The Agatha Christie Challenge – Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)

Parker Pyne InvestigatesIn which we meet a new Christie creation, Parker Pyne, placer of advertisements in newspapers seeking clients who are unhappy, in the promise of making them happy again. In the first six stories we see him at work in London; in the second he’s on holiday in Europe and the Middle East but clients keep throwing themselves at him. As always, you can read this blog without discovering any of the whodunits in all the stories!

The publication of this collection is a little unusual in that the original magazine editions – or at least those that can be traced – were published in the US before they appeared in the UK. The first six were published in Cosmopolitan in America in August 1932 (UK – October/ November 1932) and the second six in America in April 1933 (UK – June/July 1933). No magazine printing of The Case of the Middle-aged Wife has yet been traced in either country. The collection was published by Collins in book form in the UK in November 1934, and in the US a few weeks later under the title Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective. As an aside, I notice it’s just the shortest book of Christie’s that I’ve re-read so far – 158 pages (just beating The Big Four, which has 159.)

The Case of the Middle-aged Wife

penfoldSo welcome, James Parker Pyne. This is how Christie describes him in this first story: “he was large, not to say fat; he had a bald head of noble proportions, strong glasses and little twinkling eyes.” I instantly envisaged him as Dangermouse’s sidekick, Penfold, but they are very dissimilar characters. He brings happiness – in which light I also saw him as a kind of Harley Quin character, although he’s not remotely ethereal, he’s very real. He’s a statistician – he can’t resist relying on his previous work experience to analyse the likely outcome of any situation. This is his first case – or at least the first we know about, his practice is obviously very well established and he’s probably been doing this work for a few years now. In The Case of the Discontented Soldier he reveals that his house, Whitefriars, has been “the scene of eleven exciting dramas”, so that’s at least eleven previous cases.

In this first story, Mr Packington has been spending his time and his money on treating and looking after a sweet young thing from the office and has been ignoring Mrs Packington as a result. Mrs Packington, unsurprisingly miffed, consults Mr PP, who arranges her to be pampered and pandered to by a handsome gigolo so that she regains her youth and self-esteem, and Mr Packington begins to get jealous. You can guess how this ends. Mr PP only has one failure in this book – and it’s not this one! It’s a very enjoyable story, with Parker Pyne as a distant mastermind, almost playing chess with his cast of characters as the pieces, securing the marriage of the Packingtons as his prize, whilst no doubt enjoying a tidy profit.

There’s a number of references to be checked out. Parker Pyne’s office is at 17 Richmond Street. There is a Richmond Street in London; however, it’s a residential address in Plaistow and I just don’t get the feeling that this is where PP would operate! Claude, the gigolo, takes Mrs Packington to the Lesser Archangel and Red Admiral nightclubs – the Red Admiral features in The Case of the Distressed Lady too – but again I think they’re Christie inventions. There is an Archangel nightclub in Kensington – would probably be the right part of town too – but I doubt it’s the same. I loved the reference to “Mrs Hattie West, the Californian Cucumber King’s wife”, but sadly I don’t think she was real.

As we will see during the stories, Parker Pyne asks different fees from different people according to the job and their circumstance. In this case he asks for 200 guineas up front. That’s a lot of money – the equivalent of around £10,500 today.

I was surprised to read that Mr Packington takes the 8:45 train into London. That strikes me as being very late. I wonder if offices generally opened later in the morning than they do today? It’s true that when I worked at the Arts Council in 1983, work started at 9:30am. I remember getting there five minutes early one day – and it was like the Marie Celeste.

Amongst Parker Pyne’s staff there lurks one Miss Lemon! The very same secretary who would go on to work for Hercule Poirot. Here we see her in her younger days, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Christie has her working for Poirot as early as in 1935, in the short story How Does Your Garden Grow, which would not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. As far as Christie’s UK novel-reading public were concerned, they would next meet her in The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. She isn’t the only character that would appear in this book, only to crop up as part of Poirot’s world in later years.

The Case of the Discontented Soldier

elephantMajor Charles Wilbraham has retired from serving the Empire in East Africa, and is now back in England and bored; desperate for an adventure. He consults Parker Pyne and adventure comes his way, although he never associates PP with what actually happens to him. It’s a very amusing set-up and works very well, with a few delightful turns of phrase, although there are a couple of unfortunate non-PC references to overcome, more of which shortly…

Parker Pyne’s original solution to the problem was to invite Wilbraham to take a gorgeous lady out for lunch, but she terrifies him, so that doesn’t work. However, the lady informs PP of the kind of girl the Major really goes for, and so can successfully introduce her to him by means of this extravagant adventure. But PP’s brain can’t quite create those stories, so he consults a novelist – enter Mrs Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver is another character who reappears in the Poirot books, sporadically over many years; readers would next encounter her in Cards on the Table a couple of years later. Christie would admit, in a 1956 interview, that “the character of Ariadne Oliver does have a strong dash of myself.” In this story, she is said to have written “forty-six successful works of fiction, all best sellers in England and America, and freely translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese and Abyssinian.” As far as published books are concerned, by that stage Christie had only written twenty-four such books, but no doubt she was ambitious! I admired the fact that Mrs Oliver responded to PP’s remit by including something translated into Swahili that only the Major would understand – an excellent example of how Parker Pyne tailors his solutions individually to his clients. And whereas today Mrs Oliver would have found her translation by using Google Translate, she actually used Delfridge’s Information Bureau. No doubt this was meant to suggest Selfridge’s. The only Delfridges I can find is a watch and clock manufacturer in Birmingham.

There’s a slightly laborious introduction to the story, where PP’s advert, his promotional spiel and Christie’s description of him are all repeated, verbatim, from the first story. However, this is the first of the stories known to have been originally published in a magazine; and without revision, these descriptions were simply repeated.

As for the non-PC elements, the adventure requires Wilbraham discovering (or he had hoped to) a cache of ivory: “elephants, you know. There’s a law about the number you’re allowed to shoot. Some hunter got away with breaking that law on a grand scale. They were on his trail and he cached the stuff. There’s a thundering lot of it – and this gives fairly clear directions how to find it […] quite a nice little fortune for you.” So our hero is celebrating making a lot of money from finding ivory that had been obtained illegally – that’s quite uncomfortable these days. Perhaps more predictably, the two thugs that are Wilbraham discovers attacking Freda are described as “two enormous Negroes”, and there’s a detailed description of the fight where Wilbraham sends them “reeling backwards” by “a violent punch on the jaw”. Later Mrs Oliver, when working out the expenses for the whole charade, describes them as “two darkies” who “wanted very little” for their effort. Yes, even then, they were putting a positive spin on discrimination by having the black characters earn less than the white ones.

Parker Pyne only asks Major Wilbraham for £50 payment for this job, that’s £2500 today. Given that he lives happily ever after as a result, that’s got to be a bargain.

The Case of the Distressed Lady

dismal desmondMrs Daphne St John arrives at Parker Pyne’s office with a great problem – she has stolen an expensive diamond but needs to give it back but cannot find a way of doing so without making the situation worse, and losing friendships into the bargain. PP, of course, has a solution, involving presenting two members of his entourage as a pair of exhibition dancers at a party, where they would replace the diamond. But can you imagine an Agatha Christie story being as straightforward as that?

