India – Amritsar

Hyatt AmritsarIt’s about 140 miles from Chandigarh to Amritsar, driving through the heart of Punjab state. It was a fairly unremarkable journey, but slow, and tiring, and, by the time we got to Amritsar, too late to do any sightseeing. So we checked in to our hotel, the Hyatt. It’s very well located, but lacks the friendly sophistication of an Oberoi or a Taj. The décor is rooted firmly in the 1970s – all the colours of the rainbow are there, provided you like brown. The room was large and well appointed, although, over our couple of days there we noted that housekeeping was unpredictably erratic. Where the hotel excelled was in the restaurant; great food at a reasonable price.

Alpha OneNext door to our hotel was the Alpha One Shopping Mall, and, despite all our visits to India, we’d never actually taken a turn around one of their more opulent shopping malls. So to kill a couple of hours before dinner, we thought we’d go for a wander. There’s no doubt that it attracts the wealthy shopper; indeed, the tourist shopper too, being so close to the Hyatt and in a city which has plenty to attract tourists. Many international brands are represented; I bought a very smart pair of Levi Jeans – in a sort of khaki green – for half the price they would be in the UK. They are made in India; to a very high specification.

Love WinsAmong the quirkier things you can do in India, if you find the right place, is go to a bar. There are a couple in the Mall, and they look like the kind of place you wouldn’t take your granny. However, we ventured into one – the Fuelstop. I think they’ve modernised it a little from when we went there – which is definitely going to improve things. They were surprised to see an English couple walk in, but they were very welcoming. I had a pint of Kingfisher – you can’t go wrong with that, and it was fine. Mrs C had a gin and tonic – but the trouble was the tonic was warm, and positively disgusting, so we didn’t stay for a second round. Amusingly, they had a “Love Wins” poster on the wall – as you can see in the photo – and I couldn’t help but wonder if they realised what all their signs actually meant.

SmogThe next morning we threw open the blinds to reveal an enormous smog engulfing the city. Amritsar suffers badly from pollution; it’s one of those places where an acrid taste lingers at the back of your throat all day. We met our guide for the day, a softly spoken gentleman with the traditional Indian name of… John. We were to take a short drive into the city centre where we would get out and then walk the rest of the way. Only a few weeks before our arrival (this was in October 2017)Maharaja Ranjit Singh the city bigwigs had decided to pedestrianise a large area of the city centre, much to the fury of the motorists and the delight of the rest of us. For an Indian cityscape, the buildings were surprisingly clean and attractive. There’s a grand statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that dominates the main street; he was Emperor of the Sikh Empire from 1801 to 1839 and his monument is 100% glory.

McDonalds AmritsarAs you walk towards the Golden Temple, the buildings become more and more rose-pink; you might well think you had accidentally got off in Jaipur instead. As this is a holy city, certain standards and practices are enforced; for example, this is the only place in the world (I believe) to have a McDonalds Restaurant that is fully vegetarian.

Jallianwala BaghBefore heading directly for the Golden Temple, we first stopped off at a location that was pivotal in the Indian struggle for independence from Britain – the Jallianwala Bagh. This is a public garden, founded in 1951, notable for many reasons, certainly one of them being the numbers of local people who throng here to enjoy the views, absorb its history and enjoy picnics. But the Jallianwala Bagh has a very murky tale to tell. Jallianwala Bagh MemorialIt was here that in 1919 Brigadier General Dyer famously opened fire on a peaceful gathering of Sikhs celebrating the Festival of Baisakhi. They’ll never know quite how many people were shot but estimates are in the region of 1,000 dead and 1,500 injured. When you enter the Jallianwala Bagh, you use the same alleyway that Dyer used to lead his men into the grounds; and the thought of it chills you to the bone.

Bullet holesThere are several buildings that still bear the gunshot holes to the outside walls; there’s a gallery that displays pictures of the massacre; there’s another exhibition about Udham Singh, a survivor from that day, who went to London to assassinate General O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, who had approved Dyer’s actions. In the gardens, topiary gun-wielding soldiers form a strangely spooky sight. Inside there is a very tall monument – Topiary soldiersThe Flame of Liberty – constructed in 1961; outside, a very beautiful memorial to the fallen, with the faces of men, women and children forever immortalised within a white flame. It’s a very moving sight; and as a Britisher you feel thoroughly ashamed – but what had the greatest impact for me was seeing how groups of families and friends were using the gardens for enjoyable, recreational purposes.

Golden Temple at a distanceContinuing along the road towards the Golden Temple, the crowds begin to get thicker and more animated. Eventually the front wall of the complex looms up like a ghostly cake made of icing sugar. Crossing the marble entrance square, John went to secure our tickets whilst we removed our shoes and made sure our heads were covered with the complimentary orange scarves. He announced that there were probably going to be more than 200,000 visitors Golden Temple entrancethere that day and that we would be unlikely to be able to get inside the Golden Temple itself, as the queue was just astronomical. We agreed that we wouldn’t attempt to join the queue. The Temple never closes because there is always a crowd of people wanting to get in. As an indication of how busy it was, our driver, Mr Singh, joined the queue to get into the temple at 11.45pm later that night. It took him 45 minutes to queue, even at that late hour.

Golden Temple red carpetOnce you cross the purifying water channel, you find yourself in an enormous square, with a red-carpet walkway going all the way round, as if you were just about to join some Broadway premiere. The walk takes you all around the central lake, and if you take the clockwise direction you soon come to one of the city’s highlights – the astonishing refectory and kitchens, that never close, and permanently Golden Temple welcome visitors of all faiths and all nations. The local people all devote some of their time to staffing the kitchens – cooking, serving, washing-up, and so on, and it’s a magnificent to see so many people working tirelessly, voluntarily, for the benefit of others. It’s extremely humbling.

