Review – Dead Sheep, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th September 2016

Dead SheepWasn’t that one of the world’s best ever insults? Forget your Shakespearean cream faced loon and lily-liver’d boy; when Denis Healey described debating with Sir Geoffrey Howe in the House of Commons as like “being savaged by a dead sheep”, it said so much about the nature of both men. But the most glorious aspect to that slur, which had been cast even before Howe had joined Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, was the way he turned it around to deliver possibly the most damning resignation speech the Commons has ever witnessed.

thatcher-and-howeAh, the 1970s and 1980s. Don’t they seem like innocent days in retrospect? Actually, no. Three day weeks, power cuts, the miners’ strike, Falklands War, and the close possibility of someone pressing that nuclear button meant these were times of tension. We all had a thoroughly miserable time apart from in music and fashion. We have political tension today too, led by ineptitude. But no matter your politics, you could never say that Thatcher was inept. Au contraire, she must have been one of the most ept people ever to have existed. Everything she did, she meant. Nothing she did created an accidental effect – it was all deliberate. And that is shown most beautifully in Jonathan Maitland’s play about the relationship between Thatcher and Howe – its rise and fall, her exquisite powerplay, his ultimate revenge.

thatcher-cabinetIf you were an adult during the 1980s, this play is a true nostalgia trip. As you enter the auditorium, the stage curtains are open to reveal a huge photograph of the Thatcher cabinet, and whilst you’re waiting for the play to begin, it’s impossible not to go through all the faces and tick off the ones you recognise and remember. It’s a really clever ruse to get you into the 80s mindset. I got just over half of them right. The second act opens with Brian Walden (a devilish impersonation by John Wark that brings the house down) interviewing Geoffrey Howe on Weekend World (Sundays at noon on LWT) and my toes curled with delight at the memories of watching that programme, mainly so that I could really lose myself in its theme music, Nantucket Sleighride. I confess, my air guitar did briefly come out in the stalls last night.

paul-bradleyGiven the play’s title, and the fact that it stars Steve Nallon, you might be fooled into thinking this is simply a riotous comedy. That’s far from the truth. Certainly, there’s a lot to laugh at in this play, and it’s distinguished by some fine performances. One of the funniest scenes, which gets its own round of applause, plays out the ludicrous telephone requests between Howe and Lawson to get Thatcher to agree to a meeting before the Madrid summit – performed by the male characters in the cast with a terrific sense of ensemble and at a cracking pace. But what particularly grabbed me about the play was how strongly it conveyed a rather claustrophobic sense of political intrigue – of plotting and revenge; of pitting a cynical, manipulative brain against a rather simple, honest one. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also wondered if the play had been revised at all for a post-Brexit audience, as there are a number of rather ironic lines about membership of the European Community which raise some embarrassed titters; plus the nice observation that not even the Labour Party would think of electing a leader with a beard.

graham-seedJonathan Maitland is obviously extremely at home with writing about real people at the centre of controversy. Just like his brilliant Audience with Jimmy Savile (which also premiered at the Park Theatre, and which also featured Graham Seed in the cast), the success of the production would rely very heavily on a convincing performance by the central character. For Jimmy Savile, Maitland had Alistair McGowan on blistering form; for Margaret Thatcher, he has Steve Nallon, permanently associated with providing Thatcher’s voice for Spitting Image. Simply no one can do Thatcher like he can. In the same breath, he can cajole and hector, patronise and flirt, reminding you of that voice with chilling accuracy.

john-warkAnd it’s not just the voice; he has perfected the steely glare that outwits Howe and Lawson in that awful meeting; he has her ungainly walk that veers between elegant lady and impatient streetsweeper; and he has her eyes that, during Howe’s resignation speech, start off smug but slowly lose focus and eventually turn desperate. It’s an amazing performance. Unlike Matt Tedford, the other Thatcher currently on the block with his wonderful Queen of Soho and Queen of Game Shows, Mr Nallon is a big, broad man. I never met Margaret Thatcher but I am sure that Mr Nallon is much bigger than she ever was. But his size lends that suggestion of dominance, of sheer force, the potential for cruelty; and it’s a combination that works brilliantly in this play. Bizarrely, you never look at the character of Thatcher on stage and think to yourself, “that’s a man in drag”; you just think that she has come back to life. The final scene takes us to a meeting between Howe and Thatcher in the House of Lords, where she’s beginning to tread the finest lines of early dementia. Mr Nallon was delicacy personified as his Thatcher tries to retain her old self but fails to make entirely proper sense – a fantastic injection of humanity that you take home with you.

