Review – Market Boy, Actors Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 22nd July 2016

Market BoyTime for another production from the Royal and Derngate’s Actors Company, whom we have seen a few times now and have always carried off a good show – until now…. This time they gave us a sensationally good show! David Eldridge’s Market Boy, which was produced by the National Theatre in 2006, is a funny, thought-provoking, heart-warming and nostalgic play about growing up in and around Romford Market in the late 1980s, at a time when the impetus to work hard for yourself and be successful was at its Thatcherite height. I know – because even Mrs Chrisparkle and I briefly caught the bug.

The Market Boy himself, Brian, but known by everyone as “Boy”, starts life as a wet behind the ears 12-year-old, who gets taken under the (mainly) affectionate wing of shoe trader (known, you guessed it, as Trader), and his three laddish assistants, who show him how to become both a proper market trader with all the patter and how to chat up girls (with similar skills). Romford Market is a fairly rough-and-ready community, with plenty of aggression and rivalry as well as some (but not many) decent relationships and mutual respect. We see all these various lives intermingle as Boy finally gets round to going out with “Girl”. In the second act Boy gets too big for his boots, throwing his weight around, riding roughshod over those he cares about – as does Snooks, one of the assistants, who gives up the market work to work in the financial markets instead – and both come a-cropper as they fly too close to the sun. Their rise and fall is brought sharply into focus as it mimics that of their great inspiration, Margaret Thatcher, who looms over the market like a free-trade spectre, dispensing dogma and platitudes as she goes.

CastIt’s a great choice of a play because there’s so much going on all the time and the text gives everyone a moment where they can shine. Jesse Jones’ cast grabs it all with relish and brings out both the humour and the dark side of market life and the individual subtleties of the characters who populate it. Meryl Couper’s simple but very effective design draws our eye to the centre of the stage where the Trader’s van (MKT 130Y, nice touch) occupies the centre of his stall. The stalls either side of the stage lurk together to give an impression of tight-knit closeness and everyone being in everybody else’s business, creating a nice illusion of compact claustrophobia.

IbizaIt’s a wonderful production that uses the Royal auditorium at its best, with characters entering from within the auditorium, scenes being acted in front of the safety curtain, characters appearing in the boxes, and so on. It also has fantastic use of music, bringing a huge sense of nostalgia to the show; you just can’t go wrong when you’ve got Frankie Goes To Hollywood appearing as a leitmotif throughout the evening. Mrs C is always a bit iffy when it comes to watching an amateur production but as soon as Relax started up she was tapping her feet up and down to the rhythm; then the curtain opened to reveal twenty other pairs of feet all doing the same, and she beamed with delight at the shared experience. She said later (and I concur) that the beginning and end scenes featuring the entire cast en dansant were amongst the most entertaining moments of individual staging she’d ever seen.

ShoesI could now write at length about everybody in the cast, because absolutely everyone gave an excellent performance and contributed some magic to the entire evening. However, that would probably end up being very repetitive and dull. So I’m just going to mention a few people who I thought made a particular difference to the success of the show as a whole. But, bear in mind, omission here does not mean it was not a fine performance – they all were!

At the heart of the show is a genuinely top class performance by Tom Cocker as Boy. With his early appearances showing his wide-eyed innocence, looking like a very young Daniel Radcliffe or Harry Enfield, he exuded that awful teenage uncertainty tempered with the desperate need to fit in. As the character grows in confidence, Mr Cocker acquires great “market flair”, thus becoming a half-and-half adult – with great self-belief in his ability to do well on the stall, but then shrinking down to be just a little boy when it comes to talking to the girl. Later on, when he oversteps the mark and becomes pig-headed and over-confident, you really want to give him a great big slap. He’s completely believable the whole way through – an excellent performance.

Spanish girlI also really liked Alice McCracken as his “Girl” – conveying all the hard-nosed exterior the character would need in order to survive in that environment, but with all the soft-centre that lurks not that far under the surface. I also thought that, technically, she gave the most perfect performance of the entire cast; every line delivered immaculately, every movement assertively achieved. I’d seen Adam Kozuch in a few productions before, including Town My Town and Our Country’s Good, but here, as Mouse, he performed with even more natural ease and comfort, and he really let us in to the more vulnerable side of the character.

You asked for itI loved Will Adams’ Meat Man, a bit of a fuddy-duddy but obviously a decent sort; he plays a beautiful scene where he comes to Boy’s rescue when he needs advice about buying steak to impress Girl on their big date. The Land of Hope and Glory accompaniment was a touch of genius. The character’s eventual downfall was very movingly portrayed. I also loved Vicky Kelly as Fat Annie from the tea stall, luring with her gently lascivious tone as she tries to get into Boy’s good books (and pants). Zoe Smith’s Thatcher oozed superiority and detachment as she condescended her way across the stage; and Stewart Magrath’s Market Toby was a fantastically ogreish creation, bullying and fleecing his way around the market, terrifying the life out of the front row of the Stalls with his barking warnings. And I enjoyed the smartarse but moving performance of Ben Webb as Snooks, showing off as a shoe trader, arrogantly going off to work in the city full of Thatcherite zeal, returning some time later with his tail between his legs, genuinely broken.

Quite possibly the best amateur production we’ve ever seen – of anything. A shame it only entertained for three performances, but I’m sure if you saw it, you won’t forget it in a hurry! Oh, and if I’ve got anyone’s name wrong, apologies, but it’s difficult matching performers to names without a more detailed programme!

Review – The Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th July 2016

Last Night of the Derngate PromsMrs Chrisparkle and I have always enjoyed our visits to the Last Night of the Proms – Derngate style, that is – although we did once get to see the real thing in the Albert Hall which was indeed a privilege. As usual, I booked for this show as part of our subscription package with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Last Night is always a very entertaining – if essentially shallow – flick through some of Classic’s Greatest Hits in the lead up to the usual flag-waving extravaganza of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.

