Review – Dido, Queen of Carthage, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 21st September 2017

Dido Queen of CarthageHere’s a riddle for you: When is a Press Night not a Press Night? Answer: when it’s a matinee! A 1pm start for a slice of Christopher Marlowe heralded the beginning of a long but satisfying day in Stratford surrounded by the Royal Shakespeare Company in all its glory (or, when it came to Coriolanus in the evening, all its gory, but that’s a matter for another day).

DQOC DidoI don’t know what the prospect of Dido, Queen of Carthage, by the aforementioned Marlowe, first staged circa 1590, does for you, gentle reader. This is the first time I’ve seen this play, having read it when I was knee high to a Punic warrior and probably not understanding a blind word of it. So I came to it with no preconceptions, other than the fact that “Dido” always makes think of a dodo and I’m not sure I would want to see a play about a dead old bird.

DQOC Nicholas DayDon’t let that put you off! Kimberley Sykes’ exciting and visually eloquent production brings this rather hidden classic bang up to date, including scenes of drug abuse and homoeroticism – and that’s just in the first five minutes. The play opens with a grand gentleman, white linen suit reflecting his white flowing locks, like Santa Claus in a snow drift, wandering through a sandy landscape, out-staring any member of the audience who dares to stare back. This is Jupiter, annoyed that Juno has taken umbrage at his dalliance with Ganymede, a pouting, svelte young man who has difficulty keeping his top on. Meanwhile Venus, who has been mainlining some substance injected by her dealer, Cupid, is also clashing with Jupiter about the safety of her son Aeneas, who is lost at sea after seeking refuge leaving sacked Troy. Jupiter ensures that Aeneas and his followers are safely washed up on the coast of Libya; Venus ensures that they all meet up and will be looked after by the beneficence of the local queen Dido.

DQOC Aeneas and his teamBut Venus has further ambitions for Aeneas, so she engineers it that Cupid will disguise himself as Aeneas’ son Ascanius, prick Dido with his hypodermic, and ensure that Dido falls head over heels in love with Aeneas. It strongly reminded me of Shakespeare’s Hermia and Helena falling for Lysander and Demetrius – and vice versa. There’s a delightfully underplayed scene where Dido and Aeneas nip off to the cave for some Carthaginian Carnals, emerging later like a couple of relieved yet still bashful teenagers. At times it’s almost like a Libyan Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. What would Colonel Gaddafi have said?

DQOC Chipo Chung and Amber JamesBut for every light moment Marlowe provides plenty of shade. There’s a very deeply tragic aspect to this play, from Aeneas’ moving (if long) account of the fall of Troy, to the genuine personal suffering of Iarbas, Dido’s suitor who can’t understand why she’s being so inconstant in her affections, to the imprisonment of the faithful nurse, and to Dido’s death by fiery self-immolation and the subsequent suicides of those around her. (I’m assuming after 425 years that it’s too late for spoilers.) I found it fascinating that, at the moments of high tragedy, when Dido and Aeneas part, and when Dido immolates herself, Marlowe gets the characters to quote directly – in Latin – from Virgil’s Aeneid, which would have acted as source material for the play. It’s like an early example of verbatim theatre.

DQOC Ben Goffe and Ellie BeavenThe fascinating meshing between the gods and mankind not only acts as a framework for the play but is a running thread that weaves the lives of the mortals and the immortals together. There’s a simple truth here – if you’re a god, or you’re supported by a god, you will do well. If a god’s got it in for you, or you get in the way of what a god wants – then perish you shall. With the dramatic sifting of one handful of sand, they can create any kind of havoc they want. With one jab of his needle, Cupid can cripple or liberate your emotions. It just takes one message from Hermes, and Aeneas knows he has to abandon Dido; it takes two, actually; Aeneas proving remarkably stubborn over this.

DQOC Will BlissThere are so many refreshing elements to this production that delight and astonish. The surface of the stage is covered with sand, enabling it to represent a beach, where refugees might land or from where mariners might set sail, or a visual idea of the “sands of time”, or the dust that is everyone’s fate (gods excluded.) I loved the stylistic entrance of the shipwrecked Trojans, performing energetic diving forward rolls through the curtain of (real) torrential rain at the back of the stage. I loved the imaginative use of the torn down sails to create the ring in the sand inside which Dido would end her life. I loved the scene where Dido invited the men to inspect the portraits of her previous suitors on imaginary walls, where they would recognise someone they’d seen before, as though they were checking actors’ biographies in a programme – if only Marlowe had written “oh look, he was in Juliet Bravo”; alas a missed opportunity. I loved the updating of Cupid’s arrow to a drug pusher’s syringe. I loved the fact that Hermes was wearing a shirt made by Hermès (it might have been Versace, but the joke still stands). As you can see, there’s a lot to love.

DQOC Bridgitta RoyNormally, musical accompaniment to a play like this feels artificial and invasive; but Mike Fletcher’s innovative and sympathetic soundtrack was absolutely spot on. From the portentous strings that evoke Venus’ doves to the plaintive clarinet that creates the smell of the souk (there’s even a wow moment of rock guitar in there too) the music really enhances the action and helps convey the emotions on stage. Ciaran Bagnall’s dramatic lighting adds power and exhilaration to the forces of Nature; and the costumes (see P. S. below) precisely reflect the finery of Dido’s court, the shabbiness of the refugees and the innate elegance of the gods – Venus’ and Juno’s dresses are particularly stunning.

