Review – The Last Tango, Derngate, Northampton, 21st March 2016

The Last TangoThe last time we saw Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace, in Midnight Tango, the show reminded us so strongly of our (then) recent visit to Argentina, as it was full of drama and excitement, edgy sensuality, dynamic rhythms, and powerful storylines told through the medium of dance. When you walk the streets of Buenos Aires, Tango can just emerge on a street-corner; a young couple will commandeer an area of pavement, place a ghetto blaster on the floor, turn it on and suddenly busk the most extraordinarily passionate dancing for the hope of earning some passing pesos. How much more thrilling than in the UK where it’s probably an old bloke with a penny whistle and a cap. Mrs Chrisparkle and I adored Midnight Tango; in its own way it was as exciting as the best contemporary dance or classical ballet.

Vincent and FlaviaWe missed Vincent and Flavia’s next show, Dance ‘til Dawn, but thought we should catch The Last Tango as, indeed, it is meant to be their Last Tango. After this show they have resolved to hang up their stage dance shoes for ever – maybe to move into the world of film, as Vincent suggests in the programme. In their programme interview, they point out that they have always wanted to give each of their shows a very different theme and atmosphere. They didn’t want to bore their audiences by churning out the same old thing every time. A laudable aim. The very romantic story thread for this show is an older guy sitting in his attic, sorting through old stuff, some of which he can keep, some of which he can’t. As he finds old items, toys, clothes, papers, they remind him of his younger days, and as he daydreams, the cast dance out his memories. Vincent plays the man in his younger days – a very knowing greeting to each other through a full length mirror makes that clear – and Flavia his lady; and you can tell from the very start that the absence of an older lady also rummaging through the attic means this isn’t going to end happily for her.

Last Tango in NorthamptonThe dance sequences take you through the life of the younger couple – from meeting, and early dates, through marriage and his being called up in the army (for World War II you sense, although the time sequence is muddy, more of which later); his return, their settling down in a house and having a family, a 40th birthday party and so on. And if you’re waiting for this last tango; it comes right at the end after the initial curtain call.

Wedding danceThere’s a lot of good about this show but a few frustrations too. It looks great. It’s an intriguing and versatile set; Vicky Gill’s costumes are terrific (Flavia in particular looks absolutely stunning the whole night long), and Steve Geere’s orchestra, nestling in the pit in front of the stage in the most traditional manner, are on brilliant form, giving us fantastic renditions of thirty, mainly familiar, songs. Matthew Gent and Rebecca Lisewski sing with passion and style – I particularly liked the way Beyond The Sea segued into Moondance, very classy – and the ensemble work wonderfully well together, filling the stage with lively and entertaining dance sequences. You’ve also got the marvellous Mr Teddy Kempner. I always feel happy when I open a programme to discover Mr Kempner’s in the cast. I first saw him back in 1984 in Snoopy the Musical and I feel like he and I have grown up together through the years. He’s playing the older guy, pootling around his attic, making wry comments about jackets that don’t fit anymore and doing a great line in vocalising surprise discoveries.

Flavia and VincentWhich brings us to Mr Simone and Ms Cacace themselves, who, of course, are still sensational. They can turn their hand (feet?) to any style you choose, and in this show we get the full range of ballroom and Latin dances, not just the Tango/Argentine Tango. I found the scene just before the interval, where the young man receives his calling-up papers (I loved the idea of using the papers as an interface between foot and floor) very moving, not only because of the beautiful dance itself but also the expressions of the dancers: Vincent in abject dismay and Flavia in almost uncontrollable weeping. Mrs C was not so moved by this: “well you know he’s going to come back alright; you can see him up there in the attic”. True enough. Another really enjoyable routine was the jive to (not inappropriately) Jump Jive an’ Wail, which earned one of the best receptions of the night.

Last Tango the girlsIt was a shame that they didn’t sequence the dances more in keeping with the progress of the years, which would have been helpful for understanding the timeline of the story. When the couple take delivery of their incredibly old-fashioned sofa and chair, bedecked with ancient anti-Macassars, I recognised them from my Great Aunt’s home circa 1966 – and they were old then. A little Rock’n’Roll dancing, maybe, wouldn’t have gone amiss at that point to pin the era down. That said, I really did love the rumba that Vincent and Flavia danced near the end, as if she were beyond the grave, and that last, last tango was incredible. And on reflection, that was also part of the frustration. It was such a perfectly executed, intricate, stirring dance, the type that makes you gasp in awe and wonderment; and we couldn’t help but think it would have been great to have seen more of it earlier in the show. Yes, there were other Argentine Tango routines, but none of them half as exciting as that final dance. They certainly saved the best till last.