The Derngate Auditorium was packed to the rafters for this final concert in the RPO’s annual season. Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, new to us, and as Mr Hudson himself explained, he was new to Northampton. But I think both Mr Hudson and Northampton got on very well with each other. He’s a charming host, with a reassuring voice of honey, providing an entertaining and informative running commentary on all the pieces we were going to hear. As a conductor, he’s not one of those who over-exerts himself but manages to get the best from the orchestra whilst retaining a simple air of dignity and authority. In honour of the gala occasion, the word had gone out to the ladies of the RPO to wear strikingly coloured gowns, so the stage was awash with beautiful reds, greens, and blues. Mrs C pointed out that if I mentioned what the ladies were wearing, I should, for the sake of equality, also pass comment on the gentlemen’s appearance. They were in their stock penguin suits. They obviously didn’t get the same memo. However, if we are concentrating on appearances, I must congratulate harpist Mr Hugh Webb on his spectacular moustache. His harpistry was pretty spectacular too.

There were eighteen pieces to listen to. Eighteen! Seventeen in the programme and one encore. Given that the concert lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and including 20 minutes for the interval and say 20 minutes for chat and applause, I estimate the average time per musical item to be about 5 and a half minutes. It’s not really long enough to get fully engrossed in any particular piece; but on the plus side, if you don’t like any particular item, it won’t be long before it’s over and the next one has started!

Gareth HudsonThe programme began with the overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie – probably one of the longer pieces of the evening as it happens – lively, fun, and full of the joys of orchestration. The RPO were obviously going to be on great form. Then came the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, one of my favourite pieces of music, played with lush exquisiteness by the strings. When I was a kid I wanted to write an opera (I know, always had grand plans, me); I often used to think how chuffed Mascagni must have been to win that opera-writing competition, and what a brass neck he had to write the Intermezzo so that his two-act opera became a one-act opera, and therefore eligible for the prize. Clever chap.

So that was two Italians – now for a Czech: Dvořák’s Song to the Moon, from his opera Rusalka. We welcomed soprano Deborah Norman to the stage for the first of four appearances to sing this famous aria, although it’s not one with which I’m that attuned. Miss Norman certainly transported us to a lunar scenario, with her engaging interpretation and glittery voice. Then we had the famous Onedin Line theme from Khachaturian’s Spartacus suite – I know he didn’t strictly write it for the BBC but it’s what every one of my generation associates with it. I thought this was performed absolutely terrifically; incredibly stirring, a full tidal wave of emotion. Khachaturian was to be the first of two Russians – next was Tchaikovsky with the Sleeping Beauty Waltz, a timeless piece of sheer delight, again played beautifully by the orchestra.

Anyone who knows me, understands that I don’t do Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes, I know, it’s a failing on my part; and I have tried, believe me. But, as the old song in Liza of Lambeth goes, nothing is duller than Gilbert and Sullivan, in the British tradition they’re palpably rooted, the music is trivial and far from convivial, the words are appallingly convoluted. (Don’t worry, I won’t quote the whole song.) So I confess I wasn’t looking forward to Deborah Norman’s performance of The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze (even the title is so trite in its need to rhyme) by Sir Arthur Sullivan, an aria (if you can call it that) from The Mikado. But, guess what? I really enjoyed it! I think it was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed any one song from G&S. Don’t get me wrong – I’m never going to be a convert. But I was most surprised to hear its delicacy and sweetness.

After the atrocity in Nice on Friday, Gareth Hudson simply said in his introduction to the next piece that he would like to dedicate it to the people of France. André Caplet’s orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune received a stunning performance from the orchestra and it was a very moving moment. The first half of the concert wound up with another blistering performance, this time of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, No 2: Farandole, a piece I can never remember until I hear it, which is when I instantly remember how much I love it.

Deborah NormanIt was after the interval that things just started to get a little weird. Not musically – by any means; the RPO continued to give a fantastic performance. Mrs C and I just got the sense that this year’s flag-waving jingoism had taken on a little more… shall we say, sinister aspect. It all started in the first piece after the interval, the splendid overture to the operetta Light Cavalry by Franz von Suppé. The orchestra really got into its military stride with this, creating a fantastic rhythm; but the elderly lady sitting further along the row from us got totally carried away and started to pretend that she was on a horse, bobbing up and down with the rhythm, swaying the reins, and basically giving us all the giddy-ups. That’s fine. Good music well performed can do this to a person.

We welcomed back Deborah Norman to give us a tender rendition of Je veux vivre, from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. This piece was new to me and I found it very touching and full of that youthful enthusiasm we would associate with the young tragic heroine. Then it was time for the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. We saw this performed in Bratislava a few years ago and absolutely loved it – but I regret I couldn’t particularly remember the Polonaise. The RPO gave it a full-on rumbustious run for its money and the audience responded really warmly to it. Then came – for me, at least – perhaps the most rewarding performance of the evening – Two Songs Without Words (Country Song and Marching Song) by Gustav Holst. As Mr Hudson mentioned in his introduction, Holst’s back catalogue became completely eclipsed (pardon the pun) by the success of his Planets Suite, reducing the rest of his output to virtual insignificance. So here were two earlier pieces that rarely get performed, and I thought they were sensational. This is the English Folk Music-inspired Holst, rather than the astronomically-inspired version, although I definitely heard a music prequel of Jupiter somewhere in there. A fantastic performance of (for me) an exciting find. This section of the concert wrapped up with (as the RPO often do) those few minutes of intense emotion that constitute Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Nimrod never does quite give you that same tingle when it’s played outside of the context of a full performance of the Variations, but nevertheless, it’s still a magnificent piece and gives you a few moments to cherish those you love and remember those you’ve lost.

