Review – Mack and Mabel, Chichester Festival Theatre, 29th August 2015

Mack and MabelJust as one swallow does not a summer make, one show is insufficient for a proper Chichester weekend. So after a perilously short afternoon nap we braved the Sussex rain and made our way back to the Festival theatre for our evening’s entertainment, Jonathan Church’s production of Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical, Mack and Mabel. I’ve always been interested in the history of musical theatre but for some reason this is a show that’s always passed me by. I remember the overture being used by Torvill and Dean to great effect, but that’s about all.

Michael BallBut then it didn’t set the Broadway world alight when it first hit the stage. It may have been nominated for eight Tony awards, but it didn’t win any of them; and its original run lasted a mere 66 performances. Odd, considering it had something of a dream team with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and choreography by Gower Champion (repeating their joint success of Hello Dolly, ten years earlier). But sometimes great ingredients don’t necessarily make great shows, and even if they do, sometimes, somehow, they just don’t click.

Rebecca LaChanceTo fill you in (and if you don’t want to know what happens, you probably should skip this paragraph): it’s the story of the partnership of Mack Sennett (he of the Keystone Kops) and Mabel Normand, one time waitress, swept into stardom by Sennett as she appeared in many of his very popular two-reelers. They have a romance, even though he’s not the romantic type; but when Sennett refuses to make the film of Molly, in which writer Frank has written her a role of (we suppose) depth and class, she gets ideas above her station and leaves Sennett’s slapstick, pie-flinging studio and takes up with William Desmond Taylor’s more serious and respectful manner of film-making (and, indeed, romancing). As Sennett’s popularity declines (there are only so many Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties that a nation can take), he entices Mabel back to make the film of Molly but he still can’t resist jazzing it up and turning it into a comedy, so she walks out on him again. Talkies come, and Sennett finally sees the light – not with spoken drama but with music – and he makes one more play for Mabel, but she’s now a drug addict (we saw Taylor giving her cocaine) and she dies before he has the chance properly to make amends, let alone another movie with her.

Anna-Jane CaseySo despite Jerry Herman’s outrageously tippety-tap-happy show tunes, there’s a fair bit of sadness in the story, which makes for an interesting mix. In fact the ending was re-written for the 1995 London production, with Mack and Mabel happily reunited in each other’s arms at the final curtain, and I believe that is now the “default setting” for other revivals; although this Chichester production returns to the more sombre original. Whether that gives the story a little more “bite”, or whether you feel the happy/sad combination is a little awkward, is very much a personal thing. Personally, I quite like the bite. Perhaps what is more controversial about the show is how it very much misrepresents what actually happened in reality. This is definitely a fictionalised account of Sennett and Normand; for example, it suggests to you that the Keystone Kops were brought in to boost flagging ratings (not so, they were right at the forefront of Sennett’s early output) and that the Bathing Beauties were an alternative to Mabel once she had left the studio (again not so, she performed alongside them in their earlier films). There is no mention made of Mabel’s directing and producing career, nor of her marriage to actor Lew Cody. The show would have you believe that she left Sennett’s studios to work with William Desmond Taylor, but in fact it was Sam Goldwyn that she first worked for after leaving Sennett; any dalliance with Taylor came later. The show also implies that it was Taylor who introduced Mabel to the cocaine habit, whereas in fact she was already an addict and had approached Taylor to try to wean her off it. So don’t take the story of Mack and Mabel the musical as Gospel – just think of it as a collection of characters jumbled together in some sort of serving suggestion.

Jack EdwardsThe last time we saw a musical at Chichester (also with Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters) it was the extraordinary Gypsy with the even more extraordinary Imelda Staunton, which has gone on to do great things in the West End. So it was almost inevitable that the four of us would compare Gypsy with Mack and Mabel to see who would come out on top. For me, it’s no question that it’s the former; and that’s nothing to do with the standard of this production of Mack and Mabel, which is superb. It all comes down to the characters. Rose in Gypsy is really complex, giving Ms Staunton a gift of an opportunity to flesh out the character with humour, horror, kindness, dementia and everything in between. By contrast, Jerry Herman’s Mack is one-dimensional. He makes films. He falls in love with Mabel but it’s all on his terms, she doesn’t change him. He is addicted to slapstick. There’s not much more you can say about him. Even comparing with Hello Dolly, Sennett is still a very simple creation, whereas Dolly Levi schemes, manipulates, cajoles, supports and is all things to all men. In Gypsy, both Rose and Louise go on an incredible journey. In Hello Dolly, Dolly starts with an ambition, achieves it, and (I believe) genuinely falls in love. However, in Mack and Mabel, Sennett ends where he started; a retrospective of his career and his relationship, but with no sense of progress. Mabel, for sure, does go on a journey, but ends up in a dark place; but that’s almost irrelevant as the structure of this musical (despite its title) means this is definitely The Mack Sennett Show, and that other characters are relatively incidental. In many ways it’s an unbalanced and under-written show (not in the actuarial sense) and to make a success out of it, you have to heap it with stunning performances and top quality production values.

