Review – Bitter Wheat, Garrick Theatre, 18th July 2019

Bitter WheatMrs Chrisparkle isn’t the greatest fan of David Mamet but the Squire of Sidcup and I really enjoyed Glenglarry Glen Ross a while back so we decided to book to see Bitter Wheat on the strength of its writer and because neither of us had seen John Malkovich in the flesh before. Then came the reviews: one star, two stars, one star, one star…. offensive play, bad acting, underwritten characters, lazy direction… it doesn’t give you much confidence in what you’re going to see.

FeinThe concept of the offensive play is a fascinating one. The first audiences of Edward Bond’s Saved were offended by the play because of its infamous baby-stoning scene. Mary Whitehouse was offended by The Romans in Britain (even though she’d never seen it) because Roman soldiers rape native Celts in a rather heavy-handed metaphor for invasion. I don’t believe either of those plays particularly set out to offend; they just contained scenes which, for whatever reason, shocked some members of the audience into recognising unpleasant truths. On the other hand, a light-hearted entertainment like Oh Calcutta, which had no serious axe to grind, was probably more likely have been assembled with the intention of offending some people; and Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, with its cast directly criticising, ridiculing and abusing the audience, does exactly what it says on the tin. Is Bitter Wheat to be added to the list of offensive plays?

Yung Kim Li and FeinMamet’s new and very black comedy satirises the Harvey Weinsteins of this world. His character Barney Fein is a belligerent and manipulative movie mogul who schedules, into his daily routine, ways of taking advantage of young actresses, cheating writers out of their fees, blackmailing his staff and acquaintances, and ignoring the needs of his only relative, his mother. Not a nice man. When the young starlet of new film Dark Water, exhausted and starving after a 27 hour flight from Seoul to Hollywood, arrives for a business meeting, he has no intention of giving her film the backing she and it needs unless she performs some kind of sexual favour first. Shocked, scared and disgusted, her natural reaction is to somehow get out of harm’s way; however, her career depends on this deal, so she’s resigned to, as the old phrase might go, Shut Your Eyes and Think of Korea. How far can he push her? Will she give in? And will there be consequences? I must keep some of the plot back so that you have to come to see the play to find out!

Doctor and FeinLet’s be frank here; there’s been a casting couch for as long as there’s been casting. It wasn’t that long ago that the tongue-in-cheek joke used to go something like: “Who do I have to sleep with to get a job here?” with its subsequent variant, “who do I have to sleep with not to get a job here?” Revolting and despicable though they may be, there’s nothing new about a Weinstein or a Fein. What is new, is the Internet, and its free flow of information and opinion, and individuals’ first-hand accounts, closely allow us to be involved with – almost complicit in – the activities of such monsters.

Sondra and FeinAnd I think it is the complicity that is the most powerful undercurrent in this play. Splendid actors like Doon Mackichan as Fein’s PA Sondra, or Teddy Kempner as his Viagra-providing doctor, actors whom audiences automatically love and identify with, play characters who know full well what Fein gets up to inter alia, and figuratively hold their noses whilst they enable him to – literally – rape and pillage. As witnesses, we the audience are also asked to dip our hands in the blood and be complicit in his actions. Sondra, the doc, and assistant Roberto allow themselves to be offended and allow others to be abused in order to keep their good jobs, high status and nice incomes. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not offensive (in dramatic terms), that’s challenging, which is what I seek from theatre.

Casting CouchI must add: I’m not in any way casting any doubt on the legitimacy of #metoo accounts, or downplaying the sheer horror of their consequences. What men like Fein do is simply unacceptable and criminal. But to find this play offensive just because it portrays Fein’s modus operandi through the medium of black comedy rather than through serious drama is to miss the point. Even a wretch like Fein can make himself likeable when it comes to the crunch; indeed, he has to, to get away with it. When society doesn’t act to block his ruthless and selfish pursuit of women, we, as a society, are partly culpable for his actions too.

Fein and TaitteThe play is dominated by Fein, so, unsurprisingly, the production is dominated by John Malkovich. Never off stage, he cuts the most grotesque figure. Cantankerous, belittling, and totally self-obsessed, he never listens to what people say to him because his own voice is his only music. Mr Malkovich inhabits Fein’s body with repugnant accuracy; small details, like his need to rock back and forwards a couple of times in order to get the physical impetus to stand up, work perfectly. When the world closes in on him, his self-pity comes to the fore, choosing to blame all his problems on being fat, instantly taking to the window ledge in a hollow, but ostentatious nod towards a suicide attempt – and you can tell from Ms Mackichan’s unimpressed reaction that he’s done that several times before. Mr Malkovich spits out Fein’s sarcasms and foul-mouthed tirades with dismissive disdain, only revelling in the words when he’s using them to either a) get the girl or b) blackmail the opponent. It’s a brilliant performance, playing with the grotesque from all angles, making us laugh at his repulsiveness.

Fein and the WriterDoon Mackichan is excellent as Sondra, a role that’s not underwritten as some critics have said, rather the character understands that she must choose her words very carefully to avoid falling into all the traps that her vile boss lays with every sentence. She tries her best to do a proper PA job and knows she has to go along with his devious plans in order to remain employed; Ms Mackichan very shrewdly portrays that fine line between disgust at him and disgust at herself. There’s also a very strong West End debut from Ioanna Kimbook as Yung Kim Li, the respectable and vulnerable young woman who slowly realises how she is being trapped and manipulated, conveying beautifully not only her horror and disgust at Fein’s intentions but also her disappointment at the realisation that someone she regarded as a hero is in fact a zero.

Roberto and FeinIf you decided to skip this show on the strength of the reviews, think again. Sure, it presents us with a pretty seedy side of life, but you’re a mug if you think stuff like this doesn’t happen. Unchecked, men like Fein carry on; Mamet shows how he can even find a way of extricating himself from the narrowest of squeaks at the end of the play. Recommended!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Lost Musicals presents Auntie Mame, RADA Studios, 14th July 2019

Auntie MameFirst of all, hurrah for the return of Lost Musicals! We haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since 2013, and I’ve missed them! Looking back, we saw one “lost musical” every year from 2006 to 2013, and it’s a unique form of theatrical entertainment. Taking a show that, for whatever reason, has largely been forgotten despite its merit and quality, a group of dinner-jacketed/posh-frocked actors sit on a row of chairs at the back of the stage, coming forward with their neatly bound, colourfully highlighted scripts to perform it with no scenery but with abundant energy and fantastic characterisations. Each performance is introduced by director Ian Marshall Fisher, with some sneaky and fascinating facts about the original production; and, because a musical isn’t a musical without music, we would be joined by an overworked pianist, gamely reproducing a complete orchestral accompaniment to the entire show.