christopher-villiersPaul Bradley also gives a faultless performance as Sir Geoffrey, presenting him as a man of quiet dignity and unshakable commitment, fully aware of his personal shortcomings, and with a degree of altruism that is rare in a politian. He is – and I know this is an unlikely phrase to use – superbly bland amongst others with much greater charisma. His dress-down sweater is a masterstroke! John Wark, Graham Seed and Christopher Villiers assume all the other male roles as a wonderful modern take on a classic Greek chorus, keeping us informed as to what’s happening and who’s talking, acting as a perfect interface between the main characters and the audience, intimating at the heroic downfall that will take place. Christopher Villiers’ foul-mouthed Alan Clark (how pleasant it has been to have totally forgotten about him) and bluff, bigoted Bernard Ingham are a particular delight to watch. Carol Royle gives a classy performance as Elspeth, the power behind Geoffrey’s throne; subtly giving him support whilst also antagonising the PM with her worthy causes. Her scenes when she shows herself to be as adept at holding her own as Thatcher are a pure delight. Her reaction when she hears Thatcher say “rout” will long make me think twice about using that word!

thatcher-and-elspethA really rewarding and thought provoking play that follows the relationship between two firmly unwavering people. It’s always entertaining to see the underdog win! Beautifully written and superbly performed, its tour continues until the end of November, visiting Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Cardiff, Coventry, Exeter, Eastbourne, Malvern, Guildford and Bromley. Definitely one to catch!

Review – Flare Path, Oxford Playhouse, 3rd February 2016

Flare PathI’ve always had a soft spot for Terence Rattigan. I think it’s because I was so impressed when, shortly after my 17th birthday, I took myself off to London to see a production of Separate Tables starring the somewhat legendary John Mills and Jill Bennett. With a supporting cast of elderly theatricals like Ambrosine Philpotts and Raymond Huntley, it was a masterclass in acting understatement. And that is what Rattigan does best – conveying deep emotion and powerful personal dilemma in an environment where the stiff upper lip is all. I’m not sure I understood at the time the irony of casting Jill Bennett in that play – the ex-Mrs John Osborne, whose “kitchen sink” Look Back in Anger has always been seen as the antidote to Rattigan’s “well-made plays”.

Graham SeedThis was the first time I’ve seen Flare Path, although I read it in my early 20s, but I could remember very little of it. Rattigan wrote it whilst he was in the RAF and it’s based on his own wartime experiences. Flt-Lt Teddy Graham is a young officer at Milchester airbase in Lincolnshire, who has recently married an actress, Patricia. She has been performing in a play in London and therefore has not been able to support him in person on his air raids. Teddy is respected and trusted throughout the squadron, especially by his faithful Air Gunner Dusty Miller. After the run of Patricia’s play has finished, she comes up to Lincolnshire to be with Teddy. But that evening, in a local hotel, where the squadron members go after their raids to relax and regroup, Patricia and Teddy’s marriage is threatened by the sudden arrival of Peter Kyle, a Hollywood film actor with whom Patricia had a relationship before she married Teddy. Kyle wants Patricia to break it off with Teddy – and she admits she doesn’t really love her husband in the way she loved Kyle. However, just before Kyle engineers a showdown where Patricia will tell Teddy that it’s all over, Squadron Leader Swanson arrives to inform the men that their evening of relaxation with their wives is cancelled, because they’re all due out on a raid that night. What Patricia has to tell Teddy will have to wait until the morning. But what will happen overnight? And how will it change the course of events the next day? I’m not going to tell you that, you’ll have to see the play.

