Not Quite a Review; or Half a Macbeth is better than None – Chichester Festival Theatre, 28th September 2019

71563150_757734678019221_7876332965544853504_nOne of the big attractions of this year’s Chichester Festival has been the prospect of John Simm as Macbeth. One of my favourite actors, he was brilliant in Sheffield’s Betrayal a few years ago and packed a whacker of a punch in one of the recent Pinter at the Pinter season productions. With Dervla Kirwan as his Lady M and Christopher Ravenscroft as Duncan, what could possibly go wrong? So it was with excited feet that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum, dodged the raindrops down to the Festival Theatre last Saturday night. We had already enjoyed the new production of Hedda Tesman in the afternoon, and were looking forward to a bit of Out Damned Spot and Infirm of Purpose over the course of the evening.

Duncan on that glass floorAmong the most notable aspects of this production is its glass stage. Set a little bit on high, it consists of several panels joined together which allows for an extravagant lighting plot to create multitudinous effects; and also you can see the rough earth beneath, perfect for opening up grave space with all those deaths. However, sadly, I can’t really review this production for you, gentle reader, because we only saw the first half. Macbeth’s hired murderers were just about to do Banquo in when one of them placed his foot at what must have been a million-to-one wrong angle and KERSHATTERCRASH! the glass panel beneath him cracked into a million tiny shards. At first we all thought it was a magical effect. Maybe each time Macbeth hath murdered sleep, a fairy dies on a glass panel. But no. Once Banquo had sunk into the ground and the Weird Sisters (I blame them) gave us a moody tableau, the lights went up for the interval and a host of backstage and front of house staff huddled around the offending glass panel looking severely worried.

Absolutely ShatteredUndeterred, we went out for our interval Tempranillo, where a slightly perplexed audience was mingling, half in hope and half in disappointment. We wondered how quickly they could get Autoglass to come out and repair…. probably not until Great Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane, which is Monday at the earliest. After a longer than usual interval we resumed our seats and awaited developments. The offending panel had by now become a star feature of many a theatregoer’s selfie; the usual warning against taking photos had gone right out of the window.

Lady MEventually someone, I believe the theatre’s deputy executive officer, who was obviously otherwise watching Strictly at home but was on emergency callout,  came on to the stage and apologised but the show just couldn’t go on – it simply wouldn’t have been safe for the cast and she wasn’t prepared to take that risk. We all applauded – it was clearly the right decision. Audience members would be welcome to transfer their tickets to another performance, or, (as in our case) receive a full refund – sadly Chichester is just too far for us to pop down midweek.

MurderersJudging from the first half, it wasn’t shaping up to be the best Macbeth I’ve seen, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. Mr Simm was a trifle light on the evil side but I think that was building up. Ms Kirwan was a little over-pretty in her characterisation and, generally throughout, there was a lot of declamation, a little like the respectful delivery you’d expect at a worthy middle-class school production. Christopher Ravenscroft is, however, a very dignified and beneficent Duncan, although I was surprised how huggy everyone was with him. Not so much Yes My Liege on bended knee, more like Come here me old mucker.

Macbeth and Lady MOn the good side, the staging for Duncan’s last-night dinner, behind the screen whilst the Macbeths were plotting his murder, was incredibly effective. However, the screen was, I fear, overused, and when some of Lady Macbeth’s words appeared written on it as she was speaking, I couldn’t contain myself from bursting out “Oh What???” in barely contained fury at the gimmickry of it. The best performances – as at half-time – were definitely from Stuart Laing’s loyal Banquo and Michael Balogun’s precise and upright Macduff. However, as I haven’t seen the rest of the play, please ignore all my comments as to the show itself!

Weird SistersA great shame. I trust the manufacturer of glass panels is insured against coughing up what I would imagine would be at least a £40,000 claim for refunded tickets. Once again, the Scottish Play turns out to conceal a nightmare up its sleeve. Nevertheless, there’s always a silver lining; now that the Minerva Grill has stopped doing their late-night sharing food platters (BOO!!!!) we had longer to linger over our late-night curry at the Marsala City – highly recommended!

Review – Hedda Tesman, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 28th September 2019

71483760_244922176426745_4329428812208013312_nHenrik Ibsen is one of those playwrighting gifts that never goes away. He’s currently enjoying a revival which, by my workings-out, has been going on for at least sixty years. The challenge to make him relevant to today, whatever that means, is there if you want to take up the reins, although plenty of excellent Ibsen revivals play them straight, plucked out of the 19th century in all their dark and dismal glory, and they work as well as they ever did. On the other hand, there’s a trend to produce updated versions of our dour Norwegian hero. Only last week Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the excellent revival of Peter Gynt by David Hare at the National, which set him in modern-day Scotland, in a very effective time and place transformation. A couple of years ago the National Theatre toured with a “modern” version of Hedda Gabler adapted by Patrick Marber, which made the purists wince and was, on reflection, probably too clever-clever by half.

HeddaAnd now Cordelia Lynn has also adapted Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s possibly most performed play, featuring his disturbed protagonist fighting for breath in a life where she feels stifled. Where the title of Ibsen’s original stressed her inability to escape from the manipulative hold on her exerted by her late father the General, Ms Lynn’s apparently more conventional title, regarding her as Hedda married to Tesman, emphasises the stress on her from her marriage.

 Hedda Julie and TesmanMany of the changes that have been made to the original work extremely well. This Hedda is a much older woman, one whom you sense is more regretful of the past rather than fearful of the future – more of this later. Thea is no longer her friend but her daughter, which reveals a relationship where Hedda has never truly supported her child. Thea’s infatuation with Elijah brings him more closely into the family circle; perhaps, as a result, the sideline attentions of Judge Brack feel less intimidating or significant in this telling of the story than I have seen in previous versions. Bertha the maid is now a cleaner, employed by an agency; a professional woman on her own right who one feels can dictate her own terms much more positively than a mere servant, which adds just a little extra zest to the household. It’s a very successful repositioning of the play into modern times and does, indeed, retain the relevance of today.

TesmanHowever, as with freedom of speech, with freedom to update comes responsibility. By making these changes, the audience has to suspend its disbelief because modern technology renders quite a number of Ibsen’s structural markers outdated. It’s impossible to imagine, for instance, that when Tesman spent his night on the tiles with Brack and Elijah, and they weren’t going to make it back home, that Tesman wouldn’t have texted either Hedda or Thea to explain. No need for his daughter to wait up all night unnecessarily. Similarly, when Hedda cruelly (there’s no other real justification for this act) destroys Elijah’s original document through fire, it’s ridiculous to expect that he hadn’t already downloaded it onto his laptop; after all, when Thea proposes that she and her father should try to recreate Elijah’s work, the laptop is their first port of call. For me, those two problems make it very hard to accept that the story could happen, in the way it is presented, today.

Thea and ElijahWhilst we’re on the subject of inconsistencies, a couple of things really annoyed me – I think I am definitely turning into a grumpy old man. Thea and Tesman are working hard in the back-room area of the stage with the laptop, trying to re-write Elijah’s words. Tesman enters the living area saying they can’t work out back there because it’s too uncomfortable, with all the boxes around. You look up at the area to see where they have been working; and there are no boxes. Sorry, what? Similarly, at the beginning of the play Bertha starts to vacuum clean the floor. At the end of the play, she takes a mop and bucket to the same floor. Really? Mop and bucket on the carpet?

