Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd August 2021

PriscillaThis production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Royal and Derngate has been the best part of two years in the expectation, with tickets going on sale late summer of 2019, for an original run in April 2020, and finally coming to fruition in August 2021. The tour actually started in September 2019 in Dartford but then had to be postponed in March last year due to the dreaded Covid. Patience is a virtue, they say; but all good things are worth waiting for. And was this show one of them? On the whole, yes. Certainly, this was the first time that most of the good burghers of Northampton had a chance to let their hair down in a theatre and just allow themselves to enjoy a good night out, and they took it with open arms. There was no doubting the sense of release and feelgood fun around the place. It’s been a long time, for example, since I’ve seen perhaps ten or more people from further back in the stalls come to the front of the auditorium just to watch the orchestra perform the play-out at the end, as if they’d never seen one before; I’m assuming – perhaps they hadn’t.

However, this didn’t feel like an ordinary night at the theatre for us, and that might be a reason why I didn’t quite enjoy the show as much as I’d hoped. We’d already been to see ten productions since restrictions were lifted in England, but each of them had been with a socially-distanced audience. Now, for the first time since March 2020, we would be sat next to, behind and in front of real people. And, I must confess gentle reader, thirty minutes before curtain-up I still hadn’t decided if it was worth the risk. Nevertheless, with our faces swaddled in super strength FFP3 masks, which we didn’t remove the entire time we were there, we plucked up the courage to go. And I’m very glad we did – if for no other reason, it broke the back of the fear, because once we were in situ we both felt more or less safe. I would estimate at least 95% of the audience decided in favour of going maskless, so the law of averages tells you that COVID19 will have been doing some swarming around that auditorium last night; we’re just trusting to the double-vaccination and the industrial quality masks.

I’m sure you know the plot; drag queen Tick (Mitzi Mitosis) has avoided his responsibilities as a father and never met his six year old son Benji – but his mother runs a club in Alice Springs and insists that he brings a travelling show to perform at the club so that he and Benji can finally meet. Gathering his old supporting cast of Bernadette Bassenger and Felicia Jollygoodfellow, they take the slow road from Sydney using a battered old bus that they name Priscilla. Via a series of vehicle breakdowns, homophobic attacks, tourist encounters and an understanding mechanic, they finally make their way to The Alice just in time to perform. All this to a soundtrack of unforgettable 70s and 80s disco hits.

One of the repercussions of the pandemic is that the uncertainty of whether a production is going to go ahead or not meant that there were no programmes available for the performance – not even online, which I think is a bit of a swizz. The only way you can find out about the show is by visiting its own website and even then, there isn’t a list of the musical numbers, no name or bio given to the child actor playing Benji, nor details of the writers, and so on. Can’t help but feel the creative team get a bit short-changed by that. But then, it occurred to me that Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a bit like Priscilla, Parable of the Pandemic. Out of work stage performers go on a long and arduous journey before they can finally perform together again. And the show is all about the journey – rather like the last 18 months has been for us all.

I understand that this production of the show is a slightly pared-down version of the original, and I’m not sure that the tweaks have done it any favours. I know comparisons are odious, but we saw the touring production in 2014 at Milton Keynes and my memory of it was that it was funny, glamorous, full of pathos, joyous and – in short – fab. Despite the best efforts of a very talented cast, seven years later, this show strikes me as falling short in all those aspects. The nuanced wit that I remember (with a couple of laugh out loud exceptions) now seems rather crude and obvious; the glamour felt artificial; the pathos was either laid on with a trowel or underwhelming; and there didn’t seem to be much joy at all. The stand-out scenes were those where the homophobia was at its most prominent, with the aggressive pub landlady in Broken Hill, and where Adam/Felicia got beaten up in Coober Pedy; the vicious realism of both situations impacted us all with its horror and injustice.

Probably resulting from the uncertainties of Covid, overall it wasn’t quite as polished a performance as I would have expected, with a couple of the performers occasionally vague as to where they should be standing, the odd timing issue with the orchestra, and a scene that should have been a truly heartfelt moment suffering from sound issues.

Nevertheless, it’s still a very good show, with loads to recommend it. The ensemble cast are excellent, with terrific dancing to Tom Jackson-Greaves’ energetic and expressive choreography; Mr J-G’s experience working with Matthew Bourne in many of his New Adventures productions comes across in many Bourne-like choreographic twists. The ensemble are convincing in both their guises as showgirls and cowboys, which is an achievement all by itself. The three Divas, Claudia Kariuki, Rosie Glossop and Aiesha Pease, who pepper the show with their vocal dynamism, have great stage presence and brilliant voices; it’s such a shame that they’re required so frequently to stand in positions that obstructs our view of them. Talking of which, the big Ayers Rock scene at the end of the show was ruined by the same awkward staging; our three hero/heroines achieving their goals after the most gruelling journey, celebrating in song, only to have their fantastic costumes obscured from the waist down by some corrugated iron. What were they thinking?

Gracie Lai gives a couple of scene-stealing performances as the unpredictable Cynthia (although as time goes on, I feel that Asian stereotype characterisation is beginning to feel slightly dodgy). In the leading roles, Nick Hayes is suitably irrepressible as the bitchy but vulnerable Adam/Felicia, and Edwin Ray brings all his song and dance experience to the central role of Tick. But for me by far the most impressive performance came from Miles Western, who cut just the right amount of elegance as Bernadette, a wounded character slowly finding her feet and a voice of reason against a choir of chaos.

The tour carries on all the way through to November in Glasgow, pandemic permitting. With so much commitment and talent you really hope it comes off for them. Certainly, there’ll be no shortage of audiences supporting them on their way!

4-starsFour they’re (Felicia) Jollygoodfellows!

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Mystery of Saint-Salgue (1962)

Mystery of Saint SalgueIn which we make one final visit to the world of Gaby, Marion, Zidore and the other members of the Hundred Million Francs gang; adults now – some of them at least – off on a camping holiday in the South of France in Gaby’s Citroen van. But what is the mystery of the village of Saint-Salgue, and why are they being followed?

La Piste du SouvenirThe Mystery of Saint-Salgue was first published in 1962 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Piste du Souvenir, which translates literally as The Trail of Remembrance, with illustrations by Robert Broomfield. As “The Mystery of Saint-Salgue”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1963, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the Bodley Head first edition, bearing the price 13s 6d. A quick check online suggests there are a few copies of this book available to buy at the moment – scattered around the world, mainly!

Paul BernaThis, sadly, is the last book by Berna to feature Gaby and his gang, but when you read it through to the end, and you discover its highly unusual and lifechanging ending, it’s appropriate that this is where we leave our friends to get on with their future. For the most part, it’s a very plot-driven book, with many exciting turns and surprises, full of action, and with a very feelgood ending. Perhaps the ending is a little too far-fetched to appreciate fully; then again, who is to say that such an event couldn’t happen? I’ll have to leave you to read it and discover it for yourself.

Despite its busy plot, there is still space for Berna to explore the developing characters of the gang members. Gaby is already a man; he still has his anger management issues, confronting Charley for not resorting to violence against the villains when they are captured. ““Your non-violence is all wrong! […] by behaving like this you will let them think they are immune to punishment and that’s just encouragement to crooks like them. Now, I see things in a slightly different light”. And he lifted an imperious boot to the seat of Grondin’s shorts…” When their vehicle gets vandalised, his instant reaction is to fly into a fury and kick one of Marion’s dogs – even though the dog was obviously not responsible for the damage. Berna describes Gaby as speaking with a “patronising bite” when mocking Fernand’s father, “Daddy Douin”. And when it comes to the big rescue mission at the end, Gaby’s plan is to use their vehicle as a battering ram. It doesn’t matter that Zidore has spent ages lavishing care on its appearance; Gaby wants to use it with brutal force. He still commands respect within the gang, and you still want to be best friends with him, but I do worry about his future welfare!

Zidore, on the other hand, has turned into a true mechanic; proud of his hard work, always generous with his time and his skill – for example, the way he repairs the Rambler without even being asked. It’s while working with the oil that Berna teases us with the fact that his oil-blackened moustache makes him look ten years older. That impresses on the reader that he too is now a man – and a thoroughly decent one.

In some respects, Fernand takes more centre stage in this book as Berna reveals more of his sensitivity and introvert nature. Although we occasionally see how he’s still besotted with Marion, their relationship doesn’t seem to have moved on at all, and in fact Marion’s role in this book is merely occasionally to make financial decisions and take care of the dogs – although the final scene in the book shows Marion reassuring Fernand that it is ok to make his own decisions and occasionally tell a judicious white lie. It may be that Fernand’s development has been held back by his relationship with his father and also the sense of “not-belonging”, which is at the heart of the story.

The only other person to get more of Berna’s attention than usual is Criquet Lariqué. Fernand describes him as “the cleverest of us all” as he quietly goes about playing a supporting role within the gang. For the first time, Berna addresses Criquet Lariqué’s racial background. When Betty asks where he was born, Zidore steps in: “here of course! […] in our suburb. Criquet’s as French as the rest of us. The colour of his skin makes no difference.” Nevertheless, we feel the boy’s anguish at the end when he fears he will be the only member of the gang who will not fit into everyone’s future, agonising about being from Timbuctoo. As always, the gang is very protective and inclusive, and his fears are unfounded – but his sensitivities to the issue and consequent insecurity are very obvious.

As always, Berna is at his best when he conveys that sense of unity and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang. No matter their age or ability, everyone is equal, everyone contributes. When the gang members introduce themselves to their Canadian neighbours on the first night of their holiday, each of them explains their role within the group: Gaby, the captain and steersman, Zidore the mechanic, Fernand the navigator-quartermaster, Juan in charge of tent pitching, Tatave head cook, Bonbon his bus boy, Criquet, head waiter, and Berthe and Mélie laundry-maids (Gaby is not a strong feminist). Only Marion refuses to play this game, because of her distrust for anyone new; but Gaby explains she’s in charge of the dogs.