It was Gareth Hudson’s introduction to the final sequence of patriotic numbers that encapsulated whatever it was that had been bothering us. He said (and I paraphrase) that no matter how we all voted in a certain referendum recently, we should take the opportunity to allow the evening’s music to unite us. Now forgive me, gentle reader, for going off piste here, and I know this may alienate many of you to bring politics into music, but Mrs C and I are still very much coming to terms with (what we feel is) the (disastrous) result of the referendum. The wounds have gone very deep; it’s going to be a long time before the healing takes place (indeed, if it ever does). Surrounded by an audience made up of almost entirely white, middle-aged to elderly, middle-class Northamptonians (our town voted 59-41 in favour of Brexit) we suddenly realised the extent to which we were in the minority in that room. The patriotism of our neighbours all waving the flags and standing, Nuremberg rally-like, to Land of Hope and Glory, felt very, very uncomfortable. I can’t help it – at the moment I’m not proud of our country, so I couldn’t permit myself to get up and join the others. I was happy to sing it, as I always am. But there was a swelling of nationalistic pride going on in that hall on Sunday night with which I really did not want to associate myself.

Back on piste. Our final sequence of music was as unchanging as the waning moon, starting with Tom Bowling and the Hornpipe from Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Mr Hudson introduced lead cellist Tim Gill for the Tom Bowling and he was exceptional as usual, bringing out all that deep-seated sadness and searing emotion from its lamentation-like theme. The Hornpipe, of course, couldn’t be a greater juxtaposition, with Mr Hudson already encouraging us to clap along, even if, (of course), we all did it too loudly, too enthusiastically, and too early. Ms Norman returned for the final time (a little early in fact, as Mr Hudson was still humiliating us with My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, making us stand, then sit, each time a word beginning with a B comes along – think about it, it gets exhausting) for Rule, Britannia! And I really appreciate it when all three verses are sung in full. Jerusalem, which followed, has much claim to be my own personal favourite song of all time, and nothing’s going to stop me from bellowing each syllable as if I were still in Morning Assembly in 1973. And finally, a lively and fun performance of the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, which got our Cavalry overture lady up on her feet at the first whiff of a land of Hope and Glory. All credit to her, when no one else got up so early she didn’t budge but held her ground. Classic rule – if you ovate and no one else does, it looks appalling if you sit down again. Have the courage of your convictions! Reservations (as per the previous paragraph) aside, it was a wonderful performance.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraAnd it was also with great pleasure that I realised it wasn’t to be quite the final number of the night. As an encore, and once again with a respectful nod to France and maybe something to assuage the Bremainers, Mr Hudson returned to the podium to crack out a fun and frolicsome performance of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld – the Can Can. Now that did deserve an ovation.

No more Royal Philharmonic Orchestra here in Northampton until much later in the year – and unfortunately we can’t make that concert! Still we’ll look forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the RPO next February.

Review – Present Laughter, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th July 2016

Present LaughterA last minute change of plan meant that I was able to make a sneaky booking for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to see this touring production of Present Laughter, which I’d had my eye on for a few months but couldn’t see how to schedule it in. I’m extremely glad we did, because it’s an elegant, classy, sophisticated and intelligent production of a play that neither of us had seen before. I read a number of Coward’s plays when I was about 15 years old, and this was one of them; and I remember at the time that it really didn’t jump off the page for me. I could see how it was an account of the trials and tribulations that beset light-comedy-actor Garry Essendine, but, unlike all the other Coward plays I read at the time, I found it heavy-going. So I was very interested to see how a decent production would make it come to life.

Joanna and GarryI don’t think there was ever any pretence, since the play first hit the boards in 1943, that its protagonist Garry Essendine is Noel Coward. He wrote it as a semi-autobiographical frippery purely to give himself a star role. Many of the other characters are based on members of his “set” (makes him sound like a badger), and Essendine’s constant inclination to overact or underempathise reflects Coward’s own intolerance and impatience with his celebrity status, which you sense drove him mad with its interminable impingement on his freedom but without which he would have been bereft.

MonicaIn brief, over the course of a few days, the actor is at the centre of a (largely self-induced) whirlwind of activity that includes two women throwing themselves at him, coping with the relationship indiscretions of his closest friends, beating off the advances of a young playwright hopelessly obsessed with him, and facing the no-nonsense discipline of his secretary and his ex-wife, all whilst he’s preparing to take a company of actors on a tour of Africa. At times it’s quite gentle comedy, at others almost Feydeau-esque in its farcical deceptions.

GarryAll the essential requirements of an impeccable Coward production are here. Simon Higlett’s graceful set comfortably accommodates all the exit and entry points needed for the farcical elements, whilst reflecting Essendine’s immaculate taste in all the furnishings and accoutrements of fine living. The costumes are beautiful; indeed, I rather hankered after the smart dressing gown that Liz bought Essendine in Paris. A proper piano; very comme il faut. The spiral staircase direct to Essendine’s boudoir adds a touch of extravagance. When can we move in?

Garry and DaphneStephen Unwin directs his hugely enjoyable cast at a smart pace, encouraging everyone to get meaningful characterisation out of even the minor parts, thus providing a superb backbone to support the main characters. For example, Martin Hancock as Fred, the valet, is brilliant at bringing out all his egalitarian cheeriness, naturally offering his rightyo’s and be good’s to everyone in his orbit, no matter their estate. Sally Tatum brings the house down with her self-contortions and Scandinavian impishness as the psychic housekeeper Miss Erikson, as does Patrick Walshe McBride with his slightly unhinged, slightly menacing interpretation of the appalling Roland Maule; two roles that could so easily descend into mere caricature, but here performed with perfect judgment to present real people out of these nightmare creations. Toby Longworth’s Henry is a delightfully blustering idiot who loses his cool magnificently when he thinks Essendine is having an affair with his wife; Jason Morell is hilarious with his over-reactions to… well, to anything; and Elizabeth Holland brings some splendid dignity to her don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington moment.

LizAt the heart of the production is an immaculate performance by Samuel West as Garry Essendine. As with some of the smaller roles, it could be easy to go over-the-top and caricaturise Essendine as a merely waspish spoilt brat and arch manipulator. But Mr West digs deeper into the character and reveals someone with whom you can actually have a lot of sympathy; he presents Essendine’s weaknesses with a hint of affection, so that, although he certainly isn’t more sinned against than sinning, the dividing line between the two isn’t quite so clear as you might think it is. Essendine’s characteristic switching between (in)sincerity and acting is intelligently but mischievously handled by Mr West so that it’s hardly surprising that Daphne hilariously misinterprets his intentions; an excellent performance.

