poirot, that he dyes his hair: ““Señora, I would not date to ask you to dance with me. I am too much of the antique.” Lola Valdez said: “Ah, it ees nonsense that  you talk there! You are steel young. Your hair, eet is still black.” Poirot winced slightly.”” And I really enjoyed this understatement: ““at once… it’s life or death…” […] There was a pause – a queer kind of gasp – the line went dead. Hercule Poirot hung up. His face was puzzled. He murmured between his teeth: “There is something here very curious.””

Poirot meets up with an old friend, Tony Chappell, at the restaurant. Christie writes their initial encounter as if Chappell were someone who might have featured regularly in her books; but I believe this is his only appearance in her works. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with the use of potassium cyanide as the weapon of choice. And the song with which the cabaret singer stuns the restaurant into silence appears to be an invention of Christie’s – which is a shame really, sounds like it could be rather good!

Not the best Poirot story, if truth be told.

The Harlequin Tea Set

Harlequin Tea SetIt is not thought that this fascinating, mystic short story ever received magazine publication in either the UK or US. In book form, its first appearance was in Macmillan’s Winter’s Crimes No 3, published in 1971; and in the US it was first published in a short story collection – The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories – by Putnams in April 1997. This collection contained the short stories that would be published in the UK in 1997 in the collection While the Light Lasts.

Mr Satterthwaite’s car breaks down en route to stay with an old friend and his family, and whilst he is waiting for the mechanic to fix the problem, he goes in to the Harlequin Café that he noticed as he was driving by. He wondered if his old friend Mr Quin might turn up – and sure enough, he does. Satterthwaite tells Quin about the friend whom he is going to stay with – and invites Quin to come too, but Quin refuses, trusting Satterthwaite entirely to do something “for someone else […] I have the utmost faith in you.” When he reaches his destination, he becomes engrossed in his friend’s family and their comings and goings. But somehow, he knows something is going to happen – and then something that Quin said before they parted finally makes sense. And Mr Satterthwaite definitely does do the right thing.

This is a curious short story without question. As a whole, you come away from it feeling very satisfied, your mystic curiosity piqued by the extraordinary symbiotic relationship between Quin and Satterthwaite. More than ever, you’re sure that Quin is Satterthwaite’s alter ego, a side of himself that he’s never allowed to express, a side that wants to come out and enable himself to do extraordinary things. At the same time, you also feel that quite a lot of this story is mere filler. Satterthwaite dithers and fusses and achieves nothing over several pages and I confess he was trying my patience severely during the first half of this tale; although I did enjoy the amusing car-based introduction to the story.

Satterthwaite refers to the last time that he saw Quin – “a very tragic occasion” he calls it. The last story in the volume The Mysterious Mr Quin is Harlequin’s Lane; however, the last to have been originally published in magazine format is The Man from the Sea. However, I do believe it is Harlequin’s Lane to which they refer. The lack of earlier magazine publication makes it more difficult to date the writing of this story. An awareness that smoking gives you cancer and a reference to smoking “pot” might suggest that this was written in the 1960s. Characters have lived in but returned from Kenya because, “well you know what happened in Kenya”. This could refer to the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s or the declaration of independence in 1963.

A key clue to the solution of this particular story is “daltonism”, which was a term used for colour-blindness named after John Dalton (1766 – 1844) who was one of the first researchers into the condition. The story takes place in the villages of Doverton Kingsbourne and Kingsbourne Ducis, both of which sound tremendous but neither of which is real.

Unsettling, intriguing – but occasionally dithery and slow.

The Regatta Mystery

RegattaThis simple and perhaps predictable story originally featured Hercule Poirot, but was rewritten by Christie to feature Parker Pyne instead, originally appearing in May 3, 1936 edition of the Hartford Courant in the US, and in the Strand Magazine, in the UK, later that year. Hatton Garden diamond trader Isaac Pointz entertains a group of people in Dartmouth, and all goes well until 15 year old schoolgirl Eve tells him she has discovered the perfect way to steal his priceless jewel, the Morning Star. Everyone humours the child with her imaginings, until she fumbles the diamond whilst handling it – and no one can find where it landed!