However, for the first time the book touches upon that feeling when a member of the group might be acting on their own agenda, secretively keeping things from the rest of the gang and possibly not working in the gang’s best interests. That suggestion of disunity and disloyalty from within the gang feels quite shocking. Gaby knows his team well enough to conclude who that person might be. “A rebellious lock of hair fell across Fernand’s half-closed eyes. He was wide awake now and could feel the injustice of nine pairs of accusing eyes turning on him. Even Marion, his beloved Marion, was cold and hostile.” But although he has been keeping a major secret from the gang, Fernand has not been working against their best interests – far from it, as it turns out at the end. Nevertheless, you feel Fernand has to work hard to regain the gang’s respect.

Also for the first time, the English title of the novel is more appropriate than the original French! The Mystery of Saint-Salgue completely sums up the entire book, as it’s not until the final pages that we discover what and where Saint-Salgue is and, even then, how its mystery will affect the gang members for the rest of their lives. La Piste du Souvenir – The Trail of Remembrance – is a very abstract title that perhaps emphasises more the journey to get to Saint-Salgue rather than the destination’s significance.

As Berna often likes to do, the book starts with a map, revealing that pretty much everywhere in this book is based on real places. La Goulaine caravan camp, where the story starts, is near Varenne-Saint-Germain, east of Moulins. Sologne is a region and Salbris is a real town between Orleans and Bourges. The village of Estivareilles exists, and although there isn’t a Chapon d’Or, there is a Lion d’Or, with a bar that looks out on to the main road, just as Berna describes. I’m sure you could recreate the journey taken by Calamity Jane the van even today. Talking of which, why are they now calling their vehicle “Calamity Jane”, when in Gaby and the New Money Fraud, they had decided to call it the “Uphill Struggle”? That’s an inconsistency that really bothers me!

There’s another aspect to this book that doesn’t feel quite right. Although the English version is by Berna’s usual translator John Buchanan-Brown, the accuracy of the English idiom doesn’t always seem up to his usual standards. For example, right at the beginning, Charley is staring at the night sky and the narration notes that his gaze falls upon the constellation Cassiope. However, in English we know that as Cassiopeia. In another example, at the beginning of the chapter “The Forest Perilous”, Berna writes: “the moonbeams slanted down to illumine the whole camp.” Illumine is the direct French word, not illuminate as it would be in English. There were a few instances where I felt the language wasn’t spot on, which is very unusual for these books. Maybe the proofreading was carried out too quickly, or Mr Buchanan-Brown didn’t have his mind on the job!

A few other thoughts came to mind whilst reading this book. Grondin’s constant attempts to stop the progress of the gang and the Canadians reminded me of Wile E Coyote’s perpetual attempts to stop the Road Runner. And I love how all Marion’s dogs have human intelligence! They’re really add-on members of the group, with Dick and Plouc in particular playing a significant role in this story. And I thought it was curious that they called the living space at the back of the van “The Bridal Suite”. That suggests an activity that otherwise is certainly not present in the interactions of the gang members, no matter how much Fernand is in love with Marion.

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!

 

Chapter One – The Midnight Prowler. As Manitoban holidaymaker Charley Ricou looks out at night from his caravan at La Goulaine, he is amused at the sight of “a sort of red-painted Noah’s Ark on wobbly wheels” that has parked up next to him. The vehicle had arrived earlier that evening, with its cargo of seven boys, three girls and “eleven hairy hounds”, whom the caretaker had said couldn’t stay in the main camp site but could be housed on the sand by the river. Charley, with his wife Betty, had already met the gang that evening, where the gang members all introduced themselves to their new neighbours, and had shared a spot of supper together.

Charley had explained that he and his wife, Betty, come from Saint-Salgue in Manitoba, but it must have been named after an original French town. They want to discover the French Saint-Salgue, but where is it? The gang members are minded to accompany the couple on their quest, although no firm decisions are made. But Charley is disturbed by the appearance late at night of one Grondin, whom he and his wife had met at Houlgate. Grondin was noseying around the gang’s vehicle but didn’t steal anything. Charley is suspicious. “If you ask me he’s worked some dirty deal on those kids”, says Charley to Betty. “He must be mad. How can they worry him?” she replies. “Maybe they’re in the deal, too!” responds Charley, enigmatically.

 

Chapter Two – The Police Station at Salbris. The gang take to the road, planning a journey to the Forest of Tronçais, south of Bourges. But Bonbon has noticed something odd – the dogs are all growling at the luggage, and indeed yellow dog Dick had bitten into the side of one of the cases to reveal a transistor radio. How did it get there? Marion suggests they keep it somewhere safe and discreet and Zidore offers to look after it.

Two policemen on motorbikes roar past and signal for Gaby to stop driving. Satisfied they’ve got the right vehicle, the cops tell Gaby they’ve been ordered to escort them to the police station. Is it something to do with the transistor? They arrive in Salbris and are told to give up their ID papers. They are told that one of their neighbours at the caravan camp has had a transistor set stolen and suspect the gang. If they find the transistor while searching Calamity Jane, they’re in trouble!

Fernand and Marion watch a man leaning against a new Citroen Shooting-Brake, watching the police search with fascination. They’re convinced he’s the man who planted the transistor – but they’ve never seen him before. The police find the set – but Fernand tries to convince the police that it’s theirs. The man at the Citroen (who is indeed the accuser) tells the police the precise brand and colour of his transistor – but everyone gets a shock when the superintendent calls out “it isn’t yours […] someone’s been pulling your leg.”

Fernand gets the bright idea that the police should search the Citroen now, to see if the man actually does have his own set. The policeman agrees and gives the Citroen a major search. And, lo and behold, he finds the transistor, exactly as the man had described. The policeman is furious, insists on seeing the man’s papers, and threatens a full security check. Marion, in the meantime, requests a full apology from the man – Grondin.

It turns out that Fernand and Charley had a quick conversation that morning, where Charley said he saw Grondin place the transistor in their luggage, but afterwards Charley took it out again and put it back in Grondin’s vehicle, and then placed another transistor in their van as a present. Fernand goes on to explain that Charley isn’t just an ordinary tourist. “I think he’s backed by a lot of money as the agent of a Canadian Aid Committee that plans to buy up undeveloped land. But a horde of speculators are in the game already and his arrival threatens to upset all their plans.” But why didn’t he tell them sooner? Because Charley asked him not to.

They stop for a fantastic lunch prepared by Tatave. Steak, chips, cider; some of the gang swim “in the cool green waters of the Sauldre”; “every now and then a kingfisher would flash blue over the stream. There was not a cloud in the blue sky and the countryside sweltered in the summer heat.” Idyllic. But then as they talk after lunch about the odd behaviour of Grondin and the Canadians, none of it makes sense. What was the last thing they agreed? To meet the Canadians at Saint-Salgue. “”Well that’s what is so odd,” Fernand said with a slight smile. “I’ve been through my guide books with a toothcomb, but there just isn’t a French village of that name.””

 

Chapter Three – Zidore Carries his Cross. When they get back to Calamity Jane, they see that she has been vandalised – “Four flat tyres, cut and slashed to the rims, their luggage scattered on the grass and the windscreen smashed in pieces.” Zidore weeps in despair, Fernand is white and speechless, and Gaby gives vent to his famous anger, kicking one of Marion’s dogs, Barnaby, in the rump. The gang will have to cut corners to afford all the repair work or shorten their holiday – and no one wants to do that. They decide to jack up the van, take the wheels off and roll them into Salbris. The old lady at the nearby farm has reported seeing a man in a green car – maybe he was responsible for the damage. Once the wheels are off, Gaby stays behind with the girls and the van, and Zidore, Fernand, Tatave and Juan take the wheels into town. There they meet the police superintendent and tell him their tale of woe. He directs them to Vierzon and gives the name of someone who will be able to help them there.

Criquet goes off to play in the countryside, but he is disturbed by the arrival of a green car. The man asks to look at the red van and Criquet takes him back to the rest of the gang, who explain what happened. Marion accuses the man of being involved. But the man says  that he “saw a Citroen shooting brake emerge from this track. I knew the driver as a petty crook and I also knew that wherever he goes he is up to something underhand […]  I came upon the wreck of your van. It looked all too like his handywork to me, so I was off at top speed in the hope of catching him on the Vierzon road […] Grondin is one of the names he uses. But as far as I’m concerned the driver of the Citroen is one of Sobeco’s strong arm men”. He explains that Sobeco is a construction company that buys land and property and resells it at a profit. “At present we can’t even begin a major construction project without fear of interference from these sharks.” The man, Coppet, offers to pay for their tyres and suggests they change course and go to a camping site on the Atlantic coast for free. But Marion smells a rat and they refuse his generosity.

Shortly afterwards, a police escort brings Zidore, the boys and five freshly re-tread tyres. They put them on, return the blocks they had borrowed from the old lady, who says she has killed a couple of fowls for their dinner tonight. They decide to drive on and keep a permanent watch on the vehicle night and day – but unknown to them, Coppet follows them discreetly in his green Jaguar.

 

Chapter Four – The Forest Perilous. Camped up overnight at the Forest of Tronçais, Fernand and Juan awaken. They walk silently into the forest and agree that it was the sound of a car door shutting that woke them up. Dick the dog takes the lead in investigating where the sound came from. Eventually they see Grondin and his car talking to another man in a white Peugeot. They overheard the men’s conversation. “If those ten kids hadn’t introduced themselves one after the other I should have kept on the track of the Rambler and never given the others a thought. But the name of one of them hit me like a ton of bricks. I dashed for the telephone to check his identity. Ten minutes later I’d got it. His father was one of the people who spoiled our plans and it couldn’t have been an accident that the son was in the camp. I guessed at once he was in league with the Canadians.” It’s obvious that the men think the gang are still stuck in Salbris with an immobilised vehicle. “Anyway one day’s delay will put them out of the running in the unlikely event of their still being in the race. The day after tomorrow, between ten in the morning and midday three candles will be lit at Saint-Salgue. It’s in the bag. There’s no need to worry, the third candle will be for Sobeco.”

