Review – Pack of Lies, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th October 2018

Major spoiler alert! Here’s an interesting little timeline for you:

Pack of Lies1961: Ruislip residents Helen and Peter Kroger (real names Lona and Morris Cohen) were sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment for spying for the Russians.
1969: They were released and exchanged for a Briton, Gerald Brooke, who was in jail in Moscow; and they flew to Poland.
1971: Having met Gay Search, today a presenter of gardening programmes, but then a young journalist who was the Krogers’ neighbour, Hugh Whitemore writes a BBC Play of the Month, Act of Betrayal, based on the facts of the case.
1983: Hugh Whitemore expands his play into a more fictionalised account, calls it Pack of Lies, and it plays at the Lyric Theatre in the West End, starring Michael Williams and Judi Dench.
1995: Having spent years training Soviet agents in Moscow, and then retiring on KGB pensions, Morris (Peter) dies; Lona (Helen) had died three years earlier. They were recipients of the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of the Friendship of Nations, and post-dissolution of the USSR, Yeltsin gave them the honour Hero of the Russian Federation.
2018: Michael Williams and Judi Dench’s daughter Finty Williams stars in a revival of Pack of Lies at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Macy Nyman, Finty WilliamsI knew – but I’d forgotten – before seeing this production that it was largely based on the true story outlined above; the Krogers were at the heart of a major espionage scandal that shocked the media in the early 1960s, being part of the Portland Spy Ring who had infiltrated the Royal Navy. As portrayed in Pack of Lies, their cover, their back-story, their pretence with the naively innocent Jackson family (in real life, Ruth, Bill and Gay Search) was immaculate.

Macy Nyman, Alasdair Harvey, Tracy-Ann ObermanThe question in this play is, who pays the price? The Krogers are imprisoned, so they do the time for their crime, but they were lucky to be released early, and their lives are privileged once they leave jail. The country paid a price – who knows what damage their information gathering did to the security of the UK, and whether lives were lost as a result? Always hard to quantify an unknown.

Jasper Britton, Finty WilliamsBut it’s the Jacksons whom we see pay the biggest price. Can you imagine what it would be like to discover that your best friend, your most trusted ally (outside, perhaps of your closest family members) was working as a spy all along, and that you were merely cultivated in order to create a more convincing fabrication to conceal their activities? Everything you ever held true would be flung into doubt. You could never trust another word anyone said. It would be – literally – shattering. And what about having to break that news to your very trusting daughter? That growing fear that something is going wrong, followed by the ultimate proof that you’ve been taken for a fool all along, is what this play achieves best.

Finty Williams, Jasper Britton, Chris Larkin1960 was a spartan time, and Hannah Chissick’s production nicely paints a picture of a society where your friend makes your dress from materials, and you wait your turn to have a cup of tea, you can’t just have a cuppa willy-nilly any time any place. Bob comes home from a hard day at work and merely replaces his jacket with his cardigan to spend the evening with his newspaper – no changing his shirt or removing his tie for him. Paul Farnsworth’s set suggests an adequate but not opulent lifestyle; re-covered soft furnishings, basic kitchen cupboards – but would they really have had such a modern looking toaster? Surely the toast would have been prepared under the grill at the top of the oven? I did love the attention to detail elsewhere though, with the vintage packets of cereals and the Susie Cooper tea-set.

Tracy-Ann Oberman, Finty Williams, Macy NymanIt’s fair to say that the play progresses at a gentle pace. This allows for maximum scene-setting and a useful appreciation of the apparent relationship between the Jacksons and the Krogers. The opening scenes are full of very nice observations and characterisations, and, although nothing much happens, the performance level keeps you entertained. By the time that Mr Stewart – who’s emphatically not a policeman, but is definitely a law enforcer – starts to ingratiate himself with the Jackson family, I was beginning to wonder if anything was ever going to start happening. I was still enjoying it, but very much at a loss regarding the direction it was heading. However, as the truth of the situation starts to emerge, the story becomes surprisingly gripping, and the emotional fall-out at the end of the play creates a very moving and powerful climax.

Finty Williams, Tracy-Ann ObermanFinty Williams and Chris Larkin are a perfect match for the central characters of Barbara and Bob Jackson. They’re both very formal performances, full of that sense of repression that followed the austere 1950s, making an excellent juxtaposition with the extravagant demonstrativeness of the Krogers. Ms Williams beautifully conveys all Barbara’s little fears and paranoias, and her deep trembling emotion that only occasionally is allowed to creep to the surface. Mr Larkin’s Bob is reserved and passive; knows his limitations and is grateful for what he’s got; mindful of doing the right thing and not wishing to stir up trouble, whilst still being as good a protector for his family as he can.

