The Agatha Christie Challenge – Peril at End House (1932)

Peril at End HouseIn which Poirot and Hastings are reunited on holiday at the Cornish coast and meet Miss Nick Buckley, who has survived several accidents, any or all of which could have been fatal. Whilst Poirot is in conversation with her a bullet whizzes past and makes a hole in her hat! The great detective needs no further invitation to investigate who has got it in for Nick and vows to discover the identity of the would-be murderer before they are successful! Eventually he discovers the truth, but not before there is a fatality… And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

garden-of-edenThe book is dedicated to Eden Philpotts, “to whom I shall always be grateful for his friendship and the encouragement he gave me many years ago.” A successful writer in his own right and a family friend, he took an interest in young Agatha’s work and gave her contacts and encouragement. There’s no indication (that I could find) that he continued to play a great part in her life, although this dedication came more than twenty years since he first helped her.

excited-about-readingLet me start by saying what a terrific read this is. I think if I had been around in 1932, and had read all Christie’s books year by year as they had appeared in print, I would have said this was my favourite so far. The characterisation is excellent; the plot is as twisty-turny as you can get; the writing is fluid and un-put-downable; the denouement is genuinely exciting and offers up much more than you were ever expecting; and the final revelations are a huge surprise and very rewarding to the reader. I couldn’t remember who had “dunnit” whilst I was re-reading it, and spent the last forty or so pages holding my breath and trying hard not to race ahead to the conclusion, just so that I could savour the developing story and investigation.

centre-partingPoirot is as self-obsessed as ever. His overweeningly high opinion of himself is already well known: “They say of me: “That is Hercule Poirot! – The great – the unique! – There was never any one like him, there never will be!” Eh bien – I am satisfied. I ask no more. I am modest.” He also has plenty of opportunities to direct vitriolic fury at himself when he perceives he has made a mistake. Poirot wouldn’t be the same without his Hastings, but remains begrudging about his friend’s abilities: “you are that wholly admirable type of man, honest, credulous, honourable, who is invariably taken in by any scoundrel. You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread.” On another occasion, Poirot refers to Hastings’ “romantic but slightly mediocre mind”. At times Poirot comes across as a nagging wife: “If only, Hastings, you would part your hair in the middle instead of at the side! What a difference it would make to the symmetry of your appearance. And your moustache. If you must have a moustache, let it be a real moustache – a thing of beauty such as mine.”

argentine-ranchAs usual, Hastings is quick to note, in his role as narrator, the relative attractiveness of the young women he encounters, even though his beloved Bella is still waiting for him patiently in The Argentine (as it was called then.) At least, that’s what I presume. Christie never actually tells us why Hastings is back in England – maybe they’re both back, having sold the ranch. Perhaps it will become clear in later books. None of the young ladies has auburn hair – if they had it would have triggered Hastings’ libido into making a fool of himself.

alphabetPoirot and Hastings work together extremely well in this case. They hold several deep conversations where they explore the possibilities and consider the suspects, motives and alibis. They make for genuinely entertaining reading and your own understanding of the case grows stronger as you read their own reflections. Poirot sets out a table of suspects from A to J which helps him analyse the characters, and to which he returns late in the case to ensure he solves the crime correctly. Yet despite all this analysis and the workings of the little grey cells, it is, as often is the case, just a chance remark from Hastings that sets Poirot off on the final trek towards the correct answer.

philosophyThis book also allows Poirot the space to consider the whole subject of murder in a slightly more philosophical way. He spends virtually all the book trying to make sure that no one has the opportunity to murder Nick, but this is an unusual challenge for him. “Consider for one little moment, Hastings. How we are handicapped! How are our hands tied! To hunt down a murderer after a crime has been committed – c’est tout simple! Or at least it is simple to one of my ability. The murderer has, so to speak, signed his name by committing the crime. But here there is no crime – and what is more we do not want a crime. To detect a crime before it has been committed – that is indeed of a rare difficulty.” And what of the nature of a murderer? “It is an interesting subject of after-dinner conversation – are all criminals really madmen? There may be a malformation in their little grey cells – yes, it is very likely. That, it is the affair of the doctor. For me – I have different work to perform. I have the innocent to think of, not the guilty – the victim, not the criminal.” It’s clear that Poirot sees his responsibility as the best detective in the world to be not unlike that of a Coroner.