BrackAs a linguistic aside, this production might be the final hammer blow that makes the C word virtually acceptable – or pointless, your choice. Hedda uses it twice in the same speech and it has the extraordinary effect of drastically reducing both its meaning and its impact. I don’t think that was the intention; I think the intention was to shock, and to show how vicious Hedda is towards her own daughter. But, strangely, Hedda’s sentiments would have had much greater impact without using that word.

Hedda Get Your GunThat said, Haydn Gwynne is superb as Hedda; a tired, defeated, misunderstood figure, suffocated by the good intentions of her husband, and jealous of the freedoms and achievements of the younger generation. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a Hedda whom I thought was less likely to take her own life. There’s no sense of mental instability; although she may be unhappy with life, she really looks like she has it under control, and, if anything, you’d simply expect her to self-medicate on gin. So when that final, lethal, moment comes, it’s quite a shock, as I had completely forgotten that’s what was going to happen!

JulieI particularly enjoyed Natalie Simpson’s performance as Thea, with her scarcely concealed mixture of contempt and dislike for her mother (learned behaviour, I’m sure) but her wide-eyed appreciation for every step Elijah takes. There’s excellent support from Anthony Calf and Jacqueline Clarke as Tesman and Aunt Julie, and (maybe) slightly underpowered performances from Jonathan Hyde as Brack – who seems to lack relevance in this production – and Irfan Shamji as Elijah. Rebecca Oldfield’s Bertha is a bright spark who cheers up the stage whenever she comes on, bringing her positive, get on with it mood into the oppressive household.

BerthaWe saw the last matinee of its run at Chichester – and I was surprised at how undersubscribed it was. As a co-production with Headlong and The Lowry, the production now moves on to a run at The Lowry from 3 – 19 October. Book now – the inventive changes that have brought it into the 21st century make it definitely worth seeing.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th September 2019

Screaming Blue MurderWe were sorry to miss last fortnight’s Screaming Blue Murder but Mrs Chrisparkle and I were still lounging on the Costa del Northumberland. Back with a vengeance this week though, and it started with me unexpectedly helping host Dan Evans to rearrange the chairs as they’d prepared the room to a really odd and totally un-comedy-friendly layout. The things one does as a reviewer….

Dan EvansDan was indeed back on fine form, mining comedy nuggets from the front rows with the deft ease of a top-class surgeon isolating an unwary organ for removal. Through his auspices, we got to know the staff of Simply Business Insurance on an office outing, some geezers from Carlsberg, an army Commando and a manufacturer of corrugated boxes. You couldn’t make it up.

In a most unusual turn of events, we hadn’t seen any of the three acts before – and it’s been a very long time since I could say that! Our first act was Joe Jacobs, stressing his Jewishness quite a lot which didn’t quite make sense to me, but following it up with some excellent material including rap through the ages and a terrific little routine about mansplaining. He treads that fine line between slightly underperforming and performing with superb subtlety, so when his style pays off, it really pays off. A very good start.

Zahra BarriNext up was Zahra Barri, half Muslim, half Catholic, which was a comedy gift for her school career advisers. She’s tremendously funny with some terrific spiky material which she delivers with subtle panache rather than aggressive wham-bam, and it really works. So many brilliant little stories kept us in hysterics the whole time, but we particularly loved the material involving her mother keeping yogurt in the fridge and the most appropriate mascara for a Muslim. Absolutely first-class and we would love to see her perform again.

David WardOur headline act was David Ward, who looks and sounds like a mouthy wideboy down the pub but actually has one of the quickest brains in the business and had so much apparently off-the-cuff material that related directly to the audience members that he genuinely took my breath away. My favourite joke of his was about subscribing to a sponsored walk without reading the details, delivered beautifully with a throwaway climax line. Quite the comedy genius! A brilliant way to end a perfect evening of comedy.

And it’s on again next week!

Review – King John, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 26th September 2019

70124559_742892629505514_6444148602838188032_nKing John is one of Shakespeare’s more rarely performed plays, and what a pity that is, because it’s full of fascinating characters, splendid speeches, dramatic gruesomeness and the odd bit of humour. So when the opportunity comes around to share it with a whole new audience, it shouldn’t be wasted. I’ve never sided with the purists when it comes to Shakespeare – he’s big and strong enough to look after himself, and if a production comes along that takes liberties – to the extent that it doesn’t work – then you can always console yourself with the fact that another production will come along soon enough.

Rosie SheehyI must confess though, Eleanor Rhode’s mid-20th century, gender-swapping, vital scene-removing, and altogether flippant production really tested my patience. If it hadn’t been for the excellence of the performances – which were almost universally perfect – and also for the superbly recreated costumes (take a bow Max Johns) – I would have been darn tempted to leave at halftime. To be fair, that would have been an error on my part, as the show considerably calms down after the interval, as the quest to get to the finishing line trims down most of the excesses.

Michael AbubakarThe mood is set with a 60s pop opening soundtrack, and the sight of King John’s very long breakfast table, equipped with two 60s telephones, a posh transistor radio, and a bit of toast. Enter King, in jim-jams and crown, gulping down a hangover cure after what was presumably a heavy night; not that there’s any reason to believe that John was a drinker – we don’t see him touch a drop for the rest of the play. I think it’s an attempt to show that he’s a bit of a lad. A quick moment of comic business follows, with an unanswered phone which – I presume – is to suggest that the King is always in demand. If that’s the case, why don’t phones reappear in the rest of the production? Actually they do; in one moment of appallingly anachronistic and hackneyed comedy, when the papal legate enters the stage and does the internationally recognised “call me” signal to a member of the audience, forgetting that in the sixties we didn’t have mobiles. It’s this kind of inconsistency that reveals how poorly thought through is the whole directorial vision of the production.

King at BreakfastUsually, gender-swapping roles has the benefit of seeing a well-known text through fresh eyes; but when the play is not so well-known, and when so many other liberties have been taken with the original, messing with the gender of the character can cause some confusion. Another confession; in this instance, I found the fact that a man was played by a woman jarred. If it had been a more serious, traditional production, it probably would have worked – but this is a production that errs on the side of the ludicrous. Don’t get me wrong; as King John, Rosie Sheehy is a fine actor with great presence, excellent clarity of diction, and a deft knack of conveying mood swings. But she’s definitely playing King John and not Queen Jean – he’s referred to as a man throughout the play – but Ms Sheehy wears women’s attire – including a stunning gold coronation dress (another bow for the designer). She’s not giving us a male impersonation performance; we’re not watching Vesta Tilley here.

Arthur and Tom McCallSo why a female performer in the role? If the answer is, she was the best person available for the job, then I can understand that. True, it does allow for a moment of dramatic irony where the king cuddles up to Hubert in a semi-sexual way, implying that if he kills Arthur, he/she will make it worth his while; you must decide if that liberty with the script is acceptable or not. Otherwise, it tends to distort the relationships between the characters. Queen Elinor and John, for example, have a power-bond which looks and feels very different between mother and son instead of mother and daughter. Don’t forget this is a tragedy – even though at times it felt more like a pantomime. King John as Principal Boy, Philip the Bastard as Simple Simon and Cardinal Pandulph as the Wicked Witch. For the most part, I couldn’t take it seriously.