Not too much to examine in this story. Mrs St John talks about Parker Pyne’s advertisement as being “probably just a ramp”; I’d never come across that word in that context before, but it is early 19th century slang for a swindle or a fraudulent action. You live and learn! She also refers to a game played at the Le Touquet casino: “chemmy”, which perplexed me at first (as I pronounced it my mind with a hard “ch”) but of course is slang for chemin de fer, or baccarat. The last line of the book refers to a gentleman selling Dismal Desmonds. Never heard of those – but that was the name of a cartoon film series that first started in 1926, and so presumably the gentleman was selling Dismal Desmond toys – a lugubrious looking dog rather like the more famous Droopy but not so distinguished.

The stolen diamond was valued at £2000, which in today’s value would be £100,000. A pretty penny indeed.

That’s three stories in so far, each one keeping back a nice twist, and each a satisfying read. I must say I am very much enjoying this book!

The Case of the Discontented Husband

lawyerThis story has the hallmarks of The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Mark II. A similar set up has Mr Wade, the discontented husband, coming to Parker Pyne for advice, and he suggests a dalliance with his very own Miss de Sara will make Mrs Wade jealous and come to her senses. However, Mr Wade ends up a little more attached to Miss de Sara than PP expected, with its own consequences…

There’s a lot of humour in this story, with some delightfully bitchy exchanges between Miss de Sara and Mrs Wade, and an almost farcical final scene when everything comes crashing down around everyone’s ears. The story also fills out further understanding of the character of Parker Pyne, who has become just a little one-dimensional over the course of the first three stories, enjoyable though they are. He can fail, after all.

Christie’s negative view of divorce, which we have seen in other works, is highlighted here with Mr Wade, self-esteem at an all-time low, nevertheless willing to allow his wife to divorce him if that will make her happy, rather than the other way around, because “a fellow’s so helpless […] one’s got to play the game […] I couldn’t let her be dragged through the divorce court.” Mr Wade’s doubts about entering into an affair, albeit a false one, probably also echo Christie’s own experience of her first husband Archie playing away from home.

An unexpected end, and a funny turn of phrase make this a very enjoyable story.

The Case of the City Clerk

St StanislausIf The Case of the Discontented Husband is The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Mark II, then The Case of the City Clerk is The Case of the Discontented Soldier, Mark II. Once again, Parker Pyne is approached by an older man in need of some adventure, just to prove to himself that he can do it and that there’s still life in the old dog yet. But this isn’t of a romantic nature, this is a full-on mystery and intrigue spy job in which PP lets Mr Roberts play his part. This story reminded me in part of the shenanigans involved in The Secret Adversary, and in part of the glamour of Murder on the Orient Express.

The scene setting of this story is very entertaining, if a little hard for the reader to appreciate fully at first. You ask yourself, what on earth is going on here, and then it all falls into place. There are some agreeable turns of phrase: “a pleasant thrill shot down his spine, slightly adulterated by a thrill that was not quite so pleasant”. At the end, Mr Roberts is awarded the Order of St Stanislaus – tenth class with laurels, which adorns the front cover of the book as part of Tom Adams’ illustration. And yes, there really is a St Stanislaus.

Mr Roberts can only afford to pay Parker Pyne £5 for his adventure, but he gets £50 back as a reward. In today’s money that’s £250 out to get £2500 back. Not a bad piece of work.

The Case of the Rich Woman

wash stand and jugThe rich Mrs Rymer seeks advice from Parker Pyne as to how to spend her money so that she can get the most entertainment out of it. A very strange request, but PP is always up for a challenge…

A strange request, and a strange story. This is the first story in the book that I didn’t enjoy. It has too much of a surreal air, and is just too weird to believe. Even though it still falls under the general heading of “Parker Pyne Makes People Happy”, it just doesn’t fit in. I also found the character of Mrs Rymer distinctly unappealing. Interestingly, this is the only story that was published in the American magazine Cosmopolitan that wasn’t subsequently published in Woman’s Pictorial in the UK.

The story contains a further reference to Mrs Oliver, where Parker Pyne describes her as “the most conventional of all of us”. No doubt that is indeed how Agatha Christie saw herself. When Mrs Rymer wakes up in the strange bedroom, Christie tells us the room had “a deal wash-stand with a jug and basin up on it […] there was a deal chest of drawers and a tin trunk.” I’d never heard of deal in this context. My OED defines it as “a piece of sawn timber (now always fir or pine wood) of standard size; a plank of board of fir or pine; timber in such planks or boards.” It’s a Middle English term; no wonder I hadn’t heard of it! And the £1000 that PP sees fit to charge the rich Mrs Rymer is the equivalent of £50,000 today.

There’s one minor instance of a funny line today that wasn’t a funny line at the time: “”Ah!” The ejaculation was fraught with meaning.”

Have You Got Everything You Want?

TokatlianThe scene changes now from 17 Richmond Street to a travelogue around Europe and the Middle East. At the Gare de Lyon Elsie Jeffries board a train to Stamboul, and encounters fellow traveller Parker Pyne, no doubt enjoying the financial fruit of his labours. Elsie’s husband is on business in Stamboul, but she deciphered some writing on a blotting paper that suggests something weird would happen just before Venice – and riven with curiosity, she asks PP to help in working out what it would be. This story marks a change from Mr Pyne’s usual remit of making people happy, as he starts solving crimes in a more generic, detectively manner.

There’s a very strong Murder on the Orient Express vibe in this story, whose original magazine appearance pre-dated Christie’s famous work. The story itself is quite a good one of the jewel thief genre, but with a nice twist. What is most interesting about it is what it says of the morals of the time. A male character is blackmailed because he spent an innocent night in the same hotel room as a woman as he was giving her shelter as she was trying to escape her abusive husband. Today you’d be praised and lauded for your kindness; at worst you’d be admired as a bit of a lad. In 1934 it was scandal and would have to be suppressed. It’s clear from Parker Pyne’s advice to Elsie that he approves of telling lies within a marriage; it strikes me that this little story has its own system of morality, set apart from the mainstream.

When the story reaches Stamboul, the characters use the Hotel Tokatlian as their base; this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Christie herself stayed there, and Poirot uses it in Murder on the Orient Express. The Slav lady cries out: “scélérat!” as PP refuses to allow her to leave Elsie’s cabin; I’d never heard this insult before, but it means scoundrel, or villain.

The Gate of Baghdad

araqParker Pyne finds himself as one of a small group of people traversing the Syrian Desert from Damascus to Baghdad in a Pullman Motor Coach. The newspapers are full of a story of a financial swindler, Samuel Long, who has escaped justice, and one of the party gradually becomes uncomfortable and talks about not wanting to “go back on a pal”. It turns out that Long is masquerading as one of the travelling party, but which one? Fortunately Mr PP is there to solve the case.

This book contains the first – but not the only – murder of the book, so if you’ve been waiting for one, your time has come! There’s also a bit of non-PC name calling – when one fellow buys some girls some drinks, he gets annoyed when they go off with “some dago”; and on another occasion, a foreign outsider is described as an “Armenian rat”. Christie the Poison expert is on hand, with one of the deaths in the story being caused by Prussic Acid – hydrogen cyanide to give it its modern name.

