Review – Whoopi Goldberg, Stand Up Live, London Palladium, 11th February 2017

Stand Up LiveI only started watching live stand-up comedy in 2009, and I would say the biggest names I’ve seen would probably be Dara O’Briain, Julian Clary, Jimmy Carr, Al Murray, Reginald D Hunter, Jack Dee, Russell Brand, Sarah Millican, and Alan Carr. Splendid chaps each and every one of course, but do they count as International Stars? We saw Trevor Noah a few years ago and he has since made the big time but I certainly hadn’t heard of him when we saw him. For sheer fame, however, the name Whoopi Goldberg rather knocks all these wonderful people into the proverbial cocked hat.

WhoopiI was extremely curious to see what her one-woman stand-up show would be like, and chose to see the late-night show as, we were advised, it would be a little more no-holds-barred than her early evening show. I thought there’s absolutely no point going to see Whoopi Goldberg and opting for the holds-barred version. That would be like going to see Oh! Calcutta! and just concentrating on the recorded music.

WGThere’s no doubt there was an extremely excited buzz to the Palladium on Saturday night. There was a full crowd – naturally. When I was queueing at the bar to take some drinks in, someone asked one of the staff if they knew what the running time was. “The first show lasted ninety minutes, with no interval” we were advised. We took our Merlots in, and started chatting to the guys seated next to us. They were equally excited. “Do you think she’ll talk about Trump?” I asked. “For sure!” they replied, as if she could possibly have considered talking about anything else. Good, I said to myself; I really feel like hearing some intelligent anti-Trump material.

wg1The lights dimmed and on she came, in stripy trousers and a big white smocky top, to a tremendous thunder of applause and an instant ovation, even though she hadn’t done anything yet. She accepted the applause graciously, and after a decent pause told us to sit down because there was a curfew and she had a lot to get through! Her opening – slightly disappointing – gambit was to point out that both the US and the UK had made an enormous f*** up (her words) at the ballot box last year, so let’s just recognise it and admit there’s no point going over old mistakes. So much for that source of material, then.

wg2Instead she told us all about what life is like for a woman of 60+… well perhaps, more specifically, what sex is like for a woman of 60+; a very personal and funny account of the ups and downs of modern existence when you’re just about bus-passable. It was all full of very enjoyable observations, but, as Mrs Chrisparkle and I discussed after the show, we couldn’t really remember any one individual topic of discussion. But that didn’t matter. She has such a powerful stage presence, oozing charisma from every pore, that she could have been reading the shipping forecast, and North Utsire would never have sounded so hilarious. It was all a whirl that we let wash over us, if that isn’t a mixed metaphor.

whoopi-goldbergAfter a while she brought on David. She did explain who David was, but I can’t remember now. Anyway, he asked her a number of pre-posed questions that had appeared on her Facebook page. That’s the modern way of doing stand-up, kids. Whilst the Qs and As threw up a number of entertaining subjects and witty observations, it nevertheless acted as a drain on the accumulated energy of the show up to that point. I enjoyed it, but I also looked forward to this section ending, so that she could go back to some sure-fire stand-up. Unfortunately, it took us through right to the end of the performance, when, in a surprise twist, the show ended with a pair of unnamed twins coming on stage to sing Make You Feel My Love. It reminded me of the finale to Morecambe and Wise’s weekly TV programme, when we would welcome the grand appearance of Janet Webb thanking us for watching her show, even though she hadn’t featured earlier. Charming though the boys’ rendition of Adele’s classic was, it meant the night ended with more of a whimper than a bang.

Still – this was the first time London has seen Whoopi Goldberg do stand-up in thirty years, so it was a thrill to be there, and there’s no doubting her ability to command an audience!

P. S. I subsequently discovered the twins are called Chris and Theo. Well done, lads.

Some photos I took, the others I lifted from Ms Goldberg’s Facebook page!

Review – The Kite Runner, Wyndham’s Theatre, 11th February 2017

The Kite RunnerIt appears that I have been living under a rock for the past fourteen years because I confess, gentle reader, that I had never heard of The Kite Runner. You know, that famous book by Khaled Hosseini, published in 2003, that spent 101 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, that was adapted into the film of the same name that was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. That’s the one. Never heard of it.

the-kite-runner-3-ben-turner-and-andrei-costin-photo-robert-workmanMatthew Spangler’s dramatic adaptation of the book first saw light of day in 2009 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, San Jose, California, but didn’t appear in the UK until it was picked up by the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, and this West End run is basically the same production including many of the original cast members.

-kite-runner-nottinghham-playhouse-2013-image-robert-day_023d0b9211c81080a1a608b6bee371feIt’s the story of Amir, the son of a wealthy Afghan merchant, and his friendship with his father’ servant’s son Hassan, as boys growing up in an exclusive area of Kabul in the 1970s. Kite flying in Afghanistan (subsequently banned by the Taliban) was a popular and respected sport, and the boys would love nothing better than to spend the day in competitive fun; Amir was a great flyer, and Hassan excelled at Kite Running – knowing the precise spot where the kite would land so that he could bring it back to his master. It’s a similar relationship to that between a huntsman and his ghillie. It’s not enough simply to win the tournament, you also have to regain possession of your victorious kite. It’s like catching the boomerang again once it returns.