Jasper BrittonMacy Nyman is excellent as daughter Julie; full of enthusiasm for anything new, just like a good teenager should be, but also well brought-up so she’s polite and obliging with Mr Stewart; and feels totally at ease with the Krogers, whom she calls Auntie and Uncle. Jasper Britton is very convincing as Stewart; authoritatively refusing to answer any question that he simply can’t and doing so with as much honesty as possible. The ever reliable Tracy-Ann Oberman is brilliant as Helen Kroger, never missing an opportunity for some brash New York style advice; ironically coming across as the epitome of bright kindness. Tracy-Ann Oberman, Finty WilliamsAnd Alasdair Harvey is also very good as Peter Kroger, the quieter, more sensible half of the marriage; you could easily imagine him as an antiquarian book dealer, until he delivers his rather creepy but very illuminating address to the audience about how his life changed in 1932 when he attended his first Communist party meeting.

Finty WilliamsAn engrossing play, with some immaculate performances. An unusual choice for a revival? Possibly. But very rewarding nonetheless. On at the Menier until 17th November.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, 27th October 2018

A Very Very Very Dark MatterA new play by Martin McDonagh? Starring Jim Broadbent? That’ll do nicely, thank you. But what’s this? Unofficial feedback from a number of sources saying the play’s an absolute stinker? Surely some mistake? That was, at least, the early reaction from some quarters. Others were saying how bold and brilliant it was. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I concluded it was going to be one of those plays that you either love with a passion or hate with even more passion. And I think that conclusion was right.

VVVDM3Meet Hans Christian Andersen, at the top of his powers; receiving fan mail from around the world, reading his latest stories to an admiring public, and getting richly rewarded in the process. So who would have thought that his stories were actually written by a pygmy Congolese woman he kept locked up in a cage? I know, it doesn’t sound likely. Don’t get me wrong, he does let her out occasionally – although the deal seems to be that if she’s let out, when she gets back inside, he has configured it so that the cage has become slightly smaller for her. Does that seem fair? But then, is it fair that he takes all the plaudits for her work? True, he does edit her stories; he tweaked The Little Black Mermaid, for example, by removing a significant word from the title, much to her disappointment. His justification? There are no black mermaids. Her retort – that there are no mermaids! – carries little weight with him. The woman – called Marjory, because he can’t be bothered to learn her real name – also appears to be tied up with some kind of Congolese resistance movement against the brutal Belgian colonisation of her homeland. Of course, the Congo Free State was founded ten years after Hans Christian Andersen died. And of course, Charles Dickens is mixed up in all of this too. Well, why not? I’m sensing allegory here. Confused? You will be.

VVVDM2It’s as though Martin McDonagh has got together the threads of three or four plays – one about Andersen, one about Dickens, one about the Congo and one about plagiarism – thrown them all up in the air at once, and then stitched them together where they landed. It can’t possibly work, can it? Strangely, by virtue of some great performances, cunning characterisation, hilarious scenes and sheer bravado, it does; but if you ask me how, I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you.

VVVDM1Jim Broadbent’s performance as Andersen certainly helps. No happy-go-lucky Danny Kaye type here. He’s a gurning, miserable, grouchy old sod; casually racist – against everyone, mind, even the Danes, and certainly the Belgians; irrepressibly vain (if he receives a letter that doesn’t praise him to the skies, he thinks the writer is selfish; if they do praise him, he thinks they’re after something), grotesquely cruel, and – bizarrely – child-hating. Despite all that, somehow he gets the audience on his side. There’s quite a lot of fourth wall breaking – only minor moments, but always when he’s appealing to us to agree with him about something – and, in some challenging way, you can’t help liking the irascible old git. Probably because it’s Jim Broadbent.

VVVDM4There are two or three fabulously funny scenes where he invites himself to stay with Charles Dickens and his family for weeks on end, outstaying his welcome from the word go. McDonagh characterises Dickens as a foul-mouthed oaf with a bad temper – Phil Daniels captures this beautifully – and provides him with a sweet-looking but almost as crude wife and kids, and their family exchanges are toe-curlingly delightful. You just don’t expect Mrs Catherine Dickens (Elizabeth Berrington on fine form) to come out with lines like “you’re shitting me?” and “I’m leaving you, and taking one of the children with me.” Dickens also has a very very very dark secret, but I’ve got to hold back on some spoilers.

VVVDM7Despite racism being a very powerful theme in this story, McDonagh’s writing and construction keep all the content just on the safe side of acceptable; for example, when the Belgian redmen (you’ll have to see the play to understand who they are) break in to Andersen’s house and give Marjory some chips, naturally they are covered in mayo. She’s not impressed. I think I’m a reasonably PC kind of guy but I surprised myself by never being offended by this play – and I had fully expected to be Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells about this – which I think is a smart trick on McDonagh’s part.

VVVDM5There’s also a funny and moving performance by Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, on her professional debut. Her facial expressions, her comic timing, and her expressions of pathos are all absolutely spot-on; emotional without ever being maudlin. The character has a sting in her tail and Ms Ackles never holds back from giving us a really gutsy show. The supporting cast are also all excellent; big shout-out to the children on our performance who were delightfully butter-wouldn’t-melt alongside quoting their father’s filthy language; and there’s an excellent cameo scene from Northampton University recent alumna Kundai Kanyama as Marjory’s sister Ogechi – a splendid career awaits I’m sure!

