Review – Miles Jupp, Songs of Freedom, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th September 2016

miles-jupp-songs-of-freedomIt wasn’t until I saw that Miles Jupp would be doing a stand-up tour this year that I actually appreciated that he was a comedian per se. I’d only known him from being in the wonderful Rev (still hoping for a fourth series) and from occasional appearances on Have I Got News For You. However, I am ashamed to discover that Mr Jupp is inter alia a seasoned stand-upper, having won both So You Think You’re Funny and a Perrier Award; this is, I believe, his fourth (possibly fifth?) solo show.

RevIt’s clear that he has attracted a certain following, judging from the attendees in the Royal Theatre last night. Although all ages were represented, there were considerably more older people there than you would normally expect for a comedy gig. He confesses that research has been undertaken to discover the profile of the average Miles Jupp fan – they’re into shopping, driving, and watching TV; and their favourite song is Don McLean’s American Pie. Verily, they were the types of people surrounding us in the stalls last night. Mr Jupp has a very middle-class, respectable, conservative (with a small c) persona which stems from both his bearing and his Standard English accent; you expect him to deliver comic material with a clipped and refined character, with the wit of an Oscar Wilde and the edgy danger of a slice of Battenberg.

miles-jupp-in-revPart of his opening routine recollects a gig in Spalding where he overhears a man leaving the concert; his wife asks him what he thought of the show and he replies to the effect: what a nice man, but what unexpected content. This gives rise to some nice speculation that instead he could be vile and predictable. But I do know precisely where this man in Spalding is coming from (apart from, of course, Lincolnshire.) Mr Jupp comes across as inordinately nice (apart from when he’s riled by the vicissitudes of 21st century living) – and his material really is at odds with his personality. This is his great strength; he can surprise or even shock his audience with apparent ease just by combining his niceness with his language – his observations about meeting someone interested in both golf and Formula One being a case in point. But a side effect of this is that all those rather genteel elderly ladies who are laughing their twinsets off at classic lines like “I’ve died and gone to Waitrose”, reach for the smelling salts when he describes someone as a c*nt.

miles-juppMr Jupp’s style is largely relaxed and intimate. He walks about a bit to help things keep moving naturally, but he’s not one of these comics who cavort across all areas of the stage like a caged tiger. The show is essentially scripted to the nth degree; he did imply at the beginning that if we wanted to interact with him from the audience with any verbal duelling, he’d be up for it; but, charming elderly clientele like us were far too polite actually to take him up on it – possibly to our own detriment.

miles-jupp-all-on-one-sideHis material is always telling and recognisable; from how his children pick up on his observations and repeat them, four-letter words and all, to the horrendous moment when you have to go back to your wife to clarify where she said she’d left something; from the Prince of Wales and his Duchy foodstuffs to the reason why Joan of Arc wasn’t burnt in Wales. The whole show is paced perfectly, with a gradual introduction and gathering of growing threads, followed by a second half crescendo full of top stories and laugh out loud situations.

miles-jupp-cant-use-the-toiletA rather smart and elegant approach to stand-up; don’t expect a manic couple of hours, more a measured, reflective, yet still gently neurotic experience which will have you laughing in recognition at so many of the things that irk us all. His tour continues throughout October, January and February and I’d definitely recommend it!

Review – West End Bares presents Excalibare, Novello Theatre, 25th September 2016

ExcalibareFor many years I’ve been watching comments about all the fun and frolics that take place at the annual West End Bares shindig and I’ve often wondered whether this might be something that Mrs Chrisparkle and I should support. We were firm friends of the old West End Eurovision shows but they seemed to have stopped those now – which is an enormous shame. However, West End Bares is a different take on a similar trick – having the casts of several West End musicals each rehearse their own musical extravaganza and then put it on a Sunday stage to raise money for the MAD Trust, which raises funds for HIV and AIDS projects that build awareness and provide care, support and education in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa. In previous years – rather like the London Eurovision Preview Party – West End Bares has been held at London’s glamorous Café de Paris. There’s no doubt it’s a fun venue; but for these types of shows, unless you queue early, run in and hold your spot and don’t move for the next five hours, the stage sightlines are appalling. So when I found out that this year’s WEB would be held at a proper theatre, I decided we simply had to go.