Elizabeth CounsellThis year, Lost Musicals have dug up a Lost Play (therefore, no pianist). Auntie Mame, a highly successful production starring Rosalind Russell, appeared at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway in 1956 and ran for two years. It subsequently opened at the Adelphi in London in 1959 with Beatrice Lillie as the eponymous aunt. But, since then, not a peep. Nevertheless, as the basis of the very successful musical, Mame, which starred Angela Lansbury on Broadway and Ginger Rogers in London, this was a pretty good choice for their next production.

James VaughanWritten by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee, it’s an adaptation of Patrick Dennis’ novel, also called Auntie Mame, about the escapades of a boy growing up with his glamorous and outrageous aunt after his own father had died. In the play, young Patrick is exposed to New York Society Parties, unconventional education practices, and suitable and unsuitable suitors, whilst Mame, who loses everything in the Wall Street Crash, is hopeless at ordinary jobs until she meets the wealthy Beauregard Burnside from a Georgia plantation, marries him and goes on a (very) extended honeymoon. When Beau falls to his death taking a snapshot, she returns to discover that Patrick is now a snob and engaged to a revoltingly shallow girl from an obnoxiously racist family. Fortunately, he sees the light and it all ends well.

Myra SandsIt shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how successful the original production was, that this is a hugely enjoyable play. Very funny, with great characters, a sprawling outlook, and tongue fairly firmly placed in cheek most of the way. Mame herself is a strongly, wittily written part; someone who knows precisely where her strengths lie and where they don’t, an intricate mix of selfless and selfish, but always with a kind heart and an unerring knack of knowing what’s right. In this semi-staged production, she was played by the marvellous Elizabeth Counsell, whom I first saw in Marc Camoletti’s Happy Birthday at the Apollo in 1979; Ms Counsell gives Mame just the right dash of cheekiness, exasperation, kindness and that knowing look.

Rebekah HindsAnother stalwart of the Lost Musicals productions, James Vaughan, plays a whole bunch of roles, including Mame’s winning suitor Beauregard (not many Beauregards born nowadays), the slimeball ghost writer Brian O’Bannion, and the short-tempered Stage Manager. Mr Vaughan always gives each character maximum presence, with an instantly recognisable voice, playing up the humour wherever possible, and always great fun to watch. Another postgraduate of the Lost Musicals Academy is Myra Sands, who plays the coarse and demanding Mother Burnside and the hideously uppity Doris Upson, again bringing all the ghastly humour from those roles.

Alfie LowlesThe production had a cast of (I think) eighteen, so I’d be here all day if I mention everyone, but they all gave us a lot of fun and did a great job. Special mentions, however, to Rebekah Hinds for her hilarious characterisation (that voice!) as the comedy gift Agnes Gooch, and to young Alfie Lowles for his very strong performance as Patrick as a boy – it’s a very substantial part that features heavily in the first Act, and he was superb.

Unfortunately, it appears there will be no more Lost Musicals and/or Plays this year, but hopefully they will be back in 2020 with loads more for us to enjoy!

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 13th July 2019

A Midsummer Night's DreamLast year the Bridge removed all its stalls seats for a gloriously exciting promenade production of Julius Caesar. This year, they’ve only gone and done it again – for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an old perennial favourite that can withstand the tests of time and whatever bright inventive ideas an innovative director can throw at it. Over the years, Dream has learned to stand on its own two feet; I’ve never yet seen a production that I didn’t like, because there’s always so much fun to be squeezed out from squabbling lovers, ruthless fairies and a starstruck weaver. It lends itself to updating too; I was just a bit too young to have seen the famous Peter Brook production, but that concept of aerial fairies has never quite gone away.

Gwendoline ChristieIt’s always a pleasure to write about a production that gives so much joy, happiness and sheer delight. Mr Hytner’s version is a dream of a Dream. Inventive, cheeky, bang up-to-date; playing with the storyline but still respectful of the original and its characters. Before the show started, I noted that the programme gave the factual, but enigmatic statement: “around 300 lines have been reassigned”. I hadn’t read any reviews in advance, so didn’t know what to expect; and if you’re in the same position, gentle reader, and don’t want a big surprise to be spoiled, I will completely understand if you now X me out at the corner of the page and read no more. Because the surprise is a thing of beauty.

David Moorst“I jest to Oberon”, Puck normally explains, in his introductory speech, to the unnamed fairy at the beginning of Act Two. Instead, “I serve Titania”, says this Puck, with an accent straight up from the Black Country, looking like a cross between the late lamented Rik from The Young Ones and Keith from The Prodigy. By serving Titania rather than Oberon, that means she’s going to play a trick on him, rather than the other way round. So it’s Oberon’s eyes who receive the Love-in-Idleness treatment, and who therefore becomes besotted with Bottom when he awakes. And how does that make Bottom feel? You’ll just have to see this production for yourself to find out.

Tessa Bonham Jones, Isis Hainsworth, Kit Young and Paul AdeyefaBunny Christie comes up trumps as usual with a superb set, full of trickery and surprises; a Perspex box for Hippolyta’s first appearance (she has been captured by Theseus at war, after all); an Athenian forest liberally sprinkled with brass bedsteads for the lovers’ sleep-out adventures; and a range of fabric trapezes for Puck and the fairies’ general use (see Para 1, Peter Brook reference.) Hermia and Helena appear in monastic grey, in contrast with their suitors’ sharp suits; but no one’s as splendidly clad as Theseus/Oberon, which strangely adds to his slight fragility and insecurity. Grant Olding’s original music is both haunting and happy; and if ever there was an award for the Best Ever Use of Johnny Nash in a West End Play – this is your winner.

Gwendoline Christie as TitaniaThere’s the always thorny decision to be taken when it’s a promenade production; do you stand or do you sit? At two hours forty minutes, plus the interval, depending on your level of fitness, it can take it out on both the feet and the back. And there will always be moments when you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you just won’t see what everyone else sees. I know that Hippolyta did a great visual reaction in the first scene from the guffaws from the audience; but another of the characters was right in my way so I’ve no idea what she actually did. But for every naff moment like that, there’s the chance of a golden moment; we were right there when Helena was spoiling for a fight against Hermia, and when Oberon was going to get it on with Bottom; and Snug and I exchanged thumbs ups when Pyramus and Thisbe was chosen as the entertainment for the Duke’s nuptials. The best seated position is almost certainly the front row of Gallery One; but, despite all its complications, you can’t beat the thrill of being up close and personal with the cast in the pit. And the party end to the show is by far best enjoyed by the promenaders. Those in the seats looked on like they’d been left out of the invitations, whilst we were chucking enormous moon balls at each other and boogying with Puck and Demetrius.

Hammed AnimashaunWhilst there are serious aspects to the play – Egeus, after all, is preparing to have his daughter killed if she does not bend to his will as to whom she should marry, and Theseus is on his side in this matter – this production concentrates unashamedly on the humour. Not only from the role-reversals of Oberon and Titania, but also with a beautiful mesh of modern-day asides alongside the Elizabethan text. Seeking a calendar, Bottom borrows a mobile phone off a member of the audience (and you can guess how well that can go down). Theseus and Hippolyta critique the mechanicals with a modern twist; the preferment of Pyramus and Thisbe is shown in X-Factor terms; oh, yes, and there’s that Johnny Nash moment, as well as Beyoncé and Dizzee Rascal. Not like the Athens I’ve visited at all.