23306_show_landscape_large_04-kite-runnerAmir longs for recognition and love from Baba, his father, but he is a distant and strict man, who doesn’t have time for Amir’s woolly pursuits, like writing fiction, for Heaven’s sake. Amir knows the only way he will win Baba’s attention and affection will be if he wins the kite flying tournament. Hassan knows this too, and will do anything to secure the kite back for Amir; absolutely anything. But when Hassan’s unquestioning and unconditional loyalty to Amir takes him into physical danger, Amir fails to step in and prevent his friend from being harmed. And he’s going to regret that for many, many years to come. The story is full of surprises and twists and I’ve no wish to deprive you of experiencing the first-hand discovery of what happens next, so if you want to see how Amir and Hassan turn out, you’ll have to go see it for yourself.

the-kite-runner-2-ben-turner-centrephoto-robert-workman1-700x455It’s a play about loyalty and trust, love and devotion; racial and religious intolerance; the plight of refugees and the instinct for survival. It takes us from cosmopolitan Kabul in the 70s, through the 80s invasion by the USSR, the family’s resettlement in California a little later, to Peshawar in Pakistan in the mid 90s, back to war-torn Kabul under the Taliban rule before finally completing its story in California in the 21st century. At times the story takes on epic proportions, at others it’s very intimate and personal; and the unifying thread throughout the play is Amir, permanently onstage as the narrator of his own story, the focus of all the attention from child to adult.

kite-runner-panoramic-shot1-1024x397And it’s overwhelmingly emotional. At least, that’s what I felt. By the time it ended it had made me cry not once, not twice, but three times. Honestly, where was my self-respect? It’s quite uncomfortable sitting in the middle of the crowded stalls with your body going through those barely controllable convulsions you get when you really want to burst into hysterical tears but have to keep it hidden inside for the sake of decorum. Much to my surprise, Mrs Chrisparkle managed to avoid having to fight back the tears, leading her to suspect that this is more of a boys’ play than a girls’. She might be right; although the lady to her left was drowning in Kleenex barely 30 minutes in to the first act. It’s certainly a very male-centric play, if that word exists, with few female characters of any substance; but then again, that’s probably an accurate representation of Afghan society.

thekiterunner2017_02But it’s more than just a blubfest, it’s a riveting story, told beautifully, with crystal clarity and simplicity and with some immense performances that will stay with you long after curtain down. Barney George’s design pays maybe almost too much attention to those two large unfurling kites at the back of the stage. They act as a screen backdrop for swirling images and to hide backstage characters before and after they leave the stage – but, to be honest, I found them a little disruptive to the general flow of the story. Apart from that, I loved the use of the staging; the simple formality of Afghan lifestyle later to be overwhelmed by the garishness of the refugees’ arrival in California, which provides a much needed few minutes of hilarity. Hanif Khan makes a tremendous contribution to the show with his tabla playing; providing the equivalent of an overture before the play gets underway (which gets a huge round of applause) to providing constant incidental music throughout the show, never obtrusive but always atmospheric and enhancing the mood. Who knew that you could get such tuneful sounds out of drums?

thekiterunner2017_01At the heart of the play is the central performance of Amir by Ben Turner. I’ve not seen Mr Turner before but what a mesmerising portrayal he gives! The youthful Amir with a strong heart full of optimism; the older boy with his heart tainted by his selfish lack of care for his friend; the young adult tentatively getting to know the (apparently) only female Afghan in California; the wiser man lured back to Asia to see his father’s best friend and desperate for atonement for his sins; the family man trying to make the best of what remains in the post-Taliban era. Mr Turner makes you empathise with Amir both when he’s a kind, good man and when he’s more of an anti-hero. Even though the character makes some appalling errors of judgment, you still care about him. Technically brilliant throughout, with neither a foot out of place nor a vocal inflexion underplayed. Fully deserving of his instant standing ovation.

thekiterunner2017_04Andrei Costin’s Hassan is a study in devotion; like a puppy removed from its mother at too young an age, he simply worships the ground on which Amir treads, or he just wants to play. It’s a wonderful portrayal of someone who is too trusting, too self-effacing, but who almost gains strength and credibility by the extent to which he allows himself to be hurt. When Hassan is presented with those dreadful moments when the only way of supporting Amir is to sacrifice himself, Mr Costin shows us those angst-ridden flashes of pain and dismay as he accepts the inevitable, and your heart breaks for him. You’re in for some very emotional times. This is his West End debut – and boy, is it a good one.

thekiterunner2017_03Emilio Doorgasingh invests Baba with a forceful personality that dominates the young Amir but also lets you see his vulnerable side as his relationship with Ali and Hassan breaks down; Baba’s eventual slowdown once he reaches California is very moving to observe. Nicholas Khan is great as Baba’s friend Rahim Khan, showing Amir a warmer side to the traditional male role model, and again very moving when Amir returns to see him in Peshawar later in the play. I was very impressed with the physicality of Ezra Faroque Khan’s performances as Ali and Farid, the-kite-runner-2creating very believable and recognisable characters even before they have spoken a word, just through his movement. Antony Bunsee gives us a magnificently stern General Taheri; Lisa Zahra plays Soraya with charm and kindness; and Nicholas Karimi makes the best of his villainous opportunities as the cruel Assef, a vindictive, sadistic thug who hides his true nature with his hypocritical behaviour with Baba and Rahim. But it’s an all-round excellent ensemble who work together beautifully and there isn’t a weak link in the chain anywhere.

the-kite-runner-8-lisa-zahra-and-antony-bunsee-photo-robert-workmanMrs C said that some of the so-called surprises didn’t come as a surprise to her. Well, all I can say is that she must be psychic or something. As for me, I was simply hooked from the start to the finish, I took and accepted everything the story told me – I was putty in the production’s hands. It gave me an insight into lives I didn’t know about, and shows that those human emotions we all recognise in ourselves and our loved ones can also be found in those statistics of Islamist war victims. It’s on at Wyndham’s until 11th March and I’d highly recommend it.

Production photos by Robert Workman and Robert Day

Review – Pick of the Fest, Leicester Comedy Festival, Curve Studio, Leicester, 10th February 2017

leicester-comedy-festival-logoI think we can all agree that festivals are fun. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it? Whether it’s something massive like Edinburgh, or something tiny like the Northampton Flash Festival, the idea is that you go and see shows that may be quite short (so you can see lots in a day), financed on a shoestring, possibly for low ticket prices, at no frills venues. We’d only dipped our toe into the Leicester Comedy Festival once before, three years ago when we were amongst a lucky few to see Kevin Dewsbury’s final outing (no pun intended) of his one man show Out Now, in a back room at the Belmont Hotel. For me that was what “festival” was all about – intimate and informal, with “backstage” just as clearly visible as “stage”.