Lynden EdwardsIt’s a finely structured, deeply moving, rather solemn play but with occasional flashes of surprising humour. We were both struck by how the play examines the theme of sacrifice. Of course, the brave airmen who don’t come back from their missions make the ultimate sacrifice; but those left at home too must sacrifice their homes, their jobs, their lifestyles. Squadron Leader Swanson even sacrifices his sleep so that he can be there for the team when they get back from their raids. And when it comes to affairs of the heart, sometimes these too have to be sacrificed for the greater good and in the cause of simply doing the right thing. Teddy can be seen as a typical Rattigan male – on the face of it, noble; but concealing an aspect of himself of which he is not proud, or cannot come to terms – in this case, his fear of undergoing the air raid missions. Just like Separate Tables’ Major Pollock, hiding the allegations of sexually harassing women in a cinema, or indeed Rattigan himself concealing his homosexuality, Teddy’s a man with a murky secret – a flawed hero. In a few years’ time, elements of his character would develop into Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea, drunk and depressed from his wartime experiences.

Hedydd DylanDo you remember the late Brian Hanrahan’s reporting of the Falklands War back in 1982? As he watched the British Harrier jets taking off from HMS Hermes to launch the first air attack on Port Stanley, he wasn’t allowed to report the numbers of jets involved. He just, famously, said: “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back”. Such are the lives of the women waiting behind at the Falcon Hotel in Milchester. Countess Doris listens for the minute details of each aircraft flying overhead, knowing which ones are in trouble (“she’s flying on three engines. Been shot up, I expect”), and which are successfully taxi-ing after landing. They brave the blackout recriminations of Mrs Oakes as they open the curtains to watch the planes take off and land. It really gave me, as a modern audience member, who has never personally been involved with any military combat, an insight into what it must be like to be on the edges of war action – fully supportive of the war effort, but desperately worried about each and every outcome.

Claire AndreadisMrs Chrisparkle and I were chatting during the interval. “You know it’s not going to end well, don’t you” she suggested. I agreed. Every indication was that at least some of our brave boys were not going to see it to the final curtain. But, without giving too much of the game away, you can appreciate that the original 1942 audience might not have warmed to too tragic a finale, and I don’t suppose Rattigan wanted theatregoers sobbing in the aisles every night. If you’re after a happy ending, you might be lucky.

Daniel FraserSo what of this production by the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions? It seems very faithful to the original, dividing up Rattigan’s three acts into the current popular requirement for two, by bringing in the interval between Scenes One and Two of the second Act. I enjoyed the adherence to Rattigan’s original stage direction of having aircraft noises and communication sounds carrying on all through the interval, which keeps the audience in the zone whilst fighting over their ice-creams. “Wiggy Jones” has been replaced by “Betty” but that’s hardly material. Hayley Grindle’s set changes the position of the reception desk from Stage Right to Stage Left and brings the ever-burning fire more to the centre of the action, but otherwise is barely changed from the original. The sound effects – on which the play relies quite heavily – are authentic and crystal clear. For our performance, we had text captions either side of the stage which I have to say is an innovation that I really like. I think my hearing’s okay on the whole, but sometimes you can really benefit from having accents clarified or quickly spoken sequences visually presented to you.

Jamie HogarthA strong, mature play like this with some meaty roles cries out for some top quality performances; and this is where it gets a little disappointing. I think the production has a new cast for its 2016 tour and some of the scenes haven’t quite bedded down properly yet. It’s not badly performed by any means, but a couple of the more important roles were, for me, a little wooden and didn’t quite convey everything that I think Rattigan would have intended. To be honest, Lynden Edwards as Peter Kyle didn’t make the role particularly interesting. When he translated the Count’s letter for Doris, I sensed you should have been overwhelmed with emotion of some sort – but you weren’t really. I wouldn’t say it was like reading a shopping list, but you would have suspected an actor like Kyle would have put a little more expression into it. In some of the earlier scenes too, I just didn’t feel Polly HughesMr Edwards quite got it. Hedydd Dylan, as Patricia, was also rather slow to get going in her role, although by the time we reached the final scene I thought she brought out all the appropriate self-doubt and emotional turmoil.