Last Tango boys and girlsIt’s a very attractive show, and there’s barely a moment without some enjoyable dancing to watch. But for us it lacked just a little of the bite – and certainly the humour – of Midnight Tango. Just a little more vanilla than we would have preferred. But it’s all a question of taste. The audience loved it, and why not? The tour continues through to July. This might be your last chance of seeing Vincent and Flavia live!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Dane Baptiste, Reasonable Doubts, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 19th March 2016

D BaptisteI can’t think of any occasion where, as a rule, quantity outweighs quality. Let me just double-check that in my head…. Certainly, at least, it applies when it comes to comedy audiences. For Friday night’s Screaming Blue Murder, a packed house started off by being very quiet and weird. For Saturday night, and Dane Baptiste’s Reasonable Doubts show, at the same venue, with the same layout, a much more select group of us had a whale of a time right from the start. It all started when the two ladies who apparently met at the venue were joking with everyone waiting outside and then entering the auditorium (actually, auditorium’s a bit of a posh word for the Underground – it’s more of a room really.) Then the Mum ‘n’ Son in the front row decided to do selfies on the stage – and there was something so silly about what they were doing that it made us all laugh. By the time Mr Baptiste’s disembodied voice welcomed us in and introduced the support act, we were all very jovial indeed.

E AkbarSo, on to our support act – Eshaan Akbar. I know my Indian architecture – he must be related to the son of the man who built the Taj Mahal. Mr Akbar cracked us up with his opening gambit that he’s not a GP – because he absolutely looks the spitting image of one; probably one on a BBC serial that’s been going on for too long on Saturday nights. Mr Akbar disarmingly relaxes and entertains us with some great material and plenty of interaction with the crowd – to be honest, given the kind of people sitting at the front of the audience, there was no way any performer would be able to ignore them. A lot of his material stems from his “ex-Muslim” standpoint, which nicely takes the Mick out of racism; but there’s much more to it than that. He’s a naturally funny and likeable guy and I reckon he could Go Places. Especially if his nephew leaves his rucksack on the train seats. (His joke, not mine.)

After an early interval and a top-up of Shiraz, it was back in for our main act, Dane Baptiste. If you’ve read any of my other recent blogs, gentle reader, where we’ve been to a stand-up comedy gig and I didn’t know anything remotely about the performer – well, this is yet another one of those. I recognised the name – after all, it’s quite a swanky, memorable one – and I think I might have caught him on the TV in something, but I’m afraid it didn’t stick. I liked the fact that the show was going to be in the Underground, as it would give it a more informal, fringey, comedy club vibe, which I think definitely benefited it.

Eshaan AkbarMr Baptiste (I feel with a name like that I should call him Monsieur) is another very likeable chap who comes on stage with an authoritative air and a sense of discipline. You get the feeling that if you were to misbehave he would fix you with a steely gaze and you’d quickly be begging forgiveness. He had a very cool and plain speaking way of dealing with – well you couldn’t really call them hecklers as such, they just wanted to participate in the show a little too forwardly. But at the same time it doesn’t remotely surprise you that he goes off at a hilarious tangent whenever he sees fit, so there’s a huge sense of fun there just waiting for an escape valve. After all, you’re not attending a lecture.

Dane Baptiste1But he does create a lot of humour out of serious observations or situations. Take, for instance, his concern about his position on the Nasblaq index. In one small and extremely funny routine he raises issues of race, celebrity, self-confidence (or lack thereof) and more, all born out of one creative pun which reveals him to be a rather superior wordsmith too. I also enjoyed how he created an innocently friendly character out of “Virginity”, sweetly chatting from one of his shoulders while “Libido” growls like a randy Bad Idea Bear from the other. I can’t remember how, but Mrs Chrisparkle and I got gently roped into part of the act as we were asked how long we’d been together (answer – an awfully long time.) It can often be a sweaty moment when a comedian addresses you – but I was confident that M. Baptiste wouldn’t be one of those comics who made you regret sitting near the front so long as you’re nicely behaved. And I was right.

Dane BOne small thing – but something I do admire in a comic – there was very little swearing from M. Baptiste. The F word and its associated friends can certainly play a part in a comedy gig but it was refreshing to watch an act that didn’t rely on it at all. I reckon that if you can create a series of funny sequences and not have to swear once, it means you’ve really been cooking with those creative juices. Good work!

A really enjoyable, thoughtful and thoroughly hilarious evening of comedy. Dane Baptiste is touring through till May, and I would really recommend his show if you appreciate a good laugh!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 18th March 2016

Screaming Blue MurderWe’ve been a bit on-off with our Screaming Blue attendances this season, as other juicy sounding shows had been up for sale before the Screaming Blue dates were announced. But at least we were free for this one. Unfortunately, our regular host Dan obviously wasn’t, and we were treated to a replacement host for the night in the shape of Mr James Sherwood, whom we’d seen once before and enjoyed his act.

James SherwoodIt’s the task of the compere to get us punters nicely warmed up for the first act. Unfortunately, no matter which tack Mr Sherwood took, it ended up as a dead end. We weren’t particularly responsive as a group, and his questioning line of “who’s had a nice day” just didn’t elicit the right kind of engagement. Things took a turn hugely for the better between the first and second acts though, when he reverted to his usual act and simply sat at the keyboard and played funny songs from a grammatically pedantic point of view. That was great. He also attempted some political humour, but we didn’t bite – we don’t normally do political humour here in Northampton. That said, simply mentioning the words “Michael Gove” isn’t really political humour.