It’s also obvious that they’re planning for an accident to befall the Canadians, having tinkered with the brakes to send their Rambler off the top of a hill, with Charley and Betty ending up in hospital if they’re lucky. During their conversation they make it clear where the Canadians are pitched up overnight. Then the two men make elaborate plans to meet the next day at the village of Estivareilles. Grondin gets back in his car, turns on the lights and Fernand and Juan are captured like startled rabbits in the beam. Fortunately Grondin doesn’t recognise the boys and they pretend to be poaching rabbits. To add to the mayhem, Dick the dog lunges at and bites the other man, Punch. They try to catch the boys, but they escape. When they get back to the cars, they find their tyres slashed. Punch: “our expenses will cover the damage. The gang in the van have returned the compliment, and now we know where we stand with those little devils.” Curiously someone has written a Greek letter Sigma on the windscreen with their finger.

Dick signposts the way as the boys head back to camp, with the message that they have to get moving as soon as possible. The most important thing is to warn Charley and Betty before they use the brakes of the Rambler. They decide to leave the camp standing to fool their watchers into thinking that they were still asleep. But when they get to the Rond-point du Chevreuil, there’s no one there. Criquet finds a half-smoked cigarette end of the foreign brand that Charley smoked, so they must only recently have left. But which direction should they take?

 

Chapter Five – Charley Puts his Cards on the Table.  Meanwhile, Charley and Betty had started off at least an hour earlier. Charley says he was surprised not to see the gang at Tronçais, because Fernand had said they would be there. He’s concerned that they might have got into trouble with Grondin. Just as Betty starts to freewheel down a large slope, they hear the clamour of a tooting horn behind – and it’s the gang. With amazing skill, Gaby pulls in front of the Rambler, and, as the Rambler has no brake power, it quickly hits the back of Calamity Jane. Gaby slows down and goes down the gears and eventually both vehicles come to a halt at a corner. “The horse without a head gave us some nasty moments but never anything like this. Did you see the ravine? We were lucky not to power-dive a couple of hundred feet to the bottom.”

Whilst breakfast is prepared, Zidore slips under the Rambler and repairs the damage caused by Grondin, replacing the missing bolt and filling the brakes with six pints of oil. They hold a council of war to decide what to do next. Juan mentions that the men from Sobeco talked about some ceremony near Murat. “”But we’ve never had the slightest intention of heading in that direction!” Gaby protested […] “You’re a bunch of brazen liars,” Charley laughed. “Or else one of you decided to work on his own and then alter course half-way, without the rest of you. You hadn’t yet tumbled to it, but the other people had and when they did you were in real danger. As these crooks are the same bunch who have been watching and following my wife and me the obvious conclusion is that your undercover man is involved in the same business as we are.” His charge burst like a bomb.”

Charley has got it right – and Fernand confesses that his father has asked him to give a man called Mézeran, who lives in Peyrelade, some “family papers”. When Gaby mocks him, out of suppressed fury, Fernand explains how he grew up alongside his father’s sadness at not having roots in Louvigny; and Fernand feels the same. They agree to meet at the same spot – Saint-Salgue. Gaby says it doesn’t exist, but Charley replies, enigmatically:” it does exist, you know […] if you’d only tell yourselves it was the cause of all the trouble, Saint-Salgue would seem much more real.” Marion overcomes her own natural distrust to agree to meeting there, and they all agree on the route. But it’s when Charley shows Fernand a map of where to go, he notes that the name Mézeran appears on the bottom of the sketch map. “Fortunately he drooping forelock hid his expression of amazement. “Seen everything?” Charley asked him with odd emphasis. “Everything,” Fernand replied, his voice level.” Marion sends the dogs Dick and Plouc off with the Ricous to help look after them.

It’s when Grondin and Punch (real name Schutz) are having sandwiches at the Chapon d’Or that M. Coppet pulls up in his green Jaguar. Grondin recognises him as the director of Sigma. Coppet makes a call to Paris and speaks to “the Great White Chief”. It’s clear from his conversation that Ricou and Sobeco are racing for the same destination, as Ricou “is the prime mover of this scheme to adopt Saint-Salgue and nothing but philanthropy is behind it […]  as the allies of the Canadians […] these crazy youngsters are helping us, even though they don’t know it.” Coppet promises that he will be the first to reach Saint-Salgue.

 

Chapter Six – The Man from Peyrelade.  Charley, Betty, Dick and Plouc enjoy an uneventful and scenic drive south. Arriving at their destination: “To one side they could see what looked like an immense stadium, darkened by the first evening shadows. Its upper limits were ringed by the cones of extinct volcanoes smoothed or turreted by the weather; then the meadows swept down in giddying slopes to a thickly wooded plateau. Through the tree tops, they could see the tip of a mountain lake at the bottom of this huge punch-bowl.” An old man is there to greet them – Mézeran. It’s clear there is a family connection. The old man invites them to his farmhouse for some food and an overnight. But Charley says they are waiting for their friends. Instead, Mézeran gets in the Rambler with Charley and Betty, whilst the dogs remain behind, but with Charley’s gloves for scent purposes.

When the gang arrive, they are perplexed that the Rambler isn’t there. Fernand suggests it would be a good place to spend a week, but Tatave grumbles that it would be too far from buying food provisions. Marion notices Charley’s gloves and is also surprised at how silent the dogs are. They encounter an old man, who says that no one has been around for ages – but Marion knows he is lying. He introduces himself as Mézeran and asks for Fernand’s papers. But Fernand refuses, because he realises this man is an impostor! Fernand: “the old mayor is over eighty and gets about in a wheelchair. That I do know… where’s yours?” Realising he’s lost this battle, the old man walks off. “It would have been hard to have forced a confession out of the old rogue, and the gang never allowed violence except in self-defence.”

Marion gets the dogs to follow the scent of the gloves to find the Canadians. Barnaby leads off, and they follow in the van. Barnaby takes them down a deserted lane full of potholes and hairpin bends. It takes them down to a magnificent lake, but they could almost have driven in, so close is it to the road. But had someone got there first? “Ten or twelve yards from the shore the water was barely clear enough to make out the blue and white of the Rambler, but an inch or two of the caravan roof was still above the surface and bubbles of escaping air broke the water around the two submerged vehicles.”

 

Chapter Seven – The Cleverest of Them All. Earlier, Dick wasn’t in the Rambler, but could follow its scent easily. He saw it headed for the lake although couldn’t see who was driving. He yapped his distress and recognised Grondin, having jumped out of the car, watching his handiwork as the Rambert started to submerge. The man tries to chuck a stone at Dick, but the dog is too quick and attacks him, so that he ends up with a gashed cheek. Plouc joins Dick and together they watch a farm building where Grondin, Schutz and Delmas (who had been the fake Mézeran) were talking.

Charley and Betty, meanwhile, were locked in a windowless attic above the barn. Charley was furious at having been duped by Delmas. They stare through a crack between the floorboards and see Dick and Plouc watching the building. Grondin sees the dogs at the same time and takes aim with his gun – but the dogs are more than a match for him. And now, someone else appears; not Delmas, whom Charley was expecting, but another man in a smart suit. He hides in the undergrowth whilst the three conspirators return and formulate their plans.

Juan had been in the lake and had satisfied himself that there was no one in the submerged vehicles. Gaby suggests that Juan tries to unhitch the caravan and then they could drag both vehicles out of the water with the aid of Calamity Jane. Fernand joins Juan as they tie rope around the back of the caravan. Incredibly, they return the caravan to dry land, Zidore secures its brakes and tells Marion and the girls to mop it out. The car is a much harder task, but eventually they succeed in dredging it up. They decide to stay the night by the lake but to have Calamity Jane ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, Criquet appears to be playing with a stick in the water – but he’s not playing. “I’m measuring the water. It’s running away awful fast.” And Fernand could see that the level of the water was going down. ““Measure away, little Criquet,” Fernand murmured as he turned on his heel. “You’re really the cleverest of us all.””

Marion leaves with Juan, Zidore and Fernand. When they get to the crossroads, Marion and Zidore stay, and Juan and Fernand go on with the dogs. Eventually they near the lake and see the big wooden barn. They overhear the voices of Grondin and Schutz, and sneaking a look through the cracks of the door, see the old man who pretended to be Mézeran. As the three men bed down for the night, something soft and silky lands on the back of Fernand’s shoulders – Betty’s scarf.

 

Chapter Eight – We Belong to Saint-Salgue. Coppet watches Criquet’s fascination with the descending water level and explains that the sluice gates of the dam have opened, and the water will flood down to the River Lot and then the Garonne, the Gironde and finally the Atlantic. But this will be the last time this happens, as the next day they will blow up the big wall that kept the water in place. Berthe is not impressed, but Coppet explains: “Men can make mistakes when they undertake a major project […] They do so more often through aiming too low than from aiming too high. A little over thirty years ago when a hydro-electric company built the dam at La Douze they only expected to supply the immediate locality with light and power […]  for the last six hours the water you’ve been watching run away has poured down the gorges to swell a lake six times larger than this one was – over twenty miles long! You can get very excited about all the wonderful things being done today but it’s just as wonderful to get rid of something that’s grown useless before it’s too late.”