VVVDM6At barely 90 minutes with no interval, this play rattles through at a fast pace and constantly shocks, surprises and upsets you whilst maintaining a mischievous sense of humour throughout. Working on my theory that I’d sooner see a brave failure than a lazy success, there’s nothing lazy about this, nor is it a failure. It’s certainly brave! A Very Very Very Strange, but Entertaining Play!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 26th October 2018

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah for another Screaming Blue Murder, and another episode in the continuing mystery saga, Would Dan Evans Get There On Time? Answer: No. This time there was a crash on the M1 which put a 25 minute delay onto his journey. I’m beginning to think The Gods of Comedy have got it in for him. And perhaps they have. Every so often you get a really weird Screaming Blue Murder; something about the dynamic in the audience that just doesn’t gel. This was one of those weeks. Firstly, they’d changed the staging so that it looked really showbiz. Black curtains in front of a lit-up, shimmering red curtain, to create a very glamorous effect. Not the usual cellar where the bodies are kept look that we’re accustomed to. Dan did his usual let’s meet the front row routine, and got on well with the ladies from the Danes Camp gym, and then he moved on to another couple (no names)… and that’s where it all got a bit difficult.

Dan EvansIt’s a bit bizarre to have to review the audience rather than the show, but to make sense of the evening, this particular Screaming Blue needs it. So, back to this couple; to be fair, he was fine. A cheery paper salesman whose answer to the problem of the diminishing need to buy paper because of the Internet was to “sell more paper”. Absolutely. She, however… I’m sure she’s a lovely person but she came across as a cross between Rosa Klebb and Lord Snooty. She sells people (her words) and lives in an “undisclosed location” and clearly looks down on Northampton. Normally the audience is quite happy to go along with the usual “What’s Northampton like?” “It’s sh*t” routine, but this time – no. “If you hate it, why don’t you leave then?” came an unexpected bellowing voice from behind. An audience silently quivered, not knowing where this was going. Dan continued with as much jollity as possible, but it wasn’t long before the voice came back with “Get her a lead”, which really was a bit much. If anyone had shouted that out about Mrs Chrisparkle, I would have stood up and demanded satisfaction with a duel in the car park. Instead, Dan turned to a couple of guys in the corner and tried to spark off them but they were as sullen as hell.

Luke ToulsonFirst up was Luke Toulson, who came on thanking Dan for putting us all at our ease and making his life easy! We’ve seen Mr Toulson twice before and he’s always good value. He’s done some of the material about collecting the kids from school before, but we loved his pretentious critiques of school plays, and the urge guys get to propose the higher from the ground they are. He ended with a great sequence about the one hour slot to deliver your sperm sample for testing and a great play on words about a medic’s wages. He was just what we needed to set the evening back on course.

Caroline MabeyNext was Caroline Mabey; we’ve also seen her before and, last time, frankly, she wasn’t very good. This time, well… she’s gutsy and has some good material but I still think she’s trying to be someone on stage that she isn’t. She reminded me very much of a younger Helen Lederer, with an act crammed full of self-deprecation; trouble is she doesn’t really get us on her side at the start of her act, so we end up just being onlookers rather than participators. I can see how it all would work perfectly on paper, but on stage it just doesn’t quite hold together. Mind you, the weird vibe of the evening certainly didn’t help.

Michael FabbriWhat the night needed was for the last act to bounce out, stamp their authority on us, and not let up until the final joke – and that’s exactly what Michael Fabbri did. We’ve never seen Mr Fabbri before and it’s been our loss. He uses his material and sharp delivery to take control without ever being aggressive or too laddish like some comics. There’s a fantastic sequence about spending the night in someone else’s hotel room, but his set was full of sideways looks at life and what I can only describe as inventive moments of ridiculousness. He was great, we’d love to see him again.

There are two more Screaming Blue Murders this year – hopefully they’ll run a little more smoothly than this one did. Alas, we are unable to attend either of them, so I hope you’ll go on our behalf.

The James Bond Challenge – Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger posterIn which James Bond’s mission is to find out all he can about bullion dealer and international gold smuggler Auric Goldfinger. He captures Bond but is fooled into thinking that Bond knows more than he does about Operation Grand Slam. Just how does he intend to make his money, and will Bond be able to foil him in the final reel? To find out, you’ll have to watch the film, and remember, careful what you read here, there will be spoilers!

Auric EnterprisesInspired by the successes of Dr No and From Russia With Love, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman increased the budget yet again, this time to $3 million – apparently it made all its money back within two weeks of release, was the fastest grossing picture in film history when it was released, and is said to have made $125 million overall. Given the two previous successes, director Terence Young wanted a profit-share to direct Goldfinger, but Broccoli and Saltzman refused his offer. He therefore went off and directed The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders instead, and Guy Hamilton was approached in his place. Hamilton’s vision for the film included more humour, more gadgets and more impressive sets, and you can really see the difference between this and the first two films as a result. Once again the screenplay was by Richard Maibaum, with Paul Dehn on re-writes; cinematography was by Ted Moore and editing by Peter Hunt, as in both Dr No and From Russia With Love. Ken Adam resumed his position as production designer – he’d worked on Dr No – the title designer was once again Robert Brownjohn, stunt co-ordinator was Bob Simmons, as he had been for Dr No, and John Barry was credited as soundtrack composer.