The English Court arrivesTake, for instance, those group comedy dance entrances, when the English or the French court appear on stage to a groovy soundtrack and attitudinal dance moves – they reminded me of the finale sequence in that highly successful production of Boeing Boeing about ten years ago; or the boxing scene, which I believe was meant to represent the siege of Angiers, but was much more reminiscent of Monty Python than Shakespeare; I would not have been remotely surprised for the Dauphin to have threatened “I wave my private parts in your general direction”. The food fight at the wedding, though beautifully choreographed, was reminiscent not so much of a ghastly family get-together but more of a comedy routine with Charlie Cairoli and his clowns – 60s pantomime through and through. Best performance by a Pastry Item in a Shakespeare play goes to the bit of cake that ends up in the King of France’s crown.

Wedding DayBut even when they’d cleared away all the jokey excesses of the first two hours, in the height of battle between the English and French forces, they fought…on two revolving trestle tables. I was so distracted by watching the wheels go around, checking to see if they fell off the stage, that I completely forgot to pay attention to the actors. And then – of all scenes to cut – they remove the scene where Arthur dies and is discovered by Pembroke and Salisbury. Instead, the dead Arthur reappears all bloodied and zombie-like a couple of times, presumably as a ghost, and you’re left to your own devices as to how he came a-cropper.

King of FranceThe few moments when the production did soar for me were when the direction took a back seat and the text shone through. The pleading by Hubert (should be the First Citizen, but we’ll let that pass) that Blanche and the Dauphin should marry to end the warring between England and France, and the subsequent reactions by the two forcibly engaged young people was a breath of fresh air. The scene where Hubert is required to murder Arthur, but doesn’t, is electric with tension. But sadly these tremendous moments were few and far between.

Katherine PearceAlong with a great performance by Rosie Sheehy as King John, I was extremely impressed by Michael Abubakar as the cocksure Philip the Bastard, sweet-talking his way into the affections of the crown; Bridgitta Roy as the superior Queen Elinor and a beautifully pitched performance by Tom McCall as the torn Hubert, agonising over the balance of between serving the King and retaining his own humanity. Katherine Pearce went down a storm and was clearly the audience’s favourite as the papal legate Cardinal Pandulph, although whenever I watched her all I could see was Patricia Routledge playing Victoria Wood’s creation Kitty from about 1984.

BoxingI’m not a Shakespeare purist – but there are limits. You can see the threads of a few directorial ideas, but they’re not followed through, and, despite some panache-filled performances, by trying to create a comedy out of a tragedy, it succeeds at neither. This one wasn’t for me. This production continues in repertoire at the Swan Theatre until 21 March 2020 and will be broadcast in cinemas on 29th April 2020.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

Review – The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 22nd September 2019

Beauty of TchaikovskyFantastic as always to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra back to the Derngate Auditorium for this first of this season’s concerts, with The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, a (dare I say it) slightly limp title for a full-force evening of music. What next, The Loveliness of Liszt? The Marvellousness of Mozart? Come on, RPO Marketing department, make the titles a bit snappier!

Gianluca MarcianoNot that the title put anyone off attending this concert because empty seats were few and far between for this programme of four exciting and occasionally challenging Tchaikovsky pieces. Our conductor for the evening was Gianluca Marciano, whom we haven’t seen before, and who is attached to a number of orchestras in exotic and mysterious places like Belarus and Lebanon. Who knew he would be attracted to the glamour of Northampton? Mr Marciano is a smart, theatrical, bouncy chap in a shiny tail suit who really feels the rhythm surging through his bendy knees, as he reaches on tippytoes to get the attention of the furthest-away musicians. They respond very well to him too, as the RPO were on terrific form throughout the evening.

Gemma SummerfieldOur first piece was the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op.24, an instantly recognisable, stately extravaganza with all strings ablaze, and a perfect way to start the show. Then it was time for our soloist, soprano Gemma Summerfield, who sang the Letter Scene from the same opera. Ms Summerfield looked fantastic in her stunning blue evening dress and – cliché time – has the voice of an angel. Her elocution is crystal clear (even if you don’t understand the Russian) and she sings with a full, rich warmth, oozing expression and attitude. This was her debut with the RPO but it’s a match made in heaven, so I hope they have a long and happy career together!

RPONext Mr Marciano took the orchestra through the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. My first thoughts were if this is an overture, how long is the entire ballet? But I was mistaken. There is no ballet, or opera, for which this is its overture. It is a stand-alone work, a kind of sonata that musically represents the entire Romeo and Juliet story. Although it’s one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known works, I hadn’t heard it before and I found it quite chewy in parts – not the performance, but the piece itself. It’s very in-your-face, highly expressive and the tragedy of the story really comes across in the toughness of the music, which the RPO conveyed superbly well.

RPO1-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of the Fifth Symphony in E Minor, Op.64, a masterful sequence of tunes and moods which really brings the strength out of the strings and provides a very haunting horn solo. But the whole orchestra gave it all incredible commitment, and the robustness of the piece and the performance was a wonderful way to end the evening. Look forward to enjoying some more of the concerts throughout the season!

Review – Peter Gynt, Olivier Theatre at the National, 21st September 2019

71596599_924542911248462_4164266991596601344_nI always thought it was a bit unfair that Willy Russell’s Rita was castigated for her “Do it on the radio” response to the essay about the problems with staging Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. For one thing – she’s reading English Literature, not training to be a director. And secondly, Ibsen was Norwegian the last time I looked, and Peer Gynt was written in Danish too. Personally, I think she nailed it. David Hare’s response to the same question is to bring the play bang up to date, set it in Dunoon (yes, Dunoon; I don’t know why either), and had the job over to the brilliantly inventive team of Jonathan Kent (Director) and Richard Hudson (Designer). Simples.

Gynt in the skyI’ve had a copy of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt languishing in my drama bookshelf since 1978 and never really had the motivation to open its pages – till now, that is. Whilst watching this new production I just got the sense that it was probably a pinpoint-accurate updating of the 150-year-old classic. So when I got home I speed-read the origina, and, guess what – I was right. The structure of Ibsen’s original play firmly (but fairly) frames Hare’s new work. Ibsen’s five acts have become a more manageable three acts under Hare – Ibsen’s first three acts become Hare’s first act, then Act Four becomes Act Two and Act Five becomes Act Three, if you get my drift. Yes, there are two intervals. You’re in this for the long haul. The bar does very good business.