HenryDaisy Boulton’s Daphne is wide-eyed and toe-curlingly in love with Garry and is wonderfully easy fodder to his patter and pretence. Rebecca Johnson is first rate as his wife/ex-wife (you choose) Liz, with a fine blend of hard-nosed toughness to keep Garry out of trouble and an indulgent forgiveness of his misconduct. Zoe Boyle gives a great performance as the bed-hopping Joanna, allowing the mask of steely self-assurance to drop perfectly when she’s cornered; and there’s a wonderful performance by Phyllis Logan as Essendine’s much put-upon secretary Monica, protecting him from the worst excesses of his own behaviour with all the warmth and understanding of a senior Matron who’s seen it all and didn’t like much of what she saw.

Garry againImpeccably performed throughout, the play still has insightful observations to make about the nature of celebrity, loyalty and pretence versus reality. It’s not Coward at his most searing, but it still has great entertainment value and we both really enjoyed it! This Theatre Royal Bath production continues to tour to Cambridge, Richmond, Brighton and Malvern until 20th August. Go see it!

Production photos by Nobby Clark.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)

Seven Dials MysteryIn which we pay a return visit to the grand country mansion of Chimneys and get re-acquainted with “Bundle” Brent, that typical Christie bold adventuress who, with her friends, helps to expose the activities of the secret “Seven Dials” society, uncover the identity of its head, the mysterious No. 7, and in so doing discovers a murderer. As usual, you can read at ease, I promise I won’t reveal those secret identities if you haven’t read it yet!

detectiveIn her autobiography, Christie described this book as one of her “light-hearted thriller types”, saying it was easy to write as it didn’t require too much plotting or planning. I have to say, I think it shows; as I found re-reading this book much more of a bind than a pleasure. I found it really hard work, leaving it to one side for days and days with no interest in picking it back up. It’s not a question of the characters, I just found the plot immensely tedious. Interestingly, it wasn’t particularly well received critically at the time; in particular, the New York Times Book Review was very damning: “She has held out information which the reader should have had, and, not content with scattering false clues with a lavish hand, she has carefully avoided leaving any clues pointing to the real criminal. Worst of all, the solution itself is utterly preposterous. This book is far below the standard set by Agatha Christie’s earlier stories.”

dancingThe book is described as a sequel to The Secret of Chimneys and re-introduces us to our heroine Bundle, her slightly eccentric father Lord Caterham, our trusty police officer Superintendent Battle, Under-Secretary for State for Foreign Affairs George Lomax and his assistant Bill, and the ever-reliable butler Tredwell. The good superintendent will come back to solve three more mysteries before his time is out; the other characters never return to Christie-land. The tone of the book is once more that of jolly trendy young things making the most of their 1920s opportunities, dancing to the wireless, driving recklessly, getting their man to buy them guns, that sort of thing. Christie does reflect that world extremely convincingly and you can just see in your mind’s eye those rather vacuous characters having the time of their lives, with authority figures like Battle trying to keep them on the straight and narrow with affectionate indulgence. There’s not a lot of character development for the six “return” characters; you don’t learn much more about them than what you would have gathered in The Secret of Chimneys. However, for me, where this book falls down is its general lack of plot. I’m not surprised that I couldn’t remember much about it before re-reading it – there isn’t that much to remember.

libraryIt’s also very unevenly written. There are a few genuinely exciting, page-turning scenes which completely grip your imagination and you really enjoy the ride – for example the sequence where Jimmy, Bill, Bundle and Loraine split up and the narrative follows each of them in turn; then they all come back together again in the library, having experienced gunshots, police presence, creaking floorboards and door handles silently turning. But there are some other sequences that, when you look back you realise do have relevance to the crime and its solution, but are extraordinarily boring to read: an example of that is the interminable conversations with Lord Caterham (who really is very dull in this book) and Bundle about left-handed golf-playing. Nevertheless, the proof of the pudding, etc, tells its own story. There are some good red herrings littered everywhere, and I suspected two different people of being the murderer at different stages of the book and I was wrong on both counts – and the revelation of the identity of the murderer – and indeed of No 7 – is a very good surprise indeed. It just feels like it takes ages to get there!

secretLike her previous book, The Mystery of the Blue Train, there is no narrator to guide us through the investigations, but Christie’s own voice comes through occasionally with some slightly wry asides about the way the story is unfolding: “Now it may be said at once that in the foregoing conversation each one of the three participants had, as it were, held something in reserve. That “Nobody tells everything” is a very true motto. It may be questioned, for instance, if Loraine Wade was perfectly sincere in the account of the motives which had led her to seek out Jimmy Thesiger. In the same way, Jimmy Thesiger himself had various ideas and plans connected with the forthcoming party at George Lomax’s which he had no intention of revealing to – say, Bundle. And Bundle herself had a fully-fledged plan which she proposed to put into immediate execution and which she had said nothing whatever about.“ There is also a scene where two people are locked away in a room and it is revealed that they have fallen in love. Christie deals with that situation very nicely: “There is no need to describe in detail the conversation of the next ten minutes. It consisted mainly of repetitions.”

alarm clockWhen one of the clocks goes missing, at the scene of the first crime, was anyone else expecting them to continue going missing, in the style of And Then There Were None? This book precedes the latter by ten years, but you often catch Christie trying ideas out that she re-uses to greater effect later in her career. This, however, wasn’t one of them.