DQOC Daniel YorkWhat is a production without its performers? This is crammed full of exquisitely observed, finely delivered performances right across the board. Chipo Chung’s performance as Dido is a thing of beauty. When she presents Aeneas with her late husband’s cloak for him to wear, despite his protestations she’s never going to take no for an answer. When Cupid’s hypodermic is working its magic, she’s a most convincing bedazzled young girl, trying, but failing, to be appropriately coquettish as she reacts to Aeneas’ every syllable. To relieve the sadness of the account of the fall of Troy, she turns into Party Animal, every inch the good-time girl; and when she’s swallowed up in her own tragedy, she cuts an immaculately forlorn figure. At first, I didn’t think her death scene was going to work – there are no flames, for example – but cunning stagecraft and perfect stillness creates a devastating final tableau. We’d seen Ms Chung in Sheffield’s Julius Caesar earlier in the year where she was a fine Portia – but this was on another level.

DQOC Sandy GriersonShe is matched by a strong performance by Sandy Grierson as Aeneas; his Scottish accent somehow underlining the character’s dour and warlike essence – this is an Aeneas that will leave light protestations to his co-refugees. Delivering that long speech about the fall of Troy – it probably accounts for over 10% of the play in itself – is a tough job, but his account never becomes long-winded or tedious as he brings the imagery of what happened fresh to our minds in all its lively atrocity. Although, physically, he’s not the beefiest of chaps, he’s like a coiled spring ready to leap into action without warning.

DQOC Andro Cowperthwaite and Will BlissEllie Beaven’s Venus also lights up the stage as she conveys the simple enjoyment of all her mischievous interventions in the mortal world; she has great presence, and her double act with Ben Goffe as Cupid is both funny and unsettling as we see the effects of drug abuse amongst the celestial beings. Mr Goffe is required to spend much of his time pretending to be Ascanius, physically cosying up to Dido, or the Nurse, or indeed whoever he wants – and the cheeky pleasure he derives from it is very infectious. The gods are all superbly presented; Nicholas Day is a naturally imperious Jupiter – you’re never going to cross him; Bridgitta Roy a splendidly sly Juno, lurking in the background, waiting for her moment to pounce; Andro Cowperthwaite revels in Ganymede’s brief but lascivious interchange with Jupiter; and Will Bliss’ Hermes is an amusingly world-weary postman until Jupiter plucks one of his feathers and then his nose starts twitching, ready to race like a Springer Spaniel on heat.

DQOC Chipo ChungThere are some great supporting performances from Aeneas’ Trojan followers; I particularly liked Tom Lorcan’s effervescently upbeat Iloneus and Tom McCall’s permanently suspicious Achates; and having a female Cloanthus, played by Lucy Phelps, creates an unusual but effective mix amongst the otherwise all-male retinue. Amber James is terrific as Dido’s sister Anna, always holding a helpless candle for her love for Iarbas, who’s superbly brought to life by Daniel York in a performance that combines brilliant throwaway humour and emotional trauma. At the performance I saw, young Ascanius was played by Samuel Littell and he truly held his own amongst all those grown-ups. Good work, young sir.

DQOC Tom McCallAn unexpected treat of a play, that gives life to what otherwise could remain a dusty old tome on the bookshelf. Very enjoyable and highly recommended! Dido runs until 28th October at the Swan Theatre – get booking!

RSC Stitch in TimeP. S. On the subject of costumes, the RSC has launched their Stitch in Time campaign, highlighting the importance, and unsurprisingly the expense, of accurate and evocative costumes in their historical productions. Even if you’re not able to contribute to the campaign, their website offers a fascinating insight into the attention to detail that their expert staff bring to creating Just The Right Outfit. Well worth a little donation, I reckon, if you admire their work.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)

Murder in MesopotamiaIn which Hercule Poirot encounters an archaeological dig in Iraq, only to discover that the wife of the leader of the dig has been murdered in a seemingly impossible manner. There’s a motley crew of archaeologists and assistants working there – and one of them must have done it! As you would expect, Hercule Poirot gets to the bottom of this case fairly quickly. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

katherine_woolleyChristie dedicated the book to “my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria”. The story takes place in the wilds of ancient Babylonia and Assyria, where Christie had visited with her husband Max Mallowan; and it is largely accepted that the character of Louise Leidner is based on Katharine Woolley, stalwart of many archaeological digs, and the person to whom Christie had previously dedicated (along with her husband) The Thirteen Problems. The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during November and December 1935; in the UK, an abridged version was published in eight instalments in Women’s Pictorial Magazine under the title No Other Love. This version provided some of the characters with different names: Dr and Mrs Leidner were originally Dr and Mrs Trevor, and Amy Leatheran was Amy Seymour. The full book of Murder in Mesopotamia was first published in the UK in July 1936, and in the US shortly after.

PlanIn this book, Christie returned to the first-person narrator style, the narrator in question being Nurse Amy Leatheran – Captain Hastings, presumably, still occupied in The Argentine. It’s a style that works very well because you get to know the intimate thoughts of another person directly involved in the case, and not just the amazing workings of the Poirot brain. The frontispiece and first chapter being written by Dr Reilly makes the opening structure to the book a little clunky, but by the time the story gets going you completely forget about how it is that Amy gets to write the story in the first place. She warns us that she’s not much of a writer and isn’t very learned in matters of grammar; but this only goes to make us warm to the character even more. In the best Hastings tradition, Amy appends a plan of the dig house so that we can see for ourselves how tight-knit a community it is, and how unlikely it is that the crime could be committed without anyone else knowing. When a second character makes it clear that they have made a great discovery about how the crime was committed, you just know that this character is also going to be murdered within a matter of hours. It’s an off-shoot of the slightly melodramatic style.

police interrogationThere were two particular aspects of this book which struck me as I was reading it. One is that it is just a short space of time from the moment Poirot arrives on the scene to when he delivers his denouement speech – approximately four days by my reckoning. The second is that, for once, for me, Poirot’s long interrogations of all the suspects got a little dull. It felt somewhat repetitive; even though the structure is not that different from Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot and his team take the suspects one by one, but there you can see it is part of a rigid structure; in Murder in Mesopotamia there is no real sense of structure, it just feels rather ambling.