Kops on the runAnd that’s precisely what they do. From the moment the 15-man orchestra (not being sexist, they are all men) strikes up that glorious overture, your “good-time” endorphins kick in and you just know you’re in for a musical treat. I wasn’t familiar with the songs before the show, but some of them are pure Herman showstopping heaven. Look What Happened to Mabel, When Mabel Comes in the Room, Big Time, and many others all have you itching to get up on stage and hoof along with the rest of them to Stephen Mear’s stunningly entertaining choreography. Robert Jones’ design is a source of constant surprise and delight, as the film studio becomes the observation deck of a train, a pier with a ship in dock, and various abstract celluloid fantasy set-ups. The large acting space that the Festival Theatre provides is perfect for huge set piece moments, with two outstanding scenes; one, where the Keystone Kops run riot – Toby Park and Aitor Basauri from Spymonkey are credited with “physical comedy” and they have their autograph all over this scene; and another, where the company perform the taptastic Tap Your Troubles Away with superb skill and showmanship. I must confess, I’m not a huge tap fan – 42nd Street put me off it for life really – but that scene really was the bees’ knees.

Rebecca LaChance and Ashley AndrewsAnd it’s all brought to life by a tremendous cast. At the heart of it is Michael Ball as Mack, who I don’t think could be anything other than magnificent if he tried. Such a huge stage presence, you can almost feel his delight as the show progresses, as if the cast are his one big family that he is proudly showing off to us. Excellent comic timing, and still with a voice that is just made for this kind of show – simply superb. His Mabel is relatively unknown to us in the UK – Rebecca LaChance, and she’s amazing. She has a wonderful expressive voice, loads of pizazz and is pretty cute too. I really liked how she adapted to Mabel’s various stages of life, like the wide-eyed innocent, the sophisticated actress, the drugged-up victim, with (seemingly) effortless ease. I predict great things!

Girls togetherA bonus to any cast is the effervescent presence of Anna-Jane Casey, brilliant in both Forbidden Broadway and Sheffield’s Company a few years ago. She plays Lottie, a silent character actress in the Sennett squad who comes into her own when the talkies start – her performance fronting Tap Your Troubles Away is sensational, but she always brightens up the stage whenever she’s on. There’s a very nicely controlled comic performance by Jack Edwards as Fatty Arbuckle, another of the Sennett studio actors for whom life would turn sour; and also great contributions by Ashley Andrews (memorable in Drunk), and Rebecca Louis, as the production’s Dance Captains – the ensemble’s overall superb standard of dance is a testament to their ability to keep them on their toes. But the whole cast do a terrific job.

Kops on the watchSo all in all it’s a really enjoyable production, with some stand-out performances and stunning routines. Once it’s finished in Chichester it’s embarking on a national tour until December and I strongly recommend you catch it at either Plymouth, Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh, Nottingham or Cardiff!

Review – For Services Rendered, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 29th August 2015

For Services Rendered First Chichester weekend of the year, and a joint visit with our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The last time we saw them was for a show in Edinburgh, and it poured with rain. This time, in Chichester, it poured with rain again. We’re seeing them next weekend in Stratford. I don’t have much in the way of climactic expectations!

For Services Rendered 1979After a really superb lunch in the Minerva Brasserie (why would you go anywhere else pre-theatre in Chichester?) we took our seats in the Minerva Theatre for For Services Rendered. Described as a rarely performed play nowadays, I did get to see it at the National in 1979 – on September 14th, in fact, in seat G14 in the Stalls, priced £5.95. I remember it being a stunning production, featuring such stalwarts of the stage as Jean Anderson, Alison Fiske, Peter Jeffrey, Harold Innocent, Barbara Ferris and Phyllida Law. Of course the original production starred Flora Robson and Ralph Richardson – I bet that had the wow factor. But there’s no doubt that this new production at Chichester is, I’m sure, as fine as any in the past. Superb attention to period detail, a deep, beautiful, atmospheric set, and cut-glass acting as good as you’ll get anywhere.

