Review – Vinegar Tom, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2017

Vinegar TomThe last of the three plays performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, gracing the freezing cold stage of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton, was Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, an examination of 17th century witchcraft trials in England, with a little Brechtian twist. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of Laura Wade’s Posh, with the majority of the roles for women, and showing how hard life could be five hundred years ago, as opposed to wallowing in privilege today. Brighter minds than me (the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, no less) April Lissimoredescribe it as “a complex and historically expansive investigation of the policing of women’s bodies and desires”. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. Caryl Churchill, of course, has a substantial reputation as a thoughtful, innovative feminist writer, with her plays Cloud Nine and Top Girls being particularly prized. But Vinegar Tom was completely new to me, and I really had no idea what to expect. For a shallow guy like me, it was simply a growing drama of how the fear of the Devil contaminated society as a whole, so that anyone who did something you didn’t like was branded a witch. Benjamin HamptonThe test for a witch would always be something gruesome, designed to satisfy the warped lusts of the witchfinder general, so that, à la Monty Python, if you survived the experience you must be a witch, and if you died you were innocent – but got a quick route to Heaven, so that’s all good then. And of course, you can extrapolate this situation into the present day, with inequality still an issue, and men in authority still knowing what’s best for a woman’s body, no matter what she may think.

Florence Rees-WaiteFortunately, the structure of the play is Brecht-lite. Yes, it’s interspersed with hard-hitting, unsentimental songs, and has a brief vaudeville scene that’s just about as opposite from the tough life of the 17th century countryfolk as it’s possible to get; and of course the ceiling full of hangman’s nooses tells you straight away that it’s not going to end well for some of the characters. But it doesn’t have that tedious distancing effect that can sometimes make his works something of a tiresome watch. So that’s great news for the audience. Helena FentonTechnically I think this was the most successful of all three of this year’s student productions, with simple but effective light design, great use of the sides and upstage recesses of the Royal, and it would win the award for most unpleasant use of an upturned plank of wood (you had to be there). All this, and really great madrigal-style songs composed by Tristan Pate, hauntingly well sung. I’d pay a good price to get a cast album so that I could hear Evil Women again!

Jennifer EtheringtonI was instantly enthralled with this piece, from the opening scene between Helena Fenton’s Alice and Benjamin Hampton’s “Man” (one of four roles that he completely makes his own throughout the whole play). It was intimate, funny, honest, teasing, threatening, challenging and heart-breaking all at once. Vocally, I loved the accents that were delivered with total consistency and accuracy; and Miss Fenton really expressed all Alice’s hopes and fears (from the naughty to the demonic) with such conviction that I felt that I was in the presence of someone rather special – she’s definitely going to be One To Watch. But the energy they set up, and the standard they set, permeated through the entire cast and kept going right through the entire 90+ minutes, so much so that I almost didn’t notice there wasn’t an interval. Almost. At my age, I really do need a break after a while!

Jessica BridgeThe whole cast formed a very strong ensemble but each person brought their own touch of magic to the show. Jessica Bridge’s Susan gave us a very emotional and personal insight into the horror of betraying one’s friend because of peer pressure and sheer ignorance. It was a very heartfelt and believable performance. Victoria Rowlands as Joan, Alice’s mother, was a miserable crotchety old whiner but nevertheless she swayed the audience to sympathise with her ultimate fate. She also has a stunning voice! Jennifer Etherington expressed her character Margery’s no-nonsense lack of sentimentality with just the right degree of crispness and harshness.Kundai Kanyama Rachel Graham-Brown superbly conveyed Betty’s primness and natural superiority whilst also letting us see her insecurities and fears; Kundai Kanyama delivered cunning woman Ellen’s insights and bon mots with an entertaining matter-of-factness, as though she were an overworked GP writing out meaningless prescriptions; and April Lissimore was terrific as the witch finder’s assistant, Goody, smugly appreciating the fact that she’s struck it lucky with her job, echoing her boss’s maleficent maxims as she cheerfully helps him pierce the women’s private parts with his witch detector-probe. There’s always someone who lets the sisterhood down.

Lewis HodsonThe men in the cast also gave great support, with a terrific performance from Ruark Gould, as Margery’s husband Jack, fuming that he’s lost his mojo after Alice dismissed his advances; when she grants it back to him, his complacent relief is hilarious. Lewis Hodson is a comedically grim witch finder, Packer, channelling his inner Voldemort, extricating confessions because, I guess, everyone has to have a hobby. He’d be great as the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors! And Benjamin Hampton, whose opening scene “Man” I’ve already mentioned, gave four excellent characterisations Rachel Graham-Brownfor all his supporting roles, covering a wide range of sophistication (from very to none); his scene with Florence Rees-Waite, where they are both performing on a vaudeville stage as Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunter’s handbook, was beautifully performed by both. They created a perfect moment of much needed comic relief; they never quite came out with I Say I Say I Say, but you sense it would only be a matter of time.

Ruark GouldSomething that really struck me – I’d seen these young actors before in either Shrapnel or She Echoes, and what particularly impressed me was how nearly all of them took on totally different kinds of characters in this play than they did in the earlier productions, showing great versatility on their parts. These young actors are NOT going to be typecast!

Victoria RowlandsA production that really gelled together perfectly – a good story, beautifully acted and staged, with exciting and thought-provoking musical interludes and a grand sense of nonsense chucked in for good measure. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, but with plenty to unsettle and challenge the audience too. I loved it – congratulations to everyone, great work all round.

