Review – Travesties, Menier Chocolate Factory, 23rd October 2016

TravestiesThe first time I saw a Tom Stoppard play was in 1976 on a school expedition to London to see Dirty Linen at the Arts Theatre. I sat next to Andy (you’ll know him as A. N.) Wilson; now a highly regarded author, columnist and social commentator, then a mere English teacher just about to get his first book published. Mr Wilson and Mr Ritchie (our other English teacher on this jaunt) were huge fans of Stoppard and were itching to see this new play, and not unreasonably thought their A level English students would appreciate the experience too. It was a success. A few months later they took us to see the National Theatre revival of Stoppard’s Jumpers too, which I thought was absolutely ace.

Travesties - 1975 playtextTwo years before all this, Stoppard wrote Travesties. I reckon that if I’d seen a production of Travesties at the same time, I wouldn’t have had a Scooby – it would have sailed way over my head, in the direction of the second star on the right, straight on till morning. I did get the playtext for Christmas that year; and I think it reads a little more easily out of the book than it actually appears on stage, because you have the time to take in Stoppard’s verbal fireworks and re-read them to understand them better. But watching Patrick Marber’s excellent revival at the Menier made me realise what a difficult play it really is.

tom-hollanderAll these early Stoppard works relied heavily on his brilliant wordplay and sense of nonsense. He loved to depict stories from a weird angle – like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on stage when they should be off (and vice versa) or The Real Inspector Hound, seen from the view of the theatre critic who accidentally gets involved in the show. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour even needs a full orchestra to perform it. R&G and Hound also have the common theme of containing a play within a play; and Travesties too has some of the same elements, wrapping Henry Carr’s recollections of his youth in with an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

peter-mcdonald-and-othersIt must have been something of a gift for Stoppard to discover that Lenin, Joyce and Dadaist movement founder Tristan Tzara were all living in Zürich in 1917. So was little known consular official Henry Carr, who – to pass the time of day, presumably – joined an acting troupe called The English Players, whose business manager was the (ironically not very English) James Joyce. The play is set in the present (i.e. 1974) with an elderly Carr (he actually died in 1962 but who’s counting) reminiscing about his past and the extraordinary minds with whom he shared his Zürich days. But what is the purpose of the play, I asked myself, during the interval, and afterwards? There must be something more to it than just an exercise for Stoppard to show off his considerable verbal dexterity, or an example of how you can mash up a new play and an old play and not see the join. Apart from little glimpses into individual folly – like Joyce’s inability to match a jacket and trouser, or Tzara’s foppish use of a monocle when he had perfect eyesight – I couldn’t really identify the driving force behind this play.

freddie-foxThat’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, as productions go, I can’t imagine how you would play this better than the way it’s currently packing them in at the Menier. Tim Hatley’s design involves the remnants and loose pages of seemingly thousands of books, scattered to invoke both a busy library and a Dadaist approach to literature. Hidden false panels create opportunities for those outside to look in, library steps enable the action to take place on several levels in an otherwise confined space. There are also a few outrageously incongruent and surreal sequences when the whole thing turns song-and-dance like in The Ruling Class or something by Joan Littlewood. Personally, I find that kind of surreal breakout a tad tedious; what worked in the 60s and 70s doesn’t necessarily always work today.

cecily-and-gwendolenBut if ever there were perfect casting it must come in the form of Tom Hollander as Henry Carr. On his first entrance, you can’t help but be impressed at how Mr Hollander can bend himself down double to create the most elderly looking wretch imaginable as Carr Snr. With Dickensian dressing gown and warbly voice in place, he takes us through one of Stoppard’s longest and frankly self-indulgent prologue speeches as he introduces us to the glitterati of 1917 Zürich. And then, when he flips into Carr Jnr, he becomes a slightly pompous Everyman character; keen to take a good place in society, revelling in the fame and notoriety of his contemporaries, pretending to be more involved in their political and artistic movements than he really is, and willing to play Algernon if the trousers are right. He’s hardly ever off the stage and it’s a thoroughly demanding and terrific performance.

tom-hollander-and-clare-fosterThe rest of the cast give Mr Hollander excellent support – for me the best was Clare Foster as Cecily. We’ve seen her a couple of times, most recently as a stunning Sarah Brown in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, and here once again she is outstanding. With her clear-cut voice and amazingly expressive face she can cheerfully deride and humiliate anyone who’s noisy in the library; and her hilarious set pieces with Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen are just remarkable. Freddie Fox was also very good as the faux-refined and show-offy Tzara, with a nice sense of comic timing and a good stage presence; and Peter McDonald made the best of the laconic opportunities Stoppard provides to make fun of Joyce’s irascible eccentricities.