NurseThere are a few splendid moments of pure Poirotism, however, and the relationship between Amy and him is a fascinating one; usually it’s the typical Poirot-style respect for others, but occasionally he flies off the handle. When Amy believes she is in the firing line during the denouement, she stands up for herself – and Poirot doesn’t like it: “for the moment will you silence yourself. Impossible to proceed while you conduct this argument.” Amy sometimes implies that Poirot has a strong feminine side; on one occasion she says he shows kindness that even a woman couldn’t; on another she notes his interest in gossip: “”I like all the information there is,” was Poirot’s reply. And really, that described his methods very well. I found later that there wasn’t anything – no small scrap of insignificant gossip – in which he wasn’t interested. Men aren’t usually so gossipy.” She could also predict that Poirot would make a grand denouement scene – as his readers know he certainly will. He commences the denouement with what Christie calls “a most theatrical bow”. And when Captain Maitland is impatient for his conclusions, Amy notes “but that wasn’t the way Hercule Poirot did things. I saw perfectly well that he meant to make a song and dance of it.”

Rude sculpturesAmy herself is rather prim and proper, disapproving of some of the ancient pottery: “after that she showed me some queer little terra-cotta figurines – but most of them were just rude. Nasty minds those old people had, I say.” She is slightly amused and slightly repelled by Poirot’s overall foreignness: “Of course, I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what I mean.” She describes Mrs Mercado as “though she might have what my mother used to call “a touch of the tar brush””, which today comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant example of racism.

plateBut it is Poirot who comes out with the most startling piece of sexism, in his advice to the thwarted Carl Reiter, who allowed Mrs Leidner to treat him like a doormat: “Mon ami, let this be a lesson to you. You are a man. Behave then, like a man! It is against Nature for a man to grovel. Women and Nature have almost exactly the same reactions! Remember it is better to take the largest plate within reach and fling it at a woman’s head than it is to wriggle like a worm whenever she looks at you!” I don’t know about you, but I had to read that twice. That’s an extraordinary thing for Poirot to have said. One can only assume that sometimes Christie liked a bit of rough. Later in the denouement, Poirot propounds: “there is no hatred so great as that of a man who has been made to love a woman against his will.” I can envisage the entire female sex rolling their combined eyeballs at that one.

Tigris Palace BaghdadThe book is absolutely crammed with references – especially place names – that might benefit from a little exploration. It’s the University of Pittstown that organises the expedition to Iraq; there’s no such university, of course, although there are Pittstowns in both New York state and New Jersey. It’s much more likely that Christie wants us to think of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When we first meet Amy Leatheran she is writing a letter from the Tigris Palace Hotel in Baghdad. This was a very fashionable hotel in the middle of the 20th century. She trained at St. Christopher’s Hospital; there is one such hospital in the UK, in Fareham; there’s also a St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia – take your choice.

BabyloniaThen there are all the exotic, Iraqi locations for the dig. The main site in the story is at Tell Yarimjah, a tell being an artificial hill created by many generations of people living and rebuilding on the same spot, a short distance from Kirkuk, in north-eastern Iraq. The area is rich in history and archaeological possibilities, although today, sadly, it is at the centre of the ISIS zone. Hassanieh is said to be a day and a half from Baghdad – there is a small village by that name in Syria, and I would guess that time-distance would be about correct. Mrs Kelsey, with whom Amy travels to Iraq, has a house at Alwiyah, which is a suburb of Baghdad – it’s also the name of a famous club that was frequented by ex-pats and locals as recently as the 1980s. Neighbouring frontier posts of Tell Kotchek and Abu Kemal are mentioned, together with Deir ez Zor; Tell Kotchek is on the border between Iraq and Syria, currently under the control of Kurdish forces, Abu Kemal is another border town, part of the Deir ez Zor region of south eastern Syria, currently under the control of ISIS.

Belle dameWe also have some books to research. Amy is reading Death in a Nursing Home which sounds like an alternative version of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, which had been published just one year earlier, in 1935. Mrs Leidner’s bookshelves include Linda Condon, a novel by the American Joseph Hergesheimer, first published in 1919, and Crewe Train, a 1926 novel by Rose Macaulay, both of which feature independent women at their core – hence Poirot’s assumptions about Mrs Leidner’s character. Another literary work that is mentioned in connection with Mrs Leidner is La Belle Dame Sans Merci; this is a romantic ballad by John Keats, dated 1819, featuring what the Wikipedia page calls a “destructively beautiful lady”. I need say no more.

The Mystery of the Blue TrainOne other cheeky reference is to a certain Mr Van Aldin; Dr Leidner tells Captain Maitland that he has heard of Hercule Poirot through a mutual acquaintance by name of Van Aldin. Could this be the same Van Aldin whose daughter is murdered in The Mystery of the Blue Train? I think so.

GooseThere are a few interesting turns of phrase that I’d also quickly like to look at: Amy says that Mrs Mercado’s attitude to Mrs Leidner’s first husband is “one way of calling a goose a swan”. It’s a phrase I hadn’t heard before and I think it’s rather amusing. Geese feature quite heavily in Amy’s vernacular as she also refers to “a goose walking over my grave”, which I also hadn’t heard before I came across it in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Similarly, Bill Coleman refers to cash as “oof”, which was also new to me until I read Partners in Crime. One last new word for me – electrotype. Some articles are described as electrotypes at the end of the book – this was a chemical method for forming metal parts that exactly reproduce a model, invented in 1838 by Moritz von Jacobi in Russia. It’s a useful way of reproducing an original, say for a museum or gallery, so that the art style can be observed without the original needing to be there – for security purposes.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Murder in Mesopotamia:

Publication Details: 1936. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in 1967, price erased but maybe 3/6. Tom Adams’ cover illustration shows us some of the main clues in the story – the scary mask, the bloody rope, a valuable goblet, and one of the notes received by Mrs Leidner, that reads “you have got to die”. It’s an unsettling image, for sure.

