The Edinburgh Fringe Full Monty (nearly) – Day 5, 9th August 2022

What’s in store for us in Edinburgh today?

Here’s the schedule for 9th August:

10.25 – Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London, Assembly George Square Studios. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

Mrs Roosevelt“Returning to Edinburgh following a near sell-out 2016 Assembly season, Alison Skilbeck’s critically acclaimed one-woman show reveals the public and private life of one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th Century, Eleanor Roosevelt, from her daring trip to wartime Britain to her unconventional partnership with President Roosevelt. Granted special permission to use Eleanor’s diary and daily newspaper columns, this is the story of a passionate humanitarian, a woman beset by deep personal insecurities and tragedy, but one who never lost her passionate belief in the strength of the human spirit.”

This show was very well received six years ago, and since then we’ve seen Alison Skilbeck perform two more shows that were absolutely brilliant – so I have high hopes for this one.

12.50 – Please, Feel Free to Share, Pleasance Courtyard.

Please Feel Free To Share“Alex is a social success. Her Instagram boasts a montage of members-only rooftops and clinking glasses – like after like after like! When her father dies, Alex reluctantly joins a bereavement group. She shares a little, and then lies… a lot. Please, Feel Free to Share is a dynamic, darkly comic one-woman show about our personal addictions, the never-ending pursuit of likes and our growing desire to share all. Finalist: Popcorn Writing Award 2021.”

Produced by Scatterjam, this sounds like it should be an excellent dark comedy. Looking forward to it!

14.45 – Rajesh and Naresh, Summerhall.

Rajesh and Naresh“A feel-good love story. When Rajesh visits Mumbai, he encounters Naresh – not exactly the Indian wife his mother hoped for. Bend it like Beckham meets It’s a Sin in the queer romcom you’ve been waiting for – set just after India’s landmark decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2018. Funny and charmingly performed, Rajesh and Naresh was written from workshops conducted with members of the queer South Asian community in London and abroad. **** (Stage).”

We’ve been lucky enough to visit Mumbai a few times so I imagine I will be able to appreciate a lot of the background humour that I suspect lurks behind this play. Should be good.

17.00 – Blanket Ban, Underbelly, Cowgate.

Blanket Ban“Winner of Underbelly, New Diorama and Methuen Drama’s hit-making Untapped Award, 2022. ‘Sometimes I’m afraid of this play.’ Malta: Catholic kitsch, golden sun, deep blue sea, Eurovision – and a blanket ban on abortion. Propelled by three years of interviews with anonymous contributors and their own lived experience, actors and activists Marta and Davinia interrogate Malta’s restrictions on the freedom of women. What does it mean for your home to boast the world’s most progressive LGBTQIA rights, leading transgender laws – and a population that is almost unanimously anti-choice? A rallying cry from award-winning Chalk Line Theatre.”

This sounds really interesting – having been to Malta a few times, and also being a Eurovision fan! I can just imagine the gap between what’s allowed and what’s approved of. Should be very interesting.

19.30 – Ivo Graham: My Future, My Clutter, Pleasance Courtyard.

Ivo Graham“Bumbling wordsmith and tripe factory returns to discuss three years of heavy-duty pranking/parenting/procrastinating since Dave’s 2019 nominations for Best Comedy Show and Joke of the Fringe (‘I’ve got an Eton College advent calendar, where all the doors are opened by my father’s contacts’). As seen/heard on Mock The Week, Live At The Apollo, Have I Got News For You, British As Folk and was the fondue-set winner on Richard Osman’s House of Games. ‘A hugely enjoyable hour of stand-up comedy’ (Times). ‘Suddenly has star-in-the-making coming off him like steam’ (Telegraph).”

We’ve seen Ivo Graham a few times and he never fails to deliver a great show, so we’re looking forward to this!

22.20 – Rouge, Assembly Hall.

Rouge“Circus for grown ups – a decadent blend of sensational acrobatics, operatic cabaret and twisted burlesque. A non-stop celebration of the astonishing, surprising, subversive and supremely sexy. Winner of Best Circus 2020 Adelaide Fringe, Rouge is back with acts you’ve loved plus brand-new offerings to shock, delight and tease. Australian circus cabaret at its finest. ‘One badass sizzler of a show’ ***** (Daily Mail). ‘Rouge redefines what circus is and should be’ ***** (TheWeeReview.com). ‘Welcome to a circus for the new age… Brilliant performances… embodies the phrase: filthy and gorgeous’ ***** (WeekendNotes.com).”

We saw Rouge a few years ago and it was one of the better circus/burlesque offerings, so here’s hoping they continue the standard!

Check back later to see how we enjoyed all these shows!

The Edinburgh Fringe Full Monty (nearly) – Day 4, 8th August 2022

What’s in store for us in Edinburgh today?

Here’s the schedule for 8th August:

10.20 – About Money, Summerhall. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

About Money“’Weans. They get expensive, you know?’ Fast-food worker Shaun is your average 18-year-old boy. He likes music, video games and getting stoned. He’s also the sole carer to his eight-year-old sister, Sophie. Without enough money for childcare and under pressure from an unsympathetic boss, he’s forced to make decisions that could have devastating consequences. Drawn from interviews with young kinship carers and inspired by the McDonald’s strikes of 2018, this Glasgow drama is about family, love and friendship in a world where the lack of money threatens all three.

65% Theatre are the team behind this intriguing and promising sounding play, that tackles important subject matter. I hope it’s a great show.

UPDATE: Splendid way to start the day with a very thought provoking, and brilliantly written play about poverty and responsibility amongst young people and the things they make you do. Great performances, especially from the amazing child actor Lois Hagerty. Touching and moving; is incredible how using just two chairs and wearing two red caps can say so much. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

12.50 – Ultimatum, Pleasance Courtyard.

Ultimatum“Two strangers have one hour to split £1m. Sounds easy, but what happens when one of them refuses to play fair? What is fair? Who deserves money? Why? Ultimatum is a new play by Jon Gracey that forces a conversation on class, autobiography, truth, reality TV and ethical duty to our fellow humans. Praise for previous Treehouse productions: Courtroom Play: A Courtroom Play – ‘Delightfully silly’ ***** (One4Review.co.uk); Bring Them Home – ‘One for the bucket list’ ***** (LondonTheatre1.com); Werewolf: Live – Nominated for Best Newcomer, Brighton Fringe 2017.”

This sounds immensely entertaining and done well I think could be a big hit!

UPDATE: A very entertaining story and clever premise, although I did find the ending slightly predictable. It could have benefited from a little tighter writing and stronger performance which I am sure will come over time. ⭐️⭐️⭐️

16.30 – Iain Dale: All Talk with Angela Rayner MP, Pleasance @ EICC.

Angela Rayner“Award-winning LBC radio presenter and For the Many podcast host brings his acclaimed, incisive insight on current affairs back to the Fringe with these in-depth interviews featuring audience questions. Today’s guest is Angela Rayner, MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, deputy leader of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer and shadow cabinet member across multiple portfolios. ‘The indefatigable Iain Dale always cuts to the nub of politics’ (Adam Boulton). ‘There are very few commentators and broadcasters with an instinctive feel for real politics. Iain Dale does, which makes him endlessly listenable-to and peerless’ (Andrew Marr).”

We’re really looking forward to hearing Angela Rayner speak. This will be fascinating!

UPDATE: Another interview; unlike his conversation with Rory Stewart, Iain Dale asked much more personal questions of Angela Rayner, who was extremely engaging, intelligent and impressive. There was a question about Scottish Independence, her answer to which I don’t think will have the local people returning to the Labour fold in a hurry. Near the end four young women got up to make an environmental protest, which Ms Rayner took in her stride but which really pi**ed off Iain Dale.

18.40 – Luke Kempner: Macho Macho Man, Pleasance Courtyard.

Luke Kempner“Star of Spitting Image (Britbox), Steph’s Packed Lunch (Channel 4) and with over 10 million views online, comedian Luke Kempner has found out he is to become a father, but can he be the macho macho man he believes he needs to be? With a razor-sharp roster of contemporary impressions from Piers Morgan and Bojo to Ted Hastings and Paul Hollywood, Luke is bringing his highly anticipated show to Edinburgh. As seen (and heard) on: The Last Leg (Channel 4), The Stand-Up Sketch Show (ITV2), Love Island: Aftersun (ITV2), The Now Show (BBC Radio 4).”

I always enjoy seeing Luke Kempner and am really glad he’s bringing this show to Edinburgh as we missed it when he performed it locally! Last time I saw him he had me up on stage with him, so I must remember not to make eye contact…

UPDATE: An entertaining show about whether Luke was ready for parenthood but which was perhaps rather slight in comparison with his previous shows. Nevertheless it was still very funny and he is a true master of impersonation. He did involve me in the show again, fortunately this time just from my seat! ⭐️⭐️⭐️

20.10 – Hal Cruttenden: It’s Best You Hear It From Me, Pleasance Courtyard.

Hal Cruttenden“After 21 years and 224 days Hal’s back being single. But it’s all going to be fine. Instead of getting the therapy he clearly needs, he’s made a cracking show about it. He’s lost enough weight to almost get his wedding ring off and, while he may be flying solo, he’s far from alone; he’s got his grown-up daughters, his dogs and his divorce lawyer. The fickle finger of fate has turned Hal’s life upside down but he’s sticking a finger right back at it. ‘Funniest he’s ever been’ ***** (Times).”

Hal Cruttenden’s a great comedian and I’ve heard very good things about this show, so I’m looking forward to it enormously!

