The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Act Tragedy (1935)

Three Act TragedyIn which we meet dashing actor Sir Charles Cartwright, who falls for the lovely young Miss Hermione Lytton Gore (known, bizarrely, as Egg) and together they amateur sleuth their way through a series of deaths, aided by the redoubtable Mr Satterthwaite and one Hercule Poirot. Whilst the amateur detectives make many useful discoveries it is of course Poirot who finally discovers the reason for the death of an apparently harmless old clergyman and identifies the killer of a respected doctor. And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

curtainsChristie dedicated the book to “My friends, Geoffrey and Violet Shipston”. Unfortunately she doesn’t mention the Shipstons in her autobiography so I can’t tell you anything else about them! The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during June and July 1934 under the title Murder in Three Acts; in novel format, again in the US, it first appeared later in 1934 under the same name. Christie’s British audience had to wait until January 1935 for it to be published as Three Act Tragedy – I have kept with that year in my title, as I am British! Interestingly this is one of two Christie novels where there are some significant differences between the British and American editions; the American version ascribes a different motive for the killer from that in the British version.

top-secretWhen I came to re-read this book I couldn’t remember any details of it at all, but as it progressed, elements of it started to come back. For whatever reason, this isn’t a book that stays in your mind very long, even though it’s very enjoyable, amusingly written, with some interesting characters and a “three act” structure all of its own. Halfway through I made a stab at remembering whodunit – and it turned out, I was right. To be honest, I don’t think it’s that difficult to work out. Christie is, as usual, very cunning with this structure, in that some vital pieces of information are withheld from the reader, that would make it much more obvious to work out the identity of the criminal. If you’re sleuthing this one, have a think much more about what you’re not being told than what you are being told! She never lies to the reader – but she is economical with the truth.

HarlequinChristie takes the opportunity to flesh out the characters of Poirot and Satterthwaite, so that we understand them a little more. This is only our second meeting with Satterthwaite (after The Mysterious Mr Quin five years earlier) – and we won’t get to meet him again until he appears in a short story, The Harlequin Tea Set, which wasn’t published in the UK until 1991 – so it’ll be a long time before I get around to reading that one.

HepplewhiteMy memory of Satterthwaite is that Christie implied from his great understanding of women that he was perhaps a little effeminate. That’s not the case in this book, where she describes him as “a manly man”. For the first time, we get to visit him at home: “Mr Satterthwaite’s house was on Chelsea Embankment. It was a large house, and contained many beautiful works of art. There were pictures, sculpture, Chinese porcelain, prehistoric pottery, ivories, miniatures and much genuine Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture. It had an atmosphere about it of mellowness and understanding.” This very much emphasises his artistic and refined character and is exactly what we would expect.

BluebellsIn his conversation with Lady Mary, ostensibly to question her about her knowledge of the Babbingtons, he gets sidetracked with talk of love, being a hopeless old romantic. We discover a little more about his one love affair: “he told her about the Girl, and how pretty she was, and of how they had gone together to see the bluebells at Kew. He had meant to propose to her that day. He had imagined (so he put it) that she reciprocated his sentiments. And then, as they were standing looking at the bluebells, she had confided in him… He had discovered that she loved another. And he had hidden the thoughts surging in his breast and had taken up the role of the faithful Friend. It was not, perhaps, a very full-blooded romance, but it sounded well in the dim-faded chintz of Lady Mary’s drawing-room.”

FrenchmanThere’s also an implication that Satterthwaite and Poirot are old acquaintances. When Satterthwaite spots Poirot at Sir Charles’ dinner party, “Mr Satterthwaite had recalled himself to M. Hercule Poirot’s memory. The little man had been very affable. Mr Satterthwaite suspected him of deliberately exaggerating his foreign mannerisms. His small twinkly eyes seemed to say, “You expect me to be the buffoon? To play the comedy for you? Bien – it shall be as you wish!”” But there is no reference in the earlier works to Satterthwaite and Poirot ever having met. Poirot is not mentioned in The Mysterious Mr Quin, for example.

OEDBut he’s right about Poirot’s speech mannerisms, that they are sometimes an affectation. At the end of the book he confronts Poirot on the subject: “I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people – instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added, “it has become a habit.” So Poirot admits that many of his more bizarre affectations are assumed in order to play up to the traditional image of the little-Englander. The typical Brit would have a degree of xenophobia as part of his make up; Poirot uses it to his own advantage.

refugeesAlthough it had only been less than a year since Poirot’s previous appearance in a Christie novel (Murder on the Orient Express), we found out precious little extra about the Belgian detective in that book, and consequently are treated to a quick re-introduction to his back story, as we would call it today, and his attitudes and aspirations. Mr Satterthwaite gets him to reveal: “as a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world I entered the Police Force. I worked hard Slowly I rose in that Force. I began to make a name for myself. I made a name for myself. I began to acquire an international reputation. At last, I was due to retire. There came the War. I was injured. I came, a sad and weary refugee, to England. A kind lady gave me hospitality. She died – not naturally; no, she was killed. Eh bien, I set my wits to work. I employed my little grey cells. I discovered her murderer. I found that I was not yet finished. No, indeed, my powers were stronger than ever. Then began my second career, that of a private inquiry agent in England. I have solved many fascinating and baffling problems. Ah, monsieur, I have lived! The psychology of human nature, it is wonderful. I grew rich. Some day, I said to myself, I will have all the money I need, I will realise all my dreams […] My friend, beware of the day when your dreams come true.” This little piece of Poirot history is a potted version of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

moustache2At one point, to highlight the difference between Poirot and Sir Charles, Christie refers to the detective as “the little bourgeois”; which I suppose is an accurate description, although I’m not sure if it would still have carried the same pejorative overtones that it does today. Sir Charles is a very well drawn character, but often comes across as self-indulgent and lacking grace. I doubt whether Poirot would have appreciated his calling him “Moustachios”; but then again, he might have taken it as a bizarre compliment. Sometimes it’s hard to see what Egg sees in Charles. There’s a moment where Satterthwaite was about to talk about a previous occasion where he was investigating crime: “once when my car broke down and I was staying at lonely inn –“ only to be interrupted by Sir Charles reminiscing in a high clear voice about when he was touring in 1921. Presumably Satterthwaite was going to tell the story of At the Bells and Motley. His story is left hanging in mid-air.

Married couplePoirot often has an interesting outlook on crime, or a philosophy that he likes to share. In this book, he has an observation on crime statistics between married couples. Egg is annoyed that Poirot could even contemplate that Mrs Babbington might have been involved in the murder of her husband: “”But they were devoted to each other,” cried Egg indignantly. “You don’t understand a bit.” Poirot smiled kindly at her. “No. That is valuable. You know, but I do not. I see the facts unbiased by any preconceived notions. And let me tell you something, mademoiselle – in the course of my experience I have known five cases of wives murdered by devoted husbands, and twenty-two of husbands murdered by devoted wives. Les femmes, they obviously keep up appearances better.” “I think you’re perfectly horrid,” said Egg.”

little_dog_laughed_09There are a few references to check out. The playwright Miss Wills had previously written One-Way Traffic, which brought her success and esteem. It’s a great name for a play but it doesn’t appear to exist in real life. However, her next play, that will star Miss Sutcliffe, is The Little Dog Laughed. This was to be the name of a play by Douglas Carter Beane that first appeared in the West End in 2006. When Mr Satterthwaite judges Sir Charles to be acting the role of detective, he sees him as Aristide Duval. As I was reading the book, I thought Duval was a genuine fictional detective from a contemporary writer – but no, he’s a creation of Christie’s. It would be a great name for a detective!

lady of shalottThere’s a poetry quote: “Of more than twice her years, Seam’d with an ancient swordcut on the cheek, And bruised and bronzed, she lifted up her eyes And loved him, with that love which was her doom.” Its source? The clue is in the chapter title, “A Modern Elaine”. It’s from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and describes Elaine’s love for the older Lancelot. Satterthwaite is being ironic about Egg though: “Egg […] did not look at all likely to perish of love and drift about rivers on a barge. There was nothing of the lily maid of Astolat about her.”