ChapatisThe kitchens are at the farthest end of the complex away from the Golden Temple but you still have a superb view of this amazing sight. It literally shimmers in the sunlight, and with its extraordinarily colourful reflection in the water to complement it, it really takes your breath away. Nevertheless, turn away from it and enter the kitchens complex. You’ll find vast halls where people sit on the floor, eating and talking, sharing nourishment and each other’s company. On the way in, a man stood proudly before his oven of chapatis – Lentilsthere must have been literally thousands of them. A boy was helping to serve them out. Huge vats of spices and vast cauldrons of vegetables all simmer away, making what was already a hot environment even hotter. One man stirs the biggest dish of lentils you have ever seen in your life. Back in the main hall, women make and cook the chapatis on a large Clearing upheated platform. Rows of men are found bringing back metal trays and plates that have now been finished with. There’s no sense that any of the jobs are more demeaning than any other – they all play an important part in providing the food for the pilgrims. It’s a great leveller.

go for a dipBack on the walk around the lake, you’ll find men and boys strip down to take a dip in the holy water surrounding the temple; ladies don’t tend to. Family units play together; groups of young people take selfies and ask for photos with us. There’s an office where you can make a donation – above the door it proudly announces, “Please take a receipt of Holy Communion from here”. You skirt the other end of the lake where you cannot help but get physically caught up in the crowds queueing to get into the temple. queue to get inYou can admire the tree that still stands, where, apparently, Baba Budha camped as he was digging the holy tank and construction work way back in the 1500s. Above all, you get an insight into the lives of the huge crowds who live and work nearby and for whom this is part of their daily existence. The sights, the sounds, the colours, the smells; the air of excitement, and the sense of privilege, for it is indeed a privilege to be there. It’s an incredible sight.

Wagah borderAfter a short rest at the hotel we had one more major appointment – not in Amritsar itself, but 18 miles due west at the border with Pakistan. Ever since I first heard about the daily pomp and pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at the Wagah Border, I knew I just had to see it for myself. It’s a long procedure, with endless security measures and a lot of waiting around. But it’s worth it. Interestingly, as you’re perceived to be wealthy foreign tourists, you’re given a much better vantage point to view the ceremony from than if you were a local Indian resident. Also, there is no charge, which feels a little surprising when you see the administrative nightmare that this daily event causes.

Crowds startYour car, driver and guide can only go so far towards the border; there comes a time when you have to get out and join the masses walking towards the gate that symbolises the Indian border (it’s not quite at the border, but it’s pretty close.) Your only instruction: keep left. You go through passport check after passport check. One wonders how many times they think you might somehow change your passport details every fifty yards or so. the borderBut you have to accept the high security, it’s to everyone’s advantage. Eventually you get to the border – and you really are right on the edge of the country. Take your seat and watch what happens. In front of you and to your left, you see all the people on the Indian side amassing, their Indian flags painted on their faces; whistle-happy Indian soldiers trying to marshal people into position and then make them stay there; loud, unintelligible public announcements on the public address system; bigger crowdsand continued jeering to the people on your right, who are the crowd similarly amassing on the Pakistani side of the border, trying to outdo the Indians with their louder music blaring through speakers. There was a moment when a group of Pakistanis broke rank from where they were sitting and grabbed all the posh seats at the front of the terrace, women join in only to be shouted away by angry sounding officials, to riotous laughter of ridicule from those on the Indian side. Mrs C was sitting on my left and so I was fractionally closer to Pakistan – and accordingly my iPhone decided to change time to Pakistani time, which confused me quite a bit – I went back in time by 30 minutes and she didn’t!

startingThere’s no obvious starting point to the ceremony; groups of Indian women, with children, break onto the parade ground in front of us and start dancing and teasing with the Indian soldiers on guard, much to the delight of the man in the white suit who bellows at us all the time to cheer for India (hurrah!) They rush at the soldiers with their big Indian flags and do Bollywood-style dances, march to the borderwhilst the soldiers (lamely) fend them off and invite them back to their seats. It’s all part of the ceremony though; if anyone did anything really out of order, I’m sure they’d know about it. Next, Indian women soldiers start to march towards the border, to the enormous cheers of the crowd, and no Pakistani women soldiers to greet them.

big gunsThen out come the big guns, the Indian soldiers in their extraordinary puffed-up uniforms and extravagant headdresses, parading and posing as they go, rushing the border then performing a Ministry of Silly Walks routine at the gate with Pakistan, as Pakistani soldiers do precisely the same back to them. The marching is extremely fast and with extremely high kicks, as they assume ultra-heroic macho stances againstheaddresses each other. There’s some general thumbing of noses towards their opposition and then the flags are lowered, quite quickly as there’s neither time nor desire for solemnity during this operation. The Indian flag is folded up and taken into the office. There are a few more silly walks and then the Indian soldiers beat a retreat and the Pakistanis do the same.

everyone goes homeIt ends more with a whimper than a bang as everything just stops and everyone gets up. But it’s a fascinating experience; a mixture of pantomime with aggression, and plenty of balletic military pas de deux. If you get the chance to do it, I’d really recommend it!

Review – Rob Auton: The Talk Show, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th May 2019

Rob AutonI guess when a show declares itself under the category of comedy/theatre/spoken word, you ought to realise you’re not in for an evening of typical stand-up comedy. And, indeed, Rob Auton doesn’t give you a typical evening of stand-up comedy. But don’t be alarmed, gentle reader, there are good things to follow…

He starts the show as his own warm-up act, getting to know the front row a little, talking about his previous shows, sharing with us some of his more dubious reviews, reading poetical gems from his books, and generally relaxing himself into the rest of the evening. After an interval he wanders back on to the stage; there’s no “welcome back ladies and gentlemen, did you have a good interval” type of showbiz introduction, rather it’s straight into his themes for the Talk Show – it even took a few moments to realise he’d started, as people were still checking their phones.

