Review – A Streetcar Named Desire, Leicester Curve Studio, 24th October 2015

A Streetcar Named DesireI’ve been an admirer of the plays of Tennessee Williams for as long as I can remember. I recall being blown away by a TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was about 16, then I took a young lady to see The Glass Menagerie when I was 17 (what a romantic gesture that was!) and the only other time I’ve seen A Streetcar Named Desire was at the Oxford Playhouse back in 1978, directed by Nicolas Kent. So it was high time I got reacquainted with the play. Mrs Chrisparkle had also never seen it, nor had our friend, Lady Lichfield, who struggled up to Leicester by train on the most circuitous of routes, but that’s another story.

Blanche arrivesI had forgotten what a simply magnificent play this is. It is so beautifully written, creating an uncertain air of mystery with almost every new plot progression, that you, as an audience member, can interpret it in many different ways. These basic plot details are for certain: Blanche Dubois has come to visit her sister Stella who lives in a dingy downstairs flat in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche seems used to a more refined lifestyle, dressing in lace and assuming an almost unnatural politesse. Stella, however, has married Stanley, an uncultured Polack (Blanche’s word), and appears content to live with (indeed emotionally and sexually satisfied by) his violent and brutish behaviour. The Grand Estate – Belle Reve – where Blanche and Stella were brought up has been “lost”, and Blanche is now homeless. Stella hasn’t forewarned Stanley that his sister-in-law is coming to stay, and it’s fair to say that they don’t hit it off. In the following months, Blanche gets courted by one of Stanley’s poker-playing buddies, Mitch, who’s less Neanderthal than the rest of them; but her past catches up with her and none of it ends happily. I could go into more detail about the plot but a) you probably know it already, b) maybe you don’t want to know it, and c) there’s a fine line between what you see on stage and what might just be figments of Blanche’s imagination. Although Blanche is taken away by a doctor and nurse at the end of the play, it’s debatable at which point her mental instability takes control. It could be at the end of the play, it could be much earlier; and what you see may be a hazy blend of reality and fantasy. That’s just part of the play’s mystery.

Dakota Blue RichardsIt was first produced in 1947 and had its first UK production in 1949, directed by Laurence Olivier and with Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Of course, back in those days, drama was censored on the British stage and the producer had to apply to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for a licence to perform. This must have provided more than a few difficulties for the censor, as the play deals with – amongst other things – insanity, victim mentality, suicide, rape, and paedophilia. But none of this was, apparently, a particular problem. The only thing that almost caused the production to be banned at the last minute was the story about Blanche’s late husband Allan, whom she found in flagrante delicto with someone else: “Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty – which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years”. For the censor, this was the bridge too far. The reference to homosexuality had to go. Bizarrely, the censor himself suggested it should be replaced so that Allan should have been caught at it with a black woman. Eventually a cut was agreed, with the line now just reading “which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…” And that is how it reads in my Penguin edition of the play and how it is currently spoken in this Curve production. Oddly, by not spelling out precisely what it was that Blanche saw her husband doing, it actually adds to the play’s overall air of mystery.

Stella and StanleyI had read some very disappointing reviews of this production after press night – none of which are remotely recognisable to the show we saw on Saturday – so I can only assume that the team have continued to work on earlier criticisms, because we all thought the show was quite brilliant. Michael Taylor’s set cleverly encompasses the several acting areas of the play – the Kowalskis’ two roomed apartment, the bathroom, the porch area, Eunice’s flat upstairs, even the streets around New Orleans. There’s a very realistic rain effect right at the end of the play that might get your knees and legs wet if you sit in the front row (as we did, but it’s great to be almost part of the action). There are lots of off-stage music effects that confront and unsettle you, the emotionally moving image of the flower vendor selling her flores para los muertos, and, of course, there are some magnificent performances.

Natasha MagigiThe character of Blanche is so central and so iconic that it is vital to get it right – and Charlie Brooks gives us a terrifyingly stressed Blanche; jittery, anxious, and clearly disturbed right from the start. Mrs C and Lady L both thought that her characterisation made the first act rather frenetic – you were constantly being so bombarded by her words and her anxieties that you hardly had time to reflect. I think that’s possibly true – but I also think it’s entirely justified. In fact, I found it virtually impossible to take my eyes off Ms Brooks all the time she was on stage, so vividly and profoundly did she inhabit the character. I thought it was an amazing performance. We’d seen her a few months earlier in Beautiful Thing and she was terrific in that too – she’s not putting a foot wrong at the moment.

Sandy Foster and Natasha MagigiHer anxiety makes the perfect contrast with Dakota Blue Richards’ portrayal of Stella – calm, collected, accepting, practical, and surprisingly assertive. When Blanche tries to load the emotional blackmail on her she simply rejects it; when Stanley behaves badly to her sister she remonstrates with him. Nevertheless, she’s no match for Stanley’s brute force, and the simplicity of her return to him after he’s assaulted her speaks volumes about what she wants from life – and we the audience watch disapprovingly at her contentment with her victim status. Ms Richards gives us a Stella of great clarity and warmth; and turmoil too, when she wonders if she has done the right thing by bringing the doctor to Blanche. That was the moment when both Mrs C and Lady L reached for the Kleenex.

Stewart ClarkeThere’s also a wild and brilliant portrayal of Stanley by Stewart Clarke; loud, cruel, calculating, and intimidating – a really strong and intense performance, never straying into an over-the-top pantomime, but always unpleasantly believable. There are also some great supporting performances from Sandy Foster as Eunice, and Patrick Knowles as Mitch,Charlie Brooks both caught up in an environment where survival of the fittest and not rocking the boat is an imperative, even if you have to do things of which you are not proud.