chocolate-boxEven though Christie was to have another forty-four years of Poirot’s escapades to write about, the book already makes a few respectful nods to Poirot’s appearances to date. Remember, Poirot began life as an old man, and presumably he gets older every year! The book begins with Poirot reflecting on his success at solving the murder on the Blue Train heading down to the south of France, and how he missed Hastings not being there to help him; interestingly, I agree, the book suffers from the lack of his trusted companion. The neighbour Mrs Croft also remembers Poirot solving that case in a moment of what we might call fangirling. On another occasion Hastings tells Nick about the time Poirot solved a crime because of his habit of straightening ornaments on a mantelpiece – this is a reference to Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. When wallowing in self-pity, Poirot recollects the case of the box of chocolates back in 1893, when he failed to bring the criminal to book. This, apparently, is a reference to the short story The Chocolate Box, which didn’t appear in the UK until it features in Poirot’s Early Cases, published in 1974, so it’ll take a good while before I get to re-reading that one. As well as that, the séance that Poirot calls as part of the denouement reminded me strongly of The Sittaford Mystery, and the dragon-decorated kimono that Nick wears when Maggie Buckley arrives is surely a forerunner of a similarly atmospheric garment in Murder on the Orient Express.

looeOnce again Christie has given us an evocative combination of fictional and factual geographic locations to consider. As in The Sittaford Mystery, we are firmly placed in the south west of England, although it’s Cornwall rather than Devon. The story is set in the fictional resort of St. Loo; although it doesn’t exist, with a name like that it really should. It conjures up a mixture of St Austell and Looe, although there certainly isn’t a Majestic Hotel in those parts; commentators associate the Majestic with the Imperial in Torquay – but that’s Devon. Other places mentioned include the real locations of Plymouth and Tavistock, but also the little village of Shellacombe, described as 7 miles from St Loo. There is no such place, of course. Try as I might, I can’t find anywhere in that neck of the woods with a similar name.

amy-johnsonNow it’s time for a quick look at some of those more obscure references and terms that cropped up in this book and gave me the research bug. There aren’t that many this time, to be honest. Perhaps the most obvious is the aviator referred to by Lazarus when they’re considering the fate of the pilot Seton. It is of course Amy Johnson, who flew to Australia in 1930, becoming the first woman to fly the route solo – she enjoyed great fame and celebrity as a consequence.

rubber-tyred-hearsePoirot is trying to make Nick realise the danger she is in from all these attempts on her life. “”Four failures – yes – but the fifth time there may be a success.” “Bring out your rubber-tyred hearses,” murmured Nick.” What was that? It’s a reference to that old American song Frankie and Johnnie: “They brought out the rubber-tyred hearses, they brought out the rubber-tyred hack, thirteen men went to the graveyard, but only twelve came back; he was her man, but he done her wrong.”

nutriaFunny how some words just don’t get mentioned in the English language anymore. Consider this exchange between Nick and the unnamed police inspector: “We came in to fetch her coat – it was rather cold watching the fireworks. I flung off the shawl on the sofa here. Then I went upstairs and put on the coat that I’m wearing now – a light nutria one.” Nutria? What’s that? One must remember that in the time of this book it was very fashionable to wear real fur coats. Nutria is the proper name for the Coypu or River Rat. This would have been a very trendy fur in 1932 but demand for its pelt declined in the 1940s. Poor little coypus.

Mrs GampAs the denouement gets going and Poirot “produces his play”, Hastings arrives at the dining room to discover that all the people on Poirot’s list of suspects were seated together: “every person on Poirot’s list from A to I (J was necessarily excluded, being in the Mrs Harris-like position of “there ain’t no sich person”). Who is Mrs Harris and what has she got to do with it? She’s a character in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit – Mrs Gamp’s imaginary confidante.

artist-with-paintingOnly one financial element to consider in this book – the picture that is worth £20 and for which Lazarus the art dealer offers £50. The equivalent today would be offering about £2500 for an item worth about £1000. But there’s more to that story than meets the eye… Enough said!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Peril at End House:

Publication Details: 1932. Fontana paperback, 7th impression, published in December 1979, priced 85p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts an aviator (presumably Seton) together with an unidentified lady with the backdrop of an early plane and rather hippy skies, but with a lethal looking pistol looming in the clouds. Rather surreal and very effective.

How many pages until the first death: 63. A bit of a wait. Not as late as The Secret Adversary though.

Funny lines out of context: the usual suspects:

“My friend was silent and distrait during our meal. He crumbled his bread, made strange little ejaculations to himself, and straightened everything on the table.”

“She’s had a rotten life. Married to a beast – a man who drank and drugged and was altogether a queer of the worst description.”