Whilst Coppet is charming some of the younger gang, Gaby, Marion, Fernand and Zidore get in Calamity Jane with the dogs and head off to rescue Charley and Betty. Gaby’s solution is to charge down the building with the vehicle. “The old ark’ll go through that door like a knife through butter. Your sleepers won’t have time to turn over in bed”. “Thought of yourself?” Juan murmured in the background. Gaby pulled his little checked cap down even more firmly. “Pah! I’ll only risk a bruise or two.” […] Fernand quietly remarked, “what about Calamity Jane? “Oh, she’s bound to be smashed up,” Gaby answered carelelessly, “but not really concertina-ed”. Zidore’s face went white.” Nevertheless they agree to Gaby’s plan; the walls get smashed in, the dogs attack the villains, Gaby and Zidore tool up for a fight, and Juan and Fernand rush upstairs to free the Canadians. But Charley is soft-spoken and polite to the three men, much to the furious Gaby’s annoyance, who is spoiling for a fight.

They all meet for a celebratory coffee and snacks by the lake, although Tatave points out that Coppet is still there, promising the earth. He’s going to turn the punchbowl into a holiday centre for winter skiing. But as they watch the water recede, something magical happens. The hidden village of Saint-Salgue slowly reappears. First the church spire, then the roofs, then the rest of the buildings. Will the old inhabitants be able to come back to the village? ““That depends.” Monsieur Coppet laughed. “At sunrise this morning the Central Electricity Authority will auction the village lands their predecessors acquired thirty years ago. If they want to, those who suffered compulsory purchase in 1928 can invoke a clause in that sale which guarantees them the prior right to repurchase their properties. Will they be there?  That’s the big question.”” Charley assures them that the finance will be there to afford the buy back.

Gaby reflects on their journey. Although they had intended to go on a Mediterranean beach holiday, “something stronger than the sea drew us here”. Everyone agrees. But it’s Fernand who drops the bombshell. “You’ll want to know why this particular spot rather than any other attracted you, and what holds you to this forgotten place. I’m going to tell you! It’ll come as a shock, but you’ve got to believe me, as you believed what Monsieur Coppet’s just told you […] WE ALL BELONG TO SAINT-SALGUE! […] our parents were all old inhabitants of the drowned village […] twelve left peacefully on the first notification that they had to go […] the hard core was left, young men determined to hold their hard-won land, their hopes or rather the bonds between a man and his birthplace. There were eight of them and these were their names […]Henri Babin, Paul Fabert, Lucien Joye, Maurice Loche, Baptiste Gédéon, Patrice Lourvrier, Constant Douin (my own father) and Django Lespagnol, a gipsy who had settled in the village […] the eight swore they’d stick together. A few days later the train which took them into exile deposited them in a gloomy Parisian suburb.” But Criquet Lariqué feels left out because his parents were not one of the eight. Gaby assures him that Mézeran will make him an honorary citizen of Saint-Salgue.

The auction ceremony takes place – and there’s only one bidder! Charley hands over his cheque, and Saint-Salgue is restored to its former inhabitants. Criquet receives the Freedom of the City. Fernand has just one task left; to find the house that his father lived in and see if an old watch is still hanging in the place where he left it. It is. It needs very careful cleaning, but it could be restored to life. They’ll need to pretend to M. Douin that it instantly went like a dream. “Fernand hesitated. “I’ve never told him a lie in my life.” He sighed and stared at his feet. “Just this once you can, “ said Marion. “He won’t be taken in, but he’ll smile like he used to do and the road to Saint-Salgue will open in front of him once again.””

 

The Clue of the Black CatTo sum up; this is definitely the end of the road for Gaby and his gang. Over the course of four books, we’ve seen them grow from playing in poverty-stricken streets with the horse without a head (which gets a name check in this book), through to owning a vehicle and taking it on holidays. The mystery of Saint-Salgue ends with the suggestion that the future is rosy for these characters; Berna has engineered it so that they will always remain friends, and indeed live in the same environment, although it may not necessarily be Louvigny! It’s an enjoyable and action-packed read; its unusual end might feel far-fetched or just a huge reward for the way they’ve entertained us over the years. 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 something special. His next book was Le Témoignage du chat noir, translated into English as The Clue of the Black Cat. Not only is this my favourite Paul Berna book, but it’s also probably my favourite children’s story of all time, and I can’t wait to re-read it and share my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Points of View Challenge – But the One on the Right – Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967)

Poet, satirist, wit, critic, essayist and notable exponent of wisecracks.

But the One on the Right, originally published in The New Yorker magazine, 19th October 1929

Available to read online here (search for page 86 of the document)

Given the style classification Interior Monologue by Moffett and McElheny: “In these first two stories somebody is speaking to himself, thinking. We merely overhear his thoughts. These stories are the equivalent of soliloquies in a theatre, except that a character thinking alone on stage would have to talk aloud so that the audience could hear his thoughts. Reading these stories is like listening to a soliloquy.” More on what makes an interior monologue when we come to the other short story listed under this category!

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

 

But the One on the Right

 

So short, it’s barely a story, more like a fictional article! Dorothy Parker is invited to dinner by a hostess; she clearly knows no one there and is seated next to a boring man on her left. He’s polite, answers her small talk directly, but with no sense of creativity or interest; and her brain gives a running commentary on the occasion. She’s stuck with the one on the left, but the one on the right is being engaged by another lady who bagsied him first, and, despite his attractive shoulders, Dorothy decides to play fair and not try to muscle in on the conversation. At the end, the man on the right reveals that he too finds the whole experience exasperating and surprises Dorothy with an inventive chat-up line.

If ever you’ve been invited to dinner with the intention of getting people who don’t know each other to get to know one another, you know how ghastly the experience can be. And Dorothy Parker nicely conveys that cliff edge of politeness and boredom, of doing what the host expects of you rather than doing what you really want to do. We can all appreciate the disaster that a dull dining partner can provide. It’s a fun twist at the end, when the man on the right is found to be having an equally awful time, and the two of them plan a getaway which might lead on to something more interesting.

Messrs Moffett and McElheny must have decided they wanted an extremely light hors d’oeuvre to start this anthology, and Dorothy Parker is always a reliably witty entertainer with her yarns and bon mots. “I should have stayed at home for dinner. I could have had something on a tray. The head of John the Baptist or something.” I love the phrase vin triste, (not sure if it was an invention of Parker’s but I’d never heard it before) which superbly describes what happens when you have too much of the former and it inevitably descends into the latter. Times change if Chablis was considered a rotten wine, as it is in this story; it’s rather classy nowadays. And I also enjoyed her few literary moments; saying that red wine gave her The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) or referring to the boring man on the left as “Boy Thoreau” – in an ironic nod to Henry Thoreau’s dense and packed narrative style.

Much as Dorothy Parker might have enjoyed (or endured) a wafer thin starter to her meal, so can we regard this four-page amuse bouche as a precursor to some more meaty fayre to come. The next short story in the book, and the other to be classified as an interior monologue, is This is my Living Room by Tom McAfee. I think this will be a very different kettle of fish.

The Points of View Challenge – 41 Short Stories

No, nothing to do with an old BBC programme where you praised their efforts to the sky (Well done the BBC, another winner!) but a book of short stories that’s been hanging around my bookshelves for over forty years. Let me explain…

Back in 1979 I saw the musical of Flowers for Algernon, and it really impressed me – even though it didn’t last long, it still remains one of the top ten shows I’ve ever seen. It was based on Daniel Keyes’ short story of the same name, and I decided I had to track it down and read it. In those pre-Internet days it was harder to find a short story in an anthology without having a clue as to who might have published it. But, as luck would have it, I found it an American book called Points of View, edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R McElheny. Moffett (1929–1996) was an American teacher of English, author, and theorist of the teaching and learning of language arts and especially writing – so says Wikipedia, anyway. McElheny – who doesn’t get a Wikipedia entry of his own, alas – taught Creative Writing at the Arlington School, Belmont, Mass. at the time of publication, and had also taught at the Phillips Exeter Academy, as did Mr Moffett, which is presumably where their collaboration began. But I’m guessing here.

Anyway, I bought the book, read the story, put the book on the bookshelf and never looked at it again – until recently. It turns out that this anthology has quite a good reputation for being a) an assortment of excellent short stories and b) for being arranged in an unusual manner. They are listed by their narrative styles. So, for example, the first two stories are listed as Interior Monologue; then there are two under Dramatic Monologue, three under Letter Narration, two under Diary Narration, etc, etc and etc. There are actually forty-one short stories in this book, listed under eleven different narrative styles.

It was published in 1966, but a second edition appeared in 1995 with a revised selection of stories. Thirteen of the original 1966 selection made it into the revised edition, alongside thirty-one new choices. I only have the first edition, so my Points of View Challenge is to read – and write about – each of the forty-one stories lurking within its pages. And, if it goes well, who knows, I might buy the second edition too. Both books are very easily available on the Internet through the usual second hand sources, if you’d like to get a copy and read them along with me. I should add though, that all the writers are very well known and, with a couple of exceptions, you could easily find each of these stories in other collections. Even more convenient, most of these stories are available to read on the Internet, and I’ll provide an online link to the text in each blogpost wherever I can. That means we can all read them together!

The first story in the book – under the heading of Interior Monologue – is Dorothy Parker’s But the One on the Right. I’m going to give that a read and then write up my thoughts – probably tomorrow. Hope you find this an interesting challenge too!

Another bunch of theatre and dance memories? Who knew! August to December 2007

  1. Pygmalion – Oxford Playhouse, 31st August 2007

One of those calamitous occasions when you arrive at the theatre in good time for a Friday night performance and they’ve already run out of programmes for the entire week’s run – sigh. It makes it very hard to remember the finer details. But the photocopied cast list does remind me that this production performed Shaw’s original concise text, first published in 1916, excluding the extra scene he wrote for a film made in 1938. The late Tim Pigott-Smith was an excellent Henry Higgins, with Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as Eliza, Tony Haygarth as Doolittle, grandes dames Barbara Jefford as Mrs Higgins and Una Stubbs as Mrs Pearce, and the excellent and up-and-coming Edward Bennett as Freddy. Directed by Peter Hall.

