Review – The Secret Adversary, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th March 2015

Secret Adversary 2015I’ve always been a huge fan of Agatha Christie. As a child, she was my next step up the reading curve after Enid Blyton. I used to swap Christies with a rather attractive and well-developed girl at my school called Julia, and it was a splendidly sneaky way of engineering a conversation her. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see The Mousetrap when it was only in its 17th year (work that back) and the creepy tension in it scared me to death. However, since then, we’ve only seen a few Christies on stage and on the whole, don’t think they work that well; and certainly the kindest thing you can say about The Mousetrap now is that it’s a creaky old historical artefact (but you just have to see it once, to prove you’re alive).

Secret Adversary 1922The Secret Adversary was only Christie’s second novel and introduces us to Tommy and Tuppence, a game pair of young scamps – well they were in 1922 – full of derring-do and no aptitude for a 9-5 job, who become “Young Adventurers”. They dreamed of hiring themselves out to anyone who needs an escapade performed but doesn’t have the sheer lack of a sense of self-preservation to do it themselves. They’re among Christie’s less well-known detectives, but they’re good fun and full of character, cheek and bravery; seemingly innocent and naïve but with nerves of steel. There was a terrific TV series in the 80s – Partners in Crime – where they were played by Francesca Annis and James Warwick; sophisticated, methodical, good taste and keen as mustard. And I still carry the mental image of those two whenever I think of the characters.

TuppenceAnd so to this production, from the Watermill Theatre; I probably should have noticed that before I booked, as it would almost certainly mean an adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery involving actors playing their own instruments. They love a bit of that down there in Newbury. Miss Marple on the harp? Poirot on a tuba? Fortunately those characters don’t play a part in this tale of our heroic couple searching for a mystery woman with secret papers that would compromise the government, which search in turn leads on to another search, of the mystery man who’s masterminding the whole skulduggery. Tommy and Tuppence get into various scrapes all across London but manage to come up with the solution and even get engaged on the last page. It’s a good story, rather far-fetched and full of coincidences but an enjoyable escapist read all the same.

Tommy and TuppenceThe adaptation by Sarah Punshon and Johann Hari has very cleverly taken the majority of the elements of the original book and stitched them back together in different sequences and in different locations, which works well as an exercise in itself but for me made the play largely unrecognisable from the original book. The play is mainly set in a nightclub. I’ve had a very good flick through the book today and can’t find any reference to it in Christie’s original – that’s not to say it’s not there, but even if it is, it doesn’t form the central location on which to base the story. The mystery woman has undergone a name change, presumably to support a visual gag in one of the early scenes where a fish lands on a dessert (also not in the original). There’s a medley of songs involving the word “Money” (I’m pretty sure Christie never heard the Flying Lizards), and I surprised myself by realising how much of a Christie Purist Snob I had become.

Morgan PhilpottIt’s a shame because there were many elements to the production that were very inventive, very funny and very effective. We both laughed a lot at the primitive PowerPoint presentation of the sinking of the Lusitania; there was an amusingly clever representation of what Tommy saw through the keyhole; there was some magic – always like a bit of magic, I do; and there were moments where the cast addressed the audience, much to our surprise. I loved the clever staging of the scene where the villains are meeting at a table, jutting up from the stage at an angle of 135 degrees with Tommy staring down at them from the grille above their heads. All these elements were performed with a nice sense of fun and an appreciation of the ridiculous.

T & TBut we both felt that the whole show was so overwhelmingly tongue-in-cheek, so completely camped up and over the top, that it lost any serious pretence to actually tell the story, or to present characters that weren’t caricatures (I thought only the character of Tuppence herself came close to having any real identity). When the audience returns for the second act, one of the characters asks us if we’re enjoying ourselves and are we following the plot (with a facial expression that implies it’s a pretty tough plot to follow). If the show is doing its job properly, there should be no difficulty in understanding what’s going on. It’s as though the whole thing has been sacrificed on the altar of The 39 Steps but, regrettably, few things are that funny.