Melanie Tranter, Chair of the MAD TrustUnlike West End Eurovision, there’s no element of competition between the entries; nor is there a guest panel; and they’re not trying to impersonate or emulate a real Eurovision song. However, there’s a considerable amount of pride and friendly rivalry in the individual “numbers” that each big musical contributes to the West End Bares line-up. Top stars appear; world class choreographers create each scene; and a tremendous amount of imagination goes into the costumes. But, as I am sure you’ve realised, gentle reader, the primary aim of each of these scenes is for their performers to get as much kit off as they dare, in a nod in the general direction of the Gods of Burlesque. To be fair, the end results – normally a tableau with anyone who got naked facing away from the stage – are more cheeky and suggestive than actually that revealing. As Cupid Stunt would have said, it’s all done in the best possible taste. Everyone’s giving his or her time for free – not only the performers but the theatre staff and the tech people too – so the production successfully harnesses an awful lot of goodwill and hard work into making the show as much fun as possible. And of course, there are two shows (7:00 and 9:30pm), which raises the possibility of doubling the amount of money donated to the charity. Because we’re never ones to be half-hearted about this kind of thing, we went for the bedtime show. The late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to say you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

David GrewcockOur host was Graham Norton, who introduced and ended the show, and popped in occasionally for a few words here and there. Additional hosting came from Gina Beck and Ben Freeman (which resulted in Ben losing his shirt) and Helen Lederer and Ramin Karimloo (which resulted in Ramin losing his shirt. Are you sensing a thread here?) Indeed, it’s definitely the case that there’s more… expectation, shall we say? that the guys will get more naked than the girls. At one point, Graham Norton asked if there were any straight men in the audience, with the follow up line that they’ll have considered it a night wasted – cue lots of laughter. I know it was just a joke, but in all seriousness, it’s perhaps a shame that the naughtiness isn’t more evenly spread between the sexes. When you’re promoting awareness of HIV it’s a really foolish idea to alienate any sector of the community, e.g. straight men, as everyone’s equally able to become HIV positive, regardless of gender or sexuality.

David BedellaIt would be churlish of me to go through all ten scenes and pick out which were the best and which weren’t, when everyone has given so freely of their time and expertise. However, both Mrs C and I agreed that the first number – the eponymous Excalibare, choreographed by Freddie Huddlestone – was absolutely superb. It was certainly helped by having David Bedella, one of my favourite actors, as part of the troupe. Later on, it emerged it was Mr Bedella’s birthday and we all gave him a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You”, whilst two men in scanties offered him a birthday cake; although the mischievous birthday boy seemed more interested in eating the contents of one of the chefs’ pants than his patisserie. But I digress. Everyone did a great job, in all the numbers, throughout the evening. In addition to all the dance routines, there was a stunning rendition of Sondheim’s Losing My Mind by Michelle Visage – forgive me but I had to Google who she is, but given her thunderous reception, we were obviously the only people in the whole theatre not to know.

£10 noteOne of the unique aspects to the show is the finale – the Rotation. This is where the cast come out into all parts of the auditorium and you have to get your MAD money out – you’d previously exchanged it for cash from the ushers – and basically you stuff the notes into the remaining clothes of whichever performer comes nearby. Thus you have notes stuffed into bra straps, cleavages, briefs, and so on. We were actually sitting very close to the steps that led up to the stage so when all the performers came down into the auditorium it was a rather overwhelming sudden onslaught of flesh! Heaven knows what happened at the first show, but Graham Norton said there had been a bit of “a scene”, so his advice on how to go about this delicate business was just: “don’t be vile”. I think we all knew what that meant.

RotationAfter a couple of tentative stuffings, Mrs C just found the whole process too embarrassing and handed over her wad of MAD money to me, so I had double the amount to distribute. In the end, there’s absolutely no point looking out for any particular performers that you wanted to endorse in this faux-financial way; anyone who wandered by I just gently tweaked open their pants and stuffed a note in. When I’d finally got rid of all my notes, one guy wandered up and looked expectantly at me – I simply had to show my empty hands and mouth the words “none left”, like when I used to tell the dog there was nothing more for him to eat – and I must say the guy looked quite hurt. The whole thing was a very weird experience, as it felt both strangely intrusive yet also strangely supportive, because by getting up close and personal you’re kind of appreciating everything that they’ve done in the show. That said, I’ve certainly never been that close to a man’s pants before, especially with the said man still in them.

Getting readyAll in all, it ran a little under an hour and a half and must have raised tens of thousands of pounds for the charity. Congratulations to everyone for all your talent, commitment and daring! A packed Novello theatre was very appreciative.