t-hollanderIt’s like a most intricate serving of super deluxe candy floss. Utterly delicious to look at, and incredibly sweet to consume, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. Does it inform the human condition? No. Is it an opportunity for Stoppard to look erudite and swish? Yes. Is it entertaining? Yes, providing you can survive its occasional longueurs.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – No Man’s Land, Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd October 2016

No Man's LandI remember when No Man’s Land first hit the stage back in 1975. It was the first new Pinter to appear after I first started reading him and seeing his plays. We’d read The Caretaker at school. I’d seen The Collection and The Lover as an amateur production in 1973. I was impressed with Pinter’s gifts as a director over the years, enjoying his London productions of the Simon Gray plays Otherwise Engaged, The Rear Column, Close of Play and Quatermaine’s Terms. But it wasn’t until four years ago that I actually first saw a professional production of a Pinter play – Betrayal, at the Sheffield Crucible. There’s a lot of ground to make up.

Original No Man's LandThat’s one of the reasons I leapt at the chance to book to see No Man’s Land when it first came on sale many months ago. I always think of it in terms of Gielgud and Richardson (both of whom I was lucky to see in other productions) and it struck me that the casting of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was about as darn perfect as it could get. So, given the fact that Sir Patrick was off sick (forbidden to take to the stage by his doctor) with a throat infection, I’m surprised how well the whole audience (ourselves included) took the news that the role of Hirst would be played by Mr Andrew Jarvis. No pressure on him, then. But sometimes having an understudy in the role can really spice up the entire performance of the play. It’s not going to go precisely the same way that it normally does, with all four regular members of the cast on board. There will be changes – everyone will have to think on their feet a bit more. There’s a seat-of-pants edge to it.

ian-mckellen-and-patrick-stewartBut first: how does the play stand the test of time forty years or so since it was written? Extremely well, in my opinion. Perhaps more than most Pinter plays, it’s not obvious what’s happening. Usually, I think the best way to take Pinter is at face value. Don’t try to read “a meaning” into what you see and hear – the meaning is no more, or less, than what is acted on the stage. Hirst lives near Hampstead Heath and he appears to have met Spooner whilst out walking. Spooner has come back to his place to join him for some drinks. They’re both arts aficionados, and seem to have a lot in common. Spooner is talkative, Hirst taciturn. patrick-stewartThey both drink vast quantities of whisky. Eventually (drunk? defeated?) Hirst crawls out of the room. Briggs and Foster, two younger men, come in and take part in an elaborate conversation with Spooner, involving hinted relationships and veiled threats. As the first act curtain falls, it looks as though Foster is going to make a move towards Spooner which might be one of physical or sexual violence; or maybe medical intervention.

ian-mckellenThe more I think about the play, the more I feel that Hirst and Spooner are imprisoned in some form of institution. Spooner insists to Hirst that he is a free man, which causes Hirst to reply: “it’s a long time since we had a free man in this house.” Spooner is locked in the room all night – doctor’s orders, says Briggs. Hirst threatens to dismiss Briggs, but he won’t leave, because he doesn’t have the authority. Briggs and Foster insist that Hirst goes on his morning walk. Hirst’s animated second act recollections of old days with Spooner, Emily, Bunty, Stella, Arabella and Rupert, whilst on the surface seem real and affectionate, are clearly the product of an unbalanced brain. To what extent Spooner simply goes along with it, or is equally befuddled, is a moot point. The text defines “no man’s land” as a place “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older but which remains forever, icy and silent.” That could be a definition of Hirst’s house; it could be a definition of the workings of a failed, unwell mind. In any case, I don’t think the “take it as face value” approach works for this play. I’m sure it has a much greater hidden significance.

ian-mckellen-owen-teale-and-patrick-stewartThis riveting production is directed by Sean Mathias with a strong regard for the play’s sense of claustrophobia. On entering the auditorium you are met with a strangely disturbing, overly artificial, moving projection onto the front curtain of Hampstead Heath trees, flickering and glistening in the wind and the movement of the birds. This sets you up for a heightened expectation of uncomfortable detail, which Pinter’s words and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set deliver in droves. The harsh light that invades the stage from who knows what outside the door pierces the calm darkness of Hirst’s room like a dagger. The tops of the trees shimmer unattainably above the stage, part aspirational, part mocking. Everything is nearly natural – but not quite.

