Review – Les Miserables, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 10th November 2018

Les MiserablesI wouldn’t say the first time we saw Les Miserables that we hated it, but we certainly didn’t get it. It was 1986. We were too young, too wet behind the ears and, frankly, not enough things had gone wrong in our lives to be able to appreciate it. Then, a few years ago, at the suggestion of Mrs Chrisparkle’s boss at the time, we chanced to find ourselves at the Imperial Theatre in New York to see the new high pizazz production that was described as Les Mis for the American Idol Generation.

Killian DonnellyI’d love to be able to put the New York/Leicester production (because they are more or less the same) up against the original 1980s London production and see if and where they differ. I sense that Laurence Connor and James Powell’s version is somehow more in-your-face and no-holds-barred than Trevor Nunn and James Caird’s. Just like when we saw it in New York, this production is outstanding, no two ways about it. Instant ovation, that seemed to go on for hours; great performances, set, musical direction, everything about it is superlative. The cunning projected backdrop that recreates the scenes in the sewers, or makes you think the students are marching towards you, works so well; but no better moment than when Javert falls to his death (oops spoiler alert) and moves from vertical standing up to horizontal splashing down purely by means of optical illusion. It’s absolutely brilliant.

JVJI could save myself a lot of time by simply referring you to my 2015 review of the production because the only difference is substituting the slightly smaller Leicester stage for the grandeur of the New York Imperial. All the great effects are the same – the lighting in the barricades scene, the pure heroism of Red/Black, and the emotional charge of moments such as Bring Him Home and I Dreamed a Dream.

EponineComparisons are odious when it comes to performances. When we saw it in 2015, the management had clearly hired the best cast money could buy and they were all extraordinary, no exceptions. The UK touring production also has a fantastic cast but, in comparison, I felt they hadn’t all entirely grown into it yet. To be honest, the performance I saw still counted as a preview; and to compare that to a Broadway cast a few months into their run is probably not entirely fair. When we saw it in Broadway, we cried at Fantine’s death, Bring Him Home, and the final scene. We continued crying as we left the theatre. We resumed crying (embarrassed now) on the streets, walking back to our hotel. We threw ourselves on the bed and started crying all over again. THAT’S how emotional it was. In this production, I started to cry during Bring Me Home but got my cool back before the song had finished. Admittedly, when Fantine re-appeared to welcome Jean Valjean into heaven, I dissolved completely; but I was fine again by curtain call. If I compare the number of minutes spent in tears between the two performances then New York wins hands down on the emotional front.

Great setOur Jean Valjean was Killian Donnelly, a great actor with a tremendous voice, whom we enjoyed in Kinky Boots a couple of years ago. He really brings out the kindness and altruism of the role, largely as a result of exploiting his extraordinarily delicate tone when he sings. Some actors could take to this with bombast and turbo power, but Mr Donnelly makes it his own through sheer subtlety and grace. Javert, his arch-opponent, is played by Nic Greenshields, whose physical presence is so perfect for a dominant and domineering role. His is a powerful performance, both in the singing and the emotions. One thing that really works perfectly is how the two actors/characters both age during the show. Les Miserables spans the decades, so it makes sense for them both to become greyer as time goes on, and Mr Donnelly in particular gradually starts to shuffle and to stoop so that you really get the impression of an old man running out of time.

ThenardiersThere were excellent supporting performances by Tegan Bannister as Eponine and Katie Hall as Fantine, full of emotion and superb singing. Martin Ball gives us an almost pantomime villain performance as Thenardier, with the always terrific Sophie-Louise Dann as his ghastly wife. Harry Apps makes a remarkable professional debut as Marius – such a pivotal role, as you have to be both young and naïve yet mature enough to want to marry Cosette, and he pretty much nailed that; and Will Richardson cut a truly heroic figure as the inspirational Enjolras. I don’t know which child actors appeared in the show we saw, but whoever played little Cosette was absolutely perfect; and the friendship between Ruben Van Keer’s Grantaire and Gavroche was also very tenderly portrayed.

Marius and EnjolrasI had huge – and I mean huge – expectations of this show, having been blown over by the New York production, and I reckon they were 98% met; and it’s only going to get better and better as the tour progresses. After Leicester it travels to Dublin, Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Newcastle. No hesitation in recommending it whole-heartedly; take lots of tissues.

Review – Rambert2 and Ghost Dances, Sadler’s Wells, 8th November 2018

Rambert2 and Ghost DancesIt’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen Rambert, and a full nineteen years since we last saw Ghost Dances – which was the prime motivator for coming to see this revival at Sadler’s Wells. Over the decades it has remained my absolute favourite dance and – whilst being fully aware that this sounds completely pretentious – I truly consider it one of the cultural foundations on which my whole life has been based. I first saw it way back when, in the seas of time, with my friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters – a mere slip of a thing we were – so it was only right that we invited them to join us for what would be their first time of seeing it in 36 years. How the hell can it be that long ago?

Grey MatterBut there’s a twist with this programme from Rambert – they’ve created Rambert2, a company for 18 to 25 year old dancers. It’s good for companies to keep evolving, suiting the needs of the age and the tastes of the dance fan base; and there are other dance outfits – Nederlands Dans Theater springs instantly to mind – who have a “young persons” troupe as well as their standard company. When we first saw NDT2 we were totally blown away by their vigour, commitment, skill and enormous sense of daring and fun. Would the new Rambert2, who dance the first, second and fourth dances in this programme, be the same?

More Grey MatterThe proof of the pudding is in the dancing! The first dance of the evening was Grey Matter, choreographed by Benoit Swan Pouffer, Rambert’s Guest Artistic Director whilst they find a replacement for Mark Baldwin. This is not, incidentally, to be confused with Didy Veldman’s Greymatter that she choreographed for Rambert in 1997. The programme notes remind us that Grey Matter refers to our brain cells, and that the dance is about a person who loses sight of their memories, and a community grows around them giving them support. However! I have to say, I didn’t get that narrative from watching the dance at all. For me, the costumes of the dancers suggested to me that they were all individual pieces of brain matter; neurons, electrical impulses, even infected material that the other healthy brainy globules united to crush. They were all individual parts of a functioning brain; supportive, defensive, communicative. The young dancers were on fine form, and gave a great performance. The lighting also added a huge amount of atmosphere and suspense; the choreography amused me, but I couldn’t actually put my finger on ascribing a style to it. Definitely exhilarating, and extremely curious.