On the throneP. S. Still in sheep as a lamb mode, we also got our names on the After Show Party list – by which I mean we paid extra. The party was at 100 Wardour Street, a really smart and elegant club with very comfortable seating areas (which we enjoyed) as well as a great dance area and nifty little stage, from where La Voix did some cabaret – and she was in fine voice. We’d been to the After Show Parties for West End Eurovision before but I have to say this one had by far the best vibe. There were even nibbles out on the tables – and more food got sent around from the kitchens as the night progressed. Also, no problem getting our first drink – two glasses of very decent Shiraz for £6.50 each which I thought was pretty good going. However, by the time we wanted a top-up, the bar was heaving. It took me 25 minutes from joining the back of the queue to get our drinks and back to our table. For a while I was lingering at the bar being ignored by the bar staff – must have been wearing my Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak again – until a charming young lady pointed out to the barman that I was, indeed, next. To that young lady I say thank you! Your moral contribution to Help The Aged was most welcome. 100 Wardour Street

P. P. S. £3 for the programmes. Just £3!! And they’re big and glossy and full of pictures. They could easily have doubled that price and raised much more for the charity.

Review – The Same Faces at the Black Prince, Northampton, 24th September 2016

same-facesIf you are one of my more astute and faithful readers, you may remember that we saw the Oxford Imps at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer and that that was our first foray into the potentially dangerous world of improvised comedy. I’m not sure why improv had never really appealed much to us; I think it’s to do with the fact that whilst everyone was raving about Channel 4’s Whose Line Is It Anyway, Mrs Chrisparkle and I watched it once and found it a rather irritating and self-indulgent programme. I know – imagine our cheek. However, age must be softening our sharp edges, and, having thought that those little Imps were a lot of fun, for the second time this year we found ourselves in front of a team of comedy improvisers and with not a clue as to what to expect.

regular-same-facersThe Same Faces are based in Leicester but once a month venture down south to God’s Own County, where their regular stage is at the back of the Black Prince on Kettering Road in Northampton. It’s a very good venue – a friendly pub with a good range of drinks at reasonable prices – and the back room is absolutely perfect for the task. There was a good turn out last Saturday, with the number of people arriving exceeding the number of chairs. So that’s either a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your point of view (particularly if you hoped to sit down!) It’s also only a fiver to get in if you book in advance (£7 if you don’t) so that’s incredible value for over 2 hours of entertainment.

same-faces-tomThe group’s line-up changes from show to show, but for last Saturday’s extravaganza we had Boss Man Tom Young, regular Dave Gotheridge, and semi-regulars Jen Kenny, Ryan Vernal and Jaz Cox. They each bring their different gifts to the performance; some are a bit more quick-thinking on their feet than others, some have a more natural authority than others, some are more eccentric than others – stir all that into one melting pot of talent and you’re going to get a totally different show every time. Especially as it is, of course, the audience who give the performers the subjects that they are going to be dealing with.

ryan-vernelAs I’ve only seen the one show, I don’t know to what extent the “games” that the group play change from month to month; I sense they don’t change that much, what changes is the line-up and the subjects. I’ll not be able to remember all the games from Saturday night – and me just spouting a list won’t be that interesting to you, gentle reader – but some of them leap to mind, for what will become obvious reasons as we go on…

jaz-coxTwo of my favourite games in the first half were “Party Quirks”, where one member of the team was holding a party and the four guests all had some kind of quirk about them, which had been suggested by the audience whilst the party host was out of the room. When he returned and they enacted out the party, he had to guess which particular problem each of his guests had. Jen was given “God Complex”, which gave rise to some nicely patronising behaviour, and Dave had to channel his inner Russian because his quirk was that he was unable to say the word “the”. The other excellent game was where Jen was a barmaid and each of her customers had a particular problem that they had to sing to her about, and then she had to sing each of them in turn a solution for their problem. Who knew mice in the skirting board could be so melodious?

On stage larksBut it was in the second half where things got considerably more hysterical. I really enjoyed the game where Jen and Dave had to advertise a new album on a subject given by a member of the audience: this week, Firefighters. So they had to create some excellent ideas for the other team members to sing; perhaps most memorably, the ever charming and deeply emotional smash hit, Shiny Helmet. And there was a mannequin game where Tom chose two members of the audience to come on stage; each had to prompt one member of the group into movement by tapping them on whichever part of the body they wanted them to move. One of these two hapless members of the public was Mrs C. I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t following the instructions at all, and so once the game began she instantly started making a mess of it. Eventually she got the hang of it, but instructing others on which limbs to use doesn’t really count as one of her personal strengths. Absolutely hilarious.

