Review – The Band, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2018

The BandIt was just over ten years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see the Take That musical Never Forget at the Milton Keynes Theatre. Mrs C has always been a TT aficionado, and I’d always quite liked their songs, so we went along. The show was as dull as ditchwater, with a lousy book; and although the performances were good, the show never ignited until the last ten minutes, when the post-curtain call cast abandoned all the storyline pretences and just did a few songs as a Take That Tribute Act – and they were brilliant.

The Band 1The Band – the new musical based on the songs of Take That, and whose creation TV audiences partly saw with the series Let It Shine to choose the boys who would be in the band – is almost the exact opposite of Never Forget. That dull, poorly written show has been replaced by a feelgood, funny and charming tale of five 16 year old girls in 1992, fantasising about meeting their boyband heroes at a gig, and their adult counterparts 25 years later. Rather than giving us a Take That tribute act, the five boys of Five to Five, the winning group on the TV show, simply become a typical boyband of their own. There’s no point trying to identify which of the guys is Gary, or Robbie, or Jason (or Mark, or Howard…. sorry, Mrs C’s enthusiasm has rubbed off on me a little) because they’re not presented that way. And that, in my humble opinion, is both a strength and a weakness of this new show. Strength – in that it allows the boys and the show to acquire their own unique identities. Weakness – well, if you’re expecting 2 and a half hours of Take That-ery, you’ll be disappointed.

The Band 3Of course, the TV show is now fifteen months in the past, and we couldn’t for the life of us remember any of the winning competitors. All that original pizzazz of the show has gone into making pre-tour sales an enormous success – allegedly this is the biggest selling show in advance of press night ever – but not into making celebrities of the guys involved. I realised a few minutes before heading out to the theatre that, apart from knowing it had Take That music in it, I knew precious little about anything else to do with the show. The head of steam built up by the TV programme has long gone cold. As a result, the show, and especially the boys, have to win you over perhaps a little more than if this was just any old musical based on a pop group’s output (and let’s face it, there are plenty of those to choose from). And if you’re expecting a high impact start from the guys – well think again. The Band in cupboardsThe five boys don’t instantly hit the ground running with a perfect Take That tribute show – in fact, when they first come on stage they crawl out of various parts of young Rachel’s bedroom, giving me a slightly disturbing memory of Helen Reddy’s Angie Baby, if you’re old enough to remember that. That slowish start, not helped by some first night teething troubles, some murky sounds, underpowered microphones for the boys singing and a missed cue from the understudy playing the fifth member of the band, meant that I thought the first twenty minutes or so of the show was, shall we say, a bit scruffy around the edges.

Rachel and the boysBut at some point, everything clicked into place and I ended up enjoying this way more than I expected. It’s actually a very well written and funny show, heavy on pathos but never maudlin, about middle-aged people coming to terms with who they are, especially in comparison with their hopes and their dreams when they were teenagers. It also plays very nicely on the potential double meanings of the word Band. It is, perhaps, not totally original in its concepts; there’s something of the Shirley Valentine about the character of Rachel, who always dreamed of being married but has never been walked down the aisle, even though she’s partnered up with the unimaginative but well-meaning Geoff. When she breaks free from his ideas of how to spend the Boys Keep SingingPrague holiday that she won in a radio competition, and confesses she wants to go with her old schoolmates instead of him and their friends, he can’t grasp it. But she can, and the audience can, and when she turns up at the airport she gets a spontaneous round of applause for her character’s assertiveness. There’s also something of the Mamma Mia about the four forty-somethings behaving badly around Prague, to the sound of classic poptastic hits. There’s even a nod to Joe Orton with the unfortunate scandal of the damaged statue in Prague meeting the same fate as that of Winston Churchill in What The Butler Saw.

The Band 5Personally, I found it unbelievable that the four friends had never been in contact since they were 16. Even as far back as the mid-1990s, there were millions of people subscribed to Friends Reunited. With all the juicy scandals in their past – you’ll have to watch the show to find out what they are – there’s no way that all could have been kept a secret from each other. But it is without question their bond that is the unifying structure of the show – and not the boyband, perhaps surprisingly. In fact, the boys only take centre stage on a few occasions. Most of the time, they represent their own musical earworm; appearing as flight attendants or ground crew; shop salesmen, bus passengers, or even the statues in a Prague fountain. Message balloonsThey are background characters, reflecting the ever-present nature of your favourite group that lives in your head and every so often gives you an unexpected performance of their music. They are a benign, reassuring presence; but distinctly in the background, rather like an old-fashioned chorus in a musical. It’s vital for the structure of the show for the girls and the boys never to meet, for otherwise their imaginary presence in the girls’ lives would become real and all those fantasies would be shattered.

The Band 4Musically, it’s a strong show. It’s fascinating to see how well the Take That songs blend into the story-telling; it’s a very natural mix, and surprising just how “show tunes” many of their songs are. John Donovan’s backing musicians provide a great sound and the cast – the younger girls, the older girls, and the boys, all sing really well – in fact, the ladies’ harmonies are pretty spectacular. A couple of the boys – AJ and Curtis – truly excel at dancing too. Hats off to Harry Brown for taking over from the indisposed Yazdan Qafouri as the fifth member of the group.