A stunning production of what is still a very moving and important play – one of those theatre experiences that will live on long after you come home. It’s on at the Curve until 7th November – strongly recommended!

Production photographs by Manuel Harlan

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder on the Links (1923)

The Murder on the LinksIn which Hercule Poirot receives a desperate plea for help from M. Paul Renauld in France, but by the time he and Hastings rush to his aid, he has been murdered. Poirot works with the local magistrate to discover precisely what happened whilst engaging in duels of wit with the local officer of the Sûreté. Oh, and Hastings finds love. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I won’t spill the beans on whodunit!

GolfI’m not sure how old I was when I first read this book but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t know that the links in question was a golf course. I expect I was trying to work out how someone could commit a murder whilst balancing precariously on a pair of cufflinks – I’ve never been quite as intelligent as I ought to be. In fairness, it’s not a very good title. OK, the murder does take place adjacent to a golf course, but it doesn’t play that major a part in the story. Mind you, the Turkish title translates as “Our Lesson is Murder” – and there aren’t any lessons in it.

Shocked faceIt’s easy to forget that back in 1923 Christie was still a fledgling writer, and although she had enjoyed great success with her first two books, she still had the need to capture the imagination of editors and readers alike in the hope that they would continue publishing, and buying, her work. You can see this in the rather self-conscious way in which she begins this book: “I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: “Hell!” said the Duchess.” Strangely enough, this tale of mine opens in much the same fashion. Only the lady who gave utterance to the exclamation was not a duchess.” And so it goes on. It reminded me of a story I remembered from when I was at school. One of our English teachers was the, then unknown, now very well known, writer A. N. Wilson. Whilst he was teaching A-level English Lit, he had his first book published – The Sweets of Pimlico. The book opens with the three words: “That affected shit”. We schoolkids all thought that was a hoot. But Andy Wilson (as we affectionately knew him) was doing precisely the same thing – getting the editor and the reader hooked as early as possible. It didn’t serve him badly. In a rather nice twist, Christie re-uses her phrase at the end of the book, with a completely different effect – a symmetry of which Poirot would give the highest approval.

Lost temperRe-reading The Murder on the Links now, I’m really impressed with this book. After the almost maniacal hectic pace of The Secret Adversary and the clue-a-paragraph nature of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, with this book Christie settled down to a much more comfortable speed, and gave her characters some space to develop. In fact, in addition to working out who killed Paul Renauld, the most enjoyable part of this book is its observations about its characters’ relationships. You see a much more human side to Poirot, most clearly portrayed in a scene near the end of the book when he severely loses his temper when a vulnerable character nearly gets killed because no one had told him she had changed bedrooms.

CInderellaSo what of our friend Captain Hastings? In one brief sentence early in the book, he describes himself as a “private secretary to an MP”. Well, he must be a very understanding MP, because Hastings never does a stroke of work for him during the next few weeks. I can’t recollect if this job of his will be referred to again in any of the later books – we will have to wait and see! You also see a gently teasing relationship develop between Poirot and Hastings, largely based on Hastings’ predilection for falling head-over-heels in love with the next pretty girl to come along. “Yesterday it was Mademoiselle Daubreuil, today it is Mademoiselle – Cinderella! Decidedly you have the heart of a Turk, Hastings! You should establish a harem!” However, Hastings considers their friendship is seriously put to the test with his willingness to perjure himself for the sake of his Cinderella. “Poirot would not take defeat lying down. Somehow or other, he would endeavour to turn the tables on me, and that in the way, and at the moment, when I least expected it.” Poirot, on the other hand, seems to take it in his stride. “I studied him attentively. He was wearing his most innocent air, and staring meditatively into the far distance. He looked altogether too placid and supine to give me reassurance, I had learned, with Poirot, that the less dangerous he looked, the more dangerous he was.” That’s a very insightful observation. Amusingly, the temporary stress on their friendship brings out all Hastings’ naturally British sense of doing the right thing: “It’s only fair to warn you” [he says to Poirot, who replies] “I know – I know all. You are my enemy! Be my enemy, then. It does not worry me at all.” “So long as it’s all fair and above-board, I don’t mind.” “You have to the full the English passion for “fair play!” And of course, Hastings will propound preposterous theories, barking completely up the wrong tree, where Poirot lets him sit in blissful ignorance for a while until he reveals the truth to Hastings’ total astonishment.

PoliceThere are also some very vivid encounters between Poirot and Giraud of the Sûreté, full of professional and personal rivalry, point-scoring, and competitive clue-hunting. Their first meeting doesn’t go down too well. ““I know you by name, Monsieur Poirot,” [said M. Giraud]. “You cut quite a figure in the old days, didn’t you? But methods are very different now.” “Crimes, though, are very much the same,” remarked Poirot gently.” Giraud’s patronising attitude irritates Poirot profoundly (“not a word to Giraud…he treats me as an old one of no importance!”) but Poirot is determined to show him that his old-fashioned tried and tested methods will come to fruition in the end. Nowhere is his age more advantageous than when he recognises one of the suspects from a case he investigated twenty years before. There’s also an excellent passage where Poirot talks, in general, about the repetitive nature of crimes and recidivism of their perpetrators, borne out of his long experience. When he takes this general observation and relates it directly to this case, so much of the crime becomes instantly clear; detecting like painting by numbers.