  1. Forgotten Voices – Oxford Playhouse, 7th September 2007

Based on the oral testimonies of First World War veterans and collected by the Sound Archive of the Imperial War Museum, this play by Malcolm McKay tells the story of five survivors – four men and one woman – whose memories provide a vivid and moving first and account of the Great War. An excellent endeavour, to capture these memories in a play so that they need never be forgotten. The superb cast included Rupert Frazer, Belinda Lang and Matthew Kelly.

  1. BBC Proms in the Park – Hyde Park, London, 8th September 2007

Another of those blissful assemblies in Hyde Park, and an excuse for picnics and champagne, whilst being entertained by the likes of Lesley Garrett, Dick and Dom, Chico, T-Rextasy (who are ace), opera star Juan Diego Florez and top of the bill, Will Young. All presented by Sir Terry Wogan. A great fun night.

  1. Donkeys’ Years – Milton Keynes Theatre, 28th September 2007

It’s always fun to see another production of Michael Frayn’s delightful Donkeys Years, a show that relies on the camaraderie of its actors playing the parts of old ex-students returning for their college Gaudy. But this production didn’t work that well because I thought it wasn’t very well cast – even though individually it was full of excellent actors. Ian Lavender came across as too young to play Birkett, the old porter, as did Mark Hadfield as Headingley. Snell is meant to be a wretched no-hoper but Norman Pace gave him too much smartness; and Sara Crowe just felt wrong as Lady Driver! Never mind!

 

  1. Visiting Mr Green – Oxford Playhouse, 5th October 2007

One of those nights at the theatre when you know you’re in the presence of a masterclass of perfection acting.  Warren Mitchell was absolutely stupendous as the old man in Jeff Baron’s brilliant play about the developing relationship between the young executive who nearly kills Mr Green in a car accident and then has to spend six months visiting him as a form of restorative justice. Every bit as good as you would imagine it was.

  1. Rambert Dance Company World View Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 13th October 2007

Rambert’s tour for 2007 was called their World View Tour, because it featured the works of Australian, French Canadian, and American choreographers. The programme for the night started with L’eveil by company member Melanie Teall, then Gran Partita by Karole Armitage, a revival premiere of Christopher Bruce’s wonderful Swansong, and then finally Andrée Howard’s Lady into Fox, originally premiered in 1939. Wonderful as always.

  1. Half a Sixpence, Birmingham Hippodrome, 20th October 2007

Not the amazing Cameron Mackintosh production that wowed everyone about five years ago, but a Bill Kenwright production starring Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps, and full of joy and delight he was too – Kipps is the role for a true song-and-dance man to shine as Tommy Steele did originally, Gary Wilmot did in this production and Charlie Stemp would in due course. Elsewhere in the cast was the wonderful Gaye Brown as Mrs Walsingham. Always a fun and entertaining show, although the recent production has rather eclipsed the memory of this one.

  1. The Producers – Milton Keynes Theatre, 1st November 2007

I was expecting this big show to be an illustrious success but it rather left me cold, I’m afraid. I’m not a huge fan of Joe Pasquale, but he was excellent in the part of Leo; in fact, the best performance was from Russ Abbot as the flamboyant Roger DeBris. My main memory is spotting Joe Pasquale at the deli counter in the next-door Waitrose.

  1. Richard Alston Dance Company – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 27th November 2007

Never one to miss the annual visit of the Richard Alston Dance Company, this year’s show featured four excellent pieces: Fingerprint, Nigredo, Brink and Gypsy Mixture. The super company included Martin Lawrance, Pierre Tappon, Anneli Binder, a young Hannah Kidd and the great Jonathan Goddard.

  1. Aladdin – Birmingham Hippodrome, 23rd December 2007

Moving on past another trip to see the amazing Chichester production of Nicholas Nickleby in two parts, all on one day at the Milton Keynes Theatre, our next show was the panto for Christmas 2007, Aladdin, starring John Barrowman in the title role. Fun for all the family, of course, but I thought this Qdos panto lacked a little pizzazz. I wasn’t overkeen on the Grumbleweeds as the policemen (although our nieces loved them); I was looking forward to seeing Don Maclean as Widow Twankey and he certainly put on a good show. I actually think most laughs came from the wonderful facial expressions of Masashi Fujimoto as the Emperor. Good, but not great.

Review – Gin Craze! Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st July 2021

Gin CrazeI remember the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to refer to gin as Mother’s Ruin, and, watching April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers’ new musical about that particular demon drink, it’s no surprise that she did! Apparently, there was a time in the 18th century when the average Briton drank 1.5 litres of the stuff a day, not that any of them would have had a clue what a litre was. Then again, I don’t think they took measures into account; a dram of mothers’? Just swig it, knock it back, get it down you. It was, after all, just an easy exit into oblivion away from the hardships of the world.

Gin CrazeMeet the ladies of Gin Lane, and listen to their tales, not only of drunkenness, but of rape, prostitution, murder, robbery, degradation, imprisonment and so on. No wonder they turned to a spot of Gineva to make it go away. There’s Suki – everyone knows Suki, always happy to help you out if you’ve got a baby you can’t afford to keep; she’ll make sure it’s safely looked after. There’s Moll, with her ready wit and personal charms who’ll always let you have your way with her if it keeps her in gin for an hour or so. There’s Lydia, selling top quality gin from her barrow, with her friend Mary; they’ve both got secrets – and you know how secrets have a way of finding you out. And there’s Evelyn, selling her lousy gin and losing her custom to Lydia and Mary; but revenge is a gin best served icy cold.

Gin Craze JusticeWe also encounter novelist Henry Fielding, who went on to become a magistrate and co-found The Bow Street Runners with his brother John, and we meet his sister Sarah, also a writer and early feminist, encouraging (but not too much) well-meaning but impoverished young women to improve their lot. But how do these historically real people fit into the fictional (?) world of Gin Craze!? You’ll have to see the show to find out.

Rosalind Ford and coThis magnificent show has success written through it like a stick of rock.  Hayley Grindle’s set – a labyrinth of stairs and scaffolding – suggests the dingy streets and sordid alleyways of a Hogarthian London, and the costumes are fantastic – billowing gowns that you can imagine were once grand, but years of grime have worn down; wealth and poverty brought together in sharp focus. April de Angelis’ book and characters are full of wit, depth, and emotion, and there’s a fascinating and strong moral compass at play. Lucy Rivers’ music is melodic, reflective, and engrossing, whilst also capturing a spirit of raucous entertainment. I could list the songs that I enjoyed the most, but I found I was listing almost all of them, so there’s no point doing that! As a mark of a decent musical, each song either extends our understanding of the character singing or progresses the plot so that you never leave a song in the same place that you entered it.

Gin CrazeAs for the performers, it was one of those rare occasions where every single member of the cast delivered a performance that was 100% faultless, in word, in action, in voice, in musicianship. They form a most extraordinary talented ensemble. This is one of those on-trend productions where each of the cast members also plays an instrument, and the music and book integrate seamlessly. At the heart of the show is the partnership between Mary and Lydia, conveyed perfectly by Aruhan Galieva as Mary and Paksie Vernon as Lydia. Their harmonies when they sing together are just sublime. Ms Galieva has a deceptively simple way of making our heart melt when her character is in trouble (which is a lot of the time) but also rejoice along with her when things are going well. Using the awkward J word here, Ms Vernon delivers a strong and convincing performance of a character who goes on an extraordinary journey throughout life, adapting to her circumstances, surviving against all the odds, until making a final devastating sacrifice. It’s a fantastic performance.

Debbie ChazenDebbie Chazen is also superb as Moll, who may be addled with alcohol but still has a remarkable eloquence and gives the show huge boosts of humour every time she appears. She is also hilarious as the ghastly Germanic Queen Caroline, wrapping her vocal cords around such delightful phrases as “when things go Titten hoch” with tremendous gusto. Rachel Winters is great as the super-posh Sarah Fielding, slumming it in prison to do research for her latest book, drilling Mary in the ways a woman might succeed, extending her charity just so far – but no further. Rosalind Ford plays with the audience’s emotions in the difficult role of Suki, conveying the fine balance between anger at her deceit and sympathy for her plight. And Paula James is very entertaining as the furious Evelyn, who then becomes a victim of her own heart; her reaction to why her love cannot be requited gets the biggest laugh of the night.

Gin CrazeAnd I haven’t mentioned the gents! Alex Mugnaioni is brilliant as the urbane Henry Fielding, delivering witty (but inappropriate) after dinner jokes about Plato, failing to conceal his automatic stiffy when in a clench with the maid, although later becoming an ultimately callous magistrate. I also liked him very much as Jekyll the courtier and the Constable, torn between not agreeing with the new laws but having to enforce them. And Peter Pearson is also excellent as the hypocritical reverend Thomas Wilson and the blind John Fielding, identifying drolly through sound alone which items of crockery are being smashed around him.

This show just blew us both away with its brilliant mix of comedy and sadness, the quality of the story-telling, the beauty of the music, the wit of the language, the excellence of the performances and the sheer joie de vivre of the whole gin-soaked thing! It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 31st July but it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t go on to have a long and successful life hereafter. Also – a cast recording please!

