Review – The Wellspring, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th March 2022

The WellspringWhen is a play not a play? A possible answer to this is when it’s a Memory Cycle, which is how The Wellspring is described on the front cover of its play text. It’s always intriguing to watch a stage production that’s unusual in some way. Yes, it’s scripted, ergo, it’s a play. But when the two performers, playing a father and son, really are that very same father and son playing themselves, you know you’re going to see something out of the ordinary.

David and Barney lay the tableA few years ago, playwright Barney Norris worked with his father, musician David Owen Norris, on a series of interviews to tell the story of the older man’s unorthodox journey through his career in music. It was when Barney’s production of The Remains of the Day was being presented at the Royal and Derngate that it was suggested that he might work up those interviews into a play format. And this is the result – with the usual Covid-enforced delay that almost every new production has had to undergo, of course. It has the feel of a chat show, but without a host, where the guests just volunteer anecdote after anecdote without prompting. With Barney playing Barney and David playing David, you can assume they’ve got the characterisations spot on; and you can assume they’re telling the truth.

Wellspring setBut can you? Memories can play tricks on you, and sometimes where one side believes something to be gospel, the other is convinced they’ve got it wrong; New Year’s Eves spent together – or apart – for example. On one occasion, Barney recalls hearing a rural 19th century song at a festival that blew his mind, as being such a brilliant insight into those hard times. But was it truly from that era? And if it blows you away, does it matter anyway? A lie can be much more rewarding than the truth. At the end of the play, Barney confirms that they’ve told a truth, not necessarily the truth; reality mixed with fantasy to create an end product, perhaps. Often old videotapes from Barney’s childhood are screened in the background, so that gives you an extra sense of truth. So, yes, it’s clearly autobiographical in style and presentation, but is it true autobiography? The audience must decide for themselves.

David Owen NorrisYou can see why this is a Made in Northampton production. David was brought up in Long Buckby, went to Daventry Grammar School and spent much of his youthful leisure time in Northampton. Although his parents separated when he was young, Barney also spent many childhood weekends in the county, and, when he was 19, organised a music festival for his dad with gigs all around rural Northamptonshire. That local connection acts as another bridge between the Norrises and the audience.

Non!The play is very beautifully written and performed with effortless ease. Individual moments from their past take on a whole new significance when explained in terms of the present day. I loved David’s recollections of standing on the bridge over the new M1 at Watford Gap, looking towards the north in one direction (because Watford Gap is traditionally where the north starts) and then looking south in the other (no one ever said that Watford Gap is where the south starts, but it must be by definition!) It’s one of T S Eliot’s still points in the turning world; rather like how he attributes his whole career to the one black note on the piano, B Flat, or how Barney lost his shyness when he realised it was ok for people to look at him when he was onstage in a junior school play. Tiny events such as these build into a life.

Father and sonThere are some great stories recounted; none as hilarious as David’s account of his appearance at the Sydney Piano Competition. There are also his tuition sessions with the scary Yvonne Lefébure in Paris, Barney’s reliving getting beaten up in Oxford, he and his friend Jeb playing Beatles songs at Stonehenge whilst an American guy scattered his wife’s ashes, and many more.

Barney tells a storyI can imagine that this is a difficult play to stage without it appearing too static. The old home movies and the constantly changing compass image work well to provide a little background movement. At one stage Barney rolls out a carpet on the stage, whilst he’s telling us about all the places in London he’s lived, even for the shortest time; a very rootless existence. The carpet emphasised his Wherever I Lay My Hat That’s my Home attitude to his rather nomadic lifestyle. A piano is onstage, for David to intersperse his recollections with snippets of music; and we see Grandad’s wonderful old music stand given pride of place next to it.

David at the pianoI’m not a fan of extraneous, unnecessary action on stage, and, during much of the first part of the play, we see Barney cooking – always something that an audience finds fascinating to watch. He and David sit down to eat it. But it’s never referred to in the text, we never know what he’s cooking, or why; and I did find that distracting. I also couldn’t understand why they painstakingly removed everything from sight at the end of the play; table, carpet, music stand, even the piano. It’s at odds with the concept that your memories are always with you – which is definitely one of the messages of the play. What was the point of hiding them away at the end? It felt like it was just to give the performers something to do; and whilst I understand the need for that, there also has to be a purpose to it. Just my little quibble.

Barney in full flowThe Wellspring only has a couple more nights in Northampton and then it will tour to various theatres and festivals, largely in locations that feature in their stories. Home is a moment that’s quickly lost, says Barney; afterwards you can only sail through the ghost of it. Charming, thought-provoking, and immensely nostalgic; private moments shared in that common hunt for home. At only 70 minutes with no interval, it fits neatly into a festival programme with admirable brevity of wit!

Production photos by Robert Day

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – We Will Rock You, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st March 2022

We Will Rock YouThe 20th Anniversary Tour of this hugely successful show charges headfirst into Northampton for a week that’s already virtually sold out. Any show that can stimulate such anticipation and excitement is obviously doing something right. Cards on the Table time: I’m not really a fan of Queen. I know, I know, pipe down with your faux-outrage. But I’ve always found their style to be overblown and self-important; and the continued reverence about their output by the media and fans hasn’t made it any easier for me to start appreciating them. And indeed, when We Will Rock You makes direct reference to Queen it’s by elevating them to a cult religious status, which I find a right turn-off. There are a handful of their songs that I like; but the prospect of 2 hours 45 minutes of undiluted Queen made me feel bilious. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that far and away the best thing about this show is the music! More of that later…

The opening sequence strongly recalled a musical that I truly hated: Dave Clark’s Time, a pompous, vacuous show from 1986 that we endured for what felt like several hours at London’s Dominion Theatre (which is where We Will Rock You held sway for an extraordinary twelve years). I clutched my armrest wondering if I was going to hate this too. And, overall, I didn’t. But I have some big reservations about it.

Galileo and ScaramoucheLet’s accentuate the positive. Production-wise, it’s magnificent. At the back of the stage, constantly changing images, cameras, LEDs and so on provide a wonderful depth to the stage action, suggesting mood, locations, and the mindless backing masses who populate the sterile Gaga World into which the iPlanet has developed. (Bear with me). Sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed at the back of the stage is Zachary Flis’ amazing band who whack out the familiar numbers with gusto. It’s loud, by the way – very loud. At times my seat rumbled with reverberation so much I though I was preparing for take-off. Kentaur’s costumes and wigs are a production in themselves, reflecting the power of the oppressors, the simplicity of the protagonists, and the eccentricity of the Bohemians. Visually the whole thing is astounding.

the CastThere are also some fantastic individual performances. Almost entirely across the board, the female performers outshine the guys at every level. Martina Ciabatti Mennell’s Meat has a great voice and personality and brought enormous brightness to her role. As the ultimate baddie, Jenny O’Leary’s Killer Queen has an extraordinary stage presence and a belter of a voice. For me, the complete star of the show is Elena Skye as Scaramouche. The first thing Scaramouche does is sing Somebody to Love (a song I had never previously rated) and it was captivating, moving, gutsy and utterly brilliant. She is a fabulous singer, gave a fantastic characterisation to the role, and had the best feeling for the comedy of the piece of anyone in the cast.

Scaramouche and the Gaga GirlsAh yes, the comedy. The book is by Ben Elton. The Man from Auntie. The writer of witty, satirical, provocative, inventive novels. The man behind the inspirational anarchy of The Young Ones. The creator of arguably the best sitcom every written, Blackadder (well, series 2 and 4 anyway). His job was to devise a cunning plot that incorporates Queen songs and provide entertaining bridging material between them. So was he as cunning as a fox that’s just been made Professor of Cunning at Oxford University? No. I’m racking my brain to think of a book to a musical that’s more lame and lamentable than his contribution to We Will Rock You. His hero, Galileo, speaks in song lyrics; funny the first time, but it quickly palls. And whilst the early part of the show allows for some of the songs to fit in nicely with the plot, by the time we get to the second Act all hell breaks loose and they get plonked in Wherever, whenever (damn, I’m doing it now.) Elton obviously couldn’t fit in Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions and We Will Rock You into the story, so they’re just an addition tucked into the end of the show. To be fair, there are two jokes. One is visual, when Galileo and Scaramouche decide they need to be careful when they settle down for a night of nookie. The other relates to the length of Brian May’s guitar solos. Otherwise it pootles along punfully; most of the characters are two-dimensional – those who aren’t are one-dimensional. It would need a gifted, independent director with a highly developed critical filter to keep this show on the straight and narrow. Remind me who the director is? Ah yes, Ben Elton. I don’t expect he suggested many cuts.

Curtain CallThe plot itself also doesn’t bear much analysis. Set sometime in the future, live music is banned, and anyone who attempts to play music is punished. Hang on, isn’t that the plot of Footloose? Anyway. There’s a bunch of rebels called the Bohemians (geddit?) who are like a religious cult who believe there is a sacred text (which basically contains the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, not that they know that) and who have a few relics, including an old television and a video tape. It’s bizarre then, that, for presumably decades of misery, no one ever thought to put the video tape in the video recorder underneath the TV. Also bizarre that they mispronounce “video tape” “television” and “Brian” as though they were some long-dead foreign language, even though they pronounce everything else from that same language correctly. They’ve never heard of America, but they do understand the concept of Paris (Killer Queen lyrics) and Euro-Disney (lame joke). I’ll leave the textual analysis there, I think.