Wedding PartyBut it’s not just the structure that bridges the 150 year gap. Peer (now Peter) still makes up stories that make his mother Åse (now Agatha) fume. He still leaves his mother on the roof, he still storms Ingrid’s wedding, she still refuses to come out of the bedroom until he whisks her away, has his wicked way (we presume) and dumps her. He still perplexes Mads Moen (now Spudface) with stories of his Invisibility Cloak (hands up who assumed J K Rowling thought of that first?) He still encounters the Woman in Green, the Trolls, the Boyg; he still gets robbed in North Africa (although in a much more 21st century way); he still appears as a prophet to Anitra, he still gets swept up in Begriffenfeldt’s asylum, he is still stopped in his tracks by The Button Moulder; he still breaks Solveig’s (now Sabine’s) heart. It’s an extraordinary feat of transposing the same sequence of 19th century folkloric events into 21st century Scotland.

Dining with the TrollsGynt’s picaresque journey through life is a constant delight. No matter how much of a liar or a cad he is, you’re always on his side – although you’re also quite happy to see him deservedly suffer every so often. His constant search for pleasure – whether it be sexual, financial, influential, or whatever – gets him into endless scrapes which provide episodic entertainment that build up to create a full life but a meaningless one. But there’s always a final reckoning; and it’s in Sabine’s arms and heart that he realises where his place was all along. Sometimes a play ends on a note of uncertainty, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions. Not in this case. Ibsen/Hare make the purpose of Gynt’s journey perfectly clear.

Gynt as the ProphetIt’s worth pointing out, in case you were expecting something po-faced and worthy, that Hare has taken the lively and rather insolent nature of Ibsen’s original text and created a very funny play, choc-full of modern references and terrific characterisations. This is not the doom-laden Ibsen of Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, but a much younger man’s play; in fact, it reminded me of the unexpected comedy of the young Chekhov’s Platonov – although that might have been because I saw James McArdle in that role too – more of him later.

SabineThe vast Olivier stage is the perfect venue for this wide-ranging, high-level imagination play. At the beginning, blue sky and clouds are projected over a back wall of doors and one opens to reveal Peter Gynt, his head already in the clouds before he even starts speaking; a visual nod to the surrealism of Magritte, an unexpected flight of stairs bringing him down to the real world, as though the play was starting with a deus ex machina rather than ending with one. Stage right, a grassy bank with a few surprise traps where a head can bob up (or, indeed, an onion); stage left, a black void that can be usefully transformed into the Hall of the Mountain King, a desert oasis or a wedding party. For the fifth act, storm projections create a magnificent effect of a ship at sea. For three-and-a-quarter hours (maybe more) the show’s visuals create a highly dramatic impact on your brain, and in many cases it’s the visual tableaux that you remember most in the days that follow.

Old GyntThere were three reasons why I particularly wanted to see this production. 1) I’ve never actually seen Peer Gynt before (don’t judge me). 2) I’ve long been an admirer of David Hare and even on those rare occasions where he does put a foot wrong it’s always a brave and fascinating foot. 3) James McArdle. He’s one of our most arresting actors and I don’t know why he isn’t better known. He was a brilliant ingénu Alexey in A Month in the Country and a hilarious lead in Platonov. I understand he was amazing in Angels in America, but sadly we didn’t see that. He has, however, matured into a first-class leading actor and he’s barely off stage for the whole of the show, giving us a devastatingly brilliant performance of a lovable rogue, with all his sarcasms, flights of fancy, dejections and everything else that Ibsen and Hare throw at their hero. A truly outstanding performance.

Death of AgathaAnn Louise Ross does a great job of conveying Agatha’s fighting spirit and her love of her son with her complete fury at his lies and his folly. There are a few other featured roles, but the nature of the play is that the rest of the cast form an ensemble that populate Gynt’s life and times whether it be in Dunoon, North Africa or somewhere lurking in the Hall of the Mountain King. Tamsin Carroll is both bewitching and alarming as the Woman in Green and Anitra, Jonathan Coy gives great bluster as Bertram and alarming sincerity as Begriffenfeldt, Anya Chalotra plays Sabine with a terrific blend of feistiness and calm resignation, and Oliver Ford Davies is perfect casting as the authoritative but reasonable Button Moulder. Amongst the minor roles Lorne MacFadyen as Duncan, Ezra Faroque Khan as the Captain and Guy Henry as Ballon and the Weird Passenger give great support. But everyone throws their heart and soul into creating a very impressive theatrical experience.

It’s running at the National Theatre just until 8th October. Glad I caught it before it closed! You should too!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Daliso Chaponda, Blah Blah Blacklist, Royal and Derngate, 20th September 2019

Daliso Chaponda Blah Blah BlacklistOne of the great finds over the past few years has been the brilliant Malawian comedian Daliso Chaponda. Although he’s been working away and building up his career over many years, he first came to my attention headlining a Screaming Blue Murder night a couple of years ago where he absolutely ripped the place apart. Then last year he brought his first ever touring show, What the African Said, back to the Royal and Derngate. Since then, he was a wow on Britain’s Got Talent, and now he’s touring with the show he took to Edinburgh this year, Blah Blah Blacklist.

Daliso ChapondaFrom the moment he walks on stage, you take Mr Chaponda to your heart. He’s so immensely likeable, in a cheeky, naughty way, with a wealth of slanted observations that you immediately recognise. He’s so approachable, in fact, that audience members feel totally at ease asking him questions or commenting (positively) on his material during the show, sharing their own experiences back at him; and it never throws him. Actually, he instead weaves the audience’s observations into his own patter, to the extent that he even does call backs on the audience’s contribution! There’s obviously a very quick brain at work here.

DalisoBlah Blah Blacklist is a game of two halves; in the first, he reflects on all those heroes of our shared past who no longer cut the heroic mustard, from Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris down. In the second, he creates some terrific stories relating to the political experiences of his own father, George Chaponda, who was Minister for Agriculture in the Malawian government. But there’s a whole heap of other comical asides and funny garden paths up which Mr C leads us. I particularly liked his account of the difficulties he faces with the current girlfriend and her wayward son. It all feels effortless; I’m sure it isn’t.

Daliso CMr Chaponda is one of those incredibly bright sparks who shines happiness whenever you see him. He doesn’t shy away from a challenge; nor does he ever make you feel uncomfortable. In fact, one of the most appealing aspects to his work is a feeling of respect for his audience. The show is very much a shared experience – and one I can definitely recommend sharing! His tour continues through till March next year and you can get tickets at his website. Spoil yourself!

Review – The Beatles: Hornsey Road with Mark Lewisohn, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th September 2019

HR Hornsey and Abbey RoadIf any fact could be designed to make you feel really old, consider this: on 26th September 2019 it will be fifty years since The Beatles released the Abbey Road album. Fifty years! And here’s me thinking it’s still relatively new. And to celebrate, The Beatles: Hornsey Road with Mark Lewisohn seemed like the perfect event. And so did many other people, if last night’s packed rows on all three levels of the Royal Theatre have anything to go by.

 

HR Mark LewisohnHistorian, researcher and all-round Beatles aficionado Mark Lewisohn has put together this fascinating insight into Abbey Road (the album, not the zebra crossing, although that features heavily), relating it to the personalities of the individual Fab Four, their lives and wives, their writing output, their inspirations and the machinations that went into creating this landmark work. No stone is unturned in delving deeply into the creative process, which also includes a unique opportunity to hear the songs from the album as you’ve never heard them before – split into the various (eight) parts that were mixed on the studio’s state-of-the-art technical hardware, as well as highlighting the contributions of George Harrison’s all-important Moog Synthesizer.