P. S. By the way, this is a very bawdy show; no nudity or anything like that, but the language could, in Henry Higgins’ words, make a sailor blush. Definitely not one for the kids, and possibly not one for Granny either, depending on her sensibilities – but always remember, never underestimate Granny; she’s seen more years than you have.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Comedy of Errors, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 20th July 2021

Comedy of ErrorsIt’s not often that one feels bound to include the word joyous so early in a theatre review, but these are exceptional times, and no other word expresses the true delight everyone felt at being back at the Royal Shakespeare Company in their wonderful new garden theatre. It’s always a treat to enjoy this most accessible and light-hearted of Shakespeare’s plays, although, amongst the fun, director Phillip Breen has emphasised all its darker and more uncomfortable elements. The result is a cross between a traditional, riotous fun-and-frolic-type approach and an unusually close inspection of the discomfort and detachment experienced by its characters.

The RSC is to blame for my love of Comedy of Errors, having sat in the front row of the Aldwych Theatre in December 1977 agog at the magnificent production by Trevor Nunn, which remains the best production of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen (and – joy of joys – was recorded for posterity). The play adapts superbly to a summer outdoors setting – and the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Theatre provides both extremely comfy seating and an extraordinarily clear view of the stage. You can be sure, by the way, that the RSC has adopted a strong Covid-secure protocol not only to look after its audience but also its cast and crew, with a longer than usual interval (vital to get visits to both the bar and the toilets done in ample time) and excellent attention to social distancing and hygiene requirements. The super-helpful and plentiful front of house staff did a tremendous job.

You don’t need me to outline the story of the Comedy of Errors (but I will anyway). The states of Syracuse and Ephesus are on a war footing and Syracusan merchant Egeon is under arrest on penalty of death unless he can raise the thousand marks the law requires to save his life. Egeon has nothing to offer save his eloquence, but has no knowledge that one of his sons, and his son’s servant – and, indeed, his wife – have been living in Ephesus after they went missing in a sea disaster. Meanwhile his other son, (and other servant) turn up in Ephesus, looking for their brothers, and get mixed up in a comedy of mistaken identity – because they’re all identical twins. Plautus recognised a good joke when he saw one, didn’t he? I’m not breaking any spoilers when I tell you that Egeon doesn’t die.

Max Jones has created a simple but extremely effective set, with a tiled floor that recreates both cobbled streets and wealthy flooring, plus a back wall that parts in the middle to suggest the all-important abbey where the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio take refuge. Dyfan Jones’ sound design is superb; in particular, the comic scene between A of S and D of S, about the countries embedded in the realms of Luce’s body, works incredibly well with the sound tricks played by the imaginary microphones. One reservation though; at times, the sound of the four beatboxing vocalists became slightly overpowering. More of them later.

It’s the off-beat moments where the production strays from the typical reading of the play that gives you pause for thought. Sound and visual effects emphasise the cruelty of the beatings that Dromio receives from Antipholus of S; we see it as an abusive relationship, like a dog who keeps coming back to its master out of natural devotion but knows it’s only minutes till he will flinch again. And when Antipholus of E is locked out of his own home, the cacophony of howling ridicule that comes from the crowd is enhanced as a mental paranoia that profoundly disturbs and menaces his brain. No pantomime this. The ending, too, is strangely cold; whereas normally you might expect the two Antipholuses to clap each other on the back in an ecstatic reunion, here they’re barely able to look each other in the eye – and the text backs this reading up. The two Dromios consent to leave hand in hand, so a more physical reunion is appropriate; but their long, silent hug becomes uncomfortable as you realise that this is all too much for one of them.

The plays has a hard core of four central characters – the Antipholuses and the Dromios – two additional essential characters – Adrianna and Luciana – and a wealth of lively side characters, who, for me, really made the night. Antony Bunsee’s Egeon is the pinnacle of enfeebled dignity, holding everyone’s attention with his powerful tale of woe, who causes Nicholas Prasad’s excellent Duke Solinus to show unusual compassion. The two characters make a stark visual comparison, with Egeon’s faded glory juxtaposed with Solinus’ smart claret and blue uniform – obviously a member of the West Ham United Light Infantry. Bringing Egeon’s story to a happy conclusion is a fantastic performance by Zoe Lambert as Aemilia, setting the bar for Aemilias of the future, with her hard-hitting no-nonsense Yorkshire bluff providing an excellent comic presence but a perfectly accurate reading of the character.

There’s an extremely funny and vivacious performance by Baker Mukasa as the perplexed goldsmith Angelo, trying to balance his debtor and creditor with beaming but unsuccessful interpersonal skills until the money just isn’t there; I loved Alfred Clay’s Doctor Pinch, portrayed as a yogic charlatan in posing gold lamé; and Toyin Alyedun-Alase’s wonderful Courtesan creates a very striking figure as an almost-dominatrix, alluring and threatening at the same time – you wouldn’t want to cross her. William Grint breathes new life into the character of the gangster second merchant with some fantastic physical comedy, and together with his bodyguard Dyfrig Morris, show how disability can be a positive force on stage. Riad Richie, Patrick Osborne and, audience’s favourite, Sarah Seggari, all bring terrific comic support to their variety of roles.

Guy Lewis captures all Antipholus of Syracuse’s fish out of water status, but very nicely combined with that slight arrogance that accompanies the seasoned tourist traveller. Wonderful use of pauses highlight his polite confusion, and there’s a brilliant bit of comic business with a hand sanitiser that unites the problems of today with an age-old issue to genuine guffaws. Rowan Polonski channels his inner Rik Mayall with a frenetic Antipholus of Ephesus, wrapped up in his public image and desperate not to get a bad camera angle. He provides another strong physical comedy performance which gets him into all sorts of torturous bodily positions.

Jonathan Broadbent’s Dromio of S comes across as one of those servants who pretty much think they’re as important as their master with a degree of detachment and seriousness that helps him escape most of the on-stage madness; perhaps unlike Greg Haiste’s Dromio of E, who throws himself more into the traditional mayhem and comic physicality. When the back wall opens up to allow the brothers all meeting, Mr Broadbent is sat on the back wall, way backstage, deliberately visible and disconcerted, wondering whether he should get up and join the rest of them. That final scene of the long uncomfortable hug cleverly shows the difference between the two personalities. Hedydd Dylan’s Adrianna successfully conveys the character’s frustrations and anger at her husband’s inexplicable behaviour, but I didn’t think she always revealed the warmth or humour that lays beneath the exasperated surface. Avita Jay, though, is excellent as the spirited yet strictly non-feminist Luciana, who avers that a man is master of his liberty and is shocked at what appears to be her brother-in-law’s inappropriate behaviour.

One major bugbear with this production though: the music. It’s a personal thing, and I absolutely accept how skilful it is, and that I may well be out of kilter with everyone else; but I really dislike constant bombardment with vocal shenanigans beatbox-style. And the trouble is that these musical interludes not only separate each scene, but that they also drown out some important text (poor Egeon’s big speech at the beginning is basically ruined by their disrespectful soundtrack) and all to no end. Not only does the music add nothing to our understanding of the story, but it also actively gets in the way of it. Oh – and I didn’t understand all the shopping bags everywhere either.

I admired this production for its boldness in exploring the darker side of the play, and for revealing some essential differences of character between the two sets of brothers. And it’s also studded with some brilliant supporting performances. Not perfect, but certainly entertaining, and a wonderful return to live theatre from this amazing company.

Production photos by Pete Le May

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – The Comedy Crate at the Black Prince Pub, Northampton, 15th July 2021

Comedy CrateThose lovely comedy lovers at the Comedy Crate had already resumed residence in the back garden of the Black Prince a few weeks ago, but this was the first show that we’d been able to catch – and my first non-Zoom comedy gig since their show last October. Such are the ways of the pandemic. The line-up had unavoidably changed a bit between being first announced and the show on the night, but that’s often the way with live gigs!

Jenny CollierOur MC for the night was Jenny Collier, whom we last saw on one of the Comedy Crate’s online gigs earlier this year. She’s a sparky presence, with her charming appearance and cut-glass accent acting as a great juxtaposition to some ribald language. She’s been working as a GP receptionist for some of these Covid times, which was a source of some excellent material. However, I most enjoyed her account of giving a – I can’t dress this up in any other way – stool sample for the medics to explore. We were an occasionally unruly crowd, so she had a lot on her plate for the evening, but she was great fun and kept the show going at a great pace.

Olaf Falafel Our first act, and one of my all-time favourite comedians, was Olaf Falafel, whom we’ve seen many times in Edinburgh. In his trademark stripy blue sailor’s shirt, which makes him look like an extra from There is Nothing Like a Dame, he attacked us with some brilliant material, playing off the crowd beautifully, and ending up with his famous biscuitology routine. His comedy is a wonderful mixture of the absurd and the childish, but with lots of devastatingly clever observations and woefully funny puns. Great to see him again.

Toussaint DouglassNext up, and new to us, was Toussaint Douglass; a naturally funny guy with a very relaxed style but with some strong punchy material full of surprises, including some challenging stuff about race. A very likeable personality, with some nice self-deprecating observations, he struck up an excellent rapport with the audience. Very enjoyable, and someone to look forward to seeing again!

Tony LawFor our headline act we had the rather wacky and unpredictable Tony Law, whom we’ve seen a few times before and sometimes he goes down a storm, and sometimes he doesn’t! I very much liked his use of accents in his act, and he’s supremely confident with dealing with the crowd; you either “get” his flights of fancy or you don’t and, personally, on the whole, I don’t! But the majority of the audience did, so I admit it’s my problem not his!

There’s another Comedy Crate in the garden of the Black Prince on Thursday 19th August. We’re going, are you?

Review – In the Heights, Northampton Filmhouse, 13th July 2021

In The Heights movie posterLin-Manuel Miranda’s first big musical hit the stage running on Broadway back in 2008, and there was an instant interest in making it into a film. But, as often happens, those plans stalled, and it wasn’t until after the smash success of Hamilton that work on In the Heights The Movie got going again. I thoroughly enjoyed the stage version (although I didn’t see it until 2016) and so was naturally keen to see the film – and, for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint at all!