And I wonder if that’s why last Friday’s Pick of the Fest show at the Leicester Curve Studio didn’t quite work for me as a whole. We’ve seen several productions at the Studio and I’ve always really liked it as a venue – especially when we sit in the front row, because you really feel at the heart of the action. But for this show we were seated in row I (no idea why we were so far back because I’m sure I booked the tickets on the first day they became available), and the stage seemed an awfully long way away (even though it wasn’t), and that comedy club atmosphere just didn’t reach as far back as our row. Perhaps the staging was too formal, too theatre-y, and insufficiently festival-y. It just didn’t feel very relaxed.

carly-smallmanThis is one of those “compilation” shows when a number of performers come along and do some material as a promotion for their own shows on elsewhere at the festival. It’s a tried and tested formula which works well – especially with our favourite Edinburgh comedy ritual, Spank. Our host was the ebullient Carly Smallman, whom we have seen many times before and is always good value. She excels at getting to know the front few rows and poking kindly fun at their weird little ways – never cruel, unless it’s against herself, when she can indulge in devastating self-deprecation. Carly has two more shows in the festival coming up on the 17th February and the 26th February.

elf-lyons-2Our first act was someone completely new to us – Elf Lyons. She comes across as a posh girl obsessed with how she interacts with her even posher mother, who, I think we can all agree, sounds a bit of a nightmare. I enjoyed her act and she had lots of good material, although I confess I didn’t always catch all the punchlines – because I was sitting too far away, I expect. She gave us twenty minutes or so of neurotic insecurities and built up a nice rapport with the audience. Her show, Pelican, was on later that night, so if you missed it, you missed it. However, you can see what other shows she’s doing here.

paul-sinhaOur next act was an old favourite – and I hope he’ll forgive the use of the word “old”. It’s Paul Sinha, whom we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder shows before and he’s always a joy. I’d forgotten quite how dour and laconic his delivery can be; it’s almost as though the backstory to every line he says is “I know I’m a failure, but I’m surviving nonetheless”. He tells of the trials and tribulations of being a gay British Asian man who doesn’t bake, and how thrilled his parents were when he gave up his medical career to follow comedy. His material is both funny and telling in the way it challenges preconceptions and stereotypes. Of course, he has a lot to say about his appearances on TV’s The Chase; but I preferred his general observations of life, including discovering the best App to meet Asian men, and his alarming but hilarious account of being out on the loose in Barnsley. He’s a top class comic and he has a new work in progress show at the festival on Saturday 18th February.

Dane BaptisteIf Paul Sinha’s an old favourite, our next act, after the interval, was a new favourite – Dane Baptiste, whose Reasonable Doubts show we saw last year and really loved. I’m completely taken in by his slightly reserved, slightly authoritarian, slightly controlling style; the emphasis of his act is on quiet observation and making ridiculous contrasts, like when he is jealous of girls for having “gay best friends”, and wishes he could have a “lesbian best friend” as well. He, too, can make you challenge yourself on your preconceptions, and his humour also appeals to your own sense of intelligence – which it’s always nice to recognise. I can’t recall many of the ins and outs of his routine, I just let them wash over me. I’m sure he’s going to be a really big star one day. His Work in Progress show took place last Saturday, but he’s doing many more gigs over the next few weeks as you can see here.

Josh HowieOur final act is someone we’ve seen twice at Screaming Blue Murder clubs and both times I’m afraid I can’t pretend to have enjoyed his act much. This is Josh Howie – and there’s something about him that brings out the politically correct in me, as I bridle at his material that challenges the PC brigade. So if you like your comedy un-PC, you’ll probably love him. In fact, I was enjoying his routine (up to a point) until he started his material about hoping that his two-year-old son won’t turn out to be gay. And if he is gay, he’ll tell him how it’s particularly wrong to be a bottom. In fact, he’ll watch porn videos with him in order to point out which sex practices and roles are acceptable, and which aren’t. I know this is a ridiculous subject, and one which he hopes will be funny; and, to be honest, I wish I liked him more, but I found him borderline homophobic and, anyway, I just don’t get humour that hates people. His solo show was on the previous night, so again if you want to catch him, he still has some dates elsewhere on his UK tour.

So something of a mixed bag for our first venture into this year’s Leicester Comedy Festival, but I have very high hopes for the four shows we’re still to see… watch this space!

Review – Henceforward…, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th February 2017

HenceforwardAt the ripe old age of 77, you could describe Sir Alan Ayckbourn as a veritable playwriting machine with 78 full length plays to his name and more awards than you can shake a stick at. I always think of him as pretty much unassailable when it comes to creating a well-made play that pleases its audience by bringing comedy and tragedy within spitting distance of each other and then seeing who comes out on top. Even in the early years, where his comedies seem much more classically “drawing-room” or “polite sex farce”, there was always that hint of menace lurking somewhere beneath the sheets.

jerome-and-nanA few of his plays have been referred to as his “science fiction” comedies. The excellent Communicating Doors involves time travel between twenty years ago and twenty years in the future. The hilarious Comic Potential is set in a time where androids perform in soap operas. For me his worst play (that I’ve seen anyway – controversial!) Improbable Fiction deteriorates from the relative sanity of a writers’ group to a fantasy imagination trip where the fictions of the first act become the facts of the second.