Felicity Montagu and Hammed AnimashaunAlthough it is very much an ensemble piece there are a number of absolute stand-out performances. Oliver Chris is a very majestic Theseus who adores the sound of his own stentorian voice; the kind of authority figure who doesn’t walk, he sweeps; yet he retains a slight air of doubt, perfectly seen when Theseus talks to Bottom in Act Five and wonders if he remembered him from some vague encounter…? Gwendoline Christie is superb as the statuesque, no-nonsense Hippolyta and a most mischievous Titania. David Moorst is a fantastically agile and attitude-filled Puck; not one of the usual cutesy fairy characters, you could easily imagine this one beating you up behind the bikesheds if you got in his way. Perhaps funniest and most endearing of all, Hammed Animashaun is unbeatable as Bottom; a big kid who’ll sulk his way into the best parts, with a fantastic, larger-than-life chuckle and a huge heart to spread the positive energy of this play.

Kit Young and Isis HainsworthIsis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones are excellent as Hermia and Helena, Miss Jones taking every opportunity to mine the humour out of the character, and Miss Hainsworth feisty and fighty; as their suitors Paul Adeyefa and Kit Young make an enjoyable double act as the brash Demetrius and Lysander. In another sex change, Felicity Montagu turns in a brilliant comic performance as Mistress Quince, and all the other rude mechanicals make for a dream team of comedy; far and away the funniest portrayal of Pyramus and Thisbe (plus its rehearsals) that I’ve ever seen. And the supplementary fairies are all beautifully played with their face sparkles and acrobatic antics; butter wouldn’t melt when they’re in the sky, then they come down to earth and are – shall we say – delightfully human in their provision of comfort to Bottom the Ass.

Chipo KureyaPurists will be aghast. But the rest of us will absolutely love it. It’s playing at the Bridge right up until the end of August. That’s three shows this year that I’ve wanted to see again before we reached the interval; Company, Man of La Mancha, and now Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, how can I fit in another visit…?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Labours of Hercules (1947)

The Labours of HerculesIn which Poirot, following an idea planted in his brain by his friend Dr Burton, decides to sniff out and solve twelve cases that mirror the ancient classical labours of Hercules. Each case is written as a short story, preceded by a foreword which explains how Burton gave Poirot the idea.

The book is dedicated “to Edmund Cork of whose labours on behalf of Hercule Poirot I am deeply appreciative this book is affectionately dedicated”. Cork was Christie’s literary agent, “a young man with a slight stammer” as she described him in her autobiography, and someone who became a lifelong friend. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in 1939 and 1940, with the exception of The Capture of Cerberus which was rejected by the magazine and was not published as part of the series. In the US, they were all published between 1939 and 1947 in either This Week magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The collection was first published in the format The Labours of Hercules in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1947 and the UK, by Collins Crime Club, in November of that year.

As with Poirot Investigates and The Listerdale Mystery, even though they’re just bite-sized stories, they still contain many of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies. I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately – and, as usual, don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!

The brief, scene-setting foreword reveals Poirot entertaining his friend Dr Burton, Fellow of All Souls, chatting over a glass of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, relaxing in Poirot’s chromium, modernistic furnishings. Burton quizzes Poirot over his unusual first name – and indeed, recollects that Poirot has a brother, Achille, whom we encountered in The Big Four. Burton takes Poirot to task for never having read the Classics, and while Poirot appears to look forward to a retirement cultivating vegetable marrows (“magnificent vegetables – but they lack flavour”), secretly his curiosity is piqued. So he instructs his trusted secretary Miss Lemon to amass as much information about Hercules as possible. Disappointed to discover that Hercules is, for the most part, an unsophisticated brute, he nevertheless decides to seek out twelve cases to be his retirement swansong – and we await the arrival of the first case.

Although only six pages, this is a very entertainingly written introduction to the rest of the book, with some excellent insights into Poirot’s character, and some vague connections to other books. Long ago, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we read that Poirot was to retire to cultivate vegetable marrows. It looks as though he still hasn’t got around to starting that yet. In Christie’s previous book, The Hollow, we saw Poirot weekending in a country cottage – whilst still presumably having his flat up in town – and the modern description of his urban surroundings still makes it sound as though his country pursuits aren’t really suitable to his personality. We will see in the first story, The Nemean Lion, how Poirot enjoys both the warmth and the design of his “electric radiator”. There’s progress for you.

We also become reacquainted with Miss Lemon, last seen in Parker Pyne Investigates, as a secretary, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Whilst she had appeared in a 1935 short story, How Does Your Garden Grow, that did not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. But more of her in the first of these cases shortly.

A couple of brief references to start with: Burton waxes lyrical with his classical quotation: “by skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens the swift ship buffeted by the winds”. This comes from Book 2 of Homer’s Odyssey. And Poirot refers to the case of Adolphe Durand, a butcher, tried at Lyon in 1895, “a creature of ox-like strength who had killed several children.” Convincing though M. Durand is, I think this is one of Christie’s mischievous inventions.

The Nemean Lion

The Nemean LionThis first story was originally published in the November 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in September 1944’s edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US, under the title, The Case of the Kidnapped Pekinese. It’s a smart little tale, deftly told, of Pekinese dogs being stolen from posh ladies – or rather from their walkers – whilst in the park, and then a heavy ransom being demanded for their return. Christie, being Christie, can’t resist a few of her usual themes, although the direction she’s taking might not quite be what you would expect.

For instance, and unusually, there’s an element of true socialism – communism almost – in the motive for the crimes and, even more unusually, Christie, speaking through the voice of Poirot, is sympathetic to the cause. Although “justice isn’t seen to be done” in this case, a natural kind of justice does take place. Nevertheless, Christie is complicit in siding with the men in the battle of the sexes that takes place with the use of language in this story. “You can’t expect a woman to behave with any sense” avers Sir Joseph, and Poirot doesn’t contradict him. “I know I’ve only got a woman’s brain” says Miss Carnaby, and she means it. Christie belittles the character of Mrs Samuelson by having her declare “men think of nothing but money”, whilst admiring her own bracelet and rings. Fortunately, Miss Lemon is there to redress the balance. When she suggests the case of the missing Pekinese to Poirot as a suitable case for his attention, he assumes the worst: “Poirot was shaken; shaken and embittered. Miss Lemon, the efficient Miss Lemon, had let him down! […] Words trembled on his lips – witty caustic words […]” But after some thought, and some reflection, he reassesses her behaviour: “as usual, Miss Lemon had been right.”