Review – Cirque Berserk, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2017

Cirque BerserkIt’s not often you go into a show and they tell you to keep your mobile phones on, to photograph and record as much as you like, to tweet and to update Facebook throughout the evening. It wouldn’t happen at the RSC, that’s for sure. But Cirque Berserk is a different kind of theatrical experience – all the fun of the Big Top, but under a Proscenium Arch.

Timbuktu TumblersMrs Chrisparkle has always been a bit sniffy about circuses. When kids like me were dreaming of running away and joining one just like Phineas T Barnum did, she was fantasising about running away and joining an accountancy college. However, over the years, her anti-circus resolve has weakened a little; although I don’t think it’s likely that she would have chosen to come to this show had it not been for the fact that we were taking my brother- and sister-in-law, plus our seven-year-old niece, just jetted in from deepest darkest Australia. TweedyThe perfect show for a little ‘un, we thought. Mrs C had no choice. However, it wasn’t long before she was cheering and clapping along with the best of them, as the all-pervasive charms of the Cirque Berserk troupe broke down her stony heart and at one stage I thought I was going to have to stop her from joining Tweedy the Clown and challenging him to a baggy-pants-falling-down routine.

Jose and GabyAh yes, Tweedy. I’m one of those relative rare people who find clowns funny. Here in Northampton we famously had the scary clown a few months ago, who’d get photographed at weird moments in unlikely locations, sending half the population into a meltdown of fear. Not me. If I’d met him, I’d have tweaked his red nose and squirted water in his ear. But Tweedy isn’t that kind of clown. I love how modern clowning has re-invented The Globe of Deathitself with all sorts of physical comedy skills. He had some wonderful routines; the bicycle that falls apart and gets put back together like a Heath Robinson creation; the stepladder that traps him and that he uses as a walking frame; his getting two beefy assistants out of the audience to help him with his unicycle. He’s incredibly inventive and amazingly skilful and he keeps the show going throughout the whole evening.

Tropicana TroupeThere are some great acrobatic acts too. The Timbuktu Tumblers (I bet they haven’t been to Timbuktu) engage us from the start with great balancing tricks and I really loved their squeezing themselves under the fiery limbo pole. There are also the Tropicana Troupe from Cuba, who, with an enormous amount of slightly hilarious posing, catapult each other from one end of the stage to the other by jumping on an enormous seesaw – a really thrilling act. We also had the delights of Gabriel and Germaine swinging their Bolas Argentinas – very amusingly when his bolas almost get trapped in Gabriel’s big fluffy hair (you had to be there). Germaine is a complete star when it comes to her feet juggling act too.

Lucius TeamYou’ve heard of a ship in a bottle? They have a lady in a bottle! It’s a tight squeeze, but Odka manages it, then she emerges to sharp-shoot with her bow and arrow. There are almost too many acts to mention – Zula, with his Tower of Chairs; Laci, Rosey and Jackie balancing, twirling and acrobating in the air, and the amazing Jose and Gaby, who balance on top of each other just using one hand – an incredible feat of strength and trust. And of course, there’s the high adrenaline of the Motorcycle Globe of Death; the Lucius Team one by one enter the globe and zoom around inside this big mesh ball, with absolutely no scope for any mistiming whatsoever. I couldn’t believe it when one of the ladies joined them, just standing there as they raced around her; how on earth she didn’t end up in A&E I’ll never know.

FinaleSome circuses are all about the art; some all about the thrills. This circus definitely falls into the latter category. The audience adored it and were either on the edge of their seat with excitement, or falling off it with laughter. It would be impossible not to like this show. Truly fantastic entertainment, I couldn’t recommend it too highly. Their current tour continues to Sheffield and Cardiff – go see it!

Review – Posh, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2017

PoshFrom Pornography to Posh – they are at least in alphabetical order – and the next matinee performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, treading the beloved boards of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Would it be two hard-hitting plays in a row?

Ben BartonDespite having written loads of plays that were completely overlooked by producers, Posh was the first play by Laura Wade that was performed in the West End – at the Duke of York’s in 2012. I’ve never seen any of Ms Wade’s work before but I knew of Posh by reputation; a dramatised version of life at Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, where posh boys will be posh boys and pigs are scared. Benjamin SullivanI attended that much respected university, gentle reader, although it was hundreds of years ago now, and although I may have occasionally got absolutely chateau’d (I confess I use that phrase myself), I never came within a burning £20 note of the Bullingdon Club. So this play is a splendid opportunity to wonder what it would have been like if one had been the right kind of student.

Chris DrewActually, I was a member of the Page 71 Dining Society – probably long since defunct, sadly – but I think the worst we ever did was chuck a few sprouts about, and have one of our members swim naked in Lymington Harbour. Not like the Riot Club, as Laura Wade has named her secret society, where outward shows of gracious dignity quickly degenerate into pushing the boundaries of decency in all directions. The play asks some very searching questions about society as a whole – to what extent can money buy anything, from paying to compensate other people’s ruined evenings to other people’s ruined lives. Connor McCreedyAnd will the powers that be always have the ability to cover up those things that are best left unremembered? What happens at the Riot Club, stays at the Riot Club, comme on dit. Well, maybe. It’s a rich (in both senses of the word), meaty play with plenty to enjoy and some scenes that you watch with your hands covering your eyes as you gasp at the insensitivity of what some people have no qualms about asking. Personally, I didn’t really like the brief opening and closing scenes – the ending especially gives the story a definite outcome that I think it would be best to leave to the audience’s imagination. But that’s a separate issue.