Twists and turnsBut don’t let this give you the impression that this is an easy case for Poirot to solve. In The Murder on the Links, Christie created a story that develops, episodically, with so many twists and turns, that you’re constantly being wrong-footed by it – and it’s a complete delight. So many chapters end with something of a bombshell, that it’s like waiting for the drum beats at the end of an episode of Eastenders. Sadly I can’t tell you too much about those bombshells because it will give the game away – but if you take, say, Chapter 10 (Gabriel Stonor), there are half a dozen or so twists in that one short chapter alone. Suffice to say, I found this book a genuinely exciting and page-turning read.

HeartAs an aside, if I were personal friends with Captain Hastings (and I don’t think I ever would be), I’ve got some concerns about his romance. Having married off Tommy and Tuppence at the end of The Secret Adversary, Christie decides to tie up Hastings’ love life too – she confesses in her autobiography that, although she had envisaged Poirot and Hastings as a kind of Holmes and Watson combination, in fact she had already got rather bored of Hastings and was hoping to tie up his loose ends and despatch him to South America for good. Maybe that need to neatly despatch him is the reason for some inconsistencies with his fondness for the gentler sex. Consider his reflection about women on the first page of the book: “Now I am old fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” Hot on the heels of The Secret Adversary, this description fairly well encapsulates some aspects of the character of Tuppence – so we could assume he wouldn’t like her. However, this very character turns out to be none other than his beloved Cinderella. When she re-enters his life, at the scene of the crime, she acts just like the female detective of the previous book, with clever small talk, and a desire to poke her nose where it’s not needed. When Hastings reprimands her for what he calls her “ghoulish excitement”, she’s not having any of it. “Your idea of a woman is someone who gets on a chair and shrieks if she sees a mouse. That’s all prehistoric”. Yet this is the girl with whom he becomes besotted. “I strolled down to the beach and watched the bathers, without feeling energetic enough to join them. I rather fancied that Cinderella might be disporting herself among them in some wonderful costume, but I saw no signs of her.” Fantasising about her in a bathing costume? That’s probably soft porn for 1923. In the end, Cinderella turns out to be a girl of terrific bravery, who (in part) saves the day at the end of the book – so, again, very Tuppence-like. I trust Hastings will come to terms with his reappraisal of the kind of girl he likes.

MeesAs in the other early Christies, I again came across a few words, phrases and references that frankly had me bamboozled, so in case they do the same to you, let’s have a look at them. At the start of the book, Hastings is making his way back home from Paris by train: “I had made a somewhat hurried departure from the hotel and was busy assuring myself that I had duly collected all my traps, when the train started”. All my what? Was he expecting a mouse-infestation at his destination? I’ve scoured “trap” in my OED very thoroughly and can’t find a definition that fits. I presume he means “suitcases” but it’s just an assumption. If you know better, please let me know! When discussing the fact that the murderer wore gloves: “Of course he did” said Poirot contemptuously. “…the veriest amateur of an English Mees knows it – thanks to the publicity the Bertillon system has been given in the press.” Woh, hold on there. Veriest? Well apparently that was a superlative form of very back in the 17th century but even in 1923 its use would have been severely archaic. An English Mees? Again the OED doesn’t help. But someone else has asked about this on a website and the response was that a mees – in Belgium, no less – is the name of a tit (bird variety). So I guess today we might say “even a tiny bird would know it”. But the Bertillon system? Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. So now you know.

AtalantaMlle Daubreuil catches Hastings’ attention in many ways, not all of them of the purest. After a conversation with her, he says “she turned and ran back up the road, looking like a modern Atalanta”. Who? Obviously I’m not that well versed in Z-list Greek mythology celebrities. When Atalanta was born, her father wanted a son, so she was left on a mountain top to die. But she was raised by a family of bears, so ended up a fierce hunter who fought like bears, and who took an oath of virginity to the Goddess Artemis. So in all honesty she probably wouldn’t have been a lot of fun.

Buster BrownAt one stage, Poirot and Hastings return to England to visit the Palace Theatre Coventry (I shan’t tell you why – if you’ve read the book you’ll know why, and if you haven’t, it will spoil it for you.) But there is no Palace Theatre in Coventry. In the early 1920s, Coventry boasted the Hippodrome Theatre and the Opera House. There was also the Alexandra, but that was primarily a cinema. So I guess this is just a bit of Christie whimsy. Hastings hates the show, because he’s too much of a snob for Music Hall, noting that there was a comedian trying to be George Robey and failing. Well I do know who George Robey was – Google it if you don’t. But he also describes an act called the Dulcibella Kids as having short fluffy skirts and immense Buster Brown bows. I’m afraid that reference passed me by. Buster Brown was an American comic strip character (who wore a smart suit with huge bows) whose adventures were published from 1902 until about 1921. But after that he lived on, in film, radio and even TV until the 1950s. Never heard of him. Anyway, when they’d finished, the Dulcibella Kids received “a full meed of applause”. A meed? Again, that’s a new one on me. It was mainly used in the 16th century to mean a reward, but according to the OED it came back into fashion in the early 20th century to mean “a fair share of”. Who says you don’t learn stuff from this blog? So educational. Finally, a character under stress is described – by a doctor – as being in danger of suffering from brain fever. Medically, this wouldn’t pass muster nowadays, but it’s interesting to see how much more knowledge we have of neurology over the past 90 years.

PoundIn my blog about The Secret Adversary I did a little financial analysis on the present day values of the sums Tommy and Tuppence were being paid. In this book, Poirot notes that Mme Daubreuil has paid in to her bank account a sum of 200,000 francs over the previous six weeks – I’ll leave you to deduce whether it was legally or otherwise acquired. But if you were curious, that translates to about £170,000 in today’s money. You could buy an awful lot of baguettes and onions with that.