E2 7SDNext up was Rafael Bonachela’s E2 7SD. He created it in 2004; it’s obviously a postcode so I checked it out with Google Maps and it takes us to Horatio House, Horatio Street, Hackney. Seems pretty random; maybe like the random conversations that form part of the street soundscape that accompanies this modern duet, performed with robust conviction by Meshach Henry and Darlyn Perez. To me this felt like the several stages of a big argument, with a number of “I love you but I hate you” moments. I admired it enormously, but I have to say I didn’t emotionally engage with it.

Ghost DancersThen came, for us, The Big One. Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances, danced by the (fractionally) more mature Rambert dancers, to traditional folk music from South America. Originally created as a response to the horrors of the Pinochet regime in Chile, three eerie and cruel ghost dancers stalk the land, watching and waiting for the chance to eliminate members of the community with a simple crush of the head, or a callous mimicry of their dance movement. No one is exempt from their power; but no one stays dead for ever, as the people continue to fight back to lead their ordinary lives and maybe one day overthrow the tyrants. My personal favourite section is Papel de Plata, where a chirpy young man leads some girls a merry dance by lovin’ and leavin’ them as young men are sometimes wont to do, only to be taken by the ghost dancers before he’s had a chance to ask the fourth girl out. Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters confessed they had tears throughout Dolencias, their favourite section – but then they knew they would. The music was played live by band of six, including the traditional instruments played by Forbes Henderson, who played for the original production all those years ago, and was a member of the group Incantation, who brought the South American sound into the British charts in the 1980s.

Ghost DancesIt was a stunning performance all round, most notably from the trio of Ghost Dancers, Miguel Altunaga, Joshua Barwick and Liam Francis, who were most maliciously ruthless in their extermination of their fellow countrymen. But everyone performed with a tremendous sense of story-telling and an awful lot of heart. We all absolutely loved it.

Killer PigFinal dance of the evening, and back to the young blood of Rambert2, was the fabulously named Killer Pig, which is what you get if you push Peppa just an oink too far. A cluster of eight dancers crowd in a corner of the stage, almost like this is the area where they go to get their batteries recharged, before they’re off and cavorting all over the place, much of the time on tiptoe but moving as if they’re wading through hot mud, the girls dressed discreetly in vests and hot pants, the boys in what looked disarmingly like oversized diapers. It’s a challenge on every aspect, but the pulsating rhythm and the commitment of the dancers carries you away with them. The incessant hyperactivity was broken up a couple of times by some brief solos, one of which, by Salome Pressac, absolutely took our breath away. Much of the time Hua Han takes centre stage, and he shocks you with his extraordinarily flexible limb-work. After a while I got the sense that the dancers were trying to outdo each other by attempting parodies of classical ballet stances and elements, but this is one of those dances that if you try to follow a narrative, you’re really leading yourself up the garden path. Whatever, it went down huge in Sadler’s Wells, and we all absolutely succumbed to its flashy fun.

The thirteen dancers who make up Rambert2 are certainly a spirited, energetic and talented group; it would be fascinating to see them perform something a little more lyrical next time. Their tour (without Ghost Dances, alas) continues into next year, visiting Norwich, Exeter, Belfast, Guildford, Oxford and Winchester.

Recent production photos by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

Review – Rebus: Long Shadows, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th November 2018

Rebus Long ShadowsOf course I know about Ian Rankin. Everyone does. Of course I’ve heard about Inspector John Rebus of the Glasgow Police. Absolutely. But… you can guess, can’t you, gentle reader, I’ve never read any of his books or encountered Rebus in any format until last Monday evening in the intimate charm of the Royal Theatre in Northampton, where Rebus: Long Shadows has come for a week as part of its UK tour.

Rebus1I wondered whether I should find out a bit about this famous Scottish cop in advance of the show – but in the end I decided to let the play talk for itself, so Mrs Chrisparkle and I both went into it with absolutely no preconceptions. It’s not an adaptation of an existing novel, but a new work, taken from a story that Rankin devised for the play but then passed to, and was written specifically as a play by, Rona Munro, responsible for those fascinating James Plays a couple of years ago.

Rebus4Late one night, Ex-Detective Inspector Rebus chances upon a young woman on his staircase, who turns out to be the daughter of a woman murdered years ago. The local police messed up the investigation so that her murderer was never caught. Although Rebus is no longer on active duty, he decides to follow up a few loose ends to try to solve the case. At the same time, Rebus’ protégé DS Siobhan Clarke is involved with another case, where another young woman was murdered in the past, and also not solved. The two investigations end up converging, with all roads leading to Rebus’ nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty.

Rebus2Ti Green, whose design for the recent production of Touching the Void was so dynamic and inventive, has here created an ultra-grey and depressing world, dominated by a grim set of steps in the centre of the stage, and a dour flat furnished with only grey office filing cabinets and featureless walls. If the intent was to express a minimalist, depressing environment, she certainly achieves that! Occasional touches of the outside world appear, such as inside the traditional local pub, and the splendour of Cafferty’s drinks trolley. Robin Lefevre, who’s directed more plays than I’ve had hot dinners, has concentrated on making the character of Rebus centre stage throughout, and Charles Lawson’s performance is pretty impressive. He’s an honest, thoughtful, diligent and, at heart, a kind man, but with a rough exterior and a gruff voice that made Mrs C think she had been transported to an old episode of Taggart. His ungainly stance and quirky character make him intriguing to watch – although I absolutely hated that final tableau right at the end of the play; the light illuminating Rebus’ quizzical expression as he perched atop the staircase crossed hero-worship with pure hokum.