There are a few interesting references here; the story starts with a quotation from Gates of Damascus by James Elroy Flecker, including the Postern of Fate, which of course is the name Christie gave to the last book she was to write in 1973. Parker Pyne had been staying at the Oriental Hotel in Damascus, which was one of the city’s finest bijou character residences; hopefully one day it will be again. Smethurst offers Pyne some araq – a kind of Persian Pernod – I’ve seen some photos online and it looks lethal. When the coach gets going across the desert they head for Rutbah – a town in present day Iraq – which has had a colourful past and is currently being fought over by Isis and the Iraqi Army.

A very enjoyable little whodunit – but to my disappointment, I guessed who the perpetrator was! Always annoying when you’re right!

The House at Shiraz

Hester_StanhopeParker Pyne arrives in Kermanshah, where he hears the tale of a Lady Esther Carr and her companion Muriel King, told by the pilot Herr Schlagal. Muriel King died and Lady Carr started living as a recluse. PP decides to pay a visit to Lady Carr, and discovers all is not as it seems to be.

Christie revels in her own Middle East experiences in this story, with many far-flung romantic names bandied about: Tehran, Ispahan, Shiraz; Kermanshah, which I confess I hadn’t heard of, is a city of over 800,000 people in western Iran. PP is there during the Nan Ruz festival, which is the Iranian New Year, five days of public holiday between 20-24 March. Christie clearly doesn’t have a high opinion of the local police officials: “The German pilot had come up and was standing by smiling as Mr Parker Pyne finished answering a long interrogation which he had not understood. “What have I said?” he asked of the German. “That your father’s Christian name is Tourist, that your profession is Charles, that the maiden name of your mother is Baghdad, and that you have come from Harriet.” “Does it matter?” “Not the least in the world. Just answer something; that is all they need.””

When considering the life that Lady Esther leads, Parker Pyne refers to Lady Hester Stanhope. Shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia: “Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (12 March 1776 – 23 June 1839) was a British socialite, adventurer and traveller. Her archaeological expedition to Ashkelon in 1815 is considered the first modern excavation in the history of Holy Land archaeology.” Doubtless she was a heroine of Christie’s.

An enjoyable little story, with a nice twist; Christie really does use the last-minute twist to its best advantage in this book!

The Pearl of Price

PetraParker Pyne has now moved on to Petra, in Jordan, along with a motley crew of fellow tourists including a rich American father and daughter, an archaeologist and a British MP, amongst others. The daughter’s priceless earrings have this unfortunate habit of falling off, and one day, one of them falls off for good – but a thorough search of all the suspects shows that no one has secreted it about their person. PP though applies his little grey cells and comes up with a solution.

I make the comparison with Poirot deliberately, because Parker Pyne is beginning to out-Poirot him! The speed with which he sees through the red herrings and applies logic to the puzzle is very rapid – I don’t think Poirot would have solved this crime this rapidly. It’s a good story, with an amusingly surprise ending, although there is one unfortunate non-PC moment, as you will read shortly.

This is one of those short stories where Christie devotes a few minutes to considering the psychology of crime. In this case, whether people are fundamentally honest or not, and whether sudden temptation could make anyone commit a crime – or only people with a generally dishonest behavioural pattern. Parker Pyne believes, under the right circumstances, virtually anyone is capable of a crime: “there’s the breaking point, for instance […] the brain is adjusted to carry so much weight. The thing that precipitates the crisis – that turns an honest man into a dishonest one – may be a mere trifle. That is why most crimes are absurd. The cause, nine times out of ten, is that trifle of overweight – the straw that breaks the camel’s back […] when you think that of ten people you meet, at least nine of them can be induced to act in any way you please by applying the right stimulus.” PP goes on to suggest bullying, and generally suggestible people can be easily manipulated. And he applies that thought when solving this crime.

There are a few geographical references to consider. Most people know Petra, the incredible home of stunning red rock formations in southern Jordan. There are references to the Nabatean people, a cultured people who inhabited Petra, and to Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, who lived approximately from 1810 BC – 1750 BC. Doctor Carver mentions that he wants to work on a dig in Baluchistan, an ancient region whose land now falls within the countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

And now for that unfortunate, Christie-esque, mid 30s, moment. When the rich American calls on the group’s servants to move his belongings from a cave and into a tent, in order to escape mosquitoes, he calls out: “Say, you n***ers!” Of course, in those days, it was just a word. Nowadays, it’s just not acceptable.

Those priceless earrings of Miss Blundell cost her father $80,000. That’s a helluva lot of money. In today’s terms they’d probably be worth the best part of $1.5million. If that were the case, I really don’t think you’d wear them for a walk around the plateaus of Petra. I’m not one for blaming the victim, but, I mean, come on.

Death on the Nile

strychnineNot the famous novel – that would come three years later, but Christie obviously fancied it as a good title. Parker Pyne is taking a cruise on the Nile, on board the SS Fayoum, which, as far as I can ascertain, is purely an invention of Christie’s. The only other passengers on the vessel are Sir George and Lady Grayle, her niece, his secretary, and her nurse. Lady Grayle, a grumpy hypochondriac who makes everyone’s life a misery – maybe a first draft of Mrs Boynton in Appointment With Death – tells Parker Pyne she is convinced her husband is trying to poison her; and sure enough, in due course, she dies. But is her husband really to blame?

A fairly standard story – not at all bad, but nothing exceptional. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with Lady Grayle’s dying with all the expected symptoms of strychnine poisoning, although the possibilities of arsenic and antimony are also discussed with her nurse. True enough, her husband is found to have quantities of strychnine on or about his person, so he must be guilty, right?

In a very nice turn of phrase, Christie sums up everything that’s wrong about the horrendous Lady Grayle: “she had suffered since she was sixteen from the complaint of having too much money.” A few pages later, her nurse Miss MacNaughton remarks: “when I left England with Lady Grayle, she was a straightforward case. In plain language, there was nothing the matter with her. That’s not quite true, perhaps. Too much leisure and too much money do produce a definite pathological condition. Having a few floors to scrub every day and five or six children to look after would have made Lady Grayle a perfectly healthy and a much happier woman.” Not only does she repeat Christie’s own observation of the character, she also gives us an insight into the kind of manual work most women would have had to do at the time – scrubbing floors, and looking after half a dozen children. There probably aren’t many people who have to deal with those two particular problems nowadays.

Parker Pyne initially refuses Lady Grayle’s invitation to consider her case but when she offers him £100 to do so, he can’t resist. Unsurprisingly, as that is the equivalent of £5000 today.

The Oracle at Delphi

byzantine mosaicRich widow Mrs Peters and her intellectual son Willard are travelling through Greece – him lapping up the history, her enjoying his enjoyment but secretly hating every minute of it. She declines Willard’s invitation to accompany him on a trip to view some Byzantine mosaics, but is horrified later when he doesn’t come home as expected and she receives a hostage demand for him, in the sum of £10,000. Fortunately, Parker Pyne is also in the environs, as is a reserved British gentleman by name of Mr Thompson. In a really surprising and very cleverly written twist, Willard is returned without any ransom being paid; but you may have to re-read it, to appreciate entirely how this was done!

