Review – Flare Path, Oxford Playhouse, 3rd February 2016

Flare PathI’ve always had a soft spot for Terence Rattigan. I think it’s because I was so impressed when, shortly after my 17th birthday, I took myself off to London to see a production of Separate Tables starring the somewhat legendary John Mills and Jill Bennett. With a supporting cast of elderly theatricals like Ambrosine Philpotts and Raymond Huntley, it was a masterclass in acting understatement. And that is what Rattigan does best – conveying deep emotion and powerful personal dilemma in an environment where the stiff upper lip is all. I’m not sure I understood at the time the irony of casting Jill Bennett in that play – the ex-Mrs John Osborne, whose “kitchen sink” Look Back in Anger has always been seen as the antidote to Rattigan’s “well-made plays”.

Graham SeedThis was the first time I’ve seen Flare Path, although I read it in my early 20s, but I could remember very little of it. Rattigan wrote it whilst he was in the RAF and it’s based on his own wartime experiences. Flt-Lt Teddy Graham is a young officer at Milchester airbase in Lincolnshire, who has recently married an actress, Patricia. She has been performing in a play in London and therefore has not been able to support him in person on his air raids. Teddy is respected and trusted throughout the squadron, especially by his faithful Air Gunner Dusty Miller. After the run of Patricia’s play has finished, she comes up to Lincolnshire to be with Teddy. But that evening, in a local hotel, where the squadron members go after their raids to relax and regroup, Patricia and Teddy’s marriage is threatened by the sudden arrival of Peter Kyle, a Hollywood film actor with whom Patricia had a relationship before she married Teddy. Kyle wants Patricia to break it off with Teddy – and she admits she doesn’t really love her husband in the way she loved Kyle. However, just before Kyle engineers a showdown where Patricia will tell Teddy that it’s all over, Squadron Leader Swanson arrives to inform the men that their evening of relaxation with their wives is cancelled, because they’re all due out on a raid that night. What Patricia has to tell Teddy will have to wait until the morning. But what will happen overnight? And how will it change the course of events the next day? I’m not going to tell you that, you’ll have to see the play.

Lynden EdwardsIt’s a finely structured, deeply moving, rather solemn play but with occasional flashes of surprising humour. We were both struck by how the play examines the theme of sacrifice. Of course, the brave airmen who don’t come back from their missions make the ultimate sacrifice; but those left at home too must sacrifice their homes, their jobs, their lifestyles. Squadron Leader Swanson even sacrifices his sleep so that he can be there for the team when they get back from their raids. And when it comes to affairs of the heart, sometimes these too have to be sacrificed for the greater good and in the cause of simply doing the right thing. Teddy can be seen as a typical Rattigan male – on the face of it, noble; but concealing an aspect of himself of which he is not proud, or cannot come to terms – in this case, his fear of undergoing the air raid missions. Just like Separate Tables’ Major Pollock, hiding the allegations of sexually harassing women in a cinema, or indeed Rattigan himself concealing his homosexuality, Teddy’s a man with a murky secret – a flawed hero. In a few years’ time, elements of his character would develop into Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea, drunk and depressed from his wartime experiences.

Hedydd DylanDo you remember the late Brian Hanrahan’s reporting of the Falklands War back in 1982? As he watched the British Harrier jets taking off from HMS Hermes to launch the first air attack on Port Stanley, he wasn’t allowed to report the numbers of jets involved. He just, famously, said: “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back”. Such are the lives of the women waiting behind at the Falcon Hotel in Milchester. Countess Doris listens for the minute details of each aircraft flying overhead, knowing which ones are in trouble (“she’s flying on three engines. Been shot up, I expect”), and which are successfully taxi-ing after landing. They brave the blackout recriminations of Mrs Oakes as they open the curtains to watch the planes take off and land. It really gave me, as a modern audience member, who has never personally been involved with any military combat, an insight into what it must be like to be on the edges of war action – fully supportive of the war effort, but desperately worried about each and every outcome.

Claire AndreadisMrs Chrisparkle and I were chatting during the interval. “You know it’s not going to end well, don’t you” she suggested. I agreed. Every indication was that at least some of our brave boys were not going to see it to the final curtain. But, without giving too much of the game away, you can appreciate that the original 1942 audience might not have warmed to too tragic a finale, and I don’t suppose Rattigan wanted theatregoers sobbing in the aisles every night. If you’re after a happy ending, you might be lucky.

Daniel FraserSo what of this production by the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions? It seems very faithful to the original, dividing up Rattigan’s three acts into the current popular requirement for two, by bringing in the interval between Scenes One and Two of the second Act. I enjoyed the adherence to Rattigan’s original stage direction of having aircraft noises and communication sounds carrying on all through the interval, which keeps the audience in the zone whilst fighting over their ice-creams. “Wiggy Jones” has been replaced by “Betty” but that’s hardly material. Hayley Grindle’s set changes the position of the reception desk from Stage Right to Stage Left and brings the ever-burning fire more to the centre of the action, but otherwise is barely changed from the original. The sound effects – on which the play relies quite heavily – are authentic and crystal clear. For our performance, we had text captions either side of the stage which I have to say is an innovation that I really like. I think my hearing’s okay on the whole, but sometimes you can really benefit from having accents clarified or quickly spoken sequences visually presented to you.

Jamie HogarthA strong, mature play like this with some meaty roles cries out for some top quality performances; and this is where it gets a little disappointing. I think the production has a new cast for its 2016 tour and some of the scenes haven’t quite bedded down properly yet. It’s not badly performed by any means, but a couple of the more important roles were, for me, a little wooden and didn’t quite convey everything that I think Rattigan would have intended. To be honest, Lynden Edwards as Peter Kyle didn’t make the role particularly interesting. When he translated the Count’s letter for Doris, I sensed you should have been overwhelmed with emotion of some sort – but you weren’t really. I wouldn’t say it was like reading a shopping list, but you would have suspected an actor like Kyle would have put a little more expression into it. In some of the earlier scenes too, I just didn’t feel Polly HughesMr Edwards quite got it. Hedydd Dylan, as Patricia, was also rather slow to get going in her role, although by the time we reached the final scene I thought she brought out all the appropriate self-doubt and emotional turmoil.

William ReayFortunately, there were also some excellent performances. I was really impressed with Daniel Fraser as Teddy, a confident and credible performance as the archetypal hero playing the game whilst deep inside feeling distraught. His breakdown scene was tremendously moving and believable. I’ve not seen Mr Fraser before and I think he could be One To Watch. Claire Andreadis gave us a very bubbly Countess Doris, amusingly conveying her starstruck-ness in the presence of Peter Kyle, yet resolute and strong in the face of the apparent death of her husband. Jamie Hogarth was excellent as Dusty Miller, balancing friendliness and respect with his Skipper, whilst gently remonstrating with his wife for her uselessness on buses; the embodiment of salt of the earth. Audrey Palmer was delightfully frosty as the proprietor Mrs Oakes, and the ever-reliable Graham Seed was perfect as Swanson, the senior officer who was more of a friend than a superior, yet could command his men effortlessly when needs must.

Audrey PalmerDespite any reservations about the performances, Flight Path still comes across as an engrossing and emotional play, with timeless themes and a huge amount of dignity. Whilst somewhere in the world airmen are still flying bombing raids to attack the enemy, this play will never go away. Congratulations, Sir Terence, your play still rocks! The tour continues throughout the UK until May.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

Secret of ChimneysIn which we meet chancer and adventurer Anthony Cade, who helps Scotland Yard solve the mysteries of identifying both jewel thief “King Victor” and a royal assassin. It’s a thoroughly jolly jaunt, and Anthony Cade certainly experiences almost everything one can experience within the space of 218 pages. Naturally you can safely read this article and I won’t give anything away regarding whodunit. Promise!

Blitz HotelOnce again Christie travelled further afield for her next adventure. Picking up from where The Man in the Brown Suit left off, and using her recently acquired familiarity with southern Africa, we first meet Mr Cade and his pal Jimmy McGrath on the streets of Bulawayo, which in itself constitutes Coincidence Number One of several. But unlike that earlier book, which starts in England and ends in Africa, this one works the other way round, and it’s not long before Cade, impersonating McGrath, is staying at the Blitz (yes, not the Ritz) Hotel and snooping around the great and the good of British Governmental society. Christie continues to tease us by denying us (again) the return of Hercule Poirot. Instead, Cade himself dons the mantle of amateur sleuth and works alongside Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard. Battle would reappear in four more books over the next twenty years; Mr Cade, for reasons that are self-evident when you reach the end of this book, doesn’t. A shame, perhaps, because Cade is a much more entertaining character in comparison with stolid old Battle.