Caroline MabeySo, on to our acts proper. First up, and new to us, was Caroline Mabey. She was at a disadvantage because at that stage we weren’t properly warmed up, but she seemed bright and breezy enough. Somehow, somewhere into the act we all realised that it wasn’t quite working, but Caroline kept on with gritty determination to get through it as best she could. I think the problem was that she adopts an “I’m mad, me!” type of persona but I don’t think that’s really who she is, so it comes over as rather forced instead of natural. Her voice and mannerisms are those of the bastard love child of Mel Giedroyc and Frankie Howerd, and I wouldn’t see that relationship ever getting off the ground. It was all a bit painful but we all got through it in the end.

Peter BrushSecond act, and also new to us, was Peter Brush. A complete opposite to Caroline in many respects, because he too adopted a persona – that of a nerdy fish out of water – but you completely believed that that’s exactly how he is in real life. He paced his act beautifully, mined each moment for its full laughter quotient and above all had some marvellous material. With a surname like that, he must have been called “Daft-as-a” at school.

Jonny AwsumFinal act, and someone we had seen once before, was Jonny Awsum. He was very good then but this time he completely smashed it, as common parlance would have it. He just comes out on stage and the mere sight of him makes you happy. His mix of comedy and music works brilliantly, and you are powerless to resist joining in and making silly noises to accompany his songs. It would be too much to hope that he really does rejoice in the surname “Awsum”.

What started a little shakily ended up being fantastic. Enormous fun – and still a few more gigs to go this Spring!

Review – Days of Significance, University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th March 2016

Days of SignificanceAnd so we come to the third and final of the University of Northampton’s Acting Course March season at the Royal and Derngate, and Roy Williams’ Days of Significance, which first saw the light of day at Stratford in 2007. After the strong productions of Welcome to Thebes and Blue Stockings, would this be a hat trick of excellence for the third year students? The answer is – so nearly, and that’s no fault of the actors themselves.

Aoife Smyth A bunch of drunk lads and a bunch of drunk girls clash and form alliances late at night whilst queueing to get into the club; among them are Ben, who has a relationship with Trish (although you’d not say either were monogamous) and Jamie, who is seen in a more romantic light, with Hannah. Ben and Jamie are shortly off to fight in Iraq; Ben full of bravado, the sensitive Jamie full of ill-concealed fear. The scene shifts to Iraq, and a hide-out where Ben and Jamie are holed up with two other men (ironically both played by women). Whilst Ben is making a video to send home to Trish, they are interrupted by a call to action; and the men then are suddenly plunged into the horrors of war. After the interval, we’re back in Blighty. Steve and Clare (from the drunk groups at the beginning) are getting married; Dan is Steve’s best man; Ben didn’t survive Iraq; and Jamie is back, but a changed and broken man. The usual drunken antics take place as if nothing ever happened; but Jamie is accused of some non-specific war crimes and is singled out for criticism and victimisation. He reveals that Ben also wasn’t as innocent as he has been painted. You hope (perhaps against expectation) that Steve and Clare will make a good life together; but as for the rest, their characters tainted with excess, betrayal, and worse, you feel it’s a very gloomy view of life in the future.

Penelope MayI really didn’t like the play at all. It’s full of unsympathetic characters, depicting many of the worse aspects of human nature; and whilst there is some humour in their yobbish behaviour, and you can certainly recognise traits of yourself and your loved ones in many of the characters, it’s strangely unrewarding to do so. This play doesn’t so much illuminate the human condition, it exposes it in all its raw awfulness and makes you want to turn your back on humanity and go and run a dog’s home. I know that street drunkenness and sexual promiscuity is daily reality for many young people today – to be honest, it was ever thus, to an extent – and I would admire any attempt to portray their lives, no matter how challenging or offensive it might feel to some people. However, I don’t think this play achieves that in a particularly constructive way. I felt it constantly allowed itself to lose focus; it’s as though it can’t decide who its protagonists are, so that it dips in and out of people’s lives, roots around to see what’s going on, but doesn’t really get to the heart of any of the problems or issues, before moving on and taking a superficial examination of someone else.

Jake RiversThis play (and/or production) also didn’t do the job of storytelling as clearly or succinctly as the other two in the season. There are a few Brechtian Verfremdungseffekten (I know, get me) that stop you from identifying with or fully appreciating the characters. The jeering, drunken behaviour in the first scene acts overwhelms you and creates a barrier to understanding the motivations and characteristics of the people involved. The opening part of the second scene, in Iraq, shows Ben and his mates larking about in front of the video camera but I personally found it very difficult to make out everything they said, so again the details that might help you form a bond with the characters were lost. Nothing more annoying in a play than not to be able to hear the words properly! The behaviour for which Jamie will go on trial after Iraq is deliberately obfuscated, so you rely on nuance and suggestion to understand precisely what went on. Some of the male characters are played by women, and no matter how talented those actors are, again it creates a falsehood about the whole presentation. One of these characters was required to dangle a prosthetic penis in front of the group of girls in a show of masculine derring-do, which actually just emphasised the artificiality of the situation. One wonders how they would have tackled the tackle if it had been a male actor in the role. All these aspects contributed towards a lack of understanding between the cast and the audience; as a result, the actors have an uphill task in projecting themselves to the audience, and sometimes that’s a big ask.