As usual, I offer you my at-a-glance summary for The Murder on the Links:

Publication Details: 1923. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1971. According to Wikipedia, so it must be right, Christie dedicated it thus: “TO MY HUSBAND. A fellow enthusiast for detective stories and to whom I am indebted for much helpful advice and criticism”. In 1923 she was still happily married to Archie Christie. Interestingly, that dedication doesn’t appear in my copy.

How many pages until the first death: 12. Great that you get stuck in nice and early. There are two more deaths too, but are they murders…?

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly few:
“Jumping up…let down the window and stuck her head out, withdrawing it a moment later with the brief and forcible ejaculation…”
“”My only aunt!” She exclaimed”.
“”I would hardly have credited it,“ said Poirot thoughtfully, “but women are very unexpected”.

Memorable characters:
This is probably the book’s weakest aspect. I don’t think any of the major characters are particularly memorable – maybe Cinderella, because she’s different from the other rather stuffy people in it. Oh and M. Giraud from the Sûreté. Anyone trying to patronise Poirot has got to be interesting.

Christie the Poison expert:
Poisons don’t really play a part in this book, although there is an interesting observation about the properties of Primula. “The gardening gloves Auguste admitted to be his. He wore them when handling a certain species of primula plant which was poisonous to some people.” I wonder if the people behind the cheese spread know this?

Class/social issues of the time:

The book was published just five years after the end of the First World War, so wartime memories were still vivid for many people. Hastings reminds us that he was invalided out of the army after the Somme, and it’s interesting to see his instantly patriotic reaction when faced with any implied criticism of his homeland, even in a throwaway line. When the servant Françoise is answering M. Hautet’s questions she says: ““One could see that he was on the brink of a crisis of the nerves. And who could wonder, with an affair conducted in such a fashion? No reticence, no discretion. Style anglais, without doubt!” I bounded indignantly in my seat, but the examining magistrate was continuing his questions, undistracted by side issues.”

The book contains some of the classic Christie distrust of foreigners but not as much as in others – maybe the fact that it is set in France made it less appropriate. Nevertheless there is still a lot of suspicious mutterings about interlopers from Santiago and obvious-looking foreigners in railway stations.

Perhaps more interestingly – and I have to be careful here not to give away too much of the plot – there is a lot of moralising about the sins of the fathers; with specific reference to choosing a suitable person to marry, and avoiding an unsuitable one. “”A truly beautiful young girl – modest, devout, all that she should be. One pities her, for, though she may know nothing of the past, a man who wants to ask for her hand in marriage must necessarily inform himself, and then –“ The commissary shrugged his shoulders cynically. “But it would not be her fault!” I cried, with rising indignation. “No. But what will you? A man is particular about his wife’s antecedents”.

Classic denouement:
Christie has been dropping so many plot twists all along that it’s a little hard to identify quite where the denouement begins. The explanation for the second death starts over fifty pages from the end, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as solving the crime is concerned. The final eight pages explain all. If you’re hoping for Poirot to call all the suspects in to a big room where he slowly identifies the murderer, you’ll be disappointed.

Happy ending? Certainly. Hastings has met his Cinderella, and although we don’t know what will happen next, the augurs look good. And Poirot does his marriage counselling act on another character, with the implication that another couple will live happy ever after.

Did the story ring true? There are of course coincidences in the story as a whole, but at no point did I question the general credibility of the book – and I found the rivalry between Giraud and Poirot extremely believable.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. The constant twists and turns lead you up and down garden paths and everywhere but the truth, and are really entertaining. Plus I had the added excitement of having completely forgotten whodunit – and I didn’t get it right on this re-read. An undervalued little gem of a book.

Poirot InvestigatesThanks for reading my blog of The Murder on the Links, 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 we are still in 1923, but a few months later with Christie’s first published selection of short stories under the title Poirot Investigates. Once again, we will meet Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings setting their combined minds to solve a number of devious crimes. It will be interesting to compare short stories with a full length novel. 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 – Gaslight, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2015

GaslightHot on the heels of the superb Brave New World comes another well-known British work of the 1930s which has completely passed me by. I’d never seen the play of Gaslight, nor any of the film adaptations; my parents used fondly to recall Fanny by Gaslight but that’s another thing entirely. Patrick Hamilton, the author, was also responsible for the play Rope, famously adapted for the memorable Hitchcock film. Although written in 1938, Gaslight is set in 1880, and so I was expecting a spooky Victorian psychological thriller with a touch of melodrama thrown in – and to a large extent, that’s precisely what the production delivers.

Tara FitzgeraldJack and Bella Manningham lead a rather gloomy and austere life in a gloomy and austere house in London. She is obviously a nervous wreck, desperate to please her husband and play the role of the good Victorian wife; he is a controlling, ruthless, unkind Victorian husband, languishing at home by day and absent who knows where in the evening. And the key to the success of this play is not knowing anything more about it in advance, so that’s all the plot summary you’re getting.

There’s a huge amount to admire and enjoy in this production. William Dudley’s set is amazing, offering so many opportunities to accentuate Bella’s paranoia, including opaque walls that let you see what’s happening in the next room, and a very surprising extension that takes your breath away. At portentous moments, mysterious music will just gently seep its way into your consciousness to add to the general eeriness. This is all strongly juxtaposed with the realism of the costumes and props; I appreciated the scrupulous attention to detail here, I especially liked the Victorian bone china tea set, and the very clear sound effects from the street outside – you could almost smell the horses.