Rachel and GeoffThere’s something about Rachel Lumberg that makes you just love her on stage. We’ve seen her a couple of times in Sheffield in The Full Monty and This is My Family (also written by Tim Firth, I notice) and she never fails to delight. She has such a warm and honest onstage persona that you really feel she’s confiding just in you. It’s a beautiful performance and Tuesday night’s audience absolutely adored her. There’s also a wonderfully funny and emotional performance from Alison Fitzjohn as Claire, and spirited performances from Emily Joyce as Heather and Jayne McKenna as Zoe. Amongst the 16-year-old girls’ cast, Katy Clayton stands out with her funny and attitudinal performance as young Heather, and Rachelle Diedericks as the kind and tragic young Debbie. There are also some scene-stealing moments from Andy Williams (not THE Andy Williams) as Every Other Male Role which he tackles with a great sense of fun. But everyone turns in a great performance and helps make the show a success.

The Band 2I had few expectations of this show – and was really very pleasantly surprised. There were plenty of TT fans in the audience, who all did the dance gestures along with the cast but it never became so immersive an experience that they forgot they were at the theatre. This is more than mere hen party fodder, more than just a piece of bubblegum pap; the show has interesting things to say about the nature of friendships, fandom, and learning how to let go of your past. A charming story beautifully told. The show has already been touring since last autumn and has almost another year still to go, so there are still plenty of opportunities to catch it. If you think you might like it, you almost certainly will. If you think you won’t, then you may be quite surprised. Worth a punt!

Production photos by Matt Crockett

Review – Chess, London Coliseum, 26th May 2018

ChessSome shows just stick with you, all your life. My all-time favourite remains A Chorus Line, and I know Mrs Chrisparkle has a very soft spot for the 1980s National Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon. Ah, happy times. But we both have good reason to put Chess up there with our all-time greats. In that magical summer of 1986 when I was courting Miss Duncansby and we had tickets for so many top shows, Chess was the one that knocked all the others into a cocked hat. London ColiseumA cast to die for – Elaine Paige, Murray Head, Tommy Korberg; the directorial genius of Trevor Nunn; and the lavish setting of the Prince Edward Theatre. In later years, we saw Craig Revel Horwood’s thoroughly disappointing production in 2011, and tend to put it out of our mind when we think of the show in general. So now it was a chance truly to relive our youth and see Chess again in another magnificent setting, with another great cast – you could say, we were really excited.

Chess 1I don’t think I’ve ever paid so much money for a pair of theatre tickets. At £150 each plus booking fee, we worked out that it was about £1 each for every minute. Can any production really be worth that level of investment from a theatregoer? Answer: yes. We both felt that our £150 was great value for what we saw. An incredible multimedia presentation; the sumptuous sounds of the full English National Opera orchestra and chorus; a fabulous cast; and an amazing view from terrific seats. We were well happy with our investment.

Chess 8It’s true that the storyline is slight and the book itself is even slighter. Intemperate American chess champion and showbiz star Freddie Trumper arrives in Merano (where?) to defend his title against the cool, calm Anatoly Sergievsky. Having left his wife and child behind in Mother Russia, Sergievsky falls in love with Florence, the head of the American delegation. Meanwhile Trumper loses both his head and the championship; Sergievsky doesn’t return to the Soviet Union but seeks political asylum in Britain; and both Trumper and Sergievksy meet again in Bangkok for another championship, this time with Trumper commentating for American TV. Does Sergievsky leave his wife and son for Florence? Or does he return home like a good Soviet? Was Florence’s father killed in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution? Does Trumper come to his senses? Chess 6Do we care? Absolutely not. But that’s the strange thing about this show; we don’t particularly care about what happens to the characters. We do, however, care about the songs, and how the performers bring them to life for a new generation of Chess-appreciators.

The staging simply takes your breath away. What appears to be a black backdrop, with various illuminated chessboard squares scattered, as in the famous design logo that has accompanied this show since its conception, is in fact a myriad of LED/projection screens. These display both detailed and frequently exhilarating background scenery – the airplane landing at Merano, or the traditional dragon dance in Bangkok spring to mind – and close-ups (and I do mean close-up) of the cast on stage as they are constantly filmed by cameramen during the show. There is no hiding place whilst those cameramen are out and about.Chess 3 On paper this may sound intrusive or over-the-top but in reality it gives the audience a much closer involvement with what’s going on, that it renders the vast Coliseum auditorium and stage as intimate as a studio theatre; so effective an illusion that you can observe the concentration and characterisations of the actors at close hand. It works incredibly well and absolutely takes your breath away. I was totally gripped by it from the start.

Chess 7Then of course you have the orchestra! Partially hidden behind the screens, they really give the show power and depth; Bjorn and Benny’s incredible score has never sounded so lush and majestic. The Chorus also lends another aspect; whilst they augment the sound splendidly, and the vocal fullness again lends depth and vigour to the performance, it wasn’t always possible to hear precisely every word. Fortunately, and with every respect to Sir Tim Rice, you don’t really come to see Chess for the lyrics – not in the big choral numbers at least. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are great. Others… just aren’t. But it really doesn’t matter!

Chess 2As for the performances, they all irradiate power and authority exactly as you would expect; and each of the characters/performers has at least his one big moment where they bring us to our knees in awe. Michael Ball nails the Anthem, just before the interval, with an absolutely magnificent performance which gives your goosebumps goosebumps. Alexandra Burke and Cassidy Janson elevate I Know Him So Well to a higher plane, with Ms Burke in a TV studio on ground level and Ms Janson atop a bridge overlooking the stage, but captured by the cameramen on the side screens so that their images blend with each other, each looking in different directions; a simple ploy, but so effective. Tim Howar gets more raw emotion out of Pity the ChildChess 5 than I would have thought was possible; it’s like watching a man clinging on to the wreckage, yet not quite totally disintegrating on stage. (OK, Sir Tim, fair do’s, that is one helluva lyric.) Phillip Browne as Molokov rules the roost with the terrific Cossack-style The Soviet Machine, and Cedric Neal is a revelation as the charismatic, dictatorial Arbiter, showing off sensationally in The Arbiter. All this, plus superb renditions of Where I Want to Be, Nobody’s Child and One Night in Bangkok, and I was beaming from ear to ear for the entire afternoon. There was no hesitation anywhere in the audience that this performance was fully deserving of a standing ovation for each and every one of the cast.