How many pages until the first death: 53. There’s a lot of build-up which allows us to get a really good understanding of the character of Mrs Leidner. Poirot doesn’t have that benefit, and has to find out everything in retrospect.

Funny lines out of context: Just one or two, brought about by that funny old word that nowadays has a much more precise meaning than it did in 1936.

““Oh dear, dear”, I ejaculated.”

“Captain Maitland uttered an occasional ejaculation.”

Memorable characters: Christie goes to great lengths to paint as full a picture as possible of Louise Leidner, with many descriptions and many detailed conversations, but, even so, I’m not entirely sure that you could call her a “memorable” character. I think Amy Leatheran is much more memorable, through her role as the narrator; a well-meaning nurse but lacking in some finesse. Many of the men working on the dig aren’t particularly well drawn – it’s easy to mix up your Coleman with your Emmott, for example.

Christie the Poison expert:

There’s no poison element to the first death but the second is caused by drinking hydrochloric acid, one of Christie’s favourite poisons. She even describes its physical effect on the lips of the person who drinks it. Nasty!

Class/social issues of the time:

Because the action of this book doesn’t take place in England, it seems that the day to day issues of England don’t impact so much on this story as they do in others; even though it’s a largely English cast of characters.

As you might expect, there is talk of “dagos” and “coloured people” (which, of course, was extremely polite for 1936). But it’s still a world where it is acceptable to shout at Arabs: ”Arabs don’t understand anything said in an ordinary “English” voice”; and where it is acceptable to refer to someone as “only an Iraqi” – not as important as a white Caucasian person.

As in Death in the Clouds, Christie still doesn’t have much respect – in print at least – for archaeologists. Whereas in that book the Duponts could argue until teatime without noticing anything going on around them, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Mrs Leidner goes in for the killer observation: “Archaeologists only look at what lies beneath their feet. The sky and the heavens don’t exist for them […] oh, they’re very queer people”.

Classic denouement: Yes, and extremely lengthy! You could almost say that the denouement procedure starts within minutes of the second death, which means that it covers approximately 44 pages. Poirot engineers the classic situation of everyone being present whilst he laboriously goes through all the possibilities. Definitely the strongest part of the book, in my humble opinion.

Happy ending? In a sense, yes, but it’s not emphasised. There is a wedding – but it’s between two relatively minor characters so it doesn’t mean that much to the reader. Amy’s narrative ends on something of a low note.

Did the story ring true? Not entirely. There are two facts that the reader is asked to believe – including the method of the murder – that are fairly far-fetched.

Overall satisfaction rating: Whilst it’s interesting to see Poirot operating in a different environment this isn’t an overly successful book in my eyes. I’m going to be generous and give it a 7/10.

Cards on the TableThanks for reading my blog of Murder in Mesopotamia 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 will be Cards on the Table. This is the book where Christie tells us up front that there are just four suspects and one of them is the murderer – so don’t go considering the butler or someone’s second cousin once removed, because they definitely didn’t do it! I’m not sure if she lets Poirot into that secret mind you, I’ll have to re-read it first. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – The Railway Children, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th September 2017

The Railway ChildrenYou know The Railway Children. Everyone knows The Railway Children. Jenny Agutter fluttering her red petticoats, Bernard Cribbins fussing around the station, Iain Cuthbertson slowly emerging from the steam, William Mervyn waving from the train. A Christmas treat for all the family. All, that is, except for Mrs Chrisparkle, who’s never seen it, never read it, and who would never choose E. Nesbit as her specialised subject on Mastermind. I must admit, it’s not my favourite of her books; I always preferred The Phoenix and the Carpet. The Phoenix was such a big-head, he always made me laugh.

TRC6The Railway Children is one of those stories that never goes away. Even though it’s 111 years old now, the film is a classic, an evergreen; voted 66th best ever British film, I understand. The stage adaptations have proved immensely popular for new generations, frequently being staged at railway stations or museums and featuring real live steam trains. This current touring production by the Northcott Theatre Exeter – with Dave Simpson’s 1984 adaptation of the book, the original stage adaptation – doesn’t feature such high-tech authenticity. In fact, it almost makes a selling point of its low-tech approach. When the train goes by in the distance it’s clearly a model being pulled on a string. When the Old Gentleman is shown travelling past in the train, you can see his little feet going nineteen-to-the-dozen underneath the carriage, a la Fred Flintstone. TRC1When the railway station set snaps into place, a free-standing column that’s meant to hold up the station roof ends up swinging in the breeze because it’s too short to reach the floor, like a cross between a hangman’s gallows and a grandfather clock pendulum. When the opaque planes fall into place, onto which are projected all the other countryside, railway and street scenes, the word “fragile” on the bottom right pane is constantly visible as a weird reminder to the stagehands to treat it with care – very bizarre, that one.

TRC4But somehow, none of this matters. It’s the innate strength of the story and the overwhelming decency of the performances that win the day and provide a highly entertaining and truly sweet portrayal of a once well-to-do young family fallen on hard times whilst their father is mysteriously missing. (Why is it that everyone reading it or watching it has twigged that he’s been sent to prison but it never occurs to the kids? Naïve or what!) Whilst this is a show that will obviously appeal to a younger audience, it also has a very nostalgic appeal too – plenty of people in the (albeit rather small) audience for the first night in Northampton were children in the 50 plus age bracket. In the same way that a pantomime can work on many levels, this production also has a few nicely underplayed moments of more adult humour. For example, after the family have already cared for the Russian refugee Szczpansky, and are now also looking after the Old Gentleman’s grandson Jim, Perks, the Station Master (ahh for the Good Old Days) has a knowing look when he reports that yet another young man has taken up residence in Mother’s spare bedroom (wink, wink).