Jonathan FirthHowever – and for me it’s quite a big however – I found this an extremely curious play. In fact, it’s almost two plays dovetailed in together. There’s the classic dark thriller, where a husband mistreats his wife with psychological game-playing; and there’s an almost farcical comedy struggling to get out, based on the character of the police inspector Rough, a self-confessed dandy whom you suspect could just as easily turn into Clouseau as Holmes. Thanks to good old Youtube, I’ve had a quick flick through the film and see that the characterisation of Rough there is also somewhat larger than life. In this production he is played by Paul Hunter, an actor and director of immense talent and experience, so I am completely certain that this isn’t a case of miscasting or accidentally getting it wrong.

Paul HunterBut whereas the contrast of fantasy and realism works very well with the set and effects, I found the difference of characterisation of the inspector sat ill-at-ease with everything and everyone else. I just didn’t find him remotely believable. I didn’t get a sense that he was in the same period as the other characters – he felt too modern, too unconventional. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed that the scenes between Jack and Bella were superb; a really fantastic study of the chilling domination of one person over another. We also loved the interaction between both characters and their servants, and the unexpected way in which the servants’ relevance in the story develops. But as for the inspector? We just didn’t get it, I’m afraid. In the interval, we both thought it was going the way of An Inspector Calls – apparently J B Priestley was a great admirer of Patrick Hamilton’s work – and Gaslight predates Inspector by seven years, so it would be Hamilton influencing Priestley and not the other way round. But no – whilst there may be all sorts of psychological games going on, Inspector Rough is indeed proper flesh and blood. Yes, at times he makes you laugh, and you might well feel that a laugh nicely breaks up the heavy atmosphere; but all I can say is that the characterisation wasn’t to my taste, and that’s not Mr Hunter’s fault – it’s a disconnect between me and the play.

Alexandra GuelffTara Fitzgerald is simply brilliant as Bella, conveying immaculately her mental fragility, her desire to be loved, her awkwardness with the servants, and her fighting spirit too. There’s an extremely moving moment when she discovers a hidden letter, which really moved me to tears. I enjoyed how she portrayed the character opening up to the police inspector as if he were a kind of therapist – it’s an all-round amazing performance. Jonathan Firth is also superb as the calculating and cruel Jack, really using the pace and control of his voice both to dominate and to lull Bella into a false sense of security. It’s a beautifully understated characterisation of evil – it wouldn’t surprise me if he committed any appalling act he wanted.

Veronica RobertsAlexandra Guelff takes on the role of Nancy the maid with great gusto, subtly sneering at her mistress and becoming more challenging – and forward – as the character grows in confidence. Veronica Roberts gives great support as Elizabeth, particularly in the delightfully suspenseful scene where Jack goes in and out of his dressing room. And Paul Hunter is very funny and very charismatic as Rough, a character that I just feel deserves to be in a different play.

The suspense lasts right until the very end and it’s an extremely rewarding, as well as thoroughly moral, climax. It was a pleasure to see the Royal so full for a Wednesday evening, and I’m sure this is going to do great business. I just think it’s a very strange play!

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Derngate, Northampton, 20th October 2015

Richard Alston Dance CompanyHaving discovered the joys of live theatre at the age of seven, and opera at fifteen, I came to dance relatively late at the age of nineteen. None of my friends or family had the remotest interest in it. I had always admired the concept of it enormously, but for some erroneous reason thought that it was just something that wasn’t for me. I even remember enjoying contemporary dance (although certainly not classical ballet) on TV arts programmes as a younger teenager. But it wasn’t until I saw Ballet Rambert in 1982 performing Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances that I was hooked. That was when I realised – and I still believe this today – that Dance Done Well is the finest thing you can witness on a stage. It has the power to communicate most directly strong emotions whether it be with elegance and clarity or raw savagery. Dance Done Poorly on the other hand is one of the most woeful things you can witness on a stage. But that’s another matter, and you won’t find it here.

Richard AlstonLooking back at that Rambert programme from 1982, another piece on the menu was Night Music, choreographed by a certain Richard Alston. Ignorant me didn’t know who he was at the time, and I have to confess I have no memory whatsoever of the dance. Nevertheless, I do remember his name cropping up very frequently over the years and it was in 1997 that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the Richard Alston Dance Company for the first time. By my estimate, the show we saw last night will have been our 15th time of seeing the company, not bad for what is actually their 21st season.

StrongholdThere was a pre-show talk, where Mr Alston spoke about the pieces and explained how they were created and what they are all about. However, as usual, we didn’t get to the theatre in time for that, so the considerations that follow in the paragraphs below about the individual dances come purely from my own reactions to what I saw on stage and what I have read in the programme and online. And if I get it wrong, sue me. (Please don’t.)

Ihsaan de BanyaThe programme started with Stronghold, a new work choreographed by Martin Lawrance, that only premiered last week at Brighton. It’s set to music by Julia Wolfe, scored to 8 double basses, and they make a thoroughly overwhelming sound; sometimes reassuring, but mainly harsh and disconcerting, with a growing sense of menace throughout. You can define Stronghold in many ways. The programme gives you some suggestions: “A fortress, a protected place, an area dominated by a particular group, a place of survival or refuge”. There’s also the play on words, with “strong hold”, which is certainly what the dancers have to do to each other, and the strong hold that a fine piece of dance can have over the hearts and minds of its audience.