Rocky BohemiansIf it wasn’t for the Queen songs, the show would be dire. But then, without Queen, the show wouldn’t have existed! As a non-fan, I really enjoyed my two favourite songs Killer Queen and Don’t Stop Me Now, and Ian McIntosh as Galileo did pull out all the stops for a rousing performance of We are the Champions at the end. So it’s a resounding yes to the production values, music and star performances, and a resounding no to the book. The more you like Queen, the more you’ll like this show. But the incorporation of songs into the plot, and the “comic” element of the text made me realise what a masterpiece Mamma Mia is.

P. S. The book for Time is worse. Time thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. At least We Will Rock You doesn’t take itself seriously.

Production photos by Johan Persson

3-starsThree-sy does it!

The Points of View Challenge – The Use of Force – William Carlos Williams

William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

American poet (The Red Wheelbarrow), writer, and physician.

The Use of Force, first published in the collection Life Along the Passaic River, in 1938

Available to read online here

This is the third of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction continues: “Two of the stories are about the narrator’s childhood, told many years later. The other two are about adult experiences. One of them might have happened the day before it is told, but after strong feelings have cooled, the narrator’s maturity enables him to talk about them with an outsider’s detachment.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

The Use of Force

 

Life Along the Passaic RiverDoctor has called on the Olson family because daughter Mathilda is very sick. Although she seems “strong as a heifer”, she’s had a fever for three days. There have been cases of diphtheria at the local school so it’s important she’s checked out. Doctor asks if she has a sore throat. Apparently not, say the parents, but Doctor decides he should inspect her throat to make sure.

But Mathilda has other ideas. She refuses to engage with Doctor in any way, won’t open her mouth, and when he tries to get near, she flings her arm out and nearly breaks his glasses. At first Doctor rather admires her tenacity and independence, especially in the face of her parents’ embarrassment and annoyance at her behaviour. But as she grows more and more unreasonable, he gets progressively angrier, and, despite his better judgment decides that the use of force will be the only way he can check her throat.

Even though she’s bleeding, and shrieking in agony, Doctor continues to pin her down and “overpowered the child’s neck and jaws. I forced the heavy silver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged.” Surprise, surprise, he discovers she’s been hiding the fact that her tonsils are covered with a membrane that tells him that she’s had a sore throat for three days. Her final fury at being found out is worse than the pain of the throat.

William Carlos Williams was a physician all his life and so presumably this incident is based on a real event, or at least suggested by one. In the grand scheme of things this is a very minor incident, but it reveals to Doctor just how personally he became involved with the case – that it became war between him and his patient, and that he allowed his reactions to get out of control. “I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.”

As for Mathilda, she didn’t take defeat lying down. The last lines of the story are: “ Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father’s lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.”

What started off as a simple home visit to a patient escalated to battle of wits and strength. A minor incident perhaps, but Doctor learned a lot about himself as a result. Maybe next time he would react differently? Was the use of force justified in this case? Could it potentially have saved the girl’s life? Were the parents acting in her best interests? There are a number of questions you can ask yourself – and no obvious answers.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final of the detached autobiography stories, Bad Characters by Jean Stafford, of whom I have never heard!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2022

Screaming Blue MurderIf you happened to be strolling around the village of Wollaston on Saturday night and wondered where everyone was, 47 of them were at the Royal and Derngate to see the Screaming Blue Murder as part of local resident Claire’s birthday bash. That’s over a quarter of the entire audience! The show had been sold out weeks in advance, which is unusual; and a few minutes before the show was due to start the audience was still quite patchy. Then in came the Wollaston crowd, swelling the ranks of all the front seats, which naturally are the last to be chosen. Boisterous and lubricated, they were ready for a good time – so long as the good time involved taking notice of them.

Dan EvansOur genial host Dan Evans certainly had his work cut out. I should say, for everything that followed during the evening, none of it was the fault of the people from Wollaston; if there was a fault, it was down to some of the comics who should have handled the situation better. But to have so many of the crowd all know each other does put everyone at a disadvantage, as they bring with them their own dynamic, their own “house rules”. Performers, staff, the rest of the audience; we all had to struggle to assert our ability to have a good night and not feel excluded. At first, the vibe was great while Dan was getting to know them all. We discovered, for instance, that Claire has quite a big house. Big enough for an indoor swimming pool (even if it was only 10m x 5m, depth unknown), into which many of the audience had previously immersed themselves. We were also alerted to the presence of Matt, an audience member who took the opportunity to interrupt whenever he liked. When Dan joshed with the crowd with jokes that concerned themselves, it was fun and laughter all around. However, when he started to do more general material, which at any other time would be gold dust, people at the front were less interested. Fortunately the people at the back continued to laugh, but you could tell this was going to be a difficult night. There was a moment when one of the ushers came forward to mop up some spilled drink at the front of the stage and someone made a rather cruel remark at her expense. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever. We cringed in embarrassment for her.

Tania EdwardsOur first act, and someone we last saw way back in 2013, was Tania Edwards. She bases her material and stage persona on being rather posh, terribly middle-class, and deliberately bitchy with it. She discusses life with the husband who now works from home much to her annoyance, rather than the good old days when she hardly ever saw him. It’s very character-based comedy, and not many of the punchlines hit home. Changing tack, she took her attention to ridiculing the size of Claire’s swimming pool as being little more than a puddle. The non-Wollastonians in the audience hooted with laughter, the Wollastonians sat silently clearly unimpressed that one of their number had been criticised in this way. That atmosphere then spread throughout the whole crowd, and Tania didn’t find a way to regain the upper hand. As I said, this was going to be a difficult night.

andy-whiteFortunately, for the second act, in came the Cavalry in the reliable form of Andy White, who did exactly what the crowd needed – grabbed us by the nuts and took control. He had Wikipedia’d Wollaston during the break, thereby publicly recognising their importance in the show, and with fantastic, assertive material, he silenced Matt and delivered a barrage of brilliant observations and jokes, ranging from the Birmingham Christmas Market, through helping his wife to give birth to the horrors of home schooling. Every line hit home; the dominators were dominated, and it was a masterclass in how to turn an evening around.

Anthony KingSadly, our headline act, Anthony King, didn’t take advantage of the upswing that Andy had achieved. This was the fifth time we’ve seen him at Screaming Blue Murder shows, and in the past he’s always brought the house down with his lugubrious persona, and comedy songs with a touch of psychotic murder about them. This time, however, it just didn’t work. You could feel the energy drain from the room within a minute of his starting. Someone with his experience should surely have realised that his usual act wasn’t working so ought to have changed direction. But he didn’t. He continued, morosely, and the few laughs from those supportive members of the audience petered out. At some point during this disaster, you sensed that he had just given up, but was going to carry on regardless anyway. Drawing his act to an eventual conclusion he introduced his last song by saying “and now, to end my career…” to which a wag from Wollaston shouted out “that happened ten minutes ago” – and Anthony had no comeback. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were gripping each other’s hands with cringing desperation. And when the show finally, mercifully, finished, I’ve never heard so little desultory applause from the audience at the end of one of these evenings. It was an experience that I’m sure we’d all rather forget.

Still, hope springs eternal! The last in this season of Screaming Blue Murders is on 25th March, has a cracking line-up and is already sold out. Fingers crossed!

Review – The Comedy Crate at the Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 10th March 2022

Comedy CrateTime for another of those excellent comedy nights at the Charles Bradlaugh courtesy of those nice people at The Comedy Crate, who had assembled a terrific cast of funny people for our entertainment. We were a top quality audience too, which really helped the evening go with a swing!

Cally BeatonOur MC for the night was Cally Beaton, new to us, but a very safe pair of hands to run the show. She has an excellent ability to dovetail between the acts,  sometimes referring to the themes that the other comics had mentioned, and that helped the show flow very easily. One of the unifying themes of the evening was people who worked in shops and it’s amazing how something as simple as that can really catch on as a source of spontaneous comedy, and Cally mined it to the full. She has a great rapport with the audience and a very warm and friendly style, and kept the spirit of the show high octane throughout the evening.

Jack GleadowOur first act, and someone we’ve only seen online before, was Jack Gleadow, a likeable young chap with brilliant delivery and a very pacey set. He’s another guy who instantly connects with the audience, with his unassuming but knowing style. He incorporates short sound and musical accompaniments to some of his act which works a treat. Trust me, you’ll never listen to Hot Butter’s Popcorn in quite the same way again. We also loved his observations about Primark, and how they don’t apply to Argos. Very assured, very funny.

Arielle SoumaNext up, and someone else new to us, was Arielle Souma, who plays on having that most irresistible of qualities – a sexy French accent – and mixes it with some brilliant comedy material about relationships. It’s a clever blend of physical self-deprecation and supreme self-confidence, and you can never tell which way she’s going to go at any point! We loved her take on having a relationship with someone else after your spouse has died; and she turns racism on its head to great comic effect. A terrific stage presence, she went down a storm with the audience.

Russell Hicks againOur headline act, and someone I always try to see whenever possible, was Russell Hicks, that master of creating fantasy comic scenarios from absolutely nothing. He discovered comedy gold with front row Jed and his amassed pals scattered around the audience, such as generous host Carrack, and Amir Amir (so good they named him twice?) who was interested in taking Russell’s spare hotel room. There was also a front row character named Sticky Mouse and I can’t quite remember how he gained that dubious epithet. Mr H has an extraordinary talent to think on his feet; as a result the entire audience were in hysterics the whole time. Amazing work!