TRC10There’s an amusing running (literally) joke that has the doctor arriving at Three Chimneys, each time more and more exhausted due to the urgency of the call (or maybe it’s the rotundity of his stomach). There’s also some enjoyable class/society interplay, primarily between Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter on the one hand, and Perks’ vagabond son, John, on the other. For every “rather!” and “spiffing!” that Peter utters, he’s riposted by an “eyup” or an “eebahgum” from John, with neither of them realising quite how stereotyped the creative team have made them. Perks Senior, however, never belittles the Londoners for their posh way of talking because respect is his watchword.

TRC3We were surprised how moral and, indeed, socialist, the story is; everyone seems to have read the banned book by Szczpansky (clearly pro-proletariat and anti-Czar) and everyone, even including the Old Gentleman, who’s the archetype of tradition and conservatism (one would have thought) has a good word to say about it. The family are always acting selflessly, whether it’s protecting and nurturing sick individuals like Szczpansky or Jim, or risking their own safety to prevent a terrible train crash. When the children get all the tradespeople of the village to contribute a present for Perks’ birthday, it’s not charity that is their incentive to donate but a sense of a community pulling together to recognise the fine contribution he makes to their society. Even the doctor is willing to make house calls and treat people without any certainty of getting paid for it. If any one character is (gently) mocked, it’s young Phyllis for her petulant refusal to share. It comes as no surprise to discover that E. Nesbit was a Marxist and co-founder of the Fabian Society.

TRC5The production is positively dripping with charming performances. Joy Brook’s Mother is kindness and positivity personified as she cheerfully refuses to eat so that her children don’t go hungry in a scene that’s worthy of I Daniel Blake for the Edwardian era. It’s not hard to see why she would be the perfect mainstay of any family. Millie Turner’s Roberta is a generous and thoughtful young lady, definitely a chip off the old block, with a big heart that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying some adventure too. Katherine Carlton is hilarious as the spoilt Phyllis, truly wanting her cake and eating it; and Vinay Lad makes a terrific professional debut as the hearty young Peter, relishing all his ripping hyperboles like a junior Jay Gatsby.

TRC9I loved Andrea Davy as Mrs Perks, another character who only sees the best in people and really enjoys life, no matter what it chucks at you. Neil Salvage is a charming Old Gentleman, although he looks alarmingly like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2, and there’s great support from Andrew Joshi as the puffed-out physician and Will Richards as Szczpansky and Jim; indeed, anyone who will get looked after in the spare bedroom, really. Callum Goulden displays just the right amount of cheekiness as the boisterous John. But maybe it’s Stewart Wright as Perks who really makes us smile most of all, with all his little narrative asides and startling friendliness; he brought out the child in me and made me want to become a train driver all over again.

TRC2I’d recommend this whole-heartedly if you want a nostalgia trip or are thinking of something to take the kids to see – or the grandparents – or yourself. Sugar for the soul, as Steve Balsamo once said. After its week in Northampton it steams on to Bromley, Leicester, Southampton, Bath and Aylesbury.

TRC7P. S. I feel certain this production would suit a smaller, more intimate theatre much better than the vast expanses of the Derngate auditorium. It’s a shame that the set is (I’m assuming) too wide for the Royal stage, because the show would have been perfect in there.

TRC8P. P. S. I’m not entirely sure Mrs C has the same sentimental heart as other people who have wept buckets over Bobbie’s final reunion with Daddy, her Daddy. “Sent to prison for five years?”, she asked; “what’s the problem? He’ll only do two and a half.”

Production photos by Mark Dawson

Review – Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck Live, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th September 2017