Whilst her son is being erudite, Mrs Peters settles down to read The River Launch Mystery, which, I am sure it will come as no surprise, is a complete fiction, if you’ll pardon the pun. The ransom demand is written by one Demetrius, the Black Browed, and refers to the Kyria – this means “Lord”. I don’t know whether this particular Demetrius was familiar with his Shakespeare – Demetrius is a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and in it Puck talks of “black-browed night”. I don’t think there’s any particular further relevance to the ransomer’s pen-name.

That £10,000 Demetrius is demanding – that’s the equivalent of £500,000 today. No wonder Mrs Peters was worried.

And those are the twelve stories that make up Parker Pyne Investigates! It’s a very enjoyable read and I’m happy to give it an 8/10 which is a very good score for a book of short stories. It’s written so that you can almost take it as a novel, which certainly helps. We don’t meet Mr Pyne again, apart from in the two short stories, Problem at Pollensa Bay and The Regatta Mystery, neither of which were published in the UK in book form until 1991, so it will be a good while before I get around to writing about those!

Three Act TragedyWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and a welcome return to Hercule Poirot for the first of a series of nine books each featuring the famous Belgian detective. It’s Three Act Tragedy, and I can’t remember a thing about it, except that the book is divided into three parts, each one an “act” of the “tragedy”. 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 – Film Music Gala, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 16th July 2017

Film Music GalaWhen it comes to summer entertainment, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra always treat us to something a little more light-hearted. In the past we’ve enjoyed their Last Night of the Derngate Proms shows, but this year they had a surprise for us – a Film Music Gala, featuring twenty-five short pieces of movie magic music, in a programme full of orchestral highlights.

Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, whom we last saw here a year ago for the Last Night of the Derngate Proms. He has a jolly, sprightly, none-too-serious attitude to taking us through these concerts, whilst still treating each piece of music with absolute respect. Indeed, sometimes he delivers us a mini-lecture, like when he explained how to look out for a typical James Bond theme, spotting its inevitable mixture of major and minor phrases.

Gareth HudsonThe first piece of music – and what a perfect way to start – was the theme to Mission Impossible; loud, arresting, vibrant, and a challenge (as so many of these pieces are) to the percussion; a challenge that they most certainly met. A thrilling opener that everyone loved. Then followed the main theme to Gladiator, which felt a little more introverted, and then The Fellowship of the Ring (from Lord of the Rings), a whimsical and quirky piece that suits the characters that inhabit that story’s landscape. Then we had the simple and beautiful Gabriel’s Oboe from the film The Mission, that lilts you away into a quiet and reflective mood, and which was played with the utmost delicacy.

The next piece of music was I Will Always Love You, from The Bodyguard; not in the Dolly Parton style, which is one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites, but in the Whitney Houston style, which, frankly, both of us find rather tedious. Yes, I know, it’s our problem, we’re the ones out of kilter. Our guest soloist singer was Alison Jiear, whom we had seen as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella back in 2015. She was an incredibly polite Fairy Godmother and she retains that quiet, self-effacing manner on the concert stage too. She has a powerful but soft, velvety voice that perfectly recreated the Whitney sound.

Alison JiearTwo very different pieces followed: the Jack Sparrow theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, another quirky, jokey arrangement that sums up his character in a musical snapshot; and the main theme from Out of Africa, which really stood out for me as being a superb piece of modern classical music, with sweeping strings recreating a luxurious landscape. The violins played it with absolute mastery. Alison Jiear returned with the first two of the night’s James Bond themes – Moonraker and Diamonds are Forever, arranged so that the second merged rather nicely into the first. Then we had the John Dunbar theme from Dances with Wolves, another heavily violin based piece, before finishing the first part of the concert with two stonking great crowd-pleasers; the magisterial Imperial March from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and the exciting and dramatic main theme from 633 Squadron.

The second half started with another arresting number, the Overture to The Magnificent Seven, making sure we were all fully alert after our interval merlot! Alison Jiear sang another fusion of two pieces, Alfie, and My Heart Will Go On; and then the orchestra took centre stage again with the majestic Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. Like Out of Africa in the first half, this really stood out to me as being a truly enduring modern classic. When the orchestra started up the vivid strings opening to The Big Country, the audience breathed an audible sigh of delight; then came the charming and unusual theme to Cinema Paradiso, followed by amusingly orchestrated Domestic Pressures theme from The Theory of Everything.

RPOWhen they played the main theme from The Avengers movie, I realised it was the Marvel comic characters rather than Steed and Mrs Peel – I could imagine the RPO really giving that old TV theme a fantastic modern treatment. I believe it was during this piece that there was a superb sequence when it appeared as though the cello was asking questions, and the violin was answering them; and it was beautifully played by Tamas Andras and Richard Harwood. Alison Jiear came back one more time to perform two more Bond themes, You Only Live Twice (my favourite Bond theme) and Goldfinger. The concert was then wrapped up by brilliant performances of two outstanding pieces of music; Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire, and John Williams’ breathtaking main theme to Star Wars. For an encore, the orchestra gave us a rousing rendition of the Rocky theme. That’s the boxer, not the one who’s friends with Bullwinkle.

A very enjoyable concert full of short, easily recognisable themes which pack a greater punch than the time each takes to perform might suggest. Inevitably in a concert like this, you might occasionally wish you could hear something a little longer, and a little more substantial, like a four-part concerto. But that’s not what these gala concerts are all about – they’re designed to stimulate your memories, make you tap your toes, and bring a smile to your face. And this concert certainly achieved that. As Stephen Sondheim once penned, “tragedy tomorrow – comedy tonight.”

Review – Great Expectations, Royal and Derngate Actors Company, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 15th July 2017

Great ExpectationsI wonder if Dickens might go the way of Shakespeare before long, and prove himself worthy of modern adaptations, where the story is set in a different era and characters who were originally male become female and vice versa. One always associates Dickens with those foggy London streets or bleak Yorkshire Moors; but with Shakespeare, it’s different. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a Shakespeare play that was actually set in the 16th or 17th century and in the locations that Shakespeare specified; and with last summer’s The Tempest featuring (inter alia) a female Prosper, and with Glenda Jackson recently playing Lear, for example, his works are ripe for a spot of gender-bending.

GE1Erica Martin’s production of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s adaptation of Great Expectations for the stage features a female Magwitch. Now that’s something to conjure with. Traditionally he appears as a menacing brute, primarily because of that first, terrifying meeting with the young Pip, where he threatens to cut his throat, and makes him promise to get him food, and a file to cut off the iron chain on his leg, “or I’ll have your heart and liver out”. For sure, those are the words of a brutish man more than a brutish woman, although I had several female teachers in my youth who would have queued up to deliver those lines.

GE3The humiliation that the older Pip suffers when he realises that his financial benefactor has been Magwitch all along, and not Miss Havisham, remains the same; it’s the integrity of the person (or rather lack of it) that offends him, rather than the fact that she’s a woman. However, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, it’s very hard to believe that a convict woman, in the early 19th century, would have made good in New South Wales, as a sheep farmer and stock breeder, and become rich. It may just have been credible for a man, but a woman? Not in those days; it’s hard enough today.