zoe-and-nanBut the first of these experimental plays was Henceforward…, which was first performed in Scarborough (naturally) in 1987 and moved to the West End in 1988. Set some time in the near future, composer Jerome lives in a rough neighbourhood of London where violent vigilantes the Daughters of Darkness (I wonder if Tom Jones demands royalties?) have replaced the police as the only law enforcement agency. Neurotic wannabe actress Zoe has been hired by Jerome from an escort agency for purposes that are unclear at first. Jerome has had “composer’s block” ever since his estranged wife Corinna took his beloved daughter Geain away (that’s Jane, but with added pretentiousness) four years earlier. If only he could convince the authorities that he and his home are suitable for looking after a child, his worries would go away and he would become artistically fecund again. In the meantime, all he has for companionship is NAN 300F – a robot nanny, obsessed with washing people’s faces and bringing them milky drinks because she is automatically programmed to recognise everyone as a child. Jerome hatches a devious plan that uses all his available resources to convince the authorities and Corinna that he can take responsibility for Geain again. What is that plan, and does it work? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

zoe-and-jeromeIf you put aside the science fiction element, you’re left with a fairly standard tale of a sad lonely man advertising for female companionship, which moves on to a Pygmalion-style farce of trying to impress the family with a beautiful girl who has no social ability unless it’s learned by rote. The science fiction element, however, gives it a fascinating window-dressing, which, with the benefit of hindsight, Ayckbourn got pretty spot-on. Giving NAN verbal instructions back in 1987 on how to do the housework could be replaced today by people asking Alexa to tell them jokes or put a record on. Unsurprisingly, when Jerome is confronted with choosing between real life or a robot, it’s not an easy decision for him to make. The Hi-tech composing board, camera security system, portable phones and oven facilities were all basically available back then (although, no doubt, cutting edge) but today are commonplace. The suggestion that a character is developing into a transgender identity must have been fairly surprising in 1987, whereas today it’s a phenomenon that most people accept without question. Plus ça change, etc.

zoeWhat I feel the play lacks – a little – is that great Ayckbournian crunch between the comic and the tragic. In this play, the tragic elements are kept at arms’ length off-stage: the dystopian society; Jerome’s mate Lupus, constantly ringing in seeking support from his old friend which is never given; the physical assault Zoe receives on the way to the flat. We the audience don’t really come into contact with these elements. What we see instead is either hilarious, or neutral; and I felt the first act in particular was too long with its scene-setting and the general disengagement of the character of Jerome. There’s no question that you can set all that to one side once the second act has begun, but it does take some patience and indulgence towards the author to get that far.

zoe-and-jeromeHowever, the play does benefit from an excellent cast. I thought Laura Matthews as Zoe was absolutely first rate all the way through. A really bright presence on stage, conveying all that nervousness of the young actress in a strange man’s house, needing a job but with no knowledge of what it would entail; crying, then laughing, then crying again within a split second or two. Her second half performance requires a completely different skillset and she performs it admirably! Bill Champion is required to be downbeat as Jerome throughout much of the first act but he comes back to life vigorously in Act Two and his alternating portrayal of self-satisfaction and frustrated disappointment is very enjoyable to watch.

corinna-jerome-and-zoeJacqueline King is brilliant as the no-nonsense, no-warmth Corinna, dominating much of the action in the second half whilst seeking to catch Jerome out any way she can; very ominously coming out of character occasionally in the first act, to add that vital ingredient of menace. Nigel Hastings makes an excellent job of presenting us with the pettiness and vanity of the pernickety safeguarding supremo Mervyn; and Jessie Hart gives us a brief but extremely effective portrayal of Geain, proving beyond any doubt how a child can change in four years.

zoe-and-geainThis production, directed by Ayckbourn himself, started at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, and still has Windsor and Cambridge to visit. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and the science fiction/robotics angle can act as a barrier to understanding the humanity lurking beneath. But it is there, the second act shenanigans are extremely funny, and at the end it’s satisfying to see everything fitting into place. Is it an optimistic ending? No, it’s as bleak as hell. But it’s right.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 3rd February 2017

Screaming Blue MurderYet again the Underground was full for the most recent Screaming Blue Murder, the best value comedy you can get for £13.50 (£12.50 with your R&D Friends’ Membership). They’re keeping the curved front rows which means you can get more people in nearer the front, which improves the atmosphere and gives the performers more options where it comes to interrogating the customers.

Dan EvansDan Evans was our host as usual, with his apparently effortless ability to make us laugh at our fellow comedy night devotees, although I’m sure it’s not really effortless. Early on, he caught a front row lady checking her watch, which was a massive fillip for his self-confidence as you can imagine. He wasn’t going to let her get away with that. Turns out she is the co-author of “Never Mind the Thigh Gap” which enabled Dan to get further embroiled in his own body image issues. Begging forgiveness that he might not have enough new material (he needn’t have worried, as he was on fire) he eluded to this very blog, gentle reader, although he fell short of pointing dramatically at me and declaiming “J’accuse!” Being outed like that is always a sticky moment though.

david-morganOur first act was David Morgan, whom we have seen before and who is always highly entertaining to watch. Much of his humour is based on his being gay and comparing straight and gay lifestyles, which, last time we saw him, really got the crowd on his side. This time, however, I felt we were a little more reserved in our responses towards him. Nevertheless, he had some lovely banter with the Netflix and Chill man in the front row and also delivered some great material about having babies. A little frantic at times, but that’s hardly a crime.

harriet-kemsleyNext up, and a change to the advertised programme, was Harriet Kemsley, who was new to us, with an engaging stage persona and some absolutely excellent original material. Unfortunately, the sound coming off the microphone gave her voice a harsh, rasping edge, but she was so good that after a while we could ignore it. We really enjoyed her tales about being engaged, although the man in the audience who proposed to his girlfriend in a French chateau put us all to shame; and amongst her other material there was a refreshing take on the Kardashians to boot. All in all, excellent and we’d happily see her again.

Markus BirdmanOur final act of the evening is the unrepentantly direct son of a preacher man, Markus Birdman, whom we have seen several times and is always a complete joy. He’s just so irrepressibly mischievous; you can never tell which way he’s going to go. This time he spent most of his act telling us what he wasn’t going to do – thereby doing it, without doing it, if you get my drift. One of his high points this time was when he pretended to a high level of political correctness before going straight into a line about two lezzas (his words) from which he extricates himself beautifully. Intelligent, unpredictable, dangerous and always extremely funny. One of the best guys on the circuit.