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck LiveWhen I saw these two legendary names were appearing together on stage I had absolutely no hesitation in booking straight away. They were among the very first famous people I ever saw on stage as a child. Jimmy Tarbuck played Jack in the London Palladium pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk back in Christmas 1968 – New Year 1969; it was my first visit to a London theatre and my first ever pantomime. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle couldn’t wait to get me in the front stalls to see how I’d react to the Palladium environment (which she adored) – verdict, I loved it. But, even earlier, in the summer of 1967, I was taken to my first ever professional stage show; on holiday in Bournemouth, the 7-year-old me had a seat to see Showtime at the Pavilion Theatre, featuring Kenneth McKellar, Jack Douglas and starring – you guessed it – Des O’Connor.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969 castI’d seen Des O’Connor live just once since then, when I took a young female friend (in the days before Mrs Chrisparkle, c. 1984) to see a recording of Gloria Hunniford’s TV chat show Sunday Sunday – it used to air on Sundays, I kid you not. Amongst the guests was Mr O’Connor. At one point all the lights blew and they had to stop the recording for about twenty minutes. Gloria Hunniford retreated into her shell and wouldn’t make eye contact with the audience. Des O’Connor, on the other hand, got up and did twenty minutes stand-up off the top of his head, and, let me assure you gentle reader, he was absolutely on fire! From that moment, I’ve always had immense respect for him.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 1I’d not seen Jimmy Tarbuck on stage since that panto, and of course it’s been many years since he’s been a regular on TV; so I was very interested to see how he’s progressed, the young feller-me-lad. Well, I can report that he’s doing very well indeed. He’s 77, but looking at him you wouldn’t place him older than his mid-fifties. He still has that irrepressible cheekiness, a very nice line in occasional self-deprecation, natural confidence and authority, and absolutely immaculate comic timing. It’s true; some of his material isn’t very 21st century. Whilst Mrs C was pleased to note the total absence of mother-in-law jokes, they had been replaced by “ugly women” jokes. To be fair, they were often very funny.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 4Mr Tarbuck (hereinafter Tarby) still uses that classic structure for many of his showpiece jokes – I mean those that aren’t one-liners. He sets them up with a statement that will end with a certain sequence of words; pause. Then comes another statement, ending with the same sequence of words; another pause, whilst suspense/curiosity/anticipation builds. There might even be a third statement, that ends with the same sequence of words – audience by now making up their own punchlines. Then comes the killer final statement that will take the sequence of words and turn them on their head to potentially devastating comic effect. I remember him doing that in the 70s, and he still does it today – brilliantly.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 5Mr O’Connor (hereinafter Deso) has quite a close association with our beloved Northampton, as he was evacuated here during the Second World War, worked at Church’s shoes (very posh) and even had a stint playing football for Northampton Town. Today he still has that wicked glint in his eye, and at 85 he can still look down on young Tarby. But he did admit that he wasn’t feeling too well, with an ear infection affecting his balance, and would we mind if he sat down for most of his set; of course not – huge kudos to him for still going on with the show despite his health issue.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 3I’m going to forgive him for starting the evening with a terrible homophobic joke and put it down to the infirmity of his age, as Regan said of Lear. Moving on, with the aid of a big screen, he reminisced about some of his favourite TV appearances – with Morecambe and Wise (naturally), Rod Hull and Emu, Benny Hill, Bernie Clifton and many more. We sang with him as he accompanied himself on a video of him singing with Neil Diamond (are you still with me?) and bizarrely it worked, as the rafters of the Royal and Derngate rang out to the chorus of Sweet Caroline. Deso also led singalongs to Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Tony Christie’s Is this the way to Amarillo, but, sadly, no Dick-a-Dum-Dum, which I’ve always thought was a truly charming look at Swinging Sixties London. Isn’t always the case that artists never perform your favourite song? It’s an unwritten law of Live Performance.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy TarbuckThere was precious little hesitation in the audience to rise for a standing ovation for these two grand old chaps. For Tarby, he absolutely deserves it for still delivering 45 minutes of cracking stand-up. For Deso, he deserves it in recognition of all the years of happy entertainment he’s provided, even from before I was born. They’re still touring this unique get-together show for a few more dates this year: 7th October in Harlow, 29th October in Reading and 5th November in Newcastle. These young lads deserve your support!

Review – Mosquitoes, National Theatre, Dorfman Theatre, 16th September 2017

MosquitoesWhat with the grand Lyttelton Theatre and the imposing Olivier Theatre, it’s very easy to forget there’s another space at the National. Round the back, behind the bikesheds, the Dorfman re-opened under that name in September 2014; before then it was the Cottesloe. I read that it underwent a transformation giving it greater sightlines (tick, our view was great) and more comfortable seating (really? It must have been agony before!) I had to check back to see the last time I’d been to the Cottesloe – it was for Dispatches, in July 1979. That’s a gap of 38 years. Blimey. Mind you, that’s not my longest gap between theatre visits to a particular London theatre; like many people, I suspect, I’ve not been to St. Martin’s Theatre since it became the home for The Mousetrap. Last time I was there was in September 1972 for Sleuth. Lord Lumme.

Mosquitoes-10But I digress. Our main motivation to book to see Mosquitoes was not simply to visit the Dorfman, but to see one of our current favourite actors perform in the flesh – the wonderful Olivia Colman. I know that’s a dangerous tactic – if Ms Colman was indisposed, would we have minded? Yes, probably. However, she was disposed to appear and jolly fine she was too – but more of the performances later.

Mosquitoes-1Mosquitoes is written by Lucy Kirkwood, whose NSFW we saw at the Edinburgh fringe in the summer and what a sparky little play that was; and so, unsurprisingly, is this. It’s the story of two sisters; one, cerebral, reserved, with apparently impeccable judgment; a scientist researching on the Higgs Boson project and a pillar of the Geneva Science community. The other is the opposite; corporeal, extremely outgoing and pragmatic, totally flawed and fallible and living in Luton. The scientist (Alice) has a troublesome teenage son (Luke); her sister (Jenny) lost her baby due to a stupid belief that the MMR vaccine is harmful. Making up the happy family is their mother, Karen; once a great scientist in her own right, now a querulous busybody who enjoys making outrageous demands and being shocking, as the early signs of dementia kick in. As the particle collider project comes to a head, Alice’s family make it more and more difficult for her to enjoy the fruits of her research. And when Luke goes missing, it’s the final straw… or is it…?!

Mosquitoes-5Ms Kirkwood’s writing style is a pure delight: feisty, modern, unpredictable and completely believable. Her characters are beautifully sculpted and you get tantalising glimpses into their back-stories and emotions, even if they don’t affect the tale she’s currently telling. The result is a satisfyingly full piece; there’s so much there to consider and to enjoy beyond the plot itself. At times, Rufus Norris’ production is visually vivid with the excitement of the collider project – news screens on the walls, colourful patterns and projections on the floor and instrumentation (in fact, it reminded me of the good old days of the London Planetarium); at others, it’s suitably sparse and pared back, allowing the emotions of the characters take control of the stage. Paul Arditti’s stunning sound effects stop you in your tracks or jolt you out of your seat, depending on how much of a surprise they are. As a fiesta of sight and sound it all has a tremendous impact.

Mosquitoes-7My only quibble with the play is what is surely a hugely unexpected and unlikely outcome regarding the plot development. Without giving too much away, someone does something in this play which you would expect would result in a considerable prison sentence. Someone else carries the can and deliberately takes the blame. However, that person appears to spend no more than a long weekend at Her Majesty’s pleasure (or the Swiss Chancellor’s pleasure I suppose). Given the characters involved, and the legal consequences of what happened, I found it all ridiculously hard to believe.