The next gig at the Bradlaugh is on 14th April, but before then The Comedy Crate have an online fundraiser gig for Ukraine on Monday 14th, a new material night at the Wheatsheaf in Dallington on Tuesday 15th, and a special show on Sunday 27th at a secret venue in town. All the details can be found here!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Elephants Can Remember (1972)

Elephants Can RememberIn which celebrated author Ariadne Oliver is contacted by the prospective mother-in-law of her goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, to ask if she knew anything of the circumstances of the apparent double suicide of Celia’s parents. Suspicious of the woman’s motives, but curious about the case, she shares the information with Hercule Poirot, and they decide to see what those involved with the Ravenscrofts remember about their tragic death. Will the testimony of these “elephants” explain the deaths?  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Question MarkThe book is dedicated “to Molly Myers, in return for many kindnesses”. My research so far hasn’t been able to uncover a Molly Myers in Christie’s circle – perhaps you know who she is, in which case, please tell me! Elephants Can Remember was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1972, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same year. It was also published in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, the Toronto newspaper supplement, in February 1973.

Sherlock HolmesElephants Can Remember continues Christie’s gradual decline in inventiveness, writing style and thematic topics. As she got older, she seems to have become fonder of nostalgically revisiting her old books, with the stories of Five Little Pigs, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party all being quoted and recalled by Poirot and Spence. Indeed, she even occasionally adds explanatory footnotes as an aide-memoire, clarifying which old case it is that they are recalling. Some of her references were clearly old favourites, such as the case of Lizzie Borden or the Sherlock Holmes story where the parsley sank into the butter and the dog did nothing, as she has quoted them more than once before in other books. The Lizzie Borden case was cited in After the Funeral, Ordeal by Innocence and The Clocks, and the Sherlock Holmes parsley story in Partners in Crime, Hickory Dickory Dock, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and The Clocks again. The dog reference was also mentioned in Cards on the Table. It’s almost as though her thinking days are over; if it worked once, it will work again – if she actually remembered that she had referred to these cases before. She also runs out of steam early; you can measure this simply by means of the word/page count. A typical Christie in a Fontana paperback will run to approximately 192 pages. This book, same publisher and font, only gets to 160 pages.

Indian elephantOne aspect of the book that gets done to death by repetition is the notion of elephants. If the book is about one thing, it’s memory – perhaps not surprising, given it’s written by an 82-year-old author. Poirot and Mrs Oliver are trying to solve a case that happened many years in the past, so it all depends on what people remember. An elephant never forgets, goes the saying, so they need to find as many elephants as possible. However, the adherence to this metaphor just gets dragged out endlessly throughout the book. It’s as though Christie had to write an essay where the title was How Many Times can you Substitute the word Elephant for Witness, and she diligently constantly referred to the title of the essay like a good school student. What starts out as a light-hearted notion quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome.

HonestyNevertheless, despite the repetitiveness, the lack of inventiveness and the occasional lapse of continuity, it’s still quite an entertaining book. Admittedly, the basis of the solution is telegraphed strongly early on, so one aspect of the conclusion is easy to guess; but not the whole story, so there are still some surprises left at denouement-time. The characters are probably not as well-drawn or interesting as they ought to be, but there are some entertainingly written scenes, and it also poses a dilemma about whether honesty is always the best policy and how far you can or should take blind acceptance of the flaws of those whom you love.

PoirotAs Nemesis would be the last book that Christie wrote about Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), Elephants Can Remember would be the last she wrote featuring Poirot – although Curtain was still to be posthumously published and the short story collection Poirot’s Early Cases which featured his 1920s cases that had only been published in the US was still to come. Unlike Mrs Oliver, who is still full of beans and is happy to traverse the length and breadth of the country in search of elephants (sigh), Poirot remains content to stay seated and thoughtful, and thus susceptible to Mrs O’s constant criticism that he does nothing. “”Have you done anything?” said Mrs Oliver. “I beg your pardon – have I done what?“ “Anything,” said Mrs Oliver. “What I asked you about yesterday.” “Yes, certainly, I have put things in motion. I have arranged to make certain enquiries.” “But you haven’t made them yet, “ said Mrs Oliver, who had a poor view of what the male view was of doing something.” He does, however, grandly plan a flight to Geneva – amusingly refusing Mrs Oliver’s offer to accompany him. So there is life and independence in the old dog yet.

ChurchyardAge may, however, be a reason why he’s no longer quite so well known as he used to be. When Mrs Oliver introduces Celia to Poirot her reaction isn’t what he normally would expect. “”Oh,” said Celia. She looked very doubtfully at the egg-shaped head, the monstrous moustaches and the small stature. “I think,” she said, rather doubtfully, “that I have heard of him.” Hercule Poirot stopped himself with a slight effort from saying firmly “Most people have heard of me.” It was not quite as true as it used to be because many people who had heard of Hercule Poirot and known him, were now reposing with suitable memorial stones over them, in churchyards.”

repetitionJust as a side note, you can see here in those two recent quotes from the book how Christie had become bogged down in repetition. Consider the dual use of the word “view” in the conversation with Mrs Oliver, and that of the word “doubtfully” in the conversation with Celia. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Wikipedia page about the book: “Elephants Can Remember was cited in a study done in 2009 using computer science to compare Christie’s earlier works to her later ones. The sharp drops in size of vocabulary and the increases in repeated phrases and indefinite nouns suggested that Christie may have been suffering from some form of late-onset dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.”

private detectiveThere are a few other names from the past that we catch up on in this book, primarily Superintendent Spence, who featured prominently in other Poirot stories, Taken at the Flood, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party. Spence is solid, reliable, thoughtful and helpful; he was the original investigating officer for the case. Spence provides a good function in the story without ever being a really interesting character. Another recurring chap is Mr Goby, that odd private investigator to whom Poirot subcontracts the task of finding out about the backgrounds of various suspects over the years. Goby still cannot look anyone in the face, which is an amusing observation of an essentially shifty character. But it’s hard not to consider Goby as an easy device for providing the reader with information without having to imagine how you’d go about getting it yourself. Perfect for a Christie whose powers of imagination are beginning to wane.

BournemouthAs usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. Poirot and Celia both live in London, Poirot, as ever, at Whitefriars Mansions (which doesn’t exist) and Celia having lived at addresses in Chelsea and off the Fulham Road, neither of which are real. The Ravenscrofts had lived at Bournemouth – undoubtedly real – but the other locations in the book, Little Saltern Minor, Chipping Bartram and Hatters Green are all fictional.

Lizzie BordenNow for the references and quotations in this book. As I mentioned earlier, Garroway refers to the case of Lizzie Borden, did she “really kill her father and mother with an axe?” She was an American woman, tried and acquitted of the murder of her parents with an axe in August 1892. Garroway also asks “who killed Charles Bravo and why?” Bravo was a British lawyer, fatally poisoned with antimony in 1876, and to this day the case remains unsolved. And Superintendent Spence refers to the Sherlock Holmes case where the parsley sank in the butter. That refers to “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1904.

Teresa of AvilaIn her recollections, Mrs Carstairs refers to St Teresa of Avila. She was a 16th century Spanish noblewoman who became a Carmelite nun. Poirot and Mrs Oliver share a quote, “qui va a la chasse perd sa place” – which basically means that when you leave a spot, a place, an object or anything you possessed at the time to do something else, you might lose it when you come back. It’s an old French saying.

KiplingPoirot says he is “like the animal or the child in one of your stores by Mr Kipling. I suffer from Insatiable Curiosity”. This is the story of the Elephant’s Child, in Kipling’s Just So Stories, published in 1902. And in conversation with Poirot, Celia quotes “and in death they were not divided”, thinking that it might come from Shakespeare. She’s wrong; normally if it’s not Shakespeare, it’s the Bible; and it’s the description of Saul and Jonathan in the first chapter of the Second Book of Samuel, verse 23. And finally, “the dog it was that died”, says Garroway, quoting from Oliver Goldsmith’s Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Elephants Can Remember:

Publication Details: 1972. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression of “this continental edition”, proudly boasting the words first in paperback, published in 1973, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. As a “continental edition” my guess is that I bought it on holiday in Spain! I’m afraid I can’t remember. The cover illustration very simply has an elephant stomping all over a revolver. Not terribly inventive!

How many pages until the first death: It’s only 9 pages until we discover the deaths that Poirot and Mrs O investigate, but there are no other deaths during the course of the narration.

Funny lines out of context:

““Nom d’un petit bonhomme!” said Hercule Poirot. “I beg your pardon, sir?” said George. “A mere ejaculation,” said Hercule Poirot.”

Memorable characters: The “elephants” that Mrs Oliver visits tend to merge into one and are not as memorable as they should be. Mrs Burton-Cox is frequently referred to as unpleasant and bossy, but Christie’s writing doesn’t really present her like that to us. Celia and Desmond are worthy more than interesting, but I did like Zelie, the old governess.

Christie the Poison expert: Nothing to see here.

Class/social issues of the time:

As Christie was writing much nearer to the present day – certainly in my lifetime (I was 12 when this book was published) perhaps any class or social issues of the time seem less distinct from our perspective. One significant use of language comes with the use of the N word in connection with the word brown to describe the colour of Mrs Oliver’s hat. It stands out today as an appalling choice of words, but fifty years ago it was much more acceptable.

Poirot still plays upon the general xenophobia/racism of the time and allows himself to “play the foreigner” to help get information. “Everyone tells everything to me sooner or later. I’m only a foreigner, you see, so it does not matter. It is easy because I am a foreigner.”