Mr GoldfingerGoldfinger was published in 1959 and was the seventh in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels, immediately following the novel of Dr No, which had been filmed first. Fleming liked to use the names of people he knew, or knew of, throughout his books, and there really was a Mr Goldfinger – British architect Ernő Goldfinger. Upon learning of the use of his name, Goldfinger threatened to sue Fleming over the use of the name, before the matter was settled out of court. I haven’t read the book, but I believe the film follows it reasonably faithfully.

Pussy's aircraft girlsIn the book, M suspects Goldfinger of being connected to SMERSH and financing their western networks with his gold; in the film, unusually, there’s no mention made of SMERSH at all. Also in the book, Jill and Tilly Masterton have a much more important role to play, whereas in the film, not only does their surname become Masterson, they also have much less to do and die earlier in the story. The plot of the film was also changed from stealing the gold at Fort Knox to irradiating the gold vault with a dirty bomb. In the book, Pussy Galore is the leader of a team of burglars, whereas in the film she leads a team of aircraft pilots; also Pussy, the burglars and Tilly are all lesbians in the book – but any lesbianism implied by Pussy at the start of the film certainly doesn’t last for long. Goldfinger attempts to kill Bond by using a circular saw; however, between the book (1959) and the film (1964), lasers were invented, and so Guy Hamilton thought it would be much more fun to show Bond in peril with a laser cutting up between his legs. Nasty.

Odeon AylesburyI mentioned in my blog post on From Russia with Love that I had seen it before as a teenager at the Odeon Aylesbury as part of a double-bill with Diamonds are Forever, with my schoolfriend John. I’m pretty sure we also saw a double-bill of Goldfinger with You Only Live Twice. It was a great way to catch up on your Bond back catalogue in those days; shame they don’t do that kind of thing any more.

Goldfinger novelBoth book and novel received extremely good reviews, even if they are of the “guilty pleasure” type, more than out-and-out classic. Considering the book first, Maurice Richardson in the Observer described Ian Fleming as “maniacally readable” whereas, writing in The Manchester Guardian, Roy Perrott observed that “Goldfinger…will not let [Bond’s] close admirers down”, summarising the book by saying that it was “hard to put down; but some of us wish we had the good taste just to try.” The Evening Standard looked at why Bond was a success and put it down to “the sex, the sadism, the vulgarity of money for its own sake, the cult of power, the lack of standards”. The Manchester Evening News thought that “only Fleming could have got away with it…outrageously improbable, wickedly funny, wildly exciting”.

OddjobOf the film, the Sunday Times said it was “superbly engineered. It is fast, it is most entertainingly preposterous, and it is exciting.” The Guardian said that Goldfinger was “two hours of unmissable fantasy”, also saying that the film was “the most exciting, the most extravagant of the Bond films: garbage from the gods” – again, a guilty pleasure. Plenty of praise for the performances too: The Times said “there is some excellent bit-part playing by Mr. Bernard Lee and Mr. Harold Sakata; Mr. Gert Fröbe is astonishingly well cast in the difficult part of Goldfinger”. The New York Times said “Connery plays the hero with an insultingly cool, commanding air” and that “Gert Fröbe is aptly fat and feral as the villainous financier, and Honor Blackman is forbiddingly frigid and flashy as the latter’s aeronautical accomplice.” Interestingly, of all the James Bond films, this has the highest appreciation score on the Rotten Tomatoes website – 97%. Sadly, Ian Fleming never got to see this film; he visited the set in April 1964, and died a few months later in August 1964, a month before it was released.

Decoy BondThe opening credits start just as they did in Dr No and From Russia with Love, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. Then, before any opening titles, as was becoming the practice in these films, we then go into the first scene. A dark, suspicious waterside location at night, sees Bond emerge from beneath the water, with a decoy seagull strapped to his head (would that fool anyone? – it’s not even a duck!), gain access to this secret location by assaulting a guard, and cause some handily placed barrels of nitro-glycerine to explode by attaching a timer. He then rips off his deep-sea diving outfit to reveal an immaculate white dinner jacket (with red carnation) in time to get to a cavern bar where a buxom dancing lady (Bonita) is entertaining the gentlemen with her act. Bond lights his cigarette, checks the time, the nitro explodes, everyone runs in panic, apart from a chap sitting at the bar who congratulates Bond on his success, and they observe that a certain Mr Romarez won’t be able to finance a revolution from the proceeds of his heroin laboratory that’s just been blown up.

In Your EyesBond is offered a flight to Miami, which he says he will take, after he has attended to some unfinished business – by which he means chasing up Bonita in her bath. But whilst he is giving her a big sucker on the lips, a guy who has been hiding behind her wardrobe (always check behind the wardrobe, Bond!) comes out and is about to cosh our hero – but he spots him in time and a fight ensues. Bond sends him flying across the room and he lands in the bathwater (the lady is no longer in there) but from there he can still reach Bond’s gun in its holster on the wall… so there’s only one thing to be done, and Bond flings the portable electric heater into the bath and his hapless opponent is zapped to death.