Chess 4I’m aware that the production received many rather poor reviews when it opened, so all I can say is they must have worked the hell out of it to bring it up to the standard it was last Saturday afternoon. We loved it; and the buzz in the theatre made it clear that everyone else loved it too. If it wasn’t restricted to a very short run we’d definitely go back again for more – even at those high prices. Possibly the most extravagant production of a musical I’ve ever seen; and that extravagance hits the mark perfectly – it doesn’t strangle it, it enhances it. Total bliss.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 25th May 2018

Screaming Blue MurderIt was a slightly strange Screaming Blue Murder last Friday with which to end the season – as we had three tried and tested terrific acts and Dan Evans, our usual MC par excellence, but for some reason the whole night never quite soared. I blame the new layout. They’ve now placed the stage into the top right corner of the room, so that the first few rows spread out in a circular, sunray like, pattern until we get to the middle of the room, and then the further back rows are still as they’ve always been. Sitting on the third row, directly on the right edge of the aisle, I found I had simply too much space around me, which detracted from that sweaty intimacy that makes a comedy club really work.

Dan EvansNevertheless, Dan was on cracking form as usual, discussing the ins and outs of solar panels with a solar panel fitting team from Irthlingborough (yes, there really is one) and the cost of a boiler installation with a guy in the second row who applied an additional Brighton mark-up in order to fleece those rich south coast dwellers even more. Retired financier Richard, his best mate John and their wives took up the other half of the front row and were, at different times, both comedy-enhancers and joy vampires, depending on the questions they were asked by whoever was on stage. It was ever thus.

WindsorIn a change from the advertised programme, our first act was Windsor. Now, I would have said Windsor was more of a headliner than a first-on, but as he himself explained, this is only his second appearance since recovering from an aneurysm earlier in the year – so that deserves a round of applause on its own for his being so genuinely amazing on a rapid return to form (and indeed to work!) The last time we saw Windsor, he was standing in for Dan as compere, and it was me whom he decided to collar in the front row (we were in the second row but no one sat in front of us). I have to say his ability to banter rude chat with people he’s never met is second to none. So what if he did virtually repeat his entirely same act as on previous occasions, he’s so good you just sit back and watch a master at work. This time it was Richard he chose to describe his favourite sex position, and, rather like I did, he disappointed with his tame reply. One of the solar panel guys suggested the wheelbarrow, which sent Windsor off into paroxysms of joy. If I remember rightly, that was one of the positions in the Vatican Sex Manual, as reprinted in Eric Idle’s Rutland Dirty Weekend Television book in the 1970s; famed for the absolute impossibility of getting pregnant in that position.

Earl OkinOur second act was Earl Okin, whom we’ve also seen before, most recently in 2015. Mr Okin’s musical act, which centres on his being an unlikely sex symbol, all puckering lips and smart spats, is as constant as the northern star, but he’s so delightfully ludicrous that it still remains very funny. Just the three songs – his opening gigolo number, his bossa nova version of Wheatus’ pièce de resistance, and his blues tribute to a fat girl. If you’re in the mood, he’s the perfect act; and I’d say that the vast majority of us were in that mood.

Markus BirdmanOur headline act was the brilliant Markus Birdman, whom we’ve seen many times before and who won the Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Standup in 2013. He’s an incredible performer, with so much assurance, so much attack and the ability to surprise you with some really unexpected punchlines and sequences. He’d done some of the material before, but plenty of it was new and sparkled as you would expect. However – and I told you we were a weird audience – when he started reading out some gags from a book (this was part of the act, he wasn’t relying on a crib sheet) the atmosphere fell a little flat and some of the lines just didn’t get a reaction. Mr Birdman was as surprised as anyone, as I’m sure these have been tried and tested up and down the country before. Nevertheless, he’s still a cracking performer and one of the most mischievous and creative on the circuit.

And that’s it for the Spring season… no more Screaming Blues until September. Six shows are scheduled for between 14th September and 16th November so why not get booking now?

A word about GDPR

Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. That’s three words, actually; well, three adjectives and a conjunction. And if not so much bewitched, definitely the other two.

But I digress, gentle reader. We’ve all been inundated with those emails asking you either to opt back in to mailing lists or to read new privacy policies because the time is fast approaching (25th May) when the new EU legislation comes into force, protecting individuals’ interests and giving them access to data held about them. I’m as keen as anyone on the subject of online privacy, and think it’s great that we have these new powers to protect ourselves.