Elizabeth AdejimiThat said, there were some tremendous performances that really socked you in the face and demanded your attention. I really enjoyed Aoife Smyth as Trish; bold, attitudinal, fearless – she reminded me a little of what Catherine Tate’s Lauren would behave like in five years’ time. She delivered her character’s lines with immense relish and confidence, and although you’d mark her as a true survivor, she also conveyed the vulnerability that sits just below her surface – an excellent performance. I also thought Penelope May gave a great performance as Hannah, showing a refreshingly softer side as she dances with Jamie, whilst still able to give as good as she gets in arguments with the others. There’s a very uncomfortable scene towards the end of the play with Jake Rivers as Lenny, her step-father, where she runs riot with her sexual fantasies. I thought both actors took that difficult subject matter with terrific bravery and sensitivity too.

Daniel GrayElizabeth Adejimi was excellent as the drunk Clare at her wedding reception, beautifully picking her way through her words on a knife-edge of inebriation; and also as the Sergeant in the war scene, conveying the character’s show of bravado to keep the men’s spirits up whilst concealing his own deep terror and agony. Both Daniel Gray and Stuart Warren were on great form as Steve and Dan, especially, I felt, in the wedding scene (which was in fact by far the most dramatic and satisfying scene to watch). Both Sophie Guiver and Matilda Hunt rose to the challenge of taking on the male roles of Ben and Tony/Sean, and did a good job of nailing male characteristics and behaviour, but inevitably there was a sense of slight pantomime due to its lack of realism.

Stuart WarrenI truly admired the courage and commitment of the cast towards this difficult play – but I do feel it was a poor choice. I am no prude; I love to be challenged in the theatre. I love to come out of a play a different person from the one who went in. Throw all the invective and shock tactics at me that you can; shake me up and disturb me. Give me nightmares. Sadly, this play does none of those.

Review – Blue Stockings, University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2016

Blue StockingsNo sooner had I finished my review of the University of Northampton’s Welcome to Thebes, I was back out at the Royal and Derngate for the second in this March’s season of Third Year Students’ plays and Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, set in Girton College Cambridge in 1896, and first produced at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013. Would my enthusiasm for the skill and craftsmanship of the young actors extend to this second play? Oh yes it would.

Lucy KitsonIt’s hard from today’s perspective to appreciate how difficult it was for a woman to get a university education back in those days (1896 that is, by 2013 things were a bit easier). Certainly at Girton, it was very much tied in with the general progress towards emancipation for women, including the suffragette movement and a recognition that a woman could be more than just a baby-making machine. The play tells the tale of four women commencing their studies at this ground-breaking college. They come from very different backgrounds, but all have the same burning ambition to devote their time to learning, to self-improvement, and to preparation for a fine career. They are encouraged and nurtured by gifted and unorthodox tutors, but have to negotiate several stumbling blocks on the way.

Sophie-Rose DarbyThe Mistress of the college, Elizabeth Welsh, is an eminently practical person who won’t risk the college’s reputation by being too avant-garde. The best brains in the land, like visiting Professor Maudsely, are also highly misogynistic when it comes to women’s education and refuse to recognise the female students as having any place in college. A random woman in a tea-shop berates tutors who fight for women’s recognition. And even their male fellow students don’t back them up, finding their female counterparts somewhere between risible and contemptible. The sense of injustice that the play – and the performance – creates for the audience leaves us furious at their opponents’ pig-headedness.

Ellen Shersby-WignallWhat really comes over in this production is how well the cast gel together and excel at telling this story. You can really believe the sense of intimidation and awkwardness at the students’ first meeting; the inspirational nature of their early classes; the imbalance of the attention bestowed on the male students at the expense of the women; the irritation caused to both sides by constantly having a chaperone present; and the loneliness and bravery of the women who choose this calling, giving up what society expects and requires of them, much to its disapproval. Of course, this is all expressed in the text, but it is the strength of the performances that really flesh out these hopes and fears and make them vivid for a 21st century audience.

Danni-Louise RyanThe play calls for four strong central performances from the young women students and it certainly gets it! Lucy Kitson’s Tess is at the very heart of the play and we identify with her completely. Her hopes and dreams, her expectations, her disappointments, her joys all become ours. She is Tess; you never get the sense that this is a performance, it’s real. She makes a demanding role seem effortless – definitely a name for the future. I was also really moved by the performance of Sophie-Rose Darby as Maeve, a fish out of water as far as the Victorian class system is concerned, although not for her phenomenal intellect which Ms Darby conveys with great spirit and charm. When she resolves to stay in Cambridge despite the calls for her to go home I wanted to punch the air with support! It wasn’t the only punch I wanted to do in the course of the play, more of which later. Ellen Shersby-Wignall is excellent as Celia, dutifully studious and keen to do the right thing, but also allowing the comedy to shine through with her unique take on the Can-Can. And Danni-Louise Ryan makes a splendid Carolyn, the character oozing the kind of confidence that only money and breeding can bring, introducing a sense of brightness and daring to the women’s otherwise closeted existence.