Stella GonetWritten in 1932, this was Somerset Maugham’s last-but-one play, an examination of the fallout of World War One within a well-to-do English family. Fourteen years on, the Ardsleys are still just about surviving, with the oldest son and heir blinded in the war, and therefore unable to carry on the family business; one daughter having lost the man she’d hoped to marry; another having married outside her class (disgraceful) to a tenant farmer; and the third unmarried at 27 with no hope of finding a suitable gentleman in the backwater in which they live. Simon ChandlerIn addition, there is the hard-up ex-officer Collie Stratton, who opened a motor repair business that has fallen on its face, and a married couple with no apparent love for each other, but with the husband eager to seduce the Ardsleys’ youngest daughter. All that, and the doctor brother of the lady of the house has concerns about her health… Maugham weaves these threads together culminating in various degrees of tragedy, although there is one glimmer of happiness for a couple of the characters somewhere there – but on reflection, it’s unlikely to end well.

Anthony CalfWhilst this may be a play from several eras ago, and you may feel that the drawing-room, middle class setting is anachronistic in the post- Look Back in Anger age, there is much to admire and appreciate about this play. Staging it today shows how the general emancipation of women has come a long way; back in 1932 it just wasn’t done for women to make their own decisions about – well, anything really. Marrying outside of one’s class is shown to be a foolish venture, inevitably ending in disappointment; that is perhaps the one element in which this play has a dated feel. Apart from that, much that was relevant then is relevant today. Matilda ZieglerCoping with social shame and scandal can still result in suicide. Lives and relationships can still be ruined in the aftermath of war. As a nation, we still don’t look after our war veterans as we should; many of them still rely on drink or drugs as a prop on which some of them just about get by. Recessions and depressions affect our livelihoods and incomes; but there will always be those who have inordinately inappropriate sums of money at their fingertips, to keep for their own pleasure and fun without a thought for the wider community. If For Services Rendered had been written by Noel Coward, we might have expected a wittier touch or maybe a happier ending; but Maugham liked his gloom, and, despite a few ironically humorous scenes, the tone and vision remain bleak throughout – but appropriately so.

Justine MitchellHoward Davies’ classy production thrills you from the moment you enter the auditorium and are greeted by William Dudley’s elegant, tasteful set; in fact it was all I could do to deter Lord Liverpool from jumping on stage, lolling on one of the dining chairs, feet up on the table, feigning 1930s ennui with a tennis racquet in one hand and The Times in the other. The whole production oozes dignified restraint, from the rarely played wireless in the corner to the well-worn but once hideously expensive eastern carpets. Only the pantomime-like clap of thunder that heralds in the second act strikes an over the top note; I half-expected Mr Ardsley to burst out of a stylised bottle, bestowing three surprise wishes upon the impoverished Collie.

Joseph KloskaStella Gonet’s Mrs Ardsley is a strong matriarch, who knows precisely how to behave decently and will never stoop to depths unbecoming of a lady. Her altercation (such as it is) with youngest daughter Lois is a fine exercise in strict discretion, packing her off to spend months with a miserable aunt before she even has a chance to fiddle with her pearls. It’s a beautiful performance, blending practicality with decorum, and when her character has her own tragedy to contend with, she gives us a classic stiff-upper-lip experience that you can only admire Yolanda Kettleand hope you’d be like that in the same circumstances. As her husband, Simon Chandler is a little nugget of Victorian conservatism, decent but unbending, intelligent but without empathy; a walking, talking, emotional void who follows rules to the nth degree. Much of the ironic humour comes from his total inability to see the wood for the trees.

Jo HerbertAnthony Calf is excellent as always as the abysmal Wilfred Cedar, exuding friendship and bonhomie when it suits him, retreating into hostile selfishness when challenged. He very credibly gives the impression of someone falling in love with love, and there’s a huge element of the pathetic about his approaches to young Lois. Matilda Ziegler’s Gwen is a brilliant creation of a woman under pressure to keep her man, mixing sarcasm and ridicule with sheer venom. I also loved her opening scene where every comment she made could be taken as an insult – it was immaculately performed. There’s also a brilliant performance by Justine Mitchell as Eva, who’s sacrificed her own emotions to do the decent thing by blinded brother Sydney, but who just can’t take any more of that wretched chess.Nick Fletcher Her scene with Joseph Kloska, as the persistently irritated and irritating Sydney, where he’s criticising her on her chess moves, is electric. But it is Ms Mitchell’s semi-coquettish approaches to Nick Fletcher’s Collie, sending as strong a signal as is decently possible to suggest that, like Barkis, she is willing, that constitutes the stand-out performance of this play. She positively hurts with pointless optimism, as she tries to lend him money or suggest they would make a good couple together; but Eva is the character to whom Somerset Maugham most wants to deny happiness, and her increasing mental instability is movingly and convincingly played.