Abney HallChristie dedicated the book to “my nephew, in memory of an inscription at Compton Castle and a day at the zoo”. The nephew in question was James Watts, who would become Conservative MP for Manchester Moss Side in the 1959 election – only to die two years later at the age of 57. My guess is that the zoo was Paignton Zoo, which had only opened in 1923. But most commentators don’t believe that Compton Castle is the basis for Chimneys – that honour goes to Abney Hall in Cheadle, owned by Christie’s brother in law, James, the father of the aforementioned nephew. Certainly grand country mansions like Abney Hall feature throughout Christie’s career, from Styles, through Chimneys to The Mousetrap’s Monkswell Manor. Chimneys of course, is the Caterham family seat, and the previous Lord Caterham was at one point Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Today the Foreign Secretary lives at Chevening House in Kent – but that tradition only began in the 1960s. So we can’t associate Chevening with Chimneys, alliterative though it would have been.

Koh-I-NoorEveryone knows about the Koh-i-noor diamond. It’s currently set in the Queen Mother’s crown, on display at the Tower of London. It came into the possession of the Royal Family after the British conquest of the Punjab in 1849. Unsurprisingly, the governments of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran have all laid claim to ownership of the jewel – but the Queen’s not budging on this one. In Chimneys, Jimmy recollects that Count Stylptitch announced that “he knew where the Koh-i-noor was”, implying that it was not, actually, at the Tower of London (in those days it was set in Queen Mary’s crown) – and indeed, it is revealed that King Victor has stolen the Koh-i-… “”Hush Battle!” George glanced suspiciously round him. “I beg of you, mention no names. Much better not. If you must speak of it, call it the K.”” So Christie is nicely playing with reality here by pretending that the K has been stolen – when we presume it hadn’t.

Chateau de BreteuilThe book also features a nice mix of real locations and pretend ones. As mentioned earlier, Chimneys is probably based on Abney Hall, but does not exist itself per se. The local police are based at Market Basing, which doesn’t exist but in your mind’s eye you cross Market Harborough with Basingstoke, and you get a well-to-do market town. As an aside, The Market Basing Mystery is a short story featuring Hercule Poirot and Inspector Japp (but not Battle) that was first published in The Sketch in May 1925, subsequently part of the collection The Under Dog and other Stories that was published in 1929. Virginia Revel’s home address is listed as 487 Pont Street, London; in real life Pont Street exists, a fashionable street not far from Harrod’s – but the numbers don’t go up that high. Anthony Cade discovers that Mlle Brun’s reference came from the Chateau de Breteuil, and so goes to meet Mme de Breteuil to confirm it. Fascinatingly, the Chateau exists, and the family of the Marquis de Breteuil still live there today. It was where the Entente Cordiale first had its origins, and back in 1912, the Prince of Wales – later to be Duke of Windsor – stayed there for four months to learn French. So there’s a huge slice of reality in this (admittedly minor) aspect to the book. No wonder Anthony found nothing wrong with Mlle Brun’s reference. When Cade goes on the run to Langly Road Dover, the mysterious address on the mysterious piece of torn paper, I don’t know how he finds the house because the road itself doesn’t exist.

1920s partyWhat marks this book apart from Mrs Christie’s previous offerings is its constant sheer light-heartedness. It’s a very flippant book; the tone is light comedy throughout. Even Christie herself admits it’s money for old rope: “Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.” Tongue in cheek, Christie couldn’t be bothered to provide a description of Chimneys house herself: “Descriptions of that historic place can be found in any guidebook. It is also No 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursday, coaches come over from Middlingham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. In view of all these facilities, to describe Chimneys would be superfluous.” Butlers bring tea and cakes amongst the corpses of the murder victims. Characters like Bundle, with lines like: “mother got tired of having nothing but girls and died” might make you think of PG Wodehouse. Plot escapades where a character sneezes and almost alerts the bad guys to the presence of the good guys at the Council Chamber at Chimneys bring to mind something out of one of Mr Ben Travers’ Aldwych farces. Conversations such as “I say Virginia, I do love you so awfully – “ “Not this morning, Bill. I’m not strong enough. Anyway, I’ve always told you the best people don’t propose before lunch” could easily be dropped into Noel Coward’s Private Lives or something similar. Caterham is portrayed as an old buffoon, Cade as a dashing hero, Lemoine as an over-excitable Frenchman, the King’s valet Boris as a hammy actor and Baron Lolopretjzyl insists on ending each sentence with a verb in the best Germanic tradition so that he comes across as Yoda’s long lost cousin; laughing at foreigners it is. Cade’s pet name for him of Baron Lollipop is pure Wodehouse/Travers.

AssassinIt’s also incredibly patronising. The whole story centres on the little known and purely fictional Balkan state of Herzoslovakia. The name is clearly a portmanteau of two other eastern European countries, and it’s designed to represent some kind of Ruritanian backwater, out of which clever English people can take the Mickey. We’ve already seen how characters like the Baron and Boris are figures of fun. Herzoslovakians are described by Lomax as “most uncivilized people – a race of brigands”. Cade gives us a very dismissive description of the country: “Principal rivers, unknown. Principal mountains, also unknown, but fairly numerous. Capital, Ekarest. Population, chiefly brigands. Hobby, assassinating kings and having revolutions”. Cade and McGrath are also merciless with their use of the word “dago”. I guess in 1925 it didn’t have the same racist overtone it does today, but following their conversations with the word littered in almost every sentence makes for extremely uncomfortable reading: “just pulled the dago out of the river”; “any name’s good enough for a dago”; “dagos will be dagos”.

PassportThe character of Herman Isaacstein provides opportunities for some playful yet distinctly anti-Semitic name-calling, with Caterham referring to him Ikey Hermanstein, and even Bundle calling him “Fat Iky”. Part of Caterham’s comic persona is his distrust of foreigners and unwillingness to mix: “I don’t get on with Canadians, never did – especially those that have lived much in Africa!” Constable Johnson is disappointed that the murder victim at Chimneys wasn’t a decent Englishman. ““I’m sorry it were a foreigner” said Johnson, with some regret. It made the murder seem less real. Foreigners, Johnson felt, were liable to be shot” – an interesting take on blame the victim. And this patronising and insulting tone isn’t just reserved for “foreigners”. Women too, are seen as very much second-class citizens in the eyes of Lomax: “it has occurred to me… that a woman might be very useful here. Told enough and not too much, you understand. A woman could handle the whole thing delicately and with tact – put the position before him, as it were, without getting his back up. Not that I approve of women in politics – St Stephen’s is ruined, absolutely ruined, nowadays. But woman in her own sphere can do wonders. Look at Henry’s wife and what she did for him. Marcia was magnificent, unique a perfect political hostess.”

Royal Prince CrownAnother verbal trick that works well in this book, and happily doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, is the 1920s small talk, and in particular its gift for fine understatement. When Battle informs Cade that the gentleman who was murdered was a royal personage, Cade simply replies: “that must be deuced awkward”. The understatement really emphasises the sense of the ridiculous. Here, Virginia is trying to find someone to ask advice as she sits at home with a murdered man. ““Oh damn!” cried Virginia, jamming down the receiver. It was horrible to be shut up with a dead body and to have no one to speak to.” Even Battle succumbs to this style, as he explains why the equerry, Captain Andrassy, did not come to Chimneys with the Prince: ”it’s perfectly simple. He stayed in town to make arrangements with a certain lady, on behalf of Prince Michael, for next weekend. The Baron rather frowned on such things, thinking them injudicious at the present stage of affairs, so His Highness had to go about them in a hole-and-corner manner. He was, if I may say so, inclined to be a rather – er – dissipated young man.”

memoirsWhen you have stories like this that are almost a century old, I think it’s interesting to convert any financial values mentioned to what they would be worth today – it gives you a better understanding of the size of rewards, or blackmails and so on. There are only a couple of instances of this in the book, but the £1000 that Jimmy would receive for the safe delivery of Count Stylptitch’s memoirs is worth about £42,500 today – that’s a pretty good reward. When Virginia allows herself to be blackmailed just to see what it feels like, she pays over £40 – and that’s the equivalent today of £1,700. That’s a pretty hefty petty cash tin she’s got.