Daniel Ambrose-JonesNevertheless, Laura Wade’s play gives the acting students plenty of opportunities to make the most of their characters; the belligerently fascist Alistair, the lightweight drinker Toby, the seriously over-indulged George, the sexually go-getting Harry, the wannabe diplomatic Leighton. Most of them took to it like the proverbial ducks to water, with Lee Hancock in pole position, completely relishing the true awfulness of Alistair’s Javiar Melhadocharacter, constantly provoking the others, undermining others’ authority, patronising and belittling what he sees as lesser people than himself. Mr Hancock gives an award-winnng, energetic performance, giving full rein to his ample vocal powers and splendidly disdainful expressions. Steven Croydon fills out the role of Toby with Jay Andrewssuperb displays of petulance, intolerance and impatience – also of resignation as he knows he’s going to face the consequences of his previous misdemeanours. He has a very strong stage presence – the kind of actor you watch for a few seconds even when they’re not talking because you know they will be still 100% connected with what’s going on. He performs a wonderful drunk act as his character gets totally smashed during the Dregs game; Jennifer Wyndhamthere’s a beautifully played (and timed) scene where Messrs Hancock and Croydon are leading two different conversations, Mr Hancock strident with his dogma, Mr Croydon wheedling in his inebriation, the one piping up in the conversational gaps left by the other; very funny and very recognisable.

Lauren ScottConnor McCreedy gives a very clean-cut and authoritative performance as President of the Society, Leighton; interpreting the role with great clarity, you can see that Leighton sees himself as the enabler and guide – wanting the other diners to have the best experience but also wanting the best for the Society, which means damping down enthusiasm if he thinks it will keep them out of the papers. I also very much enjoyed Lee HancockBen Barton as Hugo, another naturally authoritative figure, treading a fine line between the decadent and the decent; and Olly Manning made the best of the comic opportunities given by the character of George, relishing everyone else’s puddings with enormous refinedness. Tom Garland’s Ed was an intelligent portrayal of the new boy desperate to fit in and constantly making lame comments; I think we’ve all been there.

Matt KitsonThere are also three characters totally unconnected with the society, each given fine, strong performances. Chris Drew’s pub landlord Chris is the epitome of the hard-working little man, the kind of person some of these posh boys utterly despise; this “entrepreneur’s society” dinner that he thinks he is hosting is a little Olly Manningdifferent from what he’s used to but he’s still stretching his sinews to make sure they have a good time – until things get cataclysmically out of hand. His daughter and waitress Rachel, played by Jennifer Wyndham, gets subjected to a range of attention throughout the course of the evening, and Ms Wyndham absolutely nails that position of having to balance the customer is always right with I’m not doing that. Steven CroydonAnd Lauren Scott gives a delightful cameo as the high class escort engaged to “entertain” the guests, and who quickly makes us realise that there definitely are services that money cannot buy. As a small criticism, there were a couple of roles where I thought the actors could make even more of their presence and increase the expression and confidence in their voices. Tom Garland There were also a few occasions when many of the actors continued with their next line despite the audience still howling with laughter, so we didn’t catch a word they said – that’s a skill that needs to be mastered! However, that did not stop it from being a very entertaining production of an enjoyable play – congratulations to everyone on creating a true menace of a dinner party.

Review – Pornography, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th March 2017

PornographyIt’s that time again when the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton perform three different plays in the hallowed portals of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Last year was my first exposure to this triumvirate of excellence, where they took two good plays (and one lousy one) and created three great productions out of them. This year I am back, up front and personal in the middle of Row C to see the sterling efforts of this year’s pre-professionals.

Becky FowlerOn Wednesday’s matinee, we started off with the alarmingly (or promisingly, depending on your point of view) titled Pornography, by Simon Stephens, perhaps best known for his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which has been a huge international success. Pornography first saw the light of day at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2007, where it won the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland award for Best New Play.

Hans OldhamHow 24 hours can change the mood of a nation and of its capital city. On 6th July 2005 – and I remember it well – we were united in exhilaration as the choice of the 2012 Olympic Games went to London. There was a burst of national pride; the exciting prospect that Brits could finally get to see Olympic Games on their home turf for the first time in 64 years. The next morning, as we were digesting the news with our morning papers and media coverage, 56 people would die through bombs on London Underground trains and a bus. Jack JamesThe impact of the huge disaster hit us as a nation hard, let alone the relatives and friends of those who died or were injured. We went from Collective Hero to Collective Zero in the blink of an eye. I remember with particular horror the realisation some time after the event, that the street in Aylesbury where Mrs Chrisparkle and I first set up home in 1987 would later become the home address of one of the bombers, Germaine Lindsay. It was almost a Lady Macbeth What, In Our House? moment.

Jamal FranklinPornography is an askance view of that terrible day seen through events and conversations by ordinary people. Some have an obvious relevance – for example, the scene where the four perpetrators take us through the motions of how they got into position (which, as an aside, was for me by far the most riveting and dramatic), or the woman whose husband is last known to be on a bus in Russell Square. Other scenes seem less relevant, like the woman who ended up begging for some barbecue chicken or the student with too strong a fascination for his teacher. There appears to be little crossover between any of the characters, so each scene/conversation comes across as a mini playlet all of its own; and the strength of the play is gathered from the accumulation of relationships portrayed in the scenes, peppered with some verbal highlights delivered by the individual members of the cast.