Rhiana YoungI really enjoyed the performance by Rhiana Young as the tutor Miss Blake – challenging the women to think differently, listening intently to her students’ responses as she would, and reacting with perfectly-pitched fury to every attempt to denigrate their achievements. Stephanie Waugh as Mrs Welsh gives a strong account of an authoritative woman who permanently has to tread carefully to promote the college and her students, whilst knowing she has to live in the real world and make unpopular compromises as a result. I was so disappointed when she insisted that Maeve had to go home, she really let down the sisterhood there! There’s an amusingly awkward performance by George Marlow as Tess’s suitor Ralph, tentatively trying to know her better while observing strict politesse; Mr Marlow also shows his versatility doubling up with a very effective portrayal of Billy, Maeve’s brother, desperate in his plight and genuinely unable to understand his sister’s lack of traditional values.

George MarlowThere’s also a fantastic cameo from Stuart Warren as Maudsely, aggravating our sense of injustice as he rides rough-shod over Tess; a warm and funny performance from Jaryd Headley as the laddish Edwards (especially in his perfectly executed drunk scene); and an infuriatingly strong portrayal of the revolting Lloyd by Tom Stone, whose bullying and prejudice really made me want to get up on stage and punch him on the nose. I don’t advocate violence, but boy, would he have deserved it. There’s great support from Cynthia Lebbos and Elliot Holden in a variety of roles, Mr Holden in particular taking the role of Miss Bott and resoundingly making it his own. But primarily all the cast give solid and rewarding performances, putting storytelling at the forefront, and creating a very enjoyable experience for the audience by making this fascinating play live on in our minds and hearts well after the final curtain.

As in Welcome to Thebes, I am truly impressed at the standard of acting. You would never know this was an amateur production. Congratulations to all! I have one more university play to see today – this has been a very rewarding experience.

Review – Welcome to Thebes, University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2016

Welcome to ThebesSo this is a new experiment for me. Outside of all the professional productions we see at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, we’ve also seen work by the Actors’ Company, the Young Company and the Youth Theatre. However, following the leads of Messrs Smallmind and Mudbeast, this March I’ve booked to see all three plays in the University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting season, performed by final year acting students. I genuinely had no idea what the standard would be like. Mrs Chrisparkle frequently shudders at the words “Amateur” and “Dramatics” when put together in the same sentence, and to protect her for her own good I thought I’d go it alone with these three plays by seeing them as midweek matinees by myself. Well, if Welcome to Thebes is an indication of what this little Trinity of drama is all about, she’s missed out on a treat.

Sharni Tapako-BrownMoira Buffini’s play which opened at the National Theatre in 2010 is quite a complicated affair. It takes characters and plots from early Greek tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides and shakes them up into a modern fable about fragile democracy emerging from the ruins of a bloody civil war. There’s also an examination of the relationship between the home state – Thebes – and its powerful neighbour Athens. Thebes’ President Elect Eurydice and Athens’ “First Citizen” Theseus meet for a summit, but Eurydice has strong political opponents in the form of war criminal Prince Tydeus and his lover Pargeia, who are happy to whip up civil unrest to unsettle the fledgling democracy and overthrow the new President. When one of Theseus’ aides shoots one of the Theban soldiers, it’s a cue for more subterfuge and the breakdown of the relations between the two city states. And that’s only part of it.

Charlie CleeIt’s a meaty play; although I will admit I felt a lull in the story halfway through the first act, but the more unrest there is on stage, the more interesting the play becomes. The cast work terrifically together as an ensemble, and the scenes where the stage is filled with characters all interacting together, providing a sense of anarchy or danger, are most effective. The first act is considerably longer than the second; and at one stage a number of us in the audience wondered whether or not the interval was actually the end of the play. It wasn’t – so be warned, don’t leave too early! I really enjoyed how the production uses all parts of the Royal auditorium, from its surprise and challenging start, through to using not only the stage and the front apron, but the boxes and various parts of the Stalls too.

Kathryn McKerrowHowever, I guess when a play is performed by third year acting students, the most important thing is – how was the acting? Well, if you hadn’t told me it was performed by students I would never have guessed – apart, perhaps, from the fact that all the actors are relatively young. On the strength of this performance, I’d say that almost every member of the cast could easily find their feet in any professional acting company. The overall standard was amazingly high, much more impressive than I could have expected or hoped for. If I was to pick out the “best” people from the cast of 18, I’d probably have to give you a list of 14 actors – and that would be both boring and unfair, so I’m not going to do that!

Megan BurdaHowever, I’ve got to point out some of those amazing young actors. Let’s start with President Eurydice – a strong, authoritative performance from Sharni Tapako-Brown. She absolutely looks the part: dignified, resolute, no-nonsense; when she was proclaiming from the box she put me in mind of Evita Peron. Technically, I loved the clarity and audibility of her speech; she’s one of those actors who’s simply a joy to watch. As her political opponent, Charlie Clee as Prince Tydeus owns the stage with a perfect combination of swagger and thuggery, mocking and cajoling us to support him, getting a weird thrill out of others’ misfortunes, yet portraying surprising vulnerability and panic when things don’t go his way. Technically first class, and revealing the great depth of his character – he’s definitely One To Watch in the future. As his partner in crime, Pargeia, Kathryn McKerrow turns in a fine performance of quiet domination and ruthlessness – you’d surely not want to cross her. Moreover, she delivers one of the most ferocious slaps in the face I’ve ever seen on stage! I hope Stage Management have a poultice handy.