There’s a very unfortunate note of racism in one scene, when a character remarks how some dogs look like each other: “You see, to most people, one Pekinese is very much like another. (Just as we think the Chinese are.)” Oh, no, Mrs Christie, you don’t want to be thinking that.

There are a few London addresses mentioned: Bloomsbury Road Square, Clonmel Gardens, and Rosholm Mansions; all very believable, but none of them exist in real life. Reference is also made to the village of Kellington in Essex; there is a Kellington, but it’s in Yorkshire. There are also a couple of sums mentioned – £200 and £300, being two of the ransom demands made for the return of the Pekinese dogs. Given that the story was first published in 1939, that would be an equivalent of £9100 or £13,700 today. No wonder Mr Samuelson was annoyed.

There’s also a suggestion of poisoning – although I won’t spoil it for you by elaborating further. A gentle, but intriguing start to the Labours.

The Lernean Hydra

The Lernean HydraAn enjoyable little story, originally published in the December 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in the 3rd September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine in the US, under the title, Invisible Enemy. Rumour has it that Dr Oldfield poisoned his wife, which he strenuously denies, although it’s true that there is a romantic frisson between him and his assistant Jean. It goes without saying that it doesn’t take Poirot long to ferret out the truth of the matter.

The story takes place in the wholly believable but entirely made up town of Market Loughborough in Berkshire. We also discover that the town of Darnington is a bus ride away, and that there’s a Woolworths store there. There’s no such place of course, and, sadly, no more Woolworths stores nowadays.

Christie’s interest in poison comes to the fore in this story with the suspicion that Mrs Oldfield died by arsenic, the symptoms of gastric inflammation and arsenical poisoning being – apparently – similar. The character of Jean appears to know a lot about “vegetable alkaloid” poisons, but then again, she is a medical dispenser, which may also be cause for suspicion.

The real world does cross over into this story, with references to Crippen, Le Neve and Armstrong; Crippen, of course, murdered his wife, Ethel le Neve was his mistress; Herbert Rowse Armstrong was the only solicitor ever to have been hanged in Great Britain, for the murder of his wife.

There’s a minor xenophobic remark, when Poirot is called “an exotic little foreigner” – almost a compliment by Christie’s terms – and the sum of £30,000 is mentioned, being the amount that Mrs Oldfield left her husband in her will. That’s a whopping £1.3m in today’s money.

One unintentionally funny line: When Poirot asks Jean if she intends to marry Oldfield, she says he hasn’t asked her – “because I’ve choked him off”. Urban Dictionary attributes a meaning to that phrase that I’m sure Christie never intended.

The Arcadian Deer

The Arcadian DeerThis short and sweet little story was originally published in the January 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 19th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Vanishing Lady. Whilst his car is being repaired, Poirot meets the mechanic, Ted Williamson, and is struck by his handsomeness – a Greek God indeed. Knowing Poirot’s fame, Williamson asks him to trace a lady – she was a maid attending on a Russian ballerina staying at a local house – with whom he had instantly fallen in love. But she didn’t keep their second assignation and appears to have gone to ground.

In a heart-warming mission of mercy, Poirot visits many addresses and questions many possible witnesses, including in London, Switzerland and Pisa. Eventually he comes to the truth of the matter; it’s an open-ended affair, but a rather sweet and poignant denouement. It’s a nicely written short story, with plenty of brief, pithy chapters which help Poirot’s chasing down of Nita to gain pace; and at one stage you think it’s actually going to have a very sad ending, whereas, in fact, the opposite is the case.

I don’t know if Poirot was going through some kind of middle-age sexuality crisis, but he appears to be totally besotted with young Ted. “Here, he thought, was one of the handsomest specimens of humanity he had ever seen, a simple young man with the outward semblance of a Greek god […] the young man plunged eagerly into technical details. Poirot nodded his head gently, but he was not listening. Perfect physique was a thing he admired greatly.” He imagines Ted as a “young shepherd in Arcady” – in other words, Arcadia, the ancient district in the Peloponnese.

Other reference points in the story include the village of Hartly Dene, where Poirot’s Messarro Gratz had given up the ghost; both village and car are inventions of Christie. Nita’s last known address was 17 Upper Renfrew Lane, N15, and the ballerina, Madame Samoushenka, now lives in Vagray les Alpes, in Switzerland. Again, both are completely fictitious; although the dancer says her maid was from Pisa, which of course does exist.

There’s a moment of near-xenophobia when the woman who lives at Upper Renfrew Lane can only remember the dancer’s name as Madame Semolina, and describes her as “real Eyetalian”. And there’s one significant sum mentioned in the book – £5 (or maybe even £10) – that’s the amount that Ted is prepared to pay Poirot for his assistance. I rather doubt that Poirot would stoop so low as to ask for such lowly payment – between £200-£400 at today’s value.

The Erymanthian Boar

The Erymanthian BoarThis cunning and clever short story was originally published in the February 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 5th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Murder Mountain. Poirot has moved on to the Swiss Alps for a little sightseeing when he is contacted by the local Commissaire of Police to help track down a Parisian gangster, Marrascaud, who has holed himself up in an exclusive and remote mountain resort. There are a few shady characters up there, any one of which could be the criminal at large. By careful deduction Poirot identifies the miscreant who is satisfactorily brought to book.

With a nod to wartime sentiments, the story features a suspicious Jewish doctor who was turfed out of Austria by the Nazis, and there is an American tourist, also with a German name, who might be the target of a wartime reader’s xenophobic concerns. The locations of the story are largely real; Schwartz has visited Paris and has seen all the genuine sights; Poirot has visited Chamonix, Montreux and Aldermatt, all of which exist. As the story takes us higher in the Alps, Poirot travels through Les Avines, Caurouchet and finally Rochers Neiges, where the bulk of the action takes place. These places don’t exist, although there is Rochers-de-Naye, which is almost certainly the inspiration.

Christie refers to the Bertillon photograph of the suspect, which is a term we have heard before in The Murder on the Links; Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. Poirot manages to contact the Swiss Police by using a heliograph – which was something we came across in And Then There Were None; it’s a form of morse code.

There’s one of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: “Schwartz ejaculated: “Marrascaud!””

Nothing much more to be said; a successful little tale that keeps its secret beautifully until the final pages.

The Augean Stables

The Augean StablesThis story was originally published in the March 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, but there was no US magazine publication until the complete collection was published in 1947. From a really good story to a rather silly one! Poirot is asked for help by none other than the Prime Minister, whose father-in-law, the previous Prime Minister, is about to be revealed as a cheat and a scoundrel by a nasty daily rag. Rumours start about the Prime Minister’s wife, but to what extent are the stories true and who’s manipulating who?

The story starts with a lot of unnecessary and dull detail about the characters which doesn’t really add to our understanding of the situation. There is some talk of the People’s Party, which is clearly an invention of Christie’s, and some unsubtle references to a Herculean task and the Augean Stables, which admittedly is what decides Poirot to take the case but it does come across as very heavy-handed. The repeated phrase “People were talking” introduces some short staccato chapters but it all feels very clumsily written to me.

