The Agatha Christie Challenge – Poirot Investigates (1924)

Poirot InvestigatesIn which Poirot and Hastings set about solving eleven cases, from Egypt to Brighton, through the medium of the short story. As the first of her books not to be in full novel format, it has a very different feel from those previously published. In one respect, it’s punchier, as Poirot has to waste no time getting to the crux of the matter; in another respect it’s also less rewarding as there is no time for character or plot development. The stories had all been originally published between March and October 1923 in The Sketch magazine, at the invitation of the editor, Bruce Ingram, who had become a Poirot fan with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. So when Poirot Investigates hit the bookshops in March 1924, it brought these stories to a wider audience, although I expect some of her readers might have been disappointed not to be getting a brand new novel. Even though they’re just bite-sized stories, they still contain many of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies. I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately – and don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!

The Adventure of “The Western Star”

Western StarThe first story in the book, although the third to be published in The Sketch; a tale of apparent jewellery theft that, of course, isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. The “Western Star” – the jewel in question – is insured for a sum of £50,000. That’s a helluva lot of jewel – at today’s prices, over £2million. We get to see Poirot and Hastings in their domestic bliss, and confirming their roles within their professional relationship. Hastings is definitely the Watson character, although he aspires to be the Holmes, as can be seen with his opening challenge to Poirot to explain the mystery of why a fashionable young lady is being stalked and pointed at by all and sundry. Poirot knows the reason immediately, and then has to explain it to Hastings, who confesses that his lack of perception is feeble. Another little insight into their relationship comes with the discovery of their guilty secret – that they buy and read Society Gossip magazine. It makes sense – Poirot was becoming quite a celebrity, and he would definitely want to know who’s dating who and who’s cheating who. Poirot gets irked when Hastings replaces a book from the great man’s bookcase in the wrong place – definitely showing signs of OCD. And of course, when Poirot finally solves the case of the Western Star, and Hastings is up a gum tree without a paddle, Poirot cannot help but tease Hastings for his detective uselessness; at which Hastings goes off in a sulky huff, having been made a laughing stock. As I said, domestic bliss.

The story does reveal some psychological insights about how women tick; even though there is some suspicion that her valuable jewel will be stolen, Miss Marvell is still determined to wear it when she visits Yardly Chase – because her husband used to have a dalliance with Lady Yardly, (a friend of Mary Cavendish at Styles – some nice inter-connection there between Christie’s books) and there’s no way the actress is going there without showing off her prize possession. And Poirot solves the case by observing that “never does a woman destroy a letter” – and I reckon that’s pretty damn true.

I always enjoy considering Christie’s use of language. Semantic change is a fascinating thing – and Hastings’ first words in the book are a perfect example: ““That’s queer”, I ejaculated suddenly”. Christie was always enormously fond of the “e” word, and it can give rise to innocent humour today. Elsewhere in this story you can find: “…he stiffened visibly. With an ejaculation, he handed it to his wife”.

The other common Christie theme that’s very much in force in this story is mistrust of foreigners, combined with what might be considered today some racist language. It’s hard to discuss this without at least quoting the words that Christie uses, so I hope you’ll forgive me for some of the language in the rest of this paragraph. All the way through the story there is a mysterious presence of a Chinese man; referred to as a Chinaman, and even, at times, as a Chink. It is this man who appears to be the thief, thus equating antisocial behaviour with the racial slur. To enforce the stereotype, he wears a traditional Chinese robe; Lady Yardly describes him thus: “I realised by the pig-tail and the embroidered robe that he was a Chinaman”. Possibly most offensive of all is this quote by Rolf: “I’ve been getting threatening letters from a Chinaman, and the worst of it is I look rather like a Chink myself – it’s something about the eyes”.

And what of the story itself? It’s quite ingenious, and entertainingly written, and I certainly didn’t guess the whodunit element. But overall, not particularly memorable.

The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor

tragedyOnce again we have a crime that features an insurance figure of £50,000 – this time life insurance on one Mr Maltravers, who, a few weeks after insuring himself for that sum, was found shot by a rook rifle – a single-shot rifle that went out of favour after World War II. Obviously in the 1920s, shooting rooks was a decent hobby for a decent guy. The insurance company calls on Poirot to investigate and determine whether it could be suicide – because that would invalidate the claim.

Once again Poirot has the opportunity to tease Hastings about his predilection for the ladies. “”Your judgments of character are always profound, my friend…that is to say, when there is no question of a beautiful woman!” I looked at him coldly.” And there’s a typical Poirot tantaliser when he reflects on a witness’s statement and observes “a slight discrepancy… You noticed it? You did not?” and then he refuses to tell us what the discrepancy is.

There’s a little observation that gives us an idea of how to judge wealth back in those days. Poirot asks Dr Bernard if he considered the deceased to be a rich man; his response: “Was he not? He kept two cars you know”. I’m not sure owning a couple of Clios would categorise you as rich today.

It’s quite a strange tale in many respects, going off on a couple of slightly weird tangents. There’s a scene where Poirot interrogates Captain Black (watch out Captain Scarlet) that takes the form of a word association game. Now I don’t know a lot about psychoanalysis, but it seems to me that from this he makes some pretty conclusive deductions out of relative thin air. Naturally, being Poirot, he’s right. Later on, the story turns all ghostly and demonic, with eerie taps at the window and the bloody vision of the late Mr Maltravers dripping all over the place. Still, it prompts a successful confession, and of course, as always, nothing is quite as it seems. More Grand Guignol than little grey cells. Decidedly far-fetched.

The Adventure of the Cheap Flat

cheap flatHuman nature doesn’t change, and it’s interesting to see that the hot topic of conversation at a swanky dinner party in 1923 is the same as it is today – house prices. Hastings’ friend Parker has made a nice little business out of buying property and then selling it for a profit a short while later. So everyone is astonished to hear of the Robinsons’ find – a drop-dead gorgeous flat at Montagu Mansions, just off Knightsbridge, for just £80 a year – that’s under £3400 at today’s value, which probably wouldn’t be enough for a week’s rent nowadays. There’s got to be a reason why it’s so cheap and that no one else has offered on it – but what? That’s the problem Poirot challenges himself to solve.

There really is a Montagu Mansions in London – but it’s in Marylebone, not Knightsbridge, Christie rarely happy to pin down a real location so precisely in her fiction. She’s much happier to target Hastings for his fancyings for beautiful women – incidentally, Cinderella from The Murder on the Links doesn’t seem to feature in Hastings’ life at the moment so he’s either gone off her, Christie’s forgotten about her, or these stories were published out of synch. When describing Mrs Robinson to Poirot: ”well, she’s tall and fair; her hair’s really a beautiful shade of auburn – “ “Always you have had a penchant for auburn hair!”

We’ve seen before how Hastings gets narked when anyone criticises British traditions and influences, but he lets Poirot get away with this particular observation of a British Sunday afternoon: “No one will observe us. The Sunday concert, the Sunday “afternoon out”, and finally the Sunday nap after the Sunday dinner of England – le rosbif – all these will distract attention from the doings of Hercule Poirot.”

For someone as personally finickity as Poirot, I thought it was a little unlikely that he could turn his hand so readily to a spot of DIY carpentry on the door and locks to the coal-lift without as much as a brushing down of his jacket or a manicure – but I guess that’s the difference between fiction and a documentary.

“By the way, Hastings, have you a revolver?” “Yes – somewhere, “ I answered, slightly thrilled. “Do you think – “ “That you will need it? It is quite possible. The idea pleases you, I see. Always the spectacular and romantic appeals to you”. I’m not sure about “spectacular and romantic”, but this lackadaisical approach to gun regulation sounds scary. But back in 1923, the fact that Hastings would have had a gun – particularly as he had been active in the First World War – would not have been unusual. The most recent legislation at the time, the 1920 Firearms Act, would not have affected Hastings’ gun ownership in any way. He probably would have been perfectly legal until the post-Dunblane massacre legislation.

We’ve already seen Christie’s capacity to indulge in a little latent racism in The Adventure of the Western Star. Now she turns her attention to talk of “Japs”, which, to be fair, didn’t really become offensive until after the Second World War, but it still stands out when you read it today. The story includes the theft of naval plans from the American government, that showed the position of important Harbour defences – and interestingly, Hastings/Christie assumes that the Japanese might be involved in the crime. And I couldn’t decide whether it was hilarious, or racist, or both, when our brave detectives encounter an Italian, to whom the writer gives these cod-spaghetti lines: “Who was it dat croaked Luigi Valdarno?…. Youse sure o’ dat, eh?” I think she’s playing at gangsters here.