GE4I digress. We’ve seen the Actors Company a few times now and they always astound us with the excellence of their performance. Whether set in today’s times, like The Revenger’s Comedies and Market Boy, or in olden days, like Our Country’s Good or, now, Great Expectations, they take a play full of depth and character and bring it to life with superb conviction. Meryl Couper’s terrific set created a decent acting area at front whilst devoting other parts of the stage to the Gargerys, Miss Havisham’s house, and so on. It provided a suitable sense of Dickensian gloom without being overwhelming; as did the excellent costumes. The lighting was efficient and atmospheric – in fact you wouldn’t know this wasn’t a professional production.

GE5The structure requires that all the actors are on stage more or less the whole time, acting as both chorus and the inner thoughts of Pip, taking alternate lines from the book very much in the style of David Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby that was a huge success for the RSC back in 1980. I like this approach; although you get a lot of information flung at you at first, and it’s hard to take it all in, you get a strong ensemble feeling that everyone is fully involved in the story-telling task. And when different actors are speaking lines that are the thoughts of one character, that also gives the impression of all the different voices that are going on inside his head – a very effective technique. Whilst I felt that there was quite a lot of scene-setting in the first act and that it was maybe a trifle long, the story really gets going after the interval and it was riveting stuff.

GE6Centre stage for much of the final two-thirds of the play is Davin Eadie as Pip (adult version). With a commanding stage presence, and very authoritative vocal delivery, I really enjoyed his performance of this Everyman character with whom we all identify. Ben Webb, as his younger version, employed just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence (in his dealings with Magwitch), trust (with Joe) and vulnerability (with Miss Havisham and Estella). Other superb performances came from Sue Whyte as Miss Havisham, who gave her a splendid gruff grandeur that commanded both fear and respect; Will Adams as the pompous and meddling Pumblechook; Vicky Kelly as a wonderfully terse (when at work) and garrulous (when at play) Wemmick; and Ryan Chambers delightfully over-the-top as the thespian Wopsle.

GE7Salli Belsham had the difficult task of creating a credible “Ann” Magwitch, but as the performance developed I thought she drew out the character’s finer points very convincingly, and the scene where she confronts Pip and Herbert and reveals herself to be the benefactor was one of the best in the play. But for me the stand-out performance was from Stewart Magrath as Jaggers, the lawyer, stabbing out his carefully planned words with a natural authority, conducting his affairs cordially but precisely, appearing to be a friend, but only if he is paid. A very striking and memorable performance.

Some very strong scenes and performances made this a very rewarding production; the Actors Company can chalk up another hit!

Review – Olly Murs, 24 Hrs Tour, Northamptonshire Cricket Ground, 14th July 2017

Olly MursWhen our friends Mr and Mrs Flying-the-Flag asked us if we’d like to join them to see Olly Murs in concert, my initial reaction was – absolutely! He’s a big name, and I was sure he’d recorded some good songs, and I always like to support the town giving us big attractions for our amusement and entertainment. After a little while, the reality kicked in. I couldn’t name any of his songs. Nor could Mrs Chrisparkle, although she knew she liked him. So one week before the concert I toddled off to iTunes and downloaded all his tracks that appeared to be popular.

Louisa JohnsonAnd, guess what? Of course we know him. He’s done so many upbeat, jolly, poppy pop songs over the past few years that it would be impossible not to enjoy an evening in his musical company. Several thousand others had clearly had the same reaction, as was clear when we joined a queue three-quarters of the way down a terraced street before you turn right to get to the Cricket Ground. Mr Flag had secured us Platinum tickets, as befits our distinguished status, which meant we could leapfrog the queue and sneak into the ground just to the right of the portaloos; distinguished indeed. It also meant we could watch the show right by the front of the stage – or at least we could have done if a few other thousand equally distinguished Ollyites hadn’t already beaten us to it. Still, we got pretty close, even if we were on the side; and we arrived just as support act Louisa Johnson took the stage.

He's on stageThat was my next question. As non-watchers of X-Factor, we hadn’t a clue who she was. Mr Flag gave us the rundown. She’s only 19! And she supports West Ham, so she’s Alright By Me. I’ll confess I can’t now remember any of the songs she sang but she was full of fun, had a great voice and personality, and had who knows how many thousands of punters in the palm of her hand.

She's on stageAfter a thirty-minute break, designed for us to go and buy some ludicrously expensive food and drink – we declined the option – the huge stage welcomed Olly Murs. Backed by a fantastic band, and loads of great backing singers, visually the whole sight of it made a huge impact. There was a screen at the back of the stage that, for some of his songs, showed quirky pre-recorded footage of him performing the very same song that he was singing live – and of course the live Olly and the pre-recorded Olly were in perfect synch. I’d not seen that done before and it was really arresting.

You Don't Know LoveHe very much geared his act towards the ladies; in fact, the way he said it, they were more like laydeez, with the guys in the audience only given the occasional passing nod. I guess this is his stage persona, but I have to say it didn’t make me feel quite as welcome as I might have liked. He also played quite a bit to the kids, which was nice, as he certainly attracts the teenage – and younger – girls. One young teenybopper jumped up and down in front of our noses for almost the entire time he was on; it’s great to see their enthusiasm. There was a bizarre moment when he was introducing a song and nearly uttered a swear word, but then he covered his mouth with his hands and said that he wouldn’t say that word because there were kids present. Funny, seeing as how the rest of the time he was implying that he’d like to shag their mothers. For his final hurrah, as he was leaving the stage after the last song, he suddenly ripped his shirt off and gave us a gratuitous ten second gawp at his chest. To be honest, I could have done without that, but I’m guessing it wasn’t for my benefit. Mrs Flag wasn’t impressed either, as she obviously prefers the more hirsute kinda guy.

Wrapped UpBut we were there for the songs, and in that department, he was absolutely ace. I recognised most of them; he kicked off with You Don’t Know Love, which was a great starter, and followed it with Wrapped Up, the essence of bubblegum pop and a huge crowd-pleaser. The others that I really enjoyed were Heart Skips A Beat – which he could probably have performed three or four times and no one would have minded; and three absolute classics of modern pop, Dear Darlin’, Mr Flag’s favourite Dance With Me Tonight, and my favourite, Troublemaker.

And another songHe showed disarming honesty by saying that normally a performer would go off at the end, wait a few minutes then come on again for an encore; but we all know the going-off is fake, so what’s the point? So he simply stayed on to perform Mrs Flag’s favourite, Kiss Me, and finally Years & Years, which I hadn’t downloaded earlier in the week, so left me slightly dissatisfied for a final memory; particularly as he didn’t sing Please Don’t Let Me Go, which is my other favourite. Still, I got a pretty good hit-rate for the songs I knew and liked. Oh – he also performed his duet with Louisa Johnson, Unpredictable. I liked it; Mrs C was not so sure. The one thing we all agreed was that he’d be perfect for Eurovision. No, honestly, he really, really would.

TroublemakerOlly Murs is a terrific showman and packed his 90 minutes with vitality and energy. Sometimes you see an established act and feel a little short-changed, as though they were phoning it in. Not so with Mr Murs, you couldn’t ask for more conviction and pizazz from a performance. He’s about two-thirds of the way through his tour, but there are still plenty of opportunities to see him all round the country between now and 27th August, and I can guarantee you’ll have a great time.

P. S. Apparently it’s compulsory at an Olly Murs concert to chant out Olly, Olly, Olly, Oi, Oi, Oi. Several waves of this refrain drifted out from the ground towards the stage during the course of the evening. I broke the bye-law by not joining in, but Mr Flag was giving it large, like the great big kid he is. I’m not sure how much Mrs Flag appreciated it being bellowed in her ear.