Jenny WatsonThis is a challenging play to present, primarily because of its rather cumbersome and non-dramatic structure, and it’s hard for an audience member to grab onto some momentum to keep them going through the entire two hours. Visually it was quite static, with only a couple of the scenes (those featuring just two characters) giving you a sense of movement or realism. The scenes were played in a different sequence from that in the programme – I don’t know why that should be, or if there had been any last-minute changes to the staging. However, the cast uniformly gave a flawless performance, seamlessly linking between the scenes and clearly very committed to the material.

Jessica BichardWhen the curtain (slowly) rises, we meet Liam Faik and Karr Kennedy having a drink in some featureless bar, and we grow to realise this is a teacher meeting his old student, with some extracurricular activity in mind. The interaction between the two totally filled in the gaps left by the text and the staging and it was an enjoyable and compelling playlet. I love how Ms Kennedy can hold a pause before delivering her line, waiting for exactly the right moment to speak – I reckon she’d be great practitioner of Pinter! Mr Faik was my favourite performer in She Echoes where he showed his great versatility of characterisation and stage combat. In Pornography, he only had this one relatively brief role but he seized it with great gusto and I completely believed his character, from his awkwardness at having to ask for a drink to the awful clumsiness of his attempted assault – a real misreading of the social situation with Ms Kennedy’s character. Both actors have superb stage authority which they used to great effect and this was a very strong start to the play.

Joseph T CallaghanIn the next scene, Olivia Sarah-Jayne Noyce accurately conveyed the neuroses of a middle-class family woman, outwardly secure in her material things but inwardly tormented, letting us into her unguarded secrets with a delightful mix of the mischievous and the embarrassed; and I also enjoyed the support from Hans Oldham as her undemonstrative other half. Personally, I found the writing of this scene the least accessible or rewarding in the whole play, requiring the deepest attention from the audience which it’s not always possible to give, and for me it felt rather heavy despite the best efforts of the actors. I preferred the third scene, a tour-de-force from Joseph T Callaghan, another actor with terrific stage presence, who fixes you with a steely stare and demands that you listen to every word he says. His supporting cast were all first rate, particularly the amusingly dreadful chav played by Jessica Bichard.

Karr KennedyAfter the interval, we had the scene with the greatest impact, where we meet the 7/7 bombers in person, each innocently seated in a row beside their chairs, like some evil perversion of a boyband. They expressed the total ordinariness of their day, saying goodbye to their wives, losing concentration on trains, finding plenty of room on board for their backpacks. Each of the four actors brought something special to this scene; Jamal Franklin expressed the clear planning, tempered with family tenderness; Hans Oldham was quietly resolute and determined in fulfilling his duties; Samuel Littlewood had an open directness and confidence which belied his inner anxiety; and Luke Mortimore really gave you an insight into the kind of mind that could carry out such an atrocity – shocked at the state of humanity to such an extent that it would be better if it were eliminated. Mr Littlewood, incidentally, wins my award for best diction and projection – a technical ability that I really appreciate.

Liam FaikIn perhaps the boldest scene for the actors, Jack James and Becky Fowler gave a superbly convincing performance as the brother and sister reunited after she’s been absent for an unspecified time and reason. Ms Fowler in particular was superb at suggesting the sheer absence of morality of her character, only caring for her own satisfaction and to hell with the consequences; and Mr James was also excellent at showing how easily led astray his much more moral character was. Congratulations to both for the very believable and potentially shocking incest scene, performed without any self-consciousness and obviously revealing great trust between the two actors.

Luke MortimoreThe final scene was Jessica Bichard’s presentation of the rather poisonous elderly lady without a good word for anyone. A difficult scene for the actor, as it’s 90% monologue so lacks the visual dramatic effect of the scene that preceded it. But again her characterisation was strong and you firmly believed in this rather horrid old trout who accidentally betrays a chink in her armour. And there was excellent support from Jamal Franklin as the amusingly bewildered barbecue chef.

Olivia Sarah Jayne NoyceOverall I was a little disappointed at the play itself; in its attempt to encompass all walks of life and only occasionally touch on the bombings it somehow makes itself aloof from its own purpose. And whilst the presentation of the scenes was at times a little static, the cast absolutely nailed it and gave us some very fine performances. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Samuel LittlewoodP. S. Not sure about the use of the hand-held microphones – it gives a subtle impression to the audience of the world of light entertainment – singing, telling jokes, and so on – which couldn’t be less appropriate to this play.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Hound of Death (1933)

The Hound of DeathIn which we discover something totally different! Twelve short stories, all apparently unrelated, that aren’t murder mysteries but tales of the supernatural. No Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot here, so it feels like a total departure from anything Christie had written so far. It is notable for the fact that it contains one of Christie’s best known short stories, Witness for the Prosecution, which has since been adapted into just about every media you could imagine.

The collection was not published by Christie’s regular publishers, William Collins & Sons, but by Odhams Press, and was not available to purchase in shops. If that sounds bizarre, it’s because it was part of a promotional deal where you collected coupons from The Passing Show, a weekly magazine published by Odhams, during October 1933. This was just one of six books that you could exchange the coupons for (plus a cost of seven shillings too). That’s why the book was never available in the United States; the short stories within it were published as part of other volumes in the US, variously between 1948 and 1971. Apart from that, some of the stories were published in The Grand Magazine, The Sovereign Magazine and Sunday Chronicle Annual between 1924 and 1927. Others do not appear to have been published before the book itself. One story, The Call of Wings, appears to be one of Christie’s earliest written pieces, probably shortly after the First World War, but it was rejected by all the magazine publishers to which it was sent. Read on, and you’ll realise why!