The Talk ShowHe talks a lot about his parents, with affection and understanding of their funny little ways; but, primarily, he talks about talking. He gets us to talk to strangers, and when we pluck up the courage to chat with our neighbours, he celebrates it as a great achievement.

Unusually, he stands in front of us with what I presume is a detailed script in his hand, that he tipped out of his Sainsbury’s bag earlier on, even though you never for once think he’s going to lose his place or not know what to say next. Perhaps it is his comfort blanket. Projecting a very engaging personality, but also exuding an air of great vulnerability, you sense that quite a lot of this material is joint therapy for both the audience and the performer; and that it’s all from personal experience. There’s humour at every turn; whether you choose to laugh at it or wryly recognise that it’s what makes the world go round, is up to you. And by that I don’t mean that it isn’t a show full of laughs – quite the opposite, he frequently had us all in hysterics. But there is meaning and pathos behind each laughter moment.

There are passages of great sensitivity and stillness, where he holds us in the palm of his hand waiting for his next word. The emotions are so strong that at one stage I thought he, or I, was going burst into tears. Neither of us did, but you could see the wetness in his eyes. There’s nothing forced or false in this show. His main message seems to be to make sure that those you love and care about know this fact. That can be a hard lesson to learn, but once learned, you don’t forget it. There will sadly come a time when you can’t tell them you love them anymore.

Rob Auton has a compelling style of delivery; measured, careful, each word chosen for its suitability. As a result, you have complete confidence in his mastery of his own material. He’s been taking shows up to Edinburgh for ages, so I’m very surprised not to have come across his work before – but I’m very glad I have. He’s still touring with the Talk Show, and also work-in-progressing this year’s Edinburgh show. Catch him if you can for an intelligent, thoughtful and emotional hour’s comedy.

Review – Seasons in our World/Peter and the Wolf, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th May 2019

Seasons in our World/Peter and the WolfIt’s been a couple of years since the Birmingham Royal Ballet danced their way onto the Derngate stage – and many years before that since we last saw them at the Birmingham Hippodrome. So it’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to enjoy some first-rate dance and a quality live music performance from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. For our performance, the company’s principal dancers were resting so it was an interesting chance to see some of the younger performers have their time to shine.

Seasons in our WorldThe first piece, Seasons in our World, was inspired by a poem by David Laing, Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, no less, and balletomane to boot. Its rather complex birth was a result of several discussions and workshops between its three young choreographers, Laura Day, Lachlan Monaghan and Kit Holder, who are all members of the company. Ms Day wanted to create the Spring section of the work. Mr Monaghan, who is Australian, wanted to incorporate the dangers of a too-hot Antipodean climate into the Summer section, whilst Mr Holder choreographed Winter. They also collaborated with award-winning composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian in creation of the accompanying music.

Karla DoorbarThe result is a very enjoyable, if difficult to follow, thirty-five minutes of elegant, delicate, even fragile choreography, performed with great skill and grace by the company. It’s a feast for the eyes, with shimmery, sensual costumes, stunning lighting, and clever interaction between the dancers and the see-through scenery panels. Dancers perform in threes, and in couples, and with some excellent solo work by Haoliang Feng (I believe). The Winter section offers a little more humour than the rest of the dance, with sequences where the dancers huddle together like freezing penguins; although their close work together reminded me more of the background characters in Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances (which is no bad thing). The music is very suggestive and full of mini-melodies that you think are going to take off but then they stop and move on to another theme; very evocative to listen to, but also very disconcerting, and with some surprisingly harsh percussion, no doubt there to reflect the potential harshness of climate.

Haolieng FengI enjoyed it, and I liked very much how Winter turned into next year’s Spring; but I couldn’t help but think it lacked a certain something. Maybe having three choreographers equals too many cooks? Certainly you wouldn’t say that the piece as a whole had one vision; but then, I guess, that wasn’t the idea in the first place. No question as to the quality of the dance though, it was elegant and beautiful throughout.

Peter and the WolfI still have the Music for Pleasure recording of Peter and the Wolf performed by the Little Symphony of London and narrated by Paul Daneman – I must have been about nine when I got it. I loved it – and as a result would pompously announce that Prokofiev was my favourite composer; and, the best part of fifty years later, he’s still very high up there in my affections and respect. Peter and the Wolf is awash with brilliant tunes, lush orchestrations, and creative recreations of animal interaction as portrayed by an orchestra. The slinky movement of the cat on the clarinet, the awkward grumpiness of the duck on the oboe, the featherweight frippery of the bird on the flute, the sinister stealth of the wolf are all beautifully realised; plus, of course, Peter’s youthful self-confidence on the strings and the swagger of the triumphal march at the end.

Gus PayneNaturally, it lends itself perfectly to the medium of dance, as the inventive choreographer Ruth Brill, also a member of the company – this evening’s entertainment is nothing if not in-house – expertly proves. Updated from its original pro-Soviet propaganda background of 1936, this production sets it in some municipal backyard, with a dirty old dumped armchair, a broken supermarket trolley, bin stores and some construction scaffolding. At first, I couldn’t see how that would work at all, but you very quickly realise that it fits like a dream. And the cast of characters bridge both this urban setting and the imaginary meadow setting of the original perfectly.