Then yesterday a friend sent me a note enquiring whether bloggers have to follow this legislation too. Damn! Why didn’t I think of that sooner! Much Googling later, and it looks as though there are also requirements for bloggers to comply. Makes sense, really. However, I also understand that those nice people at WordPress are putting into place centrally all the requirements to make WordPress blogs compliant. I’ve not actually heard anything from them directly, but I believe it’s only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, I thought I should put your mind at ease by letting you know what I, personally, do with your data. The fact is, I only have access to two types of data about my gentle readers. I have access to your email address, if you have subscribed to the site. Even then I don’t keep this data myself; it’s only available if I find the right part of the WordPress Admin page and click the correct button. And if you have commented on any blog posts, and your comment is linked to your own site, I can trace you back to the site by clicking on your name. If you are not happy with my having access to your email address or website then the simplest thing to do is to unsubscribe from the blog; just locate your list of blogs that you follow, then click on mine where it says “following” and you will automatically unfollow. Similarly, if you wish me to remove any comments you have made on my posts, simply ask and I shall do it.

The majority of bloggers who may have to comply with GDPR regulations more closely are those who use mailing lists, Google Analytics, a contact box or an online store. I don’t use any of those things. However, rest assured, if I discover that there are any more aspects of the site that need to become compliant, I will make it a top priority.

In the meantime, sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder is Easy (1939)

Murder is EasyIn which Luke Fitzwilliam, ex-police officer returned from the East, finds himself at the heart of a village where a number of people have recently died – and maybe not by natural causes. He goes undercover researching for a make-believe book and stays with his friend’s cousin Bridget, passing himself off as her cousin. But as murder becomes more and more obvious, he eventually stumbles into discovering who really killed all these people. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

CriticsThe book is dedicated to: “Rosalind and Susan, the first two critics of this book”. Rosalind Hicks, formerly Prichard, née Christie, was Agatha Christie’s only child, born in 1919 and died in 2004. Susan was Susan North, Rosalind’s best friend. The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in November and December 1939, at the same time as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, under the title Easy to Kill (which are the last three words of the second chapter). In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in January and February 1939, also as Easy to Kill. The full book was first published in the UK on 5th June 1939 by Collins Crime Club as Murder is Easy; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in September 1939, but still retaining the original title of Easy to Kill.

detectiveThis is an unpredictable, lively and thoroughly entertaining read, dotted with eccentric characters, fast-paced and full of surprises. I remember that when I first read it I was completely bowled over by the surprise revelation of the murderer – I would never have guessed it. Reading it this time, I quickly remembered who the guilty party was, but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment as you witness the very clever tricks that Christie plays to lead you away from working it out for yourself. But she does give you the clues fair and square, if only you can sort them, wheat-like, from the chaff.

Luke Skywalker meditatingIt’s written as a third-person narrative but very much from the point of view of Luke, the gentlemanly, rather bumbling, occasionally snobbish hero, who only just realises the identity of the murderer in time to prevent yet another death. Christie describes Bridget following one sequence of activity which culminates in a situation of danger, whilst Luke is off on another track. Then, with our heroine in peril, Christie abandons her to follow Luke’s adventures, which both raises tension, but loses momentum. However, the two characters do come together to meet (literally) at a vital moment at the end. This creates a relatively unusual, highly dramatic, and very effective denouement scene. Among the most entertaining parts of the book are those where we see Luke trying hard to understand what’s happening: the chapter entitled Meditations of Luke helpfully runs through all his theories at the time, one by one considering the likelihood of guilt of each of the characters in the story. He doesn’t have little grey cells so much as big vacuous blobs, but he means well. Christie provides the return of Superintendent Battle to act as an official figure of authority, to cross the legal t’s and dot the legal i’s, but he really has very little to do with solving the crime.

PoirotOne of the criticisms of the book at the time was that the reader missed Poirot; but I don’t feel that way at all. I rather felt that Christie had exhausted Poirot’s characteristics by the time that she wrote Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, to the extent that the great man was rather thinly drawn in that book. Instead she created Fitzwilliam, an amenable and rather daring chap who acts on whims and jumps to conclusions; in many ways he’s as useless a sleuth as the reader would be, and the reader rather identifies with his bewilderment whilst envying him his courage. Battle, of course, doesn’t have much in the way of personality, and his few brief pages of appearance in this book don’t lend many further insights into his detecting methods. We will only meet him one more time, in Towards Zero.

NastyThe relatively large cast of characters in this book suitably recreates the hustle and bustle of a busy village, with considerable class delineation between the nice people and places and the nasty people and places. In fact, Christie goes to town with the use of the word “nasty”. Right from the start Luke dismisses the sight of “nasty little houses” from the train; Lord Whitfield is described as a “nasty little man” who owns a string of “nasty little weekly papers”. The much despised Ellsworthy is branded as a “nasty sort of fellow”, having “a nasty mind and nasty habits”, with “nasty friends” who conduct orgies (in the village! Gosh!), whilst the irrepressible and mischievous young Tommy was considered “a nasty little boy”. It strikes me that anyone who isn’t of the right social set was condemned as “nasty” in some way or other. More on the social and class elements of the book later on.

Fenny StratfordThis book has an unusually large number of references to trace and obscure textual points to investigate – so here goes! The place names of Fenny Clayton and Wychwood under Ashe are both inventions of Christie but I’m sure you can think of places that they sound like (Buckinghamshire boasts both Fenny Stratford and Steeple Claydon within about ten miles of each other, for example). Luke says he has returned from the Mayang Straits, which is also not a clearcut location, even though it sounds it. There is a small town by the name of Mayang Imphal in the Indian state of Manipur, and there is also a district, associated with black magic, named Mayong in the state of Assam. There is even a county called Mayang in the Hunan state in China, but it’s unlikely that Luke would have been working there in the 1930s. Mayang Straits sounds as though it should be near Malaysia or Singapore… but no.