St StephensChristie often uses words, phrases and references that were obviously fully understandable back in the day but have not kept pace with time. When Anthony remembers the first occasion he met Jimmy, he describes rescuing him from cannibals, saying it was a “very nice little shindy”. Shindy? Well, replace it with the more modern “shindig” and you have your meaning. Lomax’s observation that “St Stephen’s is ruined” mentioned a little earlier I believe must refer to St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. In a harkback to the Kilmorden Castle of The Man in the Brown Suit, Anthony’s arrival back in England is confused by Bill when he checks the itinerary of the Carnfrae Castle instead of the Granarth Castle. All these liners are fictitious, but the Union Castle line, which ran them, was certainly real, and only ceased trading in 1977.

Evening DressVirginia asks her maid to pack her “new Cailleux evening dress”. I think this is a made-up fashion designer. There was a model by the name of Barbara Cailleux but she was active in the 1950s and so it can’t refer to her. However, if you know more, please let me know! Cade in conversation with Battle, reflecting on the open middle window, says “either he was killed by someone in the house and that someone unlatched the window after I had gone to make it look like an outside job – incidentally with me as Little Willie…” Julius in The Secret Adversary uses the same name for his gun. Not quite sure of the reference here, but Little Willie was the name given to the first tank prototype constructed in 1915. However, if you think Cade is referring to anything else, again please let me know! I was amused at Cade’s use of the phrase all will be gas and gaiters, primarily because it reminded me of that great 1960s comedy series, but it did make me wonder where the phrase came from. It’s the invention of Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby. A nameless old gentleman who is courting Miss La Creevy uses it to suggest that everything will be wonderful.

PanhardBundle’s two young sisters who are looked after by Mlle Brun are named Dulcie and Daisy, “like the song, you know. I dare say they’d have called the next one Dorothy May”. This refers to a song written by A L Harris, entitled “Three Green Bonnets”, published in 1901 and made famous by none other than Dame Nellie Melba. “”You modern young people seem to have such unpleasant ideas about love-making,” said Lord Caterham plaintively. “It comes from reading The Sheik,” said Bundle. “Desert love. Throw her about, etc. “ “What is The Sheik?” asked Lord Caterham simply. “Is it a poem?” Bundle looked at him with commiserating pity.” The Sheik, of course, was the archetypal desert romance novel written by Edith Maude Hull and published in 1919. It was the source for the famous film starring Rudolph Valentino. Bundle, as a modern woman, is happy to get behind the wheel of the Panhard – and clearly is a reckless driver. I confess I hadn’t heard of Panhards before. Rene Panhard was a pioneer of the motor car industry in France, his first vehicle being sold in 1890. They look rather nice, as you can see in this photograph.

WorstedCan anyone help me with the phrase: “I retire worsted”? Cade says it to Lemoine when he’s baffled. And Bundle says to Virginia, “I hate that man with his prim little black beard and his eyeglasses…. I hope Anthony does snoo him. I’d love to see him dancing with rage.” Snoo doesn’t appear in my OED and possible definitions of it on Urban Dictionary all seem unlikely. Any ideas? And to explain the reference to King Victor’s Bertillon measurements, I refer you to my blog about The Murder on the Links.

La France roseThere are a couple of significant passages in the book where characters are visiting the Rose Garden. The reader doesn’t realise the significance until much later in the book. I wondered, when reading this passage, whether the types of rose mentioned exist in real life: Madame Abel Chatenay, Frau Carl Drusky, La France, and Richmond. Well yes they do! Madame Abel Chatenay is a pink, climbing hybrid tea rose introduced in 1917. Frau Carl Drusky is less easy to trace but it does get a mention in an old newspaper article about a “Penrith Garden” from 1915 (that’s Penrith, New South Wales.) La France was introduced way back in 1867. The Richmond rose, though, I cannot trace – unless any keen rose growers out there know different!

David and UriahAnd once again Christie shames me for my lack of Bible knowledge. Virginia says of the time that Prince Michael wanted to marry her – although she was already married – that “he had a sort of David and Uriah scheme all made out”. Not David Copperfield and Uriah Heep, but Uriah the Hittite, married to Bathsheba, whom King David fancied something rotten and impregnated, so he murdered him. Chapter 11 of the Second Book of Samuel has all the details.

And now I give you my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Secret of Chimneys:

Publication Details: 1925. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1956, priced 2/-. I rather like its colourful and melodramatic cover!

How many pages until the first death: 56; and then the second death comes ten pages later. Although both are relevant to the story, much more is made of the second death than the first!

Funny lines out of context:
“McGrath poured out his own drink, tossed it off with a practised hand and mixed a second one.”
“It was the waiter, Giuseppe. In his right hand gleamed a long thing knife. He hurled himself straight upon Anthony, who was by now fully conscious of his own danger. He was unarmed and Giuseppe was evidently thoroughly at home with his own weapon.”
“You’re a man in a thousand, Battle. Either you have taken an extraordinary fancy to me or else you’re extraordinarily deep”.

Memorable characters:
Plenty. This is where the book scores well. Anthony Cade is a wise cracking chap, matey with his mates, charming with the girls; risk-taking, heroic, noble and thoroughly aspirational. And there’s a surprise up his sleeve kept for the end of the book which makes him even more extraordinary. Virginia Revel is also a very spirited, daring character and the two spark off each other very well. I also liked the ploddingly decent Bill, and Boris the bodyguard/servant is as camp as a row of tents. Bundle is full of 1920s spirit, and Lord Caterham an amusingly lean and slippered pantaloon.

Christie the Poison expert:
Still on vacation. This book is all to do with gunshots.

Class/social issues of the time:

The main background to the book is the political stability of the fictitious Herzoslovakia. On the one hand you have the threatening behaviour of members of the Comrades of the Red Hand and on the other you have the British government supporting the reinstatement of the monarchy under Prince Michael Obolovitch. With all the monarchists seen as thoroughly decent, if occasionally eccentric, and all the republicans as lunatic criminal obsessives, it’s not hard to see where Christie’s sympathy lie.

Christie also reveals her belief in that old adage that people may be socialists in their youth, but once they grow up a bit, they see sense. That’s how she characterises Cade: “it was rather pleasant to be back in London again. Everything was changed of course. There had been a little restaurant there – just past Blackfriars Bridge – where he had dined fairly often, in company with other earnest lads. He had been a Socialist then, and worn a flowing red tie. Young – very young.” Bundle is emphatically a socialist – at least according to her father.

Foreigners/Race Relations – A massive amount of anti-foreigner material as I outlined earlier, that can actually make you feel extremely uncomfortable reading it, even though you know that in the day it wasn’t considered anywhere like as offensive as it comes across today. No race or country seems to go without criticism. Towards the end there is a brief conversation between two characters that feels very uncomfortable today: “Merciful God in heaven! He has married a black woman in Africa!” “Come, come, it’s not so bad as all that…she’s white enough – white all through, bless her.”

Classic denouement: Yes – you see Cade going about hither and thither, inviting people to join him at Chimneys later that evening and you know that it’s going to result in a classic showdown. What appears to be one crime is cunningly broken down into two parts, which adds to the excitement and protraction of revealing all the relevant secrets. I couldn’t remember the story nor whodunit when I first started to read; but about sixty pages before the end there was a scene that prompted me to make a guess as to the identity of King Victor – and I was right. However, there’s a wonderful build-up in the denouement where, right before the end, you have a sudden doubt and think that just maybe it could be someone else. Then you find out you were right all along. It’s a beautifully written scene.

Happy ending? Yes – if more than a trifle far-fetched. One couple get married just before the end of the book, and although that’s all jolly good for them, other people are left behind probably feeling slightly heartbroken.

Did the story ring true? It is far-fetched, and generally preposterous, but, on reflection I reckon it could all just about happen.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It is a very exciting read, and with some great characterisation, and full of twisty turns in the plot. I would have scored it higher had it not been for the fact that a) I did guess the identity of King Victor and b) the anti-foreigner remarks that litter the book really make you squirm at times.