“I am hot. My moustaches are limp.”

Memorable characters:

Nick is a good creation. She’s kind of glamorous, kind of at risk, self-effacing, needing protection, but she’s got a few tricks up her sleeve as well. She rather outshines all the other characters, although I rather liked the slightly creepy Australian couple Mr and Mrs Croft; his calling her “mother” feels awkwardly inappropriate!

Christie the Poison expert:

Christie the poison expert has been rather missing of late. Again, this book contains no poisoning – the murder is committed by shooting with a pistol.

Class/social issues of the time:

The book throws up the usual array of class and social issues, plus a couple of other more unusual ones. For example, as indicated earlier, there is an element of excitement in some of the passages regarding the early days of aircraft travel. Amy Johnson is considered a heroine – plucky Nick would love to do what she achieved. And of course, there is the suggestion of a love attachment with a pilot – I’ll say no more.

There are also a couple of interesting fashion observations. Poirot is firmly of the opinion that a hat should sit on top of a fine, high, rigid coiffure, with the hat attached to the head by a battalion of hat pins. But of course, that is an old-fashioned view; and Nick proves it to Poirot by simply taking her hat off “so prettily, so easily.” Another item of clothing that is on the way out are those splendid things, galoshes. Poirot has been walking in the grass. “Poirot lifted first one, then the other foot from the ground with a cat-like motion. “It is the dampness of the feet I fear. Would it, think you, be possible to lay hands on a pair of galoshes?” I repressed a smile. “Not a hope,” I said. “You understand, Poirot, that it is no longer done.”

Apart from that, it’s the usual sexism, racism and xenophobia. When Poirot first comes to End House and tries to speak to Nick, Ellen, the housekeeper is obstructive. “Miss Buckley, she said, had not yet returned. Poirot explained that we had an appointment. He had some little difficulty in gaining his point, she was the type that is apt to be suspicious of foreigners. Indeed, I flatter myself that it was my appearance which turned the scale.” Later, when Maggie first appears on the scene, she’s particularly untrusting of Poirot. “”Nick has been telling me the most amazing things,” she said. “Surely she must be exaggerating? Who ever would want to harm Nick? She can’t have an enemy in the world.” Incredulity showed strongly in the voice. She was looking at Poirot in a somewhat unflattering fashion. I realised that to a girl like Maggie Buckley, foreigners were always suspicious. “Nevertheless, Miss Buckley, I assure you that it is the truth,” said Poirot quietly. She made no reply but her face remained unbelieving.”

There’s an unfortunate description of Jim Lazarus, the art dealer: “rolling in money, of course. Did you see that car of his? He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” That’s from one of his friends – we’ll not speculate what his enemies might have said. And, as usual, Christie can’t conceal her deep-seated mistrust of women’s abilities. A woman could make a lousy murderer under certain circumstances, thinks Poirot: “The fact that the boulder was dislodged at the wrong minute, and consequently missed Mademoiselle, is more suggestive of feminine agency.” In other words, a woman would be more likely to mess it up.

In the same conversation, Poirot and Hastings compare what course of action Vyse would take, if he were the murderer, in comparison with a woman. “Until last night there was no certitude that Seton was dead. To act rashly, without due assurance, seems very uncharacteristic of the legal mind.” “Yes,” I said. “A woman would jump to conclusions.” “Exactly. Ce que femme veut, Dieu veut. That is the attitude.” Later, the Chief Constable, Colonel Weston, starts considering the crime and discussing it with Poirot. “If Vyse is the chap, well, we’ll have our work cut out. He’s a cautious man and a sound lawyer. He’ll not give himself away. The woman – well, there would be more hope there. Ten to one she’ll try again. Women have no patience.”

Classic denouement: It’s a very strong denouement indeed, and sends you away once you’ve finished the book with a huge sense of satisfaction. It’s full of mini-cliffhangers and revelations, including a séance, and discoveries about other people not directly involved with the murder which obfuscate the plot beautifully. You get the feeling that at least two other people are going to be exposed as the murderer before the guilty party is finally identified. Very enjoyable and a true page-turner.

Happy ending? Moderately so. There are wedding bells for one couple, but to be honest they’re not the most interesting people in the book.

Did the story ring true? Overall, I’d say yes, but there is an enormously far-fetched scene where Poirot witnesses a bullet being shot through Nick’s hat but it misses her; that’s both stupendously hard to believe, and hard to believe that anyone would believe it.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. It’s a brilliant read – very exciting, and very hard to guess whodunit. I’d have given it a 10/10 if there had been more memorable characters.