The Hound of Death

happy_cartoon_dogThe first story, whose name lends itself to the entire volume, concerns a refugee nun who left Belgium following the 1914 invasion by Germany. Her convent was destroyed, not by explosives, but by a lightning bolt that the nun had somehow created through her own faith and belief in other powers. All the soldiers there were killed, and on one of the two surviving walls there was an unexplained mark, in the shape of a giant hound. Now living in Cornwall, she is visited by Anstruther, whose sister had given refuge to the nun, by name Marie Angelique. A young doctor, Dr Rose, wishes to write a monograph on her, fascinated by her continued hallucinations; but it soon becomes clear that Rose’s motivations and involvement with the case are not all as they might seem…

It’s an intriguing and intricate little story, delicately written, that sets a high standard for the rest of the book. For a short story, the characters are engrossing and well-shaped, and the outcome of the story is unexpected. It’s set in the town of Folbridge in Cornwall – there is no such place, of course, but perhaps it is inspired by Falmouth. The only other thing I had to look up was – during the explanation that the convent was destroyed – was the mention of Uhlans; they were one of four cavalry regiments – German, Russian, Polish and Austrian. You live and learn.

The Red Signal

Red signalHaving said these stories are not whodunits, this one almost comes close. It’s a really meaty tale that centres on that feeling we sometimes have when we sense that danger is lurking, even though there’s no real reason to be concerned – that’s the red signal. Dermot West tells a story about how he narrowly avoided being murdered in Mesopotamia and it was only because he recognised the red signal that he survived. What he doesn’t say is that he’s feeling the red signal again at this very moment. There is a séance, at which one unspecified person is told it would not be safe to go home tonight; and what follows is the discovery of a death and a very intriguing revelation of who killed them and how it was done. To give further detail would be to give the game away, and I don’t want to ruin the story for you. Suffice to say, what appears to be supernatural isn’t exactly all it’s thought to be.

Sir Alington West is described as an alienist. If you’re not sure what that is, that was the contemporary term for a psychiatrist. Dr Thompson, in The ABC Murders, which would appear three years later, is also an alienist. By the time of publication, the term was already falling out of popularity.

I’m often struck how unforgiving Christie’s characters and her own language can be when it comes to matters of mental health. In those days, it wasn’t given the recognition it is today – although there’s plenty of scope for more, of course. Sir Alington and another guest, Mrs Eversleigh, approach the topic from different perspectives: “At what particular spot […] shall we erect a post and say “on this side sanity, on the other madness?” It can’t be done, you know. And I will tell you this, if the man suffering from a delusion happened to hold his tongue about it, in all probability we should never be able to distinguish him from a normal individual. The extraordinary sanity of the insane is a most interesting subject.” Sir Alington sipped his wine with appreciation and beamed upon the company. “I’ve always heard they are very cunning, “remarked Mrs, Eversleigh. “Loonies, I mean.”

I did like the observation by Claire Trent that “we go through life like a train rushing through the darkness to an unknown destination” – I’m sure we’ve all had that feeling at some point in our lives. Finally, the Grafton Galleries, which feature in the story, are a real location – an art gallery in Mayfair. Their heyday was in the Edwardian and early Georgian period when they mounted influential exhibitions of impressionist paintings. By the time this book was published, the Galleries were probably closed. 8 Grafton Street, which was the address, now houses a suite of managed offices. How the mighty are fallen.

The Fourth Man

four menFour men occupy a train compartment and three of them – a canon, a lawyer and a physician – begin to discuss delicate issues of mental health, including dual personality disorder and the suggestion that the body can be home to more than one soul. The doctor tells the story of one Felicie Bault, who was alleged to have had no fewer than four personalities, and whose life ended in strangulation, apparently at her own hand. But the fourth man in the compartment stirs at this tale and introduces himself as Raoul, brought up at the same orphanage as Felicie, and also tells them about Annette, another girl there, whose life was also inextricably linked with Felicie.

It’s a bit of a wayward tale, this. It starts very promisingly and with much intrigue but at the end rather falls apart without much of a punchline. Suffice to say, there might be another explanation for Felicie’s personality disorder – and on the other hand, there mightn’t. There aren’t any interesting references to look up – the only thing that stood out for me in the narrative was the intriguing concept of the body being a residence, that may pass through several different hands during the course of a life. Raoul turns that image on its end with his departing comment, which might give you pause for thought. But then again, it might not…

The Gipsy

GipsyDefinitely the best story of the collection so far, this slightly unnerving tale of a man who had an illogical fear of gipsies, but who met and grew quite close to one – Mrs Haworth – who has a firm ability to see both into the future and into the past. She warns the young man against certain actions, but he doesn’t heed her warning and therefore has to face the consequences; his friend also meets her and is entranced by her charisma, and agrees to see her again – although she has a brief vision that the second meeting will not happen…

I really enjoyed this tale, with just the right amount of supernatural undercurrent mixed with one foot firmly placed in reality. Considering we only know her through the confines of a short story, just ten pages long, Mrs Haworth is a memorable character, well fleshed out through Christie’s descriptions and language. I did actually guess the twist at the end of the tale, but that doesn’t really matter – and unlike many of the other stories, it actually has a happy ending. By writing this story, Christie was able to exorcise a condition that she herself had – in her autobiography, she expressed an irrational fear, not about gipsies, but about a gunman who would often appear out of nowhere in her dreams and terrify her.