Rikki-Tikki-TaviSuperintendent Crossfield is a little star-struck when he first meets Sir Charles, as he had seen him play Lord Aintree’s Dilemma at the Pall Mall Theatre. No such play – although it’s a perfect Wildean/Shavian title – and no such theatre either. Captain Dacres takes Egg to the Seventy-Two Club; again it’s an invention of Christie, although it sounds rather swish. At one stage Sir Charles is described as resembling Lord Eaglemount, scornfully looking at his solicitor. He was a character in The Hermit in London published 1819, so even when this book was written that strikes me as being a rather obscure allusion. However, the mongoose who likes to find out, to whom Miss Wills is likened, is clearly children’s favourite Rikki Tikki Tavi, written by Rudyard Kipling in 1893 as part of The Jungle Book.

looeMuch of the action of the book takes place in Loomouth, in Cornwall (although I believe in Nemesis it’s situated just twelve miles from St Mary Mead, which would put it in Kent or Sussex). Loomouth, of course, doesn’t exist, but there is Looe in Cornwall, fifty miles from Falmouth, so the imagination sets that part of the story on the south Cornish coast. Melfort Abbey in Yorkshire is said to be site of Bartholomew Strange’s sanatorium, and is where the second dinner party is held; Melfort is a village in Argyll and Bute, so one can only presume this is another Christie invention. The Babbingtons originally lived in Gilling, in Kent, and Egg visits Mrs Milray there. In real life there are the villages of Gilling West and Gilling East in Yorkshire, but I am sure Christie’s Kentish Gilling is based on Gillingham, even if the directions she gives won’t take you there.

Bruton StreetWhen Superintendent Crossman gives Sir Charles the names and addresses of the party guests, they all have their addresses provided. Lord and Lady Eden live at 187 Cadogan Square (in real life the numbers don’t go that high); Sir Jocelyn and Lady Campbell live at 1256 Harley Street (ditto); Angela Sutcliffe at 28 Cantrell Mansions (does not exist); Captain and Mrs Dacres at 3, St John’s House (ditto); and Miss Muriel Wills at 5 Upper Cathcart Road, Tooting (tritto). Mrs Dacres’ posh shop is located in Bruton Street, which does exist, and you could probably imagine a well-to-do couturier establishment in the locale.

PoundRegular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only a few mentioned in this book, and they’re all relatively small. The largest, £1,000, the amount that Ellis, the missing butler, is seeking as part of his blackmail scam, today would equal just under £50,000. The average price of a dress at Mrs Dacres’ posh shop (£50-60) would set Egg back £2500-£3000. That was never going to happen, especially as her entire wealth was assessed at £15 12/-, or in today’s language, about £775.

car warning triangleOliver Manders arrives unexpectedly at Sir Bartholomew’s dinner party because he has a car accident outside his house. Flashback to Frankie having a car accident outside Bassington-ffrench’s house in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Frankie’s accident was fake; Oliver’s probably was too. I hope Christie doesn’t play this accident card too often….

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Three Act Tragedy:

Publication Details: 1935. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in August 1971, priced 25p. Tom Adams’ deceptively attractive cover illustration takes a garden setting, with a yellow flower (I presume a dying nicotiana) propped up in a wine glass, with its thorns showing. It’s a picture that gets less and less bucolically romantic the longer you look at it.

How many pages until the first death: 13. It doesn’t take long for this enjoyable story to really get going.

Funny lines out of context: A little bit more luck here than in recent books.

“I like men to have affairs,” said Egg. “It shows they’re not queer or anything.”

When Poirot is building a house from a pack of cards: “Egg looked more closely at the erection on the table. She laughed.”

Memorable characters: Christie gives us a few smart one-liners that quickly paint a strong picture of a character.

Sir Charles, describing his secretary/housekeeper Miss Milray: “She says she’s got an invalid mother. Personally I don’t believe it. That kind of woman never had a mother at all. Spontaneously generated from a dynamo.”

Egg, with Mrs Dacres, discussing a suitable selection of dresses for her to buy: “”I simply adore dressing a young girl. It’s so important that girls shouldn’t look raw – if you know what I mean.” “Nothing raw about you,” thought Egg, ungratefully. “Cooked to a turn, you are.””

Sir Charles is very well described, with his pompous ways and his theatrical styles; Egg is a little like Christie’s other bright young things, except she’s not quite a bright nor as independent. She doesn’t have the derring-do of Tuppence, or Bundle, and she resents Poirot quite strikingly, primarily because she thinks he is going to get in the way of her and Sir Charles Getting it Together.

Christie is on record saying how much of a favourite character Mr Satterthwaite was; and it shows, by the strong part he plays in this story.

Christie the Poison expert:

Nicotine poisoning is the method of choice for this murderer, and there are few observations where people wonder if the victims might have been heavy smokers. But it’s also pointed out that it is used in sprays for roses – Mrs Babbington uses it – and it’s an odourless liquid. When Poirot is hosting his sherry party he points out that the glasses used by Sir Charles and Sir Bartholomew are heavy cut crystal, which means it is easier to hide a small amount of colourless liquid. Oddly, Tom Adams’ cover depicts a plain glass with no lead cut design.

There’s also a dramatic suggestion that someone might have jabbed Mr Babbington with a hypodermic containing the arrow poison of the South American Indians; but that’s just Mr Satterthwaite teasing Egg.

Class/social issues of the time:

There aren’t very many observations of this type in this book. Satterthwaite can’t quite put his finger on what it is about Oliver Manders that is “different”, until Egg describes him as a “slippery Shylock”; then “”of course,” thought Mr Satterthwaite, “that’s it – not foreign – Jew!”” But Manders is, on the whole, portrayed in a kindly light in this book, so, for its era, I would not say there’s any element of anti-Semitism in it. However, when Poirot contradicts Satterthwaite about Egg’s emotions and aspirations, he gets surprisingly annoyed, and a little xenophobia comes out. Poirot starts this conversation: “”I wonder now,” he said. “I do not quite understand – “ Mr. Satterthwaite interrupted. “You do not understand the modern English girl? Well, that is not surprising. I do not always understand them myself. A girl like Miss Lytton Gore – “ In his turn Poirot interrupted. “Pardon. You have misunderstood me. I understand Mss Lytton Gore very well. I have met such another – many such others. You call the type modern; but it is – how shall I say? – age-long.” Mr Satterthwaite was slightly annoyed. He felt that he – and only he – understood Egg. This preposterous foreigner knew nothing about young English womanhood.”

There’s an enjoyable scene where Beatrice, Sir Bartholomew’s Upper Housemaid, is questioned by Sir Charles and Mr Satterthwaite, which strongly brings out the class-consciousness of the servant. Beatrice talks fondly of Miss Sutcliffe, and particularly so of Lady Mary, and of Egg; less so of Mrs Dacres, and she visibly stiffens when asked about Miss Wills. When pressed, she admits: “”well, she wasn’t quite the “class” of the others, sir. She couldn’t help it, I know,” went on Beatrice kindly. “But she did things a real lady wouldn’t have done. She pried, if you know what I mean, sir, poked and pried about.””

There are a couple of impassioned speeches about the Church; first by Egg: “You see Mr Satterthwaite, I really believe in Christianity – not like Mother does, with little books and early service, and things – but intelligently and as a matter of history. The Church is all clotted up with the Pauline tradition – in fact the Church is a mess – but Christianity itself is all right. That’s why I can’t be a communist like Oliver. In practice our beliefs would work out much the same, things in common and ownership by all, but the difference – well, I needn’t go into that.” Later by Manders, as recounted by Lady Mary: “”Oliver made a rather ill-bred attack on Christianity. Mr Babbington was very patient and courteous with him. That only seemed to make Oliver worse. He said, “All you religious people look down your noses because my father and mother weren’t married. I suppose you’d call me the child of sin. Well, I admire people who have the courage of their convictions and don’t care what a lot of hypocrites and parsons think.” Mr Babbington didn’t answer, but Oliver went on: “You won’t answer that. It’s ecclesiasticism and superstition that’s got the whole world into the mess its’s in. I’d like to sweep away the churches all over the world.” Mr Babbington smiled and said, “And the clergy, too?” I think it was his smile that annoyed Oliver. He felt he was not being taken seriously. He said, “I hate everything the Church stands for. Smugness, security and hypocrisy. Get rid of the whole canting tribe, I say!” Manders’ feeling as though he is not being taken seriously is not that different from Bobby’s relationship with his vicar father in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Manders’ self-consciousness about being the child of unmarried parents also reflects on the mores of the time.