The Thirteen ProblemsThanks for reading my blog of Peril at End House 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, it’s back to the short story format with Miss Marple holding court in The Thirteen Problems (that’s The Tuesday Club Murders if you’re American!) As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Pete Firman, TriX, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th November 2016

pete-firman-trixThis was the fourth time we’ve seen Pete Firman strut his stuff on the Royal stage, but who’s counting? That’s twice as part of the Burlesque Show, and also once in his own right as Trickster a couple of years ago. He’s obviously more streetwise now as the Trickster has become TriX; and he does exactly what it says on the tin, giving us trick after trick after trick, with nary a clue as to how he manages to achieve any of them.

petefirman-spellsI could just cheat now and refer you to my previous reviews because, essentially, his style hasn’t changed, his approach is the same, his Eric Morecambe-like patter hasn’t budged, his brilliant rapport with the audience is unaltered, and he still calls on members of the audience to help him out with all his tricks. He also still astonishes us with his bowling ball, with his sleight of hand card tricks, and with the mysteriously disappearing and reappearing £20 note; I know we’re being misled by those monkey nuts but I just don’t know how. I loved the tricks where £30 flew from one pocket to another; where a member of the audience was levitated, where five different types of drinks emerge out of the same Sainsbury’s juice carton; and I could go on but I’d be spoiling it for you.

petefirman-cardsHe is a brilliant entertainer; his magic stops you dead in your tracks and completely baffles you. He’s also very funny in a cheeky young whippersnapper sort of a way – I know he’s not that young, but he is in comparison to me. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were discussing in the interval with Mr Smallmind what we thought about Mr Firman’s not inconsiderable use of the F word. Mrs C found it refreshingly adult. Mr S thought perhaps it limited his audience. I sat on the fence. But he certainly does have a very lighthearted view on how a magic show should come across to the audience; no po-faced illusions here.

Pete FirmanNot a lot more to say really – two hours and a bit, crammed full of trickery and tittering. No need for support acts or beautiful hostesses when you have the population of Northampton to draw on to accompany you on stage. That was the penultimate night of his tour, so you’ve missed it now, I’m afraid, unless you catch him at the Soho Theatre for the week commencing 22nd November. But I’ve no doubt he’ll be back with another collection of mind-bogglers before too long. And I’ll certainly be booking.

Review – JAM Comedy Club presents Comedy at the Ark, Northampton, 9th November 2016

The ArkI think it’s fair to say that, with all the events of 2016, every so often we need a damn good laugh. With the excellent news that last month’s first Comedy at the Ark show was a big success, a second show has followed on a month later and it looks like this is set to become a regular monthly gig – which is great for everyone concerned, especially us as we only live down the road!

mr-andyOur host for the evening was again the big, jovial Mr Andy, who has a deceptively innocent way of telling you a really dirty joke that you don’t realise is going to be really dirty until you get the punchline. There’s no gentle warm up with Mr Andy – he hits you with the big material right from the start. He asked if anyone had come to the first show last month – and a couple of us replied that we had – and he apologised, saying we’d have to pretend this was the first time we’d heard this material. Well at least he was honest about it! But if he’s going to be our regular monthly host he may have to get some new stuff for us to enjoy.

athena-kugblenuI really like the structure to the JAM Comedy club evenings; we start with an established performer; then after first interval we have two less well known comics; then after the second interval you get the headline act. It’s balanced and gives a chance for both experienced and new performers alike. Our first act last night was Athena Kugblenu, a very likeable performer with a bright, sparky personality and lots of great comic observations. Her material ranges from her Ghanain/Guyanan heritage to the origin of the tampon and with plenty in between. Her description of a wet perm is spot on and she created some wonderful images about dealing with dreadlocks. A very funny and entertaining performer!

stu-woodingsNext up was Stu Woodings, a funny man with a guitar and not afraid to use it; he had a great song inspired by a paint pot that cleverly poked fun of DIY jargon; and another that seemed to be a paean to paedos, which is a bold step and certainly sorts the men out from the boys at a comedy club. He comes across as a very engaging and confident guy and we all really enjoyed his act. jake-pickfordHot on his heels came Jake Pickford, a young chap with a very relaxed approach and a rather hippy, laconic way about him; I don’t think I would be his typical audience member but I thought his different style worked extremely well. His material was very funny and characterfully delivered and he held a very good rapport with the audience.

andy-whiteOur headline act was the brilliant Andy White, whom we saw at the Screaming Blue Murder club four years ago and is still on absolutely top form. Dressed like a Pot Black competitor from the 1970s, he draws on a variety of threads to create an act full of funny faces, characters, voices and ideas. It’s not exactly surreal, with his references to his family and Birmingham, but it’s strangely other-worldly at the same time. I’m delighted to see that Nelson Mandela is still in the act. He went down a storm and must have easily given us forty minutes of great comedy.