William ReayFortunately, there were also some excellent performances. I was really impressed with Daniel Fraser as Teddy, a confident and credible performance as the archetypal hero playing the game whilst deep inside feeling distraught. His breakdown scene was tremendously moving and believable. I’ve not seen Mr Fraser before and I think he could be One To Watch. Claire Andreadis gave us a very bubbly Countess Doris, amusingly conveying her starstruck-ness in the presence of Peter Kyle, yet resolute and strong in the face of the apparent death of her husband. Jamie Hogarth was excellent as Dusty Miller, balancing friendliness and respect with his Skipper, whilst gently remonstrating with his wife for her uselessness on buses; the embodiment of salt of the earth. Audrey Palmer was delightfully frosty as the proprietor Mrs Oakes, and the ever-reliable Graham Seed was perfect as Swanson, the senior officer who was more of a friend than a superior, yet could command his men effortlessly when needs must.

Audrey PalmerDespite any reservations about the performances, Flight Path still comes across as an engrossing and emotional play, with timeless themes and a huge amount of dignity. Whilst somewhere in the world airmen are still flying bombing raids to attack the enemy, this play will never go away. Congratulations, Sir Terence, your play still rocks! The tour continues throughout the UK until May.

Review – An Audience with Jimmy Savile, Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, 7th July 2015

An Audience with Jimmy SavileLike most people I would imagine, when I first heard that they were producing a play about Jimmy Savile, starring Alistair McGowan, it sounded to me like the height of tastelessness. We’ve all had our individual reactions to the Savile affair, from “I never liked him” and “I always liked him” to “he did all that charity work just to cover up his evil” and “but he did all that charity work, can he be that evil”; from “I never would have believed it” to “I always knew it” and a whole host of other reactions besides.

Park TheatreI also originally thought that taking on the role would be a kiss of death to Alistair McGowan’s career. It would have to be a superbly written and produced play to take the subject matter seriously and creatively enough not to cause any additional offence, and indeed, hopefully, to cast new light on it. Even then I thought there might be some kind of backlash. However, I think it was Mrs Chrisparkle who suggested we should see it because, after all’s said and done, it sounds utterly intriguing. It’s also on at the Park theatre, in Finsbury Park, which we hadn’t yet visited. So we booked.

Alistair McGowanBeing brought up in Wendover, near Aylesbury, Jimmy Savile was a fairly familiar sight in the 70s and 80s in our neck of the woods. He’d often go jogging the couple of miles from Stoke Mandeville to Wendover and back again, although he never came into the pub that my parents ran. After the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle retired, she started volunteering at the Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injuries Centre. As a result she frequently saw him there. I don’t think she had any knowledge of what he was getting up to, and although she found it amusing working side by side with a celebrity, and he used to refer to her as “My friend Violet”, she didn’t like him very much. On one occasion when she felt the supervisors had been hard on her for something she had or hadn’t done – I can’t remember the details – she appealed to him to intervene but he refused to take her side. Sadly the Dowager has suffered from dementia for the last eight years, so she doesn’t know what scandal was going on all around her – I’d have loved to have talked to her about it in light of the recent revelations.

Robert PerkinsLike most people of my age, I grew up with Savile on the radio and TV. I was one of those youngsters who really liked him. I particularly used to look forward to his Double Top Ten Show on Radio 1 on Sunday lunchtimes, and I have no doubt he was a gifted broadcaster. I wasn’t too much enamoured with Jim’ll Fix It – it was ok, but a bit “goody-two-shoes” for my taste. Retrospectively, that’s ironic, isn’t it? By the time he was in his 80s he certainly looked like a parody of himself. He seemed generally grumpier – and vainer – but yes, when he died, I felt a pang of sorrow.

Leah WhitakerI’m dwelling on those memories and personal thoughts because that’s precisely what you have to juggle with when you watch Jonathan Maitland’s Audience with Jimmy Savile. From my side perch in Row A of the circle at the Park 200 (fantastic view by the way) it was equally fascinating to witness the audience’s ongoing reactions to the play as it was to watch the play itself. Savile was, and as a spectre still is, loathsome, evil, calculating, manipulative, cruel, heartless, vicious; in fact, if you think of any adjective with negative overtones, he probably falls into that category. So to watch an audience, watching a play, where a much-loved TV presenter is falling over himself with niceness, to present a tribute programme to that wretch, is fairly strenuous on the nausea reflux. When Savile comes out with quips and jokes, those trademark catchphrases and his avuncular (shudder) approaches to any “young ladies” in the audience, where once they would have been greeted with polite and/or knowing titters, the Park audience watch him in stony silence, arms crossed, mouths rooted in downturned disapproval. As you can imagine, Alistair McGowan’s impersonation of Savile is top notch quality, Charlotte Pagewhich makes his direct looks and asides to the audience even more uncomfortable to deal with. He almost challenges some audience members to react; they don’t; he turns away and carries on with his speech; the audience member feels the heat is off and they smile guiltily to their companions. It’s a fascinating study of an audience under pressure.