Alys SheeKarla Doorbar’s Peter (yes, a female Peter because the character is “defiant, goal-driven, carefree, moving on instinct” according to Ruth Brill) is a trendy, Sporty-Spice kind of girl, clearly able to take charge of any situation. Gus Payne’s bird is dressed in blue with a flapping yellow jacket, which again represents both the animal and the trendy young urbanite. Alexander Yap’s wolf is in a grey hoodie, Alys Shee’s duck is welded to her headphones, Eilis Small is in black boots, Max Maslen’s Grandfather in comfortable loungewear and the hunters are all girls about town.

Alexander YapIt’s a very effective set of characterisations, and the choreography uses all the available space, on and off the construction site, with great inventiveness. Being really picky, there were a couple of moments though where the choreography just didn’t tie in with the narration. For example, Hollie McNish’s enjoyable and conspiratorial voice tells us “Peter, sitting in the tree, said “Don’t shoot!”” But she wasn’t sitting in the tree, she was down near where we imagine the pond to be. Koen Kessels’ orchestra did a magnificent job with Prokofiev’s score, and, quite apart from being a thoroughly enjoyable dance to watch, it was a true treat for the ears too. But the dancers were all on absolute top form and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eilis SmallIt has to be said; this is quite an odd combination of pieces, as Seasons in our World is rather difficult to follow as a narration, whereas nothing could be more straightforward in the story-telling department than Peter and the Wolf. And for a show that would naturally attract many children to the audience, I would imagine the first dance would perplex a number of youngsters, who would get fidgety as a result. For a young-at-heart adult like myself, the programme was an enjoyable mix of the challenging and the reassuring. After its couple of nights in Northampton, the tour continues to Shrewsbury, Malvern and Wolverhampton. Recommended!

Production and dancer photos from the Birmingham Royal Ballet website

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Hollow (1946)

The HollowIn which devoted doctor John Christow is found dead by the swimming pool, with his wife Gerda holding a gun in her hand. An open and shut case, surely? But as investigations start to take shape, it’s a much murkier affair than first thought. It takes Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian detective, to have the brains to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify the real murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Francis L SullivanThe book is dedicated “for Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene for a murder”. Larry was better known as Francis L Sullivan, an actor who had played Hercule Poirot on the London stage in the plays Black Coffee and Peril at End House, and would go on to appear in Witness for the Prosecution on Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award. He died in 1956. The Hollow was first serialised in the US in a four-part shortened version in Collier’s Weekly in May 1946 under the title The Outraged Heart. There was no serialisation in the UK. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1946, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club. A later paperback edition in the US by Dell Books in 1954 changed the title to Murder after Hours, but the book is primarily known as The Hollow in the US too.

Slow to startRe-reading this book was rather an odd experience. I found it very slow to start, and I felt little or no interest in any of the characters for several pages until the whole crime element gained traction and the story really got going. Once we’d met Poirot and he was taking an active interest in the crime alongside Inspector Grange, it became unputdownable; before then it had been the reverse! Critical opinion at the time praised this book highly, and it was largely thought to be one of Christie’s best works. However, I think much of it succeeds or fails on how endearing or otherwise you find the character of Lady Angkatell; can anyone be that daft as a brush and remain a functioning individual? Ironically, Christie herself thought she had ruined the book by including Poirot in it; my own feeling is that, on the contrary, he makes it.

SculptorStructurally, this book feels at odds with most of Christie’s output to date. It starts, with no explanatory introduction, with a relatively in-depth and confusing conversation between two characters, about whom you know nothing except their names. Christie plunges us straight into the nitty-gritty of these characters, without any background insights. The second chapter again confuses us with the account of Henrietta Savernake making a sculpture of Doris Saunders; again with no explanation as to who these characters are and why this should be happening. Knowing that Christie rarely wastes words, it’s unclear why she spent so much effort on explaining the creative process behind sculpting; and, even when you’ve finished the book, it still strikes me as unnecessary padding. True, there is an element of bookending the story – starting with an artistic creative process and ending with a complementary process, which you may consider makes a satisfying whole. But the final moments of the book are also rather weird, ending, in my humble opinion, with more than a whimper than a bang.

Pretty Country CottageThis is our first catch-up with Hercule Poirot for four years (he was last seen in 1943’s Five Little Pigs). Four years on, he’s even older (naturally) and more withdrawn from work than he was before. He has now retired to the country – for weekends at least – living at Resthaven, a neatly symmetrical little place that satisfies his need for order, with just a Belgian gardener, Victor, and his wife/cook, Françoise. You sense that Poirot decided on this move against his better judgement. There’s nothing in the English countryside, with its great variety of wildness, discomfort and lack of sophistication, that’s going to make him happy. He’d be much better off in a warm apartment in London, with all its distractions and people to stimulate his little grey cells.

PoirotNevertheless, he is delighted to receive the lunch invitation to the Angkatells because he is, as he says, “un peu snob”; he walks the long way round to their front door rather than cutting through the back shortcut because of his sense of formality and because he is a “stickler for etiquette”. The snob in Poirot is very easily flattered – even though he indeed recognises it for what it is. Consider the reasons why Henrietta comes to him, rather than Inspector Grange, to discuss the case. “”Well, M. Poirot, what does one do? Go to Inspector Grange and say – what does one say to a moustache like that? It’s such a domestic, family moustache.” Poirot’s hand crawled upwards to his own proudly borne adornment. “Whereas mine, Mademoiselle?” “Your moustache, M. Poirot, is an artistic triumph. It has no associations with anything but itself. It is, I am sure, unique.” “Absolutely.” “And it is probably the reason why I am talking to you as I am.””

private-detectiveIt’s during this conversation with Henrietta that Poirot discusses the kind of clues that he is interested in – always a good insight into his modus operandi. Poirot speaks first: “”That is one of Inspector Grange’s men. He seems to be looking for something.” “Clues, I suppose. Don’t policemen look for clues? Cigarette ash, footprints, burnt matches.” Her voice held a kind of bitter mockery. Poirot answered seriously. “Yes, they look for these things – and sometimes they find them. But the real clues, Miss Savernake, in a case like this, usually lie in the personal relationships of the people concerned.” “I don’t think I understand you.” “Little things,” said Poirot, his head thrown back, his eyes half-closed. “Not cigarette ash, or a rubber heel mark – but a gesture, a look, an unexpected action…” And with that he verbally pounces on Henrietta with a challenging and difficult question.