Seven DialsThere are a few locations in this book, and, unusually for Christie, they are quite specifically identified. The title itself gives rise to the Seven Dials area of London, described, amusingly, as a “rather slummy district of London”. Perhaps this is one of the best examples of how an area can be smartened up over the years. This is how the Seven Dials website describes the location: “the intriguing network of seven atmospheric streets that link Covent Garden to Soho. Always buzzy, packed with independent boutiques, international fashion labels, heritage brands, beauty salons, men’s grooming specialists, traditional pubs, cool cocktail bars, cafés, restaurants, theatres and smart hotels; historic Seven Dials is modern London’s most original shopping and lifestyle destination.” How times have changed. Christie’s Seven Dials club is located at 14 Hunstanton Street; however, I’m sorry to say, there’s no such street. There is however a genuine Seven Dials Club, based at 42 Earlham Street. Jimmy Thesiger lives at 103 Jermyn Street – a very fine and respectable address indeed. And there really is a 103! It’s the London home of that fine shirtmaker T. M. Lewin. However, when Christie wrote the book, I think Lewin’s were based at 18 Jermyn Street. Sir Oswald and Lady Coote move to “the Duke of Alton’s place, Letherbury”. No such title, I’m afraid, although there was a Marquis of Alton in the late 17th century (the Alton in question being the Staffordshire village now best known for Alton Towers). Letherbury itself appears to be a complete invention of Christie’s.

rachel-mourningThere are always a few unusual references and words in a Christie book that make me think twice and delve into their meanings – and this book is no exception. On the very first page, Christie introduces us to Lady Coote. “An artist looking for a model for “Rachel mourning for her children” would have hailed Lady Coote a delight.” Rachel? Mourning for her children? I guessed this was a Bible story of which I was unaware but I had to go check. Of course – married to Jacob. Jeremiah 31:15 is your friend.

Hispano““Father,” said Bundle […], “I’m going up to town in the Hispano. I can’t stand the monotony down here any longer.”” I wasn’t sure what a Hispano was, so I checked. The Hispano-Suiza company was a Spanish manufacturer of luxury cars, founded in 1904, defunct in 1968. At the time of this book, the company was enjoying a good position in the luxury car market. Once the Spanish Civil War kicked in, the company was forced to be part of the war effort, and after 1950 worked almost exclusively in the aerospace industry.

gimletI thought it was fascinating that at the time of writing this book, Christie called alarm clocks “alarum clocks”. I reckon this must have been a pretty archaic use of the term even in the 1920s. When Bundle first visits the Seven Dials Club she asks Alfred for a gimlet. “You must have a gimlet – perhaps you’ve got an auger as well”. I’ve never been into DIY much, but, in case you didn’t know, a gimlet is one of those little tools that looks like a screwdriver but has a screw-type ending rather than the angular flat edge ending. An auger is a bigger version. In one of Christie’s duller passages, Lady Coote reminisces about some old wallpaper she admired. “Satin stripes, you know, not moiré”. I’ve never heard of moiré – but it’s when you superimpose a line pattern on top of another. How clever of Lady Coote.

PoundUnusually for Christie, this isn’t a book where large sums of money are being mentioned, either in the form of the value of expensive jewellery, or property or blackmail sums. I always like to translate money values into what they’re worth today to get a better understanding of the amounts involved. But there are only a couple of instances, both involving Alfred. Bundle offers him £10 to scarper from the Seven Dials Club and avoid getting involved with the police; which happens to be exactly one tenth of the sum he was offered by Mosgorovsky (£100) in order to leave Chimneys and work at the Seven Dials. That tenner today is worth £444 – that’s some generosity in Bundle’s purse, for sure. And £4440 isn’t a bad sum for a footman to be poached to another employer. No wonder he did it.

I think it’s now time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Seven Dials Mystery:

Publication Details: 1929. My copy is a Fontana paperback, 4th impression published in September 1967, priced 3/6. The atmospheric cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a gloved hand wielding a pistol in a most menacing manner, with somewhat ethereal alarm clocks serving as the background. And yes, the artist did get the most important detail about the gloved hand right!

How many pages until the first death: 15. That’s just about perfect. No hanging around, and it keeps you locked into the story – at least for a while.

Funny lines out of context: I liked these extracts for their pithiness and ability to amuse:

“She had reckoned without the predominant trait of a good head gardener, which is to oppose any and every suggestion made to him.”

(Lady Coote playing bridge) “She was very fond of her husband, but she had no intention of allowing him to cheat her out of ten shillings.” (That’s £20 today!)

“Mrs Howell […] was full of pitying ejaculations”.

”I went to Harrods and bought a pistol.”

Memorable characters:
Jimmy Thesiger is quite a lovable rogue in many respects, with his constantly cheeky repartee with authority figures; he was probably seen as quite a fascinating young cove in those days. The characterisation of Lady Coote starts well, but then she fades.

Christie the Poison expert:
The first victim dies from an overdose of chloral, just as in The Secret Adversary. Please feel free to read more about chloral in that blog post!

Class/social issues of the time:

What kind of life is valued in this book? For all that she’s a go-ahead, go-getting girl, Bundle is very much a traditionalist and, although she rails at boredom, what she really wants is the old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud world of her father, where tradition beats plumbing. “”That’s a fine place of yours, Chimneys, “ remarked the great man. “I’m glad you liked it”, said Bundle meekly. “Wants new plumbing,” said Sir Oswald. “Bring it up to date, you know.” He ruminated for a minute or two. “I’m taking the Duke of Alton’s place. Three years. Just while I’m looking round for a place of my own. Your father couldn’t sell if he wanted to, I suppose?” Bundle felt her breath taken away. She had a nightmare vision of England with innumerable Cootes in innumerable counterparts of Chimneys – all, be it understood, with an entirely new system of plumbing installed.”

Aside from that, Christie’s is, as we have seen in previous books, a sexist world; and there’s plenty of evidence of that in this book. There are endless references to discussions between Jimmy and Bill to the effect that “the girls have done their bit” and are to stay behind whilst the men do the risky business. Interestingly though, Bundle and Loraine show no signs of wishing to obey by staying in and washing their hair whilst the men have adventures. Bill Eversleigh reports that George Lomax “doesn’t really believe in women standing for Parliament”; and in her brief appearance in the book, Bundle’s Aunt Marcia gives her appraisal of Mrs Macatta: “A most estimable woman with a brilliant brain. I may say that as a general rule I do not hold with women standing for Parliament. They can make their influence felt in a more womanly fashion.”