UPDATE: Crammed with callbacks, this is a beautifully constructed, very personal and very impressive show, with great audience interaction; probably the best I’ve ever seen Mr Cruttenden. Perhaps he should have more marriage breakdowns, it would be great for his career! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

21.55 – Blunderland, Underbelly’s Circus Hub on The Meadows.

Blunderland“The subversive break-out hit of the international cabaret and circus circuit, we have arrived with a strong dose of what we all need at the moment: some outrageous nightlife naughtiness, club-kid antics and a heady dose of arthouse weird. Born out of the New York underground queer nightlife scene this show has titillated packed crowds worldwide who are enthralled with its uniquely whimsical and ridiculous performance combinations. Join us for an evening of sensually disastrous drag, burlesque and circus you won’t forget!”

There are a number of circus/burlesque shows on this Fringe and we are seeing a few of them – I don’t know if this will be any different from the norm – we wait and see!

UPDATE: One of those “only at the Fringe” big top experiences where fantastic Circus skills and some of the less classy elements of burlesque mix. Amazing aerial acrobatics, and some very funny routines. One couple left early on, it was clearly not what they were expecting!  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Edinburgh Fringe Full Monty (nearly) – Day 3, 7th August 2022

What’s in store for us in Edinburgh today?

Here’s the schedule for 7th August:

11.20 – Everyman, C Arts C Venues C Aquila. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

Everyman“The last two years have shaken our confident and cosy existence. The toilet roll and organic flour shortage reminded us just how selfish we can be. Join Everyman on his journey to judgement and consider who and what you would want to take to your final reckoning. A young ensemble cast perform this fast, furious and funny modern retelling of the medieval morality play Everyman (adapted by Splendid Productions) and remind us that there is one ‘certain certainty’ waiting for us all.”

The young ensemble cast are from Guildford High School. Here’s hoping they put on a good show!

UPDATE: And what a fresh fun start to the day that was! The Everyman story brought  up to date by five nurses who originally wanted to give me a blood test, but that’s another story. Huge fun, great commitment, and a  very clever play, brilliantly performed. Really enjoyed it!! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

13.30 – Mark Thomas: Black and White, The Stand Comedy Club.

Mark Thomas“Hi-de-hi darlings – welcome back. Expect creative fun from one of our oldest surviving alternative comics. Taking down politicians. Mucking about. New ideas and finding hope. This award-winning comedian (is there any other type?) asks how did we get here? What are we going to do about it? Who’s up for a sing-song? After lockdowns and isolation this show is about the simple act of being in a room together and toppling international capitalism. ‘You’ll leave recommitted to the fight against this appalling authoritarian government, to keep that tradition alive’ (Guardian, 2021).”

Hard to believe but this will be the first time we’ve seen Mark Thomas and I am really looking forward to it!

UPDATE: Why have I never seen Mr Thomas before? Most definitely a no-Conservative zone, he dishes out brilliant political observations nineteen to the dozen and absolutely left me wanting more. He also has some  memorable Barry Cryer and Bernard Cribbins jokes, God bless their souls. I had no idea I’d be singing my favourite music hall song, The boy I love is up in the gallery, by Marie Lloyd. Just a fab hour. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

15.10 – Death of a Disco Dancer, Greenside @ Infirmary Street.

Death of a Disco Dancer“Set over one surreal night of dancing and debauchery, Death of a Disco Dancer is a psychedelic, wild black comedy. During a fateful college reunion, four friends find themselves in a neon, nightmarish dimension. Twisted visions from the past and bizarre dreams of the future join them on the disco floor, and soon, a very present danger arises. As they dance deeper into the night, and this musical world swirls around them, these lost companions must fight to escape a labyrinth of their own design. When the sun rises, who will still be dancing?”

Ultraviolet Productions bring this play by Eric Yu to the Fringe. It sounds interesting – I hope they make a good job of it.

UPDATE: This was a very intense, dark, and above all noisy play, with four pretty troubled characters, which I also found very confusing, partly because of the way it played with time, and partly because it just wasn’t very clear. They threw everything at it, and the acting was good, but it just wasn’t to my taste. ⭐️⭐️

16.40 – Nic Sampson: Marathon, 1904, Pleasance Courtyard.

Nic Sampson“32 athletes entered the 1904 Olympic marathon in St Louis, Missouri. Only 14 finished… What happened in between was a perfect storm of stupidity, cheating, raw eggs, wild dogs and rat poison. In his Edinburgh debut, New Zealand comedian Nic Sampson brings to life the incredible true story of one of the dumbest sporting events of all time. Co-writer of Starstruck (BBC Three). Star of The Brokenwood Mysteries (UKTV). ‘A world-class hour from one of the country’s best performers. It’s essential’ (Stuff). ‘A beautiful gem of comedic goodness’ (Three). Winner: NZ International Comedy Festival Best Newcomer.

I know nothing about Mr Simpson, but I love the premise of this stand-up show, so I’m hoping for good things!

UPDATE: Nic is a very likeable chap with a very relaxed delivery, and he has created one of those hybrid entertainments which is part stand-up and part one man play. Fascinating, and very informative about this bizarre Olympic event, with some very enjoyable characterisations, and, fortunately, also very funny. It’s amazing to contrast what the Olympics are like, 120 years apart. Great work! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

18.50 – 71BODIES 1DANCE, Dance Base

71 BODIES 1 DANCE“71BODIES 1DANCE is an interdisciplinary and choreographic initiative by Daniel Mariblanca. The work is inspired by 71 personal experiences and testimonies from transgender individuals living in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Spain. With this production the intention is to give visibility, awaken curiosity and to generate knowledge around the transgender community from a human level – through an artistic work. By exposing diverse ways of being, the performance wishes to insight new references and ways of appreciating beauty and generating desire. The dance performance is 71 minutes long, embodying one minute for each personal experience that inspired this work.”

The first dance show on our agenda and it sounds like a fascinating and challenging work. If this is half as inventive as it appears, this is going to be astonishing.

UPDATE: Bold and brave, often visceral and sometimes hard to watch, this extraordinary solo performance shows life at one of its extremes, full of private and public agonies, always very thought provoking, and an immense physical achievement. It ended with a song with the chorus, “pussy – dick” which people were singing to themselves in the foyer afterwards! A memorable performance. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

21.05 – You’re Dead, Mate, The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall.

You're Dead Mate“A man wakes up drunk, scared and alone, with no idea where he is or how he got there. Until he meets Death. Death might be able to answer that for him. In Edmund Morris’ playwriting debut, You’re Dead, Mate is the turbulent and hilarious journey of a young man coming to terms with his mortality.”

Harry Duff-Walker plays the young man – and this could be a fascinating and funny piece, here’s hoping!

UPDATE: A very clever play, very well written and performed, with clear and concise story-telling, lovely use of music, and just thoroughly engaging and entertaining. Fantastic stage-fighting skills in such a confirmed environment! A great way to end the day. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Edinburgh Fringe Full Monty (nearly) – Day 2, 6th August 2022

Another day in Edinburgh – what’s on the slab for today?

Here’s the schedule for 6th August:

10.45 – The Mistake, The Space on North Bridge. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

Mistake“1942. On an abandoned squash court, a dazzling scientific experiment takes place that three years later will destroy a city and change the world forever. This compelling new play by Michael Mears (‘One exceptional man’ (Observer)) explores the events surrounding the catastrophic “mistake” that launched our nuclear age. Through the lives of a brilliant Hungarian scientist, a daring American pilot and a devoted Japanese daughter. Partly using verbatim testimonies, this powerful drama confronts the dangers that arise when humans dare to unlock the awesome power of nature. Preview audience reviews: ‘Superbly written’, ‘Very powerful’, ‘Deeply moving and engaging.’”

I admire Michael Mears as both an actor and writer and have no doubt this will be another of his thought-provoking and challenging works.

UPDATE: It’s not often that a play leaves you almost lost for words. The Mistake is a heartstopping, blistering piece of theatre, telling the story of how atomic power was developed and misused to devastating effect. Michael Mears and Emiko Ishii create a cast of characters who either caused or suffered from the 1945 attacks on Japan, using just a few props with amazing inventiveness. Vital viewing for everyone. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

12.45 – 1972: The Future of Sex, The Space on North Bridge.

1972 The Future of Sex“1972: The Future of Sex. A 50-minute farcical journey through those excellently awkward first sexual encounters. Christine knows tonight’s the night with Rich. Penny tries to channel Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the bedroom and Anna thinks Tessa is just the coolest. From Ziggy Stardust to Deep Throat, the 70s was an era of polyester, pubic hair and endless possibility. Devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble, the show uses the company’s trademark theatricality, irreverent humour and spectacular ensemble moments to tell the story of three couples having sex for the first time in 1972.”

Durham University Woodplayers might have their work cut out to make this funny and not embarrassing – but if it works it should be great!

UPDATE: That was fun; three relationships put through their early paces, with some nice characterisations and some good lines. Nothing earth-shattering, but enjoyable. ⭐️⭐️

16.30 – Iain Dale: All Talk with Rory Stewart, Pleasance at EICC.

Rory Stewart“Award-winning LBC radio presenter and For the Many podcast host brings his acclaimed, incisive insight on current affairs back to the Fringe with these in-depth interviews featuring audience questions. Today’s guest is Rory Stewart, former MP, Cabinet member and London mayoral candidate who is now a politics and international relations fellow of Yale University. ‘The indefatigable Iain Dale always cuts to the nub of politics’ (Adam Boulton). ‘There are very few commentators and broadcasters with an instinctive feel for real politics. Iain Dale does, which makes him endlessly listenable-to and peerless’ (Andrew Marr).”