Suzannah CasselsMegan Burda is hardly off stage, doubled over in what must be a physically challenging performance as the all-seeing blind Tiresias, portentously issuing her warnings and nicely irritating the figures of authority. Again, I really appreciated her vocal clarity; her put-down line to Talthybia, a quirkily amusing portrayal by Ciara Goldsberry, was probably worth the ticket price alone. Vandreas Marc has great stage presence and bearing, and splendidly conveyed the arrogance of Theseus. Suzannah Cassels was a very affecting Antigone, a performance of true sincerity and dignity, and Amber Mae a supportive and charming Ismene, very emotional in her realisation that she has lost out on the marriage stakes to the hapless Haemon, a deftly underplayed performance by Benjamin Williams – who made the words “I’m not blind” sound very funny indeed.

Madeleine Hagerty There are also very hearty and spirited performances from Madeleine Hagerty and Daniel Gray as the two young soldiers Megaera and Scud, appropriately scaring the sh*t out of us at the start of the play; I loved Ms Hagerty’s portrayal of vengeance at the end of the play too. I enjoyed the all-female senate, especially the performance of Caroline Avis as Thalia; Neizan Fernandez Birchwood gave great support as the wronged Polykleitos, and Kieran Hansell played Phaeax in a delightfully believable state of near-tantrum. But everyone in the cast gave a very good performance, with a great feel for both the ensemble scenes and their characters’ individual times to shine. Also – great work with the stage blood; effective and slightly shocking without going over the top.

Congratulations one and all on a superb performance. Can’t wait to see the other plays now!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

The Murder of Roger AckroydIn which we become reacquainted with Christie’s most renowned detective, Hercule Poirot, and witness him solve the murder of Roger Ackroyd, as narrated by Dr Sheppard, in the absence of Poirot’s usual narrator, Captain Hastings. And, despite the enormous difficulty in doing so, I’ve written this blog post so that you can still read it without finding out whodunit!

SleuthIt’s been a fascinating nostalgia trip to re-read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It makes me feel a little deprived of one of life’s most exciting surprises, as, just before I read this as a lad, a “friend” told me who the murderer was. I still think that was one of the rottenest things to do to anyone. I read it of course, but there was no sense of mystery for me. Many critics and observers cite this book as Christie’s masterpiece. In 2013, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it the best crime novel ever. Because I’ve always known whodunit, I find it hard to imagine reading it without knowing. Whenever I read it, I always feel that the identity of the murderer is, in fact, pretty obvious. But that’s the baggage I bring with me from my childhood, and I guess I must be mistaken, or else the book wouldn’t be held in the great esteem that it enjoys.

MountbattenChristie dedicated the book to “To Punkie, who likes an orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on every one in turn!” Punkie was the family nickname for Christie’s big sister Margaret, and in fact it was Margaret who originally inspired Agatha to write The Mysterious Affair at Styles. However, it was her brother-in-law, James Watts, to whom she had dedicated The Secret of Chimneys, who actually gave her the inspiration for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Coincidentally, Lord Mountbatten, too, had written to Christie in 1924 suggesting a similar storyline and structure, although she was so overworked at the time that she forgot to reply.

Vegetable MarrowsSo welcome back, Hercule Poirot, we’ve missed you. We last saw you dealing with all those short story cases in Poirot Investigates, two years previously; for a full length novel we had to go back three years for The Murder on the Links. Christie has now bundled Hastings off with his lady love to make a new life for himself in The Argentine, as it used to be called. We now have an image of Poirot, missing his old pal, having moved from his London digs that they shared, now retired to the village of King’s Abbot, where he devotes his life to growing vegetable marrows. Honestly; is there anything more unlikely? Poirot, who thrives on the psychology of people’s brains, whom we last saw avidly reading the gossip and celebrity magazines, whose life has been a celebration and a triumph of the power of the little grey cells – settling down to a village where he spends the day grubbing about in the earth growing vegetables? Christie has always pointed out how fastidious he is; can you imagine Poirot accumulating garden dirt under his fingernails? No. It’s never going to happen. So either it’s a complete lie – which I’m not sure is right as I believe Poirot’s apparent affection for marrows recurs later in Christie’s oeuvre – or it’s a complete miscalculation of his personality. Whatever, as soon as crime rears its ugly head in King’s Abbot, Poirot doesn’t give another moment’s thought to his prize crop.

DoctorOf course there is no such place in the United Kingdom as King’s Abbot; but, with Christie based in the south-west, maybe the name was inspired by a mixture of Newton Abbot and Kingsbridge. There’s no Cranchester either, not that it matters. What’s more important to the story is that Poirot needs a replacement for Hastings, and one turns up just perfectly in the shape of Dr Shepperd, who takes on the mantle of being Poirot’s scribe. He even draws us a couple of plans of room layouts to help our understanding, just like Hastings used to do. Poirot takes him under his wing and into his confidence with surprising alacrity, and for most of the book, Shepperd seems to just follow him around, occasionally revealing how impressed he is with the old man’s powers of deduction, but primarily there in order to feed Poirot with local insights and backgrounds about the characters. Like Hastings, Shepperd isn’t a particularly nice man, I don’t think; he has a rather unpleasant view on suicide: “women, in my experience, if they once reach the determination to commit suicide, usually wish to reveal the state of mind that led to the fatal action. They covet the limelight”. He does though, have a rather cynical sense of humour too: “lots of women buy their clothes in Paris, and have not, on that account, necessarily poisoned their husbands”. He doesn’t hold back at describing the worst aspects of a character he doesn’t like; of Ackroyd’s butler Parker, he says “what a fat, smug, oily face the man had, and surely there was something decidedly shifty in his eye”.