It’s also a xenophobic, if not racist world, as the following insights bear out. Here’s some antisemitism: Bill is telling Bundle about the beautiful actress Babe St Maur…: “”I wonder how she got that name?” said Bundle sarcastically. Bill replied literally. “She got it out of Who’s Who. Opened it and jabbed her finger down on a page without looking. Pretty nifty, eh? Her real name’s Goldschmidt or Abrameier – something quite impossible.” “Oh, quite”, agreed Bundle.” And here’s some anti German sentiment: Bundle tries to find out about John, the new footman, from Tredwell the butler. “”What’s his name, Tredwell?” “Bower, my lady”. […] Apparently he was the perfect servant, well trained, with an expressionless face. He had, perhaps, a more soldierly bearing than most footmen and there was something a little odd about the shape of the back of his head. […] “Tredell, how is the name Bower spelt?” “B-A-U-E-R, my lady”. “That’s not an English name.” “I believe he is of Swiss extraction, my lady.” “Oh! That’s all, Tredwell, thank you.” Swiss extraction? No. German! That martial carriage, that flat back of the head. And he had come to Chimneys a fortnight before Gerry Wade’s death.” I guess we must accept that we are in 1929 and tensions are building.

As usual, the class system is very much at large in Christie’s world. Pompous politician George feels it is incumbent on him and his ilk to preserve England’s traditions – the traditional view of life that Bundle has a soft spot for, as shown earlier: “In these days of changed and unsettled conditions […] when family life is at a premium – all the old standards falling! It becomes our class to set an example to show that we, at least, are unaffected by modern conditions. They call us the Die Hards – I am proud of the term […] There are things that should die hard – dignity, beauty, modesty, the sanctity of family life, filial respect – who dies if these shall live?” At the other end of the scale, when Bill considers if Bundle has a future in politics he sees it in terms of having to “kiss dirty babies in Bermondsey”. I expect the Mayfair babies aren’t dirty.

Classic denouement: No. It’s quite brief and it takes place in retrospect, with the guilty party already having been arrested, so you never get to see their reaction to the long arm of the law and if they try to wriggle out of it, which is a little disappointing. Nevertheless, the identity of the murderer is only one of number of good surprises, so that’s a mitigating factor.

Happy ending? Yes! Two of the major younger characters find love and you just know they’re going to settle down to a happy ever after.

Did the story ring true? If you believe that the criminal mastermind behind this case could genuinely carry off all the subterfuge and misleading behaviour that it would require, then there’s no reason not to believe the whole thing. There is, however, a lot of coincidence, perhaps most significantly the fact that Bundle was driving past at the very moment that the second victim is discovered.

Overall satisfaction rating: 5/10. It’s not all bad by any means – with some exciting passages, a good surprise ending and some enjoyable characterisation. It’s just a bit boring. Interesting that Christie never sought to revisit Chimneys for any future books.

Partners in CrimeThanks for reading my blog of The Seven Dials Mystery and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we are still in 1929, but going back to the short story genre as we catch up with Tommy and Tuppence as private investigators in Partners in Crime. If I remember rightly, this is a very entertaining read! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Sarah Millican, Outsider, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd July 2016

Sarah MillicanWe’re lucky enough to see a lot of comedy but it’s not often we go back to see big names a second time because once is generally enough to know whether you like them and whether they make you laugh. Of course, you might want to go back and see them again sometime in the future, just not too quickly – it keeps things varied and interesting that way. However, there are a few notable exceptions where we will always book to see their latest show: Dara O’Briain, Julian Clary, and now Sarah Millican.

Ms Millican commands the box office with a ferocious loyalty that I can’t see with any other comedian. Not only did I have to book those tickets over a year ago – 26th March 2015 to be exact – but demand for her performance has resulted in her doing three shows over three consecutive nights. That’s some demand. What is it about her that makes her so popular?

Sarah MShe’s tremendously funny, that’s what. From the moment she comes on stage till the moment she leaves, you’re aching with laughter. What I particularly like about her style is that you get the sense that everything she tells you is 100% true. She would be the most effective politician if she wanted, and you’d never need to vote her out because she would simply never lie. She also, bravely, shares fairly intimate personal details; from the reason why she never uses bath crystals to the catastrophic nature of her Irritable Bowel Syndrome farts. If you’re looking for someone demure and tasteful, you’ve probably come to the wrong place.

Unusually she started off the show by coming on, giving us about ten minutes of introductory hilarity, and then handing over to her warmup act. In a sense, that meant that she was acting as his warmup, which, when you think about it, is remarkably generous! As a result, we were well and truly warmed up already, which actually meant that we could really enjoy our twenty minutes with Geoff Norcott. Mr Norcott comes over as a truly affable bloke, with great comic observations about married life, teetering girls in high heels and the civil war between the old and the young. He gained an instant rapport with the audience and he went down extremely well.

Geoff NorcottSarah Millican is certainly enraptured by the animal kingdom and gets a lot of excellent comic material from stories about her pets. She extends the conversation to getting the audience to call out any great sights in nature that any of us had seen. This is obviously a device that works well, for when we last saw her she wanted our suggestions for what you would take with you for a dirty weekend. This time round, I’m not sure our audience was quite as much at one with nature as Ms Millican might have hoped, but at least one chap said he’d seen a squirrel eating a KitKat.

After the interval, we were treated to more ace routines including the sheer horror of undergoing one of those “relaxing” spa massages, which resonated loudly with Mrs Chrisparkle’s and my one-and-only experience of an expensive, side-by-side, relaxing full body massage which was one of the most stressful things we’ve ever endured. But the main element of the second half is the most superb example of revenge being a dish best served cold that you’ve ever heard. There’s nothing quite so sweet in life as that moment when you know you’ve got your own back on a bully. I’ll say no more – except that it’s toe-curlingly divine.