Washington HeightsLike the show, the film offers a snapshot of a few days in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American area of New York (or Nuevo York, to make it clearer), and sets Usnavi at the centre of the community, running his little bodega at all hours of the day, accompanied by his smartass cousin Sonny. Stanford University undergraduate Nina arrives unexpectedly, much to the delight and concern of her father Kevin, who runs the local taxi company, and even more to the delight of Benny, the taxi controller, whose tongue hangs out (figuratively) every time Nina appears on the scene. But why has she returned? Meanwhile, Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon, dreams of getting her own place, and Usnavi dreams of having a relationship with her but she’s just too beautiful for him to dare make the first move. Will they get it together? And who is the lucky winner of $96,000 in the lottery?

Usnavi and VanessaYes, there are a few plot and sequence changes from the original show; always a risky undertaking if you’re showing the film to a purist. I did like how Usnavi’s future relationship with Vanessa was left to your imagination in the stage show, whereas that’s not the case in the film; and there are a couple of times where the film’s approach to the tough reality of life is a little blander – Usnavi’s shop doesn’t get ransacked during the blackout, for example. Either way though, it’s a good story, well told.

Benny and NinaBoth the show and the film suffer from the same overload of exposition in its first half-hour or so. There’s a lot of information that is hurled at the audience right from the start, that it’s impossible to keep up with everything you’re being told – particularly when so much of it is coming via the medium of hip-hop/rap/Latin lyrics. There are big dance numbers which overwhelm the senses, and whilst they look and sound great, they can have the effect of getting in the way of the storytelling. In fact, it’s only when the music stops that you can really give yourself a chance to reflect and take stock of what’s been happening. As a result, quieter scenes such as the confrontation between Kevin and Nina concerning her Stanford career, and Usnavi’s important discussions with his accountant, stand out for their clarity. It also tends to dip into sentimentality a little more than I’d like – there’s only so many times you can watch Usnavi get misty-eyed over the four youngsters to whom he’s telling his story.

Big Dance NumberBut there’s no doubt that the dance numbers form most of the stand-out moments of the film. I particularly liked The Club scene, which felt just a hair’s breadth from West Side Story, and the Carnaval del Barrio, which genuinely shows how dance can emerge as an organic reaction to the steamy Latin conditions of life. A personal thing, but I was irritated by the occasional moments when the dance scenes moved into the surreal – such as Benny and Nina dancing on the walls of the block, or the guys on the street plucking seemingy tangible shapes out of mid-air. Those gimmicks didn’t enhance the songs or the dance. Musicals are already one step away from reality; in my humble opinion, they don’t need to be made even more impossible to believe! However, we couldn’t help but laugh at the use of Hamilton’s You’ll Be Back as holding music on the phone; they must have had a lot of fun at that idea.

Daniela and the girlsIt’s studded with excellent performances by a young company of largely impossibly beautiful people. It goes without saying that all the performers are supreme singers and dancers, bringing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs and Christopher Scott’s empowering choreography to ebullient life. Leslie Grace is stunning (in all ways) as Nina, looking fondly on her old neighbourhood friends but with the slight distancing of someone who has been subjected to more intellectual challenges. Melissa Barrera is also fantastic as Vanessa, trying for a better life, opening the door for Usnavi to approach her. Daphne Rubin-Vega is brilliant as salon owner Daniela, challenging the neighbourhood to get a life, and young Gregory Diaz IV turns in a quirky and lovable performance as Sonny – he’s obviously going places.

Usnavi and SonnyAbuela Claudia is played by Olga Merediz who took the part on Broadway, so it seems only right that she should have the role here, but I couldn’t help but think she seemed a little young to be playing a character who dwindles away with old age before our eyes. But it’s Anthony Ramos who takes control of this film as Usnavi, perfectly conveying the character’s Everyman-type role; eminently likeable, full of empathy, with a wry sense of humour (is it just me who thinks he looks like a Puerto Rican Jon Richardson?), perfectly playing to the camera in his role as narrator. A first-rate performance.

Swimming PoolIt’s not a perfect film – at two hours, twenty minutes it felt a little long, and occasionally self-indulgent with the sentimentality; and sometimes the immense pizzazz of the whole thing obstructs the clarity of the storytelling. One of my pet hates in a musical is when its songs neither further our understanding of the characters nor push the story forward, and In the Heights is occasionally guilty of this. However, I think I’ve been more critical about this film than it truly warrants. It’s extremely enjoyable, there are huge dollops of feelgood factor, and it has that wonderful, sometimes elusive element, a happy ending!

The George Orwell Challenge – Burmese Days (1934)

Burmese DaysBurmese Days was the first full-length novel that Orwell wrote, using observations he made during his years with the Indian Police Service in Burma. He wrote the first draft while living in Paris in the late 1920s; then revised it in 1932, with its final version fully written by early 1934. However, it was rejected by Gollancz, who had published Down and Out in Paris and London the previous year, due to their fears of libel. It was clear that Orwell’s fictional location for his story – Kyauktada – was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had served in the Police Force. In fact, the European Club, the jail and the police station are still in existence today, and, if you needed any further clues, the map that Orwell reprints at the beginning of the book makes it all too clear that Kyauktada is indeed Katha. It was feared that the characters bore too great a similarity to people he met whilst stationed there, and Gollancz was not prepared to take the risk. Orwell offered the book to Jonathan Cape and Heinemann too, but they turned it down for the same reason. However, it was accepted by Harpers for publication in the United States, where it was finally published in October 1934. On the understanding that Orwell could demonstrate that he had not named real people, Gollancz finally accepted it for publication the following June.

Happy reader boyWhen I started my George Orwell Challenge a short while ago, I decided that it would be both big-headed and redundant of me to try to add to the weight of literary criticism about any of his writing. I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any greater insights to brains much more accomplished than mine. So let me start by saying that I had no real expectation of what this book would be like. But you know the kind of book where you’re gripped from the first page, you resent time not spent reading it, and you can see the characters in your mind’s eye, and hear their voices and their accents, and see the locations, and feel the emotions of everyone involved in the book? This book is that book. I REALLY LOVED THIS BOOK!

burmaSo what is it about this book that made it stand out for me? I answer by directing you to the four things that most people would want from a first-rate novel. A strong, credible story; vibrant, memorable characters; eloquent use of language; and conveying truths and insights that makes your brain work. And Burmese Days has these four assets in spades. If you haven’t read the book yet, and don’t want to see any spoilers, please stop reading here, go and read the book this instant, and then come back! It’s going to be impossible to write about this book without giving away vast amounts of the plot – and its shocks and surprises.

Let’s start off with the strong, credible story. John Flory, thirty-five years old, English timber merchant and long-time resident of Burma, doesn’t fit in with the other Englishmen at the Club; primarily because his best friend in the country is the Indian Doctor Veraswami, and pukka sahibs in Burma are only meant to mix with other white people. A decree has gone out, that the club must elect one non-European Member, in an effort to improve relations with the local people. Subdivisional Magistrate U Po Kyin, corrupt and ambitious, has his sights set on being granted this honour; the thorn in his flesh is Veraswami, as the most likely other person to be elected.

Meanwhile, Flory is otherwise sad and alone, and can see no way out of his miserable lifestyle. Enter Elizabeth Lackersteen, twenty-two and a highly eligible Englishwoman, newly arrived in Burma from living in Paris. Flory sees his chance and does his best to arouse her romantic interest. But there are two problems; one – he is cultured, well-read and artistic, all characteristics that she loathes. And secondly, he has a large and unsightly birthmark on his face that he finds hard to cover up and which takes away a lot of his confidence; will the birthmark make a difference to how Elizabeth sees him? Not only that, but a rival appears on the scene – military policeman Verrall, a handsome but vain man who loves his polo. But does he also love Elizabeth? I don’t really need to outline any more of the story here; this just gives you a hint of the intrigues at play and the possible outcomes.

Indian DoctorWhat about those characters? Looking at it from an old-fashioned moral standpoint, there’s one out-and-out good person, one irredeemably evil person, and everyone else falls somewhere between the two. Dr Veraswami is, maybe not goodness personified, but still a thoroughly decent and honest man, which makes the attempts to discredit him even more telling. He respects the authority of the British, he does everything he can to be a good friend and host, and when push comes to shove, he is there to support Flory in quelling the rebellion. In the opposite corner is U Po Kyin, an outright villain with no redeeming features, corrupt to the nth degree; a murderer and rapist, likened by Veraswami to a crocodile in that he’s always out for a kill and will always go for the weak spot to secure his evil wishes.

CrocodileAs those two characters occupy the end positions in the goodness/evil scale, although they are well drawn and entertaining to read about, perhaps they are slightly less interesting than the more complex characters. A case in point, and somewhere in between them, is Elizabeth Lackersteen, whose experiences in Paris have affected her detrimentally, so that when she arrives in Burma she is extremely vulnerable. She is pretty and presents herself well, and at first appears to be a charming young lady, but she has a very black-and-white view of what’s good and what’s not, and primarily it comes down to money – due to two terms at a very expensive and posh school. “Thereafter, her whole code of living was summed up in one belief, and that a simple one. It was that the Good (“lovely” was her name for it) is synonymous with the expensive, the elegant, the aristocratic; and the Bad (“beastly”) is the cheap, the low, the shabby, the laborious […] Everything from a pair of stockings to a human soul was classifiable as “lovely” or “beastly”.”

HunterAs we get to know Elizabeth more, we realise that she is appallingly and unashamedly racist; when Flory introduces her to some local people she quickly loses any sense of decency (“how revoltingly ugly these people are […] so coarse-looking; like some kind of animal […] what absolutely disgusting people”), and this sets her against Flory: “He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a “subject” people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant.” We also discover that she is romantically – even sexually – aroused by watching violence. She is desperate to kill anything that moves when Flory takes her on a hunt, and when he talks animatedly about shooting, “she really loved him when he talked like this”. When she shoots a pigeon, “he put it limp and warm into Elizabeth’s hand. She could hardly give it up, the feel of it so ravished her. She could have kissed it, hugged it to her breast […] She was conscious of an extraordinary desire to fling her arms around Flory’s neck and kiss him; and in some way it was the killing of the pigeon that made her feel this.”