The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge

FluPoirot is struck down by the flu – which, as it’s very easy to forget, was quite a killer in those days – and so it is left to Hastings to travel up to Derbyshire to attempt to solve the murder of one Mr Harrington Pace, accompanied by Mr Pace’s nephew. Poirot requires Hastings to report back by telegram what he has discovered so that the great detective’s little grey cells can go to work in absentia and tell Hastings what he should do next. Today they would have Facetimed. Inspector Japp is also up in Derbyshire, and isn’t entirely complimentary about Hastings’ attempt to go it alone: “What have you done with the little man, by the way, Captain Hastings?” “He’s ill in bed with influenza.” “Is he now? I’m sorry to hear that. Rather the case of the cart without the horse, your being here without him, isn’t it?”

Not only is Poirot now recognised as a fiendishly brilliant detective, he is also a celebrity, with a paragraph about his sniffles in Society Gossip magazine, which already played a part in the first of these short stories. Hastings appears supportive of his friend’s success but his nose is quite easily put out of joint. After a hard day’s interrogating and sleuthing, he wires back his discoveries, only to be ridiculed for his deductions and photographic endeavours. “His request for a description of the clothes worn by the two women appeared to me to be simply ridiculous, but I complied as well as I, a mere man, was able to.” He’s definitely comparing himself unfavourably with the boss.

A couple of interesting references that need to be checked out:

Of Lady Havering, Hastings observes: “I rather fancy that’s the girl who used to act at the Frivolity”. The Frivolity Theatre – did it exist? I can find references to Frivolity theatres in Berlin and Boston but not in London. I don’t think it was an actual theatre – but it may have been a turn of the century burlesque-style company, a way of legitimising some Edwardian semi-nudity. Naughty Hastings.

“The wicked flourish like a green bay tree”, Hastings tells Poirot, when it appears the guilty party in this crime will not be brought to book. Hastings here is mixing his Psalms. Psalm 92 says: “the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree”; and the opposite is found in Psalm 37: “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree”.

I like Christie’s slight irony in Hastings’ account of his go-it-alone investigations: “I may as well confess at once that they were rather disappointing. In detective novels clues abound, but here I could find nothing that struck me as out of the ordinary…..”

And what is this meant to mean: “Harrington Pace was a small, spare, clean-shaven man, typically American in appearance”. If I think of “typically American” in appearance, I think of Yosemite Sam.

An enjoyable little story, with a rather ghoulish moral conclusion – and it’s fun to watch Poirot playing puppet-master whilst his minion goes off and does his work for him.

The Million Dollar Bond Robbery

Million DollarsA million dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds goes missing on board the Olympia from London to New York, while under the hapless observation of young Philip Ridgeway, whose fiancée seeks help from old Papa Poirot to prove his innocence. Of course all is not quite as it seems and Poirot is easily able to solve the mystery of how the bonds were traded a mere half hour after the Olympia docked. If you’re interested, a million American dollars in 1923 is worth over £9m today, so that’s quite a haul.

So what were Liberty Bonds? According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, “a Liberty Bond was a war bond that was sold in the United States to support the allied cause in World War I. Subscribing to the bonds became a symbol of patriotic duty in the United States and introduced the idea of financial securities to many citizens for the first time. The Act of Congress which authorized the Liberty Bonds is still used today as the authority under which all U.S. Treasury bonds are issued”. So now you know. What does seem today delightfully antiquated is the way you physically had to pick them up and carry them – it does seem an amazingly old fashioned way of moving money around. But there was no electronic banking in 1923, so I guess they had no choice. Christie goes into lots of detail about the special lock on the portmanteau that was made by Hubbs – I’ve not been able to find out much about the company, or indeed if it was real or a Christie invention.

The London and Scottish Bank certainly existed – right up to 2008 when it went into administration as a result of all that subprime lending. And the Cheshire Cheese, where Poirot and Hastings have lunch with Ridgeway and the fiancée, still exists too, on Fleet Street, almost five hundred years after it was built. But the Laverguier method of combatting seasickness? A reference to which is also found in The Kidnapped Prime Minister? Pure fiction, I think.

Once again we get a nice little exchange between the detectives, showing the nature of their friendship: ““Good Lord, Poirot! Do you know, I’d give a considerable sum of money to see you make a thorough ass of yourself – just for once. You’re so confoundedly conceited!” “Do not enrage yourself, Hastings. In verity, I observe that there are times when you almost detest me! Alas, I suffer the penalties of greatness!” The little man puffed out his chest, and sighed so comically that I was forced to laugh.”

As for the story itself, it’s rather fun, with an exciting and ingenious denouement considering it’s just a short story, and I appreciated its sudden and jokey ending.

The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb

MummyThis was Christie’s first foray into writing about Egypt, ancient or modern; a country that would play a significant part in both her fiction and her home life. Her first visit to Egypt was when she was in her early 20s, with her mother, staying at the Gezirah Palace (now, apparently, part of the Marriott) in Cairo. Do we believe those old stories which suggested that there was a curse put on all those explorers who opened up the tombs of the Egyptian kings? This story has no fewer than four deaths before Poirot works out what’s going on. That’s one helluva curse for a short story.

I had presumed that King Men-her-Ra was a fictitious invention of Christie’s, describing him as she does: “one of those shadowy kinds of the Eighth Dynasty”. But he is in fact mentioned in W M Flinders Petrie’s book Scarabs and Cylinders with Names, published in 1917, described as a vassal chief under the overlordship of the Ethiopians. I rather hope she got the name from there.

Visiting Egypt is pure hell for Poirot. ““My boots”, he wailed. “Regard them, Hastings. My boots, of the neat patent leather, usually so smart and shining. See, the sand is inside them, which is painful, and outside them, which outrages the eyesight. Also the heat, it causes my moustaches to become limp – but limp!” “Look at the Sphinx,” I urged. “Even I can feel the mystery and the charm it exhales.” Poirot looked at it discontentedly. “It has not the air happy,” he declared.” Poirot and Hastings check in to the Mena House Hotel, “right in the shadow of the Pyramids”. Having stayed in the very same hotel myself in 2010, I can confirm the view of the Pyramids from one’s balcony is stunning. Pyramids from our hotel room

Lady Willard refers to Hassan as “my husband’s devoted native servant”. The sentence looks a little outdated today, and has an element of being patronising, but I don’t think there’s anything more than that. Later, we are treated to a little Christie homespun nugget of how the Brits and the Egyptians rub along together: ““I guess,” said Dr Ames, “that where white folk lose their heads, natives aren’t going to be far behind.”” That’s what my Australian brother in law would call colonial imperialism. Christie’s better when she’s expressing Poirot’s philosophy of crime. In this story he proclaims: “I will tell you an interesting psychological fact, Hastings. A murderer has always a strong desire to repeat his successful crime, the performance of it grows upon him.” That’s certainly a philosophy that Christie took to her heart as she developed as a crime novelist.

There’s a nice little hint of poison in this story – when questioning the doctor about what caused the deaths of the deceased, Poirot asks if strychnine could have been involved. The early Christie seems quite obsessed with strychnine. Later, a smell of bitter almonds pervades the air, which can only mean one thing in Christieland – cyanide.

Lastly I was a little surprised by some of Captain Hastings’ observations in this story. I was wondering if he was on the turn, as Julian Clary would put it. “We were to ride there on camels, and the beasts were patiently kneeling, waiting for us to mount, in charge of several picturesque boys…” Then Hastings meets Dr Toswill: “there was something at once grave and steadfast about him that took my fancy.” I expect it was just a passing phase.

Another enjoyable story, packed with deaths, which is always an advantage in a detective yarn, and I certainly didn’t guess whodunit.

The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan

jewel-robbery1When the Poirot Investigates stories were originally published in The Sketch, sequentially this was the first one to hit the press, on 14th March 1923; however, it was published under the title The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls. A jewellery theft from a posh hotel room safe is no problem for Poirot, who solves the case with consummate ease and not a little entrapment.

There’s an enjoyable sense of “smoke and mirrors” surrounding the crime, and as you read it you realise that Christie is pulling the wool over your eyes and there’s nothing you can do to stop her.

As in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hastings draws us a useful sketch of the crime scene. It adds to Hastings’ air of forensic derring-do, but is only minimally helpful in assisting the reader’s sleuthing.

I rather liked Christie’s description of Hastings’ average day. He has a pretty wonderful life. “I went out for a stroll, met some old friends, and lunched with them at their hotel. In the afternoon we went out for a spin.” That work he was doing for the MP in The Murder on the Links certainly seems to have taken a back seat. There’s also a nice description of Hastings’ being rather awkwardly British when confronted with Poirot’s continental shows of emotion. “”Embrace me, my friend; all has marched to a marvel!” Luckily, the embrace was merely figurative – not a thing one is always sure of with Poirot.” I’m guessing the “gay throng” he found himself in down in Brighton (where the Grand Metropolitan had its home) was not quite the same as that which he might find today. Currently (and indeed in 1923) there is no Grand Metropolitan Hotel in Brighton – but there is a Grand Metropole. I daresay it was the inspiration.