Mosquitoes-11Lucy Kirkwood’s writing and characters are brought to life by some top-quality performances. Olivia Colman is fantastic as Jenny; a portrayal of someone getting through life just the best she can, despite all the awful things that life throws at her. She’s warm and funny; she’s hostile and challenging; she’s daring and reprehensible; she’s brave and fearless. She gives every aspect of her fascinating character a truly honest airing and she’s just a joy to watch. Olivia Williams makes a fine opponent for her sororal swordplay; her Alice is a splendidly confident, assertive person but when she feels let down by her nearest and dearest she shows she has vulnerability too. Ms Williams treads a beautiful balance between strength and helplessness in a very fine performance.

Mosquitoes-8Joseph Quinn plays the horrendous Luke with just the right level of awkwardness and brattishness; another vulnerable character, Mr Quinn plays him so that he’s not particularly likeable – which is probably very accurate – even when Natalie (a strong confident performance from Sofia Barclay) treats him with cruelty. Their beautifully written “sex scene” – if you can call it that – is played with tremendous humour. Paul Hilton takes the intriguing but not entirely successful role of The Boson, masterminding, observing and expressing all the scientific processes like a slightly mad boffin. I will confess, he sometimes lost me in all that rigmarole. I was always useless at Physics.

Mosquitoes-12Yoli Fuller is a charismatic Henri, and the other minor roles are all played with great conviction. The other star of the show is a wonderfully funny and strangely moving performance by Amanda Boxer as Karen; resolute in her determination not to be put out to pasture either domestically by her daughters or professionally by younger scientists. She’s great at dishing out the haranguing, domineering, battleaxe material, and then retreats into that wheedling, self-obsessed, hard-done-by attitude only too familiar to those with, shall we say, tenacious mothers. Superb.

mosquitoes-4The fact that the 2 hours 40 minutes fly by without your checking your watch is a testament to what an enjoyable production it is. A funny and thought-provoking play, causing human emotions and the clinical world of science to collide like particles in a lab. Beautifully performed and highly recommended, despite the somewhat incredible plot resolution!

Mosquitoes-6P. S. I’m not going to leave it another 38 years before I come back to the Dorfman. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had a pre-theatre lunch at The Green Room directly next door to the National; plenty of gluten-free choices and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg and Alistair Muir

Review – Rules For Living, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2017

Rules for LivingThe curtain rises and straight away you recognise that comfortable setting; Christmas Day, the living room and the kitchen, a half-decorated tree, and two young people perched expectantly on the sofa. Is it going to turn into Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings by another name? With surprise artificiality, a device projects the words “Rules for Living” on the roof of the house, as if we’d already forgotten the name of the play. Then another surprise; before anyone says anything, the set divides; the living room heads off stage left, the kitchen swerves stage right, leaving a big empty void in the centre of the stage. It already feels like technology is taking over this everyday suburban Christmas scenario.

RFL1Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living first appeared at the National Theatre’s Dorfman a couple of years ago, where it got something of a mixed reception: ambitious and funny, but peculiarly stressful seemed to be the gist, and I entirely understand where that’s coming from. In a nutshell, Matriarch Edith is trying to create the perfect Christmas Day lunch (always a disastrous idea) to welcome back her husband Francis from hospital, who’s been suffering with some undisclosed ailment. Sons Matthew and Adam will be in attendance; Matthew with Carrie, the girlfriend he’s been going out with one year, Adam with his wife Nicole and their teenage daughter Emma, who suffers with depression. As you might expect, the relationships between the sons, their other halves and their mother get progressively strained as the day wears on. Francis comes home, more severely afflicted than Edith had let on, and the day degenerates even further.

RFL2But there’s a twist: and it goes back to that artificiality/technology influence felt in the opening moments. Each of the characters (apart from Francis and Emma) has an individual behavioural trait that they use to cope with stressful situations. Matthew, for example, has to sit down in order to tell a lie. We know this, because it’s projected on the walls and roof. So when Carrie asks Matthew if his mother likes her, and he sits down to say yes, we know he’s lying; you get the picture. Nicole must take a drink in order to contradict. As you can imagine, during a typical lively Christmas Day, quite a lot of contradicting takes place so Nicole gets somewhat boozed up to satisfy this particular behavioural need. And so it goes on. There’s an enormous amount of genuine hilarity to be enjoyed recognising how each character meets their psychological responses.

RFL3Sam Holcroft was partly inspired to write the play as a response to her own experiences of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Emma is undergoing CBT, and it makes her question her own response to the various challenges she faces. Nicole would like Adam to accompany her on some therapy sessions but he’s not remotely convinced. Of course, all the behavioural idiosyncracies that the characters display are ripe raw ingredients for a CBT session. The stress of learning a new card game is another new challenge for Christmas Day; Bedlam – that’s the game – where the rules include your requiring to identify others’ behavioural responses, which the characters attempt to do, whilst still having to obey their own. The furore this causes strongly reminded me of Reg’s wretched board game in The Norman Conquests. No wonder Christmas is stressful.

RFL5It’s a really clever construct; but I always felt aware of a greater being influencing the activities of the characters. The unseen writer truly plays the role of the puppet-master, creating a series of individual havocs that her characters must endure, almost at her random will. I guess that’s the case for any writer creating a story – their characters have to comply with the events that the writer chucks in their path. But the artificiality of it all is really emphasised with this play and production. It’s a most unusual experience. A small part of me wondered if it was an easy cop-out; should we be able to see, through the nuances of the writing, how the characters need to follow certain behavioural paths without having their rules of living flashed up so obviously on a colour-co-ordinated screen? Doing it this way certainly means that the rules are in charge, not the people. The characters even stop what they’re doing every time the rules change, then resume their path to their fate, like flies to wanton boys.