 

HR Abbey RoadA major delight of this show – which you could consider to be a multimedia lecture – is the constant supply of quirky facts, irresistible photos, and background information; and if I tell you about them, it will spoil a heap of surprises for you. So I won’t. Suffice to say, amongst the entertaining and informative content, you’ll discover that the Daily Mail hasn’t changed its spots, how much George Martin was paid to orchestrate up some of the tracks, to what extent they enjoyed recording Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, what happened to John and Yoko in Scotland, learn the true identities of Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam, why the last note of Her Majesty is missing, the tantalising recently released news about why the group went Cold Turkey on the next album, and how Abbey Road was nearly called Hornsey Road.

 

HR Waiting for the Abbey Road photoMr Lewisohn delivers his extraordinary material with respect, authority and humility, leaving all the fireworks to John, Paul, George and Ringo. If you ever feel that you’ve wasted your life, it’s incredible to think how much they achieved at such a young age; take a second to think that by the time the group split, George, the youngest, was still only 26. The pressure to succeed, the overwhelming adoration, followed by, in the latter days, the media’s desire to knock them down (à la Tall Poppy syndrome) must have been unimaginable for four young men, and it’s no wonder that they occasionally fell foul of the law and got themselves into trouble.

 

HR Fab FourYou might think that this show is only for Beatles geeks. Not true. Such geeks (of whom I’m possibly one), will get a whole lot of satisfying information which will send them home with a full brain and a contented heart. But, provided you like the Beatles to at least some extent – and that’s surely 99.9% of the population? – you’ll be impressed by the research, the passion, the history and the human insights into what Mr Lewisohn considers (and I agree with him) the finest creative team of the 20th century.

 

HR Abbey Road fansThis was the first night of the tour, and between now and 4th December Mr Lewisohn will be sharing his discoveries in 23 more venues all over the country – and in Dublin. A memorable and highly rewarding show. You must go!

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Street Musician (1956)

The Street MusicianIn which we meet Gaby and his gang again; whilst the toy horse from A Hundred Million Francs is out of action, they need to find a new adventure. One day Marion is asked to give one of her dogs to a blind man who plays the accordion on the street corner, and she gives him the beautiful Nanar, a dog with a bright yellow coat. However, when they next see the dog with the accordionist, it has changed colour – it is now a beautiful black dog. Why should that be? Gaby and the gang have to uncover the truth and it leads to much deeper things…

Le Piano à bretelleThe Street Musician was first published in 1956 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Piano à bretelle, which translates as The Accordion, with illustrations by Pierre Dehay. As The Street Musician, it was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1960. As in the previous book, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown, and illustrated by Richard Kennedy. My own copy of the book is the first Puffin edition, printed in 1961, bearing the price 3/-.

Once again we’re in Louvigny, that very workaday railway town just outside Paris, with its grim industrial atmosphere and air of poverty. The same streets, the same cafés that featured in A Hundred Million Francs are all back in the story, as is Gaby’s gang, happy to leave their “gloomy school” every day at four. Also making a reappearance is Inspector Sinet, although with a markedly less important role in this book.

It strikes me that The Street Musician is a much more reflective, and much less action-packed, story than its predecessor. Although Gaby is still in charge, the growing maturity of the characters of Marion and Fernand is the one most significant development within the gang members. They have an awareness that they are the outsiders in the gang, and are occasionally made to feel insecure by the actions of the others. “I’ve noticed for some time that we aren’t exactly everybody’s favourites” Fernand tells Marion. Later, he buys her a brooch for a shilling at a fair, which she proudly wears – until she loses it, much to her annoyance. It’s a symbol of their special friendship; too young to be a romance, but it does set them apart from the rest of the group.

povertyPoverty is still a tangible aspect to the story and to the gang. Considering they have so little, the purchase of the brooch is even more significant. But it creeps through in other parts of their lives. Gaby’s firework display at the end of the book amounts to nothing because he could only afford to buy cheap out-of-date stock. Most people throw toys or balls to their dog for them to play catch, but Berna points out that Marion throws stones for Fifi, because they are free.

1956 still wasn’t long after the end of the Second World War and its legacy still scars this townscape. The gang’s new headquarters is close to a commemorative plaque that remembers twelve Resistance men who had fallen before a firing squad; the wall still bears the marks of the bullets. The hidden street, Rue du Bout de l’An, that is an integral part of the solution in the story, was created by setting up checkpoints by the Germans at the entrances to their depots during the Occupation. A hole in a wall, through which Juan spied the Bollaerts’ place, was caused by a wartime bomb that had never been restored.

There are some further indications about the hostility and loneliness of the environment; the Rue des Estaffiers is described: “harridans with their hair in curlers turned to stare in hostility as they went on their way. An urchin accompanied them to the crossroads, heaping them with choice epithets that were not current in the Rue des Petits-Pauvres.” The local kids adopt a gang rivalry against Gaby’s gang, but they have the decency to respect Zidore’s scars – a hard reputation can often be helpful. And the loneliness of the environment is beautifully encapsulated by these following sentences after Marion has been moved by the sad sweetness of the accordion playing: “The throbbing air of the gipsy love song spent its enchantment despairingly on an empty landscape from which the very birds seemed to have flown. The last notes fell away into the silence around them.”

Paul BernaBerna – and by necessity, with his translator Buchanan-Brown – certainly had a way with words. Whilst there are few words and phrases that one would today certainly associate with the latent racism of the age, I don’t believe there is any cruelty or discrimination intended in the emotions of the book – far from it. I loved his description of when Tatave revives, after his accident at the beginning of the book, “groaning like a cow with stomach ache”. There’s a very funny description of Criquet’s mother: “Though Madame Lariqué was built on formidable lines she was as nippy as a centre forward”. And there’s a charming summation of the message of this book through the words of M. Douin: “don’t forget the one thing in life that really matters is the trouble we give ourselves in order to help other people”.

I loved the accounts of the younger kids and their relationship with insects and birds; Juan with his tame sparrow Picolo, Tatve and Zidore releasing may-bugs into the classroom for general disruption; it’s such an innocent era away from our modern times of social media and knife crime. And you have to admire Gaby’s sneaky way of shortening lessons by tampering with the clock! The children are not goody-two-shoes at all, they’re right little scamps – which only makes you want to be part of their gang even more. Berna’s gift of expressing children’s emotions – from hilarity to loneliness – is again the driving force behind the book.

Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!

Waiting in the SquareChapter One – The Red Lorry. Once again we meet Gaby’s gang, all ten of them crammed onto a bench in Théodore-Branque Square, with Tatave, the fattest, hanging off the end. Tatave has his arm in a home-made sling, showing off his noble wound; but the gang are having none of that, and they all swayed on the bench to knock him sideways onto the ground.