The Kidnapped Prime Minister

kidnappedThe early Christie was never one to shy away from scandal in the Affairs of State, with espionage and high ranking civil servants and politicians frequently taking an important role. Perhaps none more obviously so than in this short story, where the PM is kidnapped on his way to a wartime peace conference in Versailles. The investigations take place on both sides of the Channel, but when Poirot gets to Boulogne he merely sits in his hotel room and exercises the little grey cells. He could have done that in England and saved a packet.

This story takes us back to the last few weeks of the First World War, and Hastings relates the events as a kind of retrospective. The PM is one David McAdam – in real life it was David Lloyd George, Christie keeping the same first name but changing him from Welsh to (presumably) Scottish. Hastings describes himself as having a recruiting job when he was invalided out of the army, but there’s no mention of that in The Mysterious Affair at Styles – which, admittedly, would have taken place earlier than the kidnapping of the Prime Minister. But I do sense a little inconsistency with Christie’s attempts to fill in the back-stories of her protagonists.

There is something a little odd about the style of writing in this story; it is as though it was written much earlier. Japp is introduced like it was the first time that Christie had involved him in a story. Descriptions of Poirot as a dandy again suggest that we had no prior knowledge of his appearance or traits. There’s also something simplistic about the plot, which relies on the fact that no one would recognise the Prime Minister if he were in hospital, which is pretty unlikely. Christie also refers to the Laverguier method of controlling sea sickness again (see The Million Dollar Bond Robbery), which is a repetition that stands out as being accidental rather than deliberate. There’s even use of that very old fashioned device of giving a proper noun by reference only to its capital letter: “The have found the second car, also the secretary, Daniels, chloroformed, gagged and bound in an abandoned farm near C____.” These all add to a sense of detachment and distancing. There’s no denying Christie’s innate snobbery though, amusingly encapsulated in a conversation between Poirot and Hastings about his current, rather drab, case: “I assist a – how do you call it? – ‘charlady’ to find her husband. A difficult affair, needing the tact. For I have a little idea that when he is found he will not be pleased. What would you? For my part, I sympathise with him. He was a man of discrimination to lose himself.”

As this story is set in wartime, which was only a few years prior to publication, there are a few hints of Christie’s long memory of recrimination against the country’s erstwhile foe. There’s talk of “German agents in England” and mention of “Les Boches”, and Poirot uncovers a German spy as a by-product of solving the case, which is doubly satisfying.

And there’s a nice little out-of-place line to snigger about: “”A near escape,” I ejaculated, with a shiver.” Is this the source of T S Eliot’s “a cold coming we had of it”? No I don’t think so either.

The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim

BankerA neat, intriguing and clever little case which Poirot solves as a £5 bet with Japp – that’s the equivalent of some two hundred quid today, so no laughing matter. A banker – the eponymous Mr Davenheim – goes missing at the same time that he is expecting a visit from a Mr Lowen, only for the police to discover that Davenheim’s safe has been emptied of all its wealthy contents whilst Lowen was in the room. An open and shut case? Of course not.

Like The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, the challenge for Poirot is to solve this case sight unseen. Japp allows himself to be lulled into a false sense of security by Poirot’s apparently flawed reasoning: “The detective shook his head sadly at me, and murmuring, “Poor old fellow! War’s been too much for him!” gently withdrew from the room.” Poirot of course is razor sharp, belittling Hastings’ ability properly to pick apart a case, and cashing in on Japp’s misfortune with faux regret as he looks forward to a grand dinner paid for by the fiver to celebrate.

There were elements of this story that brought to mind that old TV favourite, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – a man goes missing, they find his clothes, and so on. With the benefit of hindsight, the story has probably gained significance in regard to society’s view of bankers – plus ça change… It’s very tightly written and with a lot of humour as well as intricate plotting. A petty criminal is referred to as a “human derelict”, a description that pulls no punches when it comes to assessing moral turpitude. Japp also describes Mrs Davenheim as “a pleasant, rather unintelligent woman. Quite a nonentity, I think.” Pity, she spoke so highly of him.

The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman

Italian NoblemanPoirot and Hastings are entertaining their neighbour, Dr Hawker (who, like Parker in The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, never reappears in any other stories), when the doctor’s housekeeper arrives with the news that one of his patients, Count Foscatini, has been on the phone, crying out for help. When the three of them arrive at Foscatini’s flat, the Italian Nobleman is dead, with his skull smashed in by a marble ornament, and all around are the remnants of a dinner party for three. A classic whodunit set up, instantly intriguing, a most enjoyable read; and of course, Poirot sees through the artifice to uncover the truth.

There’s a nice brief conversation between Poirot, Hastings and the lift attendant at Regent’s Court, where Foscatini lived: “”Is the count alone in the flat?” “No sir, he’s got two gentlemen dining with him.” “What are they like?” I asked eagerly [….] “I didn’t see them myself, sir, but I understand that they were foreign gentlemen.”” Foreign gentlemen, in Christie-speak, is laden with overtones of suspicion and mistrust.

Parts of this story reminded me of the episode of The Vicar of Dibley when Geraldine overcommits and ends up eating several Christmas lunches. Read it, and you’ll get my meaning. This is another cracking little nugget of a tale, with huge power in its brevity; thirteen pages in all, and halfway down the twelfth page I still hadn’t worked out whodunit or how.

The Case of the Missing Will

WillAnd we finally come to the last of these short stories; not a crime as such but a puzzle. Sadly, for me this is the least interesting of the whole collection as far as the little grey cells are concerned. Uncle Andrew had fixed views about how women should behave – and reading improving books and making their way in the world were not among them. So he basically disinherited his niece Violet unless she could find his missing will within one month of his death. She calls in Poirot to do the thinking for her, which Poirot sees as showing enormous wisdom; and of course, he does find another will that reverts Uncle’s possessions back to her.

It is interesting in other ways though. Christie takes the whole “women are for breeding and cooking” thing and criticises it implicitly and explicitly throughout the story, by making the heroine, Violet, a rather attractive and spirited girl, and having her disconcert Hastings because of his natural disaffection for “modern women”. It also shows a very different light towards charity from that which we see today. Mrs Baker, Uncle Andrew’s housekeeper, opines: “Us don’t want to see Miss Violet done out of what’s hers,” declared the woman. “Cruel hard ‘twould be for hospitals to get it all”. But then today I guess the hospitals need it more than they did in those days. That Devonian drawl of the Bakers is a bit over the top though. Made me think of Edgar in King Lear: “Chill pick your teeth, zir.”

Hastings thinks Mr Baker is lying when Poirot asks him to confirm it was Uncle Andrew’s writing on the envelope attached to the desk key. This isn’t properly resolved in the denouement, and I feel the plotting on this story is not as perfect as it should be.

The Man in the Brown SuitSo there we are at the end of this rather exhaustive look back at what originally looked like an easy book to write about! Thanks for sticking with me, if you did. Fortunately the next book in the Agatha Christie challenge goes back to the novel format, The Man in the Brown Suit. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

Review – Rebecca, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th November 2015

RebeccaNot for the first time I have to start with a confession – once again, gentle reader, I confess I have never read Rebecca, nor seen the film, nor seen any kind of adaptation; and nor has Mrs Chrisparkle. Several years ago, the Dowager Mrs C was dismayed at this discovery and bought us the paperback to rectify this omission; but neither of us got round to reading it, and it has long ago gone on to a charity shop somewhere. So I thought this new production by Kneehigh was an excellent opportunity to fill this gap in my knowledge – and it would have been for Mrs C too, had she not been called away on urgent business in Italy; so last night was a case of Cornish mystery for one.

Tristan SturrockI have, however, taken the opportunity to read some synopses of the book, fully digested its Wikipedia presence, and taken a look at a students’ crib notes website, and I think I’ve got the measure of it. On which topic, I’ve never seen so many schoolchildren at a theatre, as last night. “Schoolchildren” is probably the wrong word, as I’m sure they were all studying the book for A level. But I would estimate about 60-70% of the (full house) audience were youngsters – evidenced by the ear-threatening levels of noise in the foyers, and the fact that the bars were empty but the queues for ice cream and frozen yogurt almost encircled the building.

Mrs de Winter in that dressAs I had no real knowledge of the book, I didn’t really research the production in advance, but I had no particular reason to suspect it wasn’t a straightforward adaptation of the original. Wrong! Even from my position of ignorance, I was pretty sure that Daphne du Maurier hadn’t included camp Vaudevillian song and dance in her book. Ten minutes in, and I was sighing with disappointment. It brought back to mind the self-indulgent and clever-clever excesses of The Secret Adversary earlier in the year, which I know some friends loved but we found tedious. I guess I was particularly disappointed because I knew this meant I wasn’t going to get the full picture of what the book is about, just some modern interpretation of aspects of it.