Down drooping moustacheAs mentioned earlier, in this book we meet Inspector Grange, a stalwart from the Wealdshire Police Force, “a large, heavily built man, with a down-drooping, pessimistic moustache”. He speaks, “without excitement, just with knowledge and quiet pessimism”. He doesn’t have time for his Chief Constable, whom he believes to be a “fussy despot”. Grange is efficient, well-meaning, courteous to Poirot, calm and (for a Christie policeman) relatively wise. His film heroine is Hedy Lamarr. Christie completely side-steps Grange when it comes to the denouement and the official police have no part in the story after the Coroner issues his verdict.

Garden swimming poolOne aspect of the case that really perplexes Poirot is how he suspects that he has been presented with a staged scene. Invited to the Angkatells, the first thing he sees after Gudgeon the butler has shown him through to the swimming pool pavilion is a frozen tableau. Indeed, he thinks the Angkatells are teasing him, presenting him with an artificial murder game for him to pretend-investigate, as it were. Poirot’s little grey cells are not to be mocked so lightly. “By the side of the pool was the body, artistically arranged with an outflung arm and even some red paint dripping gently over the edge of the concrete into the pool […] Standing over the body, revolver in hand, was a woman, a short powerfully-built middle-aged woman with a curiously blank expression […] On the far side of the pool was a tall young woman […] she had a basket in her hand full of dahlia heads. A little farther off was a man […] carrying a gun. And immediately on his left, with a basket of eggs in her hand, was his hostess, Lady Angkatell […] It was all very mathematical and artificial […] Really, the whole thing was very stupid – not spirituel at all! […] And suddenly, with a terrific shock, Hercule Poirot realised that this artificially-set scene had a point of reality. For what he was looking down at was, if not a dead, at least a dying man.” Poirot’s continued suspicion throughout the book that he was looking at an artificial scene, even though it’s known that a real murder took place, partly makes one suspect a Murder on the Orient Express type solution. I’ll say no more on that topic.

Shovel DownAs usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The route from London to The Hollow goes via Shovel Down, which sounds more like gardening terminology than a place name. Shovel Down does exist – it’s an area of Dartmoor with some standing stones and other Bronze Age monuments. If Wealdshire (which obviously doesn’t exist) is meant to represent Cornwall, then I guess it’s possible that this is where Christie intends us to think. However, the journey that John Christow proposes, from Albert Bridge, to Clapham Common, Crystal Palace, Croydon, Purley Way, (all of which are real) then Metherly Hill and Haverston Ridge (both of which aren’t), doesn’t seem to take us towards Devon. Market Depleach, convincing though it sounds, is an invention of Christie’s, and as for the much mentioned and longed-for Ainswick, that too isn’t real, although there is of course a Painswick in Gloucestershire. And, of course, John’s and Veronica’s memories take them back to their romance in San Miguel, which could be anywhere. The most significant San Miguel is in the Philippines; again, Christie probably chose it because it’s a good name.

Ulysses and NausicaaAnd now some other references, that I didn’t recognise so thought I should check. When we first meet Henrietta she’s sculpting the head of Nausicaa. In Homer’s Odyssey, she is the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia. Amongst other things, Nausicaa was the first person in literature to be described playing with a ball. Who knew? Dr Christow devotes his time to finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease; that, in itself, does not exist by that name, but commentators associate Christie’s description of it with Multiple Sclerosis. Henrietta also reflects on Peer Gynt, referring to the Button Moulder’s ladle. He’s a character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who threatens to melt Peer’s soul unless he gives him a list of his sins. All very dark and complex.

DelageThere are a couple of cars that were new to me; Henrietta drives a Delage, which was a classic, luxury French car – the Delage company ceased operation in 1953. And the police trail Henrietta in a Ventnor 10, but I’m blowed if I can find any information about that model. Can you help? When playing cards Lady Angkatell suggests a round of Animal Grab. This was an early 20th century card game like snap, but you had to make the sound of the animal who’s card you laid down. For example, if you laid a dog card you had to say “bow-wow”. It must have been… hilarious. Veronica Cray is said to have appeared in the film Lady Rides on Tiger. No such film exists, however, its title comes from an old Chinese proverb which says, he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. No prizes for understanding why.

detectiveOne of the reasons Grange doesn’t like his Chief Constable is because he considers him to be a tuft-hunter. I’ve never heard that expression before, but it means a snob, someone who seeks association with persons of title or high social status. So now you know.

MaudChristie must have been reading her poetry anthologies when she wrote this book because there are a couple of allusions to poems. Henrietta quotes to Poirot: “The days passed slowly one by one. I fed the ducks, reproved my wife, played Handel’s Largo on the fife, and took the dog a run.” It’s from Harry Graham’s poem, Creature Comforts. He was a popular writer of comic verse in the early part of the 20th century, a kind of Edwardian Pam Ayres. Poirot himself quotes the much better known “I hate the dreadful Hollow behind the little wood”, which not only gives the book its title but is also from Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855. As for The Clue of the Dripping Fountain, a gripping read that John Christow had been devouring, alas there is no trace. But what a sensational book it must be.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book, the very precise amount of £342, which is the cost of a certain engagement ring that a character buys for another – I won’t tell you who, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. That’s around £10,000 in today’s value, so he must have thought a lot of her.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Hollow:

Publication Details: 1946. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in May 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams clearly shows the gun that’s sitting in the basket of eggs, that features in the story. No confusion there.