For the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe, we’re seeing a few shows that come under the “Spoken Word” heading, including a few political interviews by Iain Dale. We’re only seeing politicians who interest us though! This should be very interesting.

UPDATE: Hard to review an interview but both Iain Dale and Rory Stewart were both on good form. Amongst the revelations was the fact that they both went for the Conservative nomination to stand for the constituency of Bracknell. Rory told some awful stories about Johnson that were ostensibly funny but just showed what an utter disgrace the PM is. Good questions, fascinating answers, and a surprisingly entertaining hour.

19.00 – Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen, Roundabout @ Summerhall.

Feeling Afraid“’I’m 36, I’m a comedian, and I’m about to kill my boyfriend…’ A permanently single, professionally neurotic stand-up finally meets Mr Right and then does everything wrong. But is Mr Right quite what he seems? And how far will the comedian go to get a laugh? A dark new comedy about vulnerability, intimacy, ego and truth from the Olivier Award-winning producers of Fleabag and Baby Reindeer. Starring Tony and Olivier-nominated actor Samuel Barnett. Written by Marcelo Dos Santos (Lionboy, Complicite) and directed by Matthew Xia (Blue/Orange, Young Vic).”

Samuel Barnett is one of my favourite actors and I’m sure he’s going to be tremendous in this fascinating sounding play.

UPDATE: Like “Colossus” yesterday, here’s another “false testimony”-type play given a brilliant tour de force performance by Samuel Barnett who has a huge number of words to remember! You can’t know what to believe and what not to believe as he pieces together the various stages of his relationship with “The American”. Both funny and occasionally ghastly, the play holds your attention throughout; and Mr Barnett is on fabulous form. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

22.00 – The Best (and Worst) of The Dirty Tattooed Circus, Laughing Horse @ The Counting House

Dirty Tattooed Circus“Direct from their UK tour, Martin Mor and Logy Logan bring their unique brand of comedy and circus back to the Edinburgh Fringe. Two dangerous Irishmen doing dangerous things for a laugh. Hilarious comedy is combined with world-class circus skills to produce a show that will leave you breathless. This show is suitable for adults only. ‘Dangerous and hilarious… Just how we love our circus’ (TheClothesLine.com.au). ‘This show is truly a tour de force of strange circus and comedy skills’ (StageWhispers.com.au).”

This one is definitely a risky punt as far as I’m concerned. All you can do is give it a go!

UPDATE: Two larger than life, hairy, tattooed jugglers put on a show full of silliness and fun, which included Mrs Chrisparkle throwing a hoopla ring over a man with a dildo on his head, a circus feat she accomplished with alarming ease. Lots to laugh at, quite a lot to make you go wow, and a few bits where they fumbled it, but who cares, it was all very entertaining! ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Edinburgh Fringe Full Monty (nearly) – Day 1, 5th August 2022

I’ve been looking forward to this! Our first visit to the Edinburgh Fringe, when we tentatively put our toes in to see how it felt, was a long weekend in August 2014. We loved it. So we went for a week in 2015. And in 2016. And 17. And 18. And 19. And… then Covid happened. No Fringe in 2020, and no Fringe (for us) in 2021. But this is the Brave New World of 2022. If we get through the entire month Covid-free it will be a miracle, but here goes.

Instead of my previous practice of writing a pre-blog for each show we see, this time I’m going to write just one blog a day, previewing the show’s we will see the next day, and then following up with updates as to how good each show was. I’ll update just once a day, at the end of the evening – or maybe the following morning, depending on how knackered we are. It’s gotta be worth a shot – let’s start here!

Here’s the schedule for 5th August:

10.40 – Head Girl, The Space on North Bridge. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

Head Girl“A coming-of-age story about falling in and out of love with yourself. Head Girl navigates the 21st century and girl boss mentality, whilst still practising self-care seven days a week. Becca is running in the campaign for head girl at school and running herself into the ground, all with a smile on her face. But who is she doing all this work for? A platonic love story that will be full of adoration and careful ambition. ‘Fringe Theatre at its best’ (NorthEastTheatreGuide.co.uk). ‘In awe’ (BBC Radio).”

Performed by the group “Girl Next Door”, this is either going to be a funny and charming introduction to our Fringe Odyssey or a bit of a weak start. I’ll tell you later.

UPDATE: A great start to the day with a very funny and beautifully performed play about 17 year old Becca’s quest to become head girl, even if it means making unacceptable sacrifices to get there. There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here – not to work too hard and to remember the things that are important. Very nice characterisations, I loved the gawky super-enthusiastic Becca and the contrast with her more sophisticated pal and teacher. Great family entertainment which should appeal to anyone who’s ever tried to juggle with a burning ambition! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

12.45 – Colossal, Underbelly Cowgate.

Colossal“’Ferociously funny’ ***** (Scotsman). Following his sold-out, five-star debut show, The Man, Patrick McPherson returns to Edinburgh with Colossal: a one-man comedy play that dives into love stories, morality, and the dance between the two. Colossal weaves sketch comedy, gig theatre and spoken word to tell the comedic and candid story of a man called Dan, his affinity for owls, and his messy recent past. An hour of dynamic theatre, comedy and music, that embraces the spectrum of modern romance, from the first date to the last text, from falling headfirst to falling apart.”

We’ve seen Patrick McPherson twice at the Fringe and he’s been absolutely brilliant. If this isn’t also brilliant, I’ll eat my hat.

UPDATE: I predict another massive word of mouth success for Patrick’s latest creation. Incredibly beautiful writing reminds you of the hip hop rhythms of Hamilton, whilst telling his own very individual story of love and deception. So many brilliant callbacks, so many surprises. Patrick turns his likeable persona inside out and challenges the audience to stick with him. And we sure do.

Technically brilliant too with a terrific sound and lighting plot, which also play their part. A complete winner. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

14.25 – Hannah Fairweather: Just a Normal Girl Who Enjoys Revenge, Just the Tonic at The Caves.

Hannah Fairweather“Award-winning comedian Hannah Fairweather is the Taylor Swift of comedy, joking about those who have previously wronged her. Hannah was 2019 Rising Star New Act of the Year, and semi-finalist in multiple new comedian awards including: BBC New Comedian Award, So You Think You’re Funny, Leicester Square, 2Northdown, Komedia Brighton. She has been heard on Union Jack Radio, BBC Sounds and Radio 4 and has written for The Now Show and Mock The Week. ‘Hannah mixes relaxed, confident stage presence with some killer subversive gags. Absolutely one to watch’ (Joe Lycett).”

I know nothing about Hannah Fairweather but I like the title of the show – so this is hopefully a lucky punt.

UPDATE: Hannah explains why the name of the show isn’t perhaps as appropriate as it could be, as she lists all the people who have done her wrong, but it’s not as straightforward as that! Very enjoyable material with great use of callback – I have the toilet roll messages to prove it (you had to be there). Very likeable and engaging; I missed out on some of her gems because she delivered them so quickly, but that’s probably my ears playing up. ⭐️⭐️⭐️

16.15 – Badgers Can’t Be Friends, Greenside @ Nicolson Square.

Badgers Can't Be Friends“Runner-up for Best Comedy at Standing Ovation Awards 2021. ‘Mrs Kirkham comes up to my classroom at lunch and sees… And sees us… Having a ninja battle’. When Mr. Dennis, a super-teacher, hits back at the education system, he finds himself becoming a not-so-super hero. Who is he fighting for? Will he triumph? And can he find that weird smell in his kitchen? After Southwark Playhouse and King’s Head Theatre, this phenomenon finally lands at Edinburgh. An offbeat comedy with a serious edge. ‘A riveting play with relentless energy… very, very funny’ ***** (LondonPubTheatres.com).”

Another one that’s either a sure-fire hit or disappointing dud, but I’ve got a good feeling about this one – I think there’s more to it than just a quirky title.

UPDATE: The central premise of the play creates a very interesting topic – a man who destroys his life by acting before thinking and makes himself look like a laughing stock. However, the three very hard-working actors can’t disguise that the play itself is rather stodgy, with almost too many ideas in it, and in the end it becomes rather hard work for the audience too. There are some rather surreal sequences that weren’t to my taste. There’s a good play lurking beneath the surface but it didn’t really do it for us. ⭐️⭐️

19.00 – Lew Fitz: Soft Lad, Gilded Balloon Teviot

Lew Fitz Soft Lad“Amused Moose New Comic winner and BBC New Comedy Award-nominated northerner Lew had a breakdown and ran away from home, forever. With explosive comedic energy and a rare vulnerability, he attempts to reconcile his past and face his present. With sell-out previews, catch this rising star whilst you can. As seen on BBC3, heard on BBC Radio 4 and voted Top 5 Jokes of the Fringe (Guardian, Dave TV, Telegraph). ‘As a newcomer he’s ticking lots of boxes’ (Chortle.co.uk). ‘An engaging comic with smart and freshly funny material’ (Kate Copstick, Scotsman).”

Lew Fitz is new to us, but he comes highly recommended, so this is another punt that I’m hopeful will be a good’un.