Four weeks till the next Screaming Blue Murder which I will be attending without Mrs Chrisparkle, as she will be accompanying Lady Duncansby to see Lee Nelson in the Derngate whilst I am with Lady D’s butler Sir William (plus many others) on his stag night. I predict a riot.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Thirteen Problems (1932)

The Thirteen ProblemsIn which we meet again Miss Marple and her detective-fiction writing nephew Raymond West; together with four friends they set up the Tuesday Night Club where each one would tell a story of an unsolved crime and the companions would have a think and come up with the identity of the criminal. Naturally, this is an exercise where they all fail dismally apart from Miss Marple, whose calm and quiet consideration of each narrative instantly sees through the mist and works out what happened and whodunit. Unlike Partners in Crime and The Mysterious Mr Quin, where the books consist of a sequence of short stories that build up to an episodically narrated novel, The Thirteen Problems feels much more like individual short stories gathered together under a simple framework, in order to create something that looks like a novel, but isn’t. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, I promise I won’t reveal any of its important secrets!

nash-pall-mallAs in those previous books of short stories, the individual tales first appeared in magazine format, either in The Royal magazine, The Story-Teller, or in Nash’s Pall Mall magazine; all first appearing between 1927 and 1931. The stories are told in largely the same order that they first appeared in those magazines, although one of two skip about a bit. The book was dedicated to Leonard and Katharine Woolley, the famous archaeologist and his wife, whom Mrs Christie met in 1928 in the Middle East, when travelling alone following her divorce. They became friends but they were never easy people, by the sound of it; and Katharine, in particular, is seen as the inspiration for a few of Christie’s more unstable female characters.

The Tuesday Night Club

corn-flour-and-waterThe first story sets the scene for the Tuesday Night Clubbers – along with West and Miss Marple, there are arty Joyce Lemprière, elderly clergyman Dr Pender, wizened little solicitor Mr Petherick, and former Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering, who, because of his police associations, is given the task of providing the first case for the club to get their teeth into. When we first met Raymond West in The Murder at the Vicarage, he was a big-headed dolt with hardly any redeeming features. Here, he is already starting to become a more approachable character; and, although he is rather smug in his surroundings and self-importance, he’s nothing like as abrasive.

However, it is Miss Marple who overshadows them all, both in her mental dexterity and in her physical appearance: “Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair.” Apart from the colour of the lace, the whole description reminds me of Whistler’s Mother.

Miss Marple’s relationship with West is rather interesting. In “The Murder at the Vicarage”, she’s preparing for him to come and stay and she’s very careful to go along precisely with everything that she thinks he will want, in a rather self-denying sort of way. In “The Tuesday Night Club” we’re starting to see that relationship loosen a little, with Miss Marple actually criticising West’s work: “I know, dear,” said Miss Marple, “that your books are very clever. But do you think that people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?” This opens the way for the others to have their own say about West’s novels. It will be interesting to watch if this less formal relationship becomes more obvious as the book progresses. Other themes that you feel might develop are the relationships between the individual Tuesday Night Club members, and also the suspicion that the police are idiots. They are, at least, in Raymond West’s own works of fiction, and Sir Henry will have his work cut out to prove it’s not the case.

It’s a relatively simple tale that Miss Marple has absolutely no trouble in solving, although the others’ solutions are way off the mark. There are mentions of both ptomaine and arsenic poisoning, so Christie The Poison Expert is safely in her comfort zone. Mr Jones’ inheritance from the death of his wife amounted to £8000, which you might be interested to know in today’s money equals just under £400,000, described by Sir Henry as a very “solid amount.” Curious though, to discover that someone would eat a “bowl of cornflour” as an invalid remedy. Apparently it would be mixed with milk into some sort of custardy paste. Sounds disgusting. Banting, which is what Miss Clark was doing, was a popular term for losing weight by excluding sugar from your diet. It was named after a Mr Banting.

The Idol House of Astarte

astarteThe next tale in my copy of the Thirteen Problems is The Idol House of Astarte, but according to the Wikipedia breakdown of the stories, next should be Ingots of Gold, with The Idol House of Astarte appearing fifth. Anyway, I digress. Dr Pender it is who tells this atmospheric tale of the apparent transformation of a sweet young thing into a moonlit priestess who warns that approaching her will cause death. Richard Haydon, who is the sweet young thing’s wannabe boyfriend, risks her warning and, as it seems, falls down dead as a result. Of course, it’s not a mystical occult death but straightforward murder and only Miss Marple peers through the web of intrigue to see the obvious solution.

There’s not a lot to add to this story. It’s set on Dartmoor, with various houseguests including a feeble daughter named Violet, thereby conjuring up images of the setting for The Sittaford Mystery. As Dr Pender gets into his stride and tells the tale, Joyce Lemprière turns on the lamps to add a sense of the mystic, and it’s fair to say that the story does come across with a great deal of superstitious atmosphere. Perhaps the background tale of the House of Astarte, the Goddess of the Phoenicians, is an early sign of Christie’s interest in archaeology – no doubt she was there when a few temples were unveiled over the years. Egyptology will get a mention in a later story.

Raymond West is still a little uncertain of how strong-minded his Aunt Jane is, but she quickly asserts herself with a clear and decisive explanation of how the murder took place. As a whole, the story is, of course, far-fetched; but the actual modus operandi of the murder is plain and clear and totally believable.

Ingots of Gold

gold-ingotsThis tale is told by Raymond West and its main contribution to the book as a whole is an excuse for a little bit of family irritation with Miss Marple. On one hand, it’s quite a complicated set up, with West going to Cornwall with a man called Newman who is an expert on sunken Spanish treasure. A ship allegedly carrying a cargo of bullion is discovered to have been attacked and the bullion taken, but no one seems to know how. Naturally Miss Marple is there to solve it in a quick and easy manner, taking the opportunity gently to ridicule her nephew at the same time.

If you like a spot of Treasure Island to your whodunits, then the tone and subject matter of this story might well appeal. It even has an off-putting local yokel who undermines West’s confidence and makes him feel all queasy. I don’t think Miss Marple would have been similarly affected. Its Cornish setting gives rise to a few obvious name changes – Polperran is a mixture of Polperro and Perranporth, Rathole is a rather unsubtle version of Mousehole and Serpent Rocks clearly represent The Lizard. When they’re so easy to interpret, one wonders why Christie bothers changing the names.