no-mans-land-castSo what of Saturday’s matinee performance, with Andrew Jarvis in place of Patrick Stewart? We’d seen Mr Jarvis once before when he was Duncan in Sheffield’s Macbeth four years ago. He was excellent in that, but in No Man’s Land he truly shone. In those early conversations where you sense that Hirst is losing his way, he was dignified but uncertain, passionate but hollow, engaging in a fencing match with Spooner where the latter did all the work trying to find a way in and he merely had to occasionally parry riposte. When he’s fully lost, and trapped in the no man’s land of a memory of a photograph album, his emptiness is truly emotional. But when he feels like he’s in charge, he has something of the Act One Scene One Lear about him, bestowing grandiose beneficence; and he carries off that wonderful scene where it appears that he and Spooner are old friends with beautiful lightness and rhythm that was a joy to watch. As Sir Ian said at curtain call, although it was no doubt a disappointment not to see Sir Patrick, there was no need for an apology.

ian-mckellen-and-owen-tealeSir Ian, himself, gives one of his fascinatingly detailed performances where every muscle in his face moves with purpose. You always know precisely what it is that Spooner is thinking or feeling by simply watching the visual signs. He’s a wily character; happy to bludge a free drink, never letting go of his coat in case he has to scarper, always on the lookout to exercise his sense of moral or artistic superiority; reliant on his so-called friendship with the pub landlord in the same way that Blanche Dubois depends on the kindness of strangers. Sir Ian takes us on an epic journey of emotions where he tries to blend in with this apparently generous and extravagant household, in the end beseeching Hirst to let him be his secretary; the outsider desperate to be part of the in-crowd. It’s always a privilege to watch his performances; I love his attention to detail and his fantastic timing. In No Man’s Land you have the delight of seeing him take a champagne breakfast. I’ll say no more.

owen-teale-in-no-mans-landIt feels wrong to refer to Briggs and Foster as supporting roles because they’re completely vital to the plot and structure of the play – as well as dishing out the usual menace that we expect in the Pinter landscape. Owen Teale invests Briggs with all the necessary brute force just hovering at the back of the character somewhere; you always sense he’s just a gesture away from something downright evil. This makes it all the more delightful when his character starts to open up – like when he’s reminiscing, in that Pinteresque manner, of the difficulties in getting to and from Bolsover Street, the subtle implications that there may be more to his relationship with Foster than just colleagues, or when he just slips into the subservient role of breakfast and wine waiter; damian-molony-in-no-mans-landeven though the menace is still lurking just beneath the surface. Damien Molony (stunning in The Body of an American a couple of years ago) plays Foster as a trendy, cocky, self-centred man about town; someone who thinks and behaves like they’re more successful in life than they really are; the kind of character who’s recognisable in many a Pinter play. He delivers the end speech of Act One with a chilling sense of danger, and is always a tangibly disconcerting presence whenever on stage.

nomansland-castI thought this was a tremendous production that breathed superb life into the play forty years on. It was also a fantastic example of how, just because the star performer cannot go on, the show nevertheless must, and the understudy can pull off a superb performance. Yes, it’s true – this play is not for everyone; there were a few seats around us in the second act where people hadn’t returned after the interval. I guess if you don’t “get” Pinter’s vision of life, you could find it just too obscure to enjoy. Stick with it though, the second act is hugely rewarding and feels more accessible and understandable than the first act. This production is on until 17th December – and I think if you like your Pinter, you’re going to love this.

Production photographs by Johan Persson

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2016

Screaming Blue MurderOnce again we were back at the Underground for another Screaming Blue Murder night. This time we were accompanied by our distinguished guests, the Sheriff of Shenstone and Lady Lichfield, who had already had a skinful in the Bar Hygge before the show. (If you’ve not tried it, it has a great trendy feel so the four of us fitted in perfectly, naturally.) Also once again, it’s great to see that the show had sold out – and why not, as you get such a great range of comedy at such a decent price.

Dan EvansOur host as usual was the enthusiastic Mr Dan Evans, who had the task of working out why one large section of the audience was 99% female – I’m not sure he ever got to the bottom of it, if you’ll pardon the expression, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. It was a shame that it was one of those nights when, if an audience member was asked what they did for a living, or where they lived, that they went all shy and unresponsive. That’s a tough way to treat a comic.