Sam CallisJo Herbert is excellent as the put-upon but stoic Ethel, Sam Callis also very good as the rough and ready farmer Howard with potentially straying hands. Yolanda Kettle is very convincing as the frustrated, teasing and not entirely demure Lois, and David Annen turns in a very nice performance as the doctor/brother, incapable of persuading his patient to do the right thing, and, when it comes to the crunch, resigned to (as he sees it) failure.

David AnnenA rewarding, thoughtful, and thoroughly traditional revival which kept everyone on the edge of their seats and really satisfied its audience. We all came out heaping praise on the performers and the production. If you’re not au fait with between-the-wars British drama this is a perfect opportunity to see how stiff those upper lips could be. Highly recommended.

Review – The Mentalists, Wyndham’s Theatre, 26th August 2015

The MentalistsIt’s odd how sometimes you can have a tasty collection of ingredients but when you put them together the result can be half-baked. The Mentalists is a comedy by Richard Bean, creator of such memorable productions like One Man Two Guvnors, The Big Fellah and Great Britain. He also wrote the book for the excellent musical Made in Dagenham. He also wrote Pitcairn, but we can gloss over that. In the role of Ted we have Stephen Merchant, a naturally funny man who can create laughs out of thin air, and whose gangly appearance and self-deprecating humour are a gift for any chat show or stand up routine. It also features Steffan Rhodri, as Morrie, best known as Dave Coaches off Gavin and Stacey, who proves himself to be an assured comedic actor on stage.

I had assumed this was a new play by Mr Bean but in fact it is a revival, the original production having been staged at the National in 2002. That explains why you feel that, although the play is set in the present day, there are some slightly outdated aspects to it. The setting is a seedy hotel room in Finsbury Park, even though Ted wants the outside world to think he’s in Exeter. Richard Kent’s set is delightfully underspecced, consisting of grimy wallpaper and a dismally small TV, and with those hideous floppy brown sliding doors around the ensuite giving the perfect finishing touch to what would be a most disappointing place to spend a night.

Stephen Merchant and Steffan RhodriMessrs Merchant and Rhodri chuck as much life at this play as they possibly can, with excellent comic timing, flawless vocal delivery and a nice sense of the ridiculous. But, oh, the play. It starts promisingly, with the pair turning up at this gloomy hotel, one of them on a mission to do something (what, we don’t know), the other there to help out. We get an amusing insight into Morrie’s life, a serial womaniser and fantasist, making a living by ducking and diving, ostensibly a hairdresser by trade, but primarily by making soft porn videos. Ted, which I presume is short for Tedious, remains something of an enigma, even long into the first act where he is filmed spouting some self-help home-spun philosophy about how to create an Utopia (for £29.99).

Steffan RhodriAt some point during a very dull scene where Ted is churning out this philosophy, I faded out. Then came the interval, with people around me muttering to their companions, “do you understand what’s going on?” I was relieved to hear that they were as confused as I was. The second half isn’t much better, but the story is resolved to the extent that you discover Ted is much more troubled than he appeared to be, and he’s probably going to have a really rotten time after the play is over. There’s a bizarre scene where Morrie, in hairdressing mode, decides to give Ted a shampoo and head massage. At the same time the police are trying to break into the hotel room. Does it sound funny? It isn’t really.

Stephen MerchantThe character of Ted is a right-wing, Mail-reading xenophobe and I found a lot of the “jokes” mildly offensive. The play also takes the subject of mental illness and deals with it in an easy, facile, rather disrespectful manner. Structurally the play is quite weak, with the closing lines of both acts ending on a whimper rather than a bang, so that no one knew whether to applaud or not; and I’m not really surprised it’s closing early. Great performances can’t save a boring text, I’m afraid.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

The Mysterious Affair at StylesIn which we are introduced to Hercule Poirot, who solves the murder of a wealthy re-married widow by strychnine poisoning, wading through an inordinate number of clues and red herrings before finally coming to the truth. If you haven’t read the book yet, I promise I won’t tell you whodunit!