Taxi RideWe did enjoy the performances on the whole. I liked Morgan Philpott’s rather supercilious array of waiters, MC’s and villains – and I did enjoy his spots of magic. One of the cast members referred to him as “Philpott” during the show – couldn’t work out if that was an intentional “out of character” moment or an epicfail. Emerald O’Hanrahan played Tuppence with a sense of spirit and cuteness which was rather charming. I’ve seen Garmon Rhys before – he was an excellent Wilfred Owen in Regeneration last year – so I know he’s a terrific actor, but I’m afraid I found his Tommy rather one-dimensional. I enjoyed Elizabeth Marsh’s very stagey Rita (straight out of Sunset Boulevard) but sighed with dismay when she donned a beard to play Kramenin – just not enough respect for the original work, I felt.

Mind the gunI think the show went down pretty well with the majority of the audience, but it just wasn’t for us. It wasn’t the show I was expecting to see, and my flexibility biorhythm must have been at a low ebb. I was expecting a classic whodunit; instead we got a 1920s semi-musical end-of-the-pier-show of a whodunit. Purists beware; others may well enjoy. The tour continues to Eastbourne, Ipswich, Derby, Coventry and Kingston, up to May.

P.S. When the interval came we agreed that we were bored by it all; Mrs Chrisparkle proposed taking our coats with us when we went for our interval drinks so that we didn’t have to go back in to the auditorium if we didn’t want to. That was code for I want to go home. However, I didn’t think it quite warranted half-time abandonment, on the grounds that there were some amusing moments and some proficient performances, and I normally only give up on a show after the interval when a play is so bad that it’s not funny. This wasn’t that bad. So we compromised. We went back in, and Mrs C decided to sleep through the majority of the second half. Fair do’s.

Review – The Phantom of the Opera, Milton Keynes Theatre, 30th October 2012

Phantom of the Opera 1986Picture the scene. The date: Friday, 17th October 1986. The location: London’s glitzy West End. Her Majesty’s Theatre is the place to be, as Phantom of the Opera had opened a couple of days earlier to sensational reviews. In Stalls seats B9 & B10 (costing a stupendous £18.50 each) were a young Mr and Mrs Chrisparkle (actually she wasn’t Mrs C then, still the demure Miss D). Behind us, in inferior seats, the comedian Dave Allen (very short, accompanied by a very glamorous lady); a couple of rows back, to the side, Australian ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. On stage: Steve Barton – a heroic Raoul; Sarah Brightman – a stunning Christine; Michael Crawford – a gobsmackingly brilliant Phantom. Such nights are the stuff of life-long memories.

Sarah Brightman and Michael CrawfordAnd we’ve never seen Phantom since, until this week when the current touring production has come to haunt the Milton Keynes theatre until 24th November. The original, of course, is still on in London, but this touring production has a different director – Laurence Connor; a different choreographer – Scott Ambler (one of our dance heroes); a different set designer – Paul Brown; and wisely keeps Maria Björnson’s original costume design. The overall impression of this combination of creatives is that the production is overwhelmingly beautiful; it looks and sounds luxuriously sumptuous throughout.

Our old ticketsThe set in particular is just superb. From my memory, I think it’s scaled down only a tiny bit from the original production but looks just as opulent/mysterious/bleak delete as appropriate, depending on the scene. As in 1986, we were sat directly underneath the notorious chandelier. In the original production the Phantom famously sends the chandelier hurtling down towards the stalls, or, if I remember rightly, what actually happened was that it floated gently like a glittery blancmange and we didn’t feel remotely threatened by it. In this production, it shakes violently and little shards of broken chandelier drops land on your head – very clever and effective. I also loved the way it came to life in the opening auction scene, a brilliant bit of design magic.