RavenThere are several quotations to explore. When we first meet Luke he’s a mass of quotations: “The wrong is done, past all recall – weep we never so bitterly we can never bring back the dead past – Quoth the raven “Nevermore” – The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on, etc, etc and so on and so forth.” Not that easy to extricate: working backwards, the moving finger comes from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Omar Khayyam; Quoth the raven comes from Poe’s poem The Raven; weep we never so bitterly is reminiscent of a passage from Jeremiah 22:10; the wrong is done currently escapes me. Any ideas, team?

Doctor Fell“Fiddle dee dee, fiddle dee dee, the fly has married the humble bee” hums Luke, as he thinks of the character of Dr Humbleby. This is apparently an old-fashioned nursery song; but as no one ever sang it to me in my nursery, I’ve never heard of it. When interviewing Miss Humbleby, she explains her father didn’t like Dr Thomas. “I do not like thee Dr Fell, the reason why I cannot tell” is his response. This is a nursery rhyme, apparently written by the satirist Tom Brown in 1680 in response to the Dean of Christ Church’s expulsion of Brown with the caveat that if he could translate a Martial epithet, he would be re-admitted. Brown decided to damn Fell for ever more with his response.

Frances CornfordOne chapter is entitled “Oh Why do you walk through the Fields in Gloves?” This is a quotation from Frances Cornford’s 1910 poem, “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”. The verse sparked a lot of light-hearted criticism at the time from worthies such as G K Chesterton and A E Housman. It’s an appropriate title for this particular chapter, but I’ll say no more. Towards the end of the book, one character quotes Kipling with the words “he travels the fastest who travels alone”. This is from his poem The Winners, published in 1888.

blue-moneyThere are also some words and phrases that I had never encountered: Luke is initially described as recently back in England with money to blue. To blue? Is that the same as money to burn? Basically yes. It’s mid-19th century slang (so it must have been old-fashioned when Christie used it) with the definition of blue as “to spend, waste, squander go through lavishly, recklessly, or extravagantly, especially with regard to money”. Think of it as sounding like the past tense of to blow. When Luke is first going around asking questions about rural folkloric practices, he cites “ill-wishing or overlooking, there’s another interesting subject”. Overlooking? Today we think of that as simply meaning accidentally to forget to do something. But it’s also a late 16th century term meaning to bewitch. Mrs Church describes Harry Carter as “a low class fellow and half-seas over most of the time”. Half-seas over? This is a 16th century term for being drunk. I’m beginning to wonder if Christie had swallowed an extremely old dictionary.

PeplumDescribing Ellsworthy’s friends at the Bells and Motley (there’s a pub of the same name in The Mysterious Mr Quin – it’s not that common a name to bear such regular repetition), Lord Whitfield describes: “a female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals”. A peplum? It comes from the Greek word for a tunic and is a short overskirt that is usually attached to a fitted jacket, blouse or dress. You knew that already? Well, I didn’t.

The DerbyThere are yet still more references to clarify. Two publications are mentioned, the Daily Clarion and Good Cheer. The Daily Clarion continues to publish – in Princeton, Indiana, so I doubt it’s the same one. Good Cheer is an international magazine for people who are DeafBlind written by people who are DeafBlind; so again, I think we’re talking about inventions by Christie. The book starts with Luke having a bet on the Derby, with the winner coming in at 40-1. In those days, the Derby was always run on the first Wednesday of June – so that was the 7th June 1939 or 1st June 1938, depending on which race Christie might have been referring to. Alas, there is no such horse as Jujube II winning either of those races; Bois Roussel won in 1938 and Blue Peter in 1939.

Standard SwallowLavinia Pinkerton laments the fact that Second Class carriages had been abolished, leaving only 1st class and 3rd class. Most railways had abolished 2nd class at the latter end of the 19th century – although apparently the Great Western Railway kept them going until 1910. Mrs Pinkerton also concerns herself with people not getting a dog licence (abolished in 1987) and strict observation of lighting-up time (half an hour after sunset, but becoming rapidly antiquated as more and more cars have their lights on permanently.) On the subject of cars, Luke’s friend Jimmy Lorrimer drives a Ford V 8, a popular car launched in 1932, whilst Luke has bought a second hand Standard Swallow, like Major Eustace in Murder in the Mews, so that must be one of only 148 cars to be built by the Swallow Coachbuilding Company (later Jaguar) between 1932 and 1936 (according to Wikipedia).

Nevinson witchWhen Luke first sees Bridget, he is instantly put in mind of the picture of Nevinson’s Witch. That meant nothing to me, so I researched, and discovered the artist Christopher Nevinson. He was a pacifist, working as a volunteer for the Red Cross on the front line as a driver, stretcher-bearer and hospital orderly between 1914-15. Gifted, but unpopular, the critic Charles Hind observed “It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists.” Among his most celebrated works was An Inexperienced Witch – and if that’s how Bridget first appeared to him, I don’t think she’d be that flattered.

EuclidLuke’s initial reflections on the evidence he’d garnered (in the chapter, “Possibilities”) results in his dismissing his own opinions and reflecting “how nicely Euclid put things”. I wasn’t sure what that referred to. Euclid, of course, was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”, born around 325 BC. But as to his work, you’ll have to ask someone else. Wikipedia advises that among his legacies is a system of rigorous mathematical proofs that remains the basis of mathematics to this day – so maybe that’s what Luke’s thinking about.