Rebus-6John Stahl is superb as Cafferty, a menacing but privileged presence, dispensing glasses of £650 per bottle claret like it was Tesco Everyday Value; a Glaswegian underworld Vinnie Jones with the keys to Fortnums wine cellar. Mr Stahl really impresses with the character’s sly-and-shiftiness, and clever manipulation of all situations to his own benefit. I also very much enjoyed Dani Heron and Eleanor House’s virtual double act as the ghosts of the two dead girls, pressurising Rebus’ conscience to put right the wrongs of the past. Neil McKinven has the arduous task of taking on five roles, and successfully gives each one their own characteristics so we’re never confused as to who he’s taking on at any one time.

Rebus3But it’s with Cathy Tyson that this production seems to go a little awry. Not with Ms Tyson herself, I should say; she gives a strong, clear, determined performance, just as you’d expect from someone of her experience and skill. However, if she’s Rebus’ protégé, she never shows it; there’s no sense of respect or admiration for him. And there’s no light and shade in her reading of the role; she seems set on 6th gear turbo drive throughout so you don’t get a sense of her character, she’s just a cop doing a cop’s job. I couldn’t decide whether that was a fault of the writer, the actor or the director. But somehow it just didn’t quite feel right.

Rebus5Although I had a few reservations – including a very unconvincing stage fight – it’s still an entertaining story and a diverting way of spending an evening. We found ourselves enjoying it despite itself, if you get my drift. It hasn’t piqued my curiosity to plunder Rankin’s back catalogue though – and I’d rather hoped it would. After its time in Northampton, the tour continues to Aberdeen and Guildford.

The Real Chrisparkle meets M. R. Carey (again!)

Someone like meGreetings gentle reader and welcome to another interview session with M. R. Carey, famous for his Girl With All The Gifts and Felix Castor novels – and now with a new book out, published today! Welcome Mike – perhaps you’d like to give us a little introduction to your new book – no spoilers, of course!

M R Carey: Thanks, Chris. This novel is a stand-alone, not part of a series. It’s set in Pittsburgh, in the US. The protagonist, Liz Kendall – or one of the two protagonists, arguably – is a domestic abuse survivor. She’s finally managed to get out of an abusive marriage, but her ex-partner Marc is still very much in her life because he has visitation rights over their two children, Zac and Molly. One day he gets into a vicious argument with Liz after bringing the kids back late from a trip, and he assaults her, as he has many times before. But this time is different. Out of nowhere, Liz is suddenly filled with the strength and will to resist Marc, and to fight back. She has no idea where this has all come from. It’s as though she’s been possessed by something bigger and stronger than herself.

Which is fine, at first. She’s frightened and shaken, but she doesn’t look too far down the gift horse’s mouth. But then that other, stronger entity keeps coming back, and its instincts are always violent and subversive. Eventually Liz realises that she has to find out what it is and where it came from.

Real Chrisparkle: Which is also the set-up for a brilliantly exciting story, Mike. I have to say this is probably my favourite book of yours! And also very difficult to talk about without giving away too many spoilers!

MRC: Thanks! Yeah, spoilers are an issue. It’s a story with a lot of big reveals at different points. I’ll try to be vague where necessary…

RC: Me too! I’d love to know what gave you the inspiration to write it. Is this your 21st century Jekyll and Hyde?

Jekyll and HydeMRC: That’s a really good reference point, but it wasn’t explicitly in my mind when I was writing. I think the initial seed was just thinking about might-have-beens. The road we didn’t take in the forest, the choice we didn’t make. Our lives have a shape, but it’s a fairly ragged and asymmetrical shape for most of us, and as you get older you realise more and more how few of the turning points were things you actually did or choices you made. A lot of them were external events – happenstance. I was mulling over some of this stuff, and I hit on an idea for a story about a woman who in some ways has made all the wrong choices, but then seemingly gets the chance to get out of a bad situation and re-invent herself. But of course there’s always a price to be paid for those monkey’s paw kind of bargains.

RC: So like J B Priestley’s Dangerous Corner? I think many people will have been in a situation where they think to themselves, if I’d made THAT decision rather than THIS, life would be so much better, or if only I was stronger I could deal with this much better… But Liz is in a very different position than just being a bit weak when challenged, right?

MRC: Yeah, absolutely. Nothing in that initial set-up is quite what it seems. The early part of the book has Liz trying to figure out what’s happening, and settling on a rationalistic explanation that makes a kind of sense. But there are wheels within wheels, and ultimately it’s not just something that’s happening to her. Other characters get drawn in. Her children, especially her son, a local police officer, and a teenaged girl named Fran Watts who lives nearby.

It’s actually Fran’s story as much as it is Liz’s. She wasn’t in the original plan, but she came to me early in the process and she got more and more important as I wrote.

RC: That’s really interesting, because for me, a major strength of this book is how recognisable so much of it is. The lone woman struggling to make ends meet whilst looking after her loving family. The gently growing first love between two young people. And then, by contrast, there are scenes of domestic violence, and a young person who had something horrendous happen to them in their early years. All human life is there! Would you say this is your most family-oriented story?

MRC: I think everything I write is about families, to a really huge extent. It became the core of Lucifer when I was writing it. I cast that story in terms of a rebellious son’s attempt to shake off his father’s influence and be his own person, which is particularly difficult to do if your father is god. But then, there’s a sense in which all parents are gods to their kids at first, and then a lot of people reach a point where that unconditional love and worship hits a bump and has to be re-evaluated.

Family is a very important theme in this story, as you say. And there are a lot of internal echoes. Fran’s one-parent family resembles Liz’s in some ways and is very different in others. They’ve both got a weight of past trauma on them, and they’re both trying to cope in the face of that. Fran’s father, Gil, is like Liz in that he wants to protect his daughter from the world, but he knows he can’t because the world isn’t something you can bolt the door on. It’s always already inside.

RC: Going back to something you said earlier…. you say Fran got bigger and bigger as you started to write, was that because her family set-up became an interesting comparison with Liz’s family?