Apart from that, the strongest theme or concept in the book is that of memory; how reliable one’s memory is, particularly as one gets older – although people often find they remember stuff from their childhood very clearly but can’t remember why they walked into a room. Mrs Oliver confesses to Poirot that she can’t remember how long they have been friends: “Oh I don’t know. I can never remember what years are, what dates are. You know, I get mixed up.” Christie gives Mrs Oliver’s housekeeper Maria the same affliction: “…these here literary luncheons. That’s what you’re going to, isn’t it? Famous writers of 1973 – or whichever year it is we’ve got to now.”

It isn’t, however, credible when Christie does the same for the much younger Celia. Celia was at school when her parents died – which is a catastrophic thing to happen to a young person’s life. Yet when Mrs Oliver asks her what she remembers about her parents’ deaths, she replies: “nothing […] I wasn’t there at the time. I mean, I wasn’t in the house at the time. I can’t remember now quite where I was. I think I was at school in Switzerland, or else I was staying with a school friend during the school holidays.  You see, it’s all rather mixed up in my mind by now.” This is nonsense! I lost my father when I was 11 and I can remember every aspect of it – it’s imprinted in my brain. There’s no way Celia would be this vague, unless she was deliberately trying to be secretive (which she isn’t.)

A knock-on effect of memory loss and, indeed, ageing – such as Christie herself was facing – is a preoccupation with how one might be looked after in one’s old age. Time was when larger families would always have space and time to look after ageing family members – but that was becoming a thing of the past. Julia Carstairs is living in a “Home for the Privileged” – what we would now describe as sheltered housing. “Not quite all it’s written up to be, you know. But it has many advantages. One brings one’s own furniture and things like that, and there is a central restaurant where you can have a meal, or you can have your own things, of course.“

Mrs Matcham had a different experience. “When I was in that Home – silly name it had, Sunset House of Happiness for the Aged, something like that it was called, a year and a quarter I lived there till I couldn’t stand it no more, a nasty lot they were, saying you couldn’t have any of your own things with you. You know, everything had to belong to the Home, I don’t say as it wasn’t comfortable, but you know, I like me own things around me. My photos and my furniture. And then there was ever so nice a lady, came from a Council she did, some society or other, and she told me there was another place where they had homes of their own or something and you could take what you liked with you. And there’s ever such a nice helper as comes in every day to see if you’re all right.”

Classic denouement:  No – it’s not the kind of book to have one. However, I think Christie gives us the solution in a very charming scene, where a somewhat Deus ex Machina character arrives unexpectedly and confirms Poirot’s suspicions by telling everyone exactly what happened.

Happy ending? Certainly – the young lovers are determined to press ahead with their marriage and there’s nothing that can stop them. They’re also reunited with an old friend, with whom they can presumably now keep in contact. The old friend is also delighted to see them; but she may have ongoing concerns about whether or not she did the right thing.

Did the story ring true? You can conceivably believe that the way the double deaths occurred is credible – just about. I still think Celia’s lack of recollection is highly unlikely. What is undoubtedly believable is that those people who did remember the event all those years ago remember different – and indeed contrasting – things.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not that well written, most of the solution is telegraphed a mile off, and it’s rather repetitive. Yet it does retain a certain charm – I think 6/10 is fair.

Postern of FateThanks for reading my blog of Elephants Can Remember, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Postern of Fate, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Tommy and Tuppence, and indeed, the last new work she was to write. Again, I can remember nothing about this book, but I understand that I shouldn’t have high hopes! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Mule on the Motorway (1967)

Mule on the MotorwayIn which we make a welcome reacquaintance with young Bobby Thiriet, his family and friends, and the student journalists who work on the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students News. At the end of The Clue of the Black Cat, it was reported that a mule had been found running along a motorway. How did it get there, and what was it running from? Did it survive the experience? Charlie Baron of the P. S. N. thinks there could be a story in this – and he is right! What is the story of the mule who was found dodging the traffic, and if there are criminals involved, will Bobby and the gang get to the bottom of it?

The Mule on the Motorway was first published in 1967 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l’autoroute du sud, which translates literally as Commissioner Sinet and the mystery of the southern highway, with illustrations by Gareth Floyd, a prolific children’s illustrator best known for his illustrations on BBC TV’s Jackanory programme. As “The Mule on the Motorway”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1967, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first edition. It was published in the US under the more appropriate title The Mule on the Expressway. Currently I can only see one second hand copy for sale online, in Australia.

Once again we’re in the company of Bobby Thiriet and his friends, whom we met in The Clue of the Black Cat. Commissioner Sinet is still in charge of the local Puisay police, and the students at Bobby’s school still run the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students’ News. The story of the Mule on the Motorway was set up at the end of the previous book, so it’s quite a surprise that it took four years for the book to come to fruition – in the meantime Berna had been writing other books (for adults) under his pseudonym Paul Gerrard. The first chapter makes it clear that the activity of The Clue of the Black Cat wasn’t very long ago – those missing years have vanished into thin air!

As always, Berna gives a great insight into what it’s like being a member of a gang. In the previous book, it was Bobby who, although he’s the youngest in the group, is definitely the hero of the story. In this book, Bobby sits at one end of the story, with his preoccupation with looking after Quicksilver, the mule, and providing his voice in the back column of the newspaper. But at the business end of the story, Charlie Baron plays a much more prominent role as the editor of the P. S. N., generally masterminding everyone’s activities and bringing the story together under one narrative roof, so to speak. The gang mentality is always there in the background, but isn’t forced to the forefront of the story as it sometimes is with Berna. In the previous book, it was Sinet who revealed himself a little jealous no longer to be a gang member; in this book it’s Bobby’s father George. He continues to admire his sons’ activities, with just a tinge of remorse: “George Thiriet was once more discussing the activities of the boys with a sarcasm and a bitterness which cloaked his jealousy, and, no doubt, his regret at having grown too old to join in.”

Now that the Thiriets live in the Belloy Estate, there isn’t such a distinction to be made between the wealth or poverty of the characters, as there was in The Clue of the Black Cat. In fact, classes mix seamlessly in this story, with the obviously wealthy and well-to-do Colonel Brousse exercising his largesse and allowing Quicksilver to live in his stables. With Bobby almost exclusively at the stables while he’s not at school, there’s no real difference between the haves and the have-nots in this story.

Commissioner Sinet is once more in charge, initially disappointed not to have had any communication from Bobby and the guys, but the story soon makes up for that. We also meet the Gendarme Patard, whom Bobby first thinks might be a character they could poke fun at, but later plays a small but very significant part in the investigations. Later we also discover Sinet’s colleague Commissioner Charrel, an avuncular, pipe-smoking, decent sort of chap whom Sinet has briefed well about the capabilities of the gang.

It’s an excellent companion piece to The Clue of the Black Cat, which remains my favourite Berna book and in fact my favourite children’s book of all time. I like how the characters have developed from how we met them in the first book; Bobby’s love of animals continues to play a focal role in the stories, and it’s essentially another exciting thriller/whodunit, with a genuinely surprising secret that gets revealed towards the end. Plus there’s the fun of the student journos; and once again Berna sets up his next book A Truckload of Rice from a throwaway line by Charlie towards the end. With the Black Cat up front and the Truck of Rice at the back, the three books more or less make a mule sandwich!

PuisayAs with the previous story, the setting for this book is the fictional Parisien suburb of Puisay. This time, Berna has furnished us with a detailed map of the town, showing the location of the police station, the Belloy Estate and more. We can locate the riding club, M Broquin’s nursery, Patard’s home in the Rue Gaboriau, even the premises of Ariméca. He shows us the areas that are old Puisay, new Puisay and those areas scheduled for redevelopment. The district of Puisay does not stand still. However, of course, just outside Puisay Berna brings real locations into the story. Verrières-le-Buisson, for example, where Poussard discovers M. Lantoine, does exist; it’s the next-door town to Antony. Wissous, site of the Carbonato car lot, is also a real town, adjacent to Orly Airport.

I had noted that the one thing the previous book lacks is a strong female presence. Again, this book very much has the same cast of characters, and it’s still an issue. The only active female presence is Lily, and she is still rather put upon and her brother Charlie only allows her to do the typing –  very misogynistic in its approach. She’s sent out to see Broquin because he sells flowers and “flowers are girls’ things” says Belmont. Charlie is very dismissive of his sister: “Run a comb through your hair and get your make-up on!… Look at her! She looks as though she’s been pulled through a hedge backwards.” However, her role does develop during the course of the book. When she comes up trumps with suggestions for pushing the investigation forward, Charlie comments: “We’ve been making a big mistake in shutting you up in the news-room all the evening. You’re as good as Flatfoot or the three Thiriets on an outside job.” High praise indeed, he says, sarcastically.

Naturally, Berna’s writing is a joy throughout the book, but the short paragraph I enjoyed the most is when he describes the crushing procedure of the scrap metal at the site in Wissous. “The burnt-out or shattered wrecks were laid out in some sort of order, depending on their state of damage. Tractors were continually moving up and down the lines to tow away he better samples to the salvage depot which formed one end of this mournful motor show-room. Men in asbestos gloves and fibre-glass masks cut the wrecks up with blow-lamps, removing the last scrap of alloy or special steel, and leaving merely a shapeless mass of chassis or coach-work. This was then picked up by a mobile crane and dropped into the jaws of a gigantic hydraulic press, mounted on rails and dominating the landscape […] The jaws of this mechanical ogre crushed the metal with a sinister snapping sound. The mass, now reduced to two-thirds of its original size, was passed on to be squeezed still smaller in the angry hiss of the steam-press, to become first a cube, then a rectangle and finally, at the end of the process, to be thrown out like a parcel. All that remained of what had once been a gleaming, speeding car was reduced to the ridiculous dimensions of a suitcase.” There’s a sense of innocent excitement, and an admiration for the skill and ingenuity involved, at this industrial procedure that otherwise might simply be a commonplace observation. Berna can wring delight out of the simplest thing.