When you discover Miss Marple’s interpretation of exactly what has gone on, there is a slight sense of disappointment, as there really isn’t anything much to examine. Something of a potboiler, I would say.

The Bloodstained Pavement

blood-on-concreteThis story, told by Joyce, is an appropriate sequel to the previous tale as it also takes place in Rathole (Mousehole). Christie adds to the sense of the location by filling in her version of the village’s history at the hands of Spanish pillagers five hundred years ago, reflecting the true history of Mousehole and its involvement in the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1604. Christie would have us believe that the whole village of Rathole was destroyed apart from the Polharwith Arms; in fact it was just the Keigwin Arms in Mousehole that survived the attack.

It’s an intriguing little tale that blends paranormal activity with hardnosed, devious crime. Artist Joyce is painting a village scene when her view is interrupted, first by a man with a dowdy wife, then by an altogether more glamorous woman. In later conversation with a local fisherman, Joyce believes she sees droplets of blood forming on the pavement, as though the village’s violent past was coming back to haunt her. It must be her imagination, mustn’t it? But when she later learns that someone has suffered a tragic death swept out to sea, she knows that her vision of blood drops must have been a premonition. Miss Marple, naturally, comes to the rescue, with incisive and accurate attention to a minute scrap of detail that holds the key to the murder, despite the complaints by the men of the Tuesday Club that Joyce hasn’t given them anything like enough information to solve the crime – if crime there be.

I liked the description of Rathole: “it is pretty and it is quaint, but it is very self-consciously so”, like a number of those bijou Cornish villages. Raymond West is his usual grumpy self, picking up on Joyce’s inaccurate descriptions of the village’s past, moaning about modern tourists, and then explaining the whole crime as a symptom of indigestion. Miss Marple’s summing up regarding what really happened could almost be her motto of observations of village life: “there is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you dear young people will never realise how very wicked the world is.”

Joyce is satisfied with her picnic lunch that comprises of “a tinned tongue and two tomatoes”. I’m not sure how well that would go down today.

Motive v Opportunity

will1Mr Petherick, solicitor of this parish, is the next to tell his story – is it just me, or is this turning into Christie’s version of The Canterbury Tales? He informs us there will be no blood, just an intellectual puzzle to sort out. And he does weave a very interesting little tale, about a sentimental old man who is obviously being conned out of his estate by a charlatan psychic. With an almost Feydeau level of farce, an incriminating document (the will, of course) is placed in an envelope and then dropped out of pockets over the next couple of hours, more times than you can shake a stick at. No wonder there was plenty of opportunity for it to be tampered with.

The assembled company, as per usual, make reasonable guesses as to what actually happened but only Miss Marple gets it right. However, rather disappointingly, so did I; I think this is a very easy mystery to solve! So it depends on your own personal preference whether you like to be surprised by a mystery story, or if you like to get it right! It’s a very well written little story though – neat and compact, clear and orderly, just as you would expect from Mr Petherick.

Just out of curiosity, I thought I’d check how much the £5000 inheritance that Clode bestows on each of his nieces and nephew would be worth today – bearing in mind this was originally published in magazine format in 1928 – and it’s about £220,000. That’s still not bad.

The Thumb Mark of St Peter

haddockYou learn something every day – and probably no one better to teach you than Miss Marple. Did you know that the dark blotch above the pectoral fin on a haddock was called St Peter’s thumbprint? Did you even know that a haddock had that blotch? Me neither. How did we get so old without knowing that?

Anyway this is the sign from God that enables Miss Marple to solve her own story, which otherwise had all the other members of the Tuesday Night Club not even bothering to hazard a guess. Her niece Mabel had been in an unhappy marriage, and when her husband unexpectedly died from poisoned mushrooms, all the tongues in the village started wagging that she must have bumped him off. But Miss Marple knows Mabel to be incapable of such things, and sets her mind to work to discover the full circumstances of his death.

A number of Christie’s usual themes crop up in the story: her interest in poison is clear, with the poisoned mushrooms, the ptomaine and the pilocarpine all playing a part; the brutality of saying that insanity runs in a family; Miss Marple reprimands Raymond for profanity; and she also expresses some class differences when she points out that Mabel’s cook has a good memory: “there is nothing that class cannot remember if it tries.” Two other Marplesque idiosyncracies might be worthy of note, to see if they recur in future stories: the fact that she has no trust or belief in doctors, and that she’s very risk-averse when it comes to looking after her property. Before travelling to Mabel’s to stay with her, she says “I put Clara on board wages and sent the plate and the King Charles tankard to the bank”.

It’s actually a very well written and intriguing story that hangs together beautifully. It also takes us further into the real lives of Miss Marple’s circle, with some embarrassment for Raymond West and Joyce Lemprière at the beginning of the story, and confirmation that they are engaged at the end of it; framing Miss Marple’s tale inside the growing relationship between Raymond and Joyce works really well. This is the last tale in the “first round” of stories in this book; the next story was first published in magazine format eighteen months later, so there was a genuine break in writing between the two sequences, during which time I presume she concentrated on writing The Seven Dials Mystery.

The Blue Geranium

blue-geraniumA year has passed, and Sir Henry is staying with Colonel and Mrs Bantry, who would return several years later in the book The Body in the Library. Sir Henry suggests that Miss Marple would be a good choice for a sixth dinner party member, much to Mrs Bantry’s surprise, in a start to the story that rehashes some of the introductory nature of the first story in this book, The Tuesday Night Club, including Miss Marple’s black mittens and her fichu. The others present were glamorous actress Jane Helier and local Dr Lloyd with whom Miss Marple has an animated conversation about the workhouse (putting to the back of her mind, obviously, her previously admitted confession that she has no time for doctors.)