MoustacheSo we say Bonjour to M. Hercule Poirot, detective extraordinaire, with a number of silly francophone phrases like “Nom d’un nom d’un nom!” When he goes off on a rant, you almost expect him to break into a Morecambe and Wise-like “Sacré Beaujolais et Bon Appetit!” He is accompanied as ever by his faithful Hastings, who plods alongside his master like a keen but rather stupid bloodhound, sniffing out his beloved clues. And of course it is Hastings who narrates the story, as he (nearly) always does.

World War 1 EndsThe book was written in 1916, but not published until 1920 (1921 in the UK). As such, it reveals a picture of privileged life in an Essex country manor during World War One, with a well-to-do family doing what they can for the war effort: saving scrap paper, working for the Voluntary Aid Detachment, milking cows, and so on. It also explains how Poirot and Hastings dovetail into their Christie-land relationship. Poirot was one of the refugees who had taken residence in the village of Styles St Mary “by the charity of that good Mrs Inglethorp” (soon to be the late Mrs Inglethorp). Captain Arthur Hastings was “invalided home from the Front; and after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home” chanced upon his boyhood friend John Cavendish, and thus came to stay with him at Styles, his mother’s home (that’s the aforementioned Mrs Inglethorp).

EggheadHastings remembers Poirot at the height of his professional prowess: “a very famous detective…a marvellous little fellow…a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever”. Inspector Japp is brought in to investigate the crime on behalf of the police and he instantly recognises Poirot as the detective with whom he worked in 1904, solving “the Abercrombie forgery case”. So depending on whether you take this book to date from 1916 or 1920, you’re looking at a period of 12-16 years earlier when Poirot was active in the Belgian police force; it’s hard to extrapolate Poirot’s age with any accuracy, and in her autobiography Christie regrets having made him so old at the beginning of her writing career! But Hastings does provide us with the classic description of Poirot’s appearance: “He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.” Maybe it is not a coincidence that the OED defines “eggheaded” as “(a) having an egg-shaped head; (b) colloq intellectual, highbrow” and that its usage dates from the early 20th century, around the time this book was published.

PricklyPoirot and Hastings are best buddies but they do sometimes have a prickly relationship. Hastings admits at one stage that he is “nursing a grudge against [my] friend’s high-handedness”. Here follows a typical conversation between them when the relationship is strained: “After lunch Poirot begged me to accompany him home. I consented rather stiffly. “You are annoyed, is it not so?” he asked anxiously, as we walked through the park. “Not at all,” I said coldly. “That is well. That lifts a great load from my mind.” This was not quite what I had intended. I had hoped that he would have observed the stiffness of my manner.” On another occasion, Hastings is trying to hurry Poirot along to interview a witness but the latter has slowed down to admire the symmetry of the flower beds: “”Yes, but this affair is more important.” “And how do you know that these fine begonias are not of equal importance?” I shrugged my shoulders. There was really no arguing with him if he chose to take that line.” Poirot always teases Hastings on affairs of the heart; in The ABC Murders he jokes with him about his fondness for pretty girls with auburn hair, and in The Mysterious Affair at Styles Hastings is instantly captivated a girl who has “great loose waves of…auburn hair”, to whom he proposes marriage on the spur of the moment, and who of course turns him down with “don’t be silly…you know you don’t want to!” Hastings reflects on the unsuccessful proposal with typical understatement: “Thinking over the interview, it struck me as being profoundly unsatisfactory.”

Red HerringThis being the fourth of Christie’s novels that I have re-read as part of the Agatha Christie Challenge, but the earliest to have been written, I am struck by the difference in writing style from the other three books. The Mysterious Affair at Styles stands out in two aspects. The first is that it contains an overwhelming number of clues and red herrings. Christie wrote the book in response to a bet from her friend Madge, “that the author, who had previously never written a book, could not compose a detective novel in which the reader would not be able to “spot” the murderer, although having access to the same clues as the detective” (from the dust jacket of the First Edition). It probably required the high level of facts and evidence within the book in order to satisfy the terms of the bet, but to the reader it’s almost overkill. To get the best out of this book you have to read it slowly and carefully, with frequent pauses for thought, consideration and reflection. If you read it like a throwaway paperback, everything in it just becomes a blur.