Review – Comedy Crate Festival, Northampton, 9th July 2017

Comedy CrateI was idly thumbing through Facebook the other day and saw, as you do, that a friend was interested in a local event: The first ever Comedy Crate Festival in Northampton, thirty acts over two days in three venues: The Lab, The Charles Bradlaugh and The Black Prince. How fantastic, and innovative, to create such an event where comics can take a slot for work in progress towards their Edinburgh shows in a month’s time. We’d already booked to see Miss Saigon on the Saturday, but that left the Sunday free… £16 for a wristband allowing you access to see five shows seemed a bargain, although £27 for two days works out at just £2.70 a show if you see everything you can, which is, indeed, top value.

First, some feedback about the venues – we saw two shows at the Bradlaugh, two at the Black Prince and one at the Lab. The Charles Bradlaugh has an excellent upstairs room capable of accommodating a big crowd for a comedy gig; it’s comfortable, has a well-stocked bar, and excellent sightlines; my only criticism would be that it can get too hot, but that’s a common problem in well attended comedy venues! The Lab is a much smaller venue with a nice intimate feel, but the hard chairs are, well, ouch! The bar is rather poorly stocked and when the barmen natter to each other during the show, the noise interrupts the act (just a friendly piece of advice for the future!) The quirky Black Prince was probably my favourite; a medium sized venue with an array of different types of seating from hard chairs to sofa, to stools, so you can take your pick for comfort. It also has a lovely garden for pre- or post-show drinkies.

Each venue had five shows a day, all at the same time, so you basically have a choice of three shows for each comedy slot. We’re lucky enough to see quite a bit of comedy so we’d already seen a number of the acts on show; and I thought, in best Fringe tradition, that it would be a good opportunity to catch some acts we didn’t know. That meant no to Stephen Bailey, Larry Dean, Geoff Norcott and Ed Byrne (and from Saturday’s line up, we would have missed Stuart Goldsmith, Pippa Evans and James Acaster. Didn’t they have some good names?!) So I made my choices in advance, and very nearly stuck to them. Let’s take them one by one.

Tom Toal (3pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Tom ToalWell this is where it gets difficult. Tom Toal’s Edinburgh show is Better Than Before, a rather intricate narrative show about following your dreams. It’s extremely clever, but, after a very welcoming and enjoyable first few minutes, including one great joke, I can’t say that either of us found the rest of it particularly funny. There’s a big setup for a significant callback which relies on the audience recognising, or not recognising, the name of an apparently infamous figure in history. Neither of us knew who this person was, and as a result we felt that we had totally misunderstood the punchline of a long joke. Disheartened, it made us feel a bit stupid, took us out of comedy-mode, and as a result the routine never regained traction with us. Mr T is clearly a likeable guy but this really needed to be a lot funnier than it was. Hey ho, there’s still time, that’s why you have work-in-progress try outs!

Ian Smith (4.30pm Black Prince)

Ian SmithIan Smith seems to have a quiet, unassuming personality, until he lets loose on a flight of fancy, and he’s off like a racehorse! A naturally very funny man, with a great understanding of those bizarre things people do, with which he then confronts you, so you absolutely recognise yourself in his comic scenarios. His Edinburgh show is called Snowflake, and is all about uniqueness – and how it is that we’re all unique yet we’re all the same. Over-running by fifteen minutes (with subsequent knock-on effects for the next show!) he has way too much material, but what to cut out? Because it was all brilliant. Reflections of Tromso including marvellous mental images of shitting huskies, (he found out we’d been there, so at least I added a little something to his act); words that don’t translate into English, but really ought to; googling people with your own name; and getting dismissed via the medium of poetry. The show was frequently interrupted by people wandering in and just standing alongside the stage and Mr Smith did a brilliant job of weaving them into his routine. Extremely funny and I would definitely recommend catching his show.

Jack Barry (6pm The Lab)

Jack BarryWith Stephen Bailey in one venue and Larry Dean in another, I guess Jack Barry was always going to be the least attended gig in this slot – and indeed, there were just seven of us in the audience. Sometimes it happens. But that’s an opportunity for the comic to draw on their resources and keep going, ensuring those seven have a good time – and that’s exactly what Jack Barry did. His Edinburgh show is High Treason, a comedy lecture about the benefits of legalising drugs. This is always going to be something that divides an audience, but Mr Barry does a very good job of keeping everyone onside, and actually he comes up with some clever (and funny) arguments to support his case. He has a very engaging style and a confident, fluid delivery and I thought he was extremely good. I hope his show gets a much better turnout in Edinburgh, because it certainly deserves it!

Ed Gamble (7.30pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Ed GambleWe had originally planned to see Glenn Wool in this slot at the Black Prince, but for some reason got sidetracked by the prospect of crisps and alcohol at the Bradlaugh as we were walking by. I’d only seen Ed Gamble on TV before so he still counted as “one we hadn’t seen on stage before”. A huge crowd obviously had the same idea, and by the time we’d gone upstairs to find somewhere to sit, our only option was standing at the bar. Still that did give us an excellent view of the stage, and also the opportunity to observe a very serious looking Mr Gamble prowling around the back of the room like an anxious cat, waiting for his moment to pounce on the stage. Once on, he presents a really slick and confident act, absolutely jam-packed full of laughter. Much of the material stems from his running a marathon – including the natural show-offishness that it engenders – and a really funny, if essentially simple, routine on holding in a fart whilst being massaged. There are some wonderful flight of fancy moments, such as treating a tethered priest as if it were a family pet (you had to be there) or how the boys at his posh school would have talked to each other. And there’s a brilliant explanation of how you can tell you’re in a spa. He was cheekily challenged by a guy at the front and I thought his subsequent put down erred on the cruel, so beware of sitting in the front row! But he’s naturally a brilliant comic and this was probably the show during which I laughed the most. Maybe, ever so slightly, a little safe? He’s not one of those comics who will examine a serious situation in an attempt to change the world through the medium of observational humour and surprise revelations. He’s far more likely to make fun of a burp. But he does it so very, very well. His Edinburgh show is called Mammoth and I predict a riot.

Phil Nichol (9pm Black Prince)

Phil NicholIt’s interesting to arrive early at a venue when the comic is still setting up and if he doesn’t mind having a chat with you whilst he’s getting ready. Phil Nichol is one such chap. You can tell right away that he’s a perfectionist, and you suspect that if the show goes wrong he’s really going to beat himself up about it. He looks down at his notes for the show, sighs, makes a few comments about how it’s all designed to find out what works and what doesn’t, looks at his notes again, sighs, and looks at you as if to say, “please don’t hurt me, I’m a lovely puppy.” He has no need to worry. His Edinburgh show, Your Wrong, deliberately, I’m sure, spelt grammatically incorrectly, talks about making mistakes, but primarily gives Mr Nichol a chance to rail against the world with all the power invested in him by his hard-hitting, energetic, excitable style. Much of the material stems from his relationship with his family, where he gives us a vivid and hilarious picture of being brought up in a Brethren household – praise God and pass the butter – and the account of the tragedy that befell his beloved older brother. En route, you get an insight into how Anne Robinson refused to be upstaged by him, and a new explanation for why the chicken crossed the road. “Some people say I should slow down my words a little”, he confessed, shortly before the show began. They’re probably right. But what you come away with is an impression of a man possessed by passion, desperate to drive home his points, and creating a comedy craftwork that both satisfies your desire to laugh and juxtaposes personal tragedy in the context of humour. It really makes you think, and it really makes you laugh. I loved it, and I’m sure it’s going to be an Edinburgh smash.