Sabbatic-GoatDr Thomas is a keen reader; on his latest list is Kreuzhammer’s Inferiority and Crime which he offers to lend Luke. Sadly this riveting read seems to have been an invention, as does the equally Germanic sounding Wellerman Kreitz Research Laboratories, which Lord Whitfield had recently graced with his presence. Shame – they both sound highly authentic. One of the characters is often likened to a goat in appearance, which gives rise to discussion about why the goat is often linked to evil. It’s because of the “Sabbatic Goat” of Eliphas Levi. Again, in case you haven’t read the book, I’ll say no more.

PoundYou may well know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There aren’t very many instances of it in this book, but a couple bear examination. Luke’s win on the horses came in at £100. In today’s values that translates to over £4500 – that’s quite some win. The value of being married to Lord Whitfield is estimated as receiving a £100,000 settlement; instead of earning £6 a week as his secretary. The settlement figure is the equivalent today of £4.5 million; the secretary wage a paltry £275 a week. That’s an annual salary of about £14,000. Not very generous, is he? Johnnie Cornish left Bridget for a plump widow and an income of £30,000 a year – that’s a very tempting £1.3 million a year, plus a bit more. You can’t really blame him, can you?

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

Publication Details: 1939. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in February 1966, in an era too tasteful to list a sale price on the back cover. The cover illustration by (presumably) Tom Adams shows two direct clues and one indirect one: a dead canary (which is almost too appropriate), some spilt medicine (presumably meant for Amy Gibbs) and a spider – by which I can only infer that he’s pointing out the spider’s web of intrigue that the book contains. It’s quite effective and sufficiently intriguing to draw a casual reader in.

How many pages until the first death: 10, but that’s misleading. Miss Pinkerton has already told us about four previous deaths, assumed by her to be murders. One thing’s for sure, in this book you’re never too far from a dead body.

Funny lines out of context: Remarking on Ellsworthy’s Bohemian friends arriving for the weekend, Bridget affirms: “Says the gossip writer: “Someone has whispered that there will be gay doings in the Witches’ Meadow tonight.””

Memorable characters:

This book is littered with interesting characters, some of whom only play a very small role. Lavinia Pinkerton, for example, is portrayed as something of a dotty old lady but there is something of the Miss Marple about her, with her suspicions, if not her solutions.

I like the accounts of Major Horton and his wife – with their (probably) stormy marriage. As Christie states: “Luke thought that Major Horton’s married life must have been more like a military campaign than an idyll of domestic bliss.”

Christie goes to town on painting Ellsworthy as unpleasant a character as possible, primarily by dwelling on his apparent effeminacy. Miss Humbleby says he staged a “queer ceremony” with some “queer-looking people”. Luke describes him as a dilliettante, and a poseur; whereas Major Horton calls him “Miss Nancy”. I think his opinion is pretty clear.

Bizarrely, some of the more interesting people are those we never meet because they’re already dead! I bet Harry Carter and Tommy Pierce had a few tales to tell.

Christie the Poison expert:

There are so many deaths in this book, it was beyond doubt that poison would play its part. Luke’s friend Jimmy refers to the Abercrombie case, “for feeding the local vet with arsenic, then they dug up his wife and she was full of it, and it’s pretty certain his brother-in-law went the same way […] the unofficial view was that Abercrombie had done away with at least fifteen people in his time.” Although this sounds remarkably believable, I can’t find any reference to it in real life, so I guess Christie invented it. Luke correctly guesses that Mrs Horton was killed by arsenic poisoning, and not acute gastritis. Amy Gibbs drank hat paint (whoever heard of that? It was already a very archaic concept when this was written) instead of cough linctus, which resulted in oxalic acid poisoning. Today it’s mainly used in bleaching and cleaning products and it can be found in rhubarb leaves. That’s why your mother taught you only to eat rhubarb sticks.

Class/social issues of the time:

As usual, class rears its ugly head, but in a number of subtle ways. Luke’s initial observation of the “nasty little houses” he sees from the train show his innate snobbery towards anything less than posh and refined. In conversation with the working-class Mrs Pierce, her description of “a lovely lot of new houses, some of them with green roofs and stained-glass in the windows” causes him to shudder. Wychwood-under-Ashe is an immensely class-ridden community, with Dr Humbleby described by the vicar Mr Wake as “greatly beloved by the poorer classes”; he also considers Mrs Church to be “not, I fear, a very estimable woman”, and indeed, when we meet her, Mrs Church wants to find out if there is a reward on offer before offering any information – how base of her. Snobby Luke concludes that he will have to “move in lower social spheres” to ascertain the information he wants; and even Bridget bemoans the fact that her previous beau dumped her for someone with “a North Country accent” – how humiliating. Miss Waynflete says of Ellsworthy, “he keeps the new antique shop but he is actually a gentleman”, with that old-fashioned, upper middle-class, mild scorn for anyone in trade or with new money.

Another of Christie’s developing themes is the role of women in society. As we’ve seen in her earlier works, she’s no feminist. In this book, when Luke tries to praise Miss Waynflete’s intelligence, the older lady gently corrects him: “that’s very nice of you, Mr Fitzwilliam, but I’m afraid women are never quite such deep thinkers as men”. Luke is also taken by the quiet beauty and vulnerability of Miss Humbleby, and wrestles (briefly) with his own desire to protect her: “It was true that Rose Humbleby had recently lost her father, but she had a mother, and she was engaged to be married to a decidedly attractive young man who was fully adequate to anything in the protection line. Then why should he, Luke Fitzwilliam, be assailed by this protection complex? Good old sentimentality to the fore again, thought Luke. The protective male! Flourishing in the Victorian era, going strong in the Edwardian, and still showing signs of life despite what our friend Lord Whitfield would call the rush and strain of modern life”. Christie never challenges Luke on this position. Indeed, in conversation with Mrs Church, when he asks her whether Amy had any boyfriends, his reaction to her veiled assent is “she preferred the sterner sex.” Sterner sex?! That would have had him laughed out of town in my youth.