Courtroom JudgeThe second outstanding aspect is its style. Hastings’ narrative is very clinical, factual, almost journalistic (in a good sense) in its reporting, going into forensic detail about Poirot’s investigation and the clues he uncovers. In comparison with the later works, it feels formal and stilted. Where in other books, plot developments occur through conversation and observation, in this book you often get the feeling you are reading a witness statement: “I had arrived at Styles on the 5th of July. I come now to the events of the 16th and 17th of that month. For the convenience of the reader I will recapitulate the incidents of those days in as exact a manner as possible.” Simply waiting to meet Cynthia at the dispensary has a military police feel about it: “we were detained under suspicion by the hospital porter”. A major segment of the plot development takes place in a courtroom and several pages read more like court reports and transcripts than a novel. Whilst this provides good suspense – courtroom scenes are always exciting – the reader does miss out on the sense of a personal narrative. But then again, no doubt it helped Christie win her bet. The book also gives the reader direct access to some of the evidence – with floorplans of both Styles House and Mrs Inglethorp’s bedroom, and facsimile representations of jottings on the back of an envelope, a letter written by Mrs Inglethorp, and the writing on a torn scrap of paper. It encourages the reader to play a more active role in solving the crime, rather than just sitting back and letting Poirot do all the work for us. No lazy read, this.

It’s fascinating how language changes over a relatively short period of time. Given that this book was written 99 years ago, as I was reading it I noticed a few words and references that completely bewildered me. Do any of these five phrases mean anything to you?

VAD uniform1 – As suggested earlier, the character of Cynthia is first seen wearing a VAD uniform. The Voluntary Aid Detachment was a unit that provided field nursing services, mainly in hospitals in the UK, the majority of volunteers being women and girls. Christie herself was a VAD nurse, as was Tuppence Beresford, who we’ll be meeting in the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge. It’s probably to my great shame that I’d never heard of this fine bunch of people.

Goose2 – We all know the saying that someone’s walked over my grave but I’ve never heard “as if a goose were walking over my grave,” as Mrs Inglethorp remarks. I’ve read that the derivation of that comes from a back-formation of goose bumps or goose pimples, but I also wonder if there might be a connection with the more common phrase “a ghost walking over one’s grave”.

Haman3 – Poirot says if Inglethorp is guilty he will hang him “as high as Haman”. Never heard that before. It refers to a Bible story in the Book of Esther, where Haman builds a really high gallows so that when he hangs his enemy it becomes a major spectacle – however, he gets hanged instead. Book of Esther, Chapter seven if you want to look it up.

Paul Pry4 – Miss Howard refers to the detectives swarming about the house as “a lot of Paul Prys”. Paul Pry was a comical busybody and nosey parker in a play of the same name that first appeared in 1825, and continued to be popular until the 1870s.

Triple pigs5 – When Poirot exclaims to himself “triple pig!” I have no idea what he’s on about, unless it’s a variation on something like “cochon d’un cochon d’un cochon”. Really the man talks very strangely sometimes.

So here’s my at-a-glance summary for The Mysterious Affair at Styles:

Publication Details: 1920. My copy is an American print, Bantam paperback, published in 1970. I bought it from a second hand stall on a summer holiday in Sorrento, if I remember rightly, in 1978.

How many pages until the first death: 25. Just the one death.

Funny lines out of context: Not very many. In fact the most insightful line is a serious observation from Poirot: “one may live in a big house and yet have no comfort”.
“Mr. Wells was a pleasant man of middle-age, with keen eyes, and the typical lawyer’s mouth.”
“As I walked away, I met an aged rustic, who leered at me cunningly.” One of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals perhaps?
“He tried several [keys], twisting and turning them with a practiced hand, and finally uttering an ejaculation of satisfaction.”
“”Silly ass!” I ejaculated.”

Memorable characters:
Mary Cavendish is quite a complex character, standing up for herself and being emotionally forthright. Evelyn Howard is described as having “a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body” – possibly a forerunner of The Mousetrap’s Miss Casewell?

Christie the Poison expert:
Poison runs through this book like the River Thames. The murderer’s choice is strychnine, but not only is it administered to kill the victim, it’s also distilled, bought at a shop, found in other medicines and is kept in the dispensary.

Lawrence uses it to accuse Bauerstein: “poisons are his hobby, so of course he sees them everywhere”.

But Lawrence too is suspected of dabbling in the poison: “I suppose I must have taken up the bottle”…”Did you abstract any of the contents of the bottle?”… “I once studied to be a doctor. Such things naturally interest me”…”So poisons “naturally interest” you, do they?”

There’s technical talk: “Strychnine has an unusually bitter taste. It can be detected in a solution of 1 in 70,000, and can only be disguised by some strongly flavoured substance.”