Thanks for reading my blog of The Secret of Chimneys and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge it’s 1926, and it’s a biggie – for many, her masterpiece – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Hercule Poirot – I’ve missed the old chap over the last couple of books! 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 – We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at David O’Doherty, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th January 2016

David O'DohertyThere’s a decided buzz about going to see a comedian when you haven’t a clue who he is – it’s a distinct risk, because humour is very subjective, and although whoever it is you’ve chosen to see might be top of their tree technically, they simply might not be your cuppa tea. I really enjoy taking these leaps of comic faith, and, so far, we haven’t really been disappointed. If you hadn’t guessed, gentle reader, the talent that is Mr David O’Doherty had previously passed me by, as we hadn’t seen him on TV, and we hadn’t caught him at Edinburgh. However, he had some very fine reviews on Chortle, so it was more than worth taking a punt. And it paid dividends, in droves.

He meanders on to the stage in a very unshowbizzy way; in fact he’s what the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called a scruffy urchin. As he himself points out, if you’re expecting a big build-up, you’ll be disappointed. But it’s that quietly unassuming, realistic persona that really makes you warm to him. Within a few minutes, you really feel he’s one of us (whoever we are, of course.) He got great mileage from the fact that, whilst he was on the stage of the charming and elegant Royal Theatre, Jersey Boys were pounding the boards upstairs at the Derngate auditorium, and trusted that no one had got mixed up as to which show they were seeing. A pretend rivalry between the two shows became a brilliant running thread that developed throughout the evening; I loved the suggestion that the two shows had to finish at different times because otherwise us O’Doherty Boys would beat up the wussy Jersey Boys in the foyer, as though we were re-enacting some scene from West Side Story.

DODWe both enjoyed Mr O’Doherty’s relaxed, natural style; no over-the-top McIntyre-like pacing or skipping from one end of the stage to the other, and no gimmicks – just his little Bontempi keyboard that he plays probably about as badly as I would, to sing his hopelessly funny songs about how life is basically rubbish and why does everything go wrong. You sensed there was a script lurking in there somewhere; at times, particularly after the interval, it came to the fore, but some of his best material emerged when he’s just freewheeling and thinking off the top of his head. He’s clearly got an amazingly lively brain as he spins off on delightful tangents, exploring if there’s anything funny there – and there usually is. He does involve the audience, but not over-much; you needn’t worry that you will become the star of the show if you sit in the front row, although 14 year old Jack might occasionally have hoped the earth would open up and swallow him.

Amongst Mr O’D’s comedy nuggets were observations on how e-cigarettes are really unsexy, Rod Stewart’s ability to think on his feet, mobile phone advertisements; and comparing the problems of a 40 year old (Mr O’D is 40) and a 20 year old. Specifically, if a 20 year old’s phone gets stolen they’ll be embarrassed about the naked selfies and videos; but what were the equivalent concerns of a 40 year old twenty years ago? He has some longer material when he recalls the day when they counted the votes in the Irish referendum about equal marriage. It branches out into all sorts of bizarre avenues, which are mostly not at all what you might expect, but very funny.

David O'DPerhaps one of the elements that makes an evening in Mr O’D’s company so enjoyable is that he’s easily recognisable as any number of one’s own friends and acquaintances. He reminded Mrs C of an Irish ex-colleague; he reminded me of one of our Irish friends; and he also put me in mind of a teacher back in the 1970s – a little hairy Irish chap whom everyone loved because his clothes were tatty and he looked thoroughly degenerate, so different from the other dignified but run-of-the-mill teachers – one of us, in fact. By the end of the evening you think of Mr O’D as someone you’d really look forward to going out for a pint with.

He’s touring the UK, Ireland and Australia between now and April – go and see him and for some genuinely funny material in the company of a really decent bloke.

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal Theatre Northampton, 22nd January 2016

Burlesque ShowA cock-up on the ticketing front meant that I booked for the Burlesque Show on the Friday and not the Saturday, thereby making us miss out on the first Screaming Blue Murder of the season. Drat and double drat. At least it meant we saw The Burlesque Show in super duper Row C seats so that we could be at the heart of the action. As usual it was a sell-out; and you can tell it’s Burlesque night by the audience: a plethora of bohemian ladies with flowers in their hair and gentlemen wearing bowties. Alas Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t quite come up to scratch in the fashion parade. Must do better.

Peggy SuedOur hostess, as last year, was Peggy Sued, the enthusiastic and uninhibited alter ego of Miss Abi Collins. Overly acrobatic wherever possible, recalling her ten previous husbands with a hula hoop for each occasion, she has a brilliant connection with the audience, and she’s a constant joy. I’ve never been involved in a crowd-surfing event before, but I ably helped propel Miss Sued from Row B to Row D with a gentlemanly placing of my right hand on her left thigh. And then back again. She chose Stephen from a couple of rows behind to join her on stage and help her with her hoops; we’re all hoping his fiancé has forgiven him.

Immodesty BlaizeFor the ultimate in glamour, we were treated to two helpings of Miss Immodesty Blaize, if that’s not an insensitive way of putting it. She takes the Burlesque genre and delivers it with all the style, taste and panache that you could hope for. Her first act was “Venus in furs”, which involved some very expensive looking costumes and classic black feather fans. It was all very charming and seductive. Her second act, which wrapped up the show, involved her wearing what looked like a jewel encrusted nightie and was also the height of taste and decorum until she suffered a slight wardrobe malfunction, which meant her final tableau displayed a little more of her upper half than she might have expected. A true star, she nevertheless carried it off with complete aplomb, and even visually referred to it in her curtain call, when, with a quick flash, she made – shall we say – a clean breast of it. A class act in every way.

Rod LaverAlso on the bill from last year – and from three years ago – was juggler and comedy ping pong ball man Rod Laver, performing his occasionally grotesque, always hilarious, how many ping pong balls can he get in his mouth act. His white facial make up and lugubrious expression, when combined with swollen cheeks because of the balls in his mouth always reminds me of cartoon hero Droopy. DroopyIn fact, have you ever seen them on the same variety bill? In the second half, he pals up with the divine Miss Alexandra Hofgartner for their Weimar Republic cabaret act which always entertains (even if it is three times we’ve seen it now). Miss Hofgartner had earlier given us her high acrobatic act where she defies gravity by voluptuously draping herself around two thin sheets of red material suspended from the roof.

Alexandra HofgartnerThere were some new acts too. An excellent addition to the Ministry of Burlesque mix is Kiki Lovechild, a silent (well almost) clown who can convey both laugh out loud silliness and charming innocence. For his first appearance he gave us his chapeaugraphy routine, where with just a piece of felt that resembles an oversized polo mint, he recreates 20 or so different characters with varying headgear. It reminded me a little of Ennio Marchetto, rapidly changing styles with just a quick flick of his prop; very funny and inventive. For his second piece he gives us an act of almost childlike innocence, where he looks for a rare butterfly to complete his collection but realises their true worth is when they are alive rather than pinned in cases. In the end he brings them all back to life in one huge colourful flutter. It’s a really charming act, and I made sure to bring a butterfly home with me.

Kiki LovechildThere was a new Burlesque lady in the form of Oriana, who gave us a very striking strip routine that didn’t hide (why should it) her more substantial figure and who is expert in the ancient of art of making the tassels twirl in different directions. We also met Beau Dicea (I believe that was her name), who gave us a comedy burlesque routine where padded undergarments took on a life of their own. And to redress the balance of the sexes, there was also a very funny and skilful act from Edd Muir, performing strong acrobatics on a pole whilst recreating that famous Diet Coke advert. I haven’t seen as much builder’s bum since Peter Pan Goes Wrong’s Stage Manager Trevor.

Edd MuirThis was the fifth time we’ve seen the Ministry of Burlesque’s production of the Burlesque Show here in Northampton. It’s always a rumbustious combination of laughs, titillation, music and magic, and while it continues to deal all this up in generous proportions, why would you miss it? Anyone who was new to the show on Friday night will have had the most tremendous programme to enjoy. For us regulars, I admit I could have done with a few more new acts rather than the identical fare that we’ve enjoyed a couple of times before. It’s a perennial problem, isn’t it – you keep going back because you enjoy it so much, but you see the same acts which means you leave slightly less satisfied than the previous time. I can’t really complain – the old favourites are excellent, and they were still entertaining to see a second time. But I hope they ring some changes for next year’s show.