S MillicanAt the end you could collect your free badge – to add to your collection of Sarah Millican free badges. You could be a flower or a pet, depending on your personal assessment of how needy or otherwise you are. I chose to be a flower – but the queue to collect it was vast, so I will just continue to be a flower in my own mind’s eye. She had the entire full house in hysterics for the best part of two and a half hours. Mrs C was literally crying – and she doesn’t do that very often, at least over comedy. Sarah Millican’s tour continues right through to September but you have to be very quick to secure a ticket. She’s great though, so you really should!!

Review – The Tempest, National Youth Theatre/Made in Northampton Co-Production, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th June 2016

The TempestThere are comedies, and then again, there are comedies. The Tempest, I have always found, although a “comedy”, isn’t very funny. I’ve seen it a few times, read it, studied it, but whenever it looms on my horizon again I think to myself – oh yes. That play I don’t really get at all. Still, you never stop learning, so I’m always willing to give it another stab.

Ferdinand and MirandaA few weeks ago I remember telling someone there’s no point being a Shakespeare purist because you can always play them “straight” any time and they’ll still work. No modern production of a Shakespeare play is ever going to destroy the original; and the current interest in shaking up Shakey gives you a chance on a new perspective, uncovering some deeper themes, emphasising the plays’ relevance for today. And I stand by that. However, I have to admit that as I went into the interval of this brand new production of The Tempest, I found my tolerance for the shake-up was being severely tested. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it – far from it – but Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s version is such a long way from the original, that it’s less of an adaptation and more of a serving suggestion. I was talking to another chap at the urinals during the interval (as you do, sometimes) and he said, “well, it may be the Tempest, but it’s not how I remember it”. I made understanding and conciliatory noises. “Mind you, that was sixty years ago” he added.

Miranda and CalibanAnd there’s the rub. In these tense times where the younger generation are accusing the old ‘uns of skewing the referendum result, there may be considerable differences between what the young and old want to see in the theatre. This definitely is a young person’s show, being a co-production between the National Youth Theatre and local performers with an association with the University of Northampton’s drama department and others. As we discovered in the Q&A session after the show (which Mrs Chrisparkle reluctantly stayed for and ended up thoroughly enjoying) there was a considerable degree of input from the cast in creating the adaptation, and it was constantly changing, even during previews, as they were trying to make it as relevant as possible to today’s situation. And I realised that, as I have seen more traditional productions of this play before which have always baffled me, this time, with liberties as long as your arm being taken, the play made much more sense. It’s a Child is Father to the Man moment. Wordsworth would have been so proud.

Simona and ArielThis adaptation sees much changing of relationships and sex. Male Prospero, Sebastian, Gonzalo and Stephano become female Prosper, Simona, Greta and Stephanie. Antonio becomes Anton; Prosper and Miranda are sisters (instead of father/daughter); Alonso and Ferdinand are brothers (instead of father/son). And there are six Ariels. Yes, six. Not so that Prosper can tune into Radio Luxembourg (and yes I know that ages me) but something obscure to do with Sycorax’s cruel treatment of the little sprite before the show starts. Actually the six Ariels work incredibly well. Not just because they can act as stage clearer-uppers, but because they can give the role more diversity and characterisation. There’s cheeky Ariel and sombre Ariel, happy Ariel and mysterious Ariel, and so on. It also enhances the sense of magic and sorcery that permeates the entire play. Everyone, whether spirit or not, is at Prosper’s beck and call – she completely rules the roost. This production highlights quite how manipulative the character is; it also brings forward Miranda’s resourcefulness – in this production she is able to subdue Caliban by physical strength and that’s no mean feat. Anton and Simona get a sexual frisson when planning to overthrow Alonso and Greta and take advantage of their victims’ temporary sleepiness to nip off stage for a quickie – very nicely done. I don’t suppose that ever happened with Antonio and Sebastian; but who knows?

Prosper and ArielVisually the production has tremendous impact. The massive tempest with which the play opens (or in this case, nearly opens, as it is dovetailed into scene two) is seen as a contained but nevertheless brutally wet affair, on the other side of the curtains of Prosper and Miranda’s bedroom. I have read other reports that say it’s visually stunning but you can’t hear a word that the cast are shouting to each other out there on that tossed boat. That is indeed true; fortunately, our performance was “audio described” which I personally always find extremely helpful – although it also makes it very clear when the cast go wrong and miss a chunk out of a scene (no names, no packdrill). The long and seemingly narrow set leading to a secret garden at the back worked extremely well; as did the three doors in a row that fell into place plunging us into instant imprisonment. The lighting too, is extraordinarily good, nowhere more so than in the chilling scene where Ariel (in his various guises) gets to vengeful grip with Alonso, Anton and Simona, spotlighting their individual tortures with gruesome starkness.

StephanieBringing this all to life is a fantastic young cast who work together as a brilliant ensemble but who also all have their individual moments to shine. Dominating proceedings is Sophie Walter as Prosper, manipulating all and sundry with a flick of her pencil; she has a fine air of authority and dignity which is perfect for the part and tellingly summons up all the character’s self-obsessed heroism. Beth Markey gives a great performance as her junior sidekick Miranda, apparently placid and obedient in love and respect, but becoming tough as old boots when dealing with Caliban. Charlie Clee is perfect casting for expressing Alonso’s outwardly noble demeanour mixed with his sense of anxiety and innate cowardice; Joe Law gives us a very wise and physically comic Trinculo and there’s a hilarious presentation of Stephanie by Sophie Guiver, who absolutely nails the drunk act as well as her besotted relationship with Caliban. Jay Mailer gets all the wry humour out of the character of Ferdinand, and Gabriel Akamo uses his fantastic stage presence to give us an imposing but quite sensitive Caliban, who’s not as monstrous as Shakespeare would like us to think. And hats off to the mix-and-match Ariel actors, who present him as harpy, gimp, society diva and workhorse. Mrs C thought the shiny silver-grey dresses the female Ariels wore reminded her of bridesmaids from one of the more cash-stretched episodes of Don’t Tell The Bride. I couldn’t possibly comment.