Nicholas BodychI found the dance instantly captivating, showing off the athleticism of the dancers, full of high kicks and spins, constantly breaking off into subgroups and switching around the numbers and the partnerships. First one dancer will appear to take control of the group, then another, then patterns of other dancers will emerge, and it all combines in a kind of organised mayhem. You can see there are power strategies being played, changing relationships, dancers influencing each other on which move to make next. It’s all very fast and dynamic, and full of individual highlights. There is a very exciting moment, which only lasts about three seconds,Elly Braundwhen the five guys all suddenly appear at once, spinning constantly and symmetrically into the centre of the stage – that had tremendous visual impact. There was a particularly beautiful duet between Elly Braund and Nicholas Bodych where she just glides onto him and envelops him with some very sensual moves. There’s also some brilliant solo work from Ihsaan de Banya, whom I feel has developed into a world class dancer. He seems to have come to some sort of deal with Sir Isaac Newton in that when he leaps or is lifted in the air, he defies the law of gravity and seems to stay up there for ages – how does he do it? It’s a very rewarding and intensely intriguing dance.

Jennifer HayesAfter the first interval we saw Espresso Vivace – a world premiere no less; presumably so new that there isn’t a description of it in the programme. It’s a work for two dancers, choreographed by Richard Alston to two sonatas by Scarlatti – played, rather impishly, on the accordion; baroque by squeezebox, you might say. The arrangement gives it a delicate sense of fun which is perfectly reflected by the dancers, Jennifer Hayes and Ihsaan de Banya, both on fine form. It’s light, frothy and courtly; a little bit like a dance version of a very successful first date.

MazurAfter the briefest of pauses – how quickly and silently they moved the piano into place – came Mazur, choreographed by Richard Alston and first performed in June. The Mazur of the title refers to the Polish mazurka music which accompanies it, composed by Chopin and played live on stage on the piano by Jason Ridgway. This is a really elegant and gentlemanly dance performed by Liam Riddick and Nicholas Bodych. In smart suit trousers and black velvet waistcoats, more Mazurtheir dance suggests agreement between friends who share the same feelings about the Mazurkas and, by extension, the homeland to which they can no longer return. But by dancing side by side, and separately, and finally together, you sense there is a meeting of minds (and just possibly, bodies) in a very refined, emotionally reserved and stoic, but nevertheless expressive way. Mrs C described it as contemporary dance à la Downton Abbey. It’s a stunning piece, performed exquisitely by two of the country’s most accomplished dancers.

NomadicThe final dance of the evening – the slot traditionally reserved for “crowd pleaser” – was Nomadic, first performed in January this year and choreographed by Richard Alston and Ajani Johnson-Goffe. The curtain rises to reveal four female dancers, ostensibly in their jim-jams ready for a sleepover, to the very rhythmic and vibrant sound of the Shukar Collective – it’s music that is very hard to define, but it really pulsates and is the kind of sound it’s impossible not to dance to. Nomadic is a piece into which the entire company throws themselves, as the music demands the need and desire for movement, Nomadic leapswhether that’s of the nomadic kind or simply a physical reaction to the beat. The music itself is, I think, a bit “Marmite” – I loved it, Mrs C found it slightly wearisome – but the mix of “classic” contemporary dance with hip-hop street choreography provides some really original and entertaining moves that I would guess both challenge and satisfy the dancers’ desire to create something exciting and new. I thought it was an astonishing piece, full of excitement, humour, drive and vigour, danced with tremendous commitment and I really didn’t want it to end.

Liam RiddickThe Richard Alston Dance Company remains one of the finest exponents of contemporary dance and this is a great programme that will lift your spirits, set your brain racing and fill you with admiration. After Northampton, they have five more dates touring in Autumn – at Edinburgh, Truro, Yeovil, Shrewsbury and Richmond. A must-see!

Review – The Tenth Malcolm Arnold Festival, Reaching Across The Globe Gala Concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Jess Gillam, Martin James Bartlett, Derngate, Northampton, 18th October 2015

Tenth Malcolm Arnold FestivalOnce again last weekend the Royal and Derngate Theatres played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the life and works of one of Northampton’s most famous sons. As usual, it culminated in a gala concert performed by the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, better known by their real name, the Worthing Symphony Orchestra. We welcomed back John Gibbons as conductor, who’s been in charge ever since we started attending this annual Arnoldfest. Mr Gibbons is a great host, because not only does he get maximum oomph out of the orchestra, he also introduces each item on the musical menu in an informative and entertaining way. Even when he’s discussing an unfamiliar, maybe difficult piece, he always gives you aspects and ideas to look out for during the performance – and you certainly feel as though you understand each piece of music much more after you hear them.

As befits the Malcolm Arnold Festival, we started with some of the Great Man’s work – and one of my particular favourites in all orchestral music – his Four Scottish Dances, Opus 59. They’re so full of quirky musical observations as well as really great tunes – one of the few pieces of classical music that can actually make you laugh out loud. I particularly enjoyed the performances of the first dance, with the orchestra giving it the full welly of grandeur, and the third, which is so wistfully romantic, you can almost smell the heather coming off the woodwind.

Jess GillamNext featured a performance by our first soloist, BBC Walter Todds Bursary recipient and saxophonist extraordinaire, 17 year old Jess Gillam. We listened, enthralled, to her performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Saxophone Concerto, a relatively short but amazingly expressive piece of music, which I’d never heard before. Mr Gibbons had previously told us we might find it a challenging piece but I thought it was superbly tuneful and Miss Gillam gave it a really funky feel. There’s one passage where it upgrades from a minor to a major key which was the cue for Miss G to make the notes glide all over the place like they were dipped in velvet chocolate. It all came fantastically alive. Mrs Chrisparkle played the saxophone in her youth; I don’t think Miss Gillam has to worry about the competition.