Review of the Year 2015 – The Sixth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Yet again the whole Chrisparkle team has met behind closed doors (well, I sat at my PC) to determine who should win the gongs in this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. Countless actors, musicians, dancers and writers are on tenterhooks to discover if they’ve hit the Big Time. Eligibility for the awards means I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 11th January 2015 to 14th January 2016; however, this year, shows seen abroad are ineligible (primarily because they would have won everything in their categories, which would have been boring for everyone!)

Izzy whizzy, let’s get busy.

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

In 3rd place, the exquisite artistry of the Moscow City Ballet performing Giselle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January 2015.
In 2nd place, the technical brilliance and fantastic humour of the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in their two programmes at London’s Peacock Theatre, in September.
In 1st place, for the third time in four years, the fantastic programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2014, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, Christoph Koenig conducting Beethoven Eroica and Elgar’s Violin Concerto, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Pinchas Zukerman, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in April.
In 2nd place, Alexander Shelley conducting From Paris to New York, a programme of American and Russian music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Boris Giltburg, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in November.
In 1st place, the amazing tenth Malcolm Arnold Festival, Reaching Across The Globe Gala Concert with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons, with soloists Jess Gillam and Martin James Bartlett, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

By which I mean anything else that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, the bright and jolly Cinderella at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in December.
In 2nd place, the fascinating and brilliantly executed mime drama Light, performed by Theatre Ad Infinitum at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, in February.
In 1st place, the constantly beguiling and hilarious Burlesque Show at the Royal, Northampton in January 2015.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw far fewer big name stand-up comics this year – only six, and a couple of those were below par! So here’s the top three:

In 3rd place, one of two local boys done good, the hilariously unshowbizzy James Acaster, at the Royal, Northampton in October.
In 2nd place, the other of two local boys done good, the unexpectedly spot-on Alan Carr in his Yap Yap Yap tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in May.
In 1st place, the unsurpassable wit of the amazing Dara O’Briain in his Crowd Tickler tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in May.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

As ever, a hotly contested award; we saw twenty-four comics at the Screaming Blue Murder nights last year, of whom seven made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, the avuncular and surprising Andrew Watts (11th September)
In 4th place, the now very successful and always refreshing Joe Lycett (23rd January 2015)
In 3rd place, new to us and a great find, Zoe Lyons (11th September)
In 2nd place, a previous winner and always brilliant, Markus Birdman (27th February)
In 1st place, a guy whose act just took off with amazing success, Ian Cognito (6th February)

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals; I saw thirteen, from which there was a shortlist of six, and it was very hard to pick a winner – even the shows way down the list were excellent. But a winner has been chosen! Here are the top five:

In 5th place, the fun and funky combination of great songs and performances that is Kinky Boots, that we saw at the Adelphi Theatre in December.
In 4th place, the beautiful and moving revival of the Sound of Music at the Curve Theatre, Leicester that we saw in January 2015.
In 3rd place, the revelation that was Mack and Mabel, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in August.
In 2nd place, the show I’d always wanted to see and was well worth the wait, the marvellous Show Boat at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2016.
In 1st place, the fantastic and innovative revival of Oklahoma! at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in February.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. An extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a final five from the eleven contenders:

In 5th place, the chillingly effective An Audience with Jimmy Savile, at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, in July.
In 4th place, the Marmite production which we thought worked incredibly well, Dinner with Saddam at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 3rd place, the hilarious and beautifully structured Peter Pan Goes Wrong, at the Royal Theatre, Northampton in February.
In 2nd place, the haunting and disturbing adaptation of Brave New World, at the Royal, Northampton in September.
In 1st place, the brilliantly staged and performed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in March.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw nineteen revivals, whittled it down to a very long shortlist of ten; the winner was quite easy to identify, but the runners-up were much harder:

In 5th place, a thought-provoking play that made the audience part of the experiment, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect at the Crucible Studio in Sheffield, in July.
In 4th place, the authoritative and hilarious satire on the landed gentry, Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, at the Trafalgar Studios in January 2015.
In 3rd place, the mesmerising and emotional revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, at the Curve Studio in Leicester, in October.
In 2nd place, James Dacre’s masterful staging of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Holy Sepulchre Church in Northampton in April.
In 1st place, Jonathan Kent’s stunning production of David Hare’s adaptation of Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull that made up the Young Chekhov experience, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – not many candidates this year, but the stand-out disappointment for us was Camelot the Shining City at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield in July.

Last year’s Chrisparkle Awards introduced two new categories for Edinburgh – best play and best entertainment. As this year we saw fifty Edinburgh productions, we now have four categories specifically for Edinburgh. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 20 plays in Edinburgh, shortlisted to the best eleven – and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the challenging and intimidating experience of Immersive Acting Movement’s Comfort Slaves (New Town Kitchen)
In 4th place, the intelligent and daring production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed by Fear No Colours (C Nova)
In 3rd place, the emotional and thought-provoking Solid Life of Sugar Water by the Graeae Theatre Company (Pleasance Dome)
In 2nd place, the play that made you think differently about rape, the very insightful Wasted by No Prophet Theatre Company (Gilded Balloon Balcony)
In 1st place, a funny, shocking and beautifully performed play that should be compulsory viewing in schools, Hungry Wolf’s A Little Respect (The Space at Surgeon’s Hall)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

My shortlist of ten absolutely superb performances by ten terrific actors who by rights should all go on to do great things yielded this top three:

In 3rd place, the challenging and powerful performance by Jack Elliot for Thief (Sweet International 2)
In 2nd place, the technically brilliant performance by Matthew Marrs for Odd Shaped Balls (Space Triplex Studio)
In 1st place, the sheer star quality of Hugh Train for Ozymandias (The Space at Jury’s Inn)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Thirteen shows but a shortlist of just four gives this top three:

In 3rd place, the enormously likeable Tats Nkonzo (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, the brilliant material and delivery of Rob Beckett (Pleasance Dome)
In 1st place, the late night laughter smorgasbord that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

The sixteen other shows in Edinburgh that don’t fall into the other categories produced a shortlist of seven and this top five:

In 5th place, the pixieland work-out that is Follow The Faun (Spotlites Studio)
In 4th place, card tricks that aren’t magic with the Card Ninja (Sin)
In 3rd place, the inventive ventriloquism of Nina Conti – In Your Face (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, great dancing, great choreography and great paintwork in Liberation (Zoo Southside)
In 1st place, Interactive Theatre International’s simply fantastically funny The Wedding Reception (B’est Restaurant)

The Edinburgh turkey, by the way, was the allegedly comic hour of bad language devoid of any humour by Alex Williamson.

Best film

Out of the five I saw last year, I’m awarding it to Suffragette.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

This is where it gets personal. Nine contenders in the shortlist, and here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Charlotte Wakefield as Laurey in Oklahoma! at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in February.
In 2nd place, Rebecca LaChance as Mabel in Mack and Mabel at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August.
In 1st place, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Maria in The Sound of Music at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, in January 2015.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Again nine fine performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Michael Ball as Mack in Mack and Mabel at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in August.
In 2nd place, Matt Henry as Lola in Kinky Boots, at the Adelphi Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Tim Driesen as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys at the Milton Keynes Theatre in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Very tough one, this one. Nineteen in the shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Tara Fitzgerald as Bella in Gaslight at the Royal, Northampton in October.
In 4th place, Gemma Chan as Ruth in The Homecoming at the Trafalgar Studio in December.
In 3rd place, Tanya Moodie as Constance in King John at the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton, in April.
In 2nd place, Ophelia Lovibond as Connie in The Effect at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield in July.
In 1st place, Charlie Brooks as both Sandra in Beautiful Thing in May and especially as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire in October, both at the Curve Studio in Leicester.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

The most hotly fought for award, with twenty-three contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Nigel Barratt as Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, in April.
In 4th place, Jo Stone-Fewings as King John in King John, at the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton, in April.
In 3rd place, James McArdle as Platonov and Lvov in Chichester’s Young Chekhov season in October.
In 2nd place, Samuel West as Ivanov and Trigorin in Chichester’s Young Chekhov season in October.
In 1st place, James McAvoy as Jack in The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios in January 2015.

Theatre of the Year.