Mr and Mrs de WinterHowever, the positive effect of all this side-frilling was to emphasise the serious nature of the protagonists, and that created a huge impact on the proper storyline. Mrs de Winter, Maxim and Mrs Danvers all really stand out as strong characters facing harsh reality; and it’s that juxtaposition of seriousness and frivolity that gives the production its power. The second act in particular was charged with suspense – from the appearance of the coastguard onwards I was riveted to see how it would resolve itself. The first act “dress” scene – even without knowing the story I could see where this was heading – was also very exciting and dramatic, although surely it wasn’t the same dress as Mrs Danvers showed Mrs de Winter earlier on? It looked very different. Minor matter. But I really could have done without all the slapstick running around, and I thought the character of Robert the footman (based on Stan Laurel, maybe?), though executed with humour and agility, made me cringe with embarrassment throughout.

Imogen SageThis is another of those on-trend productions that has some of the cast playing instruments on stage; to its credit, I thought the majority of the live music was really effective and atmospheric (and in particular, beautifully sung), but on the downside, at times, the tension-inducing background music overpowered the conversation on stage. But I really enjoyed Simon Baker’s original sea shanties that gave a true sense of 1930s smugglers’ coves. Leslie Travers’ set manages to encorporate Manderley, the sea, and the old boat house, with very effective compactness. Emma Rice’s adaptation has, I think (from my position of ignorance) done a lot of cutting, and it was only in retrospect – after reading the synopsis of the novel – that I realised that a fire was involved. Maybe I was being dense, or maybe something about the adaptation didn’t make it quite obvious enough. And, linguistically, it definitely takes some liberties. I’m sure Daphne du Maurier didn’t use the F word. It was funny, but so out of place.

Imogen Sage and Tristan SturrockThe production features some terrific performances. I thought Imogen Sage as Mrs de Winter was outstanding. Wide eyed and desperately hoping to be accepted by the household, she is the perfect fish out of water; a picture of innocence in a world of secrets. Her loss of confidence and subsequent growth in influence is beautifully portrayed; and, unsurprisingly, her appearance in “the dress” encouraged some barely concealed gasps of admiration from the audience. Tristan Sturrock is an excellent Maxim, born to a world of wealth and seemingly at home in Manderley, very effective with his anger management issues and very believable when it appears his world is going to come tumbling down. Maybe most impressive of all, Emily Raymond makes a most disturbing Mrs Danvers, silently appearing out of nowhere like a ghost, her face set in rigid determination, her involvement with the late Rebecca too close for comfort. You really wouldn’t want her in your life.

Imogen Sage and Emily RaymondI enjoyed Ewan Wardrop’s sleazeball interpretation of the role of Jack Favell – we saw him in Matthew Bourne’s Car Man fifteen years ago – his acting career certainly answers the question of what do you do when you can no longer dance – and his singing voice is top quality too. Andy Williams is a fine, authoritative Coastguard who dominates the proceedings when investigating Rebecca’s death. He doubles up as Giles, Maxim’s brother-in-law; a spirited performance but I found the whole Giles and Beatrice act just a little too pantomime for my taste.

Emily RaymondSo despite my problems with the vision for this production, I enjoyed it. When it takes the story seriously it’s extremely tense and effective, and the musical interludes are for the most part genuinely stirring. As for the light-hearted moments – well, I must be getting less flippant in my old age! After Northampton, there are just a few more venues on the tour – Oxford, Sheffield and Southampton. Worth seeing for the storytelling – but not for the purist!

Production photos by Steve Tanner

Review – Alexander Shelley Conducts From Paris to New York, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 8th November 2015

From Paris to New YorkThe first of this season’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concerts kicked off with a fascinating and beautifully balanced programme of American and Russian music under the title of “From Paris to New York”. The New York connection is fairly obvious for the works of Gershwin and Bernstein, but why Paris? Well, apparently both Prokofiev and Stravinsky worked with Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, both composers lived in Paris, and many of their works were premiered in there. Our conductor for the evening was Alexander Shelley, whom we’ve seen three times here over the last few years; a reassuringly communicative and friendly chap who gets the best out of the orchestra whilst retaining a dignified stature and not going crazy at the podium.

We started off with Gershwin’s Strike Up The Band overture. It’s a rarely performed musical – a political satire, where America declares war on Switzerland because of a disputed tariff on Swiss cheese. The American public has never cared for self-ridicule or questioning patriotism in its musicals, and despite its score and lyrics, it didn’t go down well. The overture gives you a wonderful taste of what a good musical it probably was. With its instantly appealing military-style drums and whistles, its effect is to mix up all the best show tunes with some Yankee Doodle Dandy. The result is a very stirring piece that makes you jiggle around in your seat, and the RPO were obviously going to be on fine form.

Whilst the Grand Piano was being moved into position, Mr Shelley gave us some introductory background to the first couple of pieces – and it’s absolutely the best way to take your mind off the piano-shifters; it’s such a shame that these practicalities can’t somehow be taken care of more unobtrusively. And it’s a lovely new piano too, by the looks of it. With each half of the concert structured as American-Russian-American, it was time for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3, with our soloist, Boris Giltburg, himself born in Moscow. I’ve heard many of Prokofiev’s compositions over the years and he’s among my absolute favourite composers; but this Piano Concerto was new to me. It’s a challenging piece! Complicated and stunning at the same time, I particularly liked the second movement which takes the form of a theme and variations; a wonderful seething mass of creativity.

Boris GiltburgMr Giltburg is a pianist of immense style. From my vantage point in Row H of the stalls, you get a first rate view of the pianist’s hands, and my word Mr Giltburg’s were working like the clappers. Much of the music is exceptionally fast-moving, and his hands had to play industrial leapfrog to get every note reached. His technical accuracy was extraordinary; and he adopts an interesting posture whilst playing – quite upright, but bouncing his bottom up and down on the stool when things get lively, like he was taking his horse over some rough ground. The sound he produces is superb – strong, passionate, full of Prokofiev-like spikiness and unpredictability.

Mr Giltburg returned for the last piece before the interval, Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm Variations. A fascinating contrast with the concerto before, we returned to the showbizzy jazz hands New York element, giving the orchestra another opportunity to sing out some stunning arrangements, and for Mr Giltburg to show us his more emotional and expressive side. Another really entertaining performance. I was impressed to find out that Mr Giltsburg writes a blog – and it’s much more erudite than mine.

Alexander ShelleyAfter the interval, it was time for Bernstein’s West Side Story: Symphonic Dances. Confession time, and I know it can get me thrown out of the Musicals Appreciation Club, but I’ve always found West Side Story a bit overrated. I know it has a massively significant place in the history of the musical – but as a show, and as a score, it doesn’t quite do it for me. However, it was wonderful to hear this symphonic arrangement. Nine movements take some of the show’s best tunes and either give each one a stunning orchestral interpretation, or use them as the basis for some off-kilter and quirky variations. Any orchestral performance which includes the conductor and musicians clicking their fingers, or occasionally shouting “Mambo!” can’t be all bad. There were wonderful changes of mood, too, with some movements really vivid and lively, where all the instruments have to dash out notes faster than you could say “A boy like that could kill your brother”; others were more languid and mellow. I especially enjoyed the cha-cha interpretation of the classic song Maria. Overall the tunes mingle so beautifully together; I much preferred hearing them this way. I also loved John Alley’s celeste contributions to this piece – they fitted in so well.

Back to the Russians, for Stravinsky’s Suite for Small Orchestra No 2. Mr Shelley described this little entertainment as the equivalent of a musical amuse bouche. Four short dances, full of hilarious phrasing and boisterous arrangements, assembled together to form an irresistible confection. Great fun, although perhaps slightly frustrating too, as you kind of want to hear some of these musical ideas developed a bit further. But it couldn’t help but entertain and make you smile.

RPOThe final piece, and the one that acted as a unifying theme for the entire evening, was Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Again we’re back to that Gershwinian swing sound, full of lush orchestrations that the RPO could really get their teeth into. More celeste, and even some taxi horns created a convincing musical representation of the French capital, and you can easily imagine this American guy walking around, bringing his home influences with him as he culture-clashes with the more elegant Gallic atmosphere. I’m not as fond of this music as I am Rhapsody in Blue, but nevertheless it was still a very entertaining way to wrap up the concert.

Always a privilege to see the Royal Philharmonic perform, and when they put together such a varied and exciting programme as this, it makes me very grateful I live so close to the theatre. They’re back in February – you should come too!

Review – Suffragette, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 2nd November 2015

SuffragetteOne of the subjects that could really get the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s passion aroused was the Suffragette movement. She was proud that universal suffrage was introduced in the UK during her lifetime – she was 7 years old in 1928, when women finally received the same voting rights as men – and she would love to tell tales of knowing of women who had chained themselves to railings, and had huge admiration for Emily Davison, who threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby. She would have been riveted by the film Suffragette, as it starkly shows the struggles of those women to get their voices heard by committing acts of civil disobedience.