Colonel Bantry tells the story of his friend George Pritchard, and his irritating wife Mary, who died, perhaps from shock, when the flowers on her wallpaper turned blue. Yes, it does sound rather contrived, doesn’t it? Of course, Miss Marple has a much more scientific explanation for the death. This is a story very much of its age, it simply couldn’t happen today due to modern manufacture and medical practices; so it is very much a period piece, but rather charming as a result.

Will there be more stories told by these six people chez Bantry? I think there might.

The Companion

hotel-metropoleUnlike the Tuesday Night Club, it’s becoming clear that these six stories will all be told on the same evening, at the Bantrys’ dinner party. Dr Lloyd is next to tell his tale, about two English ladies on holiday in Gran Canaria (or Grand Canary, as Christie knew it), one of whom dies in a swimming accident. It’s a fairly complex little tale that would eventually become the germ for the later book A Murder Is Announced. But it’s a satisfying read, and of course Miss Marple sees through all the red herrings with pinpoint accuracy.

The character of Jane Helier becomes a little more filled out – we now know that she is not only beautiful, but also quite thick, as she becomes confused by Miss Marple’s reference to the villager Mrs Trout, from whose behaviour Miss M extrapolates the solution to the mystery. The main thrust of Miss Marple’s arguments is always that “human nature is much the same in a village as anywhere else, only one has opportunities and leisure for seeing it at closer quarters.” But the story ends with Jane Helier sighing “nothing ever happens in a village, does it? […] I’m sure I shouldn’t have any brains at all if I lived in a village.” Well, quite.

Dr Lloyd’s polite style of speech seems rather dated now – consider how patronising this sentence sits in today’s world: “I used to walk along the mole every morning far more interested than any member of the fair sex could be in a street of hat shops.” “Mole” is an unusual and archaic word for a pier or harbour structure – mid-16th century according to my OED.

It’s quite amusing to see how exotic the Canary Islands are portrayed to the 1920s/30s reader. Jane Helier believes them to be in the South Seas (she would). It was at the Hotel Metropole in Las Palmas that Agatha Christie took refuge after her divorce from Archie, and where she wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train. Today the building acts as Las Palmas Town Hall.

The Four Suspects

fall-downstairsA smart little story, told by Sir Henry, with an introductory consideration on the nature of guilt and innocence in cases that remain unsolved; specifically, how people who are innocent of a crime may still be suspected of committing it, and therefore losing their reputation and status. This story concerns a Dr Rosen, who was found with a broken neck having fallen downstairs. But this is a case of, literally, did he fall or was he pushed? He was expecting to be assassinated by a secret, German society, not unlike the Mafia. There are four suspects, none of whom have alibis, all of whom were alone at the time of the death. Naturally, Miss Marple makes mincemeat of Sir Henry’s unsolvable crime, and Sir Henry assures the dinner guests he will do his best to ensure those who are innocent of the crime are publicly recognised as such.

There are a couple of references in this story worth checking out – Dr Rosen retires to the Somerset village of King’s Gnaton, which is an uncomfortable name and certainly doesn’t exist. There is, however, a Gnaton Hall, in Yealmpton, Devon, with which Christie may have been familiar. She also allows Sir Henry to express an opinion about class; with reference to Rosen’s German maid Gertrud, he says: “elderly women of that class can be amazingly bitter sometimes.”

A Christmas Tragedy

hatThe value of this story is in gaining more insight into the character of Miss Marple, rather than the intrigue of the story itself. Miss Marple, who takes up the story-telling baton, is concerned that she won’t tell her story very well and is likely to start rambling. This is odd, considering she had previously told the story of The Thumb Mark of St Peter in a perfectly readable and enjoyable way. But yes, in this story, Christie makes Miss Marple sound very rambling indeed, and I found it hard to follow the flow of the story, which concerns a man that Miss Marple was certain would try to kill his wife, and then she pins him down when his wife finally dies. I found her judgmental nature in this tale rather unpleasant to be honest.

Christie was obviously keen to stress Miss Marple’s age in this story – whilst she still has all her marbles in perfect working order, her ability to structure a tale was very random, to use the modern vernacular. She also stresses her old-fashioned values and sentiments, like her vehement support of the death penalty: “I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment.” Christie also uses the character of Mrs Bantry to reflect her own anti-women sexism. When Colonel Bantry remarks that none of the women has yet told a story, she replies “we’ve listened with the most intelligent appreciation. We’ve displayed the true womanly attitude – not wishing to thrust ourselves into the limelight!”

There’s also an Egyptology reference which reveals Christie’s own fascination in the subject, and the story takes place in Keston – it’s unlike Christie to set stories in real locations (apart from London of course). Keston is a small village which would have then been in Kent but now is in the London Borough of Bromley.

The story ends with a cryptic interchange between Miss Marple and Jane Helier, where it is obvious that Miss Marple has understood Miss Helier’s unspoken thoughts, which is a whole lot more than the rest of us. Will all be revealed in a later story?

The Herb of Death

foxglove1Not Parsley the Lion on a killing spree, but someone put the foxglove leaves in with the sage and onion, young Sylvia died as a result, and we’ve got to find out whodunit. This is the story told by Mrs Bantry, who feels unable to embellish and present her tale in an interesting manner, so gives us the bare bones of what happened and then the rest of the group play twenty questions trying to get to the facts. A very different approach to telling the story and a very enjoyable one – much more entertaining than Miss Marple’s rambling Christmas Tragedy, for example.

All the characters continue to play their allotted roles – Miss Helier is dim and beautiful, Colonel Bantry is hearty, Sir Henry avuncular, Dr Lloyd polite, Miss Marple ruthless. A self-contained little chapter, but Mrs Bantry’s admission at the end of the story that she has changed the names of the people involved feels like a significant confession. But does it have any knock-on effect elsewhere in the book? We shall see.

The Affair at the Bungalow

parlourmaidThe final tale of the night is told by Jane Helier, pretending at first to be about “a friend”, although she was fooling nobody, and after a while she gives up the pretence. It’s all about her, of course. It’s a story about a jewellery theft from a bungalow and framing an apparently innocent young playwright. The solution confounds everyone, even Miss Marple – but Jane Helier disappoints the group when she confesses she doesn’t know the outcome herself. There’s a good reason for that – not just her lack of intelligence – but that would be too much of a spoiler at this stage!