tez-ilyas-againOur first act was Tez Ilyas, whom we’ve not seen before but he was on my shortlist for Edinburgh shows this year and just missed out because we couldn’t quite fit him in. A really funny, engaging, self-deprecating comic, with brilliant timing and a lot of great material. When someone describes themselves as openly Asian, you can guess the tricky kind of line they’re going to follow. His allusions to The Apprentice and to the News were spot on, and he absolutely had us in the palm of his hand. Then he made a schoolboy error – describing us as inhabitants of Peterborough, not Northampton. Gasps, shocks, stuns and disapproving moans later, he tried to extricate himself by explaining he was from Lancashire and how was he to know – it’s not like we had a proper cricket club… Further gasps, shocks, stuns and disapproving moans. Stop digging! It’s only because he was so likeable that we let him live. The Sheriff wondered if it was a deliberate ploy to get the town wrong in order to get the funny extrication out of difficulty as a consequence. I’m not sure – if it is, it’s a dangerous game! Anyway, he’s a genuinely funny guy and I’d be very happy to see him again.

sarah-callaghanSecond up, and also completely new to us, was Sarah Callaghan. She has a strong, confident delivery, bordering on the faux aggressive, and a lot of her material was on the rudiments of sex – which is always funny, of course. I’d describe her approach as well urban, which didn’t quite connect with any of our party – we’re just too old and staid I suppose. That’s not to say she wasn’t enjoyable, because she was! It just wasn’t an act that I felt I had much in common with, so I didn’t get that much out of it. She had her hands full (figuratively speaking) with some irritatingly noisy girls at the back who just chattered all the way through her act. Fortunately, they left before the final act could make mincemeat of them.

Ian CognitoOur headline act, whom we have seen twice before – and who just seems to get better and better all the time – was Ian Cognito, which has to be one of the best stage names in the business. No one can tell a really poor taste joke and make it bristle with delight like he can, which is both challenging to the audience and also incredibly funny. This time around, his most wicked observations dealt with paedophiles. His act is basically a string of one-liners, but delivered with superb style and at whatever pace he feels comfortable – this could be very fast or, more likely, aggressively languid. Winner of last year’s Chrisparkle Award for best Screaming Blue Stand-up. He might easily take the crown this year too.

Another one in a couple of weeks’ time – looks like a great line-up, so come along!

Review – Marcus Brigstocke, Why the Long Face, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th October 2016

m-brigstockeWe last saw Marcus Brigstocke four years ago in the very same theatre when he was giving us his views on The Brig Society, a first rate comedy diatribe on David Cameron’s Britain. Now he’s back with a reflection on why the long face; in other words, why, given that he has a privileged existence, do so many things annoy or upset him. Rather like the Ancient Mariner – a sadder and a wiser man – Mr Brigstocke has gone through a few upheavals since we last saw him. Thus he digs into some of his personal recollections and confessions to excavate some painfully touching observations and create one of the most open and honest comedy shows (and funniest) I’ve ever seen. He really lays himself bare for our consideration and reaction – in fact, slightly barer than one might expect, come the end of the show.

Marcus BrigstockeThe EU referendum is something of a gift for Mr Brigstocke. Not the result, far from it; but it gives him a raft of brilliant material which dominates the first half of the show. For staunch, moaning, metropolitan elite remainers like Mrs Chrisparkle and me, his wallowing in sheer rage and his deft destruction of Brexit’s immense stupidity was like therapy. At (very) long last, I felt empowered to laugh at the result and not merely be miserable or disgusted by it. It was like popping a champagne bottle of pent-up frustrations and letting it overflow out into the stalls. It has to be said: if you are a proud Brexiteer, you are going to hate this show. I really couldn’t recommend it to you, because you will feel attacked, humiliated, shamed and probably in a woeful minority. For those of us who take the opposite point of view, for one magical evening we were allowed to share in blissful mockery. It was heavenly.

marcus-bThere’s a lot of audience participation but none of it is scary. He achieves this in a number of ways, for example, ascertaining who the teenagers are and making sure they’re enjoying their lives – then identifying everyone else by their age, decade by decade, peaking at the 60+ bracket. A lot of his material bounces off the fact that he is a straight white male (all the SWMs have to cheer to identify themselves) but nevertheless he likes musical theatre (another cheer to prove that, yes, we do exist). He asks us to shout out our favourite stage musicals – Les Miserables, Rocky Horror and A Chorus Line (my contribution) proved to him that we were camper than we looked. He asks the audience how many of us are the happiest we’ve ever been – which creates some rewarding and funny responses; he discovers how many of us have been on a speed driving awareness course – so many! There’s a cringe-inducingly brilliant sequence where he describes being accosted by a non-empathetic Geordie, the reason why Ed Miliband lost the last election and his take on a girl’s reaction to her first period – which not many male comics would be able to get away with. So there’s a lot more than just post-Brexit angst to enjoy.

Marcus BrigstockeMr Brigstocke was absolutely on fire last night. His rapport is instant, his confidence reassuring. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, but you sense he would be respectful in debate (not that anyone was disagreeing with him). He really lets you into his own private world and makes you welcome. His material is fresh, original and very funny. Two hours in his company was a tonic for the soul. (Does not apply if you are pro-Brexit!) His tour continues into December and I couldn’t recommend him more strongly!