Rosa DartleShe’s also a cultural philistine, finding the local pwe dance “beastly” and wanting to leave early, thereby offending the local performers; “Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror […] Surely it was not right to be sitting among the black people like this, almost touching them, in the scent of their garlic and their sweat? Why was she not back at the Club with the other white people? Why had he brought her here, among this horde of natives, to watch this hideous and savage spectacle?” She hates the word “Art”, because her mother was a martyr to Art in Paris, and she equates it with poverty and pretentiousness, dirt and foreigners. “Elizabeth had no friends in Paris […] Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners.” As a result she’s a truly bad romantic match for Flory, for whom culture is very important. She would have hated knowing that he likened her to Rosa Dartle, a character from David Copperfield, as she would find all literary allusions “beastly”.

Polo PlayerOther notable characters include the drunken Mr Lackersteen, Elizabeth’s uncle, who perpetually makes lecherous approaches to her; his manipulative and shallow wife, whose only intention is to marry her off, so that they no longer have any responsibility for her; Ma Hla May, Flory’s vengeful ex-mistress; Ellis, the vindictive, cruel racist businessman who never misses an opportunity for violence against the locals; Verrall, the dismissive military policeman who is only happy on horseback; Deputy Commissioner Macgregor in charge of the Club; and Ko S’la, Flory’s devoted and long-suffering servant.

Which leaves the central character, Flory; a fascinatingly flawed anti-hero. Never comfortable with the other pukka sahibs, he despises their racism but is weak to call them out on it. When Ellis organises a petition against Veraswami joining the Club, Flory signs it despite acknowledging his disloyalty to his friend because he doesn’t want any confrontation. He treats Ma Hla May with total disrespect, using her only for sex; he gets so drunk he has to be undressed and put to bed by Ko S’la. He makes himself look foolish in comparison with Verrall with his lack of horsemanship. Nevertheless, it’s Flory who dares to swim the Irrawaddy to alert the police in the town that the Club is under siege, possibly saving lives in the process. It’s Flory who rescues Elizabeth when she fears attack from a water buffalo. It’s Flory who appreciates the Burmese culture and respects the local traditions. And it’s Flory who genuinely tries his hardest to court Elizabeth and do his best for her. The reader wholly identifies with Flory, so that you forgive him his flaws and misjudgements. And it’s those flaws and misjudgements that make him a supremely believable character.

JungleOrwell constantly delights us with his immaculate use of language; his narrative style is clear and full of imagery, flashes of humour, surprises and sideswipes. He starts with an ironic but wholly appropriate epigraph from As You Like It – “this desert inaccessible Under the shade of melancholy boughs” – equating the Forest of Arden with the jungles of Burma. He relishes the opportunity for regular descriptions of jungle fauna and flora, evoking all the senses to convey the setting to the reader. Take, for example, these few lines from the scene where Flory escapes into the jungle because he cannot sleep at night. “It was scrub jungle at first, with dense stunted bushes, and the only trees were half-wild mangoes, bearing little turpentiny fruits the size of plums […] there was a poisonous, ivy-like smell of crushed leaves. It was still hot, though the sun was losing his glaze and the slanting light was yellow […] at the edge of the stream there was a huge dead pyinkado tree festooned with spidery orchids, and there were some wild lime bushes with white, waxen flowers. They had a sharp scent like bergamot. Flory had walked fast and the sweat had drenched his shirt and dribbled, stinging, into his eyes. He had sweated himself into a better mood.”

Pyinkado treeAnd there’s more. “Here a peepul tree grew, a great buttressed thing six feet thick, woven of innumerable strands of wood, like a wooden cable twisted by a giant. The roots of the tree made a natural cavern, under which the clear greenish water bubbled […] a flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries […] the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it […] then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch, It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours. Its legs were like the pink wax that dentists use.”

It’s a barrage for the senses. The colours: yellow, white, green, pink; the smells: turpentiny, ivy-like, lime, bergamot; the liquid: the stream, stinging sweat, bubbling water; the fruits, trees and flowers: mangoes, plums, pyinkado, orchids, waxen flowers, peepul, berries. It overflows with lush description, almost too much to take in, overwhelming – just like the jungle would be. Orwell equates the vegetation with the Burmese people. On the first page of the book, he notes that “the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling.” With such regard for the flora and fauna, it comes as a shock to the reader when he describes Flory and Elizabeth on their hunting expeditions; with such an eye and ear for the sights and sounds of nature it’s grotesque when its animals are shot.

Orwell tells us of a time when Flory was trying to impress Elizabeth with tales of shoots he had been on before. “She was quite thrilled when he described the murder of an elephant which he had perpetrated some years earlier.” The word murder, an act he perpetrated, is normally only used of human beings, but here Orwell raises the sense of crime involved – which I’m guessing would have been very forward-looking at the time. During Flory’s erroneous attempt to impress Elizabeth with his horse-riding skills, Orwell affirms that “he knew that, like nearly everyone, he looked his best on horseback”. Association between people and animals is shown positively unless it involves the animal’s death. When Elizabeth wounds and then Flory kills the leopard, “they stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s”; but after the pelt has been cured and prepared as a gift for Elizabeth, “the skin had been utterly ruined. It was as stiff as cardboard, with the leather cracked and the fur discoloured and even rubbed off in patches, It also stank abominably. Instead of being cured, it had been converted into a piece of rubbish.”

quiet cathedral cityElsewhere, Orwell’s style just captures the reader, with originality and imagination, always truthful and insightful. “Next day the town was quieter than a cathedral city on a Monday morning.” “Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work.” “On board ship everyone behaves as though he were rich.” “He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his firm, but he was one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.” “There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways.” “Is there anything in the world more graceless, more dishonouring, than to desire a woman whom you will never have?”

Burma Police TrainingThere’s frequent, almost random use of the N word, by characters such as Ellis, for whom the Burmese and Indians are nothing but scum beneath his feet, but also by Flory and Orwell as the narrator, imbued with irony and exposing the racism of others. “When a man has a black face” says U Po Kyin, “suspicion is proof”, encapsulating the idea that there’s one law for one and one for the other. This lack of fairness is why Flory doesn’t fit in with his white colleagues; and Orwell’s narrative subtly switches between simply giving an account of Flory’s life and commenting on the morality and decency of those who make a living from the British Empire. “There is a prevalent idea that the men at the “outposts of Empire” are at least able and hardworking. It is a delusion. Outside the scientific services – the Forest Department, the Public Works Department and the like – there is no particular need for a British official in India to do his job competently […] it is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.”

Two AnnasI was strongly reminded of a theme that Orwell had written about in both Down and Out in Paris and London, and in his essay on Common Lodging Houses – that of profiteering from the misfortunes of others, at their expense. The prisoners’ food is prepared by the wife of a constable, “a stout Burmese woman”, who Orwell describes as “kneeling outside the cage ladling rice and watery dahl into tin pannikins.” He explains: “the Government provided for the prisoners’ food at the rate of two annas and a half per meal per man, out of which the constable’s wife looked to make a profit of one anna”. Just like the meal ticket swindle, for those staying in lodgings, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food, it’s a scandal that is still found everywhere today. Elizabeth’s observations about her mother’s poverty-stricken life in Paris were doubtlessly based on Orwell’s own observations whilst living there in the 1920s.

Mosquito netBut it’s not all heartache and savagery. Orwell has a lightness of touch that turns to gentle humour with delicate ease. From colonial jokes: “Reminds me of the old colonel who used to sleep without a mosquito net. They asked his servant why and the servant said: “At night, master too drunk to notice mosquitoes; in the morning, mosquitoes too drunk to notice master””; learned jokes: “at least you have brought to us law and order. The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.” “Pox Britannica, doctor. Pox Britannica is its proper name”; pricking pomposity jokes: “How slow you are! I should have thought even a fool would have seen that I am raising this rebellion merely in order to crush it. I am – what is that expression Mr Macgregor uses? Agent provocateur – Latin, you would not understand”; irony jokes: “the editor will get six months’ imprisonment for this,” he said finally. “He does not mind. He says that the only time when his creditors leave him alone is when he is prison.” And so on. Reading Orwell is always full of unexpected pleasures!

Thomas HardyIt’s not a perfect book by any means. There are a couple of dubious plot devices that make you think of Thomas Hardy at his worst – like the earthquake that just so happens to coincide with Flory attempting to say something very important to Elizabeth, and a kind of fatalism overshadows the ending that suggests that it was never going to be end happily for our hero. But then, Orwell did state that he wasn’t the kind of writer. From the essay Why I Write: “I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…is rather that kind of book.”

Orwell ends the book with a lively round-up of what the characters are all up to now. It feels like an extremely modern tactic, such as would end a TV reality/documentary series. “Ethel is now back at home and getting to grips with her new hip” or “Fingers Dolittle was given a ten year prison sentence”; except that here the loose ends of all the major characters are tied up, largely to the satisfaction of the reader – except that, of course, Orwell would never give it a happy ending.

A Clergyman's DaughterDespite those couple of minor quibbles, I think this is a terrific book. A subtle – or maybe not so subtle, you choose – indictment of the British Empire, from one who worked there and decided that life in Blighty was best. I don’t think this book is anything like as well known as it deserves to be, and I am currently pestering all my friends to give it a read. I think you should too! I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, so please add them in the comments below. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter. I have no idea what to expect, so I’m looking forward to reading it over the next month or so and then I’ll put pen to paper and write something about it. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.