AntonThis highly enjoyable adaptation takes Shakespeare’s text by the throat and thrashes it around like a Dobermann puppy. Very original, full of life and attack, making the most of what humour there is and emphasising its relevance for today. Congratulations on an excellent production – and thank you for finally making me understand the play!

Review – The Planets: An HD Odyssey, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th June 2016

The PlanetsMusic hath charms to soothe the savage breast. Mrs Chrisparkle’s and my combined breasts were feeling particularly savage after the slings and arrows of outrageous referendum results, so we were really looking forward to an evening in the company of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who have so many times in the past coddled us, cushioned us, and sent us on our way home with a warm Ready-Brek glow. We also had friends up from Leatherhead joining us for the concert and we met Mr Smallmind there too, now such a permanent fixture at the R&D that an orchestra member asked his help in shifting his instrument up the cordoned-off Royal stairs post-concert.

Sometimes theatre or concert programming taps into the Zeitgeist and it wasn’t long before there were very few tickets left for this concert; and indeed it was a sell-out on the night. It was great to see so many families going out to enjoy this special space-themed selection of classical hits. The main attraction was to be the performance of Holst’s Planets Suite accompanied by a film created in collaboration with NASA and award-winning producer/director Duncan Copp, and featuring the latest high definition planetary images of NASA’s exploration of the solar system. I wondered to what extent the multimedia accompaniment would enhance or maybe diminish Holst’s commanding music. But more of that later…

Robert ZieglerOur conductor for the evening was Robert Ziegler. It was the first time we had seen Mr Ziegler on the podium. He comes out onto the stage, enthusiastic and with an air of kind-hearted wisdom, like a good-tempered History teacher, if one of those ever existed. With his jazzy shirt and black velour jacket, you sense he could be a man of many surprises. He certainly got the best out of the RPO, who gave us an evening of sparkle and chic, with really crisp playing and fantastic timing.

The first half was a fascinating mix of little classical jewels, all with an eye to the celestial. We started with the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – giving the concert the equivalent of a musical lift-off – and I’d forgotten what a thrilling little piece it is; for an overture-in-miniature, it sure packs a punch! This was followed by Strauss’s (different Strauss) Blue Danube Waltz; also known, in the programme, as On the Beautiful Blue Danube; I’m not sure if the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s lyrics to it “The Danube is blue, it’s blue, it’s blue, I tell you it’s blue, it’s blue, it’s blue…” are entirely pure Strauss. Anyway the orchestra played it with swaying delight, hitting that first phrase of the chorus with wonderful as slow as you dare characterisation. You could almost feel the fairground merry-go-round whipping up to speed as the waltz gained traction. Really enjoyable.

RPOAn interesting third item: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but not played on the organ, but as a full orchestral piece as arranged by Leopold Stokowski. It’s a composition I love; and what I most enjoyed about this performance was the way in which the orchestra played some of it slow and stately, and other parts quick and quirky. It really lent itself to this different arrangement. (But I do prefer it done on the organ!) Next was the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony; always moving, a strange mixture of the sombre and the triumphant. Again, beautifully played by the orchestra, that thick pizzicato tattoo that runs throughout the piece like a stick of rock creating a strong sense of unease and drama. It’s better when played in the context of the full symphony I feel, but nevertheless it was a super example of one of Classics’ Greatest Hits. Finally, we came much more up to date with the Main Theme to John Williams’ Star Wars: dynamic, exciting, irreverent; the violins could have been light-sabres and we could have become enmeshed in full intergalactic battle.

After the interval, we came back for the Main Event – The Planets. The orchestra took their places. Mr Ziegler returned to his podium. Unusually, the lights dimmed, like we were in a cinema, apart from the bright lamps illuminating the orchestra members’ music stands. And just as you thought Mr Z was about to cue in Mars… the movie started. NASA scientists giving their opinions on whether or not Holst characterised the planets correctly. OK…I’ll go with it, I thought to myself, but I hope they don’t push it… Eventually the movie announced Mars, The Bringer of War. This worked so, so well. Really fascinating and beautifully photographed footage of the red planet combined by an absolutely riveting performance of seven of the finest minutes in classical music. Not only a first class performance but absolute timing precision so that the footage on the screen changed at exactly the same instant as the first beat of the next bar in the music. A fantastic combination – I was pretty much gobsmacked.

Northampton Bach ChoirSadly, visually, for me at least, that was the most exciting footage by a long baton. The subsequent cinematographic accompaniments for each planet were attractive and nicely realised I guess, but as it went on, I felt like the visual effect created a laziness in one’s head; it served to limit one’s imagination and emotional response to each piece of music rather than enhancing it; and by the time we’d got to Jupiter – which has so many memories for me of my teenage years and all absolutely nothing to do with astronomy – I decided to shift my concentration from the screen to the musicians. Jupiter was performed with a freshness and vitality that I think you could simply describe as awesome. Whether the I Vow To Thee My Country section had an extra post-referendum resonance I could not tell; for me it had an interesting lack of sentimentality which I actually found quite refreshing.

Moving on; the words on the screen: Saturn The Bringer of Old Age created a few chuckles from around the auditorium as grandparents wrestled with cheeky grandchildren; and, no doubt about it, in the movie accompaniment – nice rings. Uranus always reminds me more of a sea shanty than a magician, so it was back to concentrating on the instruments for me. We ended with a stunningly eerie performance of Neptune, The Mystic; when the disembodied choral voices joined in, it was a moment of sheer dramatic magic. The programme promised us the Northampton Bach Choir, but they were nowhere to be seen, which caused a little post-show controversy amongst our party. Were the voices recorded? Or were the Northampton Bach Choir lurking backstage, as reticent to come forward as a politician to invoke Article 50?

PlanetsAn unusual structure for a classical concert but by and large it worked really well. Certainly the RPO were on top form and played some of Classic’s Greatest Hits with dynamism and éclat. Next up it’s the Last Night of the Derngate Proms next month – make sure you’re there!