MRC: She started out as a sort of repetition of Liz’s story in a different key. I wanted to expand the scope of the story, building to the reveal as to the actual source of Liz’s alternate self, and Fran seemed like an effective way to do that. But she grew as I wrote her. I got more and more interested in her story in its own right, and gave it more space to develop.

The correspondences are important, but so are the contrasts. Where Liz has a sort of possessing, controlling other self, Fran has an imaginary friend – Lady Jinx – who is entirely benign. But as Fran starts to investigate her own past, she becomes more and more convinced that there’s a link between herself and Liz, and that Jinx may be a part of that link.

It’s a case of using one story to unlock the other. But the narrative weight keeps shifting between the two of them. And then at the end all the various strands of the story come together in a way that I hope is satisfying.

RC: I can guarantee it’s very satisfying! The threads all mesh perfectly. And the characters themselves are really well drawn so that the reader feels they know them really well. I wonder if these people have been haunting your imagination for some time? All the major players in the book are female too, I note!

MRC: Yeah, that’s true. And that seems to be part of the equation for the M. R. Carey novels, as opposed to the stuff I write as Mike. It’s not something I go out of my way to do, as a conscious choice, but it keeps happening nonetheless. I suppose I’m writing into a space that’s partly defined by the earlier books. Writing into it, and at the same time writing against it. I don’t ever want to fall into the trap of deliberately working to a formula.

As to where the characters came from, I’m going to throw my hands in the air and confess that they’re all more or less stolen. Whenever you write a fictional character, I think you draw on real people you know. You don’t usually do it in an explicit, focused way. Well, I don’t. But as a character comes together I’ll find myself becoming aware of correspondences and using them when they seem to be fruitful or appropriate. That’s certainly the case for Liz and Fran in this book, and to some extent for Marc – although Marc is much less of a character and we never really get into his inner life. Which is not something I regret…

RC: You heard it here first, character thief! No, obviously, one’s own experience must influence the characters one creates, I’m sure we’ll let you off! I’m guessing Lady Jinx is not based on a real person. She’s a terrific character. I don’t know what we can say about her without giving away the game too much. But if you were in Fran’s position, who would be your imaginary friend?

Rikki Tikki TaviMRC: That’s a tough question! I think it would depend on how old I was when I started doing the imagining. If I were to do what Fran did, and grab a character from an existing story – and if I was doing it at the age of six, when she did it – I’d probably have gone for Rikki-tikki-tavi, the brave little warrior mongoose from the Just So Stories. Later on, after I’d read Watership Down, it would have been Hazel or Fiver.

I did actually have a lot of imaginary friends as a kid. But I shared them, which I know is weird. My brother Dave and I had an entire phalanx of imaginary characters who we used to send on insane adventures. Then when I had my own kids, the same thing happened. I invented imaginary characters to talk to them, and they invented imaginary characters to talk back. Some of those characters still visit occasionally.

RC: I think that explains why Jinx feels so real – your own life has been populated with a bunch of Jinxes! Rikki-tikki-tavi would be a brilliant choice, I reckon he’ll be mine. I was going to ask you, but I think you’ve answered it just now, that of all your other books, I feel this bears a relationship with Fellside, where the central character is also linked to, what you might call, an “other self”, or maybe, even, an imaginary friend, like Jinx. This is clearly an area that you like to explore!

MRC: Yeah, it is. Very much so. When it comes down to it, I think everyone is pretty much broken into separate pieces. There’s a line from a Wallace Stevens poem: “Can one man be one thing, and be it long?” We like to think of our personality as a single thing, unified and consistent, but there’s very little evidence to support that idea. We’re more like pearls – layer after layer built around the original piece of grit that was our childhood self. Our other selves are built in, is what I’m trying to say.

RC: Do you think those ever-increasing layers, that build up around our original grit, could be where Liz has acquired her other self? Sometimes when I read passages from the book where she is trying to work out what’s happening, I got the feeling that she was suffering from mental health issues, rather than some kind of external force working on her. Maybe it’s those layers that can sometimes upset our mental balance?

MRC: Hell, yes. I mean, in the book, not so much. I’m definitely committed to the explanation that Fran finally gives to Zac after it’s all over. But in real life, yeah. And this is where the pearl analogy breaks down, because pearls are solid and shiny and robust. We’re not. For us, there’s flexibility and instability. The layers can chafe against each other, and they can swap places in terms of which ones are allowed to come to the surface.

Plus, identity isn’t something that exclusively belongs to us, although we tend to think it is. It’s socially mediated. We’re constantly seeing ourselves reflected in other people’s eyes, in their definitions of us and their treatment of us. I read an article a while back by a clinical psychiatrist who was essentially saying that madness is an attribute of the family rather than the individual. It’s what happens when the gap between those different definitions of you gets too big to bridge.

RC: Sounds like a basis for a new book, maybe?! One thing that, for me, shone through this book was a sense of true optimism. Even in the darkest days, there’s somehow always a way out of your problems, if only you can find it. Did it feel that way to you? An optimistic view of human and/or animal nature?

Girl With All The GiftsMRC: Yeah, it did. I think all the novels I’ve written since The Girl With All the Gifts kind of do that. Viewed from one perspective, they could easily be tragedies. There’s certainly no shortage of horror and loss. But horror and loss aren’t the point, in themselves. The point is what we do with them. How we fight back.

I go back and forth when it comes to human nature. We’re so awesome, as a species, and so awful. It’s hard to keep the two things in focus at once, but they’re both true.

RC: Awesome and awful – the opposite ends of the same semantic stem I guess! From a different angle, so far (if I remember rightly) all your novels have been firmly located in the UK; the Castor books are very London-centric, and the Melanie books hug the M1 corridor! But Someone Like Me is based in the US. Have you always wanted to write an American novel?