The village of Little Wimplington, unsurprisingly, doesn’t exist (such a far-fetched name!) and there’s also some latent racism with the use of the phrase, “Dago skunks”.

There’s one financial value mentioned, that of £500, which is the amount paid to Thelma Anderson for her work. That’s the best part of £20,000. No wonder she took the job.

I found this story rather boring, totally predictable and an hour I’ll never get back!

The Stymphalean Birds

The Stymphalian BirdsLet’s hope for better luck with this one. The Stymphalean Birds (sic, as printed in my copy, although it’s usually spelled Stymphalian) was originally published in the April 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 17th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Vulture Women. Under-secretary of state Harold Waring is holidaying in Herzoslovakia, Christie’s made up all-purpose Eastern European state that represents all things non-English (and, by implication, uncivilised), where he encounters mother and daughter Mrs Rice and Elsie Clayton. Elsie is in an abusive relationship with a dreadful husband and Harold begins to feel the urge to protect her. Clayton bursts in on Elsie and Harold having an innocent conversation but suspects the worst. Elsie throws a paperweight at him – and kills him. Scandal! What will this do to Harold’s career? And all along, two ugly, mean-looking Polish sisters are moping around the resort, eavesdropping and preparing to blackmail Harold and Elsie. But all is not as it seems, and Poirot quickly sorts the wheat from the chaff and the villains are brought to justice.

It’s an enjoyable story despite a) being incredibly far-fetched and b) immured in racism. All the way through the Polish ladies are the source of suspicion and dislike, simply because of their looks, their lack of English, and their general foreign-ness. Anything English is good, anything foreign is bad. When the Polish sisters first arrive on the scene, Harold notes “I may be fanciful, but I distinctly felt that there was something evil about them […]” “We’ll find out from the concierge who they are. Not English, I presume?” “Oh no.” When the characters talk of the corruption of the officials of Herzoslovakia, and the amount that has had to be paid to the police to shut them up, Harold says, “”Thank God our police force isn’t like that”. And in a British and superior mood he went down to lunch.” “This isn’t England”, says Mrs Rice. “We’re not in England, worse luck” says Harold. It’s incredibly xenophobic.

It’s also not very forward-thinking when it comes to sexual equality. “Two women living alone are not the best judges of a man’s character,” avows Mrs Rice, and Harold agrees. But it’s rather delightfully old-fashioned in its belief that a simple scandal like the one that Harold unwittingly finds himself immersed would be enough to put an end to a political career. How times have changed!!

It’s a very moral tale; one that I quite easily saw through, primarily because Christie lays the xenophobia on so heavily that it must be a decoy! Enjoyable, despite everything.

The Cretan Bull

The Cretan BullThis curious short story was originally published in the May 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 24th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Midnight Madness. Diana Maberly contacts Poirot alarmed that her fiancé Hugh Chandler has broken off their engagement because he is going mad. She’s not convinced of his madness at all, but there are some strange events taking place, like Chandler waking up in the morning covered with blood and overnight someone has attacked and killed livestock, or a cat, and so on. But is there some other evil at large here? Trust Poirot to get to the truth.

Christie seems to have a problem with some of her phraseology here; the phrase “do better to keep his mouth shut” is repeated within a couple of pages and it feels clumsy and poorly thought through. Elsewhere, Poirot is once again impressed by a man’s “magnificent physique” (see The Arcadian Deer above – is he on the turn?) This story doesn’t have much time for the medical profession; Admiral Chandler describes doctors as “humbug merchants” and Poirot himself says “I am not an alienist” (an early term for a psychiatrist). Hugh Chandler mocks Poirot with the quote “Canst thou then minister to a mind diseased?”, which is Macbeth’s plea to the doctor to help his, now insane, wife.

However, Christie the poison expert does come to the fore; Colonel Frobisher mentions a common practice from his Indian days, datura poisoning. Datura is the Latin name for the devil’s trumpet plant, strongly poisonous especially in their seeds and flowers which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, hallucinations, psychosis, and sometimes death. Datura were used to source atropine sulphate which was used for eye treatments. This was fairly specialised knowledge, I suspect!

An interesting story – again, though, brought down by its extremely far-fetched nature. Although you can appreciate the solution, it’s very hard to imagine how this crime worked in practice.

The Horses of Diomedes

The Horses of DiomedesThe Horses of Diomedes was originally published in the June 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US, much later, in the January 1945 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, under the title The Case of the Drug Peddler. A young friend of Poirot, Dr Michael Stoddart, is concerned about cocaine taking by a group of people including someone with whom he has amorous intentions, Sheila Grant. Is there anything he can do to help? Well, there is actually – and in doing so, he identifies and brings to justice a drugs ring.

“Drugs ruin people”, says Dr Stoddart, “body and soul. Drink’s a gentle little picnic compared to drugs.” Far be it from me to disagree with the wise doctor, but of all the works of Christie that I have read this is probably the one that has dated the worst. The notion today that a case could be brought about someone coercing someone else to take cocaine is almost sweet in its naivete. How times change. Even so, I still found this a most unlikely and unsatisfactory story.

The story is set in fictional Mertonshire, which had previously housed Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, nicely described thus: “it is practically impossible to live in Mertonshire unless you have an income that runs into four figures, and what with income-tax and one thing and another, five figures is better. At today’s rate, £1000 is the equivalent of £39,000; a five figure sum starts at £390,000. I think we understand Christie’s drift. Two other sum comparators in this story are the £10 that the homeless victim accepted as a bribe – that’s (obviously) £390 in today’s equivalent, and the £50, which is the sum that Mrs Larkin encashed for herself at the bank, which today would be just short of £2000.

The site of the wild parties is 17 Conningby Mews, which, of course, doesn’t exist. There’s a reference to the Brighton Trunk Murders; these took place in 1934 and remained unsolved until the culprit, Tony Mancini, confessed in 1976.

I did enjoy a brief passage, where General Grant describes living in the country: “I liked the country when it was the country – not all this motoring and jazz and that blasted, eternal radio.”

But all in all, this is a very poor effort from Christie.

The Girdle of Hyppolita

The Girdle of HyppolitaAnd this one’s not a lot better! It was originally published in the July 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 10th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Disappearance of Winnie King. The case of a missing schoolgirl and the case of a stolen Rubens come together in this slight, far-fetched, underwhelming and instantly forgettable story. Poirot solves the case, but I can’t help but think he’s boxing below his weight with these tales. It’s unfortunate that he is so attached to his project to complete his own version of the twelve labours of Hercules that it means he has to solve such silly cases, just because they fit in with the title.

The story is written from a very snobbish perspective; with one of the characters referring to “those miserable idiots of unemployed” who had been “pursuing their tactics of lying down on street crossings”. It’s enough to coax the socialist out of anyone! Even Poirot comes out with halfwit statements like “women […] are a miraculous sex” as he considers how ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans.