Another very successful night! You can find out when the next comedy gig is by keeping an eye on The Ark’s Facebook page!

Review – The Boy With Tape On His Face is Tape Face, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th November 2016

tape-face-tourI’d heard great things about The Boy With Tape On His Face in the past and so leapt at the chance to book to see him on his current tour. So did hundreds of others because there wasn’t a seat left in the Royal – with the Dress and Upper Circles packed as well as the stalls. I booked our usual middle of Row C seats only to be told by Mr Smallmind that there is an awful lot of audience participation in his shows and that sitting near the front is taking a big risk; that’s why he chose to sit somewhere far away in the Dress Circle. However, gentle reader, distance from the stage is no guarantee that The Boy won’t winkle you out and drag you to the stage. Twice he nipped up into the circle to get fresh prey and in fact Mr Smallmind had to make up an excuse about having a gammy leg so he could be excused from stage-based humiliation. There is No Hiding Place.

boy-with-tape-on-his-face-new-zealand-americas-got-talentRecently Tape Face (as his new, streamlined identity has been rebranded) has been in the news as he was a huge hit on America’s Got Talent this year; his audition video of his performing Endless love with two oven mitts and The Lady in Red with his hands roving over himself is instant pure comedy genius. That was all I had seen of him before we saw the show, and I’m glad I hadn’t seen any more because the beauty of his show is the constant element of surprise. You really haven’t got a clue what piece of comic nonsense he’s going to attempt next. And, so that I don’t ruin it for you, I’m not going to tell you.

7d3dabe-02ab-11e3-_440206cWho knew that over two hours of mime could be so rewarding? Not a word is spoken – just facial reactions to sound effects, music clips, and of course, whatever his audience members are doing. His wide open eyes are just so expressive. Shock, surprise, ridicule, annoyance, mischief – he runs through all the emotions and you’re never in any doubt as to what he’s thinking. He has great clowning and circus skills, which get a really enjoyable airing; at one stage, it was like watching Sunday Night at the London Palladium as a child. Props? Dozens of them. Like a child he can create an intricate imaginary scene out of domestic bits and bobs. Balloons feature highly; I brought home two as souvenirs.

At one stage Mrs Chrisparkle wondered if he would be able to keep this act up for 130 minutes. No problem with that – you sense he could go on for hours; and when the end came I, for one, didn’t want to go home. He’s married to Lili la Scala – all I can say is, they must hold the most hilarious dinner parties. Tape Face is a wonderful, feelgood, carefree, escapist and extremely funny way to spend an evening. His tour continues through the UK for the rest of the year and in The Netherlands and Germany in early 2017. Perfect for all ages, blissfully ludicrous, creative mime par excellence; elements of old music hall and vaudeville given a smart modern twist. We loved it!

Review – I Daniel Blake, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 5th November 2016

i_daniel_blakeI didn’t know too much about Ken Loach’s astonishing new film before we saw it, and that probably helps it to have more of an impact. His naturalistic approach means that it looks every inch a documentary; but it is scripted, by Paul Laverty; and acted, with the two main roles being taken by actors with relatively little experience, which lends the film a further sense of freshness and reality. There is no West End glamour here.

i-daniel-blake-jason-solomons3It’s just the story of the eponymous good man, unable to work because he is recovering from a heart attack, but active enough to be considered fit for work at his Work Capability Assessment. One wonders how many people fall into that gap? His only chance of income is to receive Jobseekers Allowance; and to do that, he has to prove that he has been looking for work. So he spends his days getting his CV out to anyone who’ll accept it; but it’s all a waste of everyone’s time, as, if he is offered a job as a result of it, doctors’ orders say he can’t accept it. It’s a Catch-22. Transgress any of the rules, miss any of the appointments and you face a “sanction” – a sword of Damocles ready to fall on you without warning. Sanctions sound ominous and eerie; like a visiting ghost or a revenge lobotomy à la One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The reality is that a sanction is simply another way of expressing the right of the government to refuse to pay the financial assistance to which you are entitled. When we first meet Katie, she has been sanctioned because she missed her appointment – not knowing the location she didn’t realise the bus was going in the wrong direction. So her payments are stopped. That’s a sanction.