MRC: It wasn’t an itch that needed to be scratched. Most of my comics work has been set in the US. It was more that this story seemed to make better sense in an American setting. Liz’s treatment, in the wake of that first incident, would have been handled very differently here in the UK. And the idea of dissociative identity disorder – the myths and the realities of it – are built into the American consciousness in a way that has no exact parallel here. And I really wanted to sneak in a little Native American folklore, to achieve a particular perspective on the events we’re seeing. So I decided on Pittsburgh right out of the gate, and stuck with it.

It helped that we have good friends there, and have visited the city often. I felt I knew it well enough to do it justice.

RC: Ah yes, the Skadegamutc, which I’d certainly never heard of before. At first I thought it was something you’d invented, but then I Googled it!

MRC: It required a little fudging, to bring it in. The myth belongs to the American North-East, but not so much to Pennsylvania. The Abanaki’s annual range generally wouldn’t have extended further south than Maine and New England. So I was careful not to say it was a local legend. It was just something that Bruno Picota heard about when he was a child, and was mightily impressed by. One of the layers, for him…

RC: Oh those layers…. they get us into all sorts of trouble… one more technical, if you like, question that fascinated me about the book was that the chapters are not numbered, or titled, but illustrated. A little drawing or symbol at the beginning of each new section, reflecting the main character in each part. It reminded me of a pictorial version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, where we see the name of the person whose viewpoint we’re next going to read about. Was this an homage to Faulkner, or did you have another reason for this?

MRC: I remembered that device in As I lay Dying. It’s also something that Philip Pullman does in The Subtle Knife, to keep his various worlds straight in the reader’s head, and I liked very much how it worked there. As you turned the page, you’d see the little graphic of the alethiometer and you knew you were going to get another Lyra scene. So your anticipation would soar.

I wanted to do something similar here. It’s a book about identity, and the symbols allowed me to play some sneaky tricks with perspective – especially at the point where Jinx becomes a POV character for the first time. That’s meant to come as a surprise, but I enjoyed putting the reveal right up there in the chapter heading. And of course there are the chapters that have multiple symbols because… well, because point of view gets muddied and identity starts to be a slippery concept.

In the first draft, I used portraits of the characters’ faces, but that was maybe a step too far. It was fine for the human characters, but the way you draw Jinx potentially tells you a lot about what Jinx is.

RC: And I think it’s very important for the reader to have their own impression of Jinx, because we all shape our own imaginary friends! So now that Someone Like Me has hit the bookshelves, what else is on your horizon at the moment, Mike? Another novel? More comics? Castor #6?

MRC: Another novel, definitely. I’ve already delivered a draft, and I’m working on revisions. The working title at the moment is Koli Faceless, and it has a male protagonist – so that’s a first for M. R. Carey. In comics, I’ve got the first Barbarella trade and the collected edition of Highest House both coming out this month, and I’m very excited for both of those. And I’m working on a number of TV and movie projects, including a TV adaptation of Someone Like Me, with Hillbilly Films.

RC: With all that activity, do you ever get time to rest?

MRC: Seldom. 🙂 But I’m doing something I love, which is an incredible privilege.

RC: Which means you’re in a good place, so we’d better stop now so that you can do some more creating! Thanks for your time Mike, or M. R., I suppose that should be, and best of luck with this and all your future endeavours!

MRC: Thanks, Chris. RC? Great to talk, as always!

RC: Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Five Little Pigs (1943)

Five Little PigsIn which Hercule Poirot is asked to consider a case that took place sixteen years earlier, where Caroline Crale was found guilty of the murder of her husband Amyas. But her daughter is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to reassure her fiancé of that fact. So Poirot exercises his little grey cells and examines the evidence and memories of the five little pigs, who would be the only other people who could have murdered Crale, and proves that you can solve a murder just by thinking. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

UCL-University-College-LondonThe book is dedicated “To Stephen Glanville”. He was a friend of Agatha and Max, and, at the time, was Professor of Egyptology at University College London. During the Second World War, he and Max were both in the RAF together. It was Stephen Glanville who challenged Christie to write a detective story set in ancient Egypt – this would result in Death Comes as the End, which would be published in 1945. After the war Glanville became Provost of King’s College Cambridge, and he died in 1956 at the age of 56. Five Little Pigs was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in ten parts between September and November 1941, under the title Murder in Retrospect. The full book was first published in the US in May 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in January 1943. So there was over a year between its first appearance in magazine form in the US and in book form in the UK.

This little piggyMy main memory of this book is buying it at a jumble sale when I was about ten! When I came to re-reading it recently, I remembered the structural premise – that it consists of five people giving their evidence in retrospect, but I couldn’t remember if that meant it was a little repetitive, or if the unusual structure kept the interest going. I was pretty sure I remembered whodunit – and I was right, which is always slightly disappointing on a re-read. It is an enjoyable book, but I did feel it was a bit of a bind hearing the story told at least five times from the five different suspects. I see that the critic in the Times Literary Supplement proclaimed: “No crime enthusiast will object that the story of how the painter died has to be told many times, for this, even if it creates an interest which is more problem than plot, demonstrates the author’s uncanny skill. The answer to the riddle is brilliant.” Sadly, I can’t agree. Not that the answer to the riddle is brilliant – there’s no doubt about that, it’s inventive and clever and the facts had been staring us all in the face for ages, but we ignore them. But I did find the repetitive nature of the story meant it was a bit of a slog to work my way through. Interestingly, that wasn’t the case in Murder on the Orient Express, where you also have Poirot questioning a series of people about a death, in a similarly structured manner. Maybe Five Little Pigs lacks glamour! To be honest, I also don’t think aligning the story so closely to the nursery rhyme of the five little pigs adds much to the intrigue; it feels rather forced.

MemoryAs the story was variously published between 1941 and 1943, sixteen years earlier – which is when the crime was committed and much of the action is set – takes us back to somewhere between 1925 and 1927. In those days, Poirot was investigating the Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and coming to terms with the ridiculous The Big Four. That seems a long time ago, even in this little Agatha Christie project! I think a major stumbling block with taking this book seriously is how extraordinarily well everyone remembers the minutest detail from sixteen years ago. I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to recollect details from 2002 I’d be absolutely stumped.