As usual, any mention of politics always comes from a right-wing perspective. The “fierce looking Colonel” who gets in Luke’s train becomes incensed at what he reads in The Times and spends half an hour moaning about “these damned Communist agitators”. To be left-wing is to be equated to the criminal fraternity, as in Lord Whitfield’s description of Carter – “a drunken ruffian […] one of these socialistic, abusive brutes”.

A couple of other subjects get the Christie treatment, some of them not found quite so frequently in her works. There’s a sideswipe at modern art: “”I shall have to adopt a disguise,” said Luke with a sudden grin. “What do you suggest? Artist? Hardly – I can’t draw, let alone paint.” “You could be a modern artist,” suggested Jimmy. “Then that wouldn’t matter.”” Christie derides Ellsworthy’s appearance as the height of effeminacy: “Mr Ellsworthy was a very exquisite young man dressed in a colour scheme of russet brown. He had a long pale face with a womanish mouth, long black artistic hair and a mincing walk.” Even vivisection raises its ugly head; Lord Whitfield visits the Wellerman Kreitz Research laboratories, much to the dismay of Mrs Anstruther: “”They use guinea-pigs, I believe – so cruel – though of course not so bad as dogs – or even cats.” “Fellows who use dogs ought to be shot,” said Major Horton, hoarsely. “I really believe, Horton,” said Mr Abbot, “that you value canine life above human life.” “Every time!” said the major. “Dogs can’t turn round on you like human beings can. Never get a nasty word from a dog.”

Classic denouement: Unusual, effective and exciting, but you couldn’t call it a classic. There is an incredibly tense scene, where it looks as though one of our heroes is going to be murdered with no hope of being rescued; and then to make the agony of suspense even stronger, the story cuts away to another character, following their story for a few pages; only for the two threads to come together at the end of the chapter. As a result you have excitement, followed by a slight sense of lost momentum, and then the denouement comes almost in retrospect as Battle explains, to those people still present, what actually happened. But there isn’t a J’accuse moment as such.

Happy ending? Yes. Clearly our sleuthing team have fallen in love and all’s right with their world.

Did the story ring true? The story has perhaps more unlikely coincidences than most, from Jimmy’s connection to Bridget, the murderer’s knowledge that Miss Pinkerton was going to Scotland Yard (wouldn’t she have kept that a secret?) and the fact that the car that killed Miss Pinkerton hadn’t stopped. If it had, then it would have been a very different story!

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an extremely enjoyable read; pure whodunit escapism, with quite a lot of humour and some memorable characters. And a lot of deaths often lifts a whodunit, in a ghoulish sort of way! 9/10.

And then there were NoneThanks for reading my blog of Murder is Easy 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 And Then There Were None. Apologies that my copy is from the 1970s, so has the original British title. Frequently cited as Christie’s masterpiece, I’m very much looking forward to reacquainting myself with it. As usual, 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 – Stuart Goldsmith, Like I Mean It, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 18th May 2018

Like I Mean ItIt’s getting to be a bit of habit. This is the third time that Stuart Goldsmith has come to Northampton on a Friday night to give us his last year’s Edinburgh show before trying out some new material for this year’s show. And it’s a habit of which I entirely approve. Northampton seems to love Mr Goldsmith and for the most part he seems to love us back, which makes for a very convivial evening.

He’s an incredibly self-assured performer without ever wandering into the realm of arrogance, which puts the audience at ease right from the start, as you know he’s going to be fully professional and at the same time rather charmingly approachable. He’s not the kind of comic who picks on you a lot – not unless you really, really deserve it – so if you’re uncertain whether to risk sitting in the front, you’re unlikely to come a-cropper unless you make a nuisance of yourself. In our performance, we had a gentleman sitting in the front row, who, two-thirds of the way into Mr Goldsmith’s highly polished Edinburgh show, Like I Mean It, proceeded to take out a bag of crisps and munch them noisily. We’d already encountered this chap earlier in the show as a self-confessed vegan (aren’t they all?) Mr Goldsmith gave him brownie points for being a vegan but then took them away again when he provided the munch-distraction. Mr G decided he couldn’t carry on whilst battling against the noise. Would the gentleman please put the bag down on the floor for 20 minutes? The man didn’t seem impressed. Please? He relented. Rather like a conductor with his baton poised waiting for the orchestra to be completely ready, I reckon Mr Goldsmith would have lasted a long, long time if he had to. Part of that self-assurance means he’s also incredibly assertive.

Stuart GoldsmithLike I Mean It is a further exploration of Mr Goldsmith’s married life with wife and toddler. He packs his material with loads of brilliant observations that vary from the blindingly obvious to the bizarrely surreal. There are funny stories about how he has to sneak back into the house late at night because his wife is not only an insomniac but also a light sleeper – a vicious combination. He regrets how, now he has a child, he can no longer make the adult decision never to go swimming again. He likens their domestic arrangement to the fragile intensity of completing a Crystal Maze game. Being a husband and a father means that, whilst he’s never been happier, he’s also never been more resentful of other people’s happiness, and I’m sure that’s a very common sensation!