The Same Faces perform at the Black Prince on the final Saturday of every month, so if you fancy supporting a new local comedy venture, I’d really recommend it! Unfortunately, I don’t think we can make any more this year, but we will certainly be back for more in a few months’ time!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

Murder at the VicarageIn which we are first introduced to Miss Jane Marple, busybody spinster of St Mary Mead, and close neighbour of the Reverend Leonard Clement, in whose study a murder takes place that brings scandal and unwelcome attention to the sleepy village. As you would expect, Miss Marple keeps her eyes and ears open and finally presents the police and the vicar with the only solution that satisfies every single loose end in the case. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

village-lifeThe book is dedicated “to Rosalind”, her daughter, who would have been eleven years old at the time. Reviews of the book were mixed, with the New York Times Book Review getting rather bored with the network of old ladies in the village: “the local sisterhood of spinsters is introduced with much gossip and click-clack. A bit of this goes a long way and the average reader is apt to grow weary of it all, particularly of the amiable Miss Marple, who is sleuth-in-chief of the affair”. They also described the denouement and solution as “a distinct anti-climax”. Personally, I think that’s a bit harsh. Admittedly, Christie does take plenty of opportunities to get as close to the workings of Miss Marple’s brain as we need to; and the final solution is both a huge surprise and not a huge surprise, depending on your point of view. But the way in which Christie plays with the reader’s expectations is very enjoyable to revisit, and the resolution makes perfect sense in retrospect.

vicar2Jane Marple is not the only person to be introduced in this book, as the Vicar, Leonard Clement, and his wife Griselda, will re-appear in two later Christie books, The Body in the Library and 4:50 from Paddington. The rather wretched Inspector Slack will also reappear in the first of these books. Although this was Miss Marple’s first appearance in book form, Christie had already written some short stories featuring her that had appeared a few years previously in the Royal and Story-Teller Magazines. These would appear in 1932 in the book The Thirteen Problems – which I will be re-reading and writing about in the near future!

gossipSo what are our first impressions of Miss Jane Marple? The first adjective in the book to describe her (by Griselda counting off her tea party guests) is “terrible”. She goes on to say: “she’s the worst cat in the village […] and she always knows every single thing that happens – and draws the worst inferences from it.” Miss Marple herself would largely agree with this; in her first conversation with the vicar she tells him: “you are so unworldly. I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?” She’s also not above gently teasing the Chief Constable: “I’m afraid there’s a lot of wickedness in the world. A nice honourable upright soldier like you doesn’t know about these things, Colonel Melchett.”

torpedoBut it’s later on in the book, when Miss Marple is very close to having solved the crime, that she really identifies her own personality and raison d’être. “Living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby […] my hobby is – and always has been – Human Nature. So varied, and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study. One begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers, group so-and-so, genus this, species that. Sometimes, of course, one makes mistakes, but less and less as time goes on. And then, too, one tests oneself […] It is so fascinating, you know, to apply one’s judgement and find that one is right […] That, I am afraid, is what has made me a little conceited […] but I have always wondered whether, if some day a really big mystery came along, I should be able to do the same thing. I mean – just solve it correctly. Logically, it ought to be exactly the same thing. After all, a tiny working model of a torpedo is just the same as a real torpedo […] the only way is to compare people with other people you have known or come across. You’d be surprised if you knew how very few distinct types there are in all.”

clock-handsBreaking tradition with her two previous novels, The Mystery of the Blue Train and The Seven Dials Mystery, Christie returns to the structure of having a narrator. And personally, I think she really feels at home with this method. Here the narrator is the Reverend Clement, a rather witty and urbane man, with the occasional delectable turn of phrase. Right from the start, his narrative style has an eye for self-deprecation and an ear for the ludicrous. Phrases such as “My wife’s name is Griselda – a highly suitable name for a parson’s wife. But there the suitability ends. She is not in the least meek” instantly give you an insight into how he does not take himself too seriously; he knows what is required from his position and he tries to achieve it, but also knows full well that he frequently fails and will look ridiculous as a result. A fine example of his failing positively is his inability to explain to Inspector Slack about the significance of the clock time. He does his best to get the appalling man’s attention, but when he is constantly thwarted in this attempt, he starts to enjoy withholding information. “Griselda said I ought to make another effort to tell Inspector Slack about it, but on that point I was feeling what I can only describe as “mulish”.”

glass-of-portThere are many great one-liners in this book that I would normally reserve for the “Funny lines out of context” section below, but in this book they serve the double purpose of colouring the personality of the good reverend. Here are some of his highlights:

“Unblushingly, I suggested a glass of old port. I have some very fine old vintage port. Eleven o’clock in the morning is not the usual time for drinking port, but I did not think that mattered with Inspector Slack. It was, of course, cruel abuse of the vintage port, but one must not be squeamish about such things.”