UPDATE: Lew was keen to point out this was a preview show so no reviews, but I’ve no reason not to write about his very enjoyable hour which includes quite a bit of audience participation – he got me involved writing down his best bon mots as he spoke them – where he takes us on a journey from his childhood in Moss Side, through a sports scholarship in North Carolina, to grown up life in beautiful Croydon. On the way, we investigate greatest fears and an impossibly inappropriate nursery rhyme. He’s a quirky, very likeable guy who puts us all at our ease, and it’s a very funny show! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

21.25 – Ben Clover: Best Newcomer, C Arts C Venues C Piccolo.

Ben Clover Best Newcomer“Veteran stand-up comic Ben Clover returns with his seventh show: Best Newcomer. Ben has many successful Fringe runs under his belt, but this is his first in 2022. This year the award-winning comedian tackles the big themes as well as sweating the small stuff. ‘A delight… Inventive and savvy’ (Chortle.co.uk). ‘Comedy gold’ (Bruce Dessau, Evening Standard). ‘A magnificent performance’ (NottsComedyReview.wordpress.com).”

We saw Ben Clover at the Fringe in 2018 and really enjoyed his show so I have high expectations that this will also be a winner!

UPDATE: And the evening ended with a great show from Ben Clover, who included anti-vaxxers, Prince Andrew and Boris Johnson in his material and it all landed perfectly. The show contained an early contender for best line of the Fringe; I won’t spoil it for you but we’re still chuckling back at the apartment. He delivers his routine with apparently effortless ease, although I’m sure most of it scrupulously hand-crafted. A fantastic show, highly recommended. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tomorrow’s schedule is already out there on another blog post. But today was a great start!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Poirot’s Early Cases (1974)

Poirot's Early CasesIn which Christie takes us back in time and gives us eighteen early cases solved by Hercule Poirot, in many of which he is helped or hindered by his old pal Hastings. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in journals and magazines between 1923 and 1935; and in the US, they were all published between 1924 and 1961 in book collections. Poirot’s Early Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1974, and this collection was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1974 under the slightly different title Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases. There’s no additional scene-setting or framework, so I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The Affair at the Victory Ball

1920s ballThis first story was originally published in the 7th March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. It was Agatha Christie’s first published short story. At the Victory Ball, a party of six wear the costumes of the Commedia dell’Arte. But a double tragedy ensues when Harlequin is found murdered, and, back at her flat, Columbine dies of an overdose of cocaine.

A simple structure to this story, Poirot and Hastings are idling their time when Inspector Japp arrives with a request for help. We had already met Japp in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and he will return in three of the other short stories in this collection. He would also go on to feature in six more Christie novels, and the short story Murder in the Mews. As he would do on a few occasions, Poirot solves the puzzle without needing to visit the scene of the crime.

You can see that Christie is still introducing her audience to Poirot, going back to the basics of the man; his egg-shaped head and what Hastings calls his “harmless vanity”; the account of his time in the Belgian police force and how he solved the mystery at Styles. At this stage of his time in England, Poirot still shows some shakiness in his command of the English language: “his dossier […] I should say his bioscope – no, how do you call it – biograph?” He also asks what would always become a vital question in any Christie murder “Who benefits by his death?” and he expressly asks Japp if he will be able to “play out the denouement my own way” – again, another of Poirot’s trademarks. Of Hastings we learn little, except that he is a faithful acolyte, of whom Poirot grieves he has “no method.”

Other aspects that come up in this story: cocaine use plays an important role in this story, which no only would have interested Christie the pharmacist/poison expert, but also points to a very contemporary feel, as that was definitely the drug de choix of the day. The use of the Harlequin character may point to an interest that was to develop into Christie’s short-lived detective Harley Quin. The Colossus Hall, where the Victory Ball took place, appears to be one of Christie’s early inventions.

Christie gives us an honest and massive clue, which certainly led me to guess who the perpetrator was – although I didn’t guess any of the details as to How It Was Done. And that denouement, that Poirot was so keen to keep for himself, is certainly a very theatrical affair and thoroughly entertaining to read.

An enjoyable, clear, and undemanding start to the book.

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook

ClaphamA preposterous and highly contrived little story, originally published in the 14th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Mrs Todd arrives unannounced and demands that Poirot investigate the disappearance of her cook; such cases are not normally his purview, but it isn’t long until he proves the connection with the disappearance with a crime reported in that day’s Daily Blare.

The story is of interest as it is one of the rare occasions that Poirot concerns himself with solving a “lower class” crime. At first, he is not inclined to assist, telling Mrs Todd that he “does not touch this particular kind of business”, which infuriates his visitor with his snobbishness. When he changes his mind, his patronising attitude is still unpleasant to read: “This case will be a novelty. Never yet have I hunted a missing domestic.”

However, another of Poirot’s traits comes to the fore in this story; the fact that, once his interest is piqued, nothing will stop him from discovering the truth. He ignores the fact that Mr Todd sends him a guinea for his trouble when he is dismissed from the case. He simply carries on. As Hastings notes, “his eagerness over this uninteresting matter of a defaulting cook was extraordinary, but I realised that he considered it a point of honour to persevere until he finally succeeded.”

Mrs Todd gives us an interesting insight into the world of an upper middle-class woman trying to keep servants in her employ. “It’s all this wicked dole […] putting ideas into servants’ heads, wanting to be typists and what nots. Stop the dole, that’s what I say.”

Christie still reports Poirot’s power of English as uncertain; “if I mistake not, there is on my new grey suit the spot of grease – only the unique spot, but it is sufficient to trouble me. Then there is my winter overcoat – I must lay him aside in the powder of Keatings.” Keating’s Powder, by the way, was a treatment for killing bugs, fleas, beetles and moths in clothing.

Apart from Poirot’s flat, there’s one location mentioned in the story – 88 Prince Albert Road, Clapham, the Todd residence. There are a couple of Prince Albert Roads in London, but neither is in Clapham.

There are a few financial sums mentioned in this story; an income of £300 per year, which today would be worth about £12,500; and the guinea, that the Todds thought would be enough to pay off Poirot for dropping the investigation would be worth about £45 today. No wonder he was insulted. The £50,000 that the newspaper says the bank clerk has taken, would be the equivalent of about £2.1 million today. Now that’s not a bad haul.

I didn’t care for this story; the solution is extremely unlikely and Poirot solves it with a level of vanity that is rather unattractive.

The Cornish Mystery

CornwallThis enjoyable and surprising little story was originally published in the 28th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Poirot and Hastings travel to Cornwall to investigate Mrs Pengelley’s suggestion that her husband has been poisoning her. Poirot arrives too late to avert a tragedy but isn’t convinced that the husband is guilty.

It’s Poirot’s idea that he should travel to Cornwall pretending to be Hastings’ “eccentric foreign friend”, playing up his image of eccentricity and unpredictability. He doesn’t hold back when he discovers that he has arrived too late to save Mrs Pengelley: “An imbecile, a criminal imbecile, that is what I have been, Hastings. I have boasted of my little grey cells, and now I have lost a human life, a life that came to me to be saved.” He takes his responsibilities very seriously, but also doesn’t like to show any imperfection or misjudgement. Everything must be perfect in Poirot’s world, including the impeccability of his record at solving cases.

The solution to the case allows Poirot and/or Christie, depending on how you read it, to be judge and jury with the murderer, bluffing them into confession and atonement whilst concealing the fact that he has no proof. Consequently it feels like a very moral ending.

The story moves from Poirot’s London flat to the Cornish village of Polgarwith, where the Pengelleys live. It’s a convincingly sounding Cornish name, but it doesn’t exist. Christie utilises her interest in poison, with the news that a large amount of arsenic was discovered in the corpse. There’s another of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: ““God bless my soul!” he ejaculated.”

Freda is reported to live on £50 per year, which today would be somewhere in the region of is only a little over £2,100. It’s not a lot.

Concise and diverting.

The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly

adventureThis neat and believable short story was originally published in the 10th October 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the title The Kidnapping of Johnnie Waverly, and in the book Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in the US in 1950. Three-year-old Johnnie Waverly has been kidnapped from his home; his father had received a number of warnings that it would happen but didn’t take them seriously. His parents have sought advice from Poirot, who agrees to take on the case. Waverly Court is home to a priests hole, and Poirot finds unusual footprints inside it; and works forward from that clue to identify what has happened to Johnnie and how he can be safely returned.

Poirot continues to reveal little aspects of his personality; he betrays his rather fiddly prissiness when he complains to Hastings about, of all things, his tie pin. “If you must wear a tie pin, Hastings, at least let it be in the exact centre of your tie. At present it is at least a sixteenth of an inch too much to the right.”

One aspect of this story reveals a great difference between society in the 1920s and today, a hundred years later. The story contains a description of a man and a small boy in a car together, driving through villages. “The man was an ardent motorist, fond of children, who had picked up a small child playing in the streets of Edenswell […] and was kindly giving him a ride.” Kindly giving him a ride? There is no way this would happen today; any man who did that would face instant accusations of being a paedophile; at the very least he would be considered to have abducted the child and would have broken the law. Times change!

The only address other than Waverly Court in the story is the home of Johnnie’s nurse, 149 Netherall Road Hammersmith. Whilst there are a number of Netherall Roads in the country, there are none in London.

The sum demanded for the return of Johnnie was originally £25,000 and then rose to £50,000. The equivalent today would be just over £1 million, rising to just over £2 million. Quite some sum. At the other end of the scale, the ten shillings that were paid to the tramp who delivered the note and parcel to Waverly Court would today just be £20. Not bad payment for a simple courier job!