Probably the most entertaining aspect of this story is the speed and ease with which Mr Parker Pyne solves the mystery. No detailed investigation or visit to the scene of the crime for him; merely listening and running the facts of the case through his computer of a brain is all it takes. At the same time that’s a weakness, because there’s no sense of investigation, no first hand interrogation of the suspects, which is what makes most crime thrillers enjoyable. The story is all build up and no denouement.

It all takes place in Dartmouth, at the Royal George Hotel – in real life, the Royal Castle Hotel, where Christie was but one of several notable guests. Very little more needs to be said about this story – except that, perhaps, the Morning Star diamond, that Pointz carries around with him, which is valued at £30,000 in 1936, would today have an equivalent value of around £1.5 million. No wonder it was desirable to unscrupulous souls.

The Love Detectives

private detectiveThis underwhelming little tale was first published in issue 236 of The Story-Teller magazine in the UK in December 1926 under the title of At the Crossroads. This was the first of a series of six stories in consecutive issues of the magazine titled The Magic of Mr. Quin. The remaining five would later form part of the book, The Mysterious Mr. Quin in 1930. The plot has similarities to 1930 Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage. The story was first published in the US in Flynn’s Weekly in October 1926, with the title The Love Detectives.

Whilst visiting his friend Colonel Melrose, who also happens to be the local Chief Constable, Mr Satterthwaite and he are called out to the scene of a murder – and, on the way, their car has a minor altercation with another vehicle driven, apparently, by none other than Mr Harley Quin. Quin accompanies them to the scene of the crime and encourages Satterthwaite to play an active role in the investigation. Sir James has been killed, and both his wife and her friend confess to the crime, in an attempt to protect the other. But they are both wrong as to the method with which Sir James was dispatched. So it must have been his valet or his butler?

The story starts well and even with the hugely coincidental meeting between Satterthwaite and Quin, which is always par for the course, the set up of the crime is intriguing and enjoyable. But the investigation comes across as slight and hurried, and I didn’t really enjoy it much.

There are several Colonel Melroses in Agatha Christie’s works, and they are all Chief Constables, but it’s generally felt that they’re not all the same person. I rather liked the characterisation of this Colonel Melrose; a no-nonsense, sporty type. When Lady Dwighton and Delangua are comforting each other, Christie writes of him: “Colonel Melrose cleared his throat. He was a man who disliked emotion and had a horror of anything approaching a “scene”.” He’s rather the opposite of Satterthwaite, who’s at home with emotions, and regarded the fact that the murdered man was killed by a statue of Venus as “food for poetic meditation.”

Satterthwaite introduces Quin to Melrose by reminding the latter of the Derek Capel case. This is the first story in The Mysterious Mr Quin collection – The Coming of Mr Quin.

Not a lot to entertain the reader here, I don’t think.

Next to a Dog

happy_cartoon_dogThis very slight tale was first published in The Grand Magazine in the UK in September 1929 and in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Widow Joyce Lambert seeks a job as a governess but won’t give up her dog, Terry, who was given to her by her late husband. Her only option appears to be to marry the rich but horrible Arthur Halliday. She agrees to do so, provided she can bring Terry with her. But Terry has an accident and is badly injured…

A very nondescript story, to be honest. It shows the unconditional love between loyal dog and loyal owner, but that’s about it!

Magnolia Blossom

Magnolia blossomThis interesting little story was first published in the UK in issue 329 of the Royal Magazine in March 1926. The story first appeared in book form in the UK in the 1982 collection The Agatha Christie Hour, to tie in with a dramatisation of the story in the television series of the same name. It was first published in the US, like Next to a Dog, in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Vincent Easton is hoping that Theodora Darrell will leave her husband and run away with him to a new life in the Transvaal. She keeps her appointment to meet him at Victoria Station, and all seems to be going Vincent’s way until she sees a newspaper headline reporting that her husband’s business was facing a financial crisis – sudden crash – serious revelations – and she tells Vincent she must go back to him. But what happens when she does return to her husband?