Tatave is not the only one to bear a wound. Mélie has a black eye and facial scratches; Berthe’s head was wrapped up in a turban bandage; Zidore has a swollen nose and legs covered with antiseptic. This is all because Tatave lost control of the headless horse toy as it thundered down the Rue des Petits-Pauvres and flew straight into the limbs of his friends. However, the horse fared worse, disintegrating into a hundred different pieces. So now they need something new to get their teeth into. Marion comes up with the wise words: “adventures only happen to people who take the trouble to look for them”. She suggests they roam the streets of Petit-Louvigny in an orderly fashion in an attempt to sniff out a new adventure. Gaby agrees, so it’s a plan.

Fernand Douin, quietly but sensibly, realises that the Théodore-Branque Square is the perfect place for people watching. He also realises that a big red lorry, with the name Bollaert written on the side, had come up the same road at the same time for the last three days. It was the fact that the driver stared at him when he braked at the crossroads that really made Fernand suspicious.

The driver’s name is Paul Pierce; he’s English and works with his brother James at Bollaert’s. Berna’s description of them is very entertaining: “they had the same long horsey jaw, the same florid complexion and they kept their neighbours at a truly British distance”. After he’s brought his lorry back to Bollaert’s yard, he has a word with the boss about the children hanging around in the Square. He knows they’re the kids who solved the Paris-Ventimiglia case, and suspects they might cause their operations a problem. Bollaert isn’t worried. But now our curiosity is piqued – what are they up to?

Spare-A-CopperChapter Two – Criquet and the Small Ad. Following Marion’s suggestion that they look for adventures, little Bonbon decides to follow the tramp, Spare-a-Copper. He watches him get money off people in the street, then dive into the Café Parisien for some refreshment, then emerge again, “much more peculiar” than before. The tramp confronts Bonbon, demanding to know why he’s following him; and when Bonbon tells him it’s to see if he gets into a Cadillac, Spare-a-Copper is dumbfounded and runs off. Maybe he is hiding some secret?

Over the WaterWhen the gang meet up to report back on their findings, no one has discovered anything remotely adventurous. Even following Inspector Sinet, as Tatave did, only led to observing the Inspector play cards with some friends. Criquet, however, has found an advert in the paper, by a disabled man looking for a dog. Marion thinks her dog Nanar would be perfect for the man, so she promises to take him round the next day.

James PierceWalking home, Fernand tells Marion about a strange experience he had earlier. He had investigated the (allegedly busy) offices of Bollaert’s to find it was as silent as the grave. No one around. So he crept around a little more – and found himself captured by Paul Pierce and Bollaert. They send him on his way with a boot up the backside, and Fernand flees. He and Marion decide to keep it to themselves, and, later on, at home, Fernand decides not to tell his father the details, even though he’s curious to know what his son has been up to.

Meeting TheoChapter Three – The Mysterious Monsieur Théo. Next day, Marion, accompanied by Zidore, Juan and Fernand, takes Nanar to the address in the advert, 58 rue des Estaffiers, to hand him over to the disabled man. However, someone very different from what they expected opens the door. Monsieur Théo isn’t disabled, and according to Zidore, looks like “a retired wrestler”. Uncertain whether to give him Nanar, Marion is won over by the man stating the dog is for a blind man. Once the children leave, Théo, together with his henchman Sacco, dye the dog black – and at the sound of a man playing the accordion, Nanar leaps to his feet and goes to join his new master.

Chapter Four – A Useful Lead. The gang decide that Nanar can be their spy in the enemy camp, and work out the best way to keep an eye on him – and the Bollaert employees at the same time. Gaby organises the watch on all exits of the Rue des Estaffiers like a military exercise. Sinet nearly catches them planning, but they fob him off with an excuse.

The gang man their stations, but because they’re not expecting a black dog, they don’t notice a man coming out of No 58 with Nanar. Bonbon even goes to stroke the dog, not realising it’s Nanar. When Monsieur Théo does emerge, without a dog; they track him nevertheless, and if Théo does notice them, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Then, most unexpectedly, he turns straight into the Louvigny Police Station. Not wishing to attract Sinet’s attention again, they give up their quest for the day, but even more suspicious about what Théo is getting up to.

AccordionistChapter Five – A Tune on the Accordion. Théo leaves the police station with a couple of men and leads them back to the rue des Estaffiers. Sacco returns with Nanar, and two other men, Popaul and Lofty, show up. Théo obviously has plans for them all but we don’t know what they are yet. The two men from the police station promise Théo that they’re not afraid of hard work, which pleases him enormously.

The gang agree to try again the next evening, but Marion and Fernand note that they can hear some distant music. It’s the accordionist, black dog by his side, mournfully playing his music for the housewives of the rue des Petits-Pauvres. Marion, of course, instantly recognises Nanar, although she doesn’t say anything at first. The accordionist pauses; then plays one last song, Pour deux sous d’amour, then packs his instrument away and just sits on his campstool. After a while, the peanut-seller, Monkeynuts, makes a surprise appearance; he walks up to the accordionist, and they (and Nanar) walk off towards the station. The mystery thickens.

Chapter Six – Monsieur Bollaert Takes Flight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the accordionist was last seen (by Juan and Criquet) walking into 58 rue des Estaffiers. At school the next afternoon, whilst the boys are trying to come to terms with the vagaries of the hypotenuse, they could hear the accordionist in the street outside, which made them itch to finish school early and follow him.

Keeping a sensible distance, they trail him to the rue de Paris, where Marion and Fernand, seated on a bench, pretend to do homework. At around 5pm, Monkeynuts appears, tries rather unsuccessfully to sell some nuts, then sits on the bench next to the children and complains about trade. They obediently sample his nuts. Then Amédée, the newspaper seller, appears, talks to the accordionist, who nods sagely and carries on playing. A delivery driver shows up with newspapers for Amédée to sell, Monkeynuts joins him and the driver for a brief conversation, and then, at Monkeynuts’ signal, the accordionist starts his walk with Nanar, back to No 58. All very mysterious.

Fernand’s shadowing takes him among the children of the neighbouring district, and he tries to ingratiate himself with them by playing football. When the game’s over, he’s still following the accordionist, who he realises has renamed Nanar as Toby – although Nanar seems perfectly happy with that. Fernand also begins to realise that the tunes the blind man plays have a certain pattern. He’d play the same selection, then pause a few minutes motionlessly; then play Pour deux sous d’amour. Fernand wonders if it’s some kind of code. Then he sees Paul Pierce driving one of the Bollaert vehicles down the rue Ponceau, his brakes screeching to a halt when he caught sight of the accordionist. Pierce doesn’t see Fernand; he just watches the blind man intently without noticing anything else. Then he starts up his lorry again and drives towards the station.

Whilst the other members of the gang pool their information, Pierce confronts Bollaert with the news that the blind man “is back”. Bollaert receives this news as though it were a punch to the stomach. He plans to move his family to a safe house that no one knows about.

DetectivesChapter Seven – The Detectives’ Club. Over the next fortnight, the gang members shadow the blind man, reporting back each evening to the other members of the Detectives’ Club at their new Headquarters by the gasworks wall – a location, which only ten years earlier, had been the site of the deaths of twelve Resistance men who had been shot by firing squad. Bonbon establishes that the blind man is called Monsieur Anatole, but everyone refers to him as The Phantom – which name the gang decide to adopt. From their observations, they conclude that Monkeynuts guides the Phantom out of Monsieur Théo’s every morning and returns him there every evening; he spends the mornings at the Place du Marché, and the afternoons at the bus depot, when he receives orders which would take him to some other seemingly random places. Zidore worked out that he earned just 95 francs for four hours’ playing.