There’s comparison talk: “I dare say he soaked fly paper, as I told you at the beginning.” “That is arsenic – not strychnine”, said Poirot mildly. “What does that matter? Arsenic would put poor Emily out of the way just as well as strychnine”.

Even Poirot gets fed up with it: “one thing does strike me. No doubt it has struck you too…that there is altogether too much strychnine about this case.”

Class/social issues of the time:
The Styles household is a very upper class affair; a household where a grown man refers to his mother as “the mater”; a household where married couples still have separate bedrooms.

This is how Hastings describes the manner in which the household goes about the business of mourning: “Under the circumstances, we were naturally not a cheerful party. The reaction after a shock is always trying, and I think we were all suffering from it. Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual, yet I could not help wondering if this self-control were really a matter of great difficulty. There were no red eyes, no signs of secretly indulged grief. I felt that I was right in my opinion that Dorcas was the person most affected by the personal side of the tragedy. I pass over Alfred Inglethorp, who acted the bereaved widower in a manner that I felt to be disgusting in its hypocrisy.”

When Poirot and Hastings are considering the behaviour of Mary Cavendish, arguing with her mother-in-law, Poirot notes “it was an astonishing thing for a woman of her breeding to do.”

There’s also an argument with her husband, where Mary reveals her independence, but which also reveals the way a woman was meant to behave in those days: “”Am I to understand that you will continue to see Bauerstein against my express wishes?” “If I choose.” “You defy me?” “No, but I deny your right to criticize my actions. Have you no friends of whom I should disapprove?” John fell back a pace. The colour ebbed slowly from his face. “What do you mean?” he said, in an unsteady voice. “You see!” said Mary quietly. “You do see, don’t you, that you have no right to dictate to me as to the choice of my friends?” John glanced at her pleadingly, a stricken look on his face. “No right? Have I no right, Mary?” he said unsteadily. He stretched out his hands. “Mary——” For a moment, I thought she wavered. A softer expression came over her face, then suddenly she turned almost fiercely away. “None!”

There is the usual mistrust of foreigners found in Christie books. Dorcas the maid, who is seen as a stalwart of traditional values says as an aside: “I don’t hold with foreigners as a rule”. Hastings takes an instant dislike to the foreign-surnamed Dr Bauerstein: “The sinister face of Dr. Bauerstein recurred to me unpleasantly. A vague suspicion of everyone and everything filled my mind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.” He hates spending time with him: “My evening was utterly and entirely spoilt by the presence of Dr. Bauerstein.” John Cavendish also uses racial language to criticise Bauerstein: “I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about. He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.” An exchange between Poirot and Hastings on Bauerstein includes the lines: “A very clever man—a Jew, of course.” “The blackguard!” I cried indignantly.”

And whilst on the subject of language that’s considered offensive today but was run-of-the-mill then, Dorcas says that in one of their dressing-up games evenings (they sound simply hilarious – not) there was some difficulty removing stage make-up: “Burnt corks they use mostly—though ’tis messy getting it off again. Miss Cynthia was a n***** once, and, oh, the trouble she had.””

It’s also an interesting to note that in 1916 a perfectly respectable reason for buying over-the-counter strychnine was to poison a dog. Can you imagine someone saying that in a shop today?!

Classic denouement: About as classic as it gets, basically covering the final two chapters (twenty pages) with Poirot holding a little réunion in the salon, and revealing the name of the murderer in a flurry of panache with the final two words of the penultimate chapter. Every red herring is sorted out, every clue is dismissed or validated.

Happy ending? Certainly! Two happy couples in fact.

Did the story ring true? I find it slightly hard to believe the instance of one character impersonating another, but apart from that all the jigsaw puzzle pieces fit nicely together.

Overall satisfaction rating: Perhaps a surprisingly low 5/10. It’s a clever book, and a challenging book, but I think it’s one of the least satisfying to read as a piece of detective escapism. And that’s primarily what you want from a Christie.

The Secret AdversarySo that’s my little summary of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t give the whodunit game away! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, and continuing in chronological order, it’s the first appearance of Tommy and Tuppence in The Secret Adversary. There have been recent TV and stage adaptations so you might be sick of it, but give the book a try, my memory is that it’s an entertaining and quite exciting read. I’m looking forward to finding out if I’m right, and I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. Thanks for reading, and happy sleuthing!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2015 – Spank (for a third time)

SpankPerhaps it’s no surprise that our final show of the Edinburgh week is a third trip to see Spank, having enjoyed it so much last year it seemed to make sense to just keep going back his year, because every night is different. There’s not a lot more to say about Spank other than what I’ve already said in preparation for Monday night’s and Thursday night’s shows. Looking forward to an anarchic and unpredictable few hours in the company of James Loveridge, Abigoliah Schamaun and their assorted guests. Midnight at the Underbelly Cowgate, Belly Dancer is the time and the place. Hope our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters enjoy it as much as we do.