This story is a little more promising than Next to a Dog, but not much. It sets up a very interesting dilemma for Theodora, and you think it’s just going to be a woman having to choose between her husband and her lover. But it goes in a darker direction than that; betrayal can work in more than one direction. But the resolution of the story is sadly underdeveloped and hits you with all the force of a damp lettuce.

And that concludes all eight stories in Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. In comparison with the previous volume, Miss Marple’s Final Cases, despite a couple of stronger stories, they’re overall rather disappointing and slight, and I cannot give this selection more than a 6/10 rating. 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 the final collection of nine short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. The stories were originally published in magazine format between 1923 and 1932. 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!

Review – The Cher Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th January 2023

Cher ShowThe Cher Show has been touring the UK since April last year, but this was our first opportunity to catch up with it during its already lengthy run. In the US, it originally opened in Chicago, and then Broadway, back in 2018. But in the UK it went directly into a tour, rather than opening in the West End first. Was that the theatre equivalent of a film being released straight to DVD? I hoped not.

3 ChersI needn’t have worried! The Cher Show is a truly spectacular production, with amazing costumes, sensational lighting, a brilliant band, staggering choreography (given it’s directed by Arlene Phillips and choreographed by Oti Mabuse, you’d expect nothing less), excellent set and superb performances. And it has a fascinating story to tell; that of one Cherilyn Sarkisian, born in 1946 to singer/actress Georgia Holt and her first husband, John Sarkisian. Young Cherilyn always had stars in her eyes, and Georgia always encouraged her to realise her dreams. And, if nothing else, the show reveals how Cher grew in maturity and wisdom over the years, recognising and accepting her mistakes, using her experience to grow stronger, and to reinvent herself to match the times and her needs.

3 ChersThe big trick with this show is that there are three performers each representing Cher, at different times of her life. There’s “Babe”; the very young Cher, the Cher who did backing vocals for Phil Spector, the Cher who meets Sonny. There’s “Lady”; the Cher whom Sonny works to the ground, the Cher who divorces him, the Cher of the Bang Bang era. And there’s “Star”; the Cher who constantly reinvents herself, Cher the film star, Cher who sings Believe, the Cher who’s an icon. But rather than having the three of them tell their part of her story in chronological order, all three are omnipresent. This really helps to gel her life together. Whilst Star can look back fondly at her life and celebrate it, warts and all, Lady is more critical of her mistakes and misjudgements and Babe is constantly wide-eyed and enthusiastic, ready to take a risk and perhaps dismissive of the advice of her older self. It works incredibly well.

Gypsies...And of course there are the songs! With a career currently entering its seventh decade, there is a veritable plethora to choose from, and pretty much most of the songs you’d like to hear are included. I do have a bugbear though; why do they omit the second verse of my own personal favourite Cher song, Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves? It saves, what, forty seconds, within a two and a half hours show? Oh come on! Although, to be fair, a few songs get the shortened treatment. And there are a number that you might not possibly have heard for many a year. I’d certainly forgotten all about Bang Bang, Just Like Jesse James, and Dark Lady. And I only knew Heart of Stone as a Bucks Fizz song. So there’s a great mix of music, which keeps the show feeling fresh in a way that some lesser juke box musicals (no names, no pack drill)  don’t.