PhantomOne day Juan observes the Phantom start to play outside the Bollaert premises, with Paul Pierce and M. Bollaert watching the accordionist intently. Another man was also watching – a “gorilla of a man in a striped seamen’s sweatshirt” – presumed working for Théo. He too starts to shadow the Phantom. Spare-a-Copper also turns up, and Bonbon, as ever, takes the opportunity to taunt him. The Phantom plays Pour deux sous d’amour as usual.

The Phantom’s rapid reaction to receiving a fifty cents piece – swiped into his hand in a second – convinces Gaby and Zidore that he is only pretending to be blind, and can see perfectly well. With Théo’s new henchman at loose, the gang decide that they need to be in twos so that they can cover each other; but Marion decides she wants to see the blind man herself, alone.

Marion gets too closeChapter Eight – Marion and the Blind Man. After attending to her appearance and making herself look very respectable, Marion goes out, telling her mother she has a date with the blind man. Gaby and the gang reported that the Phantom had gone in a different direction from usual, and Marion was straight away on his trail; keeping as quiet and hidden as possible, even telling the dog not to give the game away. At one stage, the Phantom takes off his dark glasses and Marion can see his face properly for the first time; “the empty pits that once had been his eyes” suggested to her that he genuinely was sightless.

But Marion gets too close. And, through whatever sensations the blind man felt, he grips her hand and demands to know why she had been following him. Quick as a flash she says it was so she could ask him to play Pour deux sous d’amour again. But as soon as he had let go of her, then the rough guy, in the seaman’s shirt, Sacco, appeared and also grips her by the neck.

Sacco tries to get information out of the Phantom about what Marion wanted but he doesn’t really give him any help; and with that, the two men start to head back to their headquarters. When Marion reports back, and confirms that the Phantom is indeed blind, and, in a sudden rush of emotion, she finds it hard to conceal her tears at the suspicions of the others about him. Gaby tries to smooth the waters with a joke along the lines that you can’t believe everything you see. Agreeing that in future they shouldn’t all jump to conclusions, they go for a swim and a bathe. And on the way home, Marion is disappointed to discover that she lost the brooch that Fernand had given her.

with the mapChapter Nine – A Dangerous Game. As the heat of June frustrates the children in school, they continue to spend their spare time checking up on where the Phantom wanders. He’d started to go down the loneliest lane in the town, where he couldn’t possibly make any money. It just doesn’t make sense to Gaby and the gang.

One evening he stops outside 104 rue Cécile, with Zidore trailing him. Fernand asks him in, and they pore over their street map, much to the amusement of M. Douin, puffing away on his pipe. The map gives Fernand a clue as to the reason for the blind man’s wanderings. “Where we went wrong was right at the start when we thought the blind man acted as a messenger or a sort of secret agent for those people […] But if we accept the fact that, on the contrary, Monsieur Théo and his men are helping the Phantom, then it’s as plain as plain! […] The blind man has been really exploring this town for his own purposes.” Convinced that every time he plays Pour deux sous d’amour, he is in fact signalling to someone he can’t find, Fernand and Marion expect he will continue to play that song twenty times a day until he finds who or whatever it is he is seeking.

On this particular occasion, the blind man walks off, trailed by James Pierce, who himself was trailed by gang member Juan. M. Douin warns them all of the dangers of their undertaking but – of course – young people like that are frightened of nothing.

Chapter Ten – The Trap is Set. Juan continues his trail of James Pierce, and reports back as usual. Gaby splits the gang into two groups for the next day’s observations. On this particular Thursday all the town characters were out and about – Monkeynuts, Spare-a-Copper, even Inspector Sinet. Monkeynuts takes the Phantom by the shoulder and leads him on his round. It appears that what the children suspected was correct – that he will continue to do his rounds until he finds who or whatever it is responds to his playing.

Again it’s Juan who comes up trumps. He’s been observing Bollaert’s regular activity. Every evening Bollaert drives towards Petit-Louvigny and doesn’t come back. Juan scrambles through an overgrown neighbouring garden to discover that there is a hole in the wall, left by a bomb during the war, and through it he could see that the Bollaerts’ house is empty and it looks like it hasn’t been used for ages. So where does he go? Gaby sets up an elaborate observation schedule so that one of the group MUST see what happens.

RobbersChapter Eleven – The Street They All Forgot. All eyes on M. Bollaert, then, as he finishes his working day, gets into his Renault, and drives off. But somewhere between the Rue de l’Aubépine and the Rue des Estaffiers, he goes missing. Gaby blames Bonbon for taking his eye off the ball and following Spare-a-Copper instead. But Bonbon has discovered the tramp’s hideout on Rue du Bout de l’An, and what do they find there? Bollaert’s Renault. It’s a quiet, gentle, green place to live and the children are entranced. Is that the mystery solved then? “No,” says Marion, “I’ll go and see Monsieur Théo tomorrow morning and I’ll tell him his blind man left one street out.”

NanarChapter Twelve – Marion in the Robbers’ Den. Using the excuse of asking how Nanar is getting on, Marion confronts Théo at his garden gate. She also starts to tell him about the blind man, when he invites her inside – and, confidently, she joins him. Explaining about all their trailing and discoveries, Théo is impressed and promises to tell all; starting with who is the “ogre” of this story – the blind man. Théo makes her promise she won’t tell any of the others about this yet, in case they accidentally ruin his plans. Théo describes his place as a kind of convalescent home for ex-prisoners. “Poverty and bad luck make more criminals than the desire for easy money” he says. The other men start to chip in with aspects of their stories; does the reader believe them? They agree that all the children will come back at 6pm that evening and help the blind man to leave his murky past behind him.

Chapter Thirteen – The Boy in the Garden. Six o’clock, and the gang watch Bollaert drive up. Then, when the blind man arrives, the children all go up to him. “You’ve found the right spot” says Marion, and the blind man simply nods in silence. Then, to the tune of Pour deux sous d’amour, they are amazed to see a little boy, maybe ten years old, emerge from behind the bushes and go right up to the gate. After a short period of tender quietness, Bollaert storms out of the house, rushes up to the boy, grabs him and gives him to his wife, who had also come out to see what was going on, and she takes the boy indoors. Bollaert then threatens the blind man with the police if he doesn’t go away. Gaby defends the blind man, but Bollaert goes on to talk about his criminal past, and one by one the children leave the Phantom’s side – all except Marion and Fernand. But, after due thought, they return to the blind man, to which Marion says, “I don’t hold it against you […] but if you hadn’t come back, Fernand and I would have left the gang.”

Marion also invites herself into Spare-a-Copper’s lair; he’d lived there for many years until the Bollaerts moved in a few months earlier. And he does confirm that the boy in the garden is the blind man’s son.