And that was our day! What a great day it was. Huge congratulations to the organisers and I hope we can all do it again next summer!

Review – Miss Saigon, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 8th July 2017

Miss SaigonYou might find it hard to believe, gentle reader, but we’ve never seen Miss Saigon before. How on earth could you possibly have missed it out, you might ask? I think it’s because we weren’t overly fussed on Les Miserables when we first saw it (how times have changed) and productions of Miss Saigon – which was written by the same creative team as Les Mis – have always been atrociously expensive; basically, we always thought we’d get more “bang for our buck” elsewhere. But the news of the new touring production, starting life just up the road at Leicester, was too much temptation. So, Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friend Lady Lichfield, decided to take a punt on it.

Red ConcepcionAs you doubtless know, it’s a modern take on the old favourite, Madame Butterfly. GI Chris is out in Vietnam where he falls in love with Kim, a bargirl. They quickly get married but then are separated and he returns to the US without any knowledge of her whereabouts. But she never gives up hope. Three years later, word reaches John, Chris’s wartime colleague, (via The Engineer, the pimp who used to run the Saigon bar) that Kim is still alive – and that she has little three-year-old Tam. Trouble is, Chris has now married Ellen… I won’t tell you what happens next, but if you work it back from the story of Madame Butterfly, then you’ll realise it’s not going to have a happy ending.

Sooha KimMy first reaction was, how could I have let the last 28 years go by and not seen it? It’s not a perfect show by any means, but the story is so believable – this kind of love/separation/fatherless child syndrome must have been very common. This current production is simply magnificent and I was absolutely caught up in it from the start. Our interval Sauvignon Blanc was spent with my being surprised that my theatre companions weren’t enjoying it quite as much as me – not liking much of the music, finding it very samey; to be honest, I thought many of the lyrics erred on the trite side, but I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. But what a second act! It all becomes immense. After the gloopy Bui Doi scene, which made me think of Michael Jackson singing some kind of “we all love the world and all the children” song, the story gathers pace at a bewildering rate. Hope turns to tragedy, and The Engineer has a show-stopping sensational number which takes the American Dream, wrings every ounce of humanity out of it and renders it fabulously gross. And I genuinely don’t think there was a dry eye in the house at the end of the show – certainly not from any of us three.

Ashley GilmourIt was fascinating to note not only the plotline similarities with Madame Butterfly, but also the structural similarities with Les Mis. Huge scene big numbers like The Morning of the Dragon echo the barricades of Revolutionary Paris, with the stark death of Thuy providing a similar shock value as the death of Gavroche; the role of The Engineer has many parallels with Thenardier’s Master of the House; and both musicals end with a nod toward the future, although there’s a stark contrast between the nature of the deaths of Jean Valjean and Kim.

Ryan O'GormanI don’t think I’ve ever seen the huge stage of the Curve theatre used with such impact as with this show. Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s amazing set intimidates and beguiles; it closes in for the very intimate scenes between Chris and Kim, and backs away to reveal a stage area big enough for twenty-four or more burly-clad lads representing a dancing, victorious, communist army. The musical staging is by A Chorus Line’s very own Bob Avian and you can absolutely see his stamp all over it. The lighting is dynamic and dramatic; the costumes are superb and the fifteen-member orchestra is on superb form. There are two stunning visual effects that take your breath away – the helicopter that takes Chris and the other US soldiers into the sky is so realistically represented you can almost feel the wind from its wings; and the disembodied figure of Thuy’s ghost that comes to Kim in a dream and slowly floats into the set, gains form and then walks down the stairs, is spine-tingling. Here you will find all the usual hallmarks of a superbly crafted, no expense spared, Cameron Mackintosh production.

Gerald SantosAt the heart of the show is the tragic Kim, played by Sooha Kim. She has an extraordinarily powerful voice and sings the role absolutely superbly. She has the ability to mess with your heartstrings and you really feel all the emotions she does – the initial disgust at working in “Dreamland”, the joy of her love for Chris, the devastation of realising he is married, the panic that makes her kill Thuy; they’re all stunning scenes and played with total conviction. Ashley Gilmour plays Chris as a GI a cut above the rest, emphasising the decency and honour of the character, which of course only makes his later plight all the more painful. He and Miss Kim have a great on-stage chemistry together and the intimacy of their love scenes is very convincing – and enchanting to watch. There’s also a stand-out scene where Chris and new wife Ellen are in bed together in Atlanta, singing a trio with Kim in the wastes of Ho Chi Minh City; emotionally gripping, musically stunning.

Rehearsal picture1Ryan O’Gorman is a great choice to play GI John, with a great natural authority that gives him absolute credibility in those wartime scenes, as well as the more respectable, mature John who fronts the (still toe-curling) Bui Doi conference in Atlanta, and stands alongside his friend in his hour of need as he comes to terms with finding out about Kim and Tam. Zoe Doano is excellent as Ellen, especially in that painful scene where she and Kim meet in the hotel room and she discovers that Chris has been economical with the truth; and there’s also a fine performance by Gerald Santos as Thuy, both as the wretched North Vietnamese soldier of peasant stock come to take Kim back, and as the clean-cut military commissar out to seek vengeance on those who crossed him. All the ensemble give great performances – I particularly liked the attitude of all those Dreamland girls, very nicely done; but everyone was terrific.

Rehearsal picture2But the show belongs to Red Concepcion as The Engineer – a dream of a role for the right performer and Mr C certainly is that. Manipulating everyone with whom he comes into contact in the hope that he might somehow obtain an American visa, he gleefully doesn’t care who suffers in the process. Deliciously slimy, sexually ambivalent, willing to degrade himself in any way in pursuit of the Yankee Dollar, his highlight comes with the American Dream number where the luscious fruit of his ambition grows disgustingly over-ripe with this mesmerically self-indulgent paean to riches. You’ve never seen a man love a car in the way he does. He’s completely gross and completely brilliant.

Rehearsal picture3Yes, some of the music might be a little generic-musical, and yes, in comparison with the stimulating and intense lyrics of Les Miserables, some of these lyrics are over-simplified and trite; but all this is nothing as to the emotional surge that the story, the setting and the performers provide. I absolutely loved it. This production is only just starting and it has a long national (and international!) tour that goes on till September 2018, visiting Birmingham, Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton, Manchester, Bristol, Plymouth and Norwich. Get booking now, you won’t regret it.

Rehearsal picture4P. S. It’s great to see the Curve Café used by the cast both before and after the show. I was waiting for my two teas and a cappuccino and was aware that I was standing next to Mr Gilmour and Miss Kim. Mr Gilmour was obviously hungry: “feed me” he implored of the waiting staff; “feed me, Seymour, feed me now” replied Miss Kim, which is precisely the same thing Mrs Chrisparkle and I say when we’re starving. She went on to ask Mr Gilmour whether the plant in Little Shop of Horrors has a name. Neither of them could think of it. I had to stop myself from butting in with “it’s Audrey! Audrey II in fact, because the first Audrey dies early in the show” – because that would have meant I was listening in to their conversation, which of course would have been rude of me.