Opening titlesThat’s all totally irrelevant to the plot of Goldfinger, but I guess it shows what a cool guy/rogue/heart-throb/masterspy/ruthless killer Bond is. Now the rest of the title sequence kicks in. In From Russia with Love, Robert Brownjohn’s titles projected names of the cast and creative team onto the scantily-clad body of an exotic dancer. That idea went down well, so this time he went one better, with moving images of the actors appearing on the gold body of a sexy female – in fact, Margaret Nolan, who plays Dink, the Miami Beach masseuse, a little later in the movie. I actually met Margaret Nolan when I was ten, and probably a little too young to fully appreciate her; buy me a drink and I’ll tell you all about it! Not only actors were projected onto her gold body; also scenes from the film, and from the previous films. And of course, over this title sequence we hear Shirley Bassey belting out the title song Goldfinger, more of which later. This was the first time that the title sequences used the film’s title song – a winning practice that was to continue forever after.

FontainebleauAnd the locations? The film takes us from Latin America to Miami Beach, on to London, on to a golf course, Geneva and then Goldfinger’s Kentucky stables (the Auric Stud) and then – allegedly – Fort Knox. That opening scene, with huge oil tanks, was filmed at the Esso refinery at Stanwell, near Heathrow Airport. Interestingly, none of the principal actors were actually in Miami Beach apart from Cec Linder, who played Felix Leiter. Everyone else was on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios – and it’s very obvious, watching those Miami Beach scenes, that they’re all standing in front of a projection. The grand hotel, that dominates the aerial photography, is the Fontainebleau Miami Beach; you think you’re looking at a swanky, trendy, impressive building, and indeed you are. The golf course was Stoke Park, at Stoke Poges, near Pinewood; the scene of the car chase in the Aston Martin was at Black Park, near Slough. The American airports scenes were shot at RAF Northolt, and the scene where Bond flies to Geneva was shot at Southend Airport.

Fort Knox is right hereFilming moved to Switzerland, with the car chase being filmed at the small curved roads near Realp, near the Italian border, the exterior of the Pilatus Aircraft factory in Stans serving as Goldfinger’s factory, and Tilly Masterson’s attempt to snipe Goldfinger being shot in the Furka Pass. Of course, they weren’t given access to film at Fort Knox. That would simply have been too much of a security risk! So the interiors of Fort Knox were purely the imagination of production designer Ken Adam – who was later complimented by the Comptroller at Fort Knox for his vision.

Suave ConneryBond, James Bond. Yes, Sean Connery does get to utter this immortal phrase in this film, even though he’d been denied it in From Russia with Love. Connery enjoyed another pay increase, this time taking a cool $500,000 – a lot of money for 1964. Connery received a lot of praise for his performance too, and I would imagine, at that time, that they never had any idea that anyone else would ever play the part! Although in 1964 he also appeared in Hitchcock’s Marnie – in fact that was the reason he wasn’t in Miami Beach – and he was slowly beginning to tire of being just known as James Bond. I expect the cash helped make up for it.

Red CardsBoo-boos. There are some continuity errors and mistakes as always, but perhaps not as many as in Dr No or From Russia with Love. When one of Pussy’s pilots is counting down the numbers from five to zero during the course of Operation Rockabye Baby, she says “5, 4, 3, 2, Zero,” but skips 1 – presumably not considered worthy of a re-take. After the game of golf, Goldfinger sits in the back seat of his car and makes out a cheque to Bond. He gives the cheque to Bond, and Bond gives the golf ball to Oddjob, in the driver’s seat. But when Oddjob drives away, magically Goldfinger is no longer in the car. Talking of which, when Oddjob leaves the car containing Solo’s body on the back seat at the wrecker’s yard, it’s very clear there’s no one in the back when the car gets scrunched up. When Goldfinger and Simmons are playing cards, the blue-backed pack of cards changes to a red-backed pack. When Goldfinger is explaining to Mr Ling about the process of melting down the gold from the car, his lips don’t move. And is James Bond a hairy chap or not? When he’s receiving his rubdown from Dink, his back is perfectly shaved; but when he wakes up the next morning with Jill, his back hair has all grown back!

JillThe Bond Girl. Bond’s rather spoilt for choice in this movie. Apart from liaisons with the Latin American dancer Bonita in the first scene, and Dink the masseuse, at first we have a lot of hope for Jill Masterson, played by Shirley Eaton, a much-favoured young actress at the time, who retired from acting five years later. Sadly, Goldfinger arranges for her to die from the rather glamorous fate of “skin suffocation” after being painted head to toe in gold. Odd how she didn’t struggle when she was only halfway though the paint job, but there you are, film editor Peter Hunt always said it was vital to keep everything moving as quickly as possible so that the audience doesn’t start to analyse the plot.