Classic denouement: Yes indeed. Unusually, perhaps, there is no indication of who the murderer is before Poirot’s final chapter, so the surprise (if it is a surprise) comes even more compact and controlled than usual. But it’s a delightfully dramatic end to the story.

Happy ending? Surprisingly difficult to judge. On the one hand, justice is seen to be done. On the other, one person is left shocked by the actions of someone they thought they knew very well indeed. Any future relationship this person has – and the text implies that it is possible – will have a lot of problems to overcome.

Did the story ring true? On the whole, yes, but with some reservations. On a practical level, if Miss Sutcliffe is opening in Miss Wills’ new play in the next few days, it is very unlikely that they would have had the time to attend Poirot’s sherry party. Whilst one can accept the explanation of the whole Ellis the butler and his disappearance mystery, again on a practical level one wonders how realistic it really is. That aside, the book is relatively credible for Christie!

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. Even though I guessed whodunit and there are a few ragged edges to this book, I found it a very entertaining and exciting read, and found the second half of it un-put-downable. And you can’t ask for more than that.

Death in the CloudsThanks for reading my blog of Three Act Tragedy 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, we have another Hercule Poirot novel with Death in the Clouds. If I remember rightly, a lot of this takes place on an aeroplane, which I would imagine would have had its own charm and excitement back in 1935. I have a feeling I will quickly remember whodunit, although at the moment I can’t recall any other aspect of the story. 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 – Fiddler on the Roof, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

FIddler on the RoofSometimes you look at a theatre’s listings for the season ahead and a show stands out like a beacon of must-seeishness. I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof twice before; once with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria, starring the iconic Topol as Tevye, and once with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, starring Paul Michael Glaser (and damn fine he was too.) Professor and Mrs Plum (who accompanied us on our Chichester weekend) advised us that they’d seen it on Broadway starring Harvey Fierstein. Gosh! I bet he was amazing.

Fiddler - everyoneI’m sure you know the background to this musical. It’s based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem about Tevye and his daughters published in 1894. The author was born in present-day Ukraine, and moved to New York City after witnessing the violence against Jews in southern Russia in 1905. The stories have inspired plays, TV programmes and movies over the years – but none so prominent as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye is the village milkman, with his own philosophy of life that is heavily based on his deep but informal relationship with God, with whom he chats all the time. An upholder and adherent of Tradition, the musical shows you how Tevye copes having daughters who know their own mind and are not afraid to carve out their own way of life. Will he stick with the time-honoured traditions, or will he bend the rules to accommodate their wishes? And what chance does tradition have when it’s up against the outside world of the Czar’s Russia and the violent pogroms of the time?

TevyeSometimes at a show you get that feeling about ten minutes into it when you say to yourself “Wow, I am really loving this!” Gentle reader, I got that feeling. And once that happens you can just sit back and wallow in the pleasure of the whole thing. With all the traditional hallmarks of his Sheffield successes already chalked up, Daniel Evans’ first big show for Chichester – choreography by Alistair David, set design by Lez Brotherston, and a fantastic band courtesy of Tom Brady – is every bit as good as you could possibly dream it might be.

Sabbath PrayerThat’s not to say that in any way it shies away from the harshness of the reality of Tevye’s life and the village of Anatevka. If anything, this was the least saccharine portrayal of their day to day existence I’ve seen. The disruption to Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding celebration, for instance, stops you dead in your tracks with its mindless cruelty. When the villagers are informed that they will have to leave everything and go away, their desolation is palpable. But so much of the strength of the show comes from that balance of emotions between the sweet and the sour. The strongest moments (and songs) combine that hankering after something you just can’t have (If I were a Rich Man), and making the best of the here and now (To Life). Add to that the blind optimism of Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Miracle of Miracles plus the wistfulness of Do You Love Me and Sunrise, Sunset and you have one of the strongest scores in the history of musicals. Obvious, I know, but it occurred to me that, every time you hear Sunrise, Sunset, you’re just a little – significantly – older than the last time you heard it. My reaction to the stunning performance it receives in this production was to feel remarkably mortal. But when some aspect of a show pulls you up short and makes you question your own reality, you know theatre is doing its job properly.

Rabbinical questionsThe production is notable for some mind-boggling staging moments. The Fruma-Sarah dream sequence is extraordinary, with the spectral old biddy hovering large above the bed like a Jewish Sword of Damocles, the eerie presence of an army of demonic ghosts, and at one stage I thought the entire theatre was going to go up in flames! It’s a breathtakingly brilliant scene. Also stunning, but in a much more reflective way, was how the backstage opened up during the Sabbath Prayer so that you could see the other households in the village all following the same tradition; that was extremely effective and rather moving.

Matchmaker MatchmakerOf course, a huge part of the attraction for this particular production is the inspired casting of Omid Djalili as Tevye. He’s a very accomplished stand-up comic – we’ve loved him both times we’ve seen him – who involves uninhibited physicality as part of his humour. He was always going to be perfect in this role and boy does he not disappoint. From the moment you first see him, he’s got that glint in his eye that says we’ve gotta show to do and we’re all gonna have fun whilst never ever coming out of character or indeed turning Tevye into any kind of pantomime.

Mendel, Motel and the boysIn fact, for a larger-than-life comedian, it’s astounding how ordinary and normal he presents the character – which is great, because it’s so much easier for the audience to identify with him. He is a real man, with real problems but also a real sense of fun. As you would imagine, he absolutely made If I Were a Rich Man his own, and every time he comes on he lights up the stage. Make no mistake; when he disowns Chava for marrying the Christian Fyedka, his face is like thunder and his fury is undeniable – this is a man pushed to the limit and, much as it grieves him, he is determined to stand by his God rather than his daughter. This unfatherly reaction is uncomfortable for the audience. Apparently not every problem can be solved by a show tune. He is desperate to put the past behind them; and we can see him start to soften when he reminds Tzeitel to say “and God be with you” when she and Chava part; but he never gives in. Stubborn? Pious? Simply human? Tevye has complex emotions and beliefs which Mr Djalili explores and expresses magnificently.

GoldeThere’s also a tremendous performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman as Golde; funny, wry, spirited, bossy but essentially extremely kind-hearted, holding the household together whilst Tevye’s out working, or chewing the cud with God, or celebrating with Lazar Wolf. And of course she has a stunning voice that comes across so strongly, especially in the beautiful Sabbath Prayer sequence. Simbi Akande, Emma Kingston and Rose Shaloo make a great trio of daughters, presenting their father with challenge after challenge; they give us a fresh and funny Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and Emma Kingston’s Hodel sings a spine-tingling rendition of Far From the Home that I Love.

Motel and TzeitelI barely recognised the wonderful Liza Sadovy as Yente; as always, she gives the role a feisty and humorous characterisation. And I loved Jos Slovick’s Motel performing Miracle of Miracles – a couple of minutes of sheer reckless joy in what you sense is otherwise a fairly joyless life. Louis Maskell’s Perchik has just the right amount of confident and disdainful swagger to impress as the intellectual rebel without being a pain in the backside; and you just know that life is nevertheless going to teach him a thing or two as time goes on. And it was great to see Harry Francis again, as the rabbi’s son Mendel, brilliantly integrating outstandingly skilful dance moves into the big numbers.

Tevye takes them awayIt’s a huge cast, and everyone performs with absolute commitment and a sense of true enjoyment. It’s already been extended by a week, so the show now runs until 2nd September – but that’s surely not going to be the last we see of it? A credit to all involved. We all loved it.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The House They Grew Up In, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

The House They Grew Up InHurrah for our second Chichester weekend of the year! This time Mrs Chrisparkle and I were accompanied by the sophisticated and intelligent Professor and Mrs Plum, who were desperate for some proper erudition and a slap-up fried breakfast in the morning. They weren’t disappointed on either count.

DanielDo you remember a TV programme from a few years ago, gentle reader, called Life Laundry? It was where people who weren’t coping with aspects of their life for whatever reason just started piling up junk inside their houses so that they could barely move? They needed the help of expert advisers to start understanding their problems and then give them advice as to how they could start reclaiming their home. It was fascinating and frequently very moving to watch.

PeppyWelcome to the home of the Angelis family: sister Peppy (short for Penelope), brother Daniel (short for Daniel). By the sound of it, it’s probably in quite a decent area; certainly their slimy neighbour Gareth is interested in expanding his ownership. But it is The House They Grew Up In, and never left; although Peppy went to Cambridge, apparently; to study art, I would imagine. Peppy’s now looking after Daniel as best she can, but he doesn’t help himself, just sitting there, with music constantly going through his headphones, hoping to be fed every now and then. She tells him things but he hardly takes them in because he’s never using his listening ears. He’s probably autistic. His only friend – not that he really thinks of him as a friend – is next door’s boy Ben. He’s only eight, but he takes an interest. Peppy’s not keen. She doesn’t like people coming to the house.

The Police arrive to see DanielAnd the Life Laundry connection? Their house is crammed, top to bottom, with junk. Trying to find anything is a nightmare. Trying to navigate around the living room is nigh on impossible. Designer Max Jones must have had a field day acquiring all the detritus that dominates the set. It really takes your breath away! Not only has the stuff accumulated over the years simply because Peppy and Daniel live such a private, reclusive life – Uncle Manny at Christmas seems to be their only other link to the outside world – but it also reflects the mess that their lives have gradually become; and the mess that gets steadily worse through the course of the play.

LaurenceAlthough it has the now standard format of one interval in the middle of the show, structurally it feels to me like an old-fashioned three act play. Act One is largely scene-setting, getting to know the characters and their way of life; Act Two is them struggling with the outside world imposing itself on them, in a very extreme and unpleasant way; Act Three is the resolution to the problem and the happy ending. Yes, gentle reader, it has a happy ending, and one that will quite possibly make you gasp with approval, as it did on last Saturday’s matinee. And it is a totally brilliant, satisfying, heartfelt, revealing play that will make you laugh and it will make you cry. At times you may wonder if it is ever going to get “really funny”, and the answer is – no. But you do have that happy ending to look forward to. If you arrive wondering why the foyers of the Minerva are bedecked with bunting, you’ll know before you go home.

Peppy and JodyThis fantastic production sports some great performances but none as much as Samantha Spiro as Peppy. She must be exhausted by the end of the play. She’s constantly messing and fiddling and searching for things and begging Daniel to wear his listening ears. You can tell at once there’s something wrong with her but it takes a good while to draw your conclusions as to quite what. It’s an incredible performance because she’s both endearing and irritating at the same time, just as big sisters often are. She absolutely gets to the heart of this nervous, patronising, helpless, frantic, loving soul. You can see her trying to be open and communicative, and then when things get too invasive, or awkward, or deep, you can see her start to close down, and block out the outside world. Simply superb.

Peppy and DanielDaniel Ryan’s Daniel, on the other hand, is in many ways the complete opposite. He appears to be calm and content to be left alone, although he can fly into a flash fury when he can’t express his inner feelings. It’s another excellent performance, full of hidden anxieties and repressed emotions; and he beautifully shows how a person on the autistic spectrum can accidentally fall foul of society’s accepted norms of behaviour. He appears – as you would expect – appropriately devoid of empathy, but he has some great surprises up his sleeve. He also brings the house down with the occasional, simply delivered, hilarious rejoinder – watch out for the reason he no longer goes out gardening. A beautifully controlled, funny and sad performance.

Daniel and PeppyFor our matinee, we had Leonardo Dickens in the role of Ben and what a little star he is! Technically perfect throughout, not a fluffed line nor a missed cue, brilliant delivery of his comic lines, and totally at ease with a cast of adults. Even at this young age, he’s got to be One To Watch. I also really enjoyed the performances of Michelle Greenidge as the WPC who arrives at the house thinking it’s just another job and then slowly realises that she’s bitten off more than she can chew, Matt Sutton as the detective who has to question the unpredictable Ben, and Philip Wright as the flesh-crawling chancer of a neighbour, trying to browbeat Peppy into a rash decision.

Daniel and BenIt’s a fascinating play, totally engrossing, brilliantly performed, expertly brought to stage and we all absolutely loved it. This ought to have transfer written all over it. It’s only got a three week run, on until 5th August, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

P. S. Sir Derek Jacobi was in the house. He’s looking great. We were only talking about him in the Minerva Brasserie for lunch, and he was there all along. Spooky.

P. P. S. I usually take a photograph of my programme as the first illustration of a theatre review. However, torrential downpours of rain rendered it soggy and no longer fit for purpose. Fortunately I had the wit to take a picture of the poster outside the theatre. I’m sure you won’t mind.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Blue Road, Royal and Derngate Young Company: Create, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 21st July 2017

The Blue RoadI’m always full of admiration for what the R&D’s Young Companies can achieve on stage; their productions are always full of style, conviction, and a sense of occasion; they’re something you can positively look forward to. This year the Young Company: Create have worked on Laura Lomas’ The Blue Road under the direction of Ashley Elbourne, and you quickly realise and appreciate the commitment of the cast both to the work and to ensuring that the audience have the best time possible.

TBR2Are you sensing a “but” coming? I might as well come straight out with it – sadly, I just didn’t like the play. It had some very interesting ideas in it, which the cast drew out as well as one could hope; but the actual words the cast had to say almost drove me to desperation! A typical sentence (this isn’t in the play, I’ve made it up) might be “I remember. I remember a cloud. I remember a white fluffy cloud. I remember a white fluffy cloud on the top of that hill…” etc. So many sentences seemed to me to be structured like that. A; A+B; A+B+C; A+B+C+D; and so on. I don’t think people talk like that. Not even in a reverie, which is so much of what the ensemble had to provide as a counterpoint to the main story of the play – an unexplained dystopian/ post-apocalyptic situation where children vie for superiority and control over others.

Eleanor BilsonThere’s a lot of Lord of the Flies in there; maybe some Girl With All The Gifts too – it wouldn’t have surprised me to discover a host of zombies just off-stage. We never find out what it is that’s created this terrible world; but that’s not, in itself, a problem. The children capture a girl who speaks in an Eastern European/Russian language, cage her, and threaten to kill her. Craig, the self-appointed leader of these vulnerable, scared and occasionally intimidating kids, tells her to have the decency to speak English or he’ll shoot. It’s like an apocalyptic parable of a post-Brexit landscape, where locals are terrified of outsiders and turn to violence to suppress them. In another scene, the delightful Craig takes the baby bird that Thomas has been nurturing back to health and kills it by chucking a stone down on it. It’s a high impact, high shock moment that the cast performed superbly well; and it very much reminded me of the shocking central scene of Edward Bond’s Saved that was notoriously banned by the censor in 1965.

TBR3The final scene takes us to a flashback where Craig and Pia first meet; a beautifully played portrayal of simple innocence and maybe a charming hope for the future. Then Thomas shoots them. The audience leaves the theatre asking how on earth can that be? If they die in a flashback, how can the rest of the play take place? I have some theories. 1) It’s a complete mistake and the writer didn’t know what the hell she was doing. Verdict: unlikely. 2) For the rest of the play up until that moment, Craig and Pia are ghosts. I’d have to watch it again to see if this could be true, and whether their interaction with the other characters makes it possible. Verdict: also unlikely. 3) Thomas shoots and the stage lights go out. We assume Craig and Pia die but he misses. Maybe the bullet accidentally hits someone else out of sight – an Archduke Franz Ferdinand character – and that’s where the cataclysm starts. I’m currently favouring that one. Anyone else got any ideas?

Kieran PeaceTypical – having said I didn’t like the play I’ve just spent ages discussing it. I think the characterisations and the unanswered questions to do with what it was all about are intriguing. It was just the speech patterns that sent me into a spin. And some very repetitive conversations too: if I counted the number of times someone was asked a question and the answer was a frustrated “I don’t know!!”, well, I’d run out of digits, that’s for sure. I’m sure it accounted for at least half of Alex’s lines.

TBR4Let’s talk about the set instead. Wow, the set! I think it took everyone’s breath away when it was fully revealed. Centre stage, a collapsed road dangling out of nowhere, its steel rods poking through and falling pathetically to earth. Upstage right, a platform for keeping a lookout, but more likely where Craig will hang out and feel superior. Underneath the platform, a hidden area that’s probably where everyone sleeps. Underneath the road, various bits of debris that have been assembled that might be of use in survival. Sarah June Mills has done a superb job in creating an extremely atmospheric and totally believable set – perfect for the play and practical for the performers. It also fitted perfectly with Charlotte Burton’s lighting; at times atmospheric, at times vivid; the road catching the blue light (hence creating The Blue Road) was an arresting sight.

TBR1I thought this was a very tough play for a young cast to get their teeth into but, as always, they rose to the challenge. Eleanor Bilson’s Pia was a strong characterisation of an essentially kind, reasonable, tolerant person driven out of her wits by appalling circumstances; technically flawless and great to watch. Kieran Peace was sullenly menacing as Craig, and carried off his rather evil personality extremely well, especially with the death of Billy the Bird. Tabitha Brown played the bossy Maja with great relish; it was enjoyable to see how unpleasant she made the character without ever becoming the “baddie” – a very nicely balanced performance. John Reed was excellent at creating a sympathetic character out of the simple Thomas, and also delivered perfectly the unexpectedly hilarious line: “it’s not very gender neutral!” (OK, so there were some good lines too, he admits, slightly begrudgingly.) From the ensemble, Martin Delos Santos Beach stood out for me as being a fine actor, delivering his lines with great authority and clarity. But the entire cast put in a sterling performance and absolutely made the best of the material. There were a couple of instances of rather tentative prop-handling; but that’s just a question of time and practice. On the night we went, a mobile phone went off, quite loudly, a few times, but it didn’t faze the cast one iota – good work.

John ReedAll in all, it was a very good production and performance of a play that did raise some interesting issues but irritated more than entertained me. Well done to the cast though – the packed audience was very appreciative!

Production photos by Graeme Braidwood

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)

Parker Pyne InvestigatesIn which we meet a new Christie creation, Parker Pyne, placer of advertisements in newspapers seeking clients who are unhappy, in the promise of making them happy again. In the first six stories we see him at work in London; in the second he’s on holiday in Europe and the Middle East but clients keep throwing themselves at him. As always, you can read this blog without discovering any of the whodunits in all the stories!

The publication of this collection is a little unusual in that the original magazine editions – or at least those that can be traced – were published in the US before they appeared in the UK. The first six were published in Cosmopolitan in America in August 1932 (UK – October/ November 1932) and the second six in America in April 1933 (UK – June/July 1933). No magazine printing of The Case of the Middle-aged Wife has yet been traced in either country. The collection was published by Collins in book form in the UK in November 1934, and in the US a few weeks later under the title Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective. As an aside, I notice it’s just the shortest book of Christie’s that I’ve re-read so far – 158 pages (just beating The Big Four, which has 159.)

The Case of the Middle-aged Wife

penfoldSo welcome, James Parker Pyne. This is how Christie describes him in this first story: “he was large, not to say fat; he had a bald head of noble proportions, strong glasses and little twinkling eyes.” I instantly envisaged him as Dangermouse’s sidekick, Penfold, but they are very dissimilar characters. He brings happiness – in which light I also saw him as a kind of Harley Quin character, although he’s not remotely ethereal, he’s very real. He’s a statistician – he can’t resist relying on his previous work experience to analyse the likely outcome of any situation. This is his first case – or at least the first we know about, his practice is obviously very well established and he’s probably been doing this work for a few years now. In The Case of the Discontented Soldier he reveals that his house, Whitefriars, has been “the scene of eleven exciting dramas”, so that’s at least eleven previous cases.

In this first story, Mr Packington has been spending his time and his money on treating and looking after a sweet young thing from the office and has been ignoring Mrs Packington as a result. Mrs Packington, unsurprisingly miffed, consults Mr PP, who arranges her to be pampered and pandered to by a handsome gigolo so that she regains her youth and self-esteem, and Mr Packington begins to get jealous. You can guess how this ends. Mr PP only has one failure in this book – and it’s not this one! It’s a very enjoyable story, with Parker Pyne as a distant mastermind, almost playing chess with his cast of characters as the pieces, securing the marriage of the Packingtons as his prize, whilst no doubt enjoying a tidy profit.

There’s a number of references to be checked out. Parker Pyne’s office is at 17 Richmond Street. There is a Richmond Street in London; however, it’s a residential address in Plaistow and I just don’t get the feeling that this is where PP would operate! Claude, the gigolo, takes Mrs Packington to the Lesser Archangel and Red Admiral nightclubs – the Red Admiral features in The Case of the Distressed Lady too – but again I think they’re Christie inventions. There is an Archangel nightclub in Kensington – would probably be the right part of town too – but I doubt it’s the same. I loved the reference to “Mrs Hattie West, the Californian Cucumber King’s wife”, but sadly I don’t think she was real.

As we will see during the stories, Parker Pyne asks different fees from different people according to the job and their circumstance. In this case he asks for 200 guineas up front. That’s a lot of money – the equivalent of around £10,500 today.

I was surprised to read that Mr Packington takes the 8:45 train into London. That strikes me as being very late. I wonder if offices generally opened later in the morning than they do today? It’s true that when I worked at the Arts Council in 1983, work started at 9:30am. I remember getting there five minutes early one day – and it was like the Marie Celeste.

Amongst Parker Pyne’s staff there lurks one Miss Lemon! The very same secretary who would go on to work for Hercule Poirot. Here we see her in her younger days, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Christie has her working for Poirot as early as in 1935, in the short story How Does Your Garden Grow, which would not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. As far as Christie’s UK novel-reading public were concerned, they would next meet her in The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. She isn’t the only character that would appear in this book, only to crop up as part of Poirot’s world in later years.

The Case of the Discontented Soldier

elephantMajor Charles Wilbraham has retired from serving the Empire in East Africa, and is now back in England and bored; desperate for an adventure. He consults Parker Pyne and adventure comes his way, although he never associates PP with what actually happens to him. It’s a very amusing set-up and works very well, with a few delightful turns of phrase, although there are a couple of unfortunate non-PC references to overcome, more of which shortly…

Parker Pyne’s original solution to the problem was to invite Wilbraham to take a gorgeous lady out for lunch, but she terrifies him, so that doesn’t work. However, the lady informs PP of the kind of girl the Major really goes for, and so can successfully introduce her to him by means of this extravagant adventure. But PP’s brain can’t quite create those stories, so he consults a novelist – enter Mrs Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver is another character who reappears in the Poirot books, sporadically over many years; readers would next encounter her in Cards on the Table a couple of years later. Christie would admit, in a 1956 interview, that “the character of Ariadne Oliver does have a strong dash of myself.” In this story, she is said to have written “forty-six successful works of fiction, all best sellers in England and America, and freely translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese and Abyssinian.” As far as published books are concerned, by that stage Christie had only written twenty-four such books, but no doubt she was ambitious! I admired the fact that Mrs Oliver responded to PP’s remit by including something translated into Swahili that only the Major would understand – an excellent example of how Parker Pyne tailors his solutions individually to his clients. And whereas today Mrs Oliver would have found her translation by using Google Translate, she actually used Delfridge’s Information Bureau. No doubt this was meant to suggest Selfridge’s. The only Delfridges I can find is a watch and clock manufacturer in Birmingham.

There’s a slightly laborious introduction to the story, where PP’s advert, his promotional spiel and Christie’s description of him are all repeated, verbatim, from the first story. However, this is the first of the stories known to have been originally published in a magazine; and without revision, these descriptions were simply repeated.

As for the non-PC elements, the adventure requires Wilbraham discovering (or he had hoped to) a cache of ivory: “elephants, you know. There’s a law about the number you’re allowed to shoot. Some hunter got away with breaking that law on a grand scale. They were on his trail and he cached the stuff. There’s a thundering lot of it – and this gives fairly clear directions how to find it […] quite a nice little fortune for you.” So our hero is celebrating making a lot of money from finding ivory that had been obtained illegally – that’s quite uncomfortable these days. Perhaps more predictably, the two thugs that are Wilbraham discovers attacking Freda are described as “two enormous Negroes”, and there’s a detailed description of the fight where Wilbraham sends them “reeling backwards” by “a violent punch on the jaw”. Later Mrs Oliver, when working out the expenses for the whole charade, describes them as “two darkies” who “wanted very little” for their effort. Yes, even then, they were putting a positive spin on discrimination by having the black characters earn less than the white ones.