How many pages until the first death: 64. That’s a reasonably long wait, and I must say the book gets much more interesting once there is a murder to investigate.

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

Memorable characters:

Christie is on better form with her characters in this book, with the decidedly batty Lady Angkatell leading the field; a woman whose conversations are a list of non-sequiturs, and who, Poirot realises, has a dangerous ability to make people remember things in a different way because of her bizarre spin on facts. Funny or irritating, you decide, but she’s definitely memorable. I also liked the description of Gerda’s hopelessness; her inability to carve a joint of meat or to drive properly, simply because she’s always under the watchful eye of her husband. I think we all know someone like that. Henrietta’s a cool customer, maybe a little too perfectly drawn to be properly memorable; and I also enjoyed David’s quiet Socialist condemnation of everyone around him.

Christie the Poison expert:

She’s both a poison expert and a general chemistry expert in this book, with John and Gerda’s son Terence keen to construct a nitro-glycerine bomb with his pal Nicholson Minor, and a deadly, unspecified substance that laces a cup of tea and turns the victim’s lips blue – so probably cyanide.

Class/social issues of the time:

A couple of Christie’s favourite themes crop up just once or twice in this book; and one another theme makes a few unwelcome appearances. First, class. There’s an early scene where John Christow, contemplating his treatment of Mrs Crabtree, is surprised to learn that she wants to fight her disease. “She was on his side, she wanted to live – though God knew why, considering the slum she lived in, with a husband who drank and a brood of unruly children, and she herself obliged to work day in day out, scrubbing endless floors of endless offices. Hard unremitting drudgery and few pleasures! […] It wasn’t the circumstances of life they enjoyed, it was life itself – the zest of existence. Curious – a thing one couldn’t explain.” With those words Christow reveals himself to be a patronising, unempathetic snob, disgusted by the lives of the working class.

There’s also another example of Christie’s inability to understand mental illness, with Lady Angkatell’s account of why they read the News of the World. “”We pretend we get it for the servants, but Gudgeon is very understanding and never takes it out until after tea. It is a most interesting paper, all about women who put their heads in gas ovens – an incredible number of them!” “What will they do in the houses of the future which are all electric?” asked Edward Angkatell with a faint smile. “I suppose they will just have to decide to make the best of things – so much more sensible.”” It’s a thoroughly unpleasant exchange, laughing at people considering suicide.

The other recurrent theme is that of xenophobia/racism. There are mild elements of it in Inspector Grange’s belief that “foreigners […] don’t know how to make tea” and the reason Miss Cray admits she didn’t call on Poirot the first time: “I just thought he was some little foreigner and I thought, you know, he might become a bore.” When Lady Angkatell is denying that she set up the death scene, she avows – picking a race out of the blue to patronise – “one can’t ask someone to be your guest and then arrange accidents. Even Arabs are most particular about hospitality.”

There’s a whole lot more unpleasant exchange about Madame Alfrege, Midge’s boss at the upmarket shop. Not only does Christie give Madame Alfrege an outrageous speech defect, she also indulges in some anti-Semitism: “Midge set her chin resolutely and picked up the receiver. It was all just as unpleasant as he had imagined it would be. The raucous voice of the vitriolic little Jewess came angrily over the wires. “What wath that, Mith Hardcathle? A death? A funeral? Do you not know very well I am short-handed? Do you think I am going to stand for these excutheth? Oh, yeth, you are having a good time, I dare thay!”” And so the conversation continues. Later, Midge describes Madame Alfrege as “a Whitechapel Jewess with dyed hair and a voice like a corncrake”.

There’s also some very unfortunate use of the N word. Mrs Crabtree, her words carefully chosen by Christie to emphasise her working class accent and language, describes what it was like to have her hair permed: “It wasn’t ‘alf a difficult business then. Looked like a n*****, I did. Couldn’t get a comb through it.” But also titled people used that word; Lady Angkatell says she hoped her cook, Mrs Medway, “would make a really rich N***** in his Shirt […] chocolate, you know, and eggs – and then covered with whipped cream. Just the sort of sweet a foreigner would like for lunch.” This wasn’t an accepted name for a dessert at the time, but purely an invention of Christie’s. All I can say is, hmmm. Sir Henry describes the problems that Lady Angkatell can cause with her foot-in-mouth language: “she’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table, and run riot over the colour question!” I bet she has. It was about this time that Christie’s American readers began to disapprove of this latent racism in her books; I believe her American publisher’s simple solution to this problem was to remove these references from her new books without her knowledge. Seems wise to me.

Classic denouement: Not classic, but unusual; Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and as a result, the unfolding of the details of the crime all takes place in retrospect, and justice isn’t seen to be done.

Happy ending? Although there is a wedding ahead, there’s also an intense air of gloom, with one character’s life doomed to die through illness, and another unable to come to terms with everything that’s happened. So, no, not happy at all.

Did the story ring true? One of the strengths of this book is that although the plot is unlikely – naturally – it does ring true, and you can completely understand how the characters would act in the way that they did.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s clever, it’s believable, and once it gets going it’s very exciting. However, it is dull to start, and the latent racism is unpleasant. Structurally, it also feels strangely anti-climactic. So, after much reflection, I’m giving it 7/10. If you think that’s harsh, I do understand your concern.