TillyThen we meet her sister Tilly, full of vengeance for Jill’s death, who tries to assassinate Goldfinger, and very nearly takes Bond out in the process. However, their time together isn’t long – and is mainly spent in a car chase trying to escape from Goldfinger’s henchmen. Bond gets captured and Tilly gets garrotted by Oddjob’s lethal bowler hat. Tilly was played by Tania Mallett, a successful model who made this one venture into the movies and didn’t like it – she earned much more as a model anyway.

PussyBut the title of Bond Girl for this film can really only go to the wondrously named Pussy Galore played by Honor Blackman. That name certainly caused a few problems, and was a particular concern to the American censors, who wouldn’t allow it to appear on any promotional material. The producers thought of renaming her Kitty, but decided that if you had a dirty mind, then so be it. This gives rise to her and Bond’s classic opening exchange: “Who are you?“ “My name is Pussy Galore.” “I must be dreaming.” As with Dr No’s Honey Rider, it’s a goodly time before Pussy makes an appearance; 52 minutes to be precise. Pussy leads her group of pilots – her Flying Circus – who I’m sure were the inspiration for Captain Scarlet’s Angels. Honor Blackman was chosen for the role due to her success as Cathy Gale in the TV series The Avengers – and the script was altered so that she could show off her judo skills. The New York Times described her performance as “forbiddingly frigid”, which is not what you expect from a Bond Girl. One of her first lines to Bond is “you can turn off the charm, I’m immune”, which ought to rule out any future hanky-panky. However, a few instructions from Goldfinger and she softens up towards him – see paragraph on sexism further on!

Scary PussyWhat Bond Girls Are Like. From the first two films, we came to the conclusion that Bond Girls are: sexy, exotic, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, and sometimes tragic. With Pussy Galore we can add professional and scary.

GFThe Villain. This is a perfect villain plus henchmen set-up. Auric Goldfinger (I won’t insult your intelligence by pointing out the appropriateness of his first name) has what I think is probably the best line in the whole gamut of Bond films – “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!” – and a genuinely creative plan to rule the world, much more interesting than all the usual mass murder kinda stuff. Gert Fröbe gives a brilliantly underplayed performance, making him much less of a pantomime baddie but more a real threat. I’d forgotten that he played the Baron in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, making him a double Fleming alumnus! Fröbe’s heavy German accent required that his voice was dubbed by actor Michael Collins. There is just one scene where you hear his own voice – when Bond is listening from the cellar underneath the big control centre where Fröbe talks to all his gangland associates.

Bond and GoldfingerHe had serious reservations about Goldfinger using nerve gas to get rid of his witnesses. Fröbe felt that with him being a German, this scene would have Nazi concentration camp implications. Indeed, the film was banned in Israel for many years after he revealed he had been a member of the Nazi Party. The ban was lifted after a Jewish family came forward to praise Fröbe for protecting them from persecution during World War II. He left the party in 1937, which was presumably quite a brave thing to do. Apparently, he got married five times; so not quite Henry VIII standard, but not far off.

Varley ThomasOther memorable characters? Jill Masterson – as mentioned earlier – is an attractive character, and her betrayal of Goldfinger is enjoyable to watch; pity she had to pay such a high price for it. There’s also a wonderful scene where a little old lady played by Varley Thomas unexpectedly lets rip with a machine gun in an attempt to stop Bond.

More OddjobBut there’s really only one contender for Memorable Other Character – the magnificently terrifying Oddjob, played by Harold Sakata. Oddjob is the definition of the phrase “silent but deadly”, with his lethal bowler spin (nothing to do with cricket) and his lips kept tightly shut. He was described in the Daily Telegraph as “a wordless role, but one of cinema’s great villains.”

Oddjob AgainSakata was born in Hawaii, of Japanese descent, and was a professional wrestler as well as actor, and also represented the United States in Weightlifting in the 1948 Olympics. He was badly burned when filming his death scene, in which Oddjob was electrocuted by Bond. Sakata, however, kept holding onto his electrified hat with determination, despite his pain, until the director called “Cut!” Guy Hamilton described him as an “absolutely charming man”. Oddjob reappeared in later years as a guest on chat shows, or in adverts, which gave Sakata a nice continued income. He died in 1982, aged 62.

Q and 007As last time, we can just briefly pop in to M’s office; Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn reprise their usual roles. Q starts what I believe will be a series of banter-filled conversations with Bond, beseeching him not to wreck all the equipment. I don’t think he pays heed.

Shirley BasseyAnd what about the music? We start with the main James Bond Theme, written by Monty Norman, as part of the title sequence, but that never returns for the rest of the film. Shirley Bassey sings Goldfinger during the main title sequence, and you often hear echoes of it on and off throughout the film, until it finally returns properly for the closing titles. John Barry said this was the first film where he felt he had complete control of the music content. Much of the incidental music throughout the rest of the film, which frequently returns to the Goldfinger theme, is notable for its high brass instruments content – reflecting the film’s Gold motif. Fascinating piece of trivia – playing rhythm guitar on the title track was session player Jimmy Page, later of Led Zeppelin.