Carey MulliganPart fact, part fiction, it follows the life of Maud Watts, married with one son, working hard, long hours in a laundry sweatshop, with a bullying, advantage-taking boss, and who almost accidentally gets caught up in the suffragette movement as she works alongside some of the more active members. As she starts attending meetings, she offers to accompany her colleague Violet Miller to the House of Commons, who was to address a committee of MPs, including the Prime Minister himself, Lloyd George. But circumstances dictate that it is Maud who must give her own account of why women should get the vote – and when cabinet nevertheless decides against extending the vote, her sense of resentment increases and she becomes much more personally involved. Maud, Violet, the pharmacist Edith Ellyn, all fictional characters, as well as the real life Emily Davison, all exert what influence they can to change the law, resulting in trials, imprisonment, verbal and physical abuse from both inside and outside the penal institutions, hunger strikes, and forced feeding. Maud additionally has her private life torn apart by her actions, and the film culminates in Emily Davison’s ultimate sacrifice.

Anne Marie Duff and Carey MulliganIt’s a very strong and moving film; it’s also very dark, both literally and metaphorically. There are some scenes of brutality against the women which make difficult viewing, but as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, they are fully relevant to the film, and today’s audience shouldn’t be blind to the physical attacks the suffragettes incurred. Personally, I was very surprised at the level of antipathy and hostility expressed towards the suffragettes by the average man (and plenty of average women) on the street. You wouldn’t have thought that everyone was against them – although that’s certainly how it seems in this film. Considering that after Emily Davison’s death they announced that thousands would be lining the streets for her funeral procession, Meryl Streepyou might have expect someone to have said to Sonny Watts, “she’s alright, your wife” and not just “your wife’s a disgrace”. But then, as once again the wise Mrs C pointed out, it sometimes takes something really visible and tangible to change public opinion, like the picture of the little Syrian boy washed up on the shore seemed to wake people up to the current refugee crisis, even though he was just one of thousands. So no doubt the Derby tragedy alerted many more people to the personal sacrifices women were making.

Helena Bonham CarterThe film garners some excellent performances all round. Carey Mulligan is brillliant as Maud, growing in self-confidence throughout the film but desperate in her domestic sadness and in her battle to keep in contact with her son. Helena Bonham-Carter – herself the great-granddaughter of Asquith, the Prime Minister during much of the time when the suffragettes were campaigning – is excellent as the hard-working Edith Ellyn, hosting meetings, and fearlessly getting her hands dirty at every opportunity. Anne-Marie Duff plays Violet, a defiantly committed trouble-maker, relishing every opportunity to make a difference. There’s a very enjoyable and rather inspiring brief performance by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, appearing out of nowhere to deliver a stirring public speech and then disappearing back from whenceBen Whishaw and Carey Mulligan she came. Ben Whishaw is very good as the under-communicative Sonny, Maud’s husband; you can almost see in his controlling eyes the extent to which he will allow his wife to agitate, and the point at which she will have gone too far. There’s a strong, quiet performance by Brendan Gleeson as the Police Inspector Steed, diligent in enforcing the law but with an understated sense of the bigger picture; and a ruthless cameo by Samuel West as the reactionary politician Benedict, harbouring a draconian resentment against equality.

Brendan GleesonDramatic, powerful, dark; a very intense film that reminds us of the sacrifices made by others so that we can have the vote today. Interestingly, it is the first film ever to have scenes actually shot in the Houses of Parliament, which emphasises the still relevant importance of what the suffragettes achieved. Next time you can’t be bothered to turn up to the polling station, just remember what Maud went through.

Review – Platonov, Ivanov, The Seagull – Young Chekhov, Festival Theatre Chichester, 31st October 2015

Young ChekhovI saw my first Chekhov at the age of fifteen – Three Sisters, directed by Jonathan Miller – and I was hooked. I saw Jonathan Miller in the bar but was too shy to say hello – and to be fair he didn’t look like he’d welcome an approach, as he looked like he was having a thoroughly miserable time. As a result, I asked for the Penguin edition of the Complete Chekhov as part of my sixteenth birthday present, and I read it avidly. I even recall hiding away in the locker room at school during break so that I could get Uncle Vanya finished.

James McArdle and Nina SosanyaSo, the prospect of a full day of Chekhov was perhaps a little bit of a hard sell to Mrs Chrisparkle, although I was keen as mustard. Three plays in one day: 10.30 am, 3 pm, 7.30pm. I think she equated it with the heaviest possible day at the Edinburgh Fringe; the very thought of it made her exhausted. Still, I lured her with the prospect of lunch at the Minerva Brasserie and a gluten-free fry up breakfast at Spires’ on Sunday. She caved in. Less than half an hour into the first play and I could already tell she was loving it – and by the time we came to late night dinner at Cote, twelve hours later, she was adamant that she had been looking forward to it all along. Because I’m delighted to tell you, gentle reader, that these three plays, produced in old fashioned rep style at the Festival Theatre (all three on a Saturday) are a rare treat indeed. We’d seen the Ian McKellen production of The Seagull back in 2008 but couldn’t remember much about it because it was on New Year’s Day, we were frankly knackered, and had our eyes shut for most of the time (as did much of the audience). I’d seen Michael Frayn’s version of Platonov, Wild Honey, at the National in 1985, but hadn’t realised it was the same play. And although I’d read Ivanov all those years ago, neither of us had ever seen it, so this was a perfect opportunity to get up to date and immerse oneself in the output of the Young Chekhov. And the plays, the productions and the performances are without exception absolutely stunning.

Platonov forest gladeBy the time The Seagull had reached the stage, Chekhov was 36 years old; and given that he would die just eight years later of tuberculosis, it’s perhaps misleading to consider it the work of the “Young Chekhov”. Nevertheless, it’s still a good halfway point in his career to consider what went before as his earlier attempts and what followed as the more mature writer. The texts have been adapted by David Hare, who insists in his introduction that these are three completely individual plays that deserve to be considered individually and not just looked at as some kind of blur and a mere source for the themes that Chekhov would develop more fully in his later plays. Fair enough. However. When you watch all three on the same day; in the same theatre, with the same set, the same lighting, the same director, and many of the actors appear in two or even all three of the plays, it comes across as one big project – a theatrical vision that encourages the audience to make thematic comparisons. I was struck, for example, how, structurally, each of the three plays started in the same way. First, there would be a conversation between two people on stage, which would shortly be interrupted by another two people, of whom the more senior of the two continues a conversation they were already having offstage, and the two people already on stage join in with their conversation. Similarly, use of the same actor to portray similar characters emphasises how Chekhov frequently employs a “type” in his plays – the impoverished schoolteacher, the doctor, the uncle, the landowner, the merchant, the writer, the frumpy female relative, and, of course, the old retainer. Chuck in some actors and some military men and you have a smorgasbord of Russian characters that Chekhov could mix and match to create village life – a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of Russia in its entirety.

PlatonovThe Seagull is quite frequently performed; Ivanov, less so; Platonov, rarely. So it is a delight to have a chance to see that very early play in this riveting production. There are differences of opinion as to how old Chekhov was when he wrote it; anything between 17 and 20. What is certain is that it was not performed in his lifetime – he wrote it for the rising star Maria Yermolova, who rejected it out of hand – and the manuscript that remained was rambling, unedited, and hugely long. David Hare has done an incredible job in creating a really full and vivid play out of these ashes. Many of the usual Chekhovian themes are there, but what really makes it stand out in comparison with the rest of his work is the comedy element. Ayckbourn has been likened to Chekhov for his observations of family life and his ability to juggle hilarity and tragedy in the same sentence. You’d have to go back over a hundred years to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to find as many laugh out loud moments in a play as you find in the third act of Platonov; and I noticed several instances throughout the entire day when Chekhov gave us a comic twist to a tragic situation and I thought: “that’s Ayckbourn all over”. Platonov himself is a truly Ayckbournian creation – like Norman, in The Norman Conquests, attractive to women beyond all reasonable expectations without going out of his way to pursue them; just being playfully irreverent, primarily taking care of himself at the expense of others, wheedling his way out of awkward situations, loving others but not as much as he loves himself.

Joshua JamesThere is a lot of comedy in Platonov, some in Ivanov (mainly from the card-playing, food and drink-hunting guests of the Lebedevs), but precious little in The Seagull. At least sixteen years pass between them – Platonov was written circa 1880, Ivanov in 1887, and The Seagull in 1896, so he wasn’t exactly bashing out these full length plays in a frenzy. The level of comedy declines over the years, in the same ways as does his use of soliloquies. Platonov is full of characters proclaiming their confessional monologues alone on stage. However, there are just two such occurrences in both Ivanov and The Seagull, as Chekhov learned more subtle ways of revealing the inner self of his characters.

Samuel WestIn all the plays, the characters seem completely affected by the weather – they’re either suffering from the stifling and oppressive heat, or they’re hiding from the damp air in the evening for the sake of their health. Being Russian, they’re martyrs to their alcohol, perhaps the one unifying source of comfort in the three plays and one that inevitably gives rise to some humour. But additionally you really get an understanding of how the ubiquitous vodka is used to bring all parts of society together – it’s just something that everyone understands and appreciates. All the plays deal with the subject of acting, and thus create an argument between artifice and reality, whether it’s by actually having actors as characters (like Arkadina and Nina in The Seagull), or by Nikolai’s taunting of Platonov that he doesn’t actually feel anything and any sentiment he offers is “just acting”; or Ivanov seeing himself as a Hamlet character.