The schoolgirl Winnie comes from Cranchester, which doesn’t exist, but really sounds like it ought. Miss Pope’s establishment is in Neuilly, which certainly does exist – a western suburb of Paris.

At least we get the chance to meet Inspector Japp again, which adds a touch of life to this otherwise dull tale.

The Flock of Geryon

The Flock of GeryonThis short story was originally published in the August 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 26th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Weird Monster. It’s hello again to Miss Carnaby, whom we met in The Nemean Lion earlier in this book. She is concerned that a friend has been subsumed in some kind of religious sect, as she has willed all her possessions to the cult and previous women who have done that have ended up dead. After some negotiations with Inspector Japp, Miss Carnaby infiltrates the cult. Is she in danger? Will its leader, Andersen, be brought to book? Have a guess.

Not really a whodunit but certainly with elements of thriller, this isn’t a bad story by any means. Christie clearly likes Miss Carnaby, and admires her powers of dissimulation; Poirot describes her as “a woman of great courage and determination […] good histrionic powers” and she shows a lot of spirit and wit in her assistance in this case. She also gives us an amusing insight into anything other than pure English Protestantism: “though I do not approve of Roman Catholics, they are at least recognised”; xenophobia through religion, fascinating! I’m surprised that she never returns in any of Christie’s other works.

Christie the Poison Expert becomes Christie the Spliff Expert with her references to Cannabis Indica, hashish and blang, which seems to have gone completely out of the language relating to this meaning; maybe she was on something when she wrote it.

Newton Woodbury sounds a most pleasant little place; it doesn’t exist, but it really should.

The Apples of The Hesperides

The Apples of The HesperidesThis short story was originally published in the September 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 12th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Poison Cup. Poirot is contacted by Emery Power, a rich antiques collector, trying to find a gold goblet that he had won at auction but which was instantly stolen and never returned. Poirot follows up all the leads in the case and eventually his investigations take him to a convent on the west coast of Ireland…

Rather a moral tale this, not bad, not riveting, but definitely hokey. I like how Christie portrays Poirot so out of place in Ireland, wearing his totally inappropriate patent leather shoes, observing that the Romans had never built a decent road; thinking of it as “a land where common sense and an orderly way of life were unknown.” There’s a little bit of latent racism from Inspector Wagstaffe, who refers to the Italian police as the “Macaronis”; he definitely deserves to be referred to as a rostbif.

Power paid £30,000 for the goblet; that’s almost £1.2 million at today’s value. No wonder he’s keen for it to be returned. Other references in the tale are a story called the “Bust of Napoleon”, which appears to be of Christie’s own invention; Hercules Bicycles, which was a successful bicycle manufacturer in the UK, launched in 1910 but sold to Raleigh in 1960, and now defunct (although the brand lives on in India); and a quote from a song: “The Apple Tree, the Singing and the Gold…” which is from Euripides’ Hippolytus. Poirot has a very eclectic musical taste.

A horse called Hercules wins the Boynan Stakes at 60-1. Now that’s a coincidence.

The Capture of Cerberus

The Capture of CerberusThis final story was first published in the US in the 16th March 1947 edition of This Week Magazine, seven years after most of the others, under the title Meet Me in Hell. It was rejected by the Strand Magazine – which must have been a bold editorial step on their part – because it was too involved in the politics of its time… read on…

Poirot encounters his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff on the London Underground who invites him to meet her in Hell – which, as the reliable Miss Lemon points out – is a fashionable new nightclub in town. There he meets Vera’s daughter-in-law-to-be, Alice Cunningham, who’s writing a book about criminal psychology, and using the club members as her subject matter. The police, however, know the place as a front for a drugs ring. Can Poirot sort out the good guys from the bad ones, and which side is the Countess on?

This is one of the more entertaining stories in this volume, nicely written and full of lively characterisations. It’s enjoyable for us to watch Poirot become reacquainted with Vera Rossakoff, the only woman he has truly loved. “It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after large and flamboyant women”, maintains Christie, cheekily, in this story. Poirot last saw Vera in The Big Four, although his first encounter with her was in the short story The Double Clue, which we didn’t get to read in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. Christie clearly loves writing about her, revelling in her sultry appearance, over-emphasising her Russian-ness.

So why was it rejected, on political grounds, by The Strand? Not, surely, because of the amusing observation that “nobody minds a Tory politician spending his own money – but when it’s a Labour man the public feel it’s their money he’s spending” – quite a shrewd observation, in fact. No – the original story, which only came to light when Christie’s secret notebooks were first examined a little over ten years ago, was set in Switzerland and involved the assassination of one August Hertzlein, a thinly disguised characterisation of Hitler. Remember this was 1940!

Other interesting observations include Christie’s description of Miss Lemon as “unbelievably ugly”. That’s not very nice, is it? Poirot observes at length the dowdiness of women on the Underground, and their predilection for knitting; times have changed. Corduroy wearers at the nightclub are described as “Bohemian”; and there’s reference to Peverel, the Battersea murderer, but this is not a real-life case.

Poirot spends the grand sum of £11 8/6 on flowers for the Countess; that’s £447 in today’s money. That’s one helluva bouquet.

Is it just me, or is there something outrageously naughty about the Countess’s description of discovering the emeralds? “I feel through the velvet something hard inside. I slip my hand in, I find what I know by touch to be jewels”. Oh, matron!


And that concludes, at length, (sorry about that) all twelve stories in The Labours of Hercules. At times that was fun, at others incredibly stodgy and unrewarding, not to mention laborious; and, overall, I couldn’t score this book more than 6/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Taken at the FloodNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book I remember being serialised on BBC Radio when I was about 16, Taken at the Flood, and I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Film Music Gala, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th July 2019

Film Music GalaThis is the second time that we have seen the Royal Philharmonic perform a Film Music Gala at the Royal and Derngate; the first, in 2017, featured soloist Alison Jiear to sing some Bond themes and I Will Always Love You from The Bodyguard. No soloist this time, which was perhaps a shame, as some vocals add variety to a gala night, when the orchestra is performing a number of short pieces; eighteen this time, plus an encore.

Nevertheless, it was still a very enjoyable show, with the Royal Philharmonic on excellent form. This time they were under the baton of Pete Harrison, who was new to us; he’s used to conducting West End Show orchestras and Pop/Classic crossover concerts – and we were really impressed to learn that he conducted the Russian State Symphony Orchestra in Moscow playing the music of Pink Floyd. Now that’s eclectic.

Pete HarrisonMr Harrison is a warm and friendly chap, clearly with a great rapport with the orchestra which also conveys itself into the auditorium. The nature of this concert meant that he spent a lot of time with the microphone introducing the various pieces to us and/or commenting about them afterwards and he obviously really enjoys bringing this kind of music to a large audience; and, I must say, the Derngate was pretty packed, with concertgoers of all ages.