Review – The Eleventh Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People, Gala Concert, BBC Concert Orchestra, Craig Ogden, Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2016

11th Arnold FestivalAn interesting change of personnel for this year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert; in previous years we have enjoyed the performances of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, operating as its alter ego, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. But whilst we still had John Gibbons as our conductor, this year he was wielding his baton over the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert was being recorded for Radio 3 so I don’t know whether that was a reason for the change – after all, other orchestras are available, as the phrase goes. They were on great form though. I’m not sure we’ve seen this excellent body of musicians before but they filled the Derngate auditorium with their stunning virtuosity and created brilliant musical pictures from the works they played.

malcolm-arnoldWe could tell this was going to be a fantastic concert from the first item – Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture, Op 61. Mr Gibbons gave us a brief introduction as to what to expect, but nothing could really prepare you to appreciate what an exciting and uplifting piece of music it is. It boasted a fantastic use of percussion (actually the drums and percussion were a big hit for me throughout the entire evening) but the whole orchestra gave it their all and it was a superb way to start the concert.

John GibbonsAs a contrast, the next piece was William Walton’s Funeral Music from Hamlet. I hadn’t heard it before and as it started, it seemed to be taking on an interesting and complex shape. And then, once I had settled down to appreciate it in full, it finished. And not with a bang, but a whimper. I felt slightly short-changed by Mr Walton!

craigogdenHowever, my reward was to follow next in what would be my favourite item of the evening – Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto Op 67. Our soloist was Craig Ogden, a relaxed kind of guy, the essence of smart casual in comparison to the BBCCO’s formal attire; I liked his straightforward approach to the whole event, not too showy, there simply to make music. He really made his guitar sing – each pluck creates a full, earthy, reverberant sound; the kind of playing where you appreciate each note. Again, I hadn’t heard the piece before, but the Guitar Concerto is a terrific piece of music. Forgive me if I show my (lack of) class, but I felt the Allegro first movement could have been written by Mike Oldfield – it would have fitted perfectly into something like Hergest Ridge. This was followed by the Lento, which brought to mind the melody of Jupiter from Holst’s Planets suite. I thought both movements were absolutely stunning. The concerto finishes with a Con Brio – which for me was a slight disappointment in terms of the creativity of the composing, but Mr Ogden gave it all the brio it required and rounded off a superb and musically eloquent performance.

william-waltonAfter the interval we returned for Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue from The First of the Few. An excellent piece to get us back into the mood – the prelude was full of stately dignity and the fugue really took off, like its eponymous aircraft, with a mixture of cheeky pride and lamentation. A fantastic performance. Next, we welcomed back Craig Ogden for Arnold’s short but sweet Serenade for Guitar and Strings, Op 13; another simply beautiful work where the juxtaposition of the lush orchestra strings against the resonant guitar chords really stands out.

bbccoOur final piece was Arnold’s Sixth Symphony. Mr Gibbons introduced it by way of comparison with other notable composers’ sixth symphonies – they often get overlooked. Arnold’s sixth gives you an almost complete impression of everything that he could achieve in an orchestral piece. Pageantry, jokiness, suspense, terror, peace and anger. The second movement in particular – Lento allegretto lento – was especially unnerving and spooky. But the whole piece was really invigorating and rewarding – and, as I said earlier, I really loved the drums!

A very enjoyable yet also challenging concert, bringing out the best of both Malcolm Arnold and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Be there for next year’s festival!

Review – JAM Comedy Club presents Comedy at the Ark, Northampton, 12th October 2016

The ArkA few weeks ago, a flyer popped into my letter box, advertising a comedy night at the Ark Restaurant, in Midsummer Meadow, Northampton. That’s only a short distance from us. I’d seen that the Ark was – shall we say – being underused at the moment; so it seemed not only an excellent idea for it to be the location for a comedy club but also for us to go along and check it out. I’m happy to report back that it’s a great venue for an intimate’s night comedy. Not sure what its total capacity is, but I reckon there were about 35 or so of us there last night and it felt comfortably full but not squished. By the way, I can recommend the Malbec at £15 per bottle – good quality and tasty; we didn’t sample the light bites but they looked and smelled delish.

mr-andyJAM Comedy Club is new to me and I hadn’t come across any of the acts before (although I had of course heard of the final act, if you read on…) Our host for the night was Mr Andy, a big engaging chap with a relaxed way about him, who obviously wants to have as much fun from the evening for himself, just as much as he wants us to enjoy it too. He has some great material, some of which he spins off his own blindness in a way that’s genuinely funny – and I liked how he generously bigged up the excellent, also blind, Chris McCausland too.