Old ManIt’s been a year or so since we’ve caught up with Poirot, so how is he getting on? “I am old, am I not? Older than you imagined?” he asks Carla Lemarchant on the first page of the book. Nevertheless, he hasn’t lost any of his pride. “”Rest assured”, said Hercule Poirot. “I am the best”.” More than ever now, Poirot understands his trump card, which is his foreignness: “Hercule Poirot shrugged his shoulders. He was at his most foreign today. He was out to be despised but patronised.” And a few paragraphs later, Christie would confirm that his intended effect was working perfectly on Philip Blake: “”Actually, I am a detective.” The modesty of this remark had probably not been equalled before in Poirot’s conversation. “Of course you are. We all know that. The famous Hercule Poirot!” But his tone held a subtly mocking note. Intrinsically, Philip Blake was too much of an Englishman to take the pretensions of a foreigner seriously. To his cronies he would have said: “Quaint little mountebank. Oh well, I expect his stuff goes down with women all right.””

PoirotWhat do the other suspects think of him? “Meredith Blake received Poirot in a state of some perplexity […] here was the man himself. Really a most impossible person – the wrong clothes – button boots! – an incredible moustache! Not his – Meredith Blake’s – kind of fellow at all. Didn’t look as though he’d ever hunted or shot – or even played a decent game. A foreigner. Slightly amused, Hercule Poirot read accurately these thoughts passing through the other’s head.” Miss Williams bristles at some of Poirot’s questioning techniques: “”You mean that they were more like lovers than like husband and wife?” Miss Williams, with a slight frown of distaste for foreign phraseology, said: “You could certainly put it that way”.”

psychologyBut what about the real Poirot, are there any new insights into his character? We already know from previous cases that Poirot likes to understand the psychology of any case. Here, he can meet the five suspects, but he never had the chance to meet either Amyas or Caroline Crale. He specifically needs to know about them to get to the bottom of this mystery. “”Have you ever reflected, Mr Blake, that the reason for murder is nearly always to be found by a study of the person murdered?” “I hadn’t exactly – yes, I suppose I see what you mean.” Poirot said: “Until you know exactly what sort of a person the victim was, you cannot begin to see the circumstances of a crime clearly.””

teacher-strictAnother aspect of Poirot that I don’t think has been pointed out this obviously in Christie’s texts so far, is Poirot’s penchant for not telling the truth. “Clear, incisive and insistent, the voice of Miss Williams repeated its demand. “You want my recollections of the Crale case? May I ask why?” It had been said of Hercule Poirot by some of his friends and associates, at moments when he has maddened them most, that he prefers lies to truth and will go out of his way to gain his ends by means of elaborate false statement, rather than trust to the simple truth. But in this case his decision was quickly made […] Miss Williams had what every successful child educator must have, that mysterious quality – authority! […] So in this case Hercule Poirot proffered no specious explanation of a book to be written on bygone crimes. Instead he narrated simply the circumstances in which Carla Lemarchant had sought him out.”

lonelinessThis is quite a solitary case for Poirot; of course, he meets a number of people during his investigation – not only the suspects, and Miss Lemarchant, but also all the solicitors and police officers involved in the original case. But he has no Hastings or other confidant with whom to discuss his findings. As a result, we don’t really see the little grey cells at work at the time – just the reporting of his suspicions and discoveries as a done deal. He comes up with a brilliant explanation, but – if this was the equivalent of a maths exam – we never get to see his workings out, which is a little disappointing.

AlderburyRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. There aren’t many places named in this book – Philip Blake lives at St. George’s Hill, Meredith and the Crales at Alderbury, and Miss Williams at Gillespie Buildings. St George’s Hill is the name of a private estate in Weybridge, which would be very appropriate for the stockbroker Philip Blake. Alderbury is the name of a village in Wiltshire, near Salisbury. I can’t find any trace of a Gillespie Buildings in London, but Lady Dittisham lives in Brook Street, which has featured in Christie’s books before as a desirable area of London, and Angela Warren lives in Regent’s Park. So this book contains many more “real” locations than most of Christie’s books!

Quintin HoggLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. I was intrigued that Christie called the Prosecution counsel Quentin Fogg; I wondered if she was thinking of Quintin Hogg when she named him? The former Lord Hailsham, around the time that this book was written, was MP for Oxford, so would definitely have had a public profile. Amyas Crale’s mother is described as “an admirer of Kingsley. That’s why she called her son Amyas.” The Kingsley in question would be Charles Kingsley, priest, university professor, social reformer, historian and novelist – he wrote Westward Ho! in 1855, a story about a young man named Amyas Leigh who follows Francis Drake to sea.

Romeo and JulietCaleb Jonathan, the Crale’s family solicitor, becomes all maudlin and delivers a lengthy quote that starts “If that thy bent of love be honourable” and ends with “follow thee my lord throughout the world”. That’s the bit of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet agrees to marry Romeo, if his intentions are honourable. He clearly equates Elsa to Juliet. Angela Warren also has a penchant for quotations; in her narrative that she sends to Poirot she recalls walking along the kitchen garden path saying to herself “under the glassy green translucent wave”. That’s Milton, from Comus. She’s very well read.

SocratesMeredith Blake is friends with Lady Mary Lytton-Gore. I was sure I recognised that name from somewhere. I did. She was in Three Act Tragedy; she’s Egg’s mother. I wonder if Egg’s found herself a husband yet. Blake also tells Poirot that he read out to the assembled guests the passage from the Phaedo describing Socrates’ death. That’s because Socrates also used coniine to kill himself.

Darwin TulipsLady Dittisham’s house in Brook Street is decorated with Darwin tulips in the window boxes. According to a gardening site I visited, Darwin tulips are “A very tough tulip type that withstands locations that are not ideal. A perennial favourite mix that’s durable and tough and has the perfect old-fashioned appearance. Planted extensively in parks and communities throughout Europe for centuries.” So now you know.