Some of the pieces they had played before in the previous concert, some were new to the repertoire. We started with the Main Theme to The Big Country, with its broad, bright suggestion of wide open spaces and heroic cowboys. Next was the end reworking of the Main Theme from Jurassic Park, more melodic than brash, but very welcome. After that came the theme from Legends of the Fall, bookended by some beautiful, reflective piano playing by Roderick Elms. Back to the bold and brash with Where Eagles Dare, but then much more reflective and evocative with Out of Africa.

Duncan RiddellThe concert continued with John Williams’ theme to Schindler’s List, then The Fellowship of the Ring, Gabriel’s Oboe (from The Mission), going into the interval with the triumphant 633 Squadron. After the break, we went back in history somewhat to Sir Arthur Bliss’ Things to Come march from 1936; then the bold and contemporary fun of Apollo 13 – the Last Frontier, and The Da Vinci Code – Chevaliers de Sangreal. Two much more well-known pieces followed – Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago (no 1960s easy listening album was complete without a version of this) and the famous Born Free, from the film of the same name. Then something very different – Ashokan Farewell from The Civil War, with leader of the orchestra Duncan Riddell showing his mastery of the folk violin style.

The last pieces of the concert were the famous Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark – which I thought sounded especially tremendous – then Jack Sparrow’s theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and finally the main theme from Star Wars – a true crowdpleaser (and one we heard only a month ago in the RPO’s Planets show). For an encore they performed the Flying Theme from E.T. – and a very warm finish to the concert it was too.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraMaybe not the most cerebrally demanding evening of orchestral music but this show’s prime purpose is to entertain with some great pieces of modern composition – and it certainly does that! The Royal Philharmonic will be back in Northampton on 22nd September with a programme of Tchaikovsky music. I’m expecting something very lively!

Review – Measure for Measure, Royal Shakespeare Company, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 4th July 2019

Measure for MeasureOne of the most rewarding aspects about watching Shakespeare in the 21st century is to realise how little has changed. RSC supremo Gregory Doran has set his new version of Measure for Measure in the Vienna of the 1900s, a time and a place of louche decadence, during the final knockings of the Habsburg Empire. The play may have been written over 400 years ago, but it was equally relevant a hundred years ago, and indeed today – particularly with the #metoo generation in mind, where (you could say) the puritan Angelo is just as bad* as your Harvey Weinsteins* of today (*allegedly). (*I didn’t say that).

Duke and AngeloAs an introduction to the plot, in case you don’t know… The Duke of Vienna has had enough of the limelight so leaves the administration of the city in the capable hands of his deupty, Angelo, and his assistant Escalus. Whilst Escalus is a safe pair of hands, and can be expected to mete out justice fairly, Angelo reveals himself to be a puritan fanatic. He unearths old laws that prohibit anything bawdy, and as a result closes all the whorehouses, and sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for having got his fiancé with child. Given that she was a willing participant in the exercise, that’s more than a bit tough. Claudio’s friend Lucio tells the condemned man’s sister Isabella about her brother’s fate, so she attends on Angelo to try to persuade him to change his mind. But Angelo’s price to preserve Claudio’s life is more costly on a personal level than Isabella is prepared to pay… Aha.

Lucio, Claudio and ProvostMeasure for Measure is delightfully uncategorisable; hence its consideration as one of Shakespeare’s three Problem Plays – and probably the most accessible and relatable of those works. Broadly it’s a comedy, but with some very savage aspects, and an ending that doesn’t comply with the usual multi-marriage tie-ups you expect from the genre. It has the bawdiness of the Merry Wives, the clownish policing of Much Ado, the plea for mercy of the Merchant of Venice and the uncompromisingly uncertain final resolution of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It satirises puritanism more sinisterly than Shakespeare’s treatment of Malvolio, and it reveals hypocrisy like the best Molière. It even cheerfully beheads a prisoner whose time hasn’t come yet.

Claudio and IsabellaThe 1900s setting works well enough, with hints of Viennese waltzes, frock coats and painted trollops, although the timelessness of the story and its quiet, understated horror, means you quickly forget about the outward show, and, to be honest, it could be anytime, anyplace. Deep down, it’s all about the powerplay between Angelo and Isabella, and the Duke’s subsequent devious plans to right the wrongs without being castigated for handing over control. The contrast between the Angelo’s clinical brutality and, say, the jokey shenanigans of the pimp Pompey or the foolish constable Elbow, is stark and uncomfortable; but they do very successfully show that it takes all sorts to make a dukedom. Only Lucio bridges the gap between the classes, being both educated and courtly, but also absurd and foppish; whilst he mixes in the high circles of power, and, with apologies for mixing my analogies here, like Icarus he flies too close to the sun.

Escalus, Angelo and JusticeThis is a fine, strong, satisfying production with great performances across the board. Lucy Phelps’ Isabella is a hearty, determined young woman but who won’t allow her moral standards to slip. It’s a great portrayal of a small cog in a big machine, out of her depth when the consequences of her actions become clear. There’s a great scene between Ms Phelps and James Cooney, as the forlorn, clueless Claudio, when he’s uncomprehending as to why she wouldn’t make this sacrifice for him and she’s furious that he should even ask such a thing; two little people lost in a vast, cruel world.

Pompey and FrothSandy Grierson is excellent as the cold, calculating Angelo; looking like a cross between Uriah Heep and Vladimir Putin, and about as trustworthy as both of them, he assumes mock humility at first but is quick to gain ruthless confidence. It’s a measure of the seriousness of his performance that when he cowers on the floor, trembling at the prospect of a night of extorted rapture, that we don’t find it funny, like we would Malvolio. This Angelo allows us the wry smiles of recognising hypocrisy but no more; even when he is condemned to marriage with Mariana, we don’t laugh at his woe. Mr Grierson gives us a superb portrayal of a man who is ugly on the inside; a chancer who spreads misery where he can but is powerless against true authority.

BarnadineClaire Price is fantastic as Escalus, beautifully upright, clear and decisive in her pronouncements; Joseph Arkley imbues Lucio with true upper-crust mischief making; and there are brilliant comic turns from Michael Patrick as the overzealous but under-accurate Elbow, and David Ajao as the wisecracking wide boy Pompey. Great support also from Amanda Harris as the surprisingly kindly Provost, Graeme Brookes as the flustered Mistress Overdone and the bizarrely assertive Barnadine, and Sophie Khan Levy as the much-wronged Mariana.