i-daniel-blake-1024x682Iain Duncan Smith has criticised the film for its unfair portrayal of Jobcentre staff. Well, it’s been many a year (and many a government change) since I had to endure the humiliation of regular attendance at a jobcentre, but my instinctive reaction to his viewpoint is to disagree. There is a very kindly portrayal by Kate Rutter of Jobcentre Assistant Ann, who does her best to guide Daniel Blake through the myriad of forms and paperwork, even to the extent that she is criticised by her boss for spending too much time trying to help him. Without a doubt, there are kindly, helpful and human Jobcentre staff out there. Even the Rottweiler-like clerk Sheila, a brutally unsympathetic but riveting performance by Sharon Percy, offers him a referral to a food bank, which is (I believe) above and beyond what the job requires. Mind you, that’s not before she’s destroyed his confidence, ridiculed his attempts to comply with the legal requirements, and chalked up another sanction for the team.

i-daniel-blake-2It’s not the Jobcentre staff at fault – they have their own jobs to perform, targets to achieve, bosses to satisfy and sanctions to apply; and no one will know more than them the consequences of losing your job. It’s the system that’s at fault. A system where Health Care Professionals (a generic, meaningless term that simply means you’re paid to make a healthcare decision) are given the responsibilities that should fall to medically trained doctors and nurses. A system where you can only communicate by using the Internet, no matter the level of your technological expertise, or your ability to access to IT equipment. A system where you can’t put right a wrong, no matter how innocently it came about, until you get the call from the “Decision Maker”, one of these doom-laden job titles designed to intimidate. No call from the Decision Maker, no appeal. Of course, you can’t get the Decision Maker to call you. And you’re not allowed to call the Decision Maker yourself. Oh no, he’s far too busy making other decisions to have time for the likes of you. In other words, a system that completely lacks flexibility or common sense because it doesn’t see its customers as people, just as data to be processed. It’s no surprise that Daniel eventually loses his cool. Breaking the law is finally a way of getting society to recognise his existence.

i-daniel-blake-reviewOne of the subtle strengths of the film is that it’s remarkably apolitical. I can’t recall any political party being either blamed for the struggles of Daniel or his friend Katie, nor praised for their wise use of resources. It’s just the very personal tale of widower Daniel, his friend Katie and her children. They are, however, part of a wider community; and the support given by the community is absolutely heart-warming. Whether it be the kindness of the food bank volunteers, the chirpy cheek of Daniel’s ducking and diving neighbours or the individuals who turn a blind eye when they should be enforcing the law, the local community is portrayed with real warmth and affection, and a sense that they’re pulling together to protect their weakest. That’s why, despite the savage misery of many aspects of the film, there are some truly uplifting sequences too; and, much to my surprise, it’s frequently funny. And you’re not laughing whilst feeling guilty about doing so – you’re laughing in companionship at and solidarity with the utterly ludicrous situation these people have to face.

i-daniel-blake-5-797467Dave Johns, who plays Daniel Blake, is perhaps better known as a stand-up comic, and you can see how his comedy skills enhance his portrayal. Of course, he’s not playing the role for laughs, far from it; but he does ease the humour out of those darkest situations with a true lightness of touch. Comedy at its best reveals what life’s really like; Mr Johns gives us a true insight into Daniel’s hopes and aspirations, his decency, frustration, and sadness; his need to support others, and his expectation for just a little support back when he needs it. It’s a superb performance – not that you get the sense that it’s a performance at all.

Briana ShannSimilarly, Hayley Squires is remarkably convincing as Katie, recently moved to Newcastle from London with her two beloved children; a fish out of water and easy prey to manipulators like Ivan, who has a solution to her money worries. There’s a stunning, memorable and totally appalling scene in the Food Bank, where I believe, Ken Loach just told her to act in the way she thought Katie would act under those circumstances. It was at that point that Mrs Chrisparkle started to sob, and she basically didn’t stop until we’d started our post-movie drinks in the bar opposite. There’s also a remarkably mature and moving performance by Briana Shann as Katie’s daughter Daisy; you can already see how easy it is at that young age for a child to become their parent’s carer. She’ll bring a gulp to your throat at least once during the film, I can guarantee you that.