Sarah Brightman and Steve BartonThe scenes depicting the staged operas are lavish; the scene where they descend the side of the building to reach the Phantom’s boat is still extraordinarily atmospheric; the owners’ office is plush and comfortable; the rooftop is chilling and threatening. Whilst outstanding in itself, the set never dwarfs the action, rather it becomes an extension of the action, complementing it superbly. Similarly, Scott Ambler’s choreography for the ballet scenes convincingly suggests a highly skilful production of Hannibal or Il Muto, whilst not actually drawing our attention too much from the plot of Phantom. And the orchestra under the direction of Craig Edwards is officially fabulous. Romantic one minute, scary the next, it’s a brilliant score and they give it everything – you’d have thought there was a full symphony orchestra out there.

Michael CrawfordSo what of the performances? And how do they compare with the originals, or is that a really cruel thing to do? For me, there was one absolutely standout performance that was at least as good as back in 1986, and that was Katie Hall as Christine. She looks perfect for the part, in that she is beautiful in a fragile sort of way, and she has a superb, clear, powerful and emotional voice. Her love for both the Phantom and Raoul felt absolutely genuine and gave the love triangle a real bite.

Phantom of the Opera 2012I’m uncertain as to how Raoul ought to be played really. Should he be very keen but a bit wet behind the ears, or should he be dashing and brave and heroic from the off? Simon Bailey’s performance edges towards the heroic by the end but, as Mrs C observed in the interval, despite his reassuring words promising protection to Christine in “All I Ask of You”, Mrs C says she would have had more faith in George Osborne. Nevertheless, he looks right, he’s a very good singer and he got a very warm reception from the audience.

Katie HallActually, this was one of the most genuinely enthusiastic rounds of applause at curtain call we’ve ever heard. Mr Bailey had quite a few cheers, Miss Hall had loads of cheers, and as for Earl Carpenter, playing the Phantom, well, I thought some of the ladies in the audience were going to need St John’s Ambulance assistance. At least I would expect a run on Ventalin from the local pharmacies. For my part, Mr Carpenter has a great voice and can belt out a great tune, but I thought he enunciated some of the lines almost oversensitively; in attempting to convey the Phantom’s heartbreak and internal agonies his voice pussy-footed through some of the lyrics making them a little bit hard to hear. Additionally, there were a couple of times when the Phantom’s disembodied voice is making demands on the other characters, when I felt that he sounded too soft and insufficiently threatening in comparison with the other onstage noises – doubtless a sound engineering/mixing problem. Mrs C said she remembered being totally moved by Michael Crawford’s performance but that this didn’t move her at all. I have to agree, I didn’t quite get the emotion from Mr Carpenter either – but judging from the reception, we were in the minority.

Simon BaileyThe other roles were all performed very well – I particularly liked Elizabeth Marsh as Madame Giry, an excellent mix of the charitable and the domineering, and Angela M Caesar as Carlotta, giving us some superb coloratura and also bringing out the comic elements of the role in a credible, non-pantomime way.

Earl CarpenterA pet hate: all three of the main performers, particularly Mr Bailey, in moments of high emotion, changed “all I ask of you” into “all I ask of yew”. A simple mispronunciation; yew is a type of tree. I may have to set up a campaign for the re-introduction of “yoo”.

Elizabeth MarshAnother pet hate: the front stalls seats in the Milton Keynes Theatre were again a disappointment. We were in Row D this time, with no rake over the two rows in front of us, and not much space to put our knees. We had to inconvenience about fourteen people in order to get to our central seats, and even when people stand up, there’s hardly any room to squeeze past. I hate to think what would happen if you were in desperate need of the loo during a performance; trying to get out would cause row-rage. I’m reasonably tall, and Mrs C is a bit shorter, but neither of us could see what was going on at Stage Left floor level. I understand the Phantom was having a right woeful time of anguish at the prospect of Christine going off with Raoul but frankly from our viewpoint it was just hearsay.

Angela M CaesarHowever on the good side, they seem to have opened up that members’ only club area in the foyer that always looked virtually empty anyway, and used the space to create a piano bar. It gave the foyer so much more atmosphere and warmth, the charming piano playing lent an air of refinement, and by creating another bar counter where people could order drinks, it made the queues for the other bars much shorter, which is eminently practical when a big theatre like the MK is sold out. I do hope it’s going to be a permanent fixture, as it has transformed the vibe of the place completely – well done!