TomboyMiss Williams describes Angela Warren as hoydenish. It’s a very old-fashioned word. My OED defines it – of course – as behaving like a hoyden. And a hoyden is “a noisy, rude or boisterous girl or woman” late 17th century, Old Dutch. I guess today we’d think of her as being a tomboy.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Five Little Pigs:

Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in July 1968. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a model brass cannon, on some pavement tiles, together with a ball of wool or string and a pipette. To be honest, I’m clueless as to the relevance of nearly all that.

How many pages until the first death: Not a straightforward question in this book, as no one dies during the “present” aspects of the story, only in the past. However, we discover that Amyas Crale had been murdered, and that Caroline Crale had died the following year, on the second page of the book.

Funny lines out of context:
None that I could see.

Memorable characters:

Probably the best drawn characters, and most intriguing people are the late Amyas and Caroline, who seem to have had a very weird relationship from time to time. From the living, I think really only Miss Williams stands out as a strong character, with her no-nonsense bossy governess outlook. I’m not sure the other characters have that much personality between them.

Christie the Poison expert:

Amyas was killed by coniine poisoning; this, as Christie points out, is from the spotted hemlock, and apparently ingesting less than a tenth of a gram of coniine can be fatal for an adult human. Superintendent Hale specifically describes the poison as coniine hydrobromide, as opposed to coniine hydrochloride, but I don’t think we need worry about that too much.

Class/social issues of the time:

Christie doesn’t get too carried away with many of her pet hates in this book, but almost all of them receive a cursory nod from time to time. There’s normally a hint of xenophobia somewhere; she’s already allowed Poirot to act up as foreign as he can, in order to wheedle information out of the suspects. I thought a very nice observation – and to my eyes, absolute nonsense – comes with Meredith Blake’s pejorative comment about foreigners that they “will shake hands at breakfast…” Some people will just get offended at anything!

Christie’s always been uncomfortable with the notion of divorce, no doubt in part due to her own experiences with her first husband Archie. But there’s an interesting observation about the differences between the way divorce was looked at in the 20s, when the Crale story took place, and in the 40s, when Poirot is investigating. Meredith Blake is explaining to Poirot that Amyas, as a married man with a child, ought to have taken his marriage more seriously: ““Amyas had a wife and child – he ought to have stuck to them.” “But Miss Greer thought that point of view out of date?” “Yes. Mind you, sixteen years ago, divorce wasn’t looked on quite so much as a matter of course as it is now.””

Christie has also expressed mixed views about feminism and women’s place in society. Miss Williams, of course, has her own opinion of relationships; how women ought to behave and – good grief – even entertaining the hideous thought of men. Of the Crales, she tells Poirot: “They were a devoted couple. But he, of course, was a man.” Miss Williams contrived to put into that last word a wholly Victorian significance. “Men –“ said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says “Bolsheviks” – as an earnest Communist says “Captialists!” – as a good housewife says “Blackbeetles” – so did Miss Williams say “Men!” From her spinster’s governess’s life, there rose up a blast of fierce feminism. Nobody hearing her speak could doubt that to Miss Williams Men were the Enemy! Poirot said: “You hold no brief for men?” She answered drily: “Men have the best of this world. I hope that it will not always be so.”

Christie allows Poirot a big presumption of misogyny when he deduces that the suggestion that Amyas Crale should pack Elsa’s case is all wrong. “Why should Amyas Crale pack for the girl? It is absurd, that! There was Mrs Crale, there was Miss Williams, there was a housemaid. It is a woman’s job to pack – not a man’s.” Not many shades of grey in that opinion.

I think there’s always been a tendency to view artists with suspicion – the disliked Mr Ellsworthy in Murder is Easy is considered “arty”, and here again, there are plenty of opportunities to deride the lifestyle and skill of Amyas Crale. “Never have understood anything about art myself” confesses Philip Blake. And being an artist becomes an excuse for all sorts of strange behaviours. From Meredith Blake: “If ever there were extenuating circumstances, there were in this case. Amyas Crale was an old friend […] but one has to admit that his conduct was, frankly, outrageous. He was an artist, of course, and presumably that explains it. But there it is – he allowed a most extraordinary set of affairs to arise. The position was one that no ordinary decent man could have contemplated for a moment […] the whole point is that Amyas never was an ordinary man! He was a painter, you see, and with him painting came first […] I don’t understand these so-called artistic people myself – never have.”

There’s one lovely line that is packed with all Christie’s fond awareness of class distinction – here’s Meredith talking about Elsa: “I’ve never seen such grief and such frenzied hate. All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see that her father and her father’s mother and father had been millhands. Deprived of her lover, she was just elemental woman.”

Classic denouement: Not far off. All the suspects are gathered, slowly Poirot sums up the evidence, then he allows you to think that X is the murderer, and then he twists it round so that it’s Y. The only thing it lacks is a conclusive ending; the murderer refuses to confess and walks freely away, because there’s no active criminal investigation taking place. We assume that Poirot is going to inform the authorities – he says he will – but we’ve no idea what their reaction will be and what, if any, action will be taken against the presumably guilty party.

Happy ending? No indication one way or the other. One guesses that Carla Lemarchant satisfies her fiancé of the innocence of her mother, so that they can live happily ever after. But this is a book with both feet firmly in the past, and there’s no real interest in what’s going to happen in the future.

Did the story ring true? Yes, in all respects bar one. It’s very believable, not only the manner in which the murder took place, and the motivation, but also in the reasoning why Caroline Crale did not defend herself against the accusation of murder. The only thing I can’t quite accept is the brilliant memory recall of everyone involved!

Overall satisfaction rating: Very clever plotting, an unusual structure, and a good ending. On the other hand, it’s very repetitive. So I think that balances out as an 8/10.

The Moving FingerThanks for reading my blog of Five Little Pigs and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Moving Finger, and the welcome return of Miss Marple to work out who’s been sending poison pen letters around the village of Lymstock. As usual, 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 – Upfront Comedy, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2018

UpfrontHaving basked in the glow of so many happy Screaming Blue Murder nights at the Royal and Derngate, it took us a surprisingly long time to dip our toes into the fun that is the Upfront Comedy shows, set in the perfect intimate atmosphere of the Victorian Royal theatre. Sadly we missed the last one, but we made up for it last Sunday night. The great thing about the Upfront Comedy nights is that you get such a range of audience members, all ages and all ethnicities, and it’s a wonderful melting pot that breaks down barriers by means of comedy.