For the range and quality on offer, as well as the comfort and enjoyment of the whole theatre experience, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year – and thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Here’s to another wonderful year of theatre in 2016!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

The Man in the Brown SuitIn which we meet Anne Beddingfeld, orphaned (if you can be orphaned at her age) and inquisitive adventuress, who witnesses the death of a man at Hyde Park Corner tube station and subsequently gets caught up in a realm of intrigue which takes her from London to Marlow to South Africa, on the hunt for the mystery man named “the Colonel”. Unsurprisingly, she does discover his identity; but rest assured gentle reader, I won’t give the game (or the name) away.

MarlowChristie dedicated the book to her husband Archie’s old teacher, E A Belcher: “To E.A.B. In memory of a journey, some Lion stories and a request that I should some day write the Mystery of the Mill House“. He did indeed have a property called Mill House – in Dorney, although in the book Christie transports it to Marlow. She based the character of Sir Eustace Pedler on Belcher, and in her autobiography recalled how she found it very difficult to flesh him out in print until she hit on the brainwave of having Pedler narrate part of the book himself. Hence the book is three quarters narrated by Anne, and one-quarter by Pedler. The two different narrative voices add to the vitality and rhythm of the book, which is a very entertaining read, even though it is at times ridiculously far-fetched.

MilitaryOne of the criticisms of the book at the time of publication is that it was not a detective whodunit in the tradition of her earlier works, but more of a general thriller. Some were disappointed to find that Hercule Poirot does not make an appearance. You wouldn’t have guessed, reading this in 1924, that the one character in it who would feature in later Christie books would be Colonel Race; for although he plays an important part in the book, he doesn’t strike me as having much of a personality that would make him worthy of future inclusion. Christie obviously thought differently, as Sir Eustace points out when describing Race: “He’s good looking in his way, but dull as ditch water. One of these strong silent men that lady novelists, and young girls always rave over”. I think it’s a shame that Anne doesn’t reappear in later books – although she’s a bit bossy and a little patronising, using the knowledge she gleaned from her late father of Palaeolithic times to bully and intimidate, she’s nevertheless a jolly girl, with lots of spirit and daring, never flinching in the face of disaster. Still, I guess she ends up happy and contented – even if in a rather unconventional lifestyle for the time – and Christie felt it was best to leave her where she settled.

NurseAlthough you get the sense that Anne hasn’t had a very exciting life before the book starts, she’s clearly a thoughtful and perceptive person who makes insightful comments on life. “”My wife will be delighted to welcome you” insists Mr Flemming, her solicitor and wannabe guardian, when he offers her the chance to live with them for a while. “I wonder if husbands know as much about their wives as they think they do. If I had a husband, I should hate him to bring home orphans without consulting me first.”” Mrs Flemming is sweetness and light when they meet, but then she overhears their conversation. “A few minutes later another phrase floated up to me in an even more acid voice: “I agree with you! She is certainly very good looking.” It really is a hard life. Men will not be nice to you if you are not good looking and women will not be nice to you if you are.” Anne and Mrs Flemming rub along as best they can under the circumstances, until it is time for Anne to leave: “she was a good, kind woman. I could not have continued to live in the same house as her, but I did recognize her intrinsic worth”. She’s cheeky with Lord Nasby, she’s resourceful enough to save Harry Rayburn’s life with her nursing skills, and she’s even able to release herself from capture by cutting through the gag that binds her; but despite all that, when it comes to the crunch she’s more traditional than you might expect, in matters of the heart and stereotypical gender roles. In conversation with Colonel Race: “”So you don’t consider women as `weak things`?” I considered. “No, I don’t think I do – though they are, I suppose. That is, they are nowadays. But Papa always said that in the beginning men and women roamed the world together, equal in strength […] that is why women worship physical strength in men: it’s what they once had and have lost.”[…] “And you really think that’s true? That women worship strength, I mean?” “I think it’s quite true – if one’s honest. You think you admire moral qualities, but when you fall in love, you revert to the primitive, where the physical is all that counts.” Perhaps it’s no surprise when Anne backs down to Rayburn’s insistence that she leaves for Beira: “This is man’s work. Leave it to me.” The intertwining narrative from Sir Eustace makes an excellent contrast because he is disreputable, and, in common parlance, something of a perve; and it feels wrong that Anne should nevertheless quite like him, but she does. Women, eh? Just can’t understand them. They always like the bad boys.

SmutsSeveral times through the book Anne refers to The Perils of Pamela; presumably this is either a film or a book that has so far satisfied her need for adventure. Back in 1922 when this book is set, there was no such thing on the screen as The Perils of Pamela. There was, however, The Perils of Pauline, a series of melodramatic short films where our heroine got into tight scrapes before being rescued by a handsome man. If this is Anne’s staple entertainment, it’s really no surprise then that her views on the status of women put the sisterhood back by a number of years. Talking of 1922, it’s quite unusual for the author to pin down the actual date of a novel so precisely. In Christie’s book, The Kilmorden Castle set sail on 17th January 1922 bound for Cape Town. In reality, there is no such place as Kilmorden, let alone a castle standing there. Pedler joins the ship so that he can personally deliver secret papers to General Smuts, who was the South African Prime Minister from 1919 to 1924. It was indeed a time of social unrest in the country, with many instances of miners striking, so maybe Pedler’s rather savage desciptions of the industrial discontent (even seen from a right-wing British perspective) were not that far from the truth. The Christies had travelled round the world throughout 1922, including some time spent in South Africa, so no doubt she was keen to put to good use whatever observations she had made of the political and social situation there.

Victoria FallsIt also explains why the book at times loses focus and reminds you more of a travelogue than a thriller, the writer almost showing off about all the places they have visited. Cape Town, Johannesburg, Muizenberg, De Aar, Kimberley, Bulawayo, The Matoppos (now Matobo National Park, where Anne and Race visit Cecil Rhodes’ grave), The Karoo (the desert), The Victoria Falls, and an island on the Zambezi all feature distinctively. In Cape Town, Anne is followed round Adderley Street (one of the most notable streets in the city) and orders two coffee ice-cream sodas at Cartwright’s. The attention to detail regarding location in this book is somewhere between fascinating and overwhelming.

DiamondAs is often the case with Christie, the plot is based on an event that took place a long time in the past. In this instance, it’s the theft of some De Beer diamonds and the framing of two innocent prospectors into the bargain. These diamonds were apparently worth £100,000 when the theft took place, just before the war, according to the dancer Madame Nadina in the Prologue. That’s over £8m in today’s money. Not a bad haul; no wonder people died as a result. The other interesting sum of money that’s quoted in the book is the £87 that it costs Anne to travel 1st class on the Kilmorden Castle from Southampton to Cape Town. That’s about £3500 today. She got a bargain.

Passenger shipAlthough The Man in the Brown Suit predates Murder on the Orient Express by ten years, there were a couple of scenes that forcefully reminded me of that latter – and much better known – book. When Anne stays awake until 1am awaiting something to happen in her cabin – and it does – she is interrupted by a knock at the door by an inquiring night stewardess, whom Anne fobs off with an innocent denial. She looks down the corridor and can only see the “retreating form of the stewardess”. For some reason this strongly reminded me of the “story of a small dark man with a womanish voice dressed in Wagon Lit uniform” and a woman in a red kimono: “who was she? No one on the train admits to having a scarlet kimono. She too has vanished. Was she the one and the same with the spurious Wagon Lit attendant?” (both quotes from Murder on the Orient Express). Suspicions about the Rev Chichester also made me think of people playing parts in Murder on the OE. “If Mr Chichester had indeed spent the last two years in the interior of Africa, how was it that he was not more sun-burnt? His skin was as pink and white as a baby’s. Surely there was something fishy there? Yet his manner and voice were so absolutely it. Too much so perhaps. Was he – or was he not – just a little like a stage clergyman?” Of course, Christie would return to the idea of someone impersonating a clergyman in At Bertram’s Hotel.

Palaeolithic ManAs usual Mrs Christie gives us some unusual references, words and phrases for us 21st century types to decipher. First of all there are all Anne’s technical terms that she learned from her father, and that she uses to bamboozle opponents: “Frankly, I hate Palaeolithic Man, be he Aurignacian, Mousterian, Chellian, or anything else”. Aurignacian pertains (perhaps unsurprisingly) to Aurignac, in France, home of a Palaeolithic culture somewhere around 40,000 years ago. Mousterian relates to a period of Neanderthal Man earlier than the Aurignacian era, typified by the use of flints worked on one side only. It’s named after Le Moustier, the rock shelter area of the Dordogne. My OED states that both words were first used in the early 20th century – so Mrs Christie was spot on the ball with her up to date knowledge and terminology. Chellian, on the other hand, is a 19th century term that has fallen into disuse, but was the name given by the French Anthropologist G. de Mortillet to the first epoch of the Quaternary period when the earliest human remains were discovered, the word being derived from the French town Chelles. Anne is also into head shapes: Brachycephalic (short-headed), Dolichocephalic (long-headed) and Platycephalic (flat-headed); there may be a few more cephalics that I missed out.