Bricusse and NewleyHarry Saltzman had to be convinced that Goldfinger (the song) was the right choice for the film, calling it too old fashioned for 1960s youth culture, but Cubby Broccoli convinced him. Though the music was by Barry, the lyrics were by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, both known more for their work in musical theatre. The Daily Express called the lyrics “puerile”, but it was Shirley Bassey’s belting performance that meant that criticism was almost irrelevant. The soundtrack album reached No 1 on the Billboard chart and the single of Goldfinger reached 21 in the UK charts, but No 2 in Italy, No 5 in the Netherlands and No 8 in the US top 100.

Car ChaseCar chases. There are two, and they’re hardly classics, both involving Tilly Masterson. The first one is where she is trying to overtake Bond in his Aston Martin DB5 and she ends up receiving the best that Q can design as he causes her tyres to burst. The second is later, when they’re both in Bond’s car, being pursued by Goldfinger’s Swiss henchmen.

Brandy momentCocktails and Casinos. No casinos in this film, but we do have some interesting drink situations. We see Bond becoming a self-confessed brandy snob – he describes the offering at the Bank of England as a “30 year old fine indifferently blended, with an overdose of bon bois”; Goldfinger offers him a mint julep in Kentucky, and Bond’s requirements are that it is made with sour mash and not too sweet; and there is also the request for the classic Martini – shaken, not stirred, at 35,000 sq ft above Newfoundland.

Poisonous meterGadgets. Guy Hamilton said he liked gadgets, so gadgets he was going to get. At Q’s laboratory, we briefly see a parking meter that emits poisonous gas when you insert a coin – something that would be warmly welcomed in many cities, I suspect. Bond’s car has its bullet-proof windscreen, revolving number plate, a transmitting device, an early form of Sat Nav; and there’s the control console in the armrest of the car, which allows Bond to do lots of things: smokescreen, oil slick, rear bullet-proof screen and side machine guns. Handy! The ejector seat is pretty neat and is wisely used when needed. Whilst Aston Martin were originally unwilling to allow their car to be used in this way, sales went up 60% after the film and the Corgi toy of Bond’s Aston Martin became one of the most successful toys ever.

Laser momentBut there’s probably nothing to match Goldfinger’s sinister use of the laser beam as it slowly slices up between Bond’s legs – hitting him where it hurts the most. And of course, Goldfinger’s lair, in Kentucky, is one ginormous gadget, as buttons turn it inside out to create the most up to date of operation centres.

In MemoriamIn Memoriam. Dr No had a death count of approximately 11 + all those who go up in smoke in his lair at the end; From Russia with Love notched up at least 40. Where does Goldfinger stand on this count? Let’s briefly remember those who gave their lives so that Bond can dismiss the rescue helicopter so that he can spend more time getting acquainted with Pussy:

1) Maybe the guard at the Heroin laboratory that Bond attacks (but maybe he’s just knocked out).

2) Henchman electrified in the bath.

3) Jill Masterson, gilted to death.

4) Four henchmen who burn to death in the car that slides in the oil slick.

5) Tilly Masterson, bowler-hatted to death by Oddjob.

6) The guard outside Bond’s cell – if he dies from their fight, that is.

7) All the gangsters gassed by Kisch in Goldfinger’s Control Centre – I counted nine.

8) Mr Solo, shot by Oddjob.

9) Mr Ling, killed by Goldfinger.

10) Kisch, killed by Oddjob.

11) Dozens, possibly hundreds of Goldfinger’s “army” and the government’s security guards at Fort Knox.

12) Oddjob.

13) Goldfinger.

14) Henchman on board the plane with Goldfinger.

Apart from the massive slaughter at Fort Knox, that’s probably around 23 deaths. But when you add in all the soldiers, there’s nothing modest about this death count!

Shocking momentHumour to off-set the death count. Following his jokey remarks whenever someone died in Dr No and From Russia with Love, here are some more throwaway lines that marked some of the deaths in this film:

After Bond has thrown the electric heater in Bonita’s bath, thereby killing the henchman, he remarks “shocking, positively shocking.”

When Bond and Pussy arrive at the airport in Baltimore, they are greeted – if that’s the right word – by the bowler-hatted Oddjob. In a delayed reference to the murder of Tilly, Bond observes: “Manners, Oddjob. I thought you always took your hat off to a lady”.

When Oddjob returns the car to the Auric Stud, with the body of the late Mr Solo smashed to smithereens in the scrunched-up car, Bond agrees: “as you said, he had a pressing engagement”.

“Where’s your butler friend?” asks Leiter, as he rushes inside Fort Knox once the device is safe. “He blew a fuse” replies Bond.

“What happened, where’s Goldfinger?” asks Pussy, as the plane plummets to earth. “Playing his golden harp” replies Bond.

sexismAny less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. As usual, I couldn’t perceive any obvious homophobic or racist elements, but when it comes to sexism, where do you start? Once again I think it’s important to remember that definition of sexism, so that we know where we’re at. Sexism is: “(Behaviour, language, etc, reflecting) the assumption that one sex, esp. the female, is inferior to the other; prejudice or discrimination, esp. against women, on the grounds of sex; insistence on (esp. a woman’s) conformity to a sexually stereotyped social role.”