pete-teckmanOur first act was local man Pete Teckman. He’s a naturally very funny guy, who you sense has built up his range of comic material from a lifetime of unglamorous living (and I mean that kindly). He had some terrific jokes about… well, sex, mainly; the method of his sperm count test and his personal accounts of enjoying oral sex come to mind, if you’ll pardon the expression. He has some great recollections about his German ex-girlfriend, and I really loved the throwaway line about seeing Predator at the cinema. He has an excellent stage presence and a strong, confident voice and manner, and is someone I’d definitely like to see again!

a-burgessUnfortunately, he proved a hard act to follow, and, given there was an interval as well, it was very difficult for our second act, Anthony Burgess, to regain the momentum that Mr Teckman had set up. For whatever reason, he failed to make a connection in his first few interactions, and basically he spent the rest of his act treading water. He did a fairly lengthy sequence about someone or something called Screech, from some programme we had never seen (Saved by the Bell, I remember now) and it meant absolutely nothing to us. Nevertheless, he has very good comic timing, and obviously can incorporate music into his routine too, so maybe with some better material and a more confident delivery he could do well.

reverend-henry-kingHot on his heels came the Reverend Henry King, the Bishop of Bletchley. I have a sneaking suspicion, gentle reader, that he may have falsified his ordination certificate and isn’t really a bishop at all. It’s a great persona, this street-talking, crime-approving parody of a man of the cloth, and at times it really works. His side-swipes at his diocese are cruel but very funny. But I think there is an inconsistency to his material that lets him down a bit; and naturally it’s a character that is inevitably going to rub some people up the wrong way. I sensed he divided the audience somewhat; there was an element of homophobia in one of his gags, and that always puts my back up – we’re not a sophisticated comedy audience in Northampton by any means, but the one thing we are not is prejudiced. Nevertheless, he is a funny guy; what he lacks in PC he certainly makes up for in attack, and he did make me laugh.

masai-grahamAfter a second interval, and a refresh of the Malbec (just one more glass, not a complete bottle, obviously!) it was time for our final act, Masai Graham. Mr Graham won this year’s “Joke of the Edinburgh Fringe” award, and no sooner had he started to tell it, then someone from the audience leapt in and delivered the punchline. I wonder if that happens to him all the time? He’s a class act – he’s funny, he’s open, he’s likeable and he has fantastic, deceptively simple and deadpan material that just gets you laughing your head off. I’m still giggling about the fat badger, and that Royal Mail joke was simply ace. As adept with clean jokes as he is with naughty ones – in fact the clean ones are particularly crafted to perfection. We both thought he was pretty darn brilliant.

The stageLet’s hope this becomes a regular comedy club – it was a really enjoyable night and it deserves to become a success.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Floating Admiral (1931)

Floating AdmiralIn which the members of the Detection Club each write a chapter on how Inspector Rudge investigates the case of the death of Admiral Penistone, found floating on a boat with the vicar’s hat. The book is relevant to our challenge, gentle reader, as one of the chapters was written by Agatha Christie. As usual, you can safely read this blog post and not discover whodunit!

Rule Book More of an exercise in cleverness than a real attempt to write a proper detective book, members of the Detection Club each wrote a chapter with the following rules (and I am indebted to the introduction by Miss Dorothy L Sayers for this explanation): “Each writer must construct his instalment with a definite solution in view – that is, he must not introduce new complications merely “to make it more difficult.” He must be ready, if called upon, to explain his own clues coherently and plausibly; and to make sure that he was playing fair in this respect, each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution of the mystery.” Chapters I to XII were written first, then bizarrely the prologue and the introduction. The result is a patchwork quilt of styles and content; the overall effect is one of unbalance but strangely intriguing.

opium-denG. K. Chesterton’s prologue, “The Three Pipe Dreams”, briefly provides the reader with three rather ethereal scenarios, that serve merely to give us the presence of a valiant sea captain who has passed out under the influence of drink and drugs. It brought to my mind those Princess Puffer scenes in Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood. As Simon Brett points out in the foreword to the edition I’m reading: “the prologue […] seems to bear no relation to anything in the ensuing novel.” No real reason to linger here.