The Double Clue

ClueThis short, slight and rather easily solved story was originally published in the 5th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book Double Sin and Other Stories in the US in 1961. Society antiques collector Marcus Hardman consults Poirot over the theft of valuable jewels from his safe during a tea party when only four people who were present could be the thief. A little investigation from Poirot and Hastings and the culprit is very quickly discovered.

This story is of primary interest because it is the first time Poirot (and we, the readers) meet the Countess Vera Rossakoff, the extravagant and alluring Russian refugee, with whom Poirot becomes pretty much instantly entranced. At the end of the story Poirot believes he will meet her again somehow, sometime; and indeed we do. We meet her again in The Big Four, and in The Capture of Cerberus, the final story of The Labours of Hercules. Otherwise, the plot is slight and, once you understand the relevance of the Russian Dictionary consulted by Poirot, very easy to solve. It contains a big clue identical to one of those that litter Murder on the Orient Express.

There’s a suggestion in the story that you can inherit kleptomania from your parents; a theme that recurred a few times in Christie’s work is the idea that mental illness can be passed down between the generations. I always feel that rather dates her work, as I’m not sure it holds any scientific value today. Unless you know different?

The South African millionaire Mr Johnston lives on Park Lane, in London, which is obviously real. Hardman’s assistant and rather dubious friend Parker lives on Bury Street, which is just around the corner, in St James’s – so unusually, Christie chooses to use two real-life locations. If Johnston was a genuine millionaire, £1 million in 1923 equates to over £42 million today, so he really is a rich so-and-so.

Not one of her best works; mildly amusing but nothing to dwell on.

The King of Clubs

King of ClubsThis relatively simple and slightly infuriating little tale was originally published in the 21st March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine – her second published short story – under the full title The Adventure of the King of Clubs,  and in the book The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951. Poirot is called in by Prince Paul of Maurania to solve the case of the murder of a theatrical impresario, Henry Reedburn. The prince’s fiancée, dancer Valerie Saintclair, had burst into the impresario’s neighbours’ house, belonging to the Oglander family, with blood on her dress, shouted “Murder!”, and then collapsed. Meanwhile Reedburn’s body was discovered in his own house. But did she do it? The Prince and Valerie had earlier consulted a clairvoyant who had turned over the King of Clubs card and said it was a warning. Had Valerie interpreted Reedburn as being the King of Clubs? And what is the significance of the fact that the King of Clubs is missing from the pack of cards with which the Oglanders were playing bridge?

The story is significant for two reasons. One is that the resolution is one of those rare occasions were Poirot does not press for the guilty party to be charged, even when murder has been committed. The other is that it is marred by a very hard-to-swallow coincidence involving the card the King of Clubs. I can’t say more, lest I give the game away.

Hastings says of Poirot: “That is the worst of Poirot. Order and Method are his gods. He goes so far as to attribute all his success to them.” Poirot loathes the way that Hastings just casts his read newspaper on the floor, unlike Poirot, who “folded it anew symmetrically.” That little observation goes a long way to illustrate the difference between the two characters.

The story is set in Streatham, which of course exists; Prince Paul is from Maurania, which doesn’t. The name could be a mixture of Mauretania and Ruritania. No other references need explaining!

The Lemesurier Inheritance

John LeMesurierThis entertaining but slightly dubious short story was originally published in the 18th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in The Under Dog and other Stories in the US in 1951. Years earlier, Poirot and Hastings had met three members of the same family over dinner: Vincent, Hugo and Roger Lemesurier. There was a curse, that the first born of each generation dies, handing over the inheritance to the second born. The next day, Vincent is killed falling off a train. Several years later, Mrs Hugo Lemesurier tracks Poirot down to tell him that their eldest son has had a number of unusual near-death accidents; she feels sure there can be no such thing as the family curse, but Hugo is convinced it is true. So Poirot and Hastings head up to Northumberland to the Lemesurier estate to make some sense of it all. Is there a curse? Or is there a more old-fashioned murderer? An exciting little denouement reveals all!

This is a good early example of a Christie story where supernatural fears and superstitions actually conceal a simple crime. Take away the deliberately misleading framework and you have quite a straightforward crime – or series of crimes. It’s of additional interest as the opening passage is set during the First World War, and is just about the most historical that we get to see Poirot and Hastings together. Mind you, it was very early on in Christie’s career (and indeed Poirot’s and Hastings’) for the latter to describe this crime as an “extraordinary series of events which held our interest over a period of many years, and which culminated in the ultimate problem brought to Poirot to solve.” Big claim, indeed.

Christie the poison expert is in full swing with this story, with mentions being made of ptomaine, atropine and formic acid poisoning. It must have tickled her to be able to distil so much expert information into so short a story.

Christie is sometimes criticised for not making some of her supplementary characters more interesting, and for not giving them their own characterisation to inhabit. She’s certainly guilty of that in this story, where she has Hastings describe the children’s governess, Miss Saunders, as “a nondescript female”. Really, neither Hastings not Christie bothered to try to make her interesting!

Not a bad story, but perhaps a little easy. Christie doesn’t really examine the origins of the Lemesurier curse, but only how it affects the current generations. There again, it is only ten pages or so!

The Lost Mine

MineThis nostalgic little memoir by Poirot was originally published in the 21st November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot reminisces on how he gained ownership of the only shares he owns – those of the Burma Mines Ltd. With Hastings as his captive audience he tells the tale of one Wu Ling, head of the family who had paperwork referring to a lost, but lucrative mine, and who travelled to London with the papers to sell them. But Wu Ling went missing after leaving his hotel, and the next day his body was found in the Thames. Misadventure or murder? Poirot wouldn’t be telling the story unless it was the latter, would he?!

Christie’s device of having Poirot tell his own story, virtually uninterrupted, is a clever way of obscuring what is, in effect, a very slight story. But it is an entertaining little tale, marred by some mock-Chinese-style language that really makes the modern reader cringe, and with a moral slant against the degradation of one’s mind and body by visits to opium dens.

Poirot teases Hastings for his admiration of ladies with auburn hair – hardly any of Christie’s books featuring Hastings omitted a mention of the latter’s penchant for auburn ladies. As for Poirot himself, his biggest feeling of outrage is when it is suggested, as part of his investigations, that he shaves off his moustache. As if the great man would ever undergo such self-sacrifice!

The story is set in real-life locations around London, with Wu Ling staying at the Russell Hotel in Russell Square (now the Kimpton Fitzroy hotel), and characters being traced to what Poirot describes as “the evil-smelling streets of Limehouse” – an area of London which is now much more gentrified than it was in Poirot’s time.

In an attempt to emphasise Poirot’s affinity with everything symmetrical, he informs us that his bank balance stands at £444, 4 shillings and 4 pence. “It must be tact on the part of your bank manager” sneers Hastings. Today that sum would be worth £18,780. Not so symmetrical, and not so impressive – you’d expect the great man to have amassed a much bigger figure than that!

Another minor piece of writing; moderately entertaining, nothing more.

The Plymouth Express

1920s plymouthA rather complicated and contrived story, it was originally published in the 4th April 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the enhanced title The Mystery of the Plymouth Express, and in The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951.  It would become the basis of Christie’s 1928 novel The Mystery of the Blue Train. When the dead body of a woman is found on the Plymouth Express train, her father asks Poirot to investigate. She was due to travel for a house party, but surprises her maid with the instruction to wait at Bristol station and she would return with a few hours. Whatever her plans were, they went seriously wrong. It’s up to Poirot and Hastings to sort the lies from the truth and discover what really happened to the late Mrs Carrington.

Although Poirot would explain it as good psychology, he has a rather pompous view towards the actions that a woman would do under certain circumstances. “Why kill her?” asks Poirot, “why not simply steal the jewels? She would not prosecute.” “Why not?” “Because she is a woman, mon ami. She once loved this man. Therefore she would suffer her loss in silence.”

The story is littered with real West Country locations: Plymouth, Bristol, Weston (super Mare), Taunton, Exeter, Newton Abbot and so on. Mrs Carrington took all her jewels on the train, which her father suggests amounted to something in the region of a hundred thousand dollars. Today the equivalent sum is around £1.35 million. Quite a lot. More interesting though is the fact that it cost Poirot 3d to make a phone call from the Ritz. That’s about 53p today, which is not dissimilar from today’s cost. And the paperboy was given a half-crown for his errand – that’s over £5 – not bad work if you can get it.

I wasn’t overly impressed with this story!

The Chocolate Box

box-of-chocolateThis entertaining short story was originally published in the 23rd May 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine under the title The Clue of the Chocolate Box, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. In response to Hastings’ suggestion that Poirot had never had a failure with one of his cases, Poirot confesses that he did have one, and then proceeds to tell him this tale of when he was a detective with the Belgian Police Force. M. Déroulard was a promising governmental minister who unexpectedly died, but family member Virginie Mesnard did not believe the death was due to natural causes. She asked Poirot to investigate. Déroulard had a sweet tooth and was never far from a box of chocolates. It was only when Poirot realised that the lid of the box of chocolates was a different colour from the box that he suspected something might not be quite right. And when poison is found in the possession of one of the suspects, surely he is guilty of the murder. But Poirot is in for another surprise before the guilty party is revealed.

Another Poirot narration but this one works much better than The Lost Mine. It’s full of references to poison: Prussic Acid, morphine, strychnine, atropine, ptomaine and trinitrine – Christie must have had a field day incorporating all those into the story. Déroulard lived on the Avenue Louise in Brussels – a real location about a mile south of the Grand Place.