Parker Pyne only asks Major Wilbraham for £50 payment for this job, that’s £2500 today. Given that he lives happily ever after as a result, that’s got to be a bargain.

The Case of the Distressed Lady

dismal desmondMrs Daphne St John arrives at Parker Pyne’s office with a great problem – she has stolen an expensive diamond but needs to give it back but cannot find a way of doing so without making the situation worse, and losing friendships into the bargain. PP, of course, has a solution, involving presenting two members of his entourage as a pair of exhibition dancers at a party, where they would replace the diamond. But can you imagine an Agatha Christie story being as straightforward as that?

Not too much to examine in this story. Mrs St John talks about Parker Pyne’s advertisement as being “probably just a ramp”; I’d never come across that word in that context before, but it is early 19th century slang for a swindle or a fraudulent action. You live and learn! She also refers to a game played at the Le Touquet casino: “chemmy”, which perplexed me at first (as I pronounced it my mind with a hard “ch”) but of course is slang for chemin de fer, or baccarat. The last line of the book refers to a gentleman selling Dismal Desmonds. Never heard of those – but that was the name of a cartoon film series that first started in 1926, and so presumably the gentleman was selling Dismal Desmond toys – a lugubrious looking dog rather like the more famous Droopy but not so distinguished.

The stolen diamond was valued at £2000, which in today’s value would be £100,000. A pretty penny indeed.

That’s three stories in so far, each one keeping back a nice twist, and each a satisfying read. I must say I am very much enjoying this book!

The Case of the Discontented Husband

lawyerThis story has the hallmarks of The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Mark II. A similar set up has Mr Wade, the discontented husband, coming to Parker Pyne for advice, and he suggests a dalliance with his very own Miss de Sara will make Mrs Wade jealous and come to her senses. However, Mr Wade ends up a little more attached to Miss de Sara than PP expected, with its own consequences…

There’s a lot of humour in this story, with some delightfully bitchy exchanges between Miss de Sara and Mrs Wade, and an almost farcical final scene when everything comes crashing down around everyone’s ears. The story also fills out further understanding of the character of Parker Pyne, who has become just a little one-dimensional over the course of the first three stories, enjoyable though they are. He can fail, after all.

Christie’s negative view of divorce, which we have seen in other works, is highlighted here with Mr Wade, self-esteem at an all-time low, nevertheless willing to allow his wife to divorce him if that will make her happy, rather than the other way around, because “a fellow’s so helpless […] one’s got to play the game […] I couldn’t let her be dragged through the divorce court.” Mr Wade’s doubts about entering into an affair, albeit a false one, probably also echo Christie’s own experience of her first husband Archie playing away from home.

An unexpected end, and a funny turn of phrase make this a very enjoyable story.

The Case of the City Clerk

St StanislausIf The Case of the Discontented Husband is The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Mark II, then The Case of the City Clerk is The Case of the Discontented Soldier, Mark II. Once again, Parker Pyne is approached by an older man in need of some adventure, just to prove to himself that he can do it and that there’s still life in the old dog yet. But this isn’t of a romantic nature, this is a full-on mystery and intrigue spy job in which PP lets Mr Roberts play his part. This story reminded me in part of the shenanigans involved in The Secret Adversary, and in part of the glamour of Murder on the Orient Express.

The scene setting of this story is very entertaining, if a little hard for the reader to appreciate fully at first. You ask yourself, what on earth is going on here, and then it all falls into place. There are some agreeable turns of phrase: “a pleasant thrill shot down his spine, slightly adulterated by a thrill that was not quite so pleasant”. At the end, Mr Roberts is awarded the Order of St Stanislaus – tenth class with laurels, which adorns the front cover of the book as part of Tom Adams’ illustration. And yes, there really is a St Stanislaus.

Mr Roberts can only afford to pay Parker Pyne £5 for his adventure, but he gets £50 back as a reward. In today’s money that’s £250 out to get £2500 back. Not a bad piece of work.

The Case of the Rich Woman

wash stand and jugThe rich Mrs Rymer seeks advice from Parker Pyne as to how to spend her money so that she can get the most entertainment out of it. A very strange request, but PP is always up for a challenge…

A strange request, and a strange story. This is the first story in the book that I didn’t enjoy. It has too much of a surreal air, and is just too weird to believe. Even though it still falls under the general heading of “Parker Pyne Makes People Happy”, it just doesn’t fit in. I also found the character of Mrs Rymer distinctly unappealing. Interestingly, this is the only story that was published in the American magazine Cosmopolitan that wasn’t subsequently published in Woman’s Pictorial in the UK.

The story contains a further reference to Mrs Oliver, where Parker Pyne describes her as “the most conventional of all of us”. No doubt that is indeed how Agatha Christie saw herself. When Mrs Rymer wakes up in the strange bedroom, Christie tells us the room had “a deal wash-stand with a jug and basin up on it […] there was a deal chest of drawers and a tin trunk.” I’d never heard of deal in this context. My OED defines it as “a piece of sawn timber (now always fir or pine wood) of standard size; a plank of board of fir or pine; timber in such planks or boards.” It’s a Middle English term; no wonder I hadn’t heard of it! And the £1000 that PP sees fit to charge the rich Mrs Rymer is the equivalent of £50,000 today.

There’s one minor instance of a funny line today that wasn’t a funny line at the time: “”Ah!” The ejaculation was fraught with meaning.”

Have You Got Everything You Want?

TokatlianThe scene changes now from 17 Richmond Street to a travelogue around Europe and the Middle East. At the Gare de Lyon Elsie Jeffries board a train to Stamboul, and encounters fellow traveller Parker Pyne, no doubt enjoying the financial fruit of his labours. Elsie’s husband is on business in Stamboul, but she deciphered some writing on a blotting paper that suggests something weird would happen just before Venice – and riven with curiosity, she asks PP to help in working out what it would be. This story marks a change from Mr Pyne’s usual remit of making people happy, as he starts solving crimes in a more generic, detectively manner.

There’s a very strong Murder on the Orient Express vibe in this story, whose original magazine appearance pre-dated Christie’s famous work. The story itself is quite a good one of the jewel thief genre, but with a nice twist. What is most interesting about it is what it says of the morals of the time. A male character is blackmailed because he spent an innocent night in the same hotel room as a woman as he was giving her shelter as she was trying to escape her abusive husband. Today you’d be praised and lauded for your kindness; at worst you’d be admired as a bit of a lad. In 1934 it was scandal and would have to be suppressed. It’s clear from Parker Pyne’s advice to Elsie that he approves of telling lies within a marriage; it strikes me that this little story has its own system of morality, set apart from the mainstream.

When the story reaches Stamboul, the characters use the Hotel Tokatlian as their base; this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Christie herself stayed there, and Poirot uses it in Murder on the Orient Express. The Slav lady cries out: “scélérat!” as PP refuses to allow her to leave Elsie’s cabin; I’d never heard this insult before, but it means scoundrel, or villain.

The Gate of Baghdad

araqParker Pyne finds himself as one of a small group of people traversing the Syrian Desert from Damascus to Baghdad in a Pullman Motor Coach. The newspapers are full of a story of a financial swindler, Samuel Long, who has escaped justice, and one of the party gradually becomes uncomfortable and talks about not wanting to “go back on a pal”. It turns out that Long is masquerading as one of the travelling party, but which one? Fortunately Mr PP is there to solve the case.

This book contains the first – but not the only – murder of the book, so if you’ve been waiting for one, your time has come! There’s also a bit of non-PC name calling – when one fellow buys some girls some drinks, he gets annoyed when they go off with “some dago”; and on another occasion, a foreign outsider is described as an “Armenian rat”. Christie the Poison expert is on hand, with one of the deaths in the story being caused by Prussic Acid – hydrogen cyanide to give it its modern name.

There are a few interesting references here; the story starts with a quotation from Gates of Damascus by James Elroy Flecker, including the Postern of Fate, which of course is the name Christie gave to the last book she was to write in 1973. Parker Pyne had been staying at the Oriental Hotel in Damascus, which was one of the city’s finest bijou character residences; hopefully one day it will be again. Smethurst offers Pyne some araq – a kind of Persian Pernod – I’ve seen some photos online and it looks lethal. When the coach gets going across the desert they head for Rutbah – a town in present day Iraq – which has had a colourful past and is currently being fought over by Isis and the Iraqi Army.

A very enjoyable little whodunit – but to my disappointment, I guessed who the perpetrator was! Always annoying when you’re right!

The House at Shiraz

Hester_StanhopeParker Pyne arrives in Kermanshah, where he hears the tale of a Lady Esther Carr and her companion Muriel King, told by the pilot Herr Schlagal. Muriel King died and Lady Carr started living as a recluse. PP decides to pay a visit to Lady Carr, and discovers all is not as it seems to be.

Christie revels in her own Middle East experiences in this story, with many far-flung romantic names bandied about: Tehran, Ispahan, Shiraz; Kermanshah, which I confess I hadn’t heard of, is a city of over 800,000 people in western Iran. PP is there during the Nan Ruz festival, which is the Iranian New Year, five days of public holiday between 20-24 March. Christie clearly doesn’t have a high opinion of the local police officials: “The German pilot had come up and was standing by smiling as Mr Parker Pyne finished answering a long interrogation which he had not understood. “What have I said?” he asked of the German. “That your father’s Christian name is Tourist, that your profession is Charles, that the maiden name of your mother is Baghdad, and that you have come from Harriet.” “Does it matter?” “Not the least in the world. Just answer something; that is all they need.””

When considering the life that Lady Esther leads, Parker Pyne refers to Lady Hester Stanhope. Shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia: “Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (12 March 1776 – 23 June 1839) was a British socialite, adventurer and traveller. Her archaeological expedition to Ashkelon in 1815 is considered the first modern excavation in the history of Holy Land archaeology.” Doubtless she was a heroine of Christie’s.

An enjoyable little story, with a nice twist; Christie really does use the last-minute twist to its best advantage in this book!

The Pearl of Price

PetraParker Pyne has now moved on to Petra, in Jordan, along with a motley crew of fellow tourists including a rich American father and daughter, an archaeologist and a British MP, amongst others. The daughter’s priceless earrings have this unfortunate habit of falling off, and one day, one of them falls off for good – but a thorough search of all the suspects shows that no one has secreted it about their person. PP though applies his little grey cells and comes up with a solution.

I make the comparison with Poirot deliberately, because Parker Pyne is beginning to out-Poirot him! The speed with which he sees through the red herrings and applies logic to the puzzle is very rapid – I don’t think Poirot would have solved this crime this rapidly. It’s a good story, with an amusingly surprise ending, although there is one unfortunate non-PC moment, as you will read shortly.

This is one of those short stories where Christie devotes a few minutes to considering the psychology of crime. In this case, whether people are fundamentally honest or not, and whether sudden temptation could make anyone commit a crime – or only people with a generally dishonest behavioural pattern. Parker Pyne believes, under the right circumstances, virtually anyone is capable of a crime: “there’s the breaking point, for instance […] the brain is adjusted to carry so much weight. The thing that precipitates the crisis – that turns an honest man into a dishonest one – may be a mere trifle. That is why most crimes are absurd. The cause, nine times out of ten, is that trifle of overweight – the straw that breaks the camel’s back […] when you think that of ten people you meet, at least nine of them can be induced to act in any way you please by applying the right stimulus.” PP goes on to suggest bullying, and generally suggestible people can be easily manipulated. And he applies that thought when solving this crime.

There are a few geographical references to consider. Most people know Petra, the incredible home of stunning red rock formations in southern Jordan. There are references to the Nabatean people, a cultured people who inhabited Petra, and to Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, who lived approximately from 1810 BC – 1750 BC. Doctor Carver mentions that he wants to work on a dig in Baluchistan, an ancient region whose land now falls within the countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

And now for that unfortunate, Christie-esque, mid 30s, moment. When the rich American calls on the group’s servants to move his belongings from a cave and into a tent, in order to escape mosquitoes, he calls out: “Say, you n***ers!” Of course, in those days, it was just a word. Nowadays, it’s just not acceptable.

Those priceless earrings of Miss Blundell cost her father $80,000. That’s a helluva lot of money. In today’s terms they’d probably be worth the best part of $1.5million. If that were the case, I really don’t think you’d wear them for a walk around the plateaus of Petra. I’m not one for blaming the victim, but, I mean, come on.

Death on the Nile

strychnineNot the famous novel – that would come three years later, but Christie obviously fancied it as a good title. Parker Pyne is taking a cruise on the Nile, on board the SS Fayoum, which, as far as I can ascertain, is purely an invention of Christie’s. The only other passengers on the vessel are Sir George and Lady Grayle, her niece, his secretary, and her nurse. Lady Grayle, a grumpy hypochondriac who makes everyone’s life a misery – maybe a first draft of Mrs Boynton in Appointment With Death – tells Parker Pyne she is convinced her husband is trying to poison her; and sure enough, in due course, she dies. But is her husband really to blame?

A fairly standard story – not at all bad, but nothing exceptional. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with Lady Grayle’s dying with all the expected symptoms of strychnine poisoning, although the possibilities of arsenic and antimony are also discussed with her nurse. True enough, her husband is found to have quantities of strychnine on or about his person, so he must be guilty, right?

In a very nice turn of phrase, Christie sums up everything that’s wrong about the horrendous Lady Grayle: “she had suffered since she was sixteen from the complaint of having too much money.” A few pages later, her nurse Miss MacNaughton remarks: “when I left England with Lady Grayle, she was a straightforward case. In plain language, there was nothing the matter with her. That’s not quite true, perhaps. Too much leisure and too much money do produce a definite pathological condition. Having a few floors to scrub every day and five or six children to look after would have made Lady Grayle a perfectly healthy and a much happier woman.” Not only does she repeat Christie’s own observation of the character, she also gives us an insight into the kind of manual work most women would have had to do at the time – scrubbing floors, and looking after half a dozen children. There probably aren’t many people who have to deal with those two particular problems nowadays.

Parker Pyne initially refuses Lady Grayle’s invitation to consider her case but when she offers him £100 to do so, he can’t resist. Unsurprisingly, as that is the equivalent of £5000 today.

The Oracle at Delphi

byzantine mosaicRich widow Mrs Peters and her intellectual son Willard are travelling through Greece – him lapping up the history, her enjoying his enjoyment but secretly hating every minute of it. She declines Willard’s invitation to accompany him on a trip to view some Byzantine mosaics, but is horrified later when he doesn’t come home as expected and she receives a hostage demand for him, in the sum of £10,000. Fortunately, Parker Pyne is also in the environs, as is a reserved British gentleman by name of Mr Thompson. In a really surprising and very cleverly written twist, Willard is returned without any ransom being paid; but you may have to re-read it, to appreciate entirely how this was done!

Whilst her son is being erudite, Mrs Peters settles down to read The River Launch Mystery, which, I am sure it will come as no surprise, is a complete fiction, if you’ll pardon the pun. The ransom demand is written by one Demetrius, the Black Browed, and refers to the Kyria – this means “Lord”. I don’t know whether this particular Demetrius was familiar with his Shakespeare – Demetrius is a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and in it Puck talks of “black-browed night”. I don’t think there’s any particular further relevance to the ransomer’s pen-name.

That £10,000 Demetrius is demanding – that’s the equivalent of £500,000 today. No wonder Mrs Peters was worried.

And those are the twelve stories that make up Parker Pyne Investigates! It’s a very enjoyable read and I’m happy to give it an 8/10 which is a very good score for a book of short stories. It’s written so that you can almost take it as a novel, which certainly helps. We don’t meet Mr Pyne again, apart from in the two short stories, Problem at Pollensa Bay and The Regatta Mystery, neither of which were published in the UK in book form until 1991, so it will be a good while before I get around to writing about those!

Three Act TragedyWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and a welcome return to Hercule Poirot for the first of a series of nine books each featuring the famous Belgian detective. It’s Three Act Tragedy, and I can’t remember a thing about it, except that the book is divided into three parts, each one an “act” of the “tragedy”. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

Review – Film Music Gala, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 16th July 2017

Film Music GalaWhen it comes to summer entertainment, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra always treat us to something a little more light-hearted. In the past we’ve enjoyed their Last Night of the Derngate Proms shows, but this year they had a surprise for us – a Film Music Gala, featuring twenty-five short pieces of movie magic music, in a programme full of orchestral highlights.

Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, whom we last saw here a year ago for the Last Night of the Derngate Proms. He has a jolly, sprightly, none-too-serious attitude to taking us through these concerts, whilst still treating each piece of music with absolute respect. Indeed, sometimes he delivers us a mini-lecture, like when he explained how to look out for a typical James Bond theme, spotting its inevitable mixture of major and minor phrases.

Gareth HudsonThe first piece of music – and what a perfect way to start – was the theme to Mission Impossible; loud, arresting, vibrant, and a challenge (as so many of these pieces are) to the percussion; a challenge that they most certainly met. A thrilling opener that everyone loved. Then followed the main theme to Gladiator, which felt a little more introverted, and then The Fellowship of the Ring (from Lord of the Rings), a whimsical and quirky piece that suits the characters that inhabit that story’s landscape. Then we had the simple and beautiful Gabriel’s Oboe from the film The Mission, that lilts you away into a quiet and reflective mood, and which was played with the utmost delicacy.

The next piece of music was I Will Always Love You, from The Bodyguard; not in the Dolly Parton style, which is one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites, but in the Whitney Houston style, which, frankly, both of us find rather tedious. Yes, I know, it’s our problem, we’re the ones out of kilter. Our guest soloist singer was Alison Jiear, whom we had seen as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella back in 2015. She was an incredibly polite Fairy Godmother and she retains that quiet, self-effacing manner on the concert stage too. She has a powerful but soft, velvety voice that perfectly recreated the Whitney sound.

Alison JiearTwo very different pieces followed: the Jack Sparrow theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, another quirky, jokey arrangement that sums up his character in a musical snapshot; and the main theme from Out of Africa, which really stood out for me as being a superb piece of modern classical music, with sweeping strings recreating a luxurious landscape. The violins played it with absolute mastery. Alison Jiear returned with the first two of the night’s James Bond themes – Moonraker and Diamonds are Forever, arranged so that the second merged rather nicely into the first. Then we had the John Dunbar theme from Dances with Wolves, another heavily violin based piece, before finishing the first part of the concert with two stonking great crowd-pleasers; the magisterial Imperial March from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and the exciting and dramatic main theme from 633 Squadron.

The second half started with another arresting number, the Overture to The Magnificent Seven, making sure we were all fully alert after our interval merlot! Alison Jiear sang another fusion of two pieces, Alfie, and My Heart Will Go On; and then the orchestra took centre stage again with the majestic Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. Like Out of Africa in the first half, this really stood out to me as being a truly enduring modern classic. When the orchestra started up the vivid strings opening to The Big Country, the audience breathed an audible sigh of delight; then came the charming and unusual theme to Cinema Paradiso, followed by amusingly orchestrated Domestic Pressures theme from The Theory of Everything.

RPOWhen they played the main theme from The Avengers movie, I realised it was the Marvel comic characters rather than Steed and Mrs Peel – I could imagine the RPO really giving that old TV theme a fantastic modern treatment. I believe it was during this piece that there was a superb sequence when it appeared as though the cello was asking questions, and the violin was answering them; and it was beautifully played by Tamas Andras and Richard Harwood. Alison Jiear came back one more time to perform two more Bond themes, You Only Live Twice (my favourite Bond theme) and Goldfinger. The concert was then wrapped up by brilliant performances of two outstanding pieces of music; Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire, and John Williams’ breathtaking main theme to Star Wars. For an encore, the orchestra gave us a rousing rendition of the Rocky theme. That’s the boxer, not the one who’s friends with Bullwinkle.

A very enjoyable concert full of short, easily recognisable themes which pack a greater punch than the time each takes to perform might suggest. Inevitably in a concert like this, you might occasionally wish you could hear something a little longer, and a little more substantial, like a four-part concerto. But that’s not what these gala concerts are all about – they’re designed to stimulate your memories, make you tap your toes, and bring a smile to your face. And this concert certainly achieved that. As Stephen Sondheim once penned, “tragedy tomorrow – comedy tonight.”

Review – Great Expectations, Royal and Derngate Actors Company, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 15th July 2017

Great ExpectationsI wonder if Dickens might go the way of Shakespeare before long, and prove himself worthy of modern adaptations, where the story is set in a different era and characters who were originally male become female and vice versa. One always associates Dickens with those foggy London streets or bleak Yorkshire Moors; but with Shakespeare, it’s different. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a Shakespeare play that was actually set in the 16th or 17th century and in the locations that Shakespeare specified; and with last summer’s The Tempest featuring (inter alia) a female Prosper, and with Glenda Jackson recently playing Lear, for example, his works are ripe for a spot of gender-bending.

GE1Erica Martin’s production of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s adaptation of Great Expectations for the stage features a female Magwitch. Now that’s something to conjure with. Traditionally he appears as a menacing brute, primarily because of that first, terrifying meeting with the young Pip, where he threatens to cut his throat, and makes him promise to get him food, and a file to cut off the iron chain on his leg, “or I’ll have your heart and liver out”. For sure, those are the words of a brutish man more than a brutish woman, although I had several female teachers in my youth who would have queued up to deliver those lines.

GE3The humiliation that the older Pip suffers when he realises that his financial benefactor has been Magwitch all along, and not Miss Havisham, remains the same; it’s the integrity of the person (or rather lack of it) that offends him, rather than the fact that she’s a woman. However, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, it’s very hard to believe that a convict woman, in the early 19th century, would have made good in New South Wales, as a sheep farmer and stock breeder, and become rich. It may just have been credible for a man, but a woman? Not in those days; it’s hard enough today.

GE4I digress. We’ve seen the Actors Company a few times now and they always astound us with the excellence of their performance. Whether set in today’s times, like The Revenger’s Comedies and Market Boy, or in olden days, like Our Country’s Good or, now, Great Expectations, they take a play full of depth and character and bring it to life with superb conviction. Meryl Couper’s terrific set created a decent acting area at front whilst devoting other parts of the stage to the Gargerys, Miss Havisham’s house, and so on. It provided a suitable sense of Dickensian gloom without being overwhelming; as did the excellent costumes. The lighting was efficient and atmospheric – in fact you wouldn’t know this wasn’t a professional production.

GE5The structure requires that all the actors are on stage more or less the whole time, acting as both chorus and the inner thoughts of Pip, taking alternate lines from the book very much in the style of David Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby that was a huge success for the RSC back in 1980. I like this approach; although you get a lot of information flung at you at first, and it’s hard to take it all in, you get a strong ensemble feeling that everyone is fully involved in the story-telling task. And when different actors are speaking lines that are the thoughts of one character, that also gives the impression of all the different voices that are going on inside his head – a very effective technique. Whilst I felt that there was quite a lot of scene-setting in the first act and that it was maybe a trifle long, the story really gets going after the interval and it was riveting stuff.

GE6Centre stage for much of the final two-thirds of the play is Davin Eadie as Pip (adult version). With a commanding stage presence, and very authoritative vocal delivery, I really enjoyed his performance of this Everyman character with whom we all identify. Ben Webb, as his younger version, employed just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence (in his dealings with Magwitch), trust (with Joe) and vulnerability (with Miss Havisham and Estella). Other superb performances came from Sue Whyte as Miss Havisham, who gave her a splendid gruff grandeur that commanded both fear and respect; Will Adams as the pompous and meddling Pumblechook; Vicky Kelly as a wonderfully terse (when at work) and garrulous (when at play) Wemmick; and Ryan Chambers delightfully over-the-top as the thespian Wopsle.

GE7Salli Belsham had the difficult task of creating a credible “Ann” Magwitch, but as the performance developed I thought she drew out the character’s finer points very convincingly, and the scene where she confronts Pip and Herbert and reveals herself to be the benefactor was one of the best in the play. But for me the stand-out performance was from Stewart Magrath as Jaggers, the lawyer, stabbing out his carefully planned words with a natural authority, conducting his affairs cordially but precisely, appearing to be a friend, but only if he is paid. A very striking and memorable performance.

Some very strong scenes and performances made this a very rewarding production; the Actors Company can chalk up another hit!