AsafoetidaAnne doesn’t enjoy her first few days at sea. From the safety and security of her deckchair, she observes: “brisk couples exercising, curveting children, laughing young people”. What kind of children? To curvet – apparently – is to make a leaping or a frisking motion like a horse. When Anne retreats to her cabin she notices a dreadful smell: “Dead rat? No, worse than that….Asafoetida! I had worked in a hospital dispensary during the war for a short time and had become acquainted with various nauseous drugs.” Asafoetida is an acrid gum resin with a strong smell like that of garlic, obtained from certain Asian plants of the umbelliferous genus Ferula, and used in condiments. So now you know.

Upper BerthSir Eustace moans about having to play Brother Bill and Bolster Bar on board ship. Have you ever heard of these? I hadn’t. And after a bit of a search online and in my OED, I still can’t find anything that seems appropriate. If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know! Talk that his cabin might be haunted reminds him of The Upper Berth. This was a short ghost story published by Francis Marion Crawford in 1886 about a room on a train where passengers who have stayed overnight have died horrible deaths. And when he’s holding court telling his hunting adventures (seems in such bad taste today), he relates: “this friend of mine…was trekking across country, and being anxious to arrive at his destination before the heat of the day he ordered his boys to inspan whilst it was still dark.” Ordered them to do what? Apparently it’s a word of Afrikaans descent, meaning to yoke (oxen, horses, etc) in a team to a vehicle, or to harness a wagon. He also uses the phrase on the bust to mean “get drunk” – although I can’t see this usage anywhere else. I wonder if it’s an early example of on the p*ss?

Beche de merAnne refers to bêche-de-mer (useful if you visit the South Sea Islands). She says she doesn’t know what it is, and nor did I, so I looked it up and it’s an edible sea cucumber. I think I preferred not knowing. ““It would hardly be respectable,” said Suzanne, dimpling.” Dimpling? Does that mean making a dimple appear on your face? Apparently it does, but I’ve never come across it as a verb. Another odd word formation is: “I was to be arrested on some charge or other – pocket-picking, perhaps.” I’d never come across “pocket-picking” before. “Pickpocketing” would be a much more common phrase. I wondered if “pickpocket” was a recent word, but no, it’s been in use for 400 years. Weird one! Among the souvenirs that Anne and Suzanne consider buying are mealie bowls (South African term for maize) and fur karosses. A kaross is a cloak or sleeveless jacket like a blanket made of hairy animal skins, worn by the indigenous peoples of southern Africa (OED). Eardsley’s son is described as “quite a parti”. A what? Again from the OED: A person, especially a man, considered in terms of eligibility for marriage on grounds of wealth, social status, etc – originally a late 18th century term taken from French.

bibleAnd once again Christie shows my heathenry by offering a Bible quotation I don’t recognise. In conversation with Race, Anne says: “they win in the only way that counts. Like what the Bible says about losing your life and finding it.” A little research unearths two possible references. Matthew 10:39 – “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” But I think more likely: Luke 17:33 – “Whoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.”

So it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Man in the Brown Suit:

Publication Details: 1924. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1973. The cover illustration is the usual photo representing some of the clues or events of the book, but, interestingly, the artist got one of the details wrong. It shows the piece of paper dropped at the scene of the crime at Hyde Park Corner tube station. But it reads Kilmorden Castle 1. 7 22 and not Kilmorden Castle 17.1 22 as in the book. Sack the illustrator!

How many pages until the first death: 16; and then the second death is reported two pages later. A double whammy, one might say.

Funny lines out of context:
“In other words, the chimpanzee is a degenerate.”
“These earnest, hard-working young men with weak stomachs are always liable to bilious attacks.”
“Every now and then he galvanized himself to further efforts by ejaculating something that sounded like Platt Skeet”.

Memorable characters:
The two narrators are very lively characters, well drawn and full of quirkiness – especially Sir Eustace, with his frequent observations on the loveliness of ladies and the irritations of his colleagues.

Christie the Poison expert:
On vacation for this novel. Will no doubt be back soon.

Class/social issues of the time:

Foreigners – It wouldn’t be a Christie if she didn’t get some suspicions over foreigners in the text somewhere. Perhaps it’s no surprise that The Daily Budget is something akin to the Daily Mail of today: “In an upper room of the Mill House the body of a beautiful young woman was discovered yesterday, strangled. She is thought to be a foreigner…” Interesting that it’s not a foreigner that’s suspected of perpetrating the crime, but is the victim; it’s one of those examples of where there is a slight suspicion of “blame the victim”. Anne later goes on to interrogate the housekeeper at the Mill House. She saw the man suspected of being the murderer. “A nice-looking young fellow he was and no mistake. A kind of soldierly look about him – ah, well, I dare say he’d been wounded in the war, and sometimes they go a bit queer aftwards; my sister’s boy did. Perhaps she’d used him bad – they’re a bad lot, those foreigners.”

Also unsurprising that Pedler and his secretary Pagett have the same belief. “On the face of it, a Member of Parliament will be none the less efficient because a stray young woman comes and gets herself murdered in an empty house that belongs to him – but there is no accounting for the view the respectable British public takes of a matter. “She’s a foreigner too, and that makes it worse,” continued Pagett gloomily. Again I believe he is right. If it is disreputable to have a woman murdered in your house, it becomes more disreputable if the woman is a foreigner.”

Race – I’m still trying to make my mind up whether Christie is a latent racist or not. There are some very iffy comments that I’ve already read in the next book (see below), but I think on the whole the references to race in this book are simply the norm for the time. She uses the term “kafir” a great deal; she describes some of the souvenir tat as “absurd little black warriors” which feels a bit patronising to me; and there’s a rather awkward scene when Anne regains consciousness after an attempt on her life: “Someone put a cup to my lips and I drank. A black face grinned into mine – a devil’s face, I thought it, and screamed out.”

Classic denouement: It’s almost as though there are two denouements. The first occurs about two thirds of the way in, with the full explanation of Rayburn’s identity and his part in the story. The second, concerning the identity of “the Colonel”, slowly and excitingly becomes clear over a good twenty pages or more. And whilst it doesn’t have the classic Poirot-type set up of a room full of suspects and a man pointing “j’accuse!” it works in a much subtler and satisfying way. I had forgotten the identity of “the Colonel” and it came as quite a nail-biting surprise.

Happy ending? Of course. Anne and her man live happily ever after albeit in a rather unconventional manner and location. As for the master criminal, that person appears to get off scot-free. That might annoy the reader’s sense of justice, although Anne herself is not unhappy with the outcome.

Did the story ring true? Frankly, no! Of all the Christies I have re-read and written about so far, this is most definitely the most far-fetched. The plot leaps from coincidence to coincidence, and occasionally you have to break off and laugh at how monstrously Christie handles the reader’s credulousness.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. On the minus side you have the ridiculous coincidences that render the plot so unlikely as to make it laughable, its tendency to stray into travelogue and an awful lot of Barbara Cartland-like romantic nonsense towards the end that comes close to being nauseating. However, Christie gets away with it by having some extremely good characters, rather witty conversations and creating an old-fashioned “rattling good read”.

Secret of ChimneysThanks for reading my blog of The Man in the Brown Suit and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge it’s 1925, and time for The Secret of Chimneys. It sounds a little like an Enid Blyton adventure, but there I think the similarity ends. Still using her South African experiences, the story will also introduce us to Superintendent Battle – and that jolly girl that goes by the name of Bundle. 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 – Show Boat, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2nd January 2016

Show BoatA dim and distant memory from my childhood is the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle playing an LP (that’s what they were called in those days) with highlights from Show Boat on one side and Roberta on the other. I remembered the tunes being, on the whole, pretty enjoyable. Pursuant to following up these memories, sometime in my 20s I discovered the album of Roberta (probably in Tower Records, remember that?) took it home, played it, hated it, and never played it again. However, I never got round to buying an album of Show Boat, and I guess the songs from that show left my conscious mind and settled somewhere in the back of my subconscious, waiting for an unlocking moment when I would finally get round to seeing a production of the show myself.