captain-birdseyeChapter I – Corpse Ahoy! was written by Canon Victor L Whitechurch, a clergyman who wrote detective stories featuring his creation Thorpe Hazell, described on Wikipedia as “a vegetarian railway detective, whom the author intended to be as far from Sherlock Holmes as possible”. He wrote 26 detective novels, the first published in 1903, and died only two years after the publication of The Floating Admiral. This opening chapter introduces us to the character of Neddy Ware, ex-sailor, well-known fisherman; not local, only having lived in the area for ten years; and discoverer of the body of the late Admiral Penistone, clad in evening clothes, his white shirt front stained with blood, floating away in a boat with only Mr Mount (the vicar)’s clerical hat for company. Inspector Rudge is called in to investigate and quickly meets two hearty young lads – the vicar’s sons – who take him to see Mr Mount where Inspector Rudge drops the bombshell that his hat has been found near the dead body: “Your boat was drifting with the tide up-stream. And in her was the dead body of your opposite neighbour, Admiral Penistone – murdered, Mr Mount.” You can almost feel the shock.

vicar2Chapter II – Breaking The News was written by husband and wife team G D H Cole and M Cole, writers of 35 books of detective fiction between 1923 and 1948. The change of writing style is immediate and very noticeable. Whereas Whitechurch had been quite stately and elegant in his writing, the Coles were quite slovenly by comparison, adopting a much more conversational style and concentrating more on detail, less on the bigger picture. In particular, Mr Mount’s voice changes from Whitechurch’s rather formal and thoughtful tones to the Coles’ garrulous and wandering ones. The change really does not help the narrative thread at all, as you can’t believe it’s the same person talking. It’s more successful when we meet the Admiral’s niece, Elma Fitzgerald, because her character can be completely created anew. But the main feeling you get from this chapter is one of bluster and hurry, exhaustion and talking just a bit too much.

tidal-riverChapter III – Bright Thoughts on Tides, was written by Henry Wade. He wrote twenty crime novels, but moreover, under his real name of Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet, was awarded the DSO and Croix de Guerre for his bravery in World War One and was also High Sherriff of Buckinghamshire. He died in 1969 and I have a tiny memory of him presenting programmes on BBC Radio Oxford when I were a lad! Whilst remaining largely conversational in format, Sir Henry’s natural authority absolutely shines through his words and again makes a stark contrast to the Coles’ more humdrum contribution. I like the way Inspector Rudge coaxes information out of people in this chapter – not only suspects and witnesses but also his police colleagues. Sir Henry must have had excellent coaching skills to tease further thoughts and explanations out of people. Regarding plot development, the chapter concentrates on the activities of Fitzgerald’s maid and how the tides might explain at what time and where from the boat carrying the dead body set sail.

stilettoChapter IV – Mainly Conversation, by Agatha Christie (and therefore my main reason for blogging this book!) Christie decides to continue the conversation that had brought the previous chapter to a conclusion. After sending Appleton back to the vicarage to ask a very sensible question about coats, Rudge asks Hempstead for advice on where to get the best gossip – and Mrs Davis certainly fulfils that role. It would appear that Christie is still in Miss Marple mode! Peter and Alec the Mount boys reappear and pester Rudge for a job in the investigation – it’s a very Christie trait for people other than the police to do the investigating – and he sets them off to look for the murder weapon. And trust Christie to be the first writer to pen anything remotely xenophobic in the story. “One of those nasty murdering Eyetalian stilettos. Wops they call them in New York – the Eyetalians I mean…” As you would expect, Christie fills in a lot of detail and raises a few issues that are bound to turn out to be red herrings; and drives the story on with the big piece of information that the Admiral was in the Lord Marshall pub just a few hours before he was found murdered.

hotel-front-deskChapter V – Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory, a rather long-winded chapter title for the contribution by John Rhode, the pen name of Cecil John Charles Street, and a Major in the First World War. Under that nom de plume he wrote no fewer than 72 novels featuring his detective Dr Priestley, 6 other John Rhode books, 63 detective novels written under the name Miles Burton, 4 as Cecil Waye and approximately another ten in various other guises. Talk about prolific, he makes Christie look like an amateur! However, long-winded seems to be the tone of the chapter, with Rudge having conversations with the porter behind the hotel desk, and going back out to seek more information from Neddy Ware about tides; and although he gathers quite a lot of information, I found it quite a boring chapter. Maybe the next one will liven things up again?

sitting-and-thinkingChapter VI – Inspector Rudge Thinks Better of It by Milward Kennedy. According to Simon Brett, he specialised in police procedurals, and wrote 20 books between 1928 and 1952. A new writer and a new method for Inspector Rudge – sitting and thinking. Then there are more questions – primarily of Emery and the vicar’s sons (one of whom uses the N word in a simple statement that strongly defines the era in which it was written) – and also discussions between the police officers trying to fill in the blanks of the case. We do get an important new piece of information though – why Miss Fitzgerald departed so rapidly.