The other aspect of the book which strikes you so strongly today is the prevalence of smoking amongst the young people. As in Magpie Corner, it’s so alien to our minds that a children’s book should have anything involving smoking. But this is France in the 1960s, which was a very different society. In one scene, played for laughs, Sinet offers Quicksilver some Gitanes cigarettes, and the mule obliges by chomping and chewing them. In another scene Charlie offers the Gendarme Patard his last cigarette. Can you imagine today a boy offering a policeman a cigarette?

Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. By the way, this is only the third Berna title (after Magpie Corner and Flood Warning) where the chapters don’t have individual titles. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!

 

Chapter One. Bobby Sinet and PatardBobby Thiriet arrives at the police station wanting to meet Commissioner Sinet. New policeman Patard wonders why the boy is so familiar with Sinet and the station, and Malin, “the Commissioner’s right-hand man”, explains the con trick that the Thiriets endured a few weeks before – the plot of The Clue of the Black Cat. Surprised, Patard is given a copy of the Puisay Students’ News where he reads how the case of the black cat had now come to an end. But now there is a new problem to solve – the stray mule who was “run over one December night on the motorway between Arcueil and Rungis. Where had he come from, and where was he going?”

PatardPatard is unimpressed. But Malin recommends he keeps reading future editions of the P. S. N. – and if he rubs Bobby up the wrong way, he’ll end up appearing in the paper “under a false name, but everyone in Puisay will be able to recognise Patard the policeman.” Meanwhile Sinet is disappointed that Bobby hasn’t kept in touch much recently. Sinet has a bombshell for Bobby – the mule didn’t die in the accident. However, it has been sent to the abattoir at Vaugirard, to be auctioned in a few days’ time. That’s one slaughtered mule and one story less for the P. S. N. Is there anything that can be done about it? Bobby and Sinet go into secret discussion.

The scene changes to the offices of the P. S. N. Charlie Baron is in charge; his ace investigators are Bobby’s brothers, Jacques and Laurent; Belmont is the best at doorstep interviews, Patureau – better known as Flatfoot – is the cartoonist and photographer, and Charlie’s sister Lily is the typist. Bobby arrives and tells them what Sinet said – including that, if they could get the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to back them, they might be able to buy the mule from the slaughterhouse. Charlie’s thoughts turn to how to re-write the P. S. N. headlines – including a subscription for the rescue of the mule.

IvanhoeMeanwhile, back at the Thiriets’ apartment, George, Bobby’s father, doesn’t see how the “flimsy story” of the mule is going to be of any interest to anyone. Bobby plays with Ivanhoe, the black cat that Sinet gave him at the end of the previous book; he doesn’t agree with his father. “That mule didn’t get into the rush hour traffic from Paris all by himself. So one of two things must have happened: either someone must have wanted to get rid of him so badly that they pushed him on to the motorway and they’d have to be pretty good swine to do that, or else the mule was being ill-treated and chased by some toughs and this was the only way to escape his pursuers.” Not only that, but the mule was pulling a cart – and there’s no sign of that anywhere – where is it? Thiriet is certain that the boys shouldn’t interfere with the police and should take no further part in the investigation. But the Thiriet boys have other ideas…

Chapter Two. On the roadOn Friday morning the P. S. N. was on sale as usual. Flatfoot had come up with an excellent photo of a mule – albeit not the one in question, but who was to know? Charlie has written some purple prose to accompany the image, referring to the “beseeching, almost a reproachful, look in his dim eyes”. It’s accompanied by a demand for the readers to donate money to save “the poor orphan”. Some students planned to be generous with their contributions; others saw it as just a joke. Flatfoot does some investigating and concludes that 39% of the school are behind them all the way.

At the P. S. N. offices, Lily is in charge of receiving the cash. But the initial response is not as good as they had hoped. ““Ninety-five francs fifty,” Lily announced. “That’s not a very bright start.”” No one is waiting to make a donation. “Perhaps the chaps thought this mule on the motorway was an April Fool joke,” suggests Belmont. Charlie rounds on Flatfoot for his poor quality research. Just then, one of Bobby’s friends, Poussard, Broussepopped in with two francs, apologising for not being able to give more. This gives the others hope that they might be on the right track after all.

Just then, an unexpected visitor arrives in the form of Colonel Brousse, who runs the local stables and riding club. He makes an offer to stable the mule for free, in return for its doing some odd jobs. Charlie is overwhelmed. Brousse criticises the write-up though – the mule needs a name, and the photograph is of a Picardy donkey! He donates fifty francs and leaves. The boys suggest a number of names but in the end it is Laurent’s suggestion that wins favour – they decide to call the mule Quicksilver.

Chapter Three. QuicksilverSinet has taken responsibility for buying the mule from the auction, but the prices are rising. ““By Wednesday evening mule-on-the-hoof had risen to a thousand francs, and they were very far from having that amount of money. “Got it?” Monsieur Sinet asked the youngster, with deliberate coldness. “Only eight hundred,” Bobby answered with a tremor in his voice. “And even that’s the result of a terrific effort on our part.”” Bobby and Sinet realise there might be something suspicious in the fact that so much money is being offered for the beast. They’re 250 francs short – but a Madame Gilardoni, who runs The Society for the Welfare of Slaughter House Animals, has donated 150 francs, and Sinet himself is prepared to give a hundred “in memory of all the excitement the Black Cat gave us.” Sinet also reveals that it was he who advised Brousse about the mule, so the offer of the stabling is genuine. Sinet says they should pick a name for the mule – and when he finds out what they’re calling him, he buries his head in his hands.

The Thiriet brothers arrive at the Saint Just riding club, and meet Joel Brousse, the stable lad. He shows them the stable that’s been prepared for Quicksilver. Flatfoot arrives on his Vespa, accompanied by the Colonel, Sinet and the mule, who is distinctly skittish. “What do you think of him”, asks the Colonel. “At first Charlie and the others could not speak. They were amazed and appalled by the sheer ugliness of the beast, for it was still in its winter coat, a tangle of coarse, dull black with a coppery sheen in places. The scar from his accident had left a broad strip of bare, black skin running along his right side from shoulder to haunch. To add to it all, his groom at the slaughterhouse had shaved his mane and docked his tail, as they do to all horses before they are killed. “What a ghastly sight!” Lily sighed. “To think we took all this trouble to save that old door-mat from the knackers…””

From his teeth, two stable lads estimate the mule is nearer twenty-five years old than twenty. But he has good hoofs and shoes, and Charlie is convinced they’ll drag the mule’s secret out of him – or Bobby will, with his way with animals. In fact, Bobby spends some time with Quicksilver, giving him food, helping him settle in to his new stable. He tells the others that he and Quicksilver have had a private chat. “He doesn’t want to meet those shady characters in Puisay again; the ones who hung around offering three times what we paid for him.” This chance remark fills Charlie with optimism for good material for the P. S. N. and arouses Sinet’s suspicion that All Is Not Quite Right.

Chapter Four.Lantoine Friday’s P. S. N. is dominated by news about Quicksilver. News, opinion, maps and a back page piece by Bobby written as though by the mule himself. He confesses he has lost his memory, but guesses he was mistreated by his former master and wonders where he is hiding now. He also refers to the large sums that were surprisingly being offered for him. Quicksilver challenges the reader to solve the problem and work out what happened to him and who was his master. He also reveals that he can be visited – for free if you had contributed to his fund, or for one franc if you hadn’t.

MarkovitchQuicksilver receives twenty or thirty regular visitors, much to the delight of Colonel Brousse who expects to increase his membership as a result. Lily is also delighted at the additional income. But the investigations quickly come to a standstill. Belmont suggests they widen their search area. But then Poussard arrives with news from Verrières-le-Buisson; it might belong to M. Lantoine, the market-gardener. Lantoine told Poussard that his mule Dynamo wasn’t missing and was well-behaved; but Poussard didn’t believe him. Flatfoot leads a group of them to Lantoine’s farm on the pretence that they have to take a photograph of a mule. Lantoine lets them visit Dynamo’s stable, but warns them he can be grumpy. But true enough, there’s a mule there, who got very grumpy when they photographed him.

Meanwhile at the riding club, Brousse gets an unexpected visitor in the form of Vlado Markovitch of the Brandenburg Circus in Rotterdam, resplendent in a Tyrolean hat, looking for a mule to join the Bengal Tigers in their circus act. It sounds very unlikely – but Brousse directs him to where Quicksilver is stabled.

Chapter Five. Inspecting QuicksilverBobby has been spending all his spare time looking after Quicksilver, and already the mule is in better condition. Bobby was just chatting to him and preparing to leave for the evening when Markovitch approached him. He repeats his unlikely offer (which includes five thousand francs for the owner) which has Bobby in fits of laughter. Bobby tells Markovitch to tell Quicksilver the plan, at which “the mule suddenly shot out its neck. Its teeth snapped so close to Vlado’s ear that the Tyrolean hat flew up into the air.”

The offer obviously rejected by both boy and mule, Markovitch goes off, muttering angrily. The Colonel asks how much he offered Bobby, and deduces “I’m beginning to think that the animal’s been involved in something pretty murky.” Bobby agrees – but anything that Quicksilver has told him is staying a secret for the moment. Sinet arrives, and goes up to the stall. The Thiriet brothers are there, talking with Joel Brousse and Poussard. Meanwhile, Quicksilver enjoys chewing on Sinet’s Gitanes cigarettes.