Cotton BlossomArtistic Director of the Crucible, Daniel Evans, is on his way south to taking up the reins at Chichester this summer. For his Sheffield Christmas musical swansong, he couldn’t have chosen a better production than Show Boat. Considered the first “modern” musical, it was adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel by no less than the renowned Jerome Kern and a still relatively young Oscar Hammerstein II. It was produced by the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld (of the Follies fame) and first hit the stage in 1927 with its significant multiracial cast and its, for the time, almost unique structure combining music, lyrics and libretto.

Frank and EllieThe show boat seems a quaint institution today, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America they were at the heart of bringing entertainment to communities outside the big cities. Ferber’s novel follows three generations of women through the history of running and working on one of these vessels. The musical adaptation concentrates less on the characterisation of the women and more on general life aboard the show boat, specifically the relationship between Magnolia and Gaylord from their hopeful beginnings to their somewhat desolate conclusion.

Rebecca TrehearnCaptain Andy runs the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that chugs up and down the Mississippi, full of actors, singers and dancers, backstage hands, kitchen staff and boat mechanics. Andy is married to the redoubtable Parthenia, and their daughter Magnolia is entranced by the glamour of life on board. She’s also entranced with handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal (you have to admit, these names are priceless today). Two of the boat’s leading performers, Julie and Steve, are charged with miscegenation, as it was illegal for a white man and a black woman to marry. Even though they evade the law, they are forced to leave the boat, as it was not acceptable for black people to appear before the white segregated audience. In retrospect it’s easy to see why this was such a ground-breaking show! Magnolia and Gaylord take Julie and Steve’s place, and eventually get married. They move to Chicago and have a daughter, Kim; but Gaylord’s gambling crashes out of control and, unable to support his family, he moves out. And I’ll leave the plot synopsis there because if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you!

Michael XavierI must draw your attention, gentle reader, to the fact that this is one of those edgy experiences in the theatre where some characters use the N word. It’s amazing the impact it can have on an audience. When Scout innocently blurted it out in To Kill a Mockingbird, we all winced. Its usage in Show Boat is possibly even more uncomfortable, as it both accompanies the mindless mistreatment of the black dock workers as well as the legal harassment of Steve and Julie. Still, IMHO, it’s better to include it than to sanitise the show, and, to be honest, you get great theatrical intensity out of it. Incidentally, why is it acceptable to use the N word on stage like this but that famous Agatha Christie book has now been substantially amended to And Then There Were None? I’m merely wondering about the inconsistency.

Gina BeckEnough of that, what about the score? It’s really one of history’s most rewarding musicals from a purely musical point of view. As the show started to unwrap my subconscious memories of the Dowager Mrs C singing along whilst attending to chores, I was amazed to realise how many superb and well-known songs are performed in this show. Ol’ Man River, of course, was no surprise – one of the most stirring, moving and simply beautiful songs ever to come out of musical theatre. But I couldn’t believe my ears when, just a little way into the show Gaylord and Magnolia sing Only Make Believe. It was like a sudden blast from the past hitting my auditory nerves. It’s such a sweet and touching song, and I don’t think I’ve heard it since maybe before I was a teenager. I had to fight back the urge to sing along, because all the words came to me instantly. Of course, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man is an absolute classic, and the show demonstrates how versatile it is by the number of different styles and arrangements that suit it perfectly. Bill is another sweet song that the Dowager used to perform at the drop of a hat – and is a complete show-stopper in this production. Originally written by Kern with P G Wodehouse in 1917, the words were later adapted by Hammerstein. And another old favourite suddenly appeared, that I had no idea was from this show – After The Ball. I would have put money on that being a Noel Coward song. Actually, neither is correct. It was written by Charles K Harris in 1892, and is simply borrowed for use in Show Boat, as an example of a typical type of song that might have been sung in that era. Captain Andy encourages us, the audience, to sing along – although he doesn’t actually mean us, he means the audience who were watching Magnolia perform that song in the Trocadero on that New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, I needed no second bidding and gave it my all, much to the embarrassment of Mrs Chrisparkle. I couldn’t help it. As Cat Stevens once said, I can’t keep it in, I just gotta let it out.

Lucy BriersThe production is a credit to everyone involved. When you find out the sets are by Lez Brotherston, you know they are going to be superb – and they are. David White’s band produce a fantastic sound from their little subterranean cubbyhole. Alistair David’s choreography is fresh and lively, using the maximum space that the Crucible can allow and incorporating many different styles. And the amazing cast, studded with people who are absolutely at the top of their game, perform with true commitment and sincerity, producing some scenes of real raw emotion, as well as musical delight.

Emmanuel KojoIn fact I was surprised – and excited – to see so many names in the cast whose work I’ve been lucky enough to see before and have really enjoyed. Gina Beck, whom I last saw when she was pouring me a drink at the cabaret tables in the excellent Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, brings youthful enthusiasm to the young Magnolia, and dignified regret and grim determination to the sadder Magnolia of later years. She has a wonderful purity to her voice, and gives a very personal expression to all her songs. It’s a great performance. She’s matched, in the marriage stakes at least, by the fantastic Michael Xavier, who we last saw giving it large as Cornelius in the Curve’s Hello Dolly. He cuts a dashing figure as the young Gaylord – and I found his portrayal of the pitifully washed-up older man very moving. Of course, he sings with amazing resonance and clarity, and the two perform together brilliantly.

Allan CordunerEveryone who goes to see Show Boat will be looking forward to – and have high expectations of – the performance of Ol’ Man River. So no pressure there! It falls to Emmanuel Kojo to take the part of Joe, whom we last saw as one of the Scottsboro Boys, and he takes to it like the proverbial duck to water. Tremendous raw emotion, a quiet, solid dignity, highly believable as an ordinary, hard-working man with no prospect of ever bettering himself, but strangely secure in his own position. You might think that the show will centre on this song, but in fact it comes quite early on, and, although there are a couple of reprises, it’s not the essence of the show in the way that you might suspect. Joe has his Queenie, the Cotton Blossom’s cook, played by the powerful Sandra Marvin, whom we last saw dishing it out as the devious Mama Morton in Chicago. Ms Marvin gives us the moving Mis’ry’s Coming Aroun’, the uplifting Hey Feller, and, with Mr Kojo, the two of them combine with great humour and a lightness of touch for the utterly charming I Still Suits Me – think of a 1920s Mississippi version of Alesha Dixon’s The Boy Does Nothing. If the likes of Ellie and Frank are on the way up in this world, and Magnolia and Gaylord are on the way down, Joe and Queenie represent a constant level; forever working hard to stay in the same place, rather like the incessant flow of the ol’ man river itself, they just keep rolling along.

Alex Young and Danny CollinsAlex Young (brilliant in both last year’s Anything Goes and the touring High Society a few years ago gives another chirpy and cute performance as Ellie, the rising star, and she is matched by the brilliant Danny Collins, a fantastic dancer whose performances we have enjoyed both as part of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty company and Drew McOnie’s Drunk, here giving us his full stagey showdance routines. Allan Corduner is a bluff and avuncular Captain Andy, and Lucy Briers perfect as the grim and grumpy Parthy, seriously channelling what Captain Andy calls her “mean disposition”. We saw her recently equally grim and grumpy in the Young Chekhov season at Chichester, and before that in the Royal and Derngate’s Ayckbourn season back in 2009. I’d love to see her play a cheerful role for a change! I also really enjoyed the performances of Rebecca Trehearn as Julie and Bob Harms as Steve (and many other characters) – Mr Harms is getting to be a bit of a regular in Sheffield, and that can only be A Good Thing. I’m not going to mention everyone, but the entire cast get behind the show with such attack and talent that the show whizzes past in the blink of an eye.

Sandra Marvin and Emmanuel KojoAnother great Christmas Crucible production. I waited many years finally to see Show Boat on stage and it was well worth the wait! It’s on till 23rd January so you still have time to jump aboard the Cotton Blossom. My only hope now is that Daniel Evans’ successor will be equally as adept at staging these great musicals – and that Mr Evans will also have the opportunity to bring his own aptitude for musicals to the Chichester programme; that would be a win-win!

Production photos by Johan Persson