English FrenchHe also doesn’t hesitate to pick Poirot up on his poor use of English – not something many people would dare to do, I suggest. “Is there anything else that I can tell you?” inquired Mr Hammond. “I thank you, no,” said Poirot, rising. “All my excuses for having deranged you.” “Not at all, not at all”. “The word derange,” I remarked, when we were outside again, “is applicable to mental disorder only”. “Ah!” cried Poirot, “never will my English be quite perfect. A curious language. I should then have said disarranged, n’est-ce pas?” “Disturbed is the word you had in mind”. “I thank you, my friend. The word exact, you are zealous for it.” I must say I was personally very pleased with that exchange, because Poirot’s misuse of the word had really annoyed my own sense of language. Interestingly, it’s only Caroline who criticises Shepperd in the book: “take James here – weak as water, if I weren’t about to look after him”. Christie was later to observe that the rather meddlesome Caroline was her favourite character in the book, and that elements of her were like a prototype for Miss Marple, who would be hitting the shelves in a few years’ time.

Writing a bookBut where the book becomes delightfully surreal and rewarding, is when Shepperd confesses to Poirot that, just like Hastings, although he wouldn’t have known it, he has been writing up the case every night. It’s when you realise that the book you are reading is actually the account that Shepperd is talking about – even to the detail that he has just finished the twentieth chapter, and you look back and realise that yes, that is the part of the story that Shepperd has written up so far, that you feel like you are almost part of a book within the book. You feel that, by reading thus far, you are probably the first person ever to have read those words – because, in real time, it clearly hasn’t been published yet. This gives a strong sense of involvement and immediacy. From then on you really imagine Shepperd at his late-night desk, catching up on the day’s events and getting them down on paper. In a way, the book takes on the extra dimension of being a creative piece of work that examines its own creative process, which I always find very stimulating. Near the end it really turns itself on its head when Shepperd actually starts to critique himself; really most inventive writing that’s a delight to read. And there’s a certain symmetry to his narrative which leaves you with a sense of balanced satisfaction at the end too.

CrumpetCertainly the book as a whole is a gripping read. There are several moments of exquisite tension and suspense, plenty of detailed plotting for the amateur sleuth reading it to lose themselves in, bags of clues, likely suspects, unlikely suspects, and even a highly suspicious brand new character brought in with only about sixty pages before the end. Shepperd is a great narrator, the domestic staff who at first appear rather nameless and insignificant, unexpectedly grow in importance as the story develops; and Poirot is on fine form as he quickly eclipses the rather dull and underwritten police officers, expounding what may appear at first to be general theories but which are in fact targeted examinations of particular suspects. As usual, he has to run the gauntlet of the police accusing him of senility: “Then a grin overspread [Raglan’s] weaselly countenance and he tapped his forehead gently. “Bit gone here,” he said. “I’ve thought so for some time. Poor old chap, so that’s why he had to give up and come down here. In the family, very likely. He’s got a nephew who’s quite off his crumpet”. Not the most enlightened times when it comes to mental health, were they?

PoundIf you’ve read any of my previous Agatha Christie Challenge blogs, gentle reader, you’ll know I like to convert any financial values mentioned to what they would be worth today, just to give you a greater insight into the comparative size of the sums we’re talking about. There’s only one real instance of it in this book – the sum of £20,000. This is the amount of money that Miss Flora Ackroyd says her Uncle Roger has left her in his will. That sum is worth about £850,000 today – no wonder she feels like all her Christmasses have come at once.

MongooseAs usual there are a few references and idiomatic use of language that might merit a little further investigation. I fully recognised the first one: in the fifth paragraph of the first chapter, the irrepressibly snooping Caroline is given the motto of the mongoose family: “Go and Find Out”. That is a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi, the perpetually curious and nosey companion of young Teddy. One of the most enjoyable short stories I know – if you’ve never met Rikki Tikki Tavi, you really should read his victorious tale.