Graham SeedAt 85 minutes, with no interval, this play is one of the few instances when I think having no interval is a good thing. You don’t want the audience discussing it amongst themselves half-time and openly deciding how to deal with it; this is challenging, go-it-alone audience territory. The play takes the structure of one of those flattering and adulatory TV endurance tests, “An Audience With….” I’m sure you’ve seen them. An Audience with some ageing star beyond their best but still with a reasonably fond personal following, where they meet old friends and acquaintances, and other stars “in the bizness”, who say hideously nice things about their target. In Jonathan Maitland’s take on this format, as the show (within a show) progresses, you get to realise first-hand that this eccentric, charitable and amusing Sir Jimmy, OBE, is in fact a bully, an abuser of young women, violent in both deed and word, and has dubious friends to say the least. Scenes of this “accolade” show are interspersed with the developing story of Lucy, raped by Savile whilst she was in hospital at the age of 12. You see her battling to convince her father that her allegations are true, approaching a newspaper editor with her story, and his subsequent dealings with Savile; coping with an unwilling police force who are more keen to point out that she will be ripped apart in court than to consider the victim or the crime itself; and finally confronting Savile with the truth about what he did.

Cast in rehearsalI had read reviews before seeing the play that suggested that opinions were divided as to the play itself. Some thought it was challenging and well written, others thought it was completely lacking in drama. Personally, I thought it was oozing with drama from the start. At the beginning you have Savile, in control, in demand, in excelsis almost, contrasted with Lucy, unable to finish sentences without crying. By the end, Lucy is in control, challenging Savile directly, firmly and assertively making her point; whereas we’ve seen Savile decline, both physically and reputatively, through his associations, his dressing-room activities, his argumentative and defensive interviews, and his final visible lack of control. The play is very nicely balanced, cunningly written to reflect Savile’s own cunningly constructed answers to difficult questions, and with a final scene that Mrs C found extremely moving.

Leah Whitaker in rehearsalAt the heart of the play is Alistair McGowan’s performance – a fantastic impersonation, but never played for laughs; this is serious drama and Mr McGowan gives us Savile’s voice saying the kind of things we never heard him say in real life. So this is not mere impersonation but a full characterisation of an evil man, barely concealing his evil from an adoring public. I really enjoyed Mr McGowan’s performance – after the initial shock (for there definitely is one) of seeing Savile almost alive again, I found myself smiling at Mr McGowan’s portrayal of his eccentricities because they are cleverly done and they do bring you back to a time when one used to find Savile funny. I felt as though I ought to stop smiling, in honour of those people whom he abused. But that’s one of the tricky things about challenging drama – you never quite know how you’re going to react until you’re actually confronted with it. In my defence, I also found his portrayal quite disgusting too – the tacky shell suit, the unkempt straggly hair; and there’s a final scene where he’s removed his track suit bottoms and is just in a pair of short shorts, which goes to emphasise the lascivious threat he could pose to anyone weaker than himself. Thoroughly unpleasant – but superbly well done.

Downstairs barLeah Whitaker gives a very strong and heartbreaking performance as Lucy, picking up the pieces of a ruined life, and permanently running aground each time she seems to get closer to justice. I found her compelling and emotional, a very thoughtfully and honestly portrayed representation of a typical Savile victim, if there is such a thing. Robert Perkins was excellent in many of the supporting roles; I particularly liked him as the Newspaper Editor (where he reminded me slightly of Max Clifford, which is bizarre in itself), and as Savile’s slimy pal Ray Teret, lending great credibility to the old saying about how you can judge a person’s character by the company they keep. Charlotte Page also gave great support, especially as Alice, the researcher who’s also the recipient of Savile’s odious attention, D S Goldstein where she tries her hardest to be supportive to Lucy but also has to make her face unwelcome facts; and as Clare, the Stoke Mandeville representative, unctuously blinded by Savile’s celebrity, almost eerily serenading him with a quick blast of the Jim’ll Fix It theme. The final member of the cast is the splendid Graham Seed, as Savile’s TV inquisitor Michael Sterling, more concerned about how he himself will look on camera than posing any really searching questions to Savile.