RFL4The cast absolutely pull out all the stops to mine as much humour from the situation as possible, and there are some beautiful moments of physical comedy, classic farce, and an outrageous food fight to enjoy. Jane Booker’s Edith is a superb portrayal of a control freak who needs her own versions of a “little helper” when she’s thwarted. Carlyss Peer turns into more and more of a musical theatre travesty as she shows Carrie’s way of coping with anxieties and rejection. Ed Hughes’ Adam turns from nice guy into sarcastic sod in order to protect himself from his own self-loathing, Jolyon Coy’s Matthew is up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers reflecting his permanent state of mendacity, and Laura Rogers’ Nicole’s tongue gets loosened by alcohol the more belligerent she gets. It’s almost as though Derren Brown has had a session with them before they went on stage so that they react to individual trigger points. There’s a nice irony in the fact that the physically suffering Francis, a delightful performance by Paul Shelley using only a few words but wicked facial expressions, is the only character who mentally knows precisely what he wants and has no compunction about getting it.

RFL6It’s extremely funny and very thought-provoking; despite its Ayckbournian setting it’s a highly original look at a familiar domestic disaster zone. Abbreviate Rules For Living, add an “o”, and you get RoFL, which rather sums it up. And spare a thought for the stage management team who have to clear that mess up after every performance. If you’re wearing nice clothes, I wouldn’t sit anywhere nearer the stage than the third row! This is a co-production between the Royal and Derngate, English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and after its few weeks in Northampton, it tours to Cambridge, Windsor, Brighton, Ipswich and Kingston. You have to see this one!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – Half a Sixpence – revisited – on its last night – Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd September 2017

Half a SixpenceLast Christmas (no, this isn’t a George Michael tribute, but God bless him nonetheless) we saw Half a Sixpence as part of our usual let’s spend a few December nights in London seeing shows because we never go out ritual. Here’s the link to my blog review of that great night. We felt totally exhilarated by the end in the knowledge that we’d not only seen a great show but also a fantastic new star in the shape of Charlie Stemp.

charlie-stempEvery so often, I get visited by Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears – I’m sure they call on you too – and they tempt me with things I really shouldn’t do. But earlier this summer, they suggested I book for the last night of Half A Sixpence. It’s going to be a great party, they said. Sounds like an excuse for champagne, they said. The atmosphere will be overwhelming, they said. And do you know, they were right! But would Mrs Chrisparkle be on board for such self-indulgence? You betcha!

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempWe’d seen An American in Paris in the afternoon, so, fully satiated with well-meaning, classy yet slightly dull entertainment, we were absolutely in the mood for a right royal Folkestone knees up. We arrived at the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre in plenty of time to settle down in Noel’s Bar and crack open a half bottle of Verve Cliquot before the show, which, I think it’s fair to say, prepared us in the best possible way. I bought another programme, so I could see to what extent the cast had changed since last December: answer, not at all. Absolutely the same cast. No one had left. That tells its own story. It must be such a delightful production in which to be involved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsThe theatre was packed – the vibe was truly excitable; this audience is going to give the show its best possible send-off, isn’t it? Oh yes it did. From the moment that Mr Stemp and Devon-Elise Johnson ran into the auditorium and jumped up on the stage to portray Arthur and Ann as kids, the theatre simply erupted. This is going to overrun by at least half an hour, I reckoned. Actually, I was wrong; the cast enforced discipline on us by carrying on pretty promptly after each song – not like when we saw the last night of A Chorus Line, where the audience dominated the proceedings so much with their gratitude and fandom that the cast couldn’t hold back their emotions at all.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamAs each scene and number followed each other, the audience kept up their frenzied response. By the time we’d reached the interval, with Charlie Stemp’s Kipps drenched under the real rain, I genuinely felt like I needed a rest, as my mouth muscles were beginning to spasm from my permanent smile. Whilst stretching our legs (a euphemism for heading to the bar), we overheard one lady say to another “You must come and meet Cameron. In the Albery Bar. Upstairs.” We looked at each other with mischievous intent; shall we gatecrash? No, quickly coming to our senses, let’s not risk being turfed out on our ear. We hadn’t heard Pick out a Simple Tune yet.

ian-bartholomewNow that I’ve mentioned that song title, if you’ve seen the show, that tune has already earwormed itself back into your brain. That scene was as fantastic as I remembered. After its rip-roaring reception from the audience, it put a whole new meaning on Lady Punnet’s assurance that you can’t have more fun than at one of her musical evenings. I’d also forgotten how wonderfully pompous Gerald Carey’s James is when he’s being sonorous on the organ, tossing back his foppish hair, and checking to make sure everyone else has noticed how superb he was. Mr Carey came into his own again as the photographer in Flash, Bang, Wallop, revelling in every single double entendre magnificently. FBW brought the house down as you would expect.

pick-out-a-simple-tuneIt was only at the end that the cast started to drop the professional façade and showed us how much they loved the response. Mr Stemp wasn’t allowed to join the other members of the cast for the joint curtain call until we had elongated his personal ovation for several minutes. Cameron Mackintosh appeared on stage to give a final thank you speech and it was a thoroughly joyful experience. He said he hoped it wasn’t the end for this production – and I don’t see how it can be. This is born to tour and continue to delight audiences of all ages for years to come. A magnificent success for Cameron Mackintosh, Chichester, Charlie Stemp and all the cast. But we still didn’t find out about the results of their filming the show over some of the last performances. Will it appear on BBC4 over Christmas like Gypsy did a couple of years ago? I’m really hoping so.

Congratulations to all. Half a Sixpence, London will miss you!