i-am-daniel-blakeThis is one of those films where the audience bears witness to the experiences of people less fortunate than themselves. To look away in their time of need would be for us to shun our own civic and democratic responsibilities. The man to our left peppered the film by frequently muttering “Bastards!” every time Daniel was thwarted. The situation presented is a living nightmare, and something must be done to put an end to it. This was one of those rare occasions when the cinema audience broke into spontaneous applause during the final credits. Many people left clutching tissues. Don’t go away with the thought that this is only a film for left-wingers to appreciate; I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t touch the hearts of everyone somehow or other. The late Kenneth Tynan once famously said that he couldn’t love anyone who didn’t love Look Back in Anger. I rather think I might feel the same way about this film.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2016

Screaming Blue MurderBack again to the Underground at the Derngate for yet another fun-filled night of stand-uppers at the Screaming Blue Murder club. Every so often, our usual host Dan finds something else to do on an autumnal Friday night and so we have a stand-in host. According to the website it was going to be the excellent Andrew Bird, but instead we had the also excellent Carly Smallman! We’ve seen Ms Smallman a few times before; on the last occasion she caused something of a stir when she encouraged our friend HRH The Crown Prince of Bedford to go out with one of the girls in the front row, and they got offended when he refused. Well he is gay after all.

Carly SmallmanThis time she was once again delving deep into the relationships in the front rows. She got into conversation with Farmer Tristan, who met his wife when she came to shove her hand up one of his sheep’s bottoms. Allegedly she’s a vet. Carly also discovered that one of the girls in the front row worked in mental health with children – comedy gold, as she pointed out, not. At least she could always fall back on her impersonations of penises – which she did very well. In fact, she was absolutely great and we both really enjoyed her MCing throughout the night. She really kept the energy and enthusiasm up and was a most excellent replacement for Dan!

Stephen BaileyOur first act was Stephen Bailey, whom we saw earlier this year as the support act for Katherine Ryan. Now here’s a comic who hits the ground running. With his reasonably outrageous camp style, he’s impossible not to like and his rapport with the audience is just instant and winning. It wasn’t long before he was making Sam, the front row policeman, squirm with embarrassment. As before, he has lots of scurrilous material regarding dating websites; his infamously bad impression of a straight man; and numerous, off the cuff jokes about anything to do with sex that pops into his head. He’s a complete star – and had the full house in hysterics. Absolutely brilliant.

Fern BradySecond up was Fern Brady, whom we have seen here once before; she still has that slightly laconic style that takes a little bit of getting used to, particularly after the high energy of Mr Bailey and Ms Smallman. But her material is great and her observations are spot on. She has a very nice sense of self-deprecation, and a wickedly funny understanding of how best to market herself on a dating website. She went down really well.

gordon-southernFinal act was someone new to us – Gordon Southern. A brilliantly funny guy who again struck up an instant rapport with the audience and whose act developed into a nostalgia trip where the older members of the audience look back at those funny things we used to do in the good old days and the youngsters in the audience haven’t a clue what we’re talking about. All this is interspersed with nonsensical electronic jingles from his keyboard – fun facts. We both thought he was outstanding and his act seemed to fly by.

One of those glorious Screaming Blue nights where no one put a foot wrong and it was wall to wall laughter for two and a half hours. Sadly, we can’t make the final SBM of the year in two weeks’ time – but maybe you can?

Review – Shrapnel, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, 2nd November 2016

ShrapnelI blame Mr Smallmind. I was perfectly happy seeing all those wonderful professional productions at the R&D and the plethora of other theatres within easy reach of Northampton. Then he said I should broaden my vision and catch some of the University of Northampton Acting students’ shows. Start gently with the March shows in the Royal. Get in deeper with the Flash Festival productions. Now I’ve turned really hardcore, as I accompanied the aforesaid bad influence on my first visit to Isham Dark (isn’t that one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets? Darn well should be) and Shrapnel, a play devised by the students through their own experiences, observations and research of life on the streets in Northampton.

Lewis HodsonThe programme notes describe it as an unapologetically sprawling vision of contemporary street life. That’s a really good description. The acting space at Isham Dark lends itself perfectly to this purpose, as we the audience look across the stage in transverse at other audience members looking back at us – as though they are our mirror reflection as we observe what’s going on in front of us. And, separating us, where the action is, the 19-strong cast suggest an overall landscape of hundreds of people coming and going about their daily business; and specifically, about 30 or so people whose lives intertwine over the course of approximately 36 hours.