Cher and GregIf there is an aspect of the show where it slightly fails to excel, it’s in the story-telling. Whereas for the most part the story of Cher’s life is told at a reasonable pace, quick enough to keep the audience engaged but slow enough to allow the emotions to sink in, occasionally it smashes through time like a bull in a china shop, leaving the audience a bit confused. For example, Cher’s relationship with Rob Camilletti is beautifully portrayed in its early days (I love Lady’s line likening the age difference between the two to dating an ultrasound), but when they’re out together and attracting the paparazzi, the end of the relationship (following Camilletti’s imprisonment) is told in about twenty wham bam thank you ma’am seconds. A stupid person could be confused; and I indeed did have to ask Mrs Chrisparkle on the way home how it was that their relationship ended so suddenly. Fortunately she was paying attention.

BabeThe performances are all absolutely top-notch. Lucas Rush, whom we last saw a year ago as a brilliant non-binary baddie Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty in Sheffield, is a remarkable match for Sonny Bono, getting just the right level of vain bossiness and charisma, and with an excellent vocal imitation. Tori Scott is superb as Georgia, a unifying thread throughout Cher’s life, with an amazing singing voice and a terrific ear for the comic opportunities in the script. Jake Mitchell is great as the costumier Bob Mackie – elegant, dapper and camp; and Sam Ferriday’s characterisation skills are exploited to the full in his four roles – perhaps at his best when portraying Greg Allman. Oti Mabuse puts the ensemble through their paces with her invigorating and rewarding choreography, and they come up trumps every time.

LadyBut the evening does belong to the various Chers. All three have an extraordinary vocal range and the ability to impersonate Cher’s distinctive tones to a T. Millie O’Connell has a fantastic stage presence as Babe, equally at home conveying her young sassiness as well as her nervous anxiety at meeting and working with celebrities. Danielle Steers gives a strong and very credible performance as the Cher who pretty much knows the ropes and knows what she does and doesn’t want – and isn’t afraid to get it. And Debbie Kurup’s Star exudes energy and genuine star quality with her amazing presence and feelgood smile that lights up the entire auditorium, but also has the wisdom of the years to know when to forgive herself. StarThree superb, complementary performances that show us the many sides of Cher.

The tour continues until March, visiting Liverpool, Bristol, Wimbledon, Torquay, Oxford, Llandudno and Norwich. Whether you’re a massive fan of Cher, or just generally like her work (like me!) there’s loads to enjoy in this spectacular night out. Mrs C was up on her feet at the end like the proverbial rat out of the trap. If I gave the show less than five stars she would kill me.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review of the Year 2022 – The Twelfth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

It is my pleasure to welcome you again to the glamorous showbiz highlight of the year, the announcement of the annual Chrisparkle Awards for 2022. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 17th January 2022 to 9th January 2023. Are you all sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin!

 

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

This includes dance seen at the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as elsewhere in the country. We saw seven dance productions, and these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the anarchic inventiveness of Ukraine’s Ballet Freedom at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, in August.

In 2nd place, the Balletboyz on a superb return to form with their Deluxe tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 1st place, the Edinburgh Festival Ballet/Peter Schaufuss/Ian McKellen production of Hamlet at the Ashton Hall, St Stephens Church, Edinburgh.

 

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We only saw one classical concert this year – The Royal Philharmonic’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February. So I’m giving it an honorary mention, but without any competition, I can’t really call it the best classical concert this year!

 

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Here are the top three:

In 3rd place, the always delightful Sheffield pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in December.

In 2nd place, the most lavish of panto experiences imaginable, Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium in December.

In 1st place, the most remarkable gala celebrating the life and work of a remarkable man, Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends at the Sondheim Theatre, London, in May.

 

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Astonishingly, we only saw three big star standup shows this year – and these are they:

In 3rd place, the endlessly brilliant and always thought provoking Dara O’Braian in his So Where Were We tour, at the Milton Keynes Theatre, in November.

In 2nd place, the highly personal but always funny material of Patrick Kielty in his Borderline tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 1st place, the irrepressible Omid Djalili in his The Good Times Tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in April.

 

Best of the Rest Stand-up of the Year. at the Screaming Blue Murder/Comedy Crate nights in Northampton.