Chapter Fourteen – The Kidnapper. The blind man walks on, and it’s not long until Marion and Fernand realise that he is in great trouble. He had dropped the dog’s lead and was walking out into the traffic in what seems like an attempt to take his own life. Fortunately the children get to him in time and are able to walk him safely back to Monsieur Théo’s. But there they find out the truth about the blind man’s past. He used to kidnap children. And when he was finally found guilty, the court chose to deprive him of access to his own child. The boy’s mother died, and so he was adopted. One day in prison, the blind man (before he lost his sight) saw a newspaper that showed his son somewhere in Louvigny, and that’s how he knew to come back there to search for the boy. In a further act of divine retribution, the kidnapper actually went blind as a result of a chemical accident in prison – but he had always pretended to be blind as part of his kidnapping method. That’s bad karma for him.

It’s further revealed that the Pierce brothers were two lorry drivers who cornered the kidnapper on the run; and that the boy was very fond of his black dog, Toby, whom Nanar has been impersonating all this time. No wonder the Bollaerts were concerned when Pierce recognised the blind man in Louvigny. Théo requests that Marion and Fernand are discreet with this information, as there would be many people out there who would wish harm on the blind man. And the gang prevaricate and try to confuse Inspector Sinet when he questions them about the newspaper photo of the boy.

CelebrationsChapter Fifteen – The Fourteenth of July. The case more or less solved, the blind man wasn’t seen on the streets anymore and the gang members miss him. Marion suggests to Théo that he should encourage the blind man to go back out and play his accordion in the best places, and raise the money to at least help pay for the dog’s enormous appetite.

DancingAs the summer grew warmer, those inhabitants of Louvigny who could afford to, went on their seaside holidays. Not the gang members, who had to make do with staying at home. Nostalgically promenading the route that the blind man used to take, Juan and Fernand notice that the Bollaert lorry garage is all shut up – presumably the Bollaerts and the Pierces had moved away for good. There was a big lottery win in the town, and Gaby and the gang took it upon themselves to try to work out who the winner was – but they are unsuccessful.

PlayingThe gang pool their resources and buy fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day. Gaby’s plans of a big display in the Douins’ front garden come to nothing as the fireworks turn out to be cheap old stock. But just then, at 11pm, come the familiar accordion sounds…. And the children all danced to their friend’s instrument. Someone bought beer and lemonade and it grows into a street party, and it was very late when everyone disbanded.

And then Marion tells the blind man a big, but kindly lie – that his son was joining their gang. That seems to put his mind at ease. And last revelation of all – Spare-a-Copper is the big lottery winner; Bonbon sees him getting into that Cadillac that he had always suspected!

Magpie CornerTo sum up; it would have been a feat indeed if The Street Musician surpassed A Hundred Million Francs in either its quality or its sales, and I think it’s fair to say, it doesn’t. It’s slower, and more repetitive, and its moments of peril are briefer and less exciting than in its predecessor. That said, when the denouement starts to unfurl it’s still a very exciting and emotional read, and there is a very dark moment when Marion and Fernand prevent a suicide. 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. I think it’s a while now before we next meet Gaby and his gang. Next in the Paul Berna Challenge is a book that is usually omitted from the list of his works translated into English, probably because it wasn’t translated until nearly ten years later – Magpie Corner, published in France in 1958. I remember this being a very strong and moving story, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

Review – Two Trains Running, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th September 2019

Two Trains RunningAugust Wilson’s 1990 play starts the new Made in Northampton season at the Royal and Derngate and is (I believe) its UK premiere. Set in Memphis Lee’s café in Pittsburgh in 1969, the urban environment all around is being demolished to make way for a regeneration programme, destroying the lives of its largely black inhabitants. The local authority want to seize and knock down the café too, but Lee isn’t going to accept less than $25,000 – having paid $5,500 for it originally.

LeeThis slice-of-life play contains a variety of themes and plots, weaving in and out of each other, over a few days. Lee worries about his failing business; his one and only chef/waitress, Risa, self-harms by cutting her legs in order (she says) to put off unwanted attention from men; wide boy Wolf uses the café phone as his personal office, taking illegal gambling bets; mentally unstable Hambone can’t get over being cheated over payment for a job; young chancer Sterling steals his way out of financial problems; and old guard Holloway dispenses his wisdom and undertaker West works hard, getting on with their lives as best they can.  Overriding all these is the all-pervasive atmosphere that black lives are inferior to white lives, with the growing Black Power movement and the destruction of black homes and businesses with the urban regeneration.

Round the counterIt’s a curious play. At three hours, it feels too long. All the points that the play makes could be made and still shave at least half-an-hour off. Dramatically, there aren’t many plot progression points. However, the characters are strangely spellbinding, and the play, despite its faults, oddly compelling. Admittedly, not a lot happens on a day to day basis; but isn’t that true of life? Take the title – Two Trains Running – it’s part of a throwaway speech by one of the characters, elevated to its titular significance although it’s just a phrase from everyday life. The play reminded me a little of Eugene O’Neill – a big helping of The Iceman Cometh with a tad of Desire Under the Elms and a sprinkling of All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Everyone has their own concerns, some of which they’re prepared to share, others they’d prefer to keep private. Most of the plot threads are tied up at the end – maybe too neatly. I’m still uncertain as to whether Lee’s good news at the end was genuine or pretence. But maybe that’s a strength in itself.

Sterling and WestFrankie Bradshaw has done a fantastic job in recreating the café in the midst of a building site. The furniture, the bar, the phone, the windows all exude an air of 1960s disappointment. The jukebox is perfect for the era, although I remain unconvinced by the more modern-looking coffee jug. Amy Mae’s lighting design is also superb, creating eerie, dreamlike effects juxtaposed with the harsh neon lights of real life. And Nancy Medina’s direction respects the text and allows the characters to develop without ever imposing an external slant.

SterlingThere are some stunning central performances. I found Andrew French mesmerising as Memphis Lee, bringing out all the character’s hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, truths and self-delusions. Michael Salami is also superb as Sterling, the kind of waster who nevertheless has a charisma that you find hard not to like, flipping easily from childish enthusiasm to incensed fury. And with a deceptively challenging role, Anita-Joy Uwajeh impresses with her constant reactions and attention to the events in the café – portraying that difficult balance between keeping the customer satisfied but existing one step aloof from the rest of them. Beautifully done.

WolfRay Emmet Brown gives an enjoyable performance as the flashy Wolf, full of confidence and brashness, humour and cynicism. Also – great shoes! Derek Ezenagu tackles the problem role of the vulnerable Hambone – who only says a couple of sentences, repeated time and time again – with great commitment and sincerity, creating an uncomfortable, but very realistic watch. And Geoff Aymer brings authority and dignity to the role of West, the undertaker/businessman who’s never short for work and provides the clearest insight into what the world outside the café doors looks like. For me, Leon Herbert didn’t convey Holloway’s self-assurance with what I felt was a faltering, uncertain performance – hopefully he will grow into the role as the run progresses.

RisaAfter its run at the Royal and Derngate, the production tours to Southampton, Oxford, Doncaster, Ipswich, Guildford and Derby, finishing at the end of October. A four-star production that provides three-star entertainment. Great characters with some great lines supported by a magnificent set; but, in the final analysis, also somewhat rambling and woolly. Like life, really.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan