The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Sittaford Mystery (1931)

The Sittaford MysteryIn which we meet young Emily Trefusis, determined to prove the innocence of her fiancé Jim for the murder of Captain Trevelyan. With the help of the busybodying news reporter Charles Enderby and the thoroughly decent Inspector Narracott, she does a fine job! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

DartmoorApparently, the book is dedicated “to M.E.M. with whom I discussed the plot of this book to the alarm of those around us.” However, my copy of the text omits this dedication. Perhaps that’s not surprising; my copy has a few misalignments and misspellings, and one sentence is even completely omitted. Poor work from Fontana! M.E.M., by the way, was Max Mallowan, the famous archaeologist whom Christie had married the previous year. It’s set in Dartmoor, which was an area of the country Christie knew well, and that confident local knowledge comes out in the writing – more of which shortly.

detectiveThis is the only book of Christie’s to feature Inspector Narracott, and I think that’s quite a shame. Here’s how she introduces him: “Inspector Narracott was a very efficient officer. He had a quiet persistence, a logical mind and a keen attention to detail which brought him success where many another man might have failed. He was a tall man with a quiet manner, rather far-away grey eyes, and a slow soft Devonshire voice.” A much more pleasant chap to deal with than that dreadful Inspector Slack in The Murder at the Vicarage. Christie allows us to appreciate his observations and thought processes which helps to keep the narrative moving at a good pace.

charlestonIn fact, I think I slightly preferred the chapters where we see Narracott investigating more than those where the amateurs Emily and Charles are let loose on the world – although I’m not sure that was Christie’s intent. Emily and Charles sleuthing together reminded me forcefully of Tommy and Tuppence, full of wisecracking chat which is how you imagine a Charleston would be if it were a conversation and not a dance. The comparison with T&T was sometimes odious. I especially found Charles quite irritating at times, with his relentless cheeriness and almost autistic lack of empathy for the characters involved in the case. Although critical opinion at the time favoured Emily as a new heroine and thought she brought a lot of life and colour to the book, I’m rather glad Christie never re-visited them.

table-turningIn this book Christie has gone back to the third-person narrator and it works very well. It creates a slight distance between the reader and what is taking place and I think in this particular book it also adds to the slight sense of supernatural mystery. You don’t have that instant connection to reality that comes with a first-person narrator. Hence you have a slight disconnect from the table-turning scene – which helps both the atmosphere and the practicality of the story-telling. You also have a sense of melodrama, nowhere more clear than when Emily overhears Mrs Willett in secret: “”My God,” the voice had wailed, “I can’t bear it. Will tonight never come?”” Even the Dartmoor location itself takes on a mysterious mantle, with its brooding and hostile terrain; when Emily appraises the height of Sittaford Tor, she says “one ought […] to see things better when you are high up like this. It ought to be like lifting off the top of a doll’s house and peering in.”

exeter-st-davidsThis brings us to Christie’s intriguing combination of fictional and factual geographic locations in this book. Here, perhaps more than in any of her other books we’ve looked at so far, she creates her own Christie world. There is no village of Sittaford, but there is Sittaford Tor (as we’ve just seen) with its prehistoric stone circle. It’s close to Okehampton, which is represented by Exhampton in the book. Moretonhampstead, Two Bridges, Plymouth, Widecombe (with its fair), Lydford and Chagford are all real places that find a home in Christie’s narrative; and in particular, the prison at Princetown is identified, apparently twelve miles from Sittaford, from where a dangerous criminal escapes – this is of course what we now know as Dartmoor Prison. Jennifer Gardiner lives in Waldon Road, Exeter; Brian Pearson in Cromwell Street, London SW3; and Martin Dering in Surrey Road, Wimbledon. None of these addresses exist. The two railway stations mentioned in Exeter are certainly real – Exeter St David’s and Exeter Queen Street (renamed Exeter Central in 1933).

okehamptonDespite my not being over-enamoured with Emily and Charles, there’s a vivid and very enjoyable colourfulness about this book that is hard to describe. The locations are very realistically observed and portrayed; you get a real feel for the characters and their activities, even though there’s nothing overly extraordinary about most of them. The early table-turning scene adds an extra dimension of eeriness and fun – it’s a beautifully written scene – and your curiosity keeps you going all the way through. It’s a book that you can really see pan out in your mind’s eye as you read it.

british-warmLet’s have a quick look at some of those more obscure references and terms that cropped up in this book and made me reach for Wikipedia. Twice, early in the book, mention is made of a British Warm. I’ve never heard of it referred to in this way before, but, maybe obviously, this was the name given to that specific type of heavy, warm greatcoat that was made famous by Churchill. Major Burnaby recalls playing the game of Up Jenkins, which was also new to me. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition: “also known by the shortened name Jenkins, is a party game in which players conceal a small coin (or ring, button, etc.) in their palm as they slap it on a table with their bare hands. The goal of the game is for the players on the team without the coin to correctly identify which hand the coin is under. The game typically consists of two two- to four-player teams, one on each side of a table. There are no official rules, so rules may vary widely, the game is often played with alcohol beverages with which to drink as a forfeit.” I can’t think that I’ve ever been anywhere where someone has suggested playing that game or a variant of it. You live and learn.

selfridgesMrs Curtis (of whom more later) who offers a B&B service at her little cottage, first greets Emily with: “Yes, of course I can take you in, Miss, and your cousin too, if he can just wait until I shift a few duds.” I only know dud as something that doesn’t work, but, as a plural noun, it was originally a Middle English term meaning clothes, and then, through semantic change to mean just “things”. There is of course, no such shop as Delfridges – it’s Selfridges by implication; and Captain Wyatt accuses James Pearson of being a counter-jumper; an old-fashioned term for a sales assistant.

grocery-bagLet’s also take a look at a few financial references and re-evaluate them for today, I find that a very helpful exercise in understanding the sums involved. Trevelyan’s will bequeaths £100 to his man Emery; that’s about £4700 in today’s money – so that’s a pretty stingy offering. On the other hand, the remaining £80-90k of his estate, which gets divided between his sister and his nephews and nieces equates to approximately £4 million today. The £5000 competition win that Enderby brought for Burnaby is a stonking £238,000 today, and the £8-£9 weekly sum that the Willetts are alleged to spend on their groceries is now the equivalent of about £400 per week. What a profligate pair!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Sittaford Mystery:

Publication Details: 1931. Fontana paperback (in quite poor condition), 5th impression, published in June 1972, priced 25p. The uncredited cover illustration shows a swirling nightmare scene with an older lady (Mrs Willetts?) and an older man (Trevelyan? Burnaby?) mixed up with the séance table and a dog. I don’t recall a dog in the story…

How many pages until the first death: 16. Not too much preamble which always makes a detective story go a bit faster.

Funny lines out of context: Quite a good selection:

“”That’s a rum go,” ejaculated the Superintendent.”

“…I know what I am talking about – a lot of subalterns have passed through my hands in my time.”

“He heard about Miss Percehouse and her tongue and the way she bullied her nephew, and of the rumours of the gay life that same nephew led in London.”

“…he had an awful kick on the head from a horse about fifteen years ago, and since then he has been a bit queer.”

Memorable characters:
It’s interesting because there’s a full range of new characters in this book, including the police and the amateur sleuths but I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly memorable. I liked Mrs Belling, the proprietor of the Three Crowns: “Mrs Belling was fat and excitable, and so voluble that there was nothing to be done but to listen patiently until such time as the stream of conversation should dry up.” When Mrs Belling talks, she sounds like a lost pirate: “Don’t ee worry my dear, we’ll have your young gentleman out of his trouble in no time.” As hotel licensee, Mrs Belling has money but no class (see later) and so instinctively blames people lower than her in the pecking order of the murder. “…Little did any of us think what was happening to the poor dear gentleman. Those nasty tramps – if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times, I can’t abear those nasty tramps. Do anybody in they would.”

I also quite liked Mrs and Miss Willetts, because they’re so steeped in subterfuge and tragedy in a terribly over-the-top way. Just one word can cause Miss Willetts to faint; she literally is a drooping Violet.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not in this book. The murder method is being sandbagged to death. Brutal!

Class/social issues of the time:
All the usual bees in Christie’s bonnet come to the fore as usual, including a couple of really stark examples of 1930s light racism that come over as really offensive today. However, the chief recurring theme in this book is that of class issues. There’s a very us-and-them sense of the sophistication and status of the upper middle class characters against the lower classes (in Christie, the working class are always lower class!) Mrs Dering describes Trevelyan as “a regular philistine in every way – devoted to sport. No appreciation […] of literature.” Captain Wyatt tries to waylay Emily as she hurries on by with: “Come in – have a glass of wine or a cup of tea. There’s plenty of time. No need to hurry. That’s the worst of you civilised people.” I would have thought suggesting a glass of wine under those circumstances and in that time, was the height of sophistication.

There’s also some classic condescension from the local people towards the incomers. Here’s Mr Rycroft talking about the Willetts: “Charming, […] quite charming. Colonial, of course. No real poise, if you understand me. A little too lavish in their hospitality. Everything a shade on the ornate side.” And on Mr Duke: “…a very nice man, quite unassuming, but was he, after all, quite – well, quite? Mightn’t he, just possibly, be a retired tradesman?” One can hear the cumulative gasps of class-ridden disgusted Devonians echo throughout the moors.

It’s Emily Trefusis who is guilty of the most sexist comment in the book – but I wonder how much of it she means, and how much is designed to pander to Charles, to whom she speaks these abominable words: “One can’t do anything without a man. Men know so much, and are able to get information in so many ways that are simply impossible to women.” Apart from using feminine guile, of course.

Sadly, there’s a very unpleasant use of the “N” word, which I include here for the sake of completeness, and because of the irony of this being described as a “very discreet” note, sent by Emily to Jim: “Everything’s going to be all right, so cheer up. I am working like the worst kind of n***** to find out the truth. What an idiot you’ve been, darling.” I guess one must accept that times change, but even so this still seems appalling. But it’s probably Mrs Curtis who gets the gold medal for racism in this book: “It’s Captain Wyatt as could do with a spring cleaning […] That nasty native of his – what does he know about cleaning, I should like to know? Nasty black fellow.” Ugh. There are times when it’s uncomfortable to read Christie.

Classic denouement: I wouldn’t say so. Emily reveals that she knows the identity of the murderer earlier on, but not the motive, which means there’s a full 17 pages still to go before the end. Once the murderer has been charged, we don’t hear any more from them, so there’s no account from them of why they did it, or any sense of guilt, repentance, and so on; a little like Iago in Othello, who refuses to say another word once he’s been found out. It’s not a disappointing ending in any way though.

Happy ending? Yes and no. With Emily in the position of the old song Torn Between Two Lovers, there was always one person who was going to face disappointment. But which did she go with?

Did the story ring true? Yes. It doesn’t rely on impossible coincidences and how the murder was committed all makes sense. Even the supernatural elements of the story are explained in a credible way.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. I like this book a lot; it’s a very easy and fast read, one that you don’t want to put down because you’re thoroughly involved in the plot and investigation. Unfortunately, I quickly remembered who the murderer was, but it still didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.

Peril at End HouseThanks for reading my blog of The Sittaford Mystery and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is the return of everyone’s favourite, Hercule Poirot, in Peril at End House. He’s even accompanied by Hastings, so expect some good old boys’ banter and some pretty women for Hastings to fall head over heels in love with. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Travesties, Menier Chocolate Factory, 23rd October 2016

TravestiesThe first time I saw a Tom Stoppard play was in 1976 on a school expedition to London to see Dirty Linen at the Arts Theatre. I sat next to Andy (you’ll know him as A. N.) Wilson; now a highly regarded author, columnist and social commentator, then a mere English teacher just about to get his first book published. Mr Wilson and Mr Ritchie (our other English teacher on this jaunt) were huge fans of Stoppard and were itching to see this new play, and not unreasonably thought their A level English students would appreciate the experience too. It was a success. A few months later they took us to see the National Theatre revival of Stoppard’s Jumpers too, which I thought was absolutely ace.

Travesties - 1975 playtextTwo years before all this, Stoppard wrote Travesties. I reckon that if I’d seen a production of Travesties at the same time, I wouldn’t have had a Scooby – it would have sailed way over my head, in the direction of the second star on the right, straight on till morning. I did get the playtext for Christmas that year; and I think it reads a little more easily out of the book than it actually appears on stage, because you have the time to take in Stoppard’s verbal fireworks and re-read them to understand them better. But watching Patrick Marber’s excellent revival at the Menier made me realise what a difficult play it really is.

tom-hollanderAll these early Stoppard works relied heavily on his brilliant wordplay and sense of nonsense. He loved to depict stories from a weird angle – like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on stage when they should be off (and vice versa) or The Real Inspector Hound, seen from the view of the theatre critic who accidentally gets involved in the show. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour even needs a full orchestra to perform it. R&G and Hound also have the common theme of containing a play within a play; and Travesties too has some of the same elements, wrapping Henry Carr’s recollections of his youth in with an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

peter-mcdonald-and-othersIt must have been something of a gift for Stoppard to discover that Lenin, Joyce and Dadaist movement founder Tristan Tzara were all living in Zürich in 1917. So was little known consular official Henry Carr, who – to pass the time of day, presumably – joined an acting troupe called The English Players, whose business manager was the (ironically not very English) James Joyce. The play is set in the present (i.e. 1974) with an elderly Carr (he actually died in 1962 but who’s counting) reminiscing about his past and the extraordinary minds with whom he shared his Zürich days. But what is the purpose of the play, I asked myself, during the interval, and afterwards? There must be something more to it than just an exercise for Stoppard to show off his considerable verbal dexterity, or an example of how you can mash up a new play and an old play and not see the join. Apart from little glimpses into individual folly – like Joyce’s inability to match a jacket and trouser, or Tzara’s foppish use of a monocle when he had perfect eyesight – I couldn’t really identify the driving force behind this play.

freddie-foxThat’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, as productions go, I can’t imagine how you would play this better than the way it’s currently packing them in at the Menier. Tim Hatley’s design involves the remnants and loose pages of seemingly thousands of books, scattered to invoke both a busy library and a Dadaist approach to literature. Hidden false panels create opportunities for those outside to look in, library steps enable the action to take place on several levels in an otherwise confined space. There are also a few outrageously incongruent and surreal sequences when the whole thing turns song-and-dance like in The Ruling Class or something by Joan Littlewood. Personally, I find that kind of surreal breakout a tad tedious; what worked in the 60s and 70s doesn’t necessarily always work today.

cecily-and-gwendolenBut if ever there were perfect casting it must come in the form of Tom Hollander as Henry Carr. On his first entrance, you can’t help but be impressed at how Mr Hollander can bend himself down double to create the most elderly looking wretch imaginable as Carr Snr. With Dickensian dressing gown and warbly voice in place, he takes us through one of Stoppard’s longest and frankly self-indulgent prologue speeches as he introduces us to the glitterati of 1917 Zürich. And then, when he flips into Carr Jnr, he becomes a slightly pompous Everyman character; keen to take a good place in society, revelling in the fame and notoriety of his contemporaries, pretending to be more involved in their political and artistic movements than he really is, and willing to play Algernon if the trousers are right. He’s hardly ever off the stage and it’s a thoroughly demanding and terrific performance.

tom-hollander-and-clare-fosterThe rest of the cast give Mr Hollander excellent support – for me the best was Clare Foster as Cecily. We’ve seen her a couple of times, most recently as a stunning Sarah Brown in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, and here once again she is outstanding. With her clear-cut voice and amazingly expressive face she can cheerfully deride and humiliate anyone who’s noisy in the library; and her hilarious set pieces with Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen are just remarkable. Freddie Fox was also very good as the faux-refined and show-offy Tzara, with a nice sense of comic timing and a good stage presence; and Peter McDonald made the best of the laconic opportunities Stoppard provides to make fun of Joyce’s irascible eccentricities.

t-hollanderIt’s like a most intricate serving of super deluxe candy floss. Utterly delicious to look at, and incredibly sweet to consume, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. Does it inform the human condition? No. Is it an opportunity for Stoppard to look erudite and swish? Yes. Is it entertaining? Yes, providing you can survive its occasional longueurs.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – No Man’s Land, Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd October 2016

No Man's LandI remember when No Man’s Land first hit the stage back in 1975. It was the first new Pinter to appear after I first started reading him and seeing his plays. We’d read The Caretaker at school. I’d seen The Collection and The Lover as an amateur production in 1973. I was impressed with Pinter’s gifts as a director over the years, enjoying his London productions of the Simon Gray plays Otherwise Engaged, The Rear Column, Close of Play and Quatermaine’s Terms. But it wasn’t until four years ago that I actually first saw a professional production of a Pinter play – Betrayal, at the Sheffield Crucible. There’s a lot of ground to make up.

Original No Man's LandThat’s one of the reasons I leapt at the chance to book to see No Man’s Land when it first came on sale many months ago. I always think of it in terms of Gielgud and Richardson (both of whom I was lucky to see in other productions) and it struck me that the casting of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was about as darn perfect as it could get. So, given the fact that Sir Patrick was off sick (forbidden to take to the stage by his doctor) with a throat infection, I’m surprised how well the whole audience (ourselves included) took the news that the role of Hirst would be played by Mr Andrew Jarvis. No pressure on him, then. But sometimes having an understudy in the role can really spice up the entire performance of the play. It’s not going to go precisely the same way that it normally does, with all four regular members of the cast on board. There will be changes – everyone will have to think on their feet a bit more. There’s a seat-of-pants edge to it.

ian-mckellen-and-patrick-stewartBut first: how does the play stand the test of time forty years or so since it was written? Extremely well, in my opinion. Perhaps more than most Pinter plays, it’s not obvious what’s happening. Usually, I think the best way to take Pinter is at face value. Don’t try to read “a meaning” into what you see and hear – the meaning is no more, or less, than what is acted on the stage. Hirst lives near Hampstead Heath and he appears to have met Spooner whilst out walking. Spooner has come back to his place to join him for some drinks. They’re both arts aficionados, and seem to have a lot in common. Spooner is talkative, Hirst taciturn. patrick-stewartThey both drink vast quantities of whisky. Eventually (drunk? defeated?) Hirst crawls out of the room. Briggs and Foster, two younger men, come in and take part in an elaborate conversation with Spooner, involving hinted relationships and veiled threats. As the first act curtain falls, it looks as though Foster is going to make a move towards Spooner which might be one of physical or sexual violence; or maybe medical intervention.

ian-mckellenThe more I think about the play, the more I feel that Hirst and Spooner are imprisoned in some form of institution. Spooner insists to Hirst that he is a free man, which causes Hirst to reply: “it’s a long time since we had a free man in this house.” Spooner is locked in the room all night – doctor’s orders, says Briggs. Hirst threatens to dismiss Briggs, but he won’t leave, because he doesn’t have the authority. Briggs and Foster insist that Hirst goes on his morning walk. Hirst’s animated second act recollections of old days with Spooner, Emily, Bunty, Stella, Arabella and Rupert, whilst on the surface seem real and affectionate, are clearly the product of an unbalanced brain. To what extent Spooner simply goes along with it, or is equally befuddled, is a moot point. The text defines “no man’s land” as a place “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older but which remains forever, icy and silent.” That could be a definition of Hirst’s house; it could be a definition of the workings of a failed, unwell mind. In any case, I don’t think the “take it as face value” approach works for this play. I’m sure it has a much greater hidden significance.

ian-mckellen-owen-teale-and-patrick-stewartThis riveting production is directed by Sean Mathias with a strong regard for the play’s sense of claustrophobia. On entering the auditorium you are met with a strangely disturbing, overly artificial, moving projection onto the front curtain of Hampstead Heath trees, flickering and glistening in the wind and the movement of the birds. This sets you up for a heightened expectation of uncomfortable detail, which Pinter’s words and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set deliver in droves. The harsh light that invades the stage from who knows what outside the door pierces the calm darkness of Hirst’s room like a dagger. The tops of the trees shimmer unattainably above the stage, part aspirational, part mocking. Everything is nearly natural – but not quite.

no-mans-land-castSo what of Saturday’s matinee performance, with Andrew Jarvis in place of Patrick Stewart? We’d seen Mr Jarvis once before when he was Duncan in Sheffield’s Macbeth four years ago. He was excellent in that, but in No Man’s Land he truly shone. In those early conversations where you sense that Hirst is losing his way, he was dignified but uncertain, passionate but hollow, engaging in a fencing match with Spooner where the latter did all the work trying to find a way in and he merely had to occasionally parry riposte. When he’s fully lost, and trapped in the no man’s land of a memory of a photograph album, his emptiness is truly emotional. But when he feels like he’s in charge, he has something of the Act One Scene One Lear about him, bestowing grandiose beneficence; and he carries off that wonderful scene where it appears that he and Spooner are old friends with beautiful lightness and rhythm that was a joy to watch. As Sir Ian said at curtain call, although it was no doubt a disappointment not to see Sir Patrick, there was no need for an apology.

ian-mckellen-and-owen-tealeSir Ian, himself, gives one of his fascinatingly detailed performances where every muscle in his face moves with purpose. You always know precisely what it is that Spooner is thinking or feeling by simply watching the visual signs. He’s a wily character; happy to bludge a free drink, never letting go of his coat in case he has to scarper, always on the lookout to exercise his sense of moral or artistic superiority; reliant on his so-called friendship with the pub landlord in the same way that Blanche Dubois depends on the kindness of strangers. Sir Ian takes us on an epic journey of emotions where he tries to blend in with this apparently generous and extravagant household, in the end beseeching Hirst to let him be his secretary; the outsider desperate to be part of the in-crowd. It’s always a privilege to watch his performances; I love his attention to detail and his fantastic timing. In No Man’s Land you have the delight of seeing him take a champagne breakfast. I’ll say no more.

owen-teale-in-no-mans-landIt feels wrong to refer to Briggs and Foster as supporting roles because they’re completely vital to the plot and structure of the play – as well as dishing out the usual menace that we expect in the Pinter landscape. Owen Teale invests Briggs with all the necessary brute force just hovering at the back of the character somewhere; you always sense he’s just a gesture away from something downright evil. This makes it all the more delightful when his character starts to open up – like when he’s reminiscing, in that Pinteresque manner, of the difficulties in getting to and from Bolsover Street, the subtle implications that there may be more to his relationship with Foster than just colleagues, or when he just slips into the subservient role of breakfast and wine waiter; damian-molony-in-no-mans-landeven though the menace is still lurking just beneath the surface. Damien Molony (stunning in The Body of an American a couple of years ago) plays Foster as a trendy, cocky, self-centred man about town; someone who thinks and behaves like they’re more successful in life than they really are; the kind of character who’s recognisable in many a Pinter play. He delivers the end speech of Act One with a chilling sense of danger, and is always a tangibly disconcerting presence whenever on stage.

nomansland-castI thought this was a tremendous production that breathed superb life into the play forty years on. It was also a fantastic example of how, just because the star performer cannot go on, the show nevertheless must, and the understudy can pull off a superb performance. Yes, it’s true – this play is not for everyone; there were a few seats around us in the second act where people hadn’t returned after the interval. I guess if you don’t “get” Pinter’s vision of life, you could find it just too obscure to enjoy. Stick with it though, the second act is hugely rewarding and feels more accessible and understandable than the first act. This production is on until 17th December – and I think if you like your Pinter, you’re going to love this.

Production photographs by Johan Persson

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2016

Screaming Blue MurderOnce again we were back at the Underground for another Screaming Blue Murder night. This time we were accompanied by our distinguished guests, the Sheriff of Shenstone and Lady Lichfield, who had already had a skinful in the Bar Hygge before the show. (If you’ve not tried it, it has a great trendy feel so the four of us fitted in perfectly, naturally.) Also once again, it’s great to see that the show had sold out – and why not, as you get such a great range of comedy at such a decent price.

Dan EvansOur host as usual was the enthusiastic Mr Dan Evans, who had the task of working out why one large section of the audience was 99% female – I’m not sure he ever got to the bottom of it, if you’ll pardon the expression, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. It was a shame that it was one of those nights when, if an audience member was asked what they did for a living, or where they lived, that they went all shy and unresponsive. That’s a tough way to treat a comic.

tez-ilyas-againOur first act was Tez Ilyas, whom we’ve not seen before but he was on my shortlist for Edinburgh shows this year and just missed out because we couldn’t quite fit him in. A really funny, engaging, self-deprecating comic, with brilliant timing and a lot of great material. When someone describes themselves as openly Asian, you can guess the tricky kind of line they’re going to follow. His allusions to The Apprentice and to the News were spot on, and he absolutely had us in the palm of his hand. Then he made a schoolboy error – describing us as inhabitants of Peterborough, not Northampton. Gasps, shocks, stuns and disapproving moans later, he tried to extricate himself by explaining he was from Lancashire and how was he to know – it’s not like we had a proper cricket club… Further gasps, shocks, stuns and disapproving moans. Stop digging! It’s only because he was so likeable that we let him live. The Sheriff wondered if it was a deliberate ploy to get the town wrong in order to get the funny extrication out of difficulty as a consequence. I’m not sure – if it is, it’s a dangerous game! Anyway, he’s a genuinely funny guy and I’d be very happy to see him again.

sarah-callaghanSecond up, and also completely new to us, was Sarah Callaghan. She has a strong, confident delivery, bordering on the faux aggressive, and a lot of her material was on the rudiments of sex – which is always funny, of course. I’d describe her approach as well urban, which didn’t quite connect with any of our party – we’re just too old and staid I suppose. That’s not to say she wasn’t enjoyable, because she was! It just wasn’t an act that I felt I had much in common with, so I didn’t get that much out of it. She had her hands full (figuratively speaking) with some irritatingly noisy girls at the back who just chattered all the way through her act. Fortunately, they left before the final act could make mincemeat of them.

Ian CognitoOur headline act, whom we have seen twice before – and who just seems to get better and better all the time – was Ian Cognito, which has to be one of the best stage names in the business. No one can tell a really poor taste joke and make it bristle with delight like he can, which is both challenging to the audience and also incredibly funny. This time around, his most wicked observations dealt with paedophiles. His act is basically a string of one-liners, but delivered with superb style and at whatever pace he feels comfortable – this could be very fast or, more likely, aggressively languid. Winner of last year’s Chrisparkle Award for best Screaming Blue Stand-up. He might easily take the crown this year too.

Another one in a couple of weeks’ time – looks like a great line-up, so come along!

Review – Marcus Brigstocke, Why the Long Face, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th October 2016

m-brigstockeWe last saw Marcus Brigstocke four years ago in the very same theatre when he was giving us his views on The Brig Society, a first rate comedy diatribe on David Cameron’s Britain. Now he’s back with a reflection on why the long face; in other words, why, given that he has a privileged existence, do so many things annoy or upset him. Rather like the Ancient Mariner – a sadder and a wiser man – Mr Brigstocke has gone through a few upheavals since we last saw him. Thus he digs into some of his personal recollections and confessions to excavate some painfully touching observations and create one of the most open and honest comedy shows (and funniest) I’ve ever seen. He really lays himself bare for our consideration and reaction – in fact, slightly barer than one might expect, come the end of the show.

Marcus BrigstockeThe EU referendum is something of a gift for Mr Brigstocke. Not the result, far from it; but it gives him a raft of brilliant material which dominates the first half of the show. For staunch, moaning, metropolitan elite remainers like Mrs Chrisparkle and me, his wallowing in sheer rage and his deft destruction of Brexit’s immense stupidity was like therapy. At (very) long last, I felt empowered to laugh at the result and not merely be miserable or disgusted by it. It was like popping a champagne bottle of pent-up frustrations and letting it overflow out into the stalls. It has to be said: if you are a proud Brexiteer, you are going to hate this show. I really couldn’t recommend it to you, because you will feel attacked, humiliated, shamed and probably in a woeful minority. For those of us who take the opposite point of view, for one magical evening we were allowed to share in blissful mockery. It was heavenly.

marcus-bThere’s a lot of audience participation but none of it is scary. He achieves this in a number of ways, for example, ascertaining who the teenagers are and making sure they’re enjoying their lives – then identifying everyone else by their age, decade by decade, peaking at the 60+ bracket. A lot of his material bounces off the fact that he is a straight white male (all the SWMs have to cheer to identify themselves) but nevertheless he likes musical theatre (another cheer to prove that, yes, we do exist). He asks us to shout out our favourite stage musicals – Les Miserables, Rocky Horror and A Chorus Line (my contribution) proved to him that we were camper than we looked. He asks the audience how many of us are the happiest we’ve ever been – which creates some rewarding and funny responses; he discovers how many of us have been on a speed driving awareness course – so many! There’s a cringe-inducingly brilliant sequence where he describes being accosted by a non-empathetic Geordie, the reason why Ed Miliband lost the last election and his take on a girl’s reaction to her first period – which not many male comics would be able to get away with. So there’s a lot more than just post-Brexit angst to enjoy.

Marcus BrigstockeMr Brigstocke was absolutely on fire last night. His rapport is instant, his confidence reassuring. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, but you sense he would be respectful in debate (not that anyone was disagreeing with him). He really lets you into his own private world and makes you welcome. His material is fresh, original and very funny. Two hours in his company was a tonic for the soul. (Does not apply if you are pro-Brexit!) His tour continues into December and I couldn’t recommend him more strongly!

Review – The Eleventh Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People, Gala Concert, BBC Concert Orchestra, Craig Ogden, Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2016

11th Arnold FestivalAn interesting change of personnel for this year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert; in previous years we have enjoyed the performances of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, operating as its alter ego, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. But whilst we still had John Gibbons as our conductor, this year he was wielding his baton over the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert was being recorded for Radio 3 so I don’t know whether that was a reason for the change – after all, other orchestras are available, as the phrase goes. They were on great form though. I’m not sure we’ve seen this excellent body of musicians before but they filled the Derngate auditorium with their stunning virtuosity and created brilliant musical pictures from the works they played.

malcolm-arnoldWe could tell this was going to be a fantastic concert from the first item – Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture, Op 61. Mr Gibbons gave us a brief introduction as to what to expect, but nothing could really prepare you to appreciate what an exciting and uplifting piece of music it is. It boasted a fantastic use of percussion (actually the drums and percussion were a big hit for me throughout the entire evening) but the whole orchestra gave it their all and it was a superb way to start the concert.

John GibbonsAs a contrast, the next piece was William Walton’s Funeral Music from Hamlet. I hadn’t heard it before and as it started, it seemed to be taking on an interesting and complex shape. And then, once I had settled down to appreciate it in full, it finished. And not with a bang, but a whimper. I felt slightly short-changed by Mr Walton!

craigogdenHowever, my reward was to follow next in what would be my favourite item of the evening – Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto Op 67. Our soloist was Craig Ogden, a relaxed kind of guy, the essence of smart casual in comparison to the BBCCO’s formal attire; I liked his straightforward approach to the whole event, not too showy, there simply to make music. He really made his guitar sing – each pluck creates a full, earthy, reverberant sound; the kind of playing where you appreciate each note. Again, I hadn’t heard the piece before, but the Guitar Concerto is a terrific piece of music. Forgive me if I show my (lack of) class, but I felt the Allegro first movement could have been written by Mike Oldfield – it would have fitted perfectly into something like Hergest Ridge. This was followed by the Lento, which brought to mind the melody of Jupiter from Holst’s Planets suite. I thought both movements were absolutely stunning. The concerto finishes with a Con Brio – which for me was a slight disappointment in terms of the creativity of the composing, but Mr Ogden gave it all the brio it required and rounded off a superb and musically eloquent performance.

william-waltonAfter the interval we returned for Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue from The First of the Few. An excellent piece to get us back into the mood – the prelude was full of stately dignity and the fugue really took off, like its eponymous aircraft, with a mixture of cheeky pride and lamentation. A fantastic performance. Next, we welcomed back Craig Ogden for Arnold’s short but sweet Serenade for Guitar and Strings, Op 13; another simply beautiful work where the juxtaposition of the lush orchestra strings against the resonant guitar chords really stands out.

bbccoOur final piece was Arnold’s Sixth Symphony. Mr Gibbons introduced it by way of comparison with other notable composers’ sixth symphonies – they often get overlooked. Arnold’s sixth gives you an almost complete impression of everything that he could achieve in an orchestral piece. Pageantry, jokiness, suspense, terror, peace and anger. The second movement in particular – Lento allegretto lento – was especially unnerving and spooky. But the whole piece was really invigorating and rewarding – and, as I said earlier, I really loved the drums!

A very enjoyable yet also challenging concert, bringing out the best of both Malcolm Arnold and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Be there for next year’s festival!

Review – JAM Comedy Club presents Comedy at the Ark, Northampton, 12th October 2016

The ArkA few weeks ago, a flyer popped into my letter box, advertising a comedy night at the Ark Restaurant, in Midsummer Meadow, Northampton. That’s only a short distance from us. I’d seen that the Ark was – shall we say – being underused at the moment; so it seemed not only an excellent idea for it to be the location for a comedy club but also for us to go along and check it out. I’m happy to report back that it’s a great venue for an intimate’s night comedy. Not sure what its total capacity is, but I reckon there were about 35 or so of us there last night and it felt comfortably full but not squished. By the way, I can recommend the Malbec at £15 per bottle – good quality and tasty; we didn’t sample the light bites but they looked and smelled delish.

mr-andyJAM Comedy Club is new to me and I hadn’t come across any of the acts before (although I had of course heard of the final act, if you read on…) Our host for the night was Mr Andy, a big engaging chap with a relaxed way about him, who obviously wants to have as much fun from the evening for himself, just as much as he wants us to enjoy it too. He has some great material, some of which he spins off his own blindness in a way that’s genuinely funny – and I liked how he generously bigged up the excellent, also blind, Chris McCausland too.

pete-teckmanOur first act was local man Pete Teckman. He’s a naturally very funny guy, who you sense has built up his range of comic material from a lifetime of unglamorous living (and I mean that kindly). He had some terrific jokes about… well, sex, mainly; the method of his sperm count test and his personal accounts of enjoying oral sex come to mind, if you’ll pardon the expression. He has some great recollections about his German ex-girlfriend, and I really loved the throwaway line about seeing Predator at the cinema. He has an excellent stage presence and a strong, confident voice and manner, and is someone I’d definitely like to see again!

a-burgessUnfortunately, he proved a hard act to follow, and, given there was an interval as well, it was very difficult for our second act, Anthony Burgess, to regain the momentum that Mr Teckman had set up. For whatever reason, he failed to make a connection in his first few interactions, and basically he spent the rest of his act treading water. He did a fairly lengthy sequence about someone or something called Screech, from some programme we had never seen (Saved by the Bell, I remember now) and it meant absolutely nothing to us. Nevertheless, he has very good comic timing, and obviously can incorporate music into his routine too, so maybe with some better material and a more confident delivery he could do well.

reverend-henry-kingHot on his heels came the Reverend Henry King, the Bishop of Bletchley. I have a sneaking suspicion, gentle reader, that he may have falsified his ordination certificate and isn’t really a bishop at all. It’s a great persona, this street-talking, crime-approving parody of a man of the cloth, and at times it really works. His side-swipes at his diocese are cruel but very funny. But I think there is an inconsistency to his material that lets him down a bit; and naturally it’s a character that is inevitably going to rub some people up the wrong way. I sensed he divided the audience somewhat; there was an element of homophobia in one of his gags, and that always puts my back up – we’re not a sophisticated comedy audience in Northampton by any means, but the one thing we are not is prejudiced. Nevertheless, he is a funny guy; what he lacks in PC he certainly makes up for in attack, and he did make me laugh.

masai-grahamAfter a second interval, and a refresh of the Malbec (just one more glass, not a complete bottle, obviously!) it was time for our final act, Masai Graham. Mr Graham won this year’s “Joke of the Edinburgh Fringe” award, and no sooner had he started to tell it, then someone from the audience leapt in and delivered the punchline. I wonder if that happens to him all the time? He’s a class act – he’s funny, he’s open, he’s likeable and he has fantastic, deceptively simple and deadpan material that just gets you laughing your head off. I’m still giggling about the fat badger, and that Royal Mail joke was simply ace. As adept with clean jokes as he is with naughty ones – in fact the clean ones are particularly crafted to perfection. We both thought he was pretty darn brilliant.

The stageLet’s hope this becomes a regular comedy club – it was a really enjoyable night and it deserves to become a success.