The Labours of HerculesThanks for reading my blog of The Hollow 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 Labours of Hercules, twelve short stories which were expected to be Hercule Poirot’s swansong – but of course, that didn’t happen! I can’t remember any of the stories, so this should be a lot of fun. 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 – John-Luke Roberts, All I Wanna Do Is [FX: GUNSHOTS] With a [FX: GUN RELOADING] and a [FX: CASH REGISTER] and Perform Some Comedy, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 11th May 2019

John-Luke-Roberts All I Wanna DoI’d seen the photo of John-Luke Roberts last year whilst scrolling through possible Edinburgh shows – and, let’s face it, that photo does stand out, with his blue moustache and his fangs, fruits and flowers. I didn’t click to read more; I think it reminded me of when Graham Chapman used to occasionally interrupt sketches on Monty Python, with the words “stop that; it’s too silly.” But when I saw that he was bringing the show to our local theatre, and that it had garnered five-star plaudits at Edinburgh last year, I thought it was worth a punt.

You’ve heard of the Theatre of the Absurd? Mr Roberts is a practitioner of Comedy of the Absurd. I can imagine him planning a show, coming up with ideas, and then discarding them because they weren’t silly enough. I’m not sure I’m his natural target-market as I usually prefer my comedy to be more sophisticated, more nuanced. However, Mr Roberts is such a likeable performer that it was impossible not to be blown away by all his random ideas in this hour and ten minutes of utter joy.

John Luke RobertsIn the best Brechtian style, he set out his comedy store at the beginning of the show, explaining what he wanted to achieve, how he would weave certain phrases or ideas into the meat of the show, and how, at the end, he would lift up the silver food cloche on the table in the corner of the stage, to reveal an item; and if we didn’t fall about laughing, he would have considered he had failed. No pressure on us there, then.

At the heart of the show, Mr Roberts introduces us to the 24 missing Spice Girls. We know Mels B and C, but what about A, and D through to Z? As we meet more and more of his bizarre but beautifully crafted characters, we start to lose the plot as to what’s going on, but it doesn’t matter. It’s much more fun just to watch the hurt caused between Facts-about-the-Romans Spice and Clarification-about-the-Facts-about-the-Romans Spice; to watch the confusion caused by That’s-not-my-husband Spice talking to a woman in the audience who wasn’t his wife; and to join in the ludicrous hilarity of Old Crone Spice with her shapely bosoms and long nose, which I had to operate whilst Mr Roberts’ hands were doing other things. (All perfectly clean, no worries.) He also enjoys a hotline to God, and I think it’s fair to say they both give as good as they get.

John-Luke RDoes that sound absurd to you? Absolutely. And also extremely funny. And when he lifts the cloche at the end, there was one more absurdism awaiting us that did, indeed, make us fall about laughing. Surreal it may be, but it is also meticulously structured and honed to perfection. I shall certainly be looking out for Mr Roberts’ future shows. A very enjoyable break away from the harsh realities of life. We loved it!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 10th May 2019

Screaming Blue MurderOnce again, another Screaming Blue Murder and once again, sold out in advance – and quite right too, this is the best selection of Friday night comedy you could imagine at a cracking price. As usual our genial host was Dan Evans, he of the intimidating shiny bald pate (he’d agree, I’m sure) who this week compared baldness with another front row bald chap, but I’m not sure who won.

Dan EvansAmong the other patrons for Dan to duel with were a carpenter who seemed only comfortable when talking about wood, a maker of Channel 4 documentaries (in Northampton! Who knew?), a pair of prison officers, pub landlords, a gloomy 44-year-old birthday boy and a huge hen party (by which I mean there were lots of them, not that she was a huge hen) in preparation for a wedding apparently still weeks away. That’s forward planning for you. As always, Dan deftly got a bit of comedy magic out of all of them.

Debra-Jane ApplebyWe’d seen all three acts before, but they’re all definitely worth a re-watch. First up was Debra Jane Appleby, whom we saw here once before as an act, and once as MC when Dan was otherwise engaged. She looks like she might be somewhat hard-nosed and aggressive on stage but in fact she’s quite a pussycat once you get her vibe. Recently married, this time to a woman, she’s currently seeing life through a different lens, which is the source of a lot of fresh material. She’s the kind of act who takes a few subjects and explores them at length, rather than peppering her routine with lots of one-hit wonders. I very much enjoyed her observations on the benefits or otherwise of people living longer lives, and she has an enjoyable, relaxed style which was the perfect start for the night.

Steve DayNext up, and in a change of programme, came Steve Day, whom we have seen twice before, but a long time ago. He is deaf, and the majority of his routine comes from finding the humorous side to living with a disability and specifically what you can achieve when you can barely hear anything. He’s got a great delivery style, with masses of confidence and a string of extremely funny material. Amongst his gems were moving to Sutton Coldfield because of the views, and what happened when he co-hosted the Paralympic Torch ceremony in London with Boris Johnson. We all loved him.

Mitch BennOur headline act was Mitch Benn, whom we saw here in 2014 and 2016. The great news is that he’s still incredibly funny, with a very lively mind and a capacity to weave the audience into his comedy musical material. He started with an absolutely astonishing song that included all the professions of the members of the audience that Dan had gleaned in his opening session – quite brilliant, and definitely the highlight of the night. The not so great news is that everything else he did was exactly the same as the previous two occasions he came here, including the (still funny) xenophobic Eurovision song and the (I don’t quite get it) Very Hungry Caterpillar song. If you’ve not seen him before, his is a highly entertaining act. It would be great if he could just make up a few new songs though?