The next piece was – for me at least – definitely a challenge. Doreen Carwithen’s Overture ODTAA (which stands for One Damn Thing After Another). I knew nothing of Ms Carwithen, but Mr Gibbons’ account of her life was fascinating, as she was born near where I used to live in Haddenham, in Buckinghamshire, and used to play at the church in Monks Risborough, where Mrs C and I used to go dog-walking (many years ago when we had a dog, that is.) The orchestra gave it a very good performance but for some reason it just didn’t speak to me, and I found my mind wandering. I think Mrs C enjoyed it more than me, recognising something of the Thunderbirds theme in there somewhere.

Martin James BartlettOur last piece before the interval was a perennial crowd pleaser – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with piano soloist Martin James Bartlett. We’d seen young Mr Bartlett last year perform Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There’s obviously nothing Mr Bartlett likes more than a good old rhapsody. John Gibbons told us that there are several arrangements of the Rhapsody in Blue out there, and that they were trying to recreate the sound that was closest to Gershwin’s own performance. I used to have a recording off the radio of Gershwin playing the Rhapsody, and my memory is that he really invested in the jazzy nature of the piece, and I felt that Mr Bartlett tended more to the romantic expression. Not that that was in any way a disappointment, far from it. Mr Bartlett plays the piano with his entire body, squeezing out musical meaning every bar along the way. Whilst his fingers are caressing or pummelling the keyboard, his back will arch in and out and his right foot will be waggling about in ecstasy. Stunningly mature playing for one so young, and also incredibly accurate too. We thought Mr Bartlett was ace last year. What a difference a year makes – now at the grand old age of 19 he is simply amazing.

After our interval Shiraz it was time for a quick march from another local boy William Alwyn entitled True Glory. I hadn’t heard it before and I was struck by its great rhythm and military bearing – perhaps unsurprisingly as Alwyn wrote it for a documentary film showing real footage of the Second World War. Then we quickly went into Malcolm Arnold’s Commonwealth Christmas Overture, written to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a Christmas Broadcast by a British monarch. I loved Arnold’s cheeky description of it that appeared in the programme: “I have purposely designed it so that the piece will be easily grasped by people listening after a large Christmas dinner”. It’s a wonderful hotch-potch of tunes suggesting the different parts of the Commonwealth who might be listening in, including a really entertaining samba. Enormous fun, and the orchestra played it beautifully.

John GibbonsTalking of which, we come to the final piece of the night, Dvořák’s New World Symphony. It had been a while since we had heard this wonderful symphony, and it’s easy to think of it as just the Hovis advert and not give it the full credit it’s due. The first movement is particularly stunning, and the orchestra gave it so much warmth and passion. But it was the poignant second movement that was played with such emotion and pathos that, as Mrs C and I confessed to each other later, it brought a tear to both our eyes (i.e. all four of them). It was just so beautiful. Whatever it was that the orchestra did to achieve this heightened level of emotion, they got it spot on. An absolutely remarkable performance. And, for good measure, there’s no doubt in my mind that the fourth movement was the inspiration for the music behind the Fry’s Turkish Delight advert.

Worthing Symphony OrchestraOne of the best classical concerts we’ve ever attended – congratulations to everyone involved. A friendly suggestion to Northampton concertgoers: for some reason the Malcolm Arnold Gala concert usually gets fewer people attending than the usual Royal Philharmonic performances that are all available within the same Subscription Season. I hope you don’t think that the Worthing Symphony Orchestra is in any way an inferior provider of classical music? Because they’re great! If you normally miss this one out, next year give it a go – you won’t regret it!

Coming Soon – Richard Alston Dance Company 2015 Tour

NomadicHello gentle reader! Just wanted to take a quick opportunity to give you the heads up that the wonderful Richard Alston Dance Company are heading our way – they’re at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton this Tuesday and Wednesday, the 20th and 21st October. We go to see them every year and it’s always an annual highlight of our cultural year. There’s something about the understanding between dancers and choreographer, and between the dancers themselves, that creates dance magic on stage. For this programme they’re performing three dances, Stronghold, Mazur and Nomadic, all of which are new to me; and even the titles themselves are fascinating and arouse your curiosity as to what they might be about.

StrongholdStronghold is a new piece choreographed by Martin Lawrance, which actually only opened last week at Brighton, so it’s the dance equivalent of hot off the press. It’s set to music by Julia Wolfe, scored to 8 double basses – which I guess will sound and feel overwhelmingly enveloping, a great mix of velvety relaxation and harsh stabbing strings. The piece features all ten dancers of the company, so I expect we’ll get a wonderful range of attitudes and styles, a clever juxtaposition of group work and individual characterisation. There’s actually a promotional video which gives you a hint of what it will look and sound like on stage – and I confess, I’m hooked! Really looking forward to it.

MazurMazur, the second piece, is choreographed by Richard Alston; the unusual name refers to the Polish mazurka music which accompanies it, composed by Chopin and played live on stage by Jason Ridgway. It’s about two friends who express what they love and what they have lost – just as in the 19th century Chopin loved Poland, a country to which he could not return. But it’s not just about a lost homeland, it’s also about personal love and loss. Richard Alston created it together with Liam Riddick, one of the country’s finest dancers, and Jonathan Goddard, whose work with the company and with Rambert I have admired for many years. The performance will be by Mr Riddick and the excellent Nicholas Bodych and I reckon this is going to be cracking!

Nomadic leapsThe final piece, Nomadic, has been co-choreographed by Richard Alston and Ajani Johnson-Goffe, bringing some hip-hop influence to the world of contemporary dance. The piece is described as a combination of “Asian-influenced, traditional Romani singing with the toughness of an urban beat”. Its vision is to create a dance that reflects both the nomadism of the Roma and of desert tribes – sounds intriguing!