They are all perplexed as to why people are willing to part with so much money for the mule, when he’s not worth anything like that much on the market. Sinet’s suspicion is that he was “used in some criminal activity, and that he might be recognised by someone who witnessed what happened, and that this would give the police a lead to the crooks who used him.” He thinks further: when the crooks thought the mule had died, they thought they were in the clear. But when they discover that he survived, and has been bought from the slaughterhouse, they have to do something to get him back. And Sinet’s not convinced that Lantoine has no connection with the crime either; although there’s no need to question him further at the moment. “Just leave it all to Quicksilver, or rather to Bobby.”

Chapter SixQuicksilver and the cartBrousse secures his copy of the latest P. S. N. It tells how a character (now named Igor Popovitch) has appeared at the stable wanting to buy the mule. Quicksilver’s own reminiscences are also in print (courtesy of Bobby). He says he remembers being led away by Popovitch and then being knocked down by more than one car and left to die – and when Popovitch returned to collect him, he refused to go along with his story. “I’d rather have died in the slaughterhouse than trot round the ring in front of five thousand people with a Bengal tiger perched on my back.”

That afternoon at the stable, an older boy named Langlais – one of Charlie’s enemies – comes to see Quicksilver. It turns out he knows Lantoine and Dynamo. Dynamo has a tendency to escape and cause damage, so Lantoine decided to get rid of him. Langlais is convinced Quicksilver is Dynamo. Bobby tells him to go to the P. S. N. offices, tell Charlie, and go off with Belmont to confront Lantoine.

Langlais and Belmont help the market-gardener with some work and Langlais goes to see Dynamo. He realises it’s a different mule – and Lantoine confirms this. “Every mule I’ve had for the last twenty years has been called Dynamo. This one’s the fourth in the line.” Lantoine goes on to tell the boys what happened to the previous Dynamo. “About the middle of December, some idiot came round and gave me two thousand francs for that lump of dogs’ meat. I managed to replace that horror and still have a bit over as well – this mule only cost me half that.” But who was it who bought the mule? Broquin, an ugly nurseryman from Puisay, accompanied by “a fat little man, as dark as an Indian, with a little moustache. Very well dressed, he was.” Could that be Markovitch, thinks Belmont? Lantoine agrees that Broquin paid too much for Dynamo: “[he] didn’t know the prices and he didn’t bargain for more than a few minutes. He wanted a mule and a cart in a hurry for some sort of job. I don’t know what it was. He paid me in cash and off he went. What he did next is none of my business.”

It’s agreed that Lily and Langlais should go to see Broquin.

Chapter Seven. The two investigators walk around the nursery as though they’re lovey-dovey in love. Eventually Broquin introduces himself to them and asks how he can help. They respond by asking about plants they can put on the balcony, but inside they are shocked that the man they are talking to is Broquin as he is not ugly, and nothing like the description that Lantoine gave. Broquin sadly tells them that he’s retiring soon – against his will, but there was no future in his business. But he doesn’t believe the two and asks for the real purpose of their visit. “A mule”, replies Langlais. Broquin introduces them to his mule – a little yellow tractor, that does the work far better. But when Langlais explains exactly why they are there, Broquin is offended. He denies any knowledge of the animal and escorts the pair off his property. But as they are ready to leave, Langlais spots hoof-marks on the edge of the path. The penny drops, and Langlais offers to help find out if he sold goods to someone with a mule on the day in question. “Your fellow seems to have been here with his mule and cart on the sixteenth of December last. He made four trips during the course of the afternoon to remove six tons of compost and twenty bags of fertiliser. He paid cash.” His name? Lantoine. So it’s a double bluff.

And that’s not all. The day before, another man was looking for a big load of compost. A well dressed, middle-aged gentleman. It doesn’t add up. Why “he should have considered it essential to buy a mule and cart especially for the job […] when a tipper-truck would have finished it all in one go.” They tell Broquin to start buying the P. S. N. to find out more. Broquin’s final suggestion is that “now you’ve got hold of the mule, why don’t you try to get hold of the cart?”

Chapter Eight. CartThe first decision of the day at the P. S. N. is to give a name to the mystery man who has duped by Broquin and Lantoine. Laurent suggests Slewjaw because both men said his jaw was lopsided. Then Lily comes up with the idea that the cart might have been left on a car-dump. Belmont agrees to check out the site at La Croix-de-Berny, and Jacques the place at Wissous.  When Belmont returns, he has no news – the site is a free for all, and anyone could help themselves to anything there. And there was no sign of the cart.

Jacques, however, has more luck. He’s entranced by watching the hydraulic press that crushes the metal of all the old vehicles that have been dumped there. But then he spies a little cart – “painted dark green, it had rubber tyres with wavy treads and it seemed in first-rate order.” There’s a sticky black mess at the bottom, which Jacques believes is the remains of the compost after rain. The foreman offers it to him for a hundred francs, but Jacques tells him he only has fifty. The offer is accepted, and the business concluded.

Chapter Nine. QuicksilverJacques hurtles at full speed to the stable to tell Bobby that he has found Lantoine’s cart. Bobby instantly asks him if he completely sure and Jacques feels slightly worried but is satisfied he did the right thing. They tell the Colonel, who suggests Bobby leads the mule to Wissous. Bobby is very alarmed at this – happy that he’s got the confession from Bobby that he isn’t 100% in tune with the animal, Brousse agrees to send one of his lads, Candau, with him. On the way, Candau, whose nickname is Tom Thumb, tells Bobby he thinks Quicksilver is a difficult animal, hard to predict or understand. Bobby thinks the mule is frightened taking this journey. Nevertheless, when they get to Wissous, Quicksilver seems to recognise the cart and Candau hitches it to the mule, whilst Bobby goes for a walkabout.

Bobby is shocked when he recognises someone in the office, through the window. The manager’s name is advertised as Carbonato, but it’s Markovitch! Bobby panics and tells Candau they have to get out quick. But at the exit, the foreman asks to see Bobby’s receipt again. They realise the men working there had stopped their work and were starting to surround them. “But Quicksilver had other ideas. He suddenly took the bit between his teeth, swung round in the opposite direction and tried to make his escape down a side-path beyond which nothing was to be seen. A workman sprang up in his path, waving an oxy-acetylene cutter that spat a long blue flame. Quicksilver gave a heart-rending bray and swung off, galloping still faster. The cart rocked crazily over the rutted ground. It was then Bobby realised that the mule was going through the same nightmare sequence of events as before, in the same surroundings and with the same tormentors.” When Bobby looks round and sees the workman push up his mask, he sees he has a lopsided face – it’s Slewjaw!

Meanwhile Candau is terrified because Quicksilver is out of control. Heading once again for the motorway, the mule manages to stay on his feet “and still he galloped on, twisting and turning among the speeding vehicles” but they get to the Wissous fly-over, Quicksilver slows to a walk and somehow they make their escape on the quiet road to Puisay.

Back at the stables, Candau confirms to the others that Carbonato’s men were like a bunch of rustlers and that they all had it in for the mule. Meanwhile Charlie and the gang were investigating the cart and discovered hidden away at the bottom five plastic bags containing what they think is artificial fertiliser. Later Sinet comes along and confirms that Carbonato-Markovitch and Slewjaw both have police records. And another surprise: “Among the men who scared you so badly was one of our plain-clothes squad. It was Quicksilver who wrecked everything […] We let the little fish swim around until we can catch fifty or a hundred at once. In other words there’s someone behind Markovitch and Slewjaw – the big fish. And until we can get our hands on him, we’ll never be able to solve the mystery.”

Chapter Ten. The headline on the next P. S. N. read Mule on the Motorway Again! and had a print run of 5,000 copies sold at double the usual price – fifty centimes. Flatfoot sent a copy to Carbonato Carwreckers, just for good measure. Brousse and Sinet buy their copies at exactly the same time and start reading. The Colonel asks Sinet more about their undercover officer. He deals with “industrial offences”. Puisay “has grown far more important than its neighbours from the point of view of research and technical equipment. Inevitably this modernisation has attracted a certain type of criminal to the town. Their activities are unpublicised, they work in the shadows and they seldom use violence, but they do as much damage to the economy of the country as a whole wave of recessions… Do I have to tell you who they are?” “Industrial spies?” murmured the Colonel […] “The cream of the joke,“ Sinet added, “is that our budding detectives haven’t guessed what the whole business is about, yet. The only thing that seems to matter to them is to expose the cruelty inflicted on that beast of burden they’ve taken under their wing.”

Charlie asks, through his newspaper column, for witnesses to the unloading of the compost from the cart to help trace Quicksilver’s steps; and Bobby has written another eloquent article by the mule. To the Colonel’s surprise, Sinet thinks that by following the evidence of the cart and the compost the boys are getting closer to the truth. And the first person to arrive at the P. S. N. offices as a witness is Madame Deuzy, who still gets a free copy of the paper after her help in solving the case of the Black Cat. She reports having seen the mule, with cart and man walking alongside, several times on the same day, a damp and foggy afternoon sometime in December. The boys try to work out Quicksilver’s route from a map based on what Madame Deuzy has told them. They conclude that the most likely route was along the Rue Pincevent. Other witnesses confirm this – but the trail vanishes somewhere down the Boulevard de Rungis. Charlie and Jacques get into an argument about what to do next, with Charlie caring more about his circulation and Jacques caring more about Quicksilver.