Jessica BridgeStructurally – yes, it’s sprawling. At 2 hours without an interval I could have done with a pause halfway through, because it’s an intense show with lots to look at and my legs could have done with a stretch. What begins as a very diverse experience, with many seemingly unrelated characters just living their day to day existence, grows in force as you realise the hidden relationships beneath the surface. For example, you discover that person a) is person b)’s brother and person c) is in a difficult relationship with person d) and person e) is, in fact, a dog.

Connor McReedyYou could almost break the play down into individual playlets, some of which are very strong in their own right – either because of the acting, or the text, or just the impression they are trying to achieve. I loved the conversation between Jack and the girl who isn’t his girlfriend (Emmy? Can’t quite remember – very hard when the names aren’t in the programme!) but whom he’s trying to impress, when he’s concealing the fact that his super new job is a chugger. It’s very funny, quite touching, and indeed, I felt his embarrassment! I loved the night-time scene when all the homeless people get together and create a virtual living room out of just a rug and a welcome mat; that scene showed me something completely new about homelessness that I’ve never considered before – very challenging stuff. And I loved the scene where the two rival chugging teams have a stand-off, each trying to out-threaten the other, apart from the two newbies, who naturally want to have a good intercollegial friendship; very funny, and I can absolutely believe the truthfulness of that situation. I loved, although that’s not the right word, the scene where a guy, who is generally neither brutal nor heartless, gets caught up in chav/machismo pack mentality and starts tormenting a homeless woman with money if she’ll lick his shoe. And I loved the challenge you face when you’re giving a homeless person some money and then you catch them using their mobile phone – they can’t really be poor, can they? All these scenes are either heartwarming, horrifying or hilarious and work exceptionally well. And I loved the way everyone recreates the sound of raindrops.

Hans OldhamWe saw the first performance, so perhaps we should look on it as a preview? There were just a couple of loose moments, although perhaps not as many as one might fear or expect; it would be great if they had a plan for when the play definitely reaches its conclusion (!) and I recommend guys that you work on a smart curtain call; it makes all the difference as to how the audience feels about the entire show and its performers because it’s the only time we get to see you as you and not as your characters.

Olly ManningHaving seen last year’s third year students perform in a few plays now, it’s absolutely fascinating to get this early glimpse into some (hopefully!) successful acting careers of the future. Of all the cast, I think only one person didn’t really convince me of their belief in their own character, which led to them giving an uneven and rather faltering performance. However, for everyone else, I totally believed in their characters, and many of them made me laugh and, perhaps more importantly in this play, made me cry. Well, very nearly.

Florence Rees-WaiteFor me a few performances really stand out as being first rate. Jessica Bridge is excellent as Harriet, a chugger with attitude – but not so much that she couldn’t be a rounded person too. She has brilliant clarity of diction and I heard and understood every word (a quality never to be underestimated!) She has (don’t take this the wrong way) a bad girl quality that is both attractive and edgy; quite a hard coating that conceals a softer centre. That really helps us to understand the sometimes contrasting and unexpected motivations of her character. I also really enjoyed the performance of Lewis Hodson as Ben, the homeless guy whose trust in mankind has completely gone, which results in his sometimes letting rip in anger against whoever he thinks has slighted him. If he’s actually based on a real life character in Northampton, I think I know the guy in question. Totally believable, with authoritative delivery and an excellent stage presence. One To Watch.

Kundai KanyamaI was very impressed with Florence Rees-Waite as the pavement artist, holding her own, beautifully, against Lee Hancock’s formidable ranting insidious git character; exuding warmth and kindness in her interaction with the other people facing hard times. She has a very expressive face – it tells great stories without having to use words. When she does speak, she has wonderful control over the pace of her speech, which gives us huge confidence in her – you tend to hang on to her every word. Hans Oldham also showed great conviction as the Jesus Man, part preacher, part mental sufferer, part street alcoholic; he paints a very sad picture of this man but again with great humanity, and you feel with genuine affection. Connor McCreedy is a charmingly naïve Jack; April Lissimore gives a very enjoyable performance as the underachieving Carly with deeper problems than we’ll ever know; I liked how Olly Manning spins from being Mr Nice Guy to Mr Vile in that very telling scene of torment; and Kundai Kanyama as Martha successfully conveys the juxtaposing motivations of being a team leader; an element of coaching and nurturing mixed with an element of JFDI. And, it turns out, with a heart of gold.

The entire cast put huge effort into creating an excellent ensemble feel, each giving each other great support on stage, and giving the audience a rewarding and fascinating insight into what a typical street sees every day. I look forward to seeing them do more throughout the year!