Christie writes: “he had married some years earlier a young lady from Brussels who had brought him a substantial dot. Undoubtedly the money was useful to him in his career…” Dot? That’s a new word to me in this context. However, it’s an archaic term that describes a dowry from which only the interest or annual income was available to the husband. Who knew?

Hastings says he wouldn’t drink Poirot’s disgusting hot chocolate for £100. I bet he would – that’s a nifty £4,300 in today’s money.

This is another story where Poirot doesn’t act further in bringing a guilty party to book once he has identified them. Perhaps that’s part of his failure. He references this case in Peril at End House, so he clearly has a long memory about it. Nevertheless, he still has his familiar arrogance, which is shown up in an amusing brief exchange with Hastings at the end of the story.

I enjoyed this one!

The Submarine Plans

SubmarineThis short story was originally published in the 7th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US in the Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. It was also the basis for the novella-length story The Incredible Theft, which was published in the 1937 volume Murder in the Mews.  Poirot is summoned late at night to meet Lord Allonby, the head of the Ministry of Defence, who reports that some secret plans for a new submarine have just been stolen from his country house Sharples. He reports seeing a mysterious shadow appearing to leave the room where the plans were on a table. Will Poirot find out who the mysterious figure is? Or was Allonby mistaken? You already know the answer.

An enjoyable short story that holds together nicely. Allonby refers to when Poirot helped him with the kidnapping of the Prime Minister during the First World War, which is a story that had been previously published in Poirot Investigates. A couple of red herrings that send you the wrong way, until you realise the solution is extremely simple. There’s a clever finish to the story when Hastings reports that an enemy of the nation came a-cropper with their submarine plans. He also insists that Poirot guessed the solution. That doesn’t seem likely to me!

The Third Floor Flat

THird floor flatThis story was first published  in the January 1929 issue of Hutchinson’s Adventure & Mystery Story Magazine, and in the US in Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in 1950. After a night out, two men and two women arrive back at the flat of one of the women, but she can’t find the key to get inside her fourth floor flat. The two men offer to use the coal lift to get inside but they accidentally enter the third floor flat. When they eventually emerge at the right place, one of the men has blood on his hands. They go back to check, only to discover that a woman has been murdered in the third floor flat. Fortunately Poirot lives in the fifth floor flat! And it doesn’t take Poirot long to come to the correct conclusion.

Published six years later than all the other stories in the book so far, this has a very different voice and tone from the others. Hastings is not present, and doesn’t narrate the story. Christie’s third person narration is more formal, stiff and distant than when Hastings is “in charge”. You would almost think it was written by a different person. It has an extraordinarily inventive ending, and I found the whole thing totally unbelievable.

The four characters are said to have gone to the theatre to see The Brown Eyes of Caroline. Such a shame it doesn’t really exist as it is a great title.

Double Sin

double sinThis enjoyable short story was first published in the 23 September 1928 edition of the Sunday Dispatch, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot and Hastings take a business/holiday trip to Devon by bus where they encounter Miss Mary Durrant, taking a set of valuable miniature paintings to a client for his approval and payment. Alas, during the journey, the miniatures are stolen. But it doesn’t take Poirot any time at all to discover what really happened to the miniatures and who is guilty of the crime!

It’s a rather charming and entertaining story, an enjoyable read. Poirot teases Hastings about his perennial fondness for girls with auburn hair; Hastings teases Poirot back for his fear of draughty windows on a bus. Bizarrely, Hastings accuses Poirot of having “Flemish thrift” when he is clearly from the French-speaking part of Belgium, and not Flemish at all. The story takes place in the fictional Devon towns of Ebermouth and Monkhampton, and the miniatures are said to be by the artist Cosway – Maria Cosway was indeed a painter of miniatures in the 18th and 19th centuries. The miniatures are said to be worth £500 – today that would be the equivalent of about £22,000. Doesn’t sound unreasonable.

Miss Penn, the antiques dealer on whose behalf Mary Durrant is taking the miniatures, has all the appearance of a certain Miss Marple, who would maker her first appearance in print a couple of years later.

The Market Basing Mystery

Market BasingThis entertaining short story was first published in the 17th October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, and in the US in The Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. Inspector Japp invites Poirot and Hastings to the market town of Market Basing for the weekend, but there crime catches up with them, as they are called to a mansion where the owner Walter Protheroe has apparently taken his own life but the position of the pistol in his hand suggests that he couldn’t have done – so is it murder? It doesn’t take long for the three sleuths to come to the right solution – not before Japp has leapt to the wrong conclusions, of course.

It’s a very entertaining little tale, simply told, with all the clues fairly open to the reader. We learn something new about Japp, that he is a keen botanist, who knows all the Latin names to the most obscure plants. Hastings quotes an amusing piece of doggerel – “the rabbit has a pleasant face…” This seems to be a well-known but anonymous few lines of verse. Unless Christie made it up?

The story was expanded into the novella Murder in the Mews, published in 1937.

Wasps’ Nest

wasps nestThis rather odd short story was first published in the 20th November 1928 edition of the Daily Mail, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot arrives at the house of an old friend John Harrison, saying he is investigating a murder that hasn’t yet been committed. Harrison doesn’t believe him, but then Poirot asks more about his forthcoming visit from an acquaintance who will be shortly arriving to remove the wasps nest that has grown on his property. But who is the murderer that Poirot is trying to intercept?

What is particularly odd about this story is that it feels like it has been written by someone else – not only does it not feel like an account by Hastings, it doesn’t feel like Christie either. Nevertheless, there is a poison aspect to this story – the potential use of potassium cyanide, which would have been of interest to Christie.

There is an amusing line taken out of context – and out of its time too, when Poirot explains how he can distract someone so that he can pickpocket them; unfortunately, his turn of phrase is: “I lay one hand on his shoulder, I excite myself, and he feels nothing.”

This story was also was the first Christie story to be adapted for television with a live broadcast on 18 June 1937. It was adapted by Christie herself, and broadcast in and around London, with Francis L Sullivan playing Poirot.

The Veiled Lady

veiled ladyThis entertaining short story was first published in the 3rd October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, under the title The Case of the Veiled Lady, and in the US in Poirot Investigates in 1924 – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot and Hastings are visited by a Lady Millicent who once wrote an indiscreet letter to a soldier that she fears would end her engagement to the Duke of Southshire were it to be common knowledge – and she is being blackmailed by a Mr Lavington who has the letter in his possession. Lavington refuses to give the letter to Hastings or Poirot. So Poirot decides to break into Lavington’s house and take it. But what then? Do Lady Millicent’s troubles go away?

This excellent little tale conceals a nice surprise twist right at the end which you don’t see coming, and is one of Christie’s better early short stories. We learn of Poirot that his vanity is such that the believes the whole world is talking about him, much to Hastings’ derision.

Lavington is blackmailing Lady Millicent in the sum of £20,000, which today would be around £850,000. No wonder she’s worried. And there’s another of Christie’s accidental funny sentences, concerning use of the “E” word. ““The Dirty swine!” I ejaculated. “I beg your pardon, Lady Millicent.””

Problem at Sea

CruiseThis enjoyable short story was first published in issue 542 of the Strand Magazine, in February 1936, under the title, Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66, and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, in 1939. On a sea trip to Alexandria, Poirot encounters Colonel Clapperton and his difficult, cruel wife, whom Clapperton appears to love despite the way she treats him. Others on board take Clapperton to one side and try to give him an entertaining trip despite his wife’s best efforts. A murder takes place; Poirot quickly sees through the deception and solves the crime.

You can tell at once from the tone of the writing that this story was constructed by a much more mature brain than the majority of the other stories in this volume; it appeared in print at least ten years later than most of the other Early Cases. Nevertheless, the twist in the tale is very easy to guess and the reader works out the solution before Poirot.

Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with some detailed information about the effects of taking Digitalin; and sadly the story is marred by an instance of very unfortunate racism (it wouldn’t have been seen that way in 1936, but it is today). Hastings is noticeably absent, his final appearances in Christie’s novels (apart from in Curtain, published many years later) were in The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness, both of which would have been written about the same time.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

Mistress MaryThis short story was first published in issue 536 of the Strand Magazine in August 1935 and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Barrowby writes to Poirot asking for his help in a delicate family matter. He instructs Miss Lemon to reply, but hears nothing back. Then Miss Lemon discovers that Miss Barrowby has died, so he decides to visit her house, where she meets a Russian help, and Miss Barrowby’s remaining relatives, the Delafontaines. But did Miss Barrowby die from poison, and, if so, how come no one else in the household suffered the same fate?

Again, another slightly more recent piece of writing, still with Hastings gone (and missed too, by Poirot) and with a much more three-dimensional feel. Christie gives us some great descriptive passages about Miss Lemon, whom Poirot employs as an assistant detective, and her input helps not only him solve the crime but also helps the story along nicely too.

Again, too, there is poison involved, this time strychnine, always one of Christie’s favourites. The story takes place in Charman’s Green, Bucks, said to be about an hour from London – I wonder if that is Christie-speak for Chesham. There’s an ingenious solution to the story, and one which I was certainly nowhere near guessing.