The argument is interrupted by the arrival of Patard, Sinet’s colleague. He has information for them. He lives in the Rue Gaboriau, off the Boulevard de Rungis, and saw Quicksilver trot by with his cart several times on the 16th December. Charlie offers him his last cigarette, and Patard remembers that it wasn’t more than ten minutes between seeing the mule going in one direction and coming back in the other – so the delivery point for the compost can’t be far from the Rue Gaboriau. It’s late, but Charlie needs the copy for the P. S. N. Flatfoot agrees to play the part of Quicksilver and time a journey from outside Patard’s house and see where he arrives five minutes later.

Chapter Eleven. ArimecaFlatfoot gets into character at the Rue Gaboriau as he pretends to be Quicksilver, emulating his “heavy and regular tread”. As bemused onlookers watch on, he heads towards the Boulevard, uncertain which direction he would take from there. He turns right – Charlie yells stop at the moment his stopwatch reached five minutes – and Flatfoot/Quicksilver had reached the premises of a company called Ariméca. This doesn’t seem a likely place for Quicksilver to have brought four deliveries of compost. A van approaches the building and is subjected to an intense automatic security check before being allowed in.

The boys (and Lily) have never seen such a contraption before, so Flatfoot plucks up courage to ask the security guards what it was for. They say it’s an ultra-sensitive radiation detector. And anyone or anything going in or out is subjected to the same scrutiny. Even a mule and a cart. Stunned by this comment, the guard continues: “A few months ago our Assistant Works Manager was raising a roof for some compost to go on the flower-beds round the office block. Then some nurseryman from Puisay offered him four cart-loads which were duly delivered one afternoon. This was the occasion when the portcullises at Ariméca were raised for a mule.”

The guard offers to give Flatfoot an exhibition of how Oscar, the machine, works. But once all seven of them have walked through to watch, the portcullis comes down and they are trapped. “It’s our job to hold any inquisitive people we find hanging around the gates”. “Bring them to me!” says a snarling voice via the intercom.

Chapter Twelve. However, when the gang met the two men who were waiting for them inside, the first thing Charlie notices is that they have copies of the P. S. N. on a table. The first man introduces himself to them as Commissioner Charrel; the other man is Monsieur Steven who’s in charge of security at Ariméca. They know all about the gang from conversations with Sinet. Charrel asks them what they hope to achieve with their investigations, and Jacques replies that they don’t know – and it depends on what is being manufactured at Ariméca. Steven explains: “Ariméca is a research centre financed by a dozen major organisations specialising in the production of heat-resistant metals. A few months ago a sample of tetrital was stolen from our laboratories. This is a revolutionary alloy designed for use in the manufacture of space-capsules and capable of standing up to temperatures in the region of 3000°C. Our directors were at their wits’ end. They were in danger of losing all profit from the discovery should it be prematurely revealed.”

Charrel goes on to say that the company contacted Interpol, who put Charrel on to the case. They’re satisfied that the secret hasn’t left the country, but what they are looking for is a bar, eighteen inches long, weighing about two pounds. It was stolen and replaced by a different bar, but they think the original sample may still well be hidden in the building. The date the theft was discovered? December 17th. Charrel agrees that the men at the car-dump in Wissous are under suspicion. He thinks the boss there must have been tempted when he discovered how much foreign firms would pay for the secret of a new process. But the company hasn’t acted so far because they are waiting for the big fish to show up – whoever it is who would be willing to pay a lot for the bar. Lily suggests the bar could be hidden in the earth of some hydrangeas – an idea that Steven rejects. Charlie asks if he can name Ariméca in his articles – but Steven says if he tries that, he’ll bring an injunction on the printing works.

Chapter Thirteen. Langlais and the Colonel come to meet Bobby at the stable. He tells Bobby of the developments in light of the visit to Ariméca. Bobby listens quietly and impassively. In the end he says that nothing “won’t stop me believing that Quicksilver really did get out of the factory with the sample of that wonderful metal.” So why are Carbonato and Slewjaw so intent on getting the mule back? Maybe there’s something still in the cart? A thorough inspection reveals nothing. What about the bags of fertiliser? The club gardener took them. Bobby and Langlais inspect them closely and one bag is heavier – but it only reveals four horseshoes. Old ones of Quicksilver, maybe? So what shoes is he wearing now? The penny drops. Quicksilver is wearing shoes made of tetrital! Slewjaw must have substituted the shoes, and when the mule was outside the premises of Ariméca, they tried to get them off him, but frightened the mule so he did a bolt.

Langlais has another surprise. He remembers the description Broquin gave of the well-dressed man who asked him if he had compost for sale. He recognised that description in someone he’d seen very recently – Monsieur Steven! There’s no proof that Steven is wrapped up in this; but they decide to tell Sinet, who’ll tell Charrel. And Brousse has a plan, to lay a trap “with Quicksilver playing the part of the tethered goat.”

Chapter Fourteen. Who owns this muleThe next P. S. N. sells out rapidly. Charlie has written a great spread which includes a reconstruction of Quicksilver’s journey, the evidence of Mme Deuzy and Gendarme Patard (here renamed Tapard) and also the fact that a major part of the story remains censored. And Bobby’s column for Quicksilver shows that the mule wants to move on and leave his sorry past behind him. He recounts the way he passes his time every day, and adds that Bobby is going to get him a new set of shoes. Carbonato is not going to receive a free copy of this edition! Tom Thumb wonders how much Quicksilver’s shoes might be worth – Bobby suggests ten or fifteen million, making the mule more valuable than any Derby winner.

They put the bridle on Quicksilver and begin a walk into Puisay to visit the blacksmith, Monsieur Taupin. If Carbonato and his men want to kidnap him, Charrel’s watchdogs will be there to prevent it. Quicksilver started to get anxious as he sensed the motorway was near, but they reach the blacksmith’s yard and M Taupin starts work. The blacksmith is not impressed with Quicksilver’s old shoes – “it’s not even iron! Why,  your mule could have broken his neck twenty times over on his way here. You try running barefoot on gravel and you’ll discover what it feels like.”

Whilst Candau and Taupin have a beer together in the forge, Bobby and Quicksilver wait outside. Then four men come into the yard. Carbonato and Slewjaw, and two others. “Who owns this mule?” asks one. “I’ve never seen you before,” said Bobby with a nasty smile, “but someone was talking about you only yesterday evening. You’re Monsieur Steven, and you’ve come to grab the precious fragments of tetrital stolen from Ariméca… For your private account?” Steven is furious, but at that point Taupin appears. Carbonato offers to buy the shoes that have been removed from Quicksilver but Taupin says they are already sold. “Who to?” And Commissioner Charrel appears, with the four horseshoes tied together. Steven and the other men try to make their escape and walk straight into the hands of Sinet.

Sinet has a plan for Quicksilver’s retirement, working at a Wild West Club in Chantilly “where anyone from Paris who wants to play at cowboys can let off steam.” The last P. S. N. to wrap up the story of the mule on the motorway has to be written quickly so a new issue can be printed the next day. Sinet tells Bobby that his success in solving this case means he’ll almost certainly get promotion, and Bobby is delighted for him.

And what next for Bobby and the gang, the P. S. N. and the local police? A story concerning a goldfish? “The new chemist in the Avenue de Paris has been giving one away to all his customers.” There must be a story in that!

 

A Truckload of RiceTo sum up; A very satisfying, amusing and readable book with entertaining characters and a surprisingly inventive story with a great surprise ending. And, again, the story sets another book up featuring Bobby and the gang, this time involving the goldfish. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book that results from Charlie’s suggestion that next time Bobby becomes involved in an intrigue surrounding a goldfish, Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère des poissons rouges, translated into English as A Truckload of Rice. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

Review – An Improbable Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st March 2022

An Improbable MusicalCunning use of language in that title, as it’s not only improbable because this is an improvisation show, so who knows what musical the cast will come up with every night, but also because the show is co-produced by a company called Improbable. Although their name suggests one of those lesser successful teams on an iffy series of The Apprentice, Improbable are, actually, an innovative theatre company that takes all manner of performance arts and mixes them together to make exciting and unpredictable new pieces. So now you know.

I must confess, gentle reader, that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have been great fans of the improvisation genre in the past. I never really got the appeal of Whose Line is it Anyway (although everyone else did) and improvisation that I’ve seen on stage normally just raises a few minor chuckles at best. So I didn’t have massive hopes that I’d enjoy this show much – but, of course, I went in with an open mind and a glass of Shiraz to ease the pain.

The CastVerdict: it was a lot funnier than I expected! We were all advised at the beginning that they were two cast members down due to the dreaded Covid, but the structure of the show is such that you got no sense that anyone or any element was missing. One of the things I tend to dislike about improv is the audience constantly having to come up with ideas for the next sketch. But in this show, the audience were just asked three simple questions at the beginning, and the cast set about incorporating those answers during the show. That’s the audience input over and done with.

The process of identifying the audience’s responses within the material that emerges on stage is a source of great amusement. Sometimes you can see it looming obviously right at the beginning of a scene; sometimes it creeps up on you unexpectedly during a conversation or song. Hats off to everyone for seamlessly tailoring their material around the audience’s chosen subjects. It worked extremely well.

Adam CourtingWhat makes this show different from other improv shows is the musical aspect – yes, the clue’s in the title. This is not just an evening of sketches, but an attempt to put together a piece of musical theatre, with a distinct narrative that more or less makes sense from a distinct start to a distinct end. And they pretty much nailed it. Yes, one or two of the scenes came across as a mite random and overly-prolonged; I guess one of the problems with this genre is that you can’t always tell at the beginning of a scene how well it’s going to hang together or how funny it’s going to be. But for the most part it was funny and musically rewarding.