John SimmitOur host, as usual, was the warm and welcoming John Simmit, who put us at ease with tales of love and affection, Handsworth style. He had a brilliant story about the time when, dressed as Dipsy – for yes, indeed, he did play that particular Teletubby – in Paris, some Smart Alec thought it would be a good idea to give Dipsy a piece of his mind; a typical Rue de Remarques joke really. It sounds as though this gentilhomme was more than a bit surprised when he discovered quite how well Dipsy can take care of himself!

TojuWe hadn’t seen any of the evening’s featured acts before, which is always exciting on a comedy night. First up was Toju, who (apparently) was on Britain’s Got Talent a few years ago. He came out, all guns blazing, with a brilliantly arresting set that challenged everyone and everything! There seemed to be a few almost deliberately miserable people in the front few rows and he did everything he could to make them crack – some he managed, some he didn’t, but the fact that they sat there stony faced against his comedy barrage was hilarious in itself. Toju then turned his attention to the Swiss lady in the front row and to her son, who were very good sports. The row in front of us was completely filled with white people, but with one black guy right in the middle of them. “Blink if they’ve kidnapped you, brother” he exclaimed. Toju is enormous fun, with absolutely no inhibitions, and a perfect way to start an evening of comedy.

Desiree BurchNext up was the only name in the line-up that I recognised, the effervescent Desiree Burch, all the way from LA via South London. She also has hilarity coursing through her veins. I loved her take on labels that might apply to her: she’s proud to be strong, she’s proud to be black, she’s proud to be a woman. But a strong black woman? That means one of two things: “You think you’re gonna get away with that?” or “You think you’re gonna get away with that?” (with menaces). She had lots of brilliant material about sex and fantasies, and a nice observation about how a tattoo can be a turn on – or not. Again, she could have gone on all night, and that would have been fine by us. Great stuff.

John RyanAfter the interval, our next act was John Ryan, of Irish extraction via Hackney. He created a great rapport with the audience, coming across like an Eastenders Mitchell brother but with a degree. A lot of his material came from a warm feeling of inclusivity, showing how we’ve all got much more that unites us than divides us. I really liked his style and he went down very well with the audience.

Drew FraserOur final act came from New York, Drew Fraser. He’s a true wisecracking dude, with plenty of ultra-fast patter and terrific confident delivery. I loved his observations about the trials and tribulations of wearing a Supersized condom, the best way of losing weight (which doesn’t involve the gym) and the considerable difference between vagina and pussy (penis and dick also applies). I’ve seen a few of Mr Fraser’s clips from American TV and I think he’s getting a pretty big reputation out there so it was great to have the chance to see him here in the UK. Oh – and a really charming touch for him to wait outside the theatre as we were all leaving, thanking us for coming – he’s clearly very well brought up.

A terrific night of comedy – and great value too – two and three quarter hours of it for 13 quid, can’t be bad! Looking forward to their next visit. You should come too!

Review – Rob Newman, Total Eclipse of Descartes, Royal and Derngate, 3rd November 2018

Total Eclipse of DescartesWe often think that “love” is a small word for something that encompasses such a range of emotions. “Humour” and “funny” are the same; they contain everything from slapstick to farce, to jokes, to clowning, to erudite after-dinner speeches and lots of other stuff in between. Good comedy should be challenging in the same way that good theatre is; and I love a bit of intelligent comedy that makes you think out of the box.

We’ve never seen Rob Newman before. I remember him, of course, from the days of Newman and Baddiel, when they packed a 12,000 seater arena; but Mr Newman is a different beast today. Wikipedia describes him as an author and political activist, and who am I to disagree? Over the past few years he has returned to performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, with shows like The Brain Show and New Theory of Evolution, which gives you a good indication of where his interests currently lie. And now he’s back with the brilliantly named Total Eclipse of Descartes, where he condenses 2,500 years of philosophy into a couple of hours and ponders on where we are today.

R NewmanDressed in two-parts grey three-piece suit and one-part brown-checked tweedy jacket, he looks like a classic young fogey; half boffin, half landowner. Your immediate thought might be (and I confess, it was mine) – oh no, this is actually going to be as boring as hell. But you’d be completely wrong. Yes, the whole thing does come across as a rather quirky university lecture; but, like the best university lectures, it informs you whilst making you laugh hysterically. Anyone who can quote a line like “I’m going to consider this problem philosophically – I’m not going to think about it” must know he’s on to a winner.

Rob NewmanFirst, we’re asked to consider the whole theory of selective education, and he tells us all about Sir Cyril Burt, educational psychologist and big fan of hereditary IQ. The man was an utter scoundrel, yet we’ve based our entire school system on his faked statistics for decades. Amongst other notables from the realms of philosophy we learn how Mr Newman could never get to grips with the essence of Jean-Paul Sartre, until he discovered one fascinating fact about him. I shan’t tell you what it is, but once you know, everything else makes sense.

We hear about how Pythagoras helped the world of early wheel technology with a story that’s as nice as pi (geddit?) and, of course, René Descartes, who thought, and therefore was. All the while, Mr N brings in modern references to illuminate history, and vice versa; and he absolutely crams the material with callbacks, which work beautifully. And there’s a little nugget of an encore, where he revives a much-missed old comedian to deliver a final, relevant message.

Rob NI wasn’t aware that Mr N had a Radio 2 series of the same name, where, presumably, he investigates philosophy in more bite-size chunks. If you’re a fan of that show, then no doubt his live tour would be right up your Karl-Marx-Allee. Given that this is much more of a comedy lecture than a stand-up, the time absolutely flew by. A very different format from what we’re used to; but it’s erudite, educational, and above all, very funny. His UK tour continues until 8th December.