Pelleas et MelisandeAfter that my confidence with Christie’s references gets weaker. “I don’t know what Mrs Cecil Ackroyd thought of the Ferrars affair when it came on the tapis”. On the what? That’s French for carpet, isn’t it? Well yes it is, but apparently “on the tapis” is an obsolete phrase meaning “under consideration”. Yes, I don’t understand why it should mean that either. Flora and Blunt are looking in the water and think they can see a gold brooch. “Perhaps it’s a crown,” suggested Flora. “Like the one Melisande saw in the water.” “Melisande,” said Blunt reflectively – “she’s in an opera isn’t she?” Yes, she is, by Debussy, but originally she was in the play “Pelléas and Mélisande” by Maurice Maeterlinck, first performed in 1893. All sorts of misfortunes befall Melisande, but none of them really bear any resemblance to what happens in the book – so it’s a bit of a classical garden path moment. In what would now feel quite a trendy observation, Poirot is quick to recognise the tools of the drug addict and remarks that the goose quill found in the summer house must lead to the presence of “snow”. That’s cocaine of course, sometimes (I believe) snow refers to particularly fine powdered cocaine – and cocaine was a very aspirational drug back in the 1920s. “I’ve been every kind of fool,” said Blunt abruptly. “Rum conversation we’ve been having. Like one of those Danish plays”. Well, your guess is as good as mine there. He can’t be thinking Ibsen – he’s Norwegian. Strindberg? – he’s Swedish. All the big Danish names at the time wrote novels or poetry. Weird. I don’t suppose he’s thinking of Hamlet?

And now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:

Publication Details: 1926. My copy is a Fontana paperback, published in July 1979, twentieth impression, priced 25p. The cover painting is by Tom Adams, and, on the whole, I think it’s fairly lousy.

How many pages until the first death:
34; unless you count the death of Mrs Ferrars, which gets reported in the very first line of the book. However, it’s not really the death of Mrs Ferrars that we’re investigating, although it is relevant to the murder of Roger Ackroyd. And of course, because of the title, the reader spends the first 34 pages fully aware that Ackroyd is going to croak at some point.

Funny lines out of context:
I don’t know whether Christie had turned a corner with the seriousness of this book – generally speaking there are far fewer little moments of humour here than in most of her other stories. As a result there’s not many funny lines to be enjoyed. The only one that stood out for me was when Charles Kent was infuriated by Poirot and called him a “little foreign cock duck”. What a bitch.

Memorable characters:
I’m not sure that many of the characters are that well delineated to make them memorable as such. Caroline Shepperd is amusingly nosey, but her brother doesn’t give too much of his personality away in his narrative. Parker the butler is creepy in a slightly eerie way.

Christie the Poison expert:
Although Roger Ackroyd is killed by an antique silver dagger (this is a very posh murder), poisons do still play an active role. Mrs Ferrars was suspected of poisoning her husband, and she herself commits suicide by taking an overdose of veronal. Veronal, of itself, was not a poison – in fact it was the first commercially available barbiturate, sold as a sleeping aid from 1903 until the 1950s. Taking about four times the recommended dose though was enough to kill you.

It is Ackroyd’s housekeeper Miss Russell who corners Shepperd on the subject of poisons. “[She] asked me if it was true that there were certain poisons so rare as to baffle detection. “Ah!” I said, “You’ve been reading detective stories… The essence of a detective story…is to have a rare poison – if possible something from South America, that nobody has ever heard of – something that one obscure tribe of savages use to poison their arrows with. Death is instantaneous and Western science is powerless to detect it. Is that the kind of thing you mean?” “Yes. Is there really such a thing?” I shook my head regretfully. “I’m afraid there isn’t. There’s curare, of course.” I told her a good deal about curare but she seemed to have lost interest once more. She asked me if I had any in my poison cupboard, and when I replied in the negative I fancy I fell in her estimation.”

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s a nice dig at vegetarianism, which had really hit public awareness about ten to fifteen years earlier. Shepperd (or, I suppose, Christie) gives us an amusing description of the time when he invites Poirot to join his sister Caroline and him for lunch but Cook has only prepared two chops. In order to avoid a scene, Caroline pretends to be vegetarian. “She descanted ecstatically on the delights of nut cutlets (which I am quite sure she has never tasted) and ate a Welsh rarebit with gusto and frequent cutting remarks as to the dangers of ‘flesh’ foods”. Later we discover that Poirot wasn’t fooled for one moment.

There’s the usual anti-foreigner invective every so often from Christie, not only with Kent’s rather absurd little insult I mentioned earlier, but also from Mrs Ackroyd, in her annoyance at what she sees as Poirot’s interference. “Why should this little upstart of a foreigner make a fuss? A most ridiculous-looking creature he is too – just like a comic Frenchman in a revue.” I think if I were Poirot I’d be much more insulted than he tends to be.

Classic denouement: Yes and no. Poirot sets up the big meeting with all the suspects present but leaves it with a cliffhanger, so that all the suspects (bar the murderer) leave the room before the truth is revealed. As a result, there’s no big shock in front of a room full of people, as it were, although the final surprise is still extremely exciting and suspenseful.

Happy ending? Not especially. Justice isn’t entirely seen to be done. The murderer escapes trial, although he does not get off scot-free. A number of people will feel very unhappy in the weeks, months and years after the book ends. Additionally, a theft of money appears not to be followed up and the thief doesn’t seem to carry the can at all. It’s all a rather dark story from that perspective.

Did the story ring true? Yes! For me everything fits very believably into place, and although it’s a bold and ambitious crime, Christie fairly presents us with all the clues. In addition, this book seems to rely on chance coincidence much less than some of her others.

Overall satisfaction rating: 10/10. Who am I to disagree with the British Crime Writers’ Association?

The Big FourThanks for reading my blog of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 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 move forward to 1927, and another Hercule Poirot mystery, The Big Four. I can’t remember a thing about it, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. 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!