Upstairs barThere’s no doubt this is an uncomfortable and challenging play to watch, but it really helps you, the audience member, come to terms with how you feel about Savile; and you definitely come out of the theatre with a greater appreciation of the personal tragedies he caused and the way he manipulated the media and society to get what he wanted. Strangely enjoyable, and for all the right reasons. Plus Mrs C and I are delighted to have discovered the Park theatre, and can’t wait for another excuse to go!

Review – The Mousetrap, Milton Keynes Theatre, 28th September 2012

The Mousetrap You know the Mousetrap – it’s been on in the West End since 1952. You may have seen it once, long ago; you wouldn’t dream of going back to see it again, though. Yet when they announced this “first ever UK tour” (not strictly true as it had some regional try-outs fifty years ago), it obviously piqued the nation’s curiosity, as the seats at Milton Keynes, for example, got booked up more or less an in instant. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were certainly very keen to go. She hadn’t seen it before; I saw it with my mum in 1971. The cast then included Carol Marsh (Rose in Brighton Rock) as Mollie, Steve Plytas (Kurt the Fawlty Towers chef who falls in love with Manuel) as Mr Paravicini, Bee Duffell (the Old Woman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who refuses to assist the King in the search for a shrubbery) as Mrs Doyle, and Kevin Sheehan (who sang on my 1967 Music For Pleasure album of Doctor Dolittle) as Sergeant Trotter. I got all their autographs at the Stage Door. Carol Marsh asked my mum and me who we thought dunnit. I remember we all had a very jolly conversation.

Jemma WalkerOf course there are still three members of the original cast alive I believe – Richard Attenborough, who played Trotter, Sheila Sim (his wife) who played Mollie and Jessica Spencer, the original Miss Casewell. John Paul, who played Giles, and who many people will remember from that old BBC TV series Doomwatch, lived near us and used to go out drinking with my dad. So maybe those personal memories account for why I was very keen to see the play again. We are both Agatha Christie fans too – but I’m afraid we’ll never again get Mrs C into a production by the “Agatha Christie Company” – we saw “The Hollow” and she hated it.

Bruno Langley Back to this touring production of The Mousetrap. It was without doubt an evening of highs and lows. The set is 100% faithful to Christie’s original and the costumes and props are 1952 to the Nth degree. The accents are cut glass crystal English genteel except for Paravicini and Trotter, which is more or less how Christie wrote it. So if you were expecting any bold modern adaptations in this production you will be sadly disappointed. If you would prefer time to stand still, you will approve, although I didn’t see the point of the final line of the play, which is an addition that doesn’t appear in my French’s Acting Edition text – I wonder when that was introduced?

Thomas HowesUnfortunately I wasn’t very convinced by the performances of Jemma Walker as Mollie or Bruno Langley as Giles. Miss Walker seemed a little too glamorous to be an industrious wannabe hotelier, and I didn’t believe her growing friendship with Wren – I just didn’t “get” the moment when they suddenly start to get on. I also didn’t really care for her more hysterical moments – they didn’t come across to me as genuine shock and terror, more like a thwarted starlet on the casting couch. As for Mr Langley, he seemed to be doing an impersonation of a rather bumptiously hearty young husband instead of actually being one. It’s quite early on in the tour – which is very extensive – so hopefully they will grow more into the roles in time. The same applies – although not quite so much – to Thomas Howes as Sergeant Trotter. Mrs C found him rather shouty, whereas I found it hard to think of him as anything other than a Downton Abbey footman. I think he was good expressing the character’s quieter, less officious moments – but turned into a Gatling Gun when he was laying down the law and bullying the suspects.