Three guys from IvanovYou can see the roots of Chekhov’s theme that “life will always be better elsewhere”, which culminates in the Three Sisters’ desperate need to return to Moscow, with Glagolyev joining his dreadful son in Paris to enjoy life whilst he still can, and with Arkadina escaping back to Moscow to rid herself of irksome family ties. Naturally, the subject of loyalty and adultery are never far from Chekhov’s nib, and whenever there’s a revolver lying around, you just know there’ll be murder or suicide, committed by someone with what we would call today Mental Health issues, driven to distraction by the world around them.

At the LebedevsBut what of these productions? As I said earlier – they are stunning. Tom Pye’s set has enough individuality to reflect the differences between the plays but also enough unifying features to make it clearly all part of one endeavour. The great central space at the Festival theatre is given over to the garden for outside scenes and living rooms/studies for indoor scenes, with a useful two storey building on one side and a forest clearing on the other. I loved the use of the divider that sprang up from down below to create the back wall of Platonov’s schoolroom or Ivanov’s study; and the additional features that come into their own for each play – the lonely train track in Platonov, the front of stage river bank in Ivanov, the back of stage lake shore in The Seagull, all add some realistic magic to the proceedings. Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting also had many high impact moments, none perhaps as memorable as the silhouette of Ivanov at the back of the stage near the end of the play, providing us with a visual representation of what a loner he was. David Hare’s words bring Chekhov’s originals to superb, natural life – including the use of antisemitism shown by the characters in Ivanov, which still has the power to shock – the audience’s gasps were palpable.

Anna Chancellor and Samuel WestAnd how about the performances? Equally stunning. A handful of actors appear in just one of the plays, several appear in two, and four absolute stalwarts appear in all three. Each play relies highly on a strong sense of ensemble performance, even though Platonov and Ivanov have eponymous characters at the centre of the action. James McArdle is a brilliant Platonov, quirky, confident, daring, and still essentially a louse – yet you can’t help liking him. You know that old saying that, deep down, women always prefer the bad boys? He’s proof positive of that. And he’s virtually unrecognisable as Doctor Lvov in Ivanov; soberly dressed, clean shaven, decent and moral – the complete opposite of the rather reprehensible schoolteacher. You can’t imagine a smile ever crossing his lips. His Anna Petrovna (in both plays, so Chekhov really must have liked the name) is Nina Sosanya. In Platonov, she’s splendidly gung-ho about not giving a damn about her debts and with a distinct charm that causes men to fall in love with her – a very strong performance of a strong character. In Ivanov, again it’s an opposite type of portrayal – in frail health, but still resolute of spirit and looking for the good in life, until her husband, piqued with cruelty and mental fragility, blurts out her hopeless prognosis.

The SeagullJoshua James gives two excellent performances – I particularly liked him in Platonov, as the rather useless young doctor Nikolai, constantly teasing and sniping at the world, and especially at Platonov himself. The administering water scene at the end of the play was one of the best comedy-in-tragedy moments I’ve ever seen. As the troubled Konstantin in The Seagull, he is very effective as the young pup trying to assert himself in a household of patronising superiors, and at the end of the play, his neat and deliberate destruction of his papers was very moving (and much more suitable to the character, unlike Chekhov’s original stage directions which say he just throws them under the table). Elsewhere Platonov is studded with top quality performances – Jonathan Coy as the courtly failure Porfiri, and Mark Donald, totally vile as his spoilt, cruel son Kiril – a performance more memorable than you might have thought the role normally receives. There’s a wonderfully bright and hopeful Sergei played by Pip Carter, who becomes devastated when he discovers the truth about Platonov; he’s equally good in The Seagull as Medvedenko, where he brings out all the character’s pathetic, kick-me-I’m-a-puppy qualities.

Olivia VinallTaking a couple of the smaller roles, Nicholas Day steals the first act of Platonov with a wonderfully warm and strangely outrageous performance as Ivan; and Sarah Twomey is brilliant as Maria Grekova who can’t bear to be kissed, a nerdy porcelain doll whom Platonov simply regards as a challenge. There’s a strong, threatening performance by Des McAleer as Osip – I loved his performances in the other plays too – and a wide-eyed enthusiastic performance by Olivia Vinall (another of the three-play stalwarts) as Sofya.

Adrian LukisSamuel West leads the cast of Ivanov, wonderfully convincing as the self-obsessed, mentally unstable, cruel title character, almost visibly being eaten up by the black dog as he either retreats into inner nothingness or lashes out at those who care about him. I also enjoyed his rather self-effacing Trigorin in The Seagull, flattered by Nina’s attentions, overwhelmed by Arkadina’s, quietly feathering his own nest and just immune to the feelings of others – their feelings and emotions are mere words for him to write down in his notebook and use for his own benefit. Peter Egan gives two rumbustious performances as Shabyelski in Ivanov, and Sorin in The Seagull, and Lucy Briers is brilliant as the ghastly Zinaida in Ivanov, for whom money is everything; when Ivanov asks for a deferment of the loan she reacts as if he’d suggested a threesome with Putin. She also excels in the role of Polina in The Seagull, idly longing to run away with the Doctor, but saddled with her family commitments – and the appalling way she rejected her son-in-law’s goodbye kiss was worth the ticket cost alone. In addition, I have to mention the delightful performances of Emma Amos, showing how beautifully shallow Marfusha Babakina is; and of Beverley Klein, strutting her stuff as the redoubtable Avdotya with great comic timing.

The Seagull interiorAnd of course, there’s Anna Chancellor as Irina Arkadina, the actress who acts her emotions rather than feels them, who undermines her son’s attempts to impress and fit in, who rides roughshod over the feelings of others and does it all with charm and grace, although you never know when’s she might turn into a cobra and attack. But the whole cast of all three plays don’t put a foot wrong and everyone gives their very best to create these three insights into 19th century Russian society.

Anna ChancellorOne of the most exciting, stimulating and revealing days of theatre I have ever enjoyed. A splendid vision, splendidly realised. The Young Chekhov season ends on 14th November, but there’s no way this remarkable experience should finish there. Surely the West End awaits?


Production photographs taken from the Chichester Theatre website

Review – A Streetcar Named Desire, Leicester Curve Studio, 24th October 2015

A Streetcar Named DesireI’ve been an admirer of the plays of Tennessee Williams for as long as I can remember. I recall being blown away by a TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was about 16, then I took a young lady to see The Glass Menagerie when I was 17 (what a romantic gesture that was!) and the only other time I’ve seen A Streetcar Named Desire was at the Oxford Playhouse back in 1978, directed by Nicolas Kent. So it was high time I got reacquainted with the play. Mrs Chrisparkle had also never seen it, nor had our friend, Lady Lichfield, who struggled up to Leicester by train on the most circuitous of routes, but that’s another story.

Blanche arrivesI had forgotten what a simply magnificent play this is. It is so beautifully written, creating an uncertain air of mystery with almost every new plot progression, that you, as an audience member, can interpret it in many different ways. These basic plot details are for certain: Blanche Dubois has come to visit her sister Stella who lives in a dingy downstairs flat in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche seems used to a more refined lifestyle, dressing in lace and assuming an almost unnatural politesse. Stella, however, has married Stanley, an uncultured Polack (Blanche’s word), and appears content to live with (indeed emotionally and sexually satisfied by) his violent and brutish behaviour. The Grand Estate – Belle Reve – where Blanche and Stella were brought up has been “lost”, and Blanche is now homeless. Stella hasn’t forewarned Stanley that his sister-in-law is coming to stay, and it’s fair to say that they don’t hit it off. In the following months, Blanche gets courted by one of Stanley’s poker-playing buddies, Mitch, who’s less Neanderthal than the rest of them; but her past catches up with her and none of it ends happily. I could go into more detail about the plot but a) you probably know it already, b) maybe you don’t want to know it, and c) there’s a fine line between what you see on stage and what might just be figments of Blanche’s imagination. Although Blanche is taken away by a doctor and nurse at the end of the play, it’s debatable at which point her mental instability takes control. It could be at the end of the play, it could be much earlier; and what you see may be a hazy blend of reality and fantasy. That’s just part of the play’s mystery.

Dakota Blue RichardsIt was first produced in 1947 and had its first UK production in 1949, directed by Laurence Olivier and with Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Of course, back in those days, drama was censored on the British stage and the producer had to apply to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for a licence to perform. This must have provided more than a few difficulties for the censor, as the play deals with – amongst other things – insanity, victim mentality, suicide, rape, and paedophilia. But none of this was, apparently, a particular problem. The only thing that almost caused the production to be banned at the last minute was the story about Blanche’s late husband Allan, whom she found in flagrante delicto with someone else: “Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty – which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years”. For the censor, this was the bridge too far. The reference to homosexuality had to go. Bizarrely, the censor himself suggested it should be replaced so that Allan should have been caught at it with a black woman. Eventually a cut was agreed, with the line now just reading “which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…” And that is how it reads in my Penguin edition of the play and how it is currently spoken in this Curve production. Oddly, by not spelling out precisely what it was that Blanche saw her husband doing, it actually adds to the play’s overall air of mystery.