In the past the Committee has given awards for the best Screaming Blue Murder Comedy Club stand-up, and last year this was combined with the Comedy Crate Stand up shows. There had also been a Best of the Rest award for various other comedy venues, Edinburgh Previews and the like. We’re now going to streamline these separate categories into one – The Best of the Rest! Out of countless comics we saw, a longlist of thirteen provided the following top five:

In 5th place, the always ebullient Aurie Styla (Upfront Comedy Club – May)

In 4th place, the hilarious and quick-witted Kane Brown (Upfront Comedy Club – October)

In 3rd place, the unpredictable and always brilliant Russell Hicks (Comedy Crate – March)

In 2nd place, the brilliantly inventive Mark Simmons (Comedy Crate – March, Comedy Crate Edinburgh Preview – July)

In 1st place, the sheer delight of Gerry K (Screaming Blue Murder – March)

 

Best Musical.

I saw sixteen musicals this year, a combination of new shows and revivals. One big disappointment, a few not entirely to my taste but that’s more my issue, and, as usual, the others were all varying degrees of excellent. Here’s my top five.

In 5th place, an old favourite given a tremendous treatment, the touring production of Hairspray that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January 2022.

In 4th place, a show that’s only going to grow in stature through the ages, putting Sheffield on the map, Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in December.

In 3rd place, another old favourite looking as fresh as the day it was born, the touring production of Rocky Horror Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in July.

In 2nd place, a stunning production that lifted your heart and was jam-packed with fun, fully deserving its London transfer later this year, Crazy for You at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 1st place, a show that rewrites the rule book for creating a meaningful revival, the spectacular and innovative production of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, at the Playhouse, London, in April.

 

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. We saw eighteen new plays this year, and I awarded five stars to ten of them, so this is a tightly fought battle! Here are my top five (with some incredible productions and plays just bubbling under) :

In 5th place, David Hare’s gripping and intelligent look at the life and work of Robert Moses, Straight Line Crazy, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 4th place, a deftly structured and wittily written ghost story that terrifies and delights, Danny Robins’ 2:22 A Ghost Story, at the Criterion Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, a truly original staging of a gripping family of refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, The Boy With Two Hearts at the National Theatre Dorfman Theatre in October.

In 2nd place, Anupama Chandrasekhar’s magnificent examination of the assassination of Gandhi, The Father and the Assassin at the National Theatre Olivier Theatre in May.

In 1st place, one of the best new comedies of the century, Steven Moffat’s The Unfriend at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in June.

 

Best Revival of a Play.

I saw fourteen revivals, with an obvious top four; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the RSC’s bold and innovative new production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in July.

In 4th place, the emotional and powerful production – despite the rain effect – of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, at the National Theatre Olivier Theatre in October.

In 3rd place, Tom Basden’s brilliant updating of Dario Fo’s hilarious Accidental Death of an Anarchist, at the Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse, Sheffield, in September.

In 2nd place, Dominic Cooke’s outstanding reimagination of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, in May.

In 1st place, Anna Mackmin’s pitch-perfect revival of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most telling comedies, Woman in Mind, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, it’s time to consider the turkey of the year – and whilst I was unimpressed with both Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads and Local Hero at Chichester, by far the worst thing I saw all year was The Sex Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

 

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 52 plays in Edinburgh this year, 18 of them got 5* from me, which led to a shortlist of 11, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the brilliant thriller with a terrific twist, Closure, written by Faye Draper and produced by Ink and Curtains (Pleasance Courtyard)

In 4th place, full of contemporary relevance and an insight into modern day poverty, About Money, written by Eliza Gearty and produced by 65% Theatre (Summerhall)

In 3rd place, an extraordinary one-man play that leads you down some terrifyingly unexpected alleys, An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe, written by Benny Ainsworth and produced by Triptych (Zoo Playground)