“”It must be a very interesting hobby,” I said. “You know something of it, perhaps?” I was obliged to confess that I knew next to nothing. Dr Stone was not the kind of man whom a confession of ignorance daunts. The result was exactly the same as though I had said that the excavation of barrows was my only relaxation.”

“On the sofa beside Griselda, conversing animatedly, sat Miss Gladys Cram. Her legs, which were encased in particularly shiny pink stockings, were crossed, and I had every opportunity of observing that she wore pink striped silk knickers.”

blancmangeHis wife Griselda is equally liable to be a loose cannon, as she never holds back on her opinions, and consistently proves her husband’s belief that she is most unsuitable for her role in the village. “…It’s Mary’s blancmange that is so frightfully depressing. It’s like something out of a mortuary.” “”What they need,” said Griselda, [of the village’s busybodying spinsters] “is a little immorality in their lives. Then they wouldn’t be so busy looking for it in other people’s.”” Colonel Melchett, too, holds little time for what Christie would describe as these old pussies: “there’s a lot of talk. Too many women in this part of the world.” It’s interesting that many of the ancillary characters in this book are depicted in quite a negative fashion. Inspector Slack, as previously mentioned, is a boor and a bully. The Clements’ cook, Mary, has no style or grace in her food preparation or presentation, and comes across like one of Noel Coward’s doltish and stupid maids. Miss Marple’s talented nephew Raymond West is presented like some bighead with firmly held self-centred views that no one likes. I am sure that characterisation of him changes over the years – I’ll watch out for it.

bibleAs usual, there are a few unusual references and words in a Christie book that made me run for the dictionary and online research tools. Here are a few words and abbreviations that got me foxed. “He wants to go over all the Church accounts – in case of defalcations – that was the word he used. Defalcations! Does he suspect me of embezzling the Church funds?” Well yes it sounds like it. Originally meaning simply to take something away from something, by the mid-19th century it specifically meant misappropriation of money. But this must have been one of its last examples of popular usage. In the same exchange, Griselda retorts: “I wish you’d embezzle the SPG funds. I hate missionaries – I always have.” The SPG (now the USPG) was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, first incorporated under Royal Charter in 1701. As the title suggests, missionary work was/is its key raison d’être. Still in the same conversation, the good reverend announces “I must finish preparing my talk for the C. E. M. S. today.” This was the Church of England’s Men’s Society; founded in 1899, the society closed in 1985.

embezzlementPart of the village gossip involves the mysterious Mrs Lestrange. “I should imagine Mrs Lestrange to be a déclassée” affirms Clement. Late 19th century – someone who is reduced or degraded in social class or status. It means the same in French too. Who knew? In a letter revealed towards the end of the book, the writer wishes to discuss with Mr Clement “the recent peculations”. Peculations? Does he mean speculations and has misspelled it? No. It’s a mid-17th century term for embezzlement of public money.

stain-on-stairsI’m a little confused over the reference early on in the book to Canon Shirley’s Reality. Canon Shirley appears to have been Fred Shirley, Headmaster of Worksop College at the time and then later of King’s School Canterbury from 1935 to 1962. But I’ve no idea what his Reality is… Do you know? Griselda teases her husband about getting inspiration for a sermon from a Detective Novel – The Stain on the Stairs. It didn’t exist – it was an invention of Christie’s; but it is curious to note that it is also one of the books that were written by the fictional novelist and detective Jessica Fletcher in the TV series Murder She Wrote! There’s a reference to someone taking the cheap Thursday train; that had already been mentioned previously in The Mystery of the Blue Train. They did off-peak differently in those days.

goldcrestMiss Marple notices Dr Stone and Miss Cram walking down the lane because at the time she was observing a golden crested wren. If you were wondering what that is, today we call them Goldcrests. Similarly, the Firecrest was also known as the fire crested wren in those days. And I noticed that when Clement was telling Redding that as a local celebrity, everyone would know what kind of tooth powder he used. Wikipedia tells me that toothpaste was commonly available in the UK from 1909 – so maybe Clement is being a bit behind-the-times.

tazzaThere are just a couple of financial references that it might be helpful to look at from today’s viewpoint; the £1 note that Mrs Price Ridley placed in the offertory bag is now worth a good £45, so she was being very generous. And the tazza that Mr Clement said sold for over £1000 – well you can work it out for yourself – today is worth over £45k.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Murder at the Vicarage:

Publication Details: 1930. I used to have a Fontana paperback with a rather elegant old telephone on the cover illustration but it was one of the books stolen from me when I was a teenager. So my current copy is the much less glamorous Harper paperback, 9th printing, published in 2002, priced £6.99. It’s an unimaginative drawing of a graveyard and I also don’t like the paper quality or font size either – I must be getting hard to please in my old age.