Steven France On the other hand, I thought Steven France as Christopher Wren gave more or less a faultless performance. This must be such a hard part to play. The character’s speeches are incredibly camp and he has to deal with the most awkward, laboured, over-the-top lines, appearing to be both neurotic and “most peculiar” (according to Mrs Boyle). It must be very difficult to play it other than in “outrageously gay” mode. However, Mr France really conveys a filled-out character here – yes, you get the campness but you also get the sense of a disturbed mind, a character both easily threatened and potentially very threatening. I was very impressed with the way he conveyed it.

Clare Wilkie Another excellent performance came from Clare Wilkie as Miss Casewell. Another gay character – interesting in itself for 1952 – physically she captures Christie’s description of a “young woman of a manly type” perfectly without becoming a stereotype, and I really liked her portrayal of the character’s irritation with the world and its inhabitants, especially Mrs Boyle and Sgt Trotter. Without giving any of the game away, there is a moment towards the end of the play when Miss Casewell makes an important realisation – and I thought Miss Wilkie caught that moment really well.

Jan Waters Jan Waters plays Mrs Boyle – she has done so in the past in London too – and it’s a good, thoughtful performance, although she is not how I imagine Mrs Boyle to be. Christie describes her as a large imposing woman in a bad temper – I would see that as a Margaret Rutherford or Maggie Smith creation – but Miss Waters is rather elegant and formally well behaved, and you get the feeling that her sense of her own dignity requires her to keep her annoyance close to her chest rather than letting rip. By contrast, I remember Bee Duffell playing her as a right bitch of a tricky pensioner.

Karl Howman’s Paravicini lacked a little of the camp that I think would make him more like Hercule Poirot (again Christie’s description) but he was quite eerie and disconcerting in his own way, and I think it was a pretty impressive performance. Graham Seed’s Major Metcalf was insufficiently military for my liking – I think he should be more like the Major in Fawlty Towers but with all his marbles. This Metcalf was very nice but rather bland – more like a Customer Services Representative than a Leader Of Men.

Graham SeedThe moments of high tension still work extremely well. The gloved hand that emerges from a side room that turns off the lights and will commit murder is still delightfully creepy, and the moment when the identity of the murderer is revealed still inspires a wave of gasps of incredulity throughout the theatre. As is traditional, at curtain call the murderer asks that the audience keep the secret as to whodunit, and I for one am certainly not going to spoil it for others. As the audience were leaving the auditorium you could sense a general satisfaction with the evening; people were comparing who they thought dunnit with each other; so, for want of a better phrase, it absolutely Does What it Says on the Tin. If you haven’t seen the play before, really it’s a no-brainer; you should see it, simply to broaden your general knowledge. If you have seen it before, there are plenty of things to enjoy about this production, even if, overall, it’s just a little bit creaky for today’s discerning theatregoing public.

I said it was an evening of highs and lows. All the above were highs in comparison with our seats – C18 & 19 in the stalls. I’ve already told you that the Milton Keynes Theatre have created an extra row – Row CC – in front of Row C, and that it looked like it was a recipe for disaster. Well, now I can confirm it. Row C used to have magnificent leg room, and have a nice little rake up from Row B. Now the rake is gone and Row CC appears where your feet should be. The seats in both rows are slightly smaller and fold away discreetly when not in use, but if you’re trying to get past someone sat in Row C, and if the seat in front in Row CC is also occupied, even if the Row C person stands up to let you through, you’ve got precious little chance. You need scaffolding to get across – there is absolutely no room whatsoever. Mrs C found her seat very uncomfortable and also had an atrocious view of the stage. She could tell that the lady in CC in front had an equally, if not worse, view, by the way she was darting her head all over the place every time an actor moved. A large amount of the action of the second act of The Mousetrap takes place seated on the sofa at the front of the stage. Mrs C could see nothing of that. In the end I observed she had given up struggling to watch, preferring to look downwards at her lap and listen to the play as though it were the original Three Blind Mice on the wireless. If, like me, you like to sit Front Stalls, your choices at this theatre are now very limited. Rows AA and BB are too close to the stage and you will need a chiropractor to help you with your neck strain afterwards. Row A is fine. If you can’t get in Row A, my advice is don’t consider any of the next rows till you get to E. In the No Man’s Land in between, it’s cramped, with no rake and thoroughly disappointing. What was once an auditorium to look forward to is now an auditorium to dread. How sad.