The first sentence: “Macfarlane had often noticed that his friend, Dickie Carpenter, had a strange aversion to gipsies” doesn’t fill the reader with much hope that Christie will avoid the pitfalls of latent racism – but she does. Even the description of Esther Lawes as “six foot one of Jewish perfection” merely gives you a visual impression of the character and no more. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the language of this tale is the fact that Mrs Howarth’s first name is Alistair. Today we associate that as being purely a man’s name – and the current Oxford Dictionary of First Names only has it as male. It seems that it can be used for a female too – although extremely rarely!

The Lamp

lampA rather traditional ghost story, full of gloom and doom. A family move into a cheap house whose rent is low because – it was said – it was haunted by the ghost of a child. No nonsense Mrs Lancaster isn’t scared of ghosts so she, her father and her son set up home there, and all was well until the son started reporting that there was another child there, alone and unhappy, with whom he wanted to play. Similarly, her father could hear the crying and footsteps of another child in the house. Would the four of them get on well as a household together?

It’s set in the cathedral town of Weyminster – well your guess is as good as mine as to where that might be. Winchester maybe? And the verse that Mr Winburn quotes in the story is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, very popular in the early part of the 20th century.

It is quite an atmospheric and spooky story with an inevitability about the ending which, perhaps, isn’t quite as tragic as you might suspect. It’s very short and not very demanding, but rather gripping in its own way.

Wireless

WirelessAn enjoyable story about an old lady, whose nephew, in order to keep her entertained and diverted in her old age, arranges for the installation of a wireless set, much to the lady’s fear at first, but when she discovers there’s nothing to be scared of about it, she really enjoys it. That is, until one day, the sound from the concert she’s listening to breaks up and she hears the voice of her dead husband, talking to her through the ether, promising her that he will shortly be returning for her. At first she ignores it, sensing it is a warning of some sort, but what could she do about it. But it happens again and again, making her more and more anxious each time…

A deeply moral tale that could have been written to illustrate the old proverb, cheats never prosper; Christie delivers it with a lightness of touch, and although you can second guess the outcome, it’s still a rewarding and satisfying little yarn. It’s another of those stories where it seems like a supernatural event is taking place – whereas in reality, it’s only man’s deviousness at work.

No particular themes at work here; I liked how the old lady is scared of the “waves” of the wireless set, rather in the same way that a number of people were scared of mobile phones when they first came out, that somehow the invisible waves were going to fry our brains, or worse if we kept the phone in our trouser pockets. There’s also the use of the word “josser”, which I’d never heard of before. It meant (indeed, means) chap or fellow, particularly a foolish one.

Elizabeth, the maid, was originally in line for a £50 inheritance. In a fit of generosity, the old lady increases it to £100. In today’s values, that’s the equivalent of doubling £2500 to £5000. In all seriousness, that’s not that generous.

The Witness for the Prosecution

BarristerThis famous story has lost none of its power and ability to shock and surprise, even though it’s now over 90 years old. Leonard Vole stands accused of murdering rich widow Emily French, but he has an alibi – at the time he is alleged to have committed the murder, he is at home with his wife. Can the lawyer Mr Mayherne use his powers of persuasion to convince the jury that his alibi is watertight?

Much of its power comes from the courtroom settings and lawyer/client interview background – no cosy drawing rooms where middle class people sit and reminisce in this story. It also stands out in this collection because there is no pretence to anything supernatural about it – it is pure legal interview, detection and courtroom scene, and any misdemeanour that was committed, was done in cold blood. No wonder this went on to become one of Christie’s most successful individual pieces of writing, spawning plays, films, TV adaptations, and so on. Christie was unhappy at the immorality of the original story and changed its ending for the play, so that the guilty party does pay the ultimate price.

The £200 demanded by Mrs Morgan for vital evidence would be the equivalent of £10,000 today – no wonder Mr Mayherne was reticent to give that much. And her facial scarring was caused by vitriol – or as we know it today, sulphuric acid; the same fate that was to await Tommy (of Tommy and Tuppence fame) in The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger, part of Partners in Crime that had been published four years earlier.

The Mystery of the Blue Jar

Blue JarAn enjoyably written, inventive tale about a young man, living in a hotel, who appears to hear a delusional voice in his head crying out “Murder! Help! Murder!” at the same time every morning whilst playing golf – but when he tries to find out who is calling, he can find no one who either called it, or heard it. An eminent doctor also living at the hotel tries to reassure the young man that there is bound to be a natural – rather than supernatural – explanation for the voice, and the doctor tries to discover the secret behind it….

However, the more you think about this story the less it adds up. Christie doesn’t give you the comfort of a full explanation for how the young man hears the voice, nor why he in particular is singled out. Suffice to say there is subterfuge at play, but the perpetrator of the subterfuge was either incredibly lucky, or it was planned around information that is not shared with the reader. So my reaction to this story goes from an initial buzz of enjoyment to a rather disappointed low caused by a feeling of How Could They Have Known About That.

It is very nicely written though. I did enjoy the opening passage particularly, describing the young man’s dilemma: “it is hard when you are twenty-four years of age, and your one ambition in life is to reduce your handicap at golf, to be forced to give time and attention to the problem of earning your living.” The golf course is said to be located at Stourton Heath – Stourton is a village in Derbyshire but it doesn’t play host to a golf club.

There is a valuation of an antique in this story – £10,000 minimum. At today’s rates that would be a humungous half a million pounds.

The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael

CatUnhesitatingly I suggest that this is altogether one of the silliest stories I have ever read. I’m not going to say anything much more about it, in case you like it much more than me – and there’s not a lot I can say about it that doesn’t give the game away (although I think it’s pretty obvious as you’re reading it); but I couldn’t believe how fanciful, in a most ridiculous way, it is. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the stories where there are no traces of its having been published before.