Our story concerned the trial separation of long-married Daisy and Simon and their adventures whilst apart. I really loved the scene where Daisy met up with her old college friends only to realise their relationship was more intimate than she had expected! This was interspersed with another story thread of a single mother finding she’s attracted to a man in a red hat. But who knows what story they’ll perform from show to show? The depth and intensity of the workshopping that they must have done to prepare for this run must have been immense, and it’s a credit to everyone that there wasn’t one moment where things broke down; such self-confidence deserves massive respect.

Josie LawrenceIt’s very much a team effort, but I must give special mention to the wonderful vocal characterisations of Ruth Bratt (not many people can make an entire theatre guffaw at the word cacao) and Niall Ashdown, whose Simon managed to be the biggest drip in the shower whilst still being irresistible to women. And of course Josie Lawrence, whose prestigious musical theatre background lit up her performances of a couple of searing big numbers. All this plus a group of musicians who instinctively knew which direction the show was going without comparing notes with the cast; as I said, that preparation must have been immense.

A unique entertainment, and performed with great style and wit. And no two shows are the same! Catch it at the Royal Theatre before it closes on Saturday night.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 26th February 2022

Screaming Blue MurderTime for another Screaming Blue Murder – you know the traditional event: hosted by the wonderful Dan Evans, with three delightful acts and two marvellous intervals, an up-for-it boisterous full house of an audience, loads of laughs and, all being well, everyone out by 10:30 to get on with the rest of their weekend. In fact, it’s such a predictable entertainment that you could almost set your clock by it. Everything runs to plan, no one stays sober, everyone goes home happy.

Dan EvansBut is the course of true comedy always that predictable? Not so on Saturday night. It all started well. Dan bounded on with his usual energy (having bigged himself up on the microphone before it started) and spent the usual twenty minutes or so getting to know the audience. We encountered young Daniel, 18 – the most amiable skinhead you could ever meet – and his girlfriend Izzy, 17 (their ages are relevant, trust me); five cats-owning Health and Safety manager Jenna with her ghastly tale of someone who fell in a shredder; the aggregate lorry driver and the long-partnered couples who sat apart. All jolly stuff going nicely to plan.

Rachel FairburnTwo of the three acts were new to us; the other we saw quite recently. First up was Rachel Fairburn, new to us, with a likeable personality and a sister she hates; she’s not sure how, but apparently her Manchester accent is sexy (and, on the whole, I wouldn’t disagree). She has some telling and well thought-out material about OCD, and how it isn’t just a matter of liking things neat and tidy. Her set was going well and we were all laughing a lot when she introduced her next subject – serial killers.

She was just about to mine some comedy material out of the appalling Jeffrey Dahmer, when a young man in the audience became unwell – seriously so. Everything stopped; people were concerned. Rachel actually went to get him a glass of water, but it soon became clear this wasn’t going to resolve itself quickly. Mr Sound Man announced an early interval, and we all went outside in stunned silence for a drink whilst the paramedics attended to the poor chap. Ms Fairburn never got to finish her story or her set, and wasn’t seen again. We were immensely impressed with the way the staff handled the incident, and the speed with which the young chap was taken to hospital. Hopefully, all’s well that ends well. The unpredictability of a comedy night.

Toussaint DouglassBut the show must go on, and our second act was the excellent Toussaint Douglass whom we had seen last year at a Comedy Crate gig. He has a very warm personality, and some terrific material about having a middle class girlfriend, and the pros and cons of being in a mixed-race relationship. He has a great stage presence and delivers his excellent material with confidence and authority. He was able to turn the gig around back to being a good night out and not an oh dear I hope that guy is ok night.

Tom WardOur headline act, and someone else we hadn’t seen before, was Tom Ward, a guy with a thatch of impossible hair that he insists isn’t a wig, an innocent-looking selection of backing music tracks to his side and an incredibly mischievous personality to boot. Put the three together and you have a wonderfully anarchic half-hour. He poked fun mercilessly at Daniel for being a nonce (Daniel took it like a man), then later questioned the guy at the back why his girlfriend wasn’t with him. Dissatisfied with the answer, Mr W got his phone off him and rang her up for us all to listen to her reasoning. Result, it’s not looking good for the relationship. He ended with a brilliant version of Cher’s Believe that has to be seen and heard to be… well… believed.

What could have ended in an uncomfortable night for everyone ended in hilarity, thank Goodness. I felt sorry for Rachel Fairburn ending her set by not ending it, if you see what I mean. But at least we think the audience member was ok. Let’s hope so. Next Screaming Blue is on 12th March and is already sold out. See you there!

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 25th February 2022

Much Ado About NothingYou know how you wait two years for a bus and then three all come along at once? This is the fate of Much Ado About Nothing for 2022. Not only has it been chosen as the opening “Big Play” for the RSC at the beginning of the year, but there’s also a production by Simon Godwin coming at the National Theatre this summer and in September we’re seeing a production by Robert Hastie at the Crucible in Sheffield. But then it is an enduringly popular play and there’ll always be a demand for it.

BenedickMichael Balogun, who was originally cast as Benedick, withdrew from the play days before Press Night which has played a spot of havoc with the timings for its reviews. But if we have learned nothing else from the pandemic, it’s that the show must go on. And there’s no doubt about it, it’s a fascinating production. If you are a loyal reader of my random jottings, you’ll know that one of my  watchwords is that I much prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. And this is one of those occasions. Yes, for the most part, this production fails to deliver on many levels. But, my word, does it put in a brave attempt to do so, and does it have a lot of fun getting there!

Claudio Leonato and HeroSet in some kind of futuristic otherworld, traditionally this play takes place in Messina, but this dramatis personae has been no nearer Italy than an outer space Pizza Express. This is a world of glowing orbs, fanciful fruits, swirly benches and magic blackboards. No extravagance is understated in the set or the costumes, with outrageous headdresses, topiaried hairdos, gold-emblazoned tabards, a Robocop-style constabulary and formal white wellies. Hero’s wedding dress resembles a huge butterfly, while Beatrice frequently reminds you that the spirit of Xena Warrior Princess is not dead. Facial make-up includes enough glitter, swirls and highlights to make Adam Ant look like a funeral director. Characters appear descending from the Flies or via a floral walkway. It’s as though Shakespeare has been taken over by The Magic Roundabout with Ermyntrude and Zebedee as the bickering lovers.

Aruna Jalloh and Adeola YemitanDone wrong, this could look cheap, tacky and ridiculous. But it’s a huge credit to Jemima Robinson’s set and Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costume design that it comes across as innovative, luxurious and aspirational. Imagine going on holiday to this futuristic playground – you’d be on a permanent high! Femi Temowo’s accompanying music is cleverly pitched, near-outrageous, and frequently off-putting; a kind of louche jazz that suggests a whole new notational language of music that we don’t recognise yet. You’d expect magic mushrooms in the saxophone and amphetamines in the keyboard, and it’s simply, thoroughly, delightfully and disconcertingly weird.

BeatriceThere are also some terrific performances, none more so than Akiya Henry’s irrepressible Beatrice, who gives us one hilariously cantankerous appearance after another, chockfull of inventive characterisations, impetuous mischief and some brilliant physical comic business. The best scene in the whole play is where, separately, both Benedick and Beatrice overhear how the other is apparently in love with them; and Ms Henry’s contortions to hide behind or blend in with the set’s outrageously stylised vegetation so she can’t be noticed is comedy genius. By comparison, Luke Wilson’s Benedick comes across as an unusually decent sort of chap, rather reasonable and sensible. As a result perhaps there aren’t quite as many fireworks set off in the interchanges between the two characters, but at least Benedick is a beacon of sobriety in an otherwise hippy-trippy world.

Don PedraAnn Ogbomo is also outstanding as Don Pedra (minor quibble, but shouldn’t she be a Donna?) with tremendous stage presence and a gloriously authoritative voice that commands you listen and pay attention. Micah Balfour is also excellent as the manipulating Don John, and Taya Ming also impresses as a rather childlike and fragile Hero. Karen Henthorn plays the difficult role of Dogberry purely for laughs and gives us some excellent malapropisms.

Don JohnWasn’t it Shakespeare who said – and I think it was – the play’s the thing? And that, sadly, is where this production starts to fall apart. In his vision for the play, director Roy Alexander Weise has turned all his attention to the look of the thing, but not much thought has gone into its meaning. The futuristic otherworld is beautifully realised, but what light does it shed on, say, the motivations of Don John, or the common sense of Claudio, let alone whether Benedick and Beatrice have a future together? The bright façade of the production has seeped through to the plot, making almost all the characters much more lightweight and shallower. There’s little sense of the danger or tragedy that lurks beneath the surface because it’s all just a bit too nice and bland.

The Cast of Much AdoIt also bumbles and stumbles along at a very slow pace, and at three-and-a-quarter hours feels way too long. The second half in particular gets very boring at times, and feels very stop-starty with the plot progression; you feel the occasional urge to mutter just get on with it, rather than stop for another bit of music and sombre standing around. Scene changes need to be more dynamic – Act One ends with a whimper rather than a bang and no one has a clue whether to applaud or not; the movement of the actors needs to be more decisive and meaningfull; in fact, the whole thing just needs to be a lot snappier.

UrsulaDefinitely a brave failure rather than a lazy success. I hope the RSC keeps the set and costumes and uses them to much more telling effect in another play. Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 12th March.

 

Production photos by Ikin Yum

3-starsThreesy Does It!