hong-kong-1911Chapter VII – Shocks for the Inspector by Dorothy L Sayers. I was looking forward to this chapter because I have long enjoyed Miss Sayers’ detective stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and one day I must get around to re-reading them too. The chapter’s initial conversation between Rudge and Peter Mount instantly makes you realise what a much more elegant writer we are dealing with here; and also how much more interested in the religious aspects of the vicar she is than any of the previous writers. Of the many little extras that this chapters gives us in the way of understanding the case, is the first mention of the Admiral in Hong Kong back in 1911 – which ties us in with the rather woolly prologue. And the chapter ends with a definite bang (as opposed to a whimper) with the dramatic return of Elma and Holland.

cartoon-dead-bodyChapter VIII – Thirty-nine Articles of Doubt, written by Ronald Knox, more known for his religious and non-fiction books than his detective novels, which featured his sleuth Miles Bredon. It doesn’t take long, as you start reading this relatively long chapter, what a very different style Knox had. This is very formal, almost turgid writing. As a contrast with Sayers’ delightfully elegant style this was like wading through treacle. The thirty-nine articles of the chapter heading are the questions that Rudge poses to himself in his night-time memorandum; and by the time he’s written them all out, Knox concludes the chapter, leaving any potential for solution to the next writer! I did enjoy his contemplations about why the body was found in the boat – that for me was the most thought-provoking of his Articles. But, well thought out as they may be, the thirty-nine Articles look like someone saying, I’ve read it very carefully so far and showing off with their ideas. It doesn’t have much of a literary style, and kind of stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.

sleepy-town-at-nightChapter IX – The Visitor in the Night, by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts was most famous for his Inspector French novels – the detective semi-parodied in the story The Unbreakable Alibi in Christie’s Partners in Crime. He wrote 33 detective novels between 1920 and 1957. This chapter follows Rudge as he investigates the mysterious lady who arrives in town late at night. It’s quite nicely written on the whole, and I won’t say any more!

shaveChapter X – The Bathroom Basin by Edgar Jepson. This was towards the end of his life, having written forty books all in all, between 1885 and 1938. This brief chapter starts with the surprising news that one of the police officers is related to someone in the book – but I don’t think it will turn out to be relevant to the case. The prime purpose for this chapter is simply to prove that someone has shaved their beard off. When, we have a rough idea; why, there are some possibilities and who, that’s to be discovered shortly.

daggerChapter XI – At the Vicarage, by Clemence Dane. The writer of over thirty plays and sixteen novels, her writing career started in 1917 with Regiment of Women, a somewhat controversial novel that included lesbian relationships in a school setting. This little chapter is charmingly and amusingly written, with a deft turn of phrase that makes me think I would like to read some of her books. Not a lot actually happens during the course of this chapter, apart from at the very end, when the plot development takes a huge turn for the better; getting a kick up the backside that it really needed to keep the reader’s interest alive.

whodunitChapter XII – Clearing up the Mess, by Anthony Berkeley, one of the founders of the Detection Club, creator of detective Roger Sheringham, writer under many pen names, including Francis Iles’ whose Before The Fact (1932) would be adapted to become Hitchcock’s classic film, Suspicion. Thus, as the chapter title suggests, it is left to Anthony Berkeley to make some head or tail of the previous eleven chapters. And he does a pretty good job! Finally, the book gathers some suspense as Rudge, with Chief Constable Twyfitt, tie up the Hong Kong background and at one stage I thought it was going to turn into a kind of Murder on the Orient Express, with everyone being implicated in the crime. Although it’s one long chapter, it’s split into separate sections, with plenty of opportunities for some excellent cliffhangers. And there’s no doubt that the revelation of whodunit is a humdinger.

writers-own-solutionsBut it doesn’t end there. If you remember, Dorothy L Sayers said in her introduction: “each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution of the mystery.” So we now get to read all the contributors’ own solutions to the story. Two, Whitechurch and the Coles, don’t bother – so I hope they got kicked out of the Detection Club. Some provided very peremptory solutions, almost a five-minute rushed job. Sayers provides a hugely intricate and detailed solution. Between them, the eleven contributors (we ignore Berkeley who provided the denouement for the book) lay the crime at any of five people in the story; only two accurately identified the murderer, Rhode and Sayers.

The Sittaford MysteryAnd that concludes this little look at The Floating Admiral. It was an interesting book to read on the whole, although more for the exercise than any real literary thrills. If you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we’re going back to her “proper novels” and her 1931 whodunit, The Sittaford Mystery. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!