In 2nd place, the vivid and gripping story of the Hiroshima bombings, The Mistake, written and produced by Michael Mears (The Space on North Bridge)

In 1st place, the play I couldn’t stop talking about for weeks afterwards, the story of a unique relationship, Wilf, written by James Ley and produced by the Traverse Theatre Company (Traverse Theatre)

 

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

As always, a really hard one to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top five:

In 5th place, Michael Waller for Candy (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 4th place, Stephen Smith for Dog/Actor (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

In 3rd place, Michael Parker for An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe (Zoo Playground)

In 2nd place, Michael Dylan for Wilf (Traverse Theatre)

In 1st place, Samuel Barnett for Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen (Summerhall)

 

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Eleven shows this year received 5* from me, but here are my top five:

In 5th place, a new name to me, and a brilliant find, Nina Gilligan with her Late Developer show (Just the Tonic at the Tron)

In 4th place, the always brilliant Mary Bourke with her Brutal Truth show (The Stand Comedy Club)

In 3rd place, one of our regular Edinburgh must-sees, Joe Wells with his I Am Autistic show (Banshee Labyrinth)

In 2nd place, on the best form I’ve ever seen him, Hal Cruttenden with his It’s Best You Hear it From Me show (Pleasance Courtyard)

In 1st place, and why have I never seen him before, Mark Thomas with his Black and White show (The Stand Comedy Club)

 

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Very stiff competition as always, but here are my top five:

In 5th place, the brilliant improvisation that made up Shamilton, produced by Baby Wants Candy (Assembly George Square Studios)

In 4th place, the anarchic mischief of a nightmare club night, Kevin Dewsbury and Bexie Archer in Your Dad’s Mum (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 3rd place, two complementary productions, Patrick McPherson’s Colossus and again with his twin brother Hugo in Pear (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, one of the best sketch shows I’ve ever seen, the brilliant Tarot: Cautionary Tales (Pleasance Courtyard)

In 1st place, the best swansong ever, Colin Hoult’s The Death of Anna Mann (Pleasance Courtyard)

There were a number of contenders for this year’s Edinburgh turkey; Shakespeare for Breakfast was a big let-down due to the change of cast and writing team, but I think the most woeful was the misguided attempt at a League of Gentlemen-type story, Antiques (Greenside @ Nicolson Square)

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Carly Anderson as Polly in Crazy for You at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, Me’sha Bryan as Celie in The Color Purple at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 3rd place, Cleopatra Rey as Rita in Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, London, in December.

In 2nd place, Marisha Wallace as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! at the Young Vic, London, in May.

In 1st place, Amy Lennox as Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, at the Playhouse, London, in April.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Robert Lonsdale as Harry in Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in December.

In 4th place, Arthur Darvill as Curly in Oklahoma! at the Young Vic, London, in May.

In 3rd place, Fra Fee as Emcee in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, at the Playhouse, London, in April.

In 2nd place, David Albury as Bob Marley in Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, London, in December.

In 1st place, Charlie Stemp as Bobby in Crazy for You at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Eighteen in the rather long shortlist, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Frances Barber as Elsa in The Unfriend, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in June.

In 4th place, Samira Wiley as Angel in Blues for an Alabama Sky, National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, in October.

In 3rd place, Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in January 2022.

In 2nd place, Nicola Walker as Miss Moffat in The Corn is Green, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, in May.

In 1st place, Jenna Russell as Susan in Woman in Mind, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Like last time, this is one of this year’s most hotly contested awards, with seventeen contenders in my shortlist, and here is the top five:

In 5th place, Arthur Hughes as Richard III in Henry VI Rebellion/Wars of the Roses/Richard III, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in May and July.

In 4th place, Simon Russell Beale as Borkman in John Gabriel Borkman, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in  November.

In 3rd place, Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses in Straight Line Crazy, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 2nd place, Shubham Saraf as Godse in The Father and the Assassin, at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre in May.

In 1st place, Reece Shearsmith as Peter in The Unfriend, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in June.