Stella and StanleyI had read some very disappointing reviews of this production after press night – none of which are remotely recognisable to the show we saw on Saturday – so I can only assume that the team have continued to work on earlier criticisms, because we all thought the show was quite brilliant. Michael Taylor’s set cleverly encompasses the several acting areas of the play – the Kowalskis’ two roomed apartment, the bathroom, the porch area, Eunice’s flat upstairs, even the streets around New Orleans. There’s a very realistic rain effect right at the end of the play that might get your knees and legs wet if you sit in the front row (as we did, but it’s great to be almost part of the action). There are lots of off-stage music effects that confront and unsettle you, the emotionally moving image of the flower vendor selling her flores para los muertos, and, of course, there are some magnificent performances.

Natasha MagigiThe character of Blanche is so central and so iconic that it is vital to get it right – and Charlie Brooks gives us a terrifyingly stressed Blanche; jittery, anxious, and clearly disturbed right from the start. Mrs C and Lady L both thought that her characterisation made the first act rather frenetic – you were constantly being so bombarded by her words and her anxieties that you hardly had time to reflect. I think that’s possibly true – but I also think it’s entirely justified. In fact, I found it virtually impossible to take my eyes off Ms Brooks all the time she was on stage, so vividly and profoundly did she inhabit the character. I thought it was an amazing performance. We’d seen her a few months earlier in Beautiful Thing and she was terrific in that too – she’s not putting a foot wrong at the moment.

Sandy Foster and Natasha MagigiHer anxiety makes the perfect contrast with Dakota Blue Richards’ portrayal of Stella – calm, collected, accepting, practical, and surprisingly assertive. When Blanche tries to load the emotional blackmail on her she simply rejects it; when Stanley behaves badly to her sister she remonstrates with him. Nevertheless, she’s no match for Stanley’s brute force, and the simplicity of her return to him after he’s assaulted her speaks volumes about what she wants from life – and we the audience watch disapprovingly at her contentment with her victim status. Ms Richards gives us a Stella of great clarity and warmth; and turmoil too, when she wonders if she has done the right thing by bringing the doctor to Blanche. That was the moment when both Mrs C and Lady L reached for the Kleenex.

Stewart ClarkeThere’s also a wild and brilliant portrayal of Stanley by Stewart Clarke; loud, cruel, calculating, and intimidating – a really strong and intense performance, never straying into an over-the-top pantomime, but always unpleasantly believable. There are also some great supporting performances from Sandy Foster as Eunice, and Patrick Knowles as Mitch,Charlie Brooks both caught up in an environment where survival of the fittest and not rocking the boat is an imperative, even if you have to do things of which you are not proud.

A stunning production of what is still a very moving and important play – one of those theatre experiences that will live on long after you come home. It’s on at the Curve until 7th November – strongly recommended!

Production photographs by Manuel Harlan

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder on the Links (1923)

The Murder on the LinksIn which Hercule Poirot receives a desperate plea for help from M. Paul Renauld in France, but by the time he and Hastings rush to his aid, he has been murdered. Poirot works with the local magistrate to discover precisely what happened whilst engaging in duels of wit with the local officer of the Sûreté. Oh, and Hastings finds love. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I won’t spill the beans on whodunit!

GolfI’m not sure how old I was when I first read this book but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t know that the links in question was a golf course. I expect I was trying to work out how someone could commit a murder whilst balancing precariously on a pair of cufflinks – I’ve never been quite as intelligent as I ought to be. In fairness, it’s not a very good title. OK, the murder does take place adjacent to a golf course, but it doesn’t play that major a part in the story. Mind you, the Turkish title translates as “Our Lesson is Murder” – and there aren’t any lessons in it.

Shocked faceIt’s easy to forget that back in 1923 Christie was still a fledgling writer, and although she had enjoyed great success with her first two books, she still had the need to capture the imagination of editors and readers alike in the hope that they would continue publishing, and buying, her work. You can see this in the rather self-conscious way in which she begins this book: “I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: “Hell!” said the Duchess.” Strangely enough, this tale of mine opens in much the same fashion. Only the lady who gave utterance to the exclamation was not a duchess.” And so it goes on. It reminded me of a story I remembered from when I was at school. One of our English teachers was the, then unknown, now very well known, writer A. N. Wilson. Whilst he was teaching A-level English Lit, he had his first book published – The Sweets of Pimlico. The book opens with the three words: “That affected shit”. We schoolkids all thought that was a hoot. But Andy Wilson (as we affectionately knew him) was doing precisely the same thing – getting the editor and the reader hooked as early as possible. It didn’t serve him badly. In a rather nice twist, Christie re-uses her phrase at the end of the book, with a completely different effect – a symmetry of which Poirot would give the highest approval.

Lost temperRe-reading The Murder on the Links now, I’m really impressed with this book. After the almost maniacal hectic pace of The Secret Adversary and the clue-a-paragraph nature of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, with this book Christie settled down to a much more comfortable speed, and gave her characters some space to develop. In fact, in addition to working out who killed Paul Renauld, the most enjoyable part of this book is its observations about its characters’ relationships. You see a much more human side to Poirot, most clearly portrayed in a scene near the end of the book when he severely loses his temper when a vulnerable character nearly gets killed because no one had told him she had changed bedrooms.

CInderellaSo what of our friend Captain Hastings? In one brief sentence early in the book, he describes himself as a “private secretary to an MP”. Well, he must be a very understanding MP, because Hastings never does a stroke of work for him during the next few weeks. I can’t recollect if this job of his will be referred to again in any of the later books – we will have to wait and see! You also see a gently teasing relationship develop between Poirot and Hastings, largely based on Hastings’ predilection for falling head-over-heels in love with the next pretty girl to come along. “Yesterday it was Mademoiselle Daubreuil, today it is Mademoiselle – Cinderella! Decidedly you have the heart of a Turk, Hastings! You should establish a harem!” However, Hastings considers their friendship is seriously put to the test with his willingness to perjure himself for the sake of his Cinderella. “Poirot would not take defeat lying down. Somehow or other, he would endeavour to turn the tables on me, and that in the way, and at the moment, when I least expected it.” Poirot, on the other hand, seems to take it in his stride. “I studied him attentively. He was wearing his most innocent air, and staring meditatively into the far distance. He looked altogether too placid and supine to give me reassurance, I had learned, with Poirot, that the less dangerous he looked, the more dangerous he was.” That’s a very insightful observation. Amusingly, the temporary stress on their friendship brings out all Hastings’ naturally British sense of doing the right thing: “It’s only fair to warn you” [he says to Poirot, who replies] “I know – I know all. You are my enemy! Be my enemy, then. It does not worry me at all.” “So long as it’s all fair and above-board, I don’t mind.” “You have to the full the English passion for “fair play!” And of course, Hastings will propound preposterous theories, barking completely up the wrong tree, where Poirot lets him sit in blissful ignorance for a while until he reveals the truth to Hastings’ total astonishment.

PoliceThere are also some very vivid encounters between Poirot and Giraud of the Sûreté, full of professional and personal rivalry, point-scoring, and competitive clue-hunting. Their first meeting doesn’t go down too well. ““I know you by name, Monsieur Poirot,” [said M. Giraud]. “You cut quite a figure in the old days, didn’t you? But methods are very different now.” “Crimes, though, are very much the same,” remarked Poirot gently.” Giraud’s patronising attitude irritates Poirot profoundly (“not a word to Giraud…he treats me as an old one of no importance!”) but Poirot is determined to show him that his old-fashioned tried and tested methods will come to fruition in the end. Nowhere is his age more advantageous than when he recognises one of the suspects from a case he investigated twenty years before. There’s also an excellent passage where Poirot talks, in general, about the repetitive nature of crimes and recidivism of their perpetrators, borne out of his long experience. When he takes this general observation and relates it directly to this case, so much of the crime becomes instantly clear; detecting like painting by numbers.

Twists and turnsBut don’t let this give you the impression that this is an easy case for Poirot to solve. In The Murder on the Links, Christie created a story that develops, episodically, with so many twists and turns, that you’re constantly being wrong-footed by it – and it’s a complete delight. So many chapters end with something of a bombshell, that it’s like waiting for the drum beats at the end of an episode of Eastenders. Sadly I can’t tell you too much about those bombshells because it will give the game away – but if you take, say, Chapter 10 (Gabriel Stonor), there are half a dozen or so twists in that one short chapter alone. Suffice to say, I found this book a genuinely exciting and page-turning read.