A character (I think I can call it that) is killed using Prussic Acid, a sign that Christie the Poisons Expert is at work. Today we know it more as Hydrogen Cyanide.

The Call of Wings

wingsThis early story bears the hallmarks of a writer with a good imagination but still with a very heavy-handed style, as yet properly formed. It’s the story of a rich man who gains an awareness that some form of spirituality is the only way to feel “lifted” – as though on wings – and how he manages to achieve a kind of contentment. It’s actually quite a tedious story to read and if Christie had written it, say fifteen years later, it would have had a much greater lightness of touch. Consider the heaviness of this description: “a battered derelict of the human race rolled drunkenly off the pavement”.

Much is made of some music that reminds the narrator of the overture to Rienzi. This is an early opera by Wagner, rarely performed nowadays. And the main character offers a shilling to a busker. Was this generous? A late 1910s shilling today would be worth about £1.80. So I suppose that’s not an unreasonable sum, even for a millionaire.

The Last Seance

seance2A rather thrilling and totally supernatural tale of Simone, the tired medium having to face one last séance with the demanding Madame Exe, who wants to be reunited with her child Amelie. Raoul, Simone’s intermediary (and lover) insists that Madame Exe must not touch the medium at any time because it could be dangerous for her. Just how dangerous? Well that’s the tale. An unexpected little nugget, with no hidden meaning, clarification or explanation – you just have to take it at face value. At one stage I thought the scene-setting for this story was really preparing the way for an obvious crime to be committed – but the story fools you and goes in a completely different direction.

The character of Raoul Daubreuil shares his surname with characters in The Murder on the Links; there doesn’t appear to be any additional connection between the two stories. There’s also a Raoul in the earlier story in this volume, The Fourth Man. It was obviously a Christie favourite.

SOS

car in rainThe final tale of the book is an atmospheric story of an isolated house, a slightly weird family and the outsider who has to take shelter overnight as his car had two punctures in an eerie storm. Elements of both The Mousetrap and Rocky Horror come to mind. The house is believed to be haunted and that may account for the mysterious message written in the dust on the furniture in the spare bedroom… or it may not…

It’s actually quite a clever story that gives Christie the Poison Expert a chance to shine again; another of these seemingly supernatural tales that are explained by criminal reality. The sum of £60,000, that the outsider overhears the head of the household discussing would be worth approximately £3 million today.

All that remains is for me to give The Hound of Death an overall satisfaction rating of 5/10. Whilst there are a few excellent and memorable stories – for example Witness for the Prosecution and The Gipsy – there are also more than enough that really bring it down – like The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael and The Call of Wings. The disconnected nature of the stories also means that there is no particular impetus to keep reading. It never goes beyond being wryly entertaining. I doubt whether you’d find this book in anyone’s Top Ten favourites.

Murder on the Orient ExpressWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and it’s back to Hercule Poirot. Next in line is one of the Big Ones, Murder on the Orient Express, and if you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

Review – Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2017

Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello ConcertoCircumstances have conspired against our attending the two most recent Royal Philharmonic concerts in Northampton, but on Sunday we were back with a vengeance to see a rousing performance of German and British music. Our conductor this time was Jac van Steen, new to us; an enthusiastic Dutchman who has the air of a kindly dentist; he seems extremely affable and wants you to be at your utmost ease, but if it calls for it, he’d be in for the kill like nobody’s business.

jac van steenOur opening piece was the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin by Wagner. I was expecting that stirring, arresting introductory brassy tune that puts you in mind of Valkyries and big fat sopranos – but no, that’s the Prelude to Act Three. Act One’s starts far more gently, with violin strings all a-quiver, but nevertheless building up to a major frenzy, perfectly representing the search for the Holy Grail which is what the programme notes said it was about. The orchestra were obviously champing at the bit and it was a very exciting and enjoyable start to the concert. Quiz question: what’s the difference between a prelude and an overture? No, I can’t work that one out either.

raphael wallfischNext it was time to meet our soloist, Raphael Wallfisch, to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. We’d seen Julian Lloyd Webber perform the same piece nearly six years ago, but it’s hard to recall one performer’s interpretation of a piece after such a long time. Mr Wallfisch is another avuncular looking fellow, but with a rather serious, workmanlike attitude to his playing that belies the immense passion of the music he produces. Without any reference to any sheet music, he plunges his instrument into the deep gravitas of the opening movement, making his instrument take centre stage so that you watch the bow attacking the bridge of the cello rather than looking at the intent concentration on Mr Wallfisch’s face. In juxtaposition, Mr van Steen is sometimes up on his tippytoes coaxing all the emotion out of the strings, at other times thrusting himself downwards in the conclusion of a bar. There’s an electrically exciting sequence in the second movement (I think – I’m fairly unfamiliar with this piece and the boundaries between the movements were hard to identify) where Mr Wallfisch plays the cello with such vim and vigour that from our seat it looked as though he was whittling down some wood to fashion a set of cricket stumps. I’m not sure it was spiccato, more like old fashioned twiddling. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary performance and it was clear that everyone loved it.

beethovenAfter the interval, we returned for Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. We’d seen the RPO perform this before as well, a full seven years ago, conducted by Garry Walker. Then, as now, I can never remember what that special tune is that dominates the second movement. But as soon as it kicks in I remember why I love it so much. It has a sparse melancholy about it; a sense that happiness may be just around the corner but you’re never quite going to achieve it. And I love how Beethoven gives it just the one proper airing, building from a quiet start to an emotional fulfilment, but never ever going back to it, no matter how much you yearn to hear it again. Mr van Steen had to apply a reverse coaxing mechanism, where, rather than draw the passion out of the orchestra, he actively suppressed it, making those sad echo moments in the movement even softer than usual, creating a despairing exquisiteness to the whole thing. It was just sensational.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIn many respects, the symphony is Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, with the brightness of the first movement, the playfulness of the third and the overwhelming victory of the final movement. The orchestra gave it a superb performance, and yes, excitable man in the Upper Circle Box, we all saw you on your feet conducting away to your heart’s content. We were blown away by the sheer vitality and force of the Royal Philharmonic’s performance. A great concert!