How many pages until the first death: 59. But given the large size of the font and the spacing, I expect in other editions it appears to happen earlier than that! For comparison – the final page is Page 380.

Funny lines out of context: I’ve already named a few where I was considering what jovial types the Clements are, but here’s a couple more:

“…we must, of course, have a meat meal tonight. Gentlemen require such a lot of meat, do they not?”

“The – what one used to call the factors at school – are the same. There’s money, and the mutual attraction people of an – er – opposite sex – and there’s queerness of course – so many people are a little queer, aren’t they?”

Memorable characters:
Ignoring Miss Marple – she’s a given – I really like the character of Len Clement; for a vicar he’s totally unstuffy, humorous and very very human. Griselda too, as a loose cannon, is plenty of fun. And I have a rather soft spot for Miss Cram; she’s not as proper as she ought to be, and I rather like that in a girl.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not too much poison in this book. It’s not the method of murder; but there is some side allusion to arsenic – Inspector Slack thinks that would be Mrs Protheroe’s preferred mode de meurtre; and there’s also some picric acid at play – which I’d never heard of, unsurprisingly perhaps, because it’s rather out of fashion.

Class/social issues of the time:
Sexism, xenophobia, class… where should I begin?! Let’s start with sexism.

That first tea party hosted by Griselda, with Misses Marple, Wetherby and the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley present. Goodness me! They’re talking about women being employed (scandalous!) in jobs (mercy!) working with men (pure filth!) “”No nice girl would do it” […] “Do what?” I inquired. “Be a secretary to an unmarried man,” said Miss Wetherby in a horrified tone. “Oh! My dear,” said Miss Marple. “I think married ones are the worst […]” “Married men living apart from their wives are, of course, notorious,” said Miss Wetherby […] “But surely,” I said, “in these days a girl can take a post in just the same way as a man does.” “To come away to the country? And stay at the same hotel?” said Mrs Price Ridley in a severe voice. Miss Wetherby murmured to Miss Marple in a low voice: “And all the bedrooms on the same floor…”” There’s also a shock in the village that Lawrence Redding’s portrait of Anne Protheroe depicts her in her bathing dress – a delightful level of prudery there.

That was an example of women disapproving of women working. Inspector Slack also has his own views on women, and they don’t leave much space for doubt: “She’s a woman, and women act in that silly way. I’m not saying she did it for a moment. She heard he was accused and she trumped up a story. I’m used to that sort of game. You wouldn’t believe the fool things I’ve known women do. But Redding’s different. He’s got his head screwed on all right.”

There are plenty of opportunities for Christie to deal with her favourite class issues too. Griselda (who else?) is happy to talk about Miss Cram behind her back. “Not such a bad sort, really, […] terribly common, of course…” Archer, too, is the recipient of a lot of class-based dismissiveness. This from Inspector Slack: “It appears he was with a couple of pals all the afternoon. Not, as I say, that that counts much. Men like Archer and his pals would swear to anything. There’s no believing a word they say. We know that. But the public doesn’t, and the jury’s taken from the public, more’s the pity.” Not only does that betray the way Slack looks down at Archer, it also shows his similar condescension towards the general public. Miss Hartnell, too, reveals her deep-seated class distrust. “”The lower classes don’t know who are their best friends,” said Miss Hartnell. “I always say a word in season when I’m visiting. Not that I’m ever thanked for it.”” Miss Marple is not above making assumptions about “men like Archer” when she describes him as “primed with drink”.

There’s actually not quite as much xenophobia in this book as in others, but this exchange between Colonel Melchett and Lawrence Redding stood out when I read it: “”We want to ask you a few questions – here, on the spot,” he said. Lawrence sneered slightly. “Isn’t that a French idea? Reconstruction of the crime?” “My dear boy,” said Colonel Melchett, “don’t take that tone with us.”