As always a brilliant night’s comedy. And if you can’t wait until May 31st for the next Screaming Blue Murder, Dan’s appearing at the Brighton Fringe on May 18th, 23rd and 24th with his new show – which I’m sure will be first-rate. Sadly we can’t go, but you should!

Review – The Provoked Wife, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 9th May 2019

The Provoked WifeWas there nothing that Sir John Vanbrugh couldn’t do? Architect of such national treasures as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, writer of such enduring Restoration Comedies like The Relapse and The Provoked Wife, political activist, even working for the East India Company in Gujarat. He must have been such a Smart Alec.

MusicLet’s get up to date with the plot: Lady Brute, tired of being ignored and despised by her waster of a husband, Sir John, decides to take a lover to spice up her life and to give him a virtual bloody nose into the bargain. She tries to instigate a liaison with Constant, a gentleman, whilst his friend Heartfree, who’s something of a misanthrope – especially against women, falls for Lady Brute’s confidante and niece Bellinda. To add to the mess, Constant and Heartfree are also pals with Sir John. The plot, as it so often does, thickens. Meanwhile, the vain and silly Lady Fancyfull, inspired by her companion Mademoiselle, also wishes to try her luck with Heartfree. Their plans all fall apart in a series of farcical meetings, with ladies hiding behind arbours, and gentlemen heeding the ever-familiar instruction to secrete themselves “into the closet”. But, as Browning was to ask 150-odd years later, what of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

Sir JohnThe Provoked Wife was Vanbrugh’s second comedy, first performed in 1697, with what was, at the time, an all-star cast. The whole nature of restoration comedy, a natural rebellion against the Cromwellian frugality and puritanism of a few decades earlier, required as much careless wit, bawdy and foppery as you could cram into a few hours. Stock characters abound, their names proclaiming their characteristics; but even so, they have hearts too, and social disgrace means precisely that. Reputation is key, and when a character cries “I am ruined!” they’re not kidding.

Sir John in troublePhillip Breen’s new production for the RSC teems with life and laughter – until about the last thirty minutes. Not because the production goes off the boil, far from it; but because the villainous, murky side of Vanbrugh’s characters take control of the play. Up till then, it’s all knowing winks, powdered faces, nicking an audience member’s programme, and a wonderful selection of pomposity-pricking moments. However, despite its obviously comical – indeed farcical – main plot of wannabe sexual shenanigans and the hilarity of cuckolding a cruel husband, there’s a savage underbelly that makes you question whether you should be laughing at it; and that knife-edge is at the heart of all the best comedy, from Shakespeare to Ayckbourn. As the plot switches from major to minor, the effects of what’s been happening to these figures of fun, who are indeed flesh and blood after all, becomes apparent, and by the end there’s very little to laugh at.

Show that ankleMark Bailey’s simple set presents us with a solid proscenium arch complete with traditional overhangings and a useful curtain to hide behind. And an all-important back door, which is our glimpse of the outside world, the entry and exit point for all things comical or threatening; and even a way to demonstrate superiority (watch two self-important women try to struggle through it at the same time and you’ll see what I mean). Paddy Cunneen has composed some lively, cheeky tunes for our five on-stage musicians, who herald the end or start of scenes and accompany Lady Pipe or Mr Treble with their pompous warblings.

Lady BruteAlexandra Gilbreath’s Lady Brute is a brilliant portrayal of a woman coming out of her shell; wonderfully confiding, slow to react, discovering the truth of her own meanings as she’s speaking the words. She is matched by an equally superb performance by Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute, who sets the tone of the evening with a hilarious opening scene of grumbling and misogyny, and who rises to the challenge of playing the old drunk vagabond impersonating his wife perfectly. It’s their scene when we see his true brutal nature and his attempt to rape his wife where the play turns its corner; challenging and uncomfortable, but played with true commitment and honesty.

HeartfreeJohn Hodgkinson plays Heartfree with just the right amount of cynicism, i. e. not too much, because you have to believe that he genuinely turns from a callous cold fish to an unexpectedly affectionate suitor. Natalie Dew is a sweet and thoughtful Bellinda – mischievous enough to encourage Lady Brute to cast off the shackles of her miserable marriage, but virtuous enough to attract the attentions of Heartfree. Rufus Hound’s Constant is just that; played very calmly and straight, respectable but always with a twinkle in his eye as he looks for preferment. There are also some terrific performances from the minor characters, with Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Cornet a delightful fly in Lady Fancyfull’s ointment, Sarah Twomey a beautifully manipulative and mischievous Mademoiselle, Kevin N Golding a bemused Justice and Steve Nicholson a hilariously plain-talking Rasor. I was excited to see that Les Dennis is in the cast but was disappointed at how small his role as Colonel Bully is – just a little bit of drunk swagger in a scene or two; hopefully he’s keeping his powder dry for his appearance in the RSC’s Venice Preserved later this month.

Lady FancyfullBut it’s Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull that makes you beam with pleasure from start to finish. A vision of self-importance, who clearly pays well for flattery; she coquettishly protests modesty whenever she hears praise, and vilifies anyone who dares to contradict her own opinion of herself. In an age today where people often have self-esteem issues, here’s what happens when you go to the opposite end of the scale! Yet it’s a measure of the intelligence of Ms Quentin’s performance that when Lady F is shamed and mocked at the end of the play, her face-paint and wig cast aside, that you do feel some compassion for the wretched character. It’s a great comic performance and she brightens up the stage whenever she’s on.

The BrutesTo be fair, at a little over 3 hrs 15 minutes, the production does feel a trifle long, and leafing through my copy of the text, I don’t think they made any cuts apart from removing the epilogue. However, it’s a very entertaining and lively way to spend an evening; just remember never to provoke your wife.

Production photos by Pete Le May