Rehearsal picture5P. P. S. After the matinee, a number of the ensemble came out and spread over one of the refectory tables, and had lots of well-deserved food and drink. A plucky family from the audience approached one of the cast and asked for selfies and had a chat and the cast member (I couldn’t quite see who it was) was extremely obliging and friendly. And then I saw something I’d never seen before. The lady from the happy family gave the cast member a £5 tip. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly….” started the ensemble lady, “oh yes, you must”, insisted the happy punter. Well, we do it in a restaurant, why not at the theatre?

Production rehearsal photos by Manuel Harlan

A Beginner’s Guide: Attending a Classical concert at Royal & Derngate

Hey there! Have a read of a blog post I’ve written about attending classical concerts at the Royal and Derngate! You can find the original here!

RPOWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I moved to Northampton in 2008, she’d never been to a classical concert at all, and I’d only been once, as a teenager, trying to impress a very arty girl I was trying to go out with at the time; I was definitely boxing above my weight. We went to the elegant Wigmore Hall in London; a very grand location, where the music was appreciated reverentially and the less accessible it was, the better. I remember a programme of tedious heavy strings, sombre percussion and plodding piano. It was dismal, tuneless, pretentious nonsense. It didn’t even impress the girl, who later confessed she would sooner have seen Abba The Movie.

RPO1-300x200It was only when we first read about the full range of delights on offer at the Royal and Derngate, that it occurred to us this was a great opportunity to discover what live classical concerts were all about. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visit about five times a year, each time with a varied programme, which probably consists of a rousing overture, a concerto that calls for an expert soloist, and a stonking good symphony to round the concert off. The theatre also hosts the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the brilliance of our famous local composer. This culminates with a gala concert, which has been performed in the past by the likes of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra; in 2017 the Royal Philharmonic are taking up this challenge. You don’t have to get on a train down to London and pay London prices for a classical concert experience when world class orchestras come up to Northampton; you can get tickets for as little as £15 – even less if you subscribe to three or more concerts in the season.

RPOThe Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: what does that say to you? Three random words, which, when you put them together, make beautiful, must-see music? Or do you think “it’s far too posh for the likes of me, I wouldn’t dare go to a classical concert”. Maybe you might think it would attract an audience full of stuffy old people, all twin-sets and war medals, so you wouldn’t fit in. Maybe you’re worried about concert etiquette and think you will make a fool of yourself by applauding at the wrong time? Maybe you already enjoy going to see the terrific plays that are regularly produced at the Royal and Derngate, but don’t know much about classical music – and think you’d find it boring? Well, if you’ve not been to a classical concert at the R&D before, and are wondering if you should try it – fear not, I’m here with some advice for you!

RPO2-260x300First off – is it a posh occasion? Definitely not. Classical music attracts equally the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Old, young, families, couples; groups of friends and relatives; singles wanting to concentrate on the music or indeed find another single person also interested in the classics! All are welcome. Wear what you like – you can be as smart or as casual as you wish, you don’t have to dress any differently from how you would normally for the theatre or the cinema. Everyone fits in – to be honest, the audience are concentrating on the orchestra and are not at all concerned about whether the other audience members are musically trained, public school educated or look smart!

Nigel Kennedy plays BrahmsEtiquette – when should I applaud? Traditionally, you applaud at the very end of each complete piece. So, whether you’re listening to a three-minute overture or an hour-long symphony, you would still applaud when it’s finished – i.e. after three minutes or after an hour. Sometimes it’s hard to work out whether a longer piece, like a symphony or concerto, has finished or not. But there are always clues to watch out for. Take your cue from the conductor. If he’s still facing the orchestra, baton poised in his hand, looking serious, it may well not have finished yet. If he’s relaxed, baton down, and he turns to face the audience – it’s over.

RPO3-300x200I like to play a game with myself, trying to identify the individual movements within a larger piece. If you buy the programme – which is a really good idea, because it’s crammed with information not only about the performers and the composers, but also about the individual pieces that are played – you can find out how many movements there are and try to spot where each one ends and the next one begins. If you know your scherzo from your andante, that helps; but even if not, the programme notes will assist you identify the livelier sections from the quieter sections – and that way you can follow the music as it progresses. It’s really rewarding when you say to yourself, “there’s a change of mood coming up” or “it’s just about to finish” – and you’re right!

English Classics with Julian Lloyd WebberThat also goes to show that you don’t need to know the music in advance in order to enjoy it. It is amazing how many familiar tunes though are lifted from classical works, and it’s fun to suddenly realise “I know this! It’s from that carpet advert!” Many of the pieces that the RPO include in their programmes are very well-known, and you can hear an audible sigh of pleasure when the audience suddenly recognises a tune. Recently they played Rossini’s William Tell overture and not a soul wasn’t thinking about the Lone Ranger.

RPOgroupAnd it’s not just about the music – live performance always has a theatricality all of its own. When you’ve got maybe forty or more musicians on stage, there are always mini-dramas to enjoy. See what kind of a relationship the conductor has with the musicians, whether they’re jokey or serious. See how the soloist reacts to the rest of the orchestra – are they aloof or one of the lads? Watch out for sneaky chatting between the violinists, or the percussionist dashing over to the celeste just in time to play a few notes before dashing back to the triangle, or the tuba or double-bass player making themselves giggle by how low a note they can get their instrument to play. I love watching the interaction between everyone – their mutual admiration for each other’s skills, how they turn each other’s sheet music pages, how they might even look at each other with amusement or horror if something doesn’t go quite right. All sorts of things can happen on that stage, and it’s all part of the live entertainment!

Natalie Clein plays DvořákThere’s often a pre-concert talk which gives you a further opportunity to understand a little bit more about the pieces and what to listen for – I don’t normally get around to seeing the talk, but I have a friend who wouldn’t miss them for the world. I’m more likely to get to the theatre half an hour before the concert starts, order a couple of glasses of Merlot for the interval, study the programme to see exactly what’s in store, make my way to our favourite seats, and then just let it all wash over me.

Last Night of the Derngate PromsOver the years we’ve seen some extraordinary concerts – including great soloists like Julian Lloyd-Webber, Nigel Kennedy, Natalie Clein, John Williams and Jack Liebeck; we’ve heard Ravel’s Bolero, Holst’s Planets, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the 1812 Overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and all the fun of the Last Night of the Proms, RPO-style.

CinderellaThe next concert, on 16th July, is a Film Music Gala and would be the perfect introduction to the Royal Philharmonic concerts for anyone who feels they might enjoy them and wants to dip their toe in the water. We can expect loads of memorable and recognisable tunes, from Star Wars to Titanic; and the vocalist is Alison Jiear, who not only won the nation’s hearts on Britain’s Got Talent, but she also sang like a dream in the R&D’s Cinderella in 2015. She will be singing some of John Barry’s best loved film tunes and I’m sure she’ll make them her own. And of course, it will be a chance for the Royal Philharmonic to show off their livelier and more informal side. I can’t wait, it’s going to be brilliant. Why don’t you book too?