 

Congratulations to the winners, commiserations to the losers and thanks for your company again throughout the year, gentle reader. Let’s look forward to a 2023 crammed with theatrical brilliance!

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, London Palladium, 30th December 2022

Jack and the BeanstalkI never lose track of the thrill and the indeed the privilege of attending a performance at the London Palladium. Going through those glass doors instantly gives you a feeling of invigoration, of importance, and of being part of decades upon decades of sheer entertainment. As I was growing up, the Palladium always meant the pantomime, but also the home of revue – from To See Such Fun with Tommy Cooper and Clive Dunn, to the Tommy Steele Show, to The Comedians, to Larry Grayson in Grayson’s Scandals, to the Sacha Distel Show (appearing with the then love of my life, Lynsey de Paul) And then the big musicals – Barnum, Singin’ in the Rain, La Cage aux Folles, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the revival of A Chorus Line, and now full circle to the annual return of the Palladium panto. Good or bad, you can never be indifferent to what’s going on at the Palladium – and long may it remain so.

Julian ClaryLast year there was a plucky attempt to bring back panto to the post-Covid Palladium, with Pantoland, but it’s great to have a proper full-scale panto back here again, even if it is yet another production of Jack and the Beanstalk, although, for obvious reasons, this version is very different from the others around the country. The usual suspects of Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot and Nigel Havers return (and it wouldn’t be the same without them), this year with Dawn French on her second Palladium panto, the exquisite voice and presence of Alexandra Burke, and upcoming musical theatre star Rob Madge. It’s always bizarre (but traditional) that the roles of Jack and Jill (Louis Gaunt and Natalie McQueen) almost appear as afterthoughts; that’s just the way it is, except that there wouldn’t be a story without them!

Dawn FrenchTechnical highlight of this year’s show is without doubt the beanstalk – and I’m not being pejorative about the rest of the show! This is the most auditorium-invading, skyscraper-forming, neckache-inducing slice of vegetation in a theatre since Audrey II had too much to eat in Little Shop of Horrors. And having Jack climb up it is a terrific idea. We were seated pretty near the beanstalk and it’s a shame that the illusion kind of ends with a view that few people would have had, namely Jack dangling around at the very top of the auditorium, waiting for that final pull that would yank him through the roof and into safety. But it’s still a great effect.

Gary WilmotNaturally, Mr Clary appeared in a sequence of outlandish garments, and if there hadn’t been a double-entendre for a few minutes, he’d give us one. His badinage with all the cast – and indeed the audience – is a thing of beauty and a joy forever and is pretty much worth the (expensive) ticket price on its own. Mr Wilmot – of course – did another of his list songs, this year about diseases and ailments, and is always a great laugh. Among the new elements this Rob Madge and Louis Gauntyear, my favourite was probably Rob Madge as Pat the Cow, a West-End Musical-obsessed bovine, who had me in hysterics with their version of that Les Miserables classic, I Creamed a Cream.

There’s no questioning the production values of a show like this – literally, no expense is spared and it’s a pure onslaught of pizzazz from start to finish. As always, enormous fun, and don’t bother bringing the children.

Production photos by Paul Coltas

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Sex Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 30th December 2022

Sex PartyWasn’t it the great Jona Lewie who said – and I think it was – You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties? Sadly, that’s where Terry Johnson has chosen to set his latest offering, The Sex Party – not in the living room where everyone’s getting down and dirty, but in the kitchen, where everyone’s either embarrassed, or bitching and moaning, or being offensive or just getting steadily chateau’d. To be honest you’d get a lot more entertainment from Jona Lewie’s 7-incher than you would by sitting through two hours twenty minutes of this dismal and, frankly, unpleasant play.