Abigoliah SchaumaunNo more preview blogs to add, but I will put up our final reactions to this show either before bed or tomorrow morning. If you’ve followed our Edinburgh adventure throughout the week, thank you for your attention and I hope it’s been of some interest. If there are any shows that I’m itching to write more about (and I am sure there will be), I’ll hopefully get round to those in the next week or two. Happy Fringing!

Update: 

A long late night with the Spank team is always a complete pleasure. Abigoliah and James were on top form and they presented the inventive Chaos Therapy, the punful Darren Walsh, the amazing Womanz, the young pretender Elliot Steel, a chap whose name I didn’t catch but had some great anti-elderly material, and the riotous Keith Farnan, who described Lord Liverpool and me as Statler and Waldorf. We also had Alfie Brown, for whom it all just didn’t work, sadly, and our naked promo was comic Danny O’Brien, who we saw on Monday. I can’t think of a better way to end our Edinburgh week! 

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2015 – Titus Andronicus

Titus AndronicusFlushed from his success at his own Spoken Word event earlier this evening, we will hopefully have met up with our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters for a couple of late night shows. The first is Titus Andronicus, but it isn’t as straightforward as all that. There are four (yes four, count them!) productions of Titus Andronicus at this year’s Fringe, but the one we’re going to is produced by Tripped Theatre. Here’s the promotional blurb: “Tripped Theatre returns once more to the Fringe with a stripped back production of Shakespeare’s bloodiest revenge tragedy in a glamorous and deliciously filthy adaptation that will thrill, revolt and force you to simultaneously love and loathe the flock of flawed characters it portrays. Titus comes back from war as a damaged and reluctant celebrity forced into his nation’s limelight, but his dreadful thirst for revenge sends him and his enemies on a vicious spiral into madness and destruction. This captivating monochrome production proves that this tragedy is much more than simply black and white.”

Thomas BarryI’ve read an account by the director of their justification for the script editing and the cross-gender casting that this production will use – and I must say it sounds fascinating. I’m not overly familiar with this play – I believe da Lord and da Countess will know it much more than me – but I’m liking the sound of the adaptation. Tripped Theatre are now in their third year of presenting at the Fringe, and I sense they create thoughtfully created and thought-provoking productions of classic plays, which sounds just up my street. It begins at 22:10 at the Space at Venue 45, so please check back around 11.15 to see how gory this Titus was. And then you can also find out where we’ll be for our final Fringe show this year. 

Update:

Not too gory, and milking the sick comedy of one of Shakespeare’s, let’s face it, stupider plays. Lavinia being played by a hairy little chap added an unusual dimension, and Titus’ meeting with “Revenge, Murder and Rapine” was played with great spirit. Enjoyable in a tongue in cheek, totally surreal way!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2015 – Munch

MunchAmazing to think we’re on the last leg (and we’re on ours, too!) of our week in Edinburgh. Just three shows left and the first is Munch, a jolly sounding look at S&M. Well I did say we were trying to see shows we just wouldn’t get to see in Northampton! Here’s the blurb: “Munch, the A-Z of S&M, is a raucous ride through leather, leashes and all things kink. This compelling blend of poetry, puppetry, music and fun will have you rolling in the aisles and gagging for more. By award-winning playwright Ben Richards. ‘Prodigiously talented’ (Scotsman). ‘Wonderful storytellers … the poetry is incredible’ **** (BroadwayBaby.com).”

Will CousinsMunch already wowed them at the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago, and now it’s back with (I believe) the same cast of Will Cousins and writer Ben Richards. I’m not entirely sure what to expect – they promise puppetry, poetry and plenty of puns, which doesn’t sound that S&M to me! I’m guessing there’s going to be an element of tongue and cheek about the whole thing. It all kicks off at 20:20 at the Underbelly Med Quad Daisy, so check back around 9.30 to see if we’re suffering from whiplash. Our next preview blog will be available to view too.

Update:

Terrific fun, great performers, dicey material put together with wit and charm. And where else do you get to see a 1970s overhead projector? And enlightening too! I ended up with my arms around Desdemona – don’t ask. Recommended!