It’s a good story because it sheds further light on Miss Helier’s vacuous and, frankly, thick brain and how she is steeped in class prejudice; she actually says at one point: “one doesn’t look at parlour maids as though they were people”. The story also allows us to see some of Miss Marple’s kinder instincts, as she offers some secret words of wisdom to Miss Helier before leaving at the end of the evening.

Miss Helier reveals that she will be touring in Mr Somerset Maugham’s play Smith next autumn. For the record, this rather forgotten piece is a comedy in four acts that was produced at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1909.

That wraps up the evening’s excitement at the Bantry household – and it would be another eighteen months before the final story had its first publication in Nash’s Pall Mall magazine (November 1931) – just a few months before The Thirteen Problems made its first full appearance in book form.

Death by Drowning

drowningAnd the final tale is a very good story – certainly one of the best in this collection. Sir Henry is once more at the Bantry household when Miss Marple asks to see him. A local girl, Rose Emmott, has died by drowning in the local river. Everyone assumes it was an accident but Miss M knows better – but she can’t prove it. So she writes down the name of the person she thinks is responsible for the girl’s death and implores Sir Henry to use whatever influence he can to ensure justice is done. And done it is.

Christie still expresses her political and class views – she just can’t keep it in. Sandford, the main suspect, is described as a “Bolshie, you know. No morals”. On another occasion, “his speech was a little too ladylike”. Colonel Melchett, whom we also originally met in The Murder at the Vicarage, agrees that Sandford and Rose were not a good match: “Stick to your own class”, he pompously insists.

The story – and also the book – ends with Miss Marple triumphant again; as if we ever doubted it. That suggestion early on in the book that the police are idiots doesn’t really get played out – and indeed in this last story it is the police, in the form of Sir Henry, who ensures that justice is done.

All that remains is for me to give The Thirteen Problems an overall satisfaction rating of 7/10. The portentous loose ends of a few of the stories never get resolved, which is rather disappointing, and you very much get the feeling that this is a combination of previously published magazine stories rather than a whole, individual work. That said, a number of the stories are very enjoyable, and I think I only solved the case before Miss Marple on one occasion – so that makes it quite exciting.

Lord Edgware DiesWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and it’s back to Hercule Poirot. Next in line is Lord Edgware Dies, and 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 – Manchester By The Sea, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 30th January 2017

manchester_by_the_seaWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to Paris in December, posters for Manchester By The Sea were all over the Metro, and I confess they got me intrigued. I didn’t know Manchester by the Sea was a real place, in Massachusetts (population 5,136 in the 2010 census). I thought maybe it might be about some tough Northerners relocating to a beach environment to escape the stresses and strains of the gritty urban cityscape. In Australia, I expect they think it means a coastal retail outlet where they sell sheets. Both wrong.

mtbs1The late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, when in an adventurous mood, once did a tour of “New England in the Fall”. This included a visit to Boston, which she enjoyed, but summed it up with a comment that I’ve never forgotten, that it’s so miserable there in winter that they have a huge spike in the number of suicides. I always thought that must be typical maternal exaggeration, but now I’ve seen the film of Manchester by the Sea (30 miles from Boston) I completely get it. Even though it’s won many accolades, gained critical acclaim and been a box office success, it’s simply one of the most miserable films I’ve ever seen.

mtbs6It’s the story of Lee, struggling to cope with the horror of having caused a house fire that killed his three children; Randi, his wife, and/or ex-wife, who blames him and also has to come to terms with how to face the future; and 16-year-old Patrick, his nephew, who has just lost his father, and faces the dubious prospect of having Uncle Lee as his guardian. If you want to see how they interact and how they cope with their various situations, you’ll have to watch the film. But, a word of warning: there is precious little light and shade. It’s all shade. I gave one small chuckle. Once. Misery is piled on top of moroseness, which is on top of suffering, on top of despair.

mtbs2Of course I understand why Lee would be so unhappy. His life is ruined, he cares for nothing any more, he exists, only because a suicide attempt failed. And if this film set out to portray the association of three unhappy lives who are consistently unable to put their unhappiness behind them, then it’s extremely successful. But that’s almost an academic exercise. It doesn’t reward the viewer with anything other than a sense of mission accomplished, or misery for misery’s sake. In fact, when Lee’s dead children come back at the end as a mental reaction to his leaving a frying pan on the hob, I wondered if there was any cliché to which it wouldn’t stoop.

mtbs5Many of the film’s scenes are in flashback, and I wasn’t 100% certain who all the characters were and why they were facing their predicament until a good hour into the film. As a result, I interpreted (wrongly I think) the characterisation of Lee as not so much someone who has had all the emotion battered out of them, but as someone with autism. Casey Affleck superbly conveys that inability to connect, to interpret something figuratively, to see things from another point of view, to solve issues without aggression. But I don’t think he is meant to be autistic, I think it’s a coincidence. That’s just Mr Affleck’s way of portraying someone who’s an empty shell.

mtbs4The acting is all excellent, but none of the characters is particularly likeable – well maybe C J Wilson’s George, but he’s very peripheral. I felt sorry for the characters but I never emotionally engaged with them. I was very nearly bored by the film – but not quite; I think I kept hanging on for something nice to happen to any of these people. It didn’t.

mtbs3It’s at least 30 minutes too long – I have to fight the cynic in me who thinks it’s about two and a quarter hours too long. Mrs C hated it much more than me, I should add – I remember her using the words mawkish, claptrap and self-indulgent. When it was over, the packed house at the Errol Flynn was deathly quiet – I think I heard one man just say “oh.” On the way out I overheard two ladies comparing at which point in the film they fell asleep. A perfect example of Macbeth’s tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I’ve read the reviews praising it to the hilt – and I just don’t get it. For me, this is an elegant, well-produced, attractive void.