Hetty and GillyBut first, gentle reader, let me cast your mind back to April of last year. Maria Friedman had just finished her short spell at the Menier performing Legacy, which we unfortunately missed. But we were waiting for the announcement of the next show at this much-loved theatre. And we waited… and we waited. Surely the Menier hasn’t… closed?… we thought? No movement on the website – nothing in the social media. Don’t say this is the end….? And then a sign of life – the Menier would be reopening in November, with the latest play by Terry Johnson. I jumped at the chance – as I am sure many others did. We’ve all missed the Menier and were sad at the thought that it might never reopen; basically we would have booked to see anything. And Terry Johnson too – he’s a reliable old theatrical character, with hits like Dead Funny and Insignificance to his name. What could possibly go wrong?

Great setTo be fair, not quite everything. Tim Shortall has constructed a fantastic set depicting a well-to-do Islington kitchen. Every detail is realised immaculately. The matching kettle and toaster; the yuppie cookbooks including that Leon one that all posh people have; the well-stocked patio garden. Boy, you could live in that kitchen. There are some good performances too. Jason Merrells is a safe pair of hands as Alex, whose home it is and who is holding the party, along with the excellent Molly Osborne as Hetty, who is the bubbliest and most welcoming of hostesses without going over the top. The first scenes find them greeting their first guests, the verging-on-spoilt Gilly (Lisa Dwan) and her husband, the verging-on-tedious Jake (John Hopkins), both excellent in conveying their characters’ annoying habits and difficult relationship.

Alex and GillyStrangely, if Terry Johnson had left it there, with two embarrassed and embarrassing guests being manipulated by two ostensibly charming hosts, it might have developed into something reasonable. A dash of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf mixed with a splodge of Relatively Speaking to make a modern-day Comedy of Manners that dismantles 2022 Britain (and let’s face it, it needs some dismantling) through the eye of a swingers’ party. But no – Johnson gives us five more characters to contend with, four of which position themselves variously on the thoroughly irritating spectrum; and the fifth, a catalyst with which to throw a big spanner in the works.

Jeff and LucyThat last character is Lucy – played with immaculate reserve and control by Pooya Mohseni – a discreet and refined woman who happens to be trans but doesn’t expect to make a big thing of it. Terry Johnson, however, wants a very big thing to be made of it. At this point, he throws all these disparate elements up into the air and lets them land higgledy-piggledy on the stage to let everyone fight it out in the manner of a live Twitter spat. The rest of the play is an experiment in seeing how far you can take the mickey out of transphobia, and questions how long is it funny to do so before it starts getting uncomfortable.

Sex PartyAnswer: not long. It falls to Broadway and Hollywood star Timothy Hutton, in his London stage debut (so bizarre that he should have chosen this play for this significant step in his career), as the American businessman Jeff, in what often feels to be a very stilted performance, to bombard Lucy with offensive, intrusive and crass questioning about her right to call herself a woman; goaded on by the almost equally offensive beliefs and asides of his Russian wife Magdalena, whom I think is meant to be a humorous character but comes across way off the mark.

Alex and CamillaCan you write a play examining transphobia? Of course you can. But this isn’t it. It doesn’t contain sufficiently robust conversations or plot development; in fact there were a couple of lengthy and excruciatingly dull sequences – one where Magdalena likens herself to a butterfly, another where there is a pointless conversation about whether people like dogs. The play lacks the required delicacy and integrity to manage its own sensitive subject matter, and whatever humour there is misses its spot so that the audience is reduced to squirming in their seats. There’s even a short scene at the end of the play that explains what has happened to some of the characters some months later, as if we cared. It was very noticeable how the energy of the audience members had been hugely sapped as we all slunk out at the end,Sex Party with no one quite daring to say WTF did we just see? – but definitely thinking it.

A wasted opportunity? Yes. A tasteless evening of deliberate provocation without anything to back it up? Also yes. Hurrah for the return of the Menier Chocolate Factory, but let this play die a quiet death and never be spoken of again. Two stars is generous, but it’s a proficient production.

Production photos by Alastair Muir

Two Disappointing for Anything More