And that concludes all eighteen stories in Poirot’s Early Cases. Many of them are not bad at all, and I’d say the good ones outweigh the bad ones considerably. It’s always difficult to put a rating on a book of short stories, but I’d definitely give it a 7/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

CurtainNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book that Christie wrote some time in the 40s, when she was at her peak, designed to be the last ever book featuring Hercule Poirot, Curtain. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

Review – Jack Absolute Flies Again, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 27th July 2022

Jack AbsoluteOne of the greatest joys of the British theatre in the 21st century has been the rise of the playwright Richard Bean, whose One Man Two Guvnors stands out as one of the true comedy highlights of the past twenty years. Now, in collaboration with Oliver Chris, who also starred in that play, he has taken another old play and given it a modern update – this time, Sheridan’s The Rivals, which has been inventively shaken up and repositioned in Sussex in 1940, where Churchill has requisitioned Malaprop Mansion as an RAF base where our brave chaps are taking flight daily to shoot down their German enemies, or, rather, scrambling their spitfires, pressing the tit and bagging a Jerry (thanks to the helpful glossary of terminology in the programme.)

Jack and AnthonyIf you know The Rivals, there’s a lot of fun to be gained by comparing Sheridan’s characters with Bean & Chris’ modern equivalents. We still have the braggart Sir Anthony Absolute paying court to Mrs Malaprop. We still have Young Absolute trying to woo Lydia Languish who only has eyes for another, whom Absolute impersonates (in an amusing northern switch, Ensign Beverley becomes Dudley Scunthorpe). Julia and Faulkland are still in love, Sir Lucius O’Trigger the Irish baronet in love with Lydia is now Bikram “Tony” Khattri, a Sikh pilot, and Lydia’s maid Lucy is still up to no good. Today, Mrs Malaprop’s lexicographical mishaps have taken a turn for the worse and the fourth wall is broken more than ever, and the writers surprise us with what could be a sad ending, if only the rest of the tone of the play wasn’t so buoyant.

Malaprop and LucyIt’s all presented in a slightly larger-than-life style; the gardens and boudoir of Malaprop Mansion are colourfully realised in Mark Thompson’s set design and his military uniforms for the characters are crisp and convincing. The direction is fast and furious, and to say it’s played for laughs is an understatement. That’s because, deep down, apart from the surprisingly moving last five minutes, “laughs” are basically all there is. The play constantly bombards us with so much joking, wordplay, physical comedy or any combination of the three, that there is no time to take breath between them. Inevitably, some of the jokes don’t land, whereas others land beautifully. There are some brilliantly funny sequences, primarily between Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute, but there are also several scenes that languish (geddit) and don’t hit the spot.

Caroline QuentinCaroline Quentin is rapidly becoming one of our grandes dames of theatre, and she rises beautifully to the challenge of getting every other word wrong as Mrs Malaprop. It must be so difficult to continuously, deliberately, say the wrong word – your brain must be going nineteen to the dozen trying to correct yourself. She does some fabulous pratfalls, and even if they’ve given her way too many malapropisms (my favourites were clitoris and Mexican), it’s still a terrific comedy performance. She’s partnered with a lot of comic bluster from Peter Forbes as the pantomimish baronet Sir Anthony Absolute, channelling his Ronnie Barker Hark at Barker persona from the 1960s. Like everything else in this show, it lacks subtlety, but the characterisation is spot on!

Lucy and DudleyImpossible to tell if this made a difference to the energy of the show, but for our performance we saw George Kemp as Jack Absolute, in what I suspect may have been quite a last minute change, judging from the very supportive round of applause to him from the rest of the cast and his facial expression that said phew! during curtain call. He certainly looks the part, very dapper and heroic, and gave a very good performance. Kelvin Fletcher is also excellent as the fitter Dudley Scunthorpe, all engine oil and short vowels, and it was entertaining (if not vital to the plot) to have a dance number where Mr Fletcher could exercise his Strictly credentials.

Lydia and JackKerry Howard provides a crowd-pleasing performance as the mischievous and wise-beyond-her-status maid Lucy, pointing out Khattri’s poetic plagiarisms, and indulging in a rather sweet game of Hide The Duck with Dudley. I was slightly put off by her vocal characterisation being straight from the Catherine Tate stable, but then Ms Tate does so many characters that sometimes similarities may be inevitable. Natalie Simpson is a delightfully gung-ho Lydia Languish, and there’s great support from Jordan Metcalfe as the wilting Roy and Helena Wilson as his innamorata Julia (who has probably the best line in the show), James Corrigan as the never-give-up Bob Acres and Tim Steed as Brian Coventry, the senior RAF officer who’s clearly holding back a secret, and whose life at base might become more interesting with the revelation that one of the new fighter pilots is “a Brian too”, nudge nudge, wink wink.

DanceFor all the effort that’s put into the show, and for all its excellent pedigrees, there is something about it that somehow, unfortunately, just doesn’t quite work. It’s the old sum of the parts not equalling the whole kind of thing.  I guess it’s possible to just try too hard to be funny; less is more, and all that. It’s the kind of show that Mrs Chrisparkle would describe as relentless, which is not a compliment, although oddly she actually enjoyed it more than me. If the National Theatre were expecting the next One Man Two Guvnors, they’ll be disappointed, but nevertheless it’s certainly full of derring-do and frequently titillates your beer-lever.

Production photos by Brinkhoff Moegenburg

4-stars

Four They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 23rd July 2022

Sing Yer Hearts OutOn a truly high buzz having seen the brilliant Crazy For You that afternoon, our party of roving theatregoers turned their attention towards Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, on its second preview at the Minerva. Most of us are pretty partial to our football, and it wouldn’t remotely surprise me if we consulted our old diaries we would find that at least some of us were dahn the pub on Saturday 7th October 2000, the precise date on which this play is set.

CelebrateI’d seen two plays by Mr Williams before – one I loved and one I pretty much loathed. I loved Soul, his play about the life (and death) of music legend Marvin Gaye. I loathed Days of Significance, his examination of the lives of young people who have been affected by a tour of military service in Iraq. Basically, I reckon I had a 50:50 chance of enjoying Sing Yer Heart Out or not.

Watching the matchOf course, I must emphasise that this was a Preview performance. By the time it reaches its press night all sorts of changes might have occurred – although I would think that was fairly unlikely, especially given the play was produced at Chichester last year in their garden tent – to excellent reviews, which is no doubt why it has been brought back to enjoy further life at the Minerva. I should also point out that the show had to be stopped for about twenty minutes during the first act, when an audience member fell ill. The staff at the Minerva handled the emergency brilliantly. However, it was perhaps a little more unsettling for me than for most of the rest of the audience as the lady concerned was sitting directly behind me and, whilst she was suffering, chucked the water she was presumably drinking all over me. I was drenched. And while – of course – she was in a much worse state than me, I was left a soggy mess throughout the rest of the first half (I managed to dry out in the interval). So it wasn’t the best of circumstances to enjoy the play. These things happen. I hope the lady is better now.

Alan and LawrieThe play is set in a south London pub as it is being set up to watch the vital England v Germany World Cup qualifier match on television. Regulars arrive to watch it. Excitement and enthusiasm turn to disappointment after Germany score. And then go on to win. Kevin Keegan resigns. The play ends. But it’s not quite as simple as that. There are personal undercurrents between many of the characters who have come to watch the match. Racial and other tensions figure highly. Glen, the landlady’s son, tries to ingratiate himself with a couple of young black guys, Duane and Bad T, who respond by attempting to bully him. Landlady Gina’s also had a relationship with Mark, one of the guys in the pub. Another of the customers is Lee, a police officer who’s recently been assaulted, and his brother, Lawrie, is an outright racist yob. One of the older men, Alan, a devoted follower of Enoch Powell, sinisterly tries to influence the younger men to be the same – or to manipulate and outwit the black guys. When the mother of one of the youths arrives to complain that one of the drinkers has assaulted her son (that’s because they went off to find him because they’d stolen Glen’s jacket, hope you’re keeping up with this), policeman Lee takes “control”. And that’s all in the first act. In the second act, things start getting messy.

Barry and MarkLet’s talk about the good things about this production first. The best thing is the staging. The Minerva has been converted into the George Pub with immaculate attention to detail, and when you walk in, you really do feel that you’re in a well-loved, rather downtrodden local pub. The old-fashioned circular bar at the back. The worn, taped down carpet. The pool and bar football tables. The fact that the front row seats have been replaced by bar chairs, tables, and stools. You couldn’t get more authentic. TV screens show us the match while the pub regulars are watching it. Perhaps best of all, above the bar, the scene occasionally moves to the Gents toilet, which you can see through opaque windows. It’s one of the most lifelike, convincing sets I’ve ever seen; even down to the handpump that decided to stop working during the performance with the result that Sian Reese-Williams playing Gina deftly swapped the beer to a lager from another pump. Designer Joanna Scotcher deserves every award going.

Duane, Glen and Bad TAnd then there are the performances – all of them excellent. For a play that has very few sympathetic characters, it’s hard to say that you “enjoyed” them all; but Richard Riddell as Lawrie is a most convincing thug, constantly teetering on a knife-edge of losing his self-control, and Michael Hodgson plays Alan with huge insidiousness; you can really see how his behaviour could needle the most balanced of people. Mark Springer is excellent as Mark, his calm exterior concealing a torrent of upset inside. Sian Reese-Williams is also very good as landlady Gina, showing all that direct assertiveness required for a woman to run an establishment like that. Alexander Cobb’s strong performance as Lee surprises us with the way his character can turn on a sixpence. But the whole cast come together as a seamless ensemble, creating a combined very believable and physical performance.