HeartAs an aside, if I were personal friends with Captain Hastings (and I don’t think I ever would be), I’ve got some concerns about his romance. Having married off Tommy and Tuppence at the end of The Secret Adversary, Christie decides to tie up Hastings’ love life too – she confesses in her autobiography that, although she had envisaged Poirot and Hastings as a kind of Holmes and Watson combination, in fact she had already got rather bored of Hastings and was hoping to tie up his loose ends and despatch him to South America for good. Maybe that need to neatly despatch him is the reason for some inconsistencies with his fondness for the gentler sex. Consider his reflection about women on the first page of the book: “Now I am old fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” Hot on the heels of The Secret Adversary, this description fairly well encapsulates some aspects of the character of Tuppence – so we could assume he wouldn’t like her. However, this very character turns out to be none other than his beloved Cinderella. When she re-enters his life, at the scene of the crime, she acts just like the female detective of the previous book, with clever small talk, and a desire to poke her nose where it’s not needed. When Hastings reprimands her for what he calls her “ghoulish excitement”, she’s not having any of it. “Your idea of a woman is someone who gets on a chair and shrieks if she sees a mouse. That’s all prehistoric”. Yet this is the girl with whom he becomes besotted. “I strolled down to the beach and watched the bathers, without feeling energetic enough to join them. I rather fancied that Cinderella might be disporting herself among them in some wonderful costume, but I saw no signs of her.” Fantasising about her in a bathing costume? That’s probably soft porn for 1923. In the end, Cinderella turns out to be a girl of terrific bravery, who (in part) saves the day at the end of the book – so, again, very Tuppence-like. I trust Hastings will come to terms with his reappraisal of the kind of girl he likes.

MeesAs in the other early Christies, I again came across a few words, phrases and references that frankly had me bamboozled, so in case they do the same to you, let’s have a look at them. At the start of the book, Hastings is making his way back home from Paris by train: “I had made a somewhat hurried departure from the hotel and was busy assuring myself that I had duly collected all my traps, when the train started”. All my what? Was he expecting a mouse-infestation at his destination? I’ve scoured “trap” in my OED very thoroughly and can’t find a definition that fits. I presume he means “suitcases” but it’s just an assumption. If you know better, please let me know! When discussing the fact that the murderer wore gloves: “Of course he did” said Poirot contemptuously. “…the veriest amateur of an English Mees knows it – thanks to the publicity the Bertillon system has been given in the press.” Woh, hold on there. Veriest? Well apparently that was a superlative form of very back in the 17th century but even in 1923 its use would have been severely archaic. An English Mees? Again the OED doesn’t help. But someone else has asked about this on a website and the response was that a mees – in Belgium, no less – is the name of a tit (bird variety). So I guess today we might say “even a tiny bird would know it”. But the Bertillon system? Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. So now you know.

AtalantaMlle Daubreuil catches Hastings’ attention in many ways, not all of them of the purest. After a conversation with her, he says “she turned and ran back up the road, looking like a modern Atalanta”. Who? Obviously I’m not that well versed in Z-list Greek mythology celebrities. When Atalanta was born, her father wanted a son, so she was left on a mountain top to die. But she was raised by a family of bears, so ended up a fierce hunter who fought like bears, and who took an oath of virginity to the Goddess Artemis. So in all honesty she probably wouldn’t have been a lot of fun.

Buster BrownAt one stage, Poirot and Hastings return to England to visit the Palace Theatre Coventry (I shan’t tell you why – if you’ve read the book you’ll know why, and if you haven’t, it will spoil it for you.) But there is no Palace Theatre in Coventry. In the early 1920s, Coventry boasted the Hippodrome Theatre and the Opera House. There was also the Alexandra, but that was primarily a cinema. So I guess this is just a bit of Christie whimsy. Hastings hates the show, because he’s too much of a snob for Music Hall, noting that there was a comedian trying to be George Robey and failing. Well I do know who George Robey was – Google it if you don’t. But he also describes an act called the Dulcibella Kids as having short fluffy skirts and immense Buster Brown bows. I’m afraid that reference passed me by. Buster Brown was an American comic strip character (who wore a smart suit with huge bows) whose adventures were published from 1902 until about 1921. But after that he lived on, in film, radio and even TV until the 1950s. Never heard of him. Anyway, when they’d finished, the Dulcibella Kids received “a full meed of applause”. A meed? Again, that’s a new one on me. It was mainly used in the 16th century to mean a reward, but according to the OED it came back into fashion in the early 20th century to mean “a fair share of”. Who says you don’t learn stuff from this blog? So educational. Finally, a character under stress is described – by a doctor – as being in danger of suffering from brain fever. Medically, this wouldn’t pass muster nowadays, but it’s interesting to see how much more knowledge we have of neurology over the past 90 years.

PoundIn my blog about The Secret Adversary I did a little financial analysis on the present day values of the sums Tommy and Tuppence were being paid. In this book, Poirot notes that Mme Daubreuil has paid in to her bank account a sum of 200,000 francs over the previous six weeks – I’ll leave you to deduce whether it was legally or otherwise acquired. But if you were curious, that translates to about £170,000 in today’s money. You could buy an awful lot of baguettes and onions with that.

As usual, I offer you my at-a-glance summary for The Murder on the Links:

Publication Details: 1923. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1971. According to Wikipedia, so it must be right, Christie dedicated it thus: “TO MY HUSBAND. A fellow enthusiast for detective stories and to whom I am indebted for much helpful advice and criticism”. In 1923 she was still happily married to Archie Christie. Interestingly, that dedication doesn’t appear in my copy.

How many pages until the first death: 12. Great that you get stuck in nice and early. There are two more deaths too, but are they murders…?

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly few:
“Jumping up…let down the window and stuck her head out, withdrawing it a moment later with the brief and forcible ejaculation…”
“”My only aunt!” She exclaimed”.
“”I would hardly have credited it,“ said Poirot thoughtfully, “but women are very unexpected”.

Memorable characters:
This is probably the book’s weakest aspect. I don’t think any of the major characters are particularly memorable – maybe Cinderella, because she’s different from the other rather stuffy people in it. Oh and M. Giraud from the Sûreté. Anyone trying to patronise Poirot has got to be interesting.

Christie the Poison expert:
Poisons don’t really play a part in this book, although there is an interesting observation about the properties of Primula. “The gardening gloves Auguste admitted to be his. He wore them when handling a certain species of primula plant which was poisonous to some people.” I wonder if the people behind the cheese spread know this?

Class/social issues of the time:

The book was published just five years after the end of the First World War, so wartime memories were still vivid for many people. Hastings reminds us that he was invalided out of the army after the Somme, and it’s interesting to see his instantly patriotic reaction when faced with any implied criticism of his homeland, even in a throwaway line. When the servant Françoise is answering M. Hautet’s questions she says: ““One could see that he was on the brink of a crisis of the nerves. And who could wonder, with an affair conducted in such a fashion? No reticence, no discretion. Style anglais, without doubt!” I bounded indignantly in my seat, but the examining magistrate was continuing his questions, undistracted by side issues.”

The book contains some of the classic Christie distrust of foreigners but not as much as in others – maybe the fact that it is set in France made it less appropriate. Nevertheless there is still a lot of suspicious mutterings about interlopers from Santiago and obvious-looking foreigners in railway stations.

Perhaps more interestingly – and I have to be careful here not to give away too much of the plot – there is a lot of moralising about the sins of the fathers; with specific reference to choosing a suitable person to marry, and avoiding an unsuitable one. “”A truly beautiful young girl – modest, devout, all that she should be. One pities her, for, though she may know nothing of the past, a man who wants to ask for her hand in marriage must necessarily inform himself, and then –“ The commissary shrugged his shoulders cynically. “But it would not be her fault!” I cried, with rising indignation. “No. But what will you? A man is particular about his wife’s antecedents”.

Classic denouement:
Christie has been dropping so many plot twists all along that it’s a little hard to identify quite where the denouement begins. The explanation for the second death starts over fifty pages from the end, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as solving the crime is concerned. The final eight pages explain all. If you’re hoping for Poirot to call all the suspects in to a big room where he slowly identifies the murderer, you’ll be disappointed.

Happy ending? Certainly. Hastings has met his Cinderella, and although we don’t know what will happen next, the augurs look good. And Poirot does his marriage counselling act on another character, with the implication that another couple will live happy ever after.

Did the story ring true? There are of course coincidences in the story as a whole, but at no point did I question the general credibility of the book – and I found the rivalry between Giraud and Poirot extremely believable.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. The constant twists and turns lead you up and down garden paths and everywhere but the truth, and are really entertaining. Plus I had the added excitement of having completely forgotten whodunit – and I didn’t get it right on this re-read. An undervalued little gem of a book.

Poirot InvestigatesThanks for reading my blog of The Murder on the Links, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we are still in 1923, but a few months later with Christie’s first published selection of short stories under the title Poirot Investigates. Once again, we will meet Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings setting their combined minds to solve a number of devious crimes. It will be interesting to compare short stories with a full length novel. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!