If you’ve seen Richard Alston Dance Company before you’ll know that they never miss a trick to entrance, entertain or challenge you. But if you’re new to the world of contemporary dance, this would be a great place to start. Why not come along to the Royal and Derngate this Tuesday or Wednesday to see for yourself? There are also some other dates still to come on their tour: Edinburgh on 24th October, Truro on 3rd November, Yeovil on 5th November, Shrewsbury on 10th November and Richmond on 19th November. Can’t wait!

Review – King Charles III, Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th October 2015

King Charles IIII didn’t have much expectation of King Charles III before we saw it, as I didn’t know much about it. I knew it had received some glowing reviews and had done very good business in the West End – and that it had won the Olivier Award for Best New Play of 2014. I knew it was written by Mike Bartlett, whose Love Love Love we had seen in 2011, which we thought was a meaty and challenging play, and largely enjoyable. It wasn’t until I arrived at the theatre and read the programme that I realised it starred Robert Powell – a big name and seasoned performer – and not until I actually started watching the play that I realised it was in blank verse; like Christopher Fry, and TS Eliot, and…Shakespeare.

Robert PowellHold that discovery a moment whilst I give you a flavour of the plot. The Queen is dead, long live the King. The play opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the reality for Charles that he is finally to become King. His close family and aides are there for support, but you don’t really get the sense that he is ready for the challenge. However, when he has his first regular meeting with the Prime Minister, he questions a bill he is about to sign – that of restricting the freedom of the press following all the News International phone hacking scandals (yes, Murdoch, I’m looking at you.) The PM and the King don’t see eye to eye on the bill, and with the PM refusing to give way because it has gone through both Houses of Parliament and has received the necessary backing, the King refuses to sign. This simple action – or inaction – starts a chain of events where no one backs down; and when the PM sets up another bill to make it unnecessary to have the Royal Signature for the law to be enacted, the King turns up at the House of Commons, and, as is his right, dissolves parliament.

Richard GlavesIt’s an intriguing story line, and, approached differently, could I think have made for a lively, dynamic, dramatic play which would have educated and entertained with humour, satire, characterisation and some funny lines. However, sadly, in my opinion, being chained to the sub-Shakespearean blank verse makes you link it inextricably in your mind with the Bard’s History Plays; and as Mr Bartlett isn’t Shakespeare – I doubt you’d consider him a poet – he is weighed in the balance and found wanting. As a result, this just came over to me as an immensely tedious play, hugely self-indulgent, and almost totally lacking dramatic tension.

Tim TreloarTo me it seems to be a play that doesn’t know its own identity. Is it a comedy? A straight play? A fantasy? A parody? Half the characters are real members of the Royal Family, the rest are Mr Bartlett’s inventions; that’s fine, but within the characters whom we know, some of them are impersonations (William and Kate), some are half-impersonations (Charles and Harry) and one is nothing like an impersonation (Camilla). There’s no consistency in the way the characters are presented to us. Combine that with the use of versified text, some of which rhymes, most of which doesn’t, and you get an overwhelming feeling of artificiality. The use of plainsong, the use of masks (including a Fluck and Law Spitting Image Charles which I thought was just woeful and killed any vestige of dignity to which the play might have had pretensions) and the use of equally cringe-making ghosts (not so much Hamlet’s Father but William’s Mother) means there’s no attempt at reality and, I felt, barely any connection to the audience at all. We had a long should we/shouldn’t we leave at the interval session but decided to stay because I did have a faint interest in how it was going to get resolved. However, there’s a long scene in the second act where William proposes to act as a go-between between the King and the country, and the writing is as dull as ditchwater and completely without drama; it was about this time that I decided the only way this play could be rescued would be by having Fortinbras arrive in the final scene, defeat the House of Windsor in battle and take control over the land. Not that we want Norwegian prices in this country, I confess. Mrs Chrisparkle instead decided to give up and just go to sleep, believing that giving her brain and body a well-earned rest from the rigours of the day was a much more productive way of spending those sixty minutes.

Giles TaylorCredit where it’s due, Tom Scutt has created an imposing stage design that nicely conveys the austere grandeur of the Westminster Hall setting for lying in state, and functional parliamentary offices where constitution issues are debated with increasing incredulity. But you don’t get a feeling for any other setting, such as the opulence of the Royal Palaces or the outside world where Prince Harry might have a fling. Jocelyn Pook’s moody choral compositions for the State occasions are atmospheric and sung quite beautifully. Robert Powell is of course a fine actor with a strong stage presence, and he does bring some warmth and a sense of self-awareness to the role of Charles. Richard Glaves gives a good performance as Harry, with a suitably Sloany voice and a surprising lack of interest in Things Royal; but other than that, the performances that impress more are of the imaginary characters – Tim Treloar in great form as the Kinnock-based PM, Giles Taylor as the manipulative Leader of the Opposition and Lucy Phelps as Harry’s girlfriend Jess; part fish out of water, part wise Fool who sees the truth.

Lucy PhelpsFortinbras doesn’t turn up – shame – and I think the ending is something of a damp squib, which is saying something considering the general level of boredom that the rest of the play engenders. In the programme notes, Robert Powell says he thinks the play is a masterpiece. Well, considering it sold out the West End, is touring the country and going to both Broadway and Australia, it’s certainly convinced some people of its worth. Personally, I thought it was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I really didn’t like it. I guess it was just not my cup of Duchy Originals Organic Earl Grey.