But there are some other more fascinating insights into English life in 1930. For example, funerals obviously took place much more quickly than they do today. I would guess the average time for a funeral to take place nowadays is about two weeks after the death. I can imagine the 1930s set being aghast at this delay. “I want a short interview with Mrs Protheroe.” “What about?” “The funeral arrangments.” “Oh!” Inspector Slack was slightly taken aback. “The inquest’s tomorrow, Saturday.” “Just so. The funeral will probably be arranged for Tuesday.” And cigarettes were expected to be set out on a table so that guests could help themselves, like they were cheezy wotsits or some other tasty nibbles. Planning for her nephew Raymond’s visit, Miss Marple reflects: “He brings his own pipe and tobacco, I am glad to say. Glad because it saves me from knowing which kind of cigarettes are right to buy.” Today this would seem completely bizarre! It’s also an age of some innocence – no one locks their houses; it just wasn’t deemed necessary. And Dr Haydock is obviously something of a forward-thinker: “We think with horror now of the days when we burned witches. I believe the day will come when we will shudder to think that we ever hanged criminals.”

Classic denouement: Not quite. Miss Marple drops her bombshell as to who the guilty party is and there’s still three more full chapters for everyone to get over the shock and surprise; plus they also lay a trap to catch the blighter. But there’s no grand pointing finger moment where a detective cries out “j’accuse!”

Happy ending? Yes – although this time it’s not Christie’s usual sub-Shakespearean reality of the two young lovers getting married. This time they’re already married but another “happy event” is foreseen.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely. Everything in this story is well within the bounds of one’s own imagination; there are no silly secret organisations, doppelgangers or ridiculous coincidences. Just plain human motivation with a twist of ingenuity.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It’s a very enjoyable read. If I could I’d probably give it a 7.5 because the ending could be just a little more riveting. But I was feeling generous.

Floating AdmiralThanks for reading my blog of The Murder in the Vicarage and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is something very different. Christie’s next book was her first writing as Mary Westmacott – the romance “Giant’s Bread” – but I’m not particularly interested in her romance writings, I’m much more up for the detectives! However, in 1931 she contributed to The Floating Admiral, a book where twelve of the greatest crime novelists of the age each wrote one chapter. This sounds intriguing, so I’m going to give it a try! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Café Society, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 19th September 2016

Cafe SocietyHere’s the second of two movies in one week because I basically forgot to redeem my final two free visits to the Errol Flynn Filmhouse and I didn’t want to lose them before my “Friends” year ends. The first was The Shallows, not perhaps an obvious choice for us, but exciting to watch and it hugely exceeded our expectations. Again, I’m not sure if Café Society is a film I would have otherwise chosen to see, but it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve seen a Woody Allen film and so this was a good opportunity to put that right.

Jesse EisenbergI was a big admirer of Mr Allen in my youth. As a way-ahead-of-my-time youngster in the 1960s, I loved the trendy glamour of What’s New Pussycat and the trendy slapstick of Casino Royale, which was one of the first films the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see at the cinema. I adored Annie Hall and was moved by Manhattan, enjoyed Zelig and took the young Miss Duncansby – before she became Mrs Chrisparkle – to see Hannah and her Sisters. But I don’t think the young Miss D was anything like as keen on Woody Allen as I was. And consequently I think that might have been the last time I saw one of his films!

Kristen StewartIt’s a relatively simple and agreeable tale of Bobby, a young Jewish guy, who leaves New York to try to find some kind of fame and fortune in Hollywood, spurred on by the fact that his uncle is a massively successful agent, on whose coat-tails he hopes to ride for a bit, to get some contacts and make a life for himself. The uncle’s secretary, Vonnie, is tasked with the job of showing Bobby around the town, and, being a Woody Allen film, Bobby falls in love with her. However – naturally – she has a boyfriend. Relationships come and go – the secretary falls in and out of love with both Bobby and her boyfriend, and, several years later, both Bobby and Vonnie are married – although not to each other – and an uncertain ending leaves you hanging as to how things might get resolved – or not.