At the barBut here’s the But – and I realise I’m pretty much on my own here I really did not like the play. Not because of the bad language, the racism, or the violence; all those elements go to create a challenging play, which is something I relish. However, having set up all this aggression and racism, the play then does so little with them. It just tosses them in the air and says look at this isn’t it awful. It doesn’t make us think differently about the world we live in, it merely wallows in the despair of the worst aspects of human behaviour, offering no solutions, no hope, no light for the future. Some of these characters are violent, or racist, or both. Quelle surprise. Many of our party guessed the final plot twist, as all being sadly predictable. You know that things are going wrong when, rather than concentrating on the play, you end up watching the England v Germany game on the television and following Lawrie and Alan’s pool match – Mr Riddell is a ridiculously talented pool player! The production is visually thrilling, but this static play just left us flat and depressed. A game of two halves, one might say.

Production photos by Helen Murray

3-stars

Three-sy Does It!

Review – Crazy For You, Festival Theatre Chichester, 23rd July 2022

Crazy For YouJust as the ecstatic applause at the end of the first act was dying down, Mrs Chrisparkle turned to me and said This is the kind of show you usually hate – and she’s totally right. I like my musicals to be meaty. To pose problems. To issue challenges. To delve deep into the heart of humanity and winkle out nuggets of truth so that you come out of the show a different person from the one you went in as. Crazy For You does absolutely none of those things. And it is, quite simply, a glorious delight from start to finish.

Bobby and the GirlsDirector and choreographer Susan Stroman, who had worked on the original 1992 production, was already making plans for a revival of this Gershwin extravaganza way back when none of us had ever heard of Covid. Then, with all the theatres shut, and not much hope for the future on the horizon, it naturally retreated to her back-burner. That is, until the fickle hand of fate prompted Chichester Artistic Director Daniel Evans to ask her if she would bring the show back to Sussex. And, with a superbly talented cast and production team to bring it to reality, this early juke-box musical (it feels like it should be from the 1930s but it isn’t) is gracing the stage of the Festival Theatre, and sending its audiences on their merry way home with a spring in their step and pretend tap-shoes on their feet.

Irene, Bobby and LottieAs I indicated at the beginning, the plot is very simple. Theatre-mad Bobby Child is sent by his bank-owning Mamma to Nevada to foreclose the mortgage on an inactive little theatre way out west. But it’s not in Bobby’s nature to ever close a theatre down, especially when it’s owned by the father of the only girl in the town, the feisty Polly, with whom Bobby instantly falls head over heels in love. The rest of the show revolves around his attempts to both woo Polly and also impersonate Bela Zangler, the impresario, in a last-ditch attempt to stage a show so that audiences can return and the theatre can become financially solvent again. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the plot. It’s really not important.

Bobby and the BoysThe show takes Gershwin songs from a number of their Greatest Hits, including I Got Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Nice Work if You can Get it, Embraceable You, and plenty of other showtoonz. Musical Director Alan Williams leads a fantastic 16-person band – which is a pretty big quantity of musicians – and you can instantly tell how full and rich the sound is. Before any action takes place, during the overture, Ken Billington’s lighting design puts the shimmering front curtain through its paces with a range of warm exciting colours, preparing you for the visual feast to follow. All these visual and audio cues really gee you up in expectation of a great show, so the audience is truly buzzing even before the performance truly gets underway.

Slap That BassAnd it’s a show of sheer enjoyment. Ken Ludwig’s book is full of fun; silly jokes that hit perfectly, rewarding routines, such as the two Zanglers mimicking each other in a mirror, cartoon effects like the tweety-bird sound when a character hits their head, and there’s an early contender for the Best Performance in a Musical by a piece of tumbleweed award, as the aforementioned stage contraption merrily makes its way across the Deadrock landscape. Each piece of comic business, each interactive musical moment, each comic characterisation goes towards making the show a thing of total bliss. And, to be fair, yes, the substance of the show is lightweight and fluffy and doesn’t make you think again about the Human Condition. However, unlike some juke-box musicals, the structure actually works, and the choice of songs does largely make sense, with many of them either forwarding the plot or giving us a further insight into the singer’s character. And there are plenty of reputable musicals that don’t achieve that.

The FodorsAs you would expect from Susan Stroman, the choreography throughout is dynamic, thrilling, inventive, comical, and passionate, and makes big demands on the star performers who rise to the occasion superbly. Chichester had already taken Charlie Stemp to its heart after his rise to fame and fortune in Rachel Kavanaugh’s Half a Sixpence six years ago, so it was no surprise that he received a star round of applause on his typically ebullient first entry on stage. Mr Stemp is a master (if not THE master) of song-and-dance on stage, and responds to Ms Stroman’s demands with all the brilliance you’d expect. But he is more than matched by a fantastic performance by Carly Anderson as Polly, who has a dream of a voice and wonderful comic timing, and together they are pretty much matchless.

PollyThere’s also an impressive physical comedy performance from Tom Edden (you’d expect nothing less from him) as Bela Zangler, Merryl Ansah is a delightfully tricky Irene, with a terrific surprise up her sleeve that comes later in the second act; Gay Soper is wonderful as Bobby’s frosty mother Lottie, and there’s excellent support from Mathew Craig as the grumpy Lank Hawkins, Don Gallagher as Polly’s living-in-the-past father Everett, and from Adrian Grove and Jacquie Dubois as the frightfully British Fodors, unexpectedly arrived to review Lank’s Hotel. The boys and girls of the ensemble are also fantastic, Belawith many hilarious and endearing vignettes, as well as brilliant singing and dancing skills. Sadie-Jean Shirley, Kate Parr, Mark Akinfolarin and Joshua Nkemdilim in particular stand out, but everyone pours their hearts and souls into delivering a magnificent performance.

Like The Unfriend a few weeks ago, Chichester have come up with another tremendous triumph that is totally West End-ready. We went as part of a group of eight and every single one of us adored every minute of it. That’s got to be a good sign!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Southbury Child, Bridge Theatre, London, 6th July 2022

The Southbury ChildHere’s another of those plays that has spent a long time in coming to fruition, battling its way through the rigours of Covid and Lockdowns and all the other ghastly things that flesh is heir to over the last couple of years. But, as always, good things come to he who waits, and Stephen Beresford’s The Southbury Child is a fascinating, at times hilarious, at times tragic play, chock-full of trigger warnings and difficult subject matter.

CraigThe premise is very simple. Local vicar David Highland is to conduct the funeral of a child – young Tyler Southbury. Her mother’s simple wish to make the ceremony less funereal is to have the church full of balloons. Tyler loved balloons. She loved Disney. So Disney balloons would be best. David Highland is no high-and-mighty po-faced clergyman; he’s had his own share of escapades, including a drink problem and having an affair, so you might expect him to be more on the side of the experimental and flexible wing of the Church – if it’s going to make the family more able to face the awful process of a child’s funeral, what’s the harm in some balloons?

DavidHowever, David has his principles – specifically where it comes to church traditions and practices – and balloons are a step too far for him. Cue a massive backlash against David and his family from the villagers. How could he be so heartless? The local bishop decides he needs to send in a new curate, Craig, as a kind of troubleshooter-cum-support mechanism but he can’t prevent things from getting truly out of hand. Will David suspend his principles just this once, for the sake of the village and the affected family? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Tina and LeeAlcoholism, the death of a child, infidelity, car crashes, racial prejudice, revenge; Stephen Beresford pulls no punches where it comes to dealing with the trickier subjects. And he makes those subjects hit hard by employing a devilish sense of humour, which makes the two and a half hours of this play absolutely fly by. Mark Thompson’s domestic set has the presence of the local church looming threateningly over it as a backdrop; no matter where you go in this play you can’t escape the Church. And those principles… do they strengthen the Church, and the relationship between the church and the parishioners, or do they drive a wedge in between them, showing the Church to be anachronistic and out of touch? That’s a question for you to decide.

Mary and DavidNicholas Hytner has assembled a brilliant cast who really get to grips with their characters and give us moments of high drama as well as dishing out the comedy with enviable deftness. Alex Jennings is superb as David Highland; an amiable, good-humoured kindly man but one for whom the red mist descends when the tensions get high. Phoebe Nicholls is also excellent as his long-suffering but humourless wife Mary; together they paint a very credible picture of a couple who tolerate each other but could have wished for better. I really enjoyed the performance of Josh Finan as Tyler’s uncle Lee, negotiating the details of the funeral, getting strangely inspired by the vicar but then furious with his stance over the balloons; he too has his own deep regrets to overcome, and Mr Finan shows us expertly the anguish that a few misplaced lies and misjudgements can create.

NaomiJack Greenlees is extremely good as the curate Craig, finding his way in a strange and strained environment, trying to balance his religious needs with his family life; Racheal Ofori sparkles (literally) as the party-girl, ex-actress daughter Naomi who gets a kick out of teasing anyone who’ll stand still, just to get a reaction; and Hermione Gulliford injects the character of the doctor’s wife Janet with just the right amount of snobbish dislikeablility. There’s also great support from Jo Herbert as the frustrated daughter Susannah, Holly Atkins as local police officer Joy and Sarah Twomey as the grieving mother Tina Southbury.

Lee and DavidI hope I’m not giving the game away by revealing that the final scene of the play depicts the final preparations for Tyler’s funeral, tiny white coffin and all. Mrs Chrisparkle found this scene highly emotional. I must say that I didn’t. I thought it simply depicted an event that would have been best played out in our own minds; although it was delicately done I still feel that it lacked subtlety, and that as a result the play ends with a bit of a soggy bottom. Just my personal opinion – you may well not agree. This co-production with the Chichester Festival Theatre continues at the Bridge Theatre until 27th August.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!