DukeBut it’s Antony Byrne’s magnificent portrayal of the Duke, with his innate authority at court and his overwhelmingly positive masquerade as Friar Lodowick that knits together all the threads of this superb production, full equally of humour and underplayed horror, and that helps to make this – in my humble opinion – the RSC’s best revival this year so far. Plenty of opportunities to see it, as it’s playing at Stratford until the end of August and then is on tour throughout the country until April, including the Christmas season at the Barbican. An excellent production of this perpetually relevant play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Death of a Salesman, Young Vic, 3rd July 2019

Death of a SalesmanMy third time of seeing (arguably) Arthur Miller’s finest play, but it was the Squire of Sidcup’s first time, and, as you know, you always remember your first time. Miller’s portrayal of Willy Loman, visually crumbling before us all, never fails to hit the heartstrings and I felt especially sorry for the young woman in the row in front, who started crying about an hour before the end and never let up. Since the introduction of the Internet, travelling salesmen like Willy are a thing of the past; old jokes like “I travel in ladies’ underwear” make no sense to anyone under the age of 40. But crushing guilt, bitter loneliness, that ghastly inability to regain one’s former success, and the desperate clutching of the feeblest straws to keep one’s hopes alive, are timeless concepts that everyone encounters at some point throughout their lives.

WillyThis production has been a sensational success and it’s not hard to see why. A phenomenal cast headed by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke, lucid direction from Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, sparse but creative design from Anna Fleischle, evocative and enchanting music from Femi Temowo, all within the inspirational intimacy of the Young Vic, make three hours fly by.

Willy and CharleyAbove the bare stage dangle sticks of furniture that drop into place when required then fly up again afterwards; a meagre window-frame, a small telephone table, comfortless chairs. The only other props are the refrigerator – standing as a symbol for those necessities in life one can never quite afford – and the gas heater, which hides the rubber tubing that Willy might use to end his life. A flight of stairs is barely visible through the back door; there is life outside, but it’s of no consequence to us.

Willy and the boysThe music, played live by Mr Temowo as he wanders in and out of the recesses of the set, feels of greater significance than in any other production of this play that I’ve seen. When Willy is hallucinating his conversations with his young sons, the music comes in and acts as their unseen responses; it seems to create a balance in Willy’s mind and provides support where, usually, silence is deafening. It also provides Biff’s responses when he’s on the phone to Linda; whether this supplies the support she needs, or whether it’s another example of the deceptions that the family can’t help but feed each other, you decide.

BrothersOh those deceptions… that, for me, was the chief element of the play that this production really brought out. This is a family founded on the thinnest of ice, from Willy’s infidelity in Boston, to the fabrication of Biff’s successes out West, from the true source of Willy’s income to Biff’s kleptomania. Willy’s famous contradictions show that he has no consistency in the truth; one minute the Studebaker is the finest car on the planet, the next minute the goddam thing should be prohibited. When Biff and Happy go out on the pull, there’s not an ounce of truth in the stories they spin to impress the girls. Willy insists that, in his interview with Bill Oliver, Biff shouldn’t pick anything off the floor if Oliver drops it; yet, in a brilliant moment of enhancing the original stage direction, what does Willy do when boss Howard drops his lighter? Lies, deceptions, inconsistencies, contradictions.

Wendell PierceWendell Pierce is an outstanding Willy Loman. Somehow, he can make his physical appearance rise and sink depending on the character’s mood and confidence, visible transformations that instantly convey the weight on his soul; at Willy’s lowest he tremors and closes down like a Parkinson’s or dementia patient. It’s extraordinary to watch. When he constantly complains about Linda or Happy interrupting him, it doesn’t come across as the usual bad-tempered bullying, rather it’s a desperate insecurity revealing that the only thing he really wants in life is to be proud of Biff. Mr Pierce’s stage authority is immense; all eyes on him when he speaks, he gives a performance of superb texture, where changes of pace, mood, direction and power abound.

Arinze Kene and Sharon D. ClarkeI’ve not seen Sharon D. Clarke on stage before but I can see why she’s steadily on her way to becoming a national treasure. Linda Loman can sometimes come across as a bit of a mousey drudge, but not this one. She’s a powerhouse of emotions, made strong by years of supporting a good man but a failed one, devoted to protecting him even if it means writing her children out of her life. You never doubt that this Linda would follow through with her threats. But it’s all delivered with supreme control and terrific stage presence.

Ben and WillyArinzé Kene plays Biff with great honesty and integrity; he never really comes across as the sporting hero or powerful businessman that he’d like us to think he is – because he’s not. From the very start, this Biff is riddled with failure; there’s no pretence, no assumption of confidence in advance of his meeting with Oliver, and his respect for his father is always compromised (unsurprisingly). Physically, Mr Kene is the least statuesque of the four family members, and it works to his advantage; that stylised, slow-motion, entry on stage where we all know he’s going to burst in upon his father with his mistress, and there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent it, is a perfect moment of agonising, looming fate, Mr Kene stealing upon the scene with virtual invisibility.

Happy chats up Miss ForsytheMartins Imhangbe’s Happy, on the other hand, appears every inch the Young Pretender, but without the approval or patronage of his parents; constantly shoving himself forward only to be ignored or slapped down. There’s both comedy and tragedy in his excellent interactions with Mr Pierce; Willy totally ignores the conversational contributions – indeed the presence – of his second son. No wonder the boy has grown into a dissolute layabout whose only efforts go into sensationally impressive chat-up techniques.

Bernard and WillyThe rest of the cast give tremendous support, with finely judged characterisations from Ian Bonar as the “anaemic” Bernard and Trevor Cooper as the long-suffering Charley; Matthew Seadon-Young is grimly unforgiving as Howard Wagner and smartly chipper as Stanley the waiter; and Jennifer Saayeng and Nenda Neurer, as Miss Forsythe and Letta, are made splendidly uncomfortable by the unexpectedly brutal Loman family interactions.

That WomanThis is a strong, gripping production, overflowing with conviction and majestic throughout. The run at the Young Vic is fully sold out, and it’ll be a different experience when it transfers to the much larger Piccadilly Theatre in October, but I’m sure equally rewarding. Highly recommended.

Linda and Willy with BenP. S. I did enjoy and admire the dignity of the curtain call; Mr Pierce, quite rightly, taking centre stage and very appreciatively acknowledging all parts of the auditorium for their response, but also taking care that his fellow performers were fully recovered from the incredible emotion of the final scene before inviting them to join in recognising the audience. I can’t remember seeing that before; it showed a generosity and concern towards the other cast members that fair warmed my heart, it did.

 Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell PierceP. P. S. This was my first visit to the Young Vic since the late Pete Postlethwaite’s King Lear ten years ago. Very impressed with its exciting vibe and the comfort and sight lines in the auditorium. However, I was most unimpressed with only allowing us ten minutes for the interval! Ten minutes! You’ve seen how long the queues are for the ladies’ toilets in a theatre – do the maths, it doesn’t add up. By the time you’ve got out of the auditorium, collected your interval drinks, and done a quick wee, someone’s shouting THREE MINUTES LEFT with apocalyptic urgency. No time for a sip, no chance of a half-time chat. I think that’s rather disrespectful towards the audience. We’re not cattle, you know.

Production photos by Brinkhoff Mogenburg