Steve CarellIt’s a very enjoyable film, although, despite the relationship difficulties depicted and the personal sadness experienced by some of the characters, not remotely challenging. I thought more could have been made of the difference between Bobby’s tough working class NYC home life and the glitzy glamour of his Californian Lifestyle, but I guess that wasn’t the film Woody Allen wanted to make. Cinematographically, it looks lush throughout, although a tendency to over-sepia-ise some of the scenes (presumably to help with setting the 1930s vibe) got on my nerves a bit once I had identified why everything was appearing so orangey. There’s a very classy jazz soundtrack – primarily, but not exclusively, piano – which really nails the vibe, even though it was a little repetitive for Mrs C’s taste.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen StewartIt’s 1930s New York, so there has to be a gangster – and he comes in the form of Bobby’s brother Ben, ostensibly a decent family man but with a predilection for handing out summary executions with comedic brevity. Bobby’s background family are very credibly realised, with a fine pair of performances from Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as his rather downbeat parents – think Caroline Aherne’s The Royle Family set in the Bronx. And there’s a hilarious scene early on with a beautiful cameo performance by Anna Camp as the willing but rather unprofessional prostitute Candy, that gives you an excellent insight into both the irascible side of Bobby’s character and the shallowness of the Californian way of life.

cafe-society-distinguished-guestsBut the film succeeds most in telling the general awkwardness of the ménage à trois that is Bobby, Vonnie and her boyfriend, “Doug”. (He’s not really Doug.) Kristen Stewart gives a really thoughtful performance as Vonnie, totally Torn Between Two Lovers as the old song goes, trapping her whirlwind of emotions beneath a calm façade that never takes anything for granted or even insists on being treated fairly. Steve Carell gives a good performance as the spoilt and over-successful agent Phil, flourishing under professional pressure but falling apart when it comes to personal relationships. And Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as the gently neurotic, sexually confident and eventually nightclub owning Bobby, in a role that – having missed out on seeing Woody Allen’s gradual development throughout the decades – I see as being precisely the same kind of role that Mr Allen would have written for himself back in the 70s. Talking of which, I only realised afterwards, when doing a little research before writing this post, that Woody Allen is the narrator of the film. I certainly didn’t recognise his voice. But he does a good job, with some nice levels of understatement and comic timing.

Blake Lively in Cafe SocietyThis isn’t a film that’s going to shake the world, but as a gentle and attractive snapshot of America in the 30s, it’s 96 minutes spent in the company of entertaining characters in a privileged environment that balances fantasy with reality – and comes down on the side of a comfy cushion somewhere between the two.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 16th September 2016

Screaming Blue MurderSummer’s lease hath ended, gentle reader, which can only mean one thing – the return of the Screaming Blue Murder season to keep our spirits high through the oncoming months of mist and mellow fruitfulness. Our genial host, Dan Evans, was back in charge, and in great Dan Evansform as he did his best to manage front-row Hayley (who’d had a few), the regular teachers, the newbies in the third row who did a flit after the second act and the rest of our packed house. Lots of excellent new material from Dan – which is most appreciated!

Tom GoodliffeOur first act was a change to the advertised programme – Tom Goodliffe. He is a tall chap and clearly likes to discover if he’s the tallest chap in the room. He wasn’t. He has a nice nerdy friendly approach, and did a good job of keeping Hayley and her crew under control as she got progressively more worse for wear. He called out for any accountants to identify themselves – very disappointed that Mrs Chrisparkle kept her head low at that point. He did some nice double-entry material anyway. I also enjoyed his maths hip-hop songs and he’s the only comic I’ve seen who has taken advantage of the comedic effects of the different speeds of a tube escalator and its supporting handrail. Good fun and an excellent ice-breaker.

Harriet DyerOur second act was Harriet Dyer, whom we were meant to see in Edinburgh but just ran out of puff for that particular show, so it’s good that we’ve finally seen her perform. To use the description quirky would be an understatement. I did find her funny but she’s the kind of performer that divides audiences – hence the departure of the newbies after her act. I really loved her material about getting hair removal product from Poundland – trust me, don’t do it! Mrs C confessed that if she’d seen her for a full hour in Edinburgh she might have had to rest up for the remainder of the day – she’s quite tiring to watch! But she went down well with the audience – on the whole.

Steve BestBoth the first two acts were new to us but, last on for the night was Steve Best, whom we had seen twice before. In a sense it was a shame that he and Harriet were on the same bill as they both have a very manic approach to their comedy. However, Steve is a sure-fire, super confident winning comic; littering his speech with throwaway meaningless lines that build up over the course of the act to overwhelm you with the utter silliness of it all – and it’s also very funny. He has a surprisingly fine aptitude for a spot of magic – which you’re definitely not expecting – and what he can do with a long balloon is nobody’s business. He completely nailed it – the evening, not the balloon.

There’s another Screaming Blue in two weeks’ time – unfortunately, we can’t go, but you can have our seats!