Review – Rob Brydon, I Am Standing Up, Derngate, Northampton, 4th March 2017

Rob Brydon I Am Standing UpWe’d seen Rob Brydon before, back in 2009, when he last toured the UK – it was just before I started blogging so I can’t easily check back to see how much we enjoyed it – but I do remember thinking he was good fun and so I was perfectly happy to see him again almost 8 years later, to see how he’s getting on. Of course, his career has gone from strength to strength since then, with endless panel games, guest appearances, loads of voiceovers, and so on; when we first saw him, the third series of Gavin and Stacey was still getting its first airing on TV. Even so, he’ll still break into a rendition of Barry Islands in the Stream at the drop of a laverbread.

Scott BennettBut before considering Mr Brydon’s role in the show on Saturday night, the first twenty minutes were spent in the company of a supporting act – Scott Bennett. He’s a bright and breezy Yorkshireman who wasted absolutely no time in making the most of his introductory slot, with lots of very good material about family relationships – especially with his dad, Roy. Roy’s the kind of guy who has a structural plan about how to get the most food onto your carvery plate (start with the meat first as your base layer and work your way up). Good comedy of recognition that – because if we ourselves are not the person who tackles a buffet strategically, we all know someone who is. I also liked Mr Bennett’s observation of people out on a romantic meal date night – each on their separate phones, Facebooking the people they should have married. He was very funny and got a really good reception, despite the fact that he wasn’t Rob Brydon.

Talking of whom, Mr Brydon is essentially a very funny man, with a delightful sense of comic joy about almost everything he does. He’s so self-deprecating which is always an attractive trait – like when he’s asked if James Corden still rings him; answer, yes he does, which gives rise to a joke that’s both anti-Brydon and anti-the town in which he’s performing; but it’s very cleverly done. When something particularly funny happens or someone says a great one-liner – even if it comes from the audience – he will break off the routine and rush over to a little table and write the joke down in a notebook, saying that next week’s show will be amazing with all this new material – thereby implying that this show, and his comedy hosting skills, aren’t as good. It always gets a laugh when he returns upstage to jot it down.

Rob BrydonHe has that ability that the best comics have of being able to weave together separate strands from different members of the audience and come back to them later in the show from a new angle. Towards the end he creates songs that mention all the individuals with whom he’s spoken earlier on. Again, very cleverly done, very inventive and always very funny. In our show Mr Brydon explored comic possibilities with George and Lucy – clearly the young middle class couple – and encouraged them always to close the loo door if they want to keep romance alive; we met Cynthia, the Elvis fan who’s not as young as she said she was, and who was in for a particular treat right at the end; and we met Tim and Lisa, bravely sat in the front row; she’d stoically worked for Mr Kipling for 32 years, woman and girl, never complaining and always ‘umble, which gave rise to Mr Brydon from then on referring to her as a Dickensian Woman, doing wonderful impressions of a dowdy drudge with mock-19th century language. Totally bizarre, but it really worked.

As you might expect, he does a prolonged sequence when he’s impersonating celebrities out in the jungle, Ant and Dec style, which is very good but I think he overplays the Tom Jones impersonation. It isn’t really quite as good as he seems to think, and he makes him into a grotesque that I don’t really feel is justified (but, hey ho, that’s just me.) He did a Ronnie Corbett as a request from the audience, brilliantly conveys the essence of Ken Bruce by just mumbling with the occasional 88 to 91 thrown in, and tells very funny stories involving Steve Coogan (roar). Towards the end he gears the subject matter towards the Welsh language so that he can sing All Through the Night in the original Welsh, Ar Hyd y Nos. Where’s the comedy in that? It’s when he then gives you the Google Translate version; thus proving it’s always worth paying for a proper translator. There were reminiscences about Uncle Bryn, and dealing with how weak your wee stream is when you get to his age (I’m five years older, so I totally sympathise), and there was even a charming brief hark back to the golden days of Blockbuster. It was all very lovely.

Rob Brydon againBut, do you know what, gentle reader? I kind of wanted more. I needed something a little more challenging. It was incredibly cosy, incredibly comfortable, a veritable Black Forest Gateau of delectation; and if that’s what you’re after, you’ll get it in spades. Maybe I ask too much. You don’t expect Rob Brydon to be all caustic and cynical, and I don’t think I wanted that either. It was all just a little too easy. I’m probably way out of synch with everyone else on this, because he went down extremely well. It was just, ever so slightly, insubstantial. He’s clearly a really nice guy and extremely funny, so I feel a bit mean criticising him like that. But I have to be honest, don’t I? His tour continues throughout March all over England – and if you haven’t already booked your tickets, it’s probably sold out.

P. S. Either inflation is higher than I thought, overheads have gone up, or someone’s stock is rising; top price stalls seats for Rob Brydon in 2009 cost £19.50 each. In 2017, virtually the same seats for the same show in the same theatre cost £32.50 each including my friends’ discount. Interesting, no?