After the break he came back with some work in progress nuggets, to try them out on us to see if we liked them. As in last year’s show, his WIPs were equally entertaining as his carefully honed sequences of the first half. Here’s a very nice concept for his new show: he has an older friend to whom he looks up and gets inspiration for doing the right thing, and he also has a younger friend whom he knows does precisely the same to him. He has a great idea of envisioning a whole expedition of people, all leading each other through life and through the generations, each getting closer towards some grand, end-of-life precipice, where they all shout go back, it’s not worth it. Another idea I really liked was how his wife is trying to set him up with a friend of his own age, as though he were eight; which gives way to a discussion on how men don’t make friends after school/university (I do, but I’m an exception, I know!) There are also some great observations about why most men dress really badly, and a toe-curling sequence about how he resolved the problem of going to a mate’s house only to discover it was his birthday and he hadn’t got him a card. Brilliantly painful stuff!

Stu GoldsmithLong may Mr Goldsmith’s association with Northampton continue – he brings a ray of very clever and superbly eloquent sunshine to our otherwise dreary nights! And as for you other parts of the country – his tour is continuing through to the end of June, so you’ll get a chance to see him too. Hopefully by then he’ll be match fit for Edinburgh!

Review – Art, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th May 2018

ArtIt was almost 16 years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I last saw Yasmina Reza’s award-winning comedy Art; it was at the Whitehall Theatre (now the Trafalgar Studios) and the constantly changing cast at the time consisted of Ben Cross, Michael Gyngell and Sanjeev Bhaskar. Mrs C adored it; I liked it a lot, but I remember thinking that it lost its way halfway through. So I was keen to see how it shapes up to someone in their latish fifties in comparison with their earlyish forties.Art it's a white picture When I realised it was to be staged in the large Derngate auditorium I wondered if it was a good match; I’d have thought it was much more appropriate for the intimacy of the Royal. But, surprisingly, it works really well on a larger stage; it’s almost as though it gains a grandeur simply by virtue of space.

Art it's still a white pictureIn case you don’t know – modern art fanatic Serge has bought a painting for 200,000 Francs, and it’s a heck of a lot to pay, even for an Antios, from his 1970s period. The trouble is, the painting is just white. There are a few diagonal lines on it, and a little raised texture, but at the end of the day, it’s just white. Serge is enormously proud of it. He shows it to his friend Marc, a connoisseur of Flemish landscapes and portraits, who describes it as a piece of white shit. Art no matter which way you look at itHe shows it to their third friend Yvan, who’s not a connoisseur at all, who also recognises it as a piece of white shit but doesn’t want to offend Serge, so he tries to see in the painting all those aspects that appeal to the more cultured and experienced Serge. Yvan’s deliberate peace-keeping approach annoys the tetchy Marc; and consequently, their mutual friendship falters on the rocks.

Art things are getting heatedIn some regards the play is a fresh slant on The Emperor’s New Clothes, with the problem of whether to tell the pseud Serge that his painting, basically, has nothing on. From such a simple idea, Yasmine Reza (in a beautiful translation by Christopher Hampton) created a very deep and telling play about the nature of friendship, cultural superiority, art versus reason, fact versus fantasy, truth and falsehood, and the power of language. Words like deconstruction become a weapon in the struggle to establish a pecking order between Serge and Marc (Yvan’s already miles behind); the phrase the way she waves away cigarette smoke, for example, becomes a much more interesting sentence than the concept itself.

Art Marc has lost his sense of humourThat all sounds very dry and dusty but the reason this play ran for eight years in the West End is because it is so incredibly funny; and it also lends itself superbly to the strengths of a range of actors, each of whom can develop their characters in a way that suits the individual performer. In a sense (and soz if this sounds pretentious) each character is a blank canvas on which the actor can paint his own personality, providing it falls roughly within the guidelines of Marc = pedantic, Serge = artistically pompous, Yvan = ordinary Everyman. This touring production has a terrific cast, who capture our attention from the start and give three brilliant performances.

Art Serge has made a dreadful mistakeDenis Lawson gives a superb performance as the irascible Marc, with a clipped, no-nonsense delivery and the confident air of someone who always sees things in black and white (white mainly in this play). Nigel Havers is hilarious from the start as Serge, with his brilliant facial expressions and desperate need for approval from the others. Stephen Tompkinson’s Yvan is a wholly recognisable account of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who frankly couldn’t give a toss about the painting but does care deeply about his friends. All three work together incredibly well.

Art Yvan's getting marriedThere’s a scene towards the end that really challenges the audience as to how they feel about a) valuable paintings, b) this particular painting and c) to what extent you would trust your friend to do the right thing. When the friend doesn’t do the right thing, the gasp of horror from the audience is deafening. And then, the scene concludes with the biggest belly laugh of the night. Beautifully performed, and masterfully created by Reza/Hampton.

Art Nigel Havers and Denis LawsonSo how did this shape up, sixteen years since I last saw it? I thought it was brilliant. I got much more out of it this time; I’m not sure if that’s because of the performances or my own greater maturity (no honestly), but whatever, I’d really recommend this show. This Old Vic production has already been on a fairly extensive tour and has just three more stops after Northampton, in Birmingham, Cardiff and Canterbury. You must go!

Art by numbersP. S. By the end of the play I realised that I had become rather attached to the painting. There was something about its texture and essential whiteness that resonated within me. Maybe that Antios was on to something. However, I did see it more as a £29.99 job from the TK Maxx Home department than 200k.

Production photos by Matt Crockett