Smacking Dink's bottomOnce again we get close ups of a woman’s body during the opening credits; you can argue that it’s an artistic expression and not really sexist; although the gypsy/Spanish dancer at the beginning basically just waggles her boobs at the guys and I’d contend that wasn’t exactly a skilful show of dancing prowess. Much more ostentatious a show of sexism, and one in which Bond absolutely delights, is when Felix Leiter arrives on the scene and interrupts Bond with the lovely Dink, whom he dismisses with a considerable whack on the bottom as he and Felix have “mantalk” to get on with. That’s actually quite cringe making today. And when he takes the chambermaid’s key to Goldfinger’s hotel room, Bond smilingly and patronisingly placates her with “you’re very sweet”. So that’s alright then.

Connery and Blackman in the hayJill Masterson is a disarmingly easy conquest; perhaps, given the fact that she has spent all her time helping Goldfinger to cheat at cards, she isn’t of the highest moral rectitude as a character. But I think the most sexist point of the film is when Bond basically forces himself on Pussy Galore – who had previously warned him off with the words “skip it, I’m not interested” – yet she melts into his arms. You would have thought that Honor Blackman must have been sick in a bucket to do that, but by all accounts she said she enjoyed the experience of rolling around in the hay with Sean Connery. Still, by today’s standards, he assaults her, and this isn’t a comfortable scene. The other pilots who make up Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus are, by contrast, a paean to the sisterhood, being tough, resolute, skilled and beautiful all in one go.

British United Air FerriesBizarre other stuff that occurred to me and a few observations.

“I have a slight inferiority complex”, says Bond, as Bonita complains that his gun is digging into her ribs. As if.

“Something big’s come up”, Bond says to Leiter, explaining why he won’t be there for dinner, while Jill is pawing him all over. If ever there was a euphemism, that’s the one. Although there is also Goldfinger’s description of his atomic device: “it’s small, but particularly dirty”.

Bond jokes that you need earmuffs to listen to the Beatles. Did they have some kind of falling out? Paul McCartney would write the theme to Live and Let Die a few years later, so I guess they must have patched up their differences.

Even though you can only see his arm, it’s clearly Oddjob who has broken in to Bond’s suite and who karate-chops him when he’s getting another bottle of Dom Perignon ’53 out of the fridge. When he comes to, Jill has been killed by being painted in gold. But that’s not Oddjob’s style at all! He’s a wham bam, slice your throat with my bowler rim man. Visually, it’s a very effective scene, but if you think twice about it – it doesn’t really make sense; I refer you to Film Editor Peter Hunt’s comment I mentioned earlier!

This is the first time we hear in the films about any other “00”s. M threatens to replace Bond with 008 if he can’t keep the assignment professional. And Bond tells Goldfinger, “if I fail to report, 008 replaces me…”

Do we remember British United Air Ferries? They transport Goldfinger and his car from Southend Airport to Geneva. They were founded in 1963 – so the company was quite new when this film was made – and went through a number of name and ownership changes until the company was dissolved in 2001.

I can’t help but think that Oddjob had numerous occasions on which he could have killed Bond instantly, but doesn’t. I feel that affects the film detrimentally. He also doesn’t seem remotely concerned about being trapped inside Fort Knox with Kisch and Bond and with no way out. He only seems to want to kill Bond. Which is odd.

I loved the fact that the stopwatch counts down and stops at “007”. How hokey is that!

OscarAwards: Norman Wanstall won the Academy Award for Best Sound Effects Editing, making Goldfinger the first Bond film to receive an Academy Award. John Barry was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Score for a Motion Picture, losing out to Mary Poppins (can’t complain at that) and Ken Adam was nominated for the BAFTA for Best British Art Direction (Colour), losing out to John Bryan for Becket.

Thunderball PosterTo sum up. Goldfinger was a very successful film with some great reviews, fascinating and entertaining characters, and memorable lines; and, unsurprisingly, it still rates very highly with film and Bond fans today. However, personally, despite its obvious attractions and highlights, I found myself disapproving of what I can only describe as its overall silliness! It is a very silly film. Maybe I need to see a few more Bond movies and that might cause me to reappraise my view. What do you think, am I wrong? In the final analysis I upgraded my score by 1 sparkle, simply because it’s such a ground-breaking film. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of Goldfinger – and whether you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next up, the film Broccoli and Saltzman had been wanting to make from the very start – Thunderball!

My rating: 4 Sparkles

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All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.

Review – O,FFS, Ytho? Theatre, University of Northampton Graduate Students, Avenue Campus, Northampton, 24th October 2018

Watch out for spoilers in this review!!

OFFSOne of the productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I weren’t able to see at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer was O,FFS, a devised comedy about office life and the political machinations that take place therein. I’d seen that it had some good reviews, but, as Mrs C always says, you can’t see everything. Normally, if you miss a decent show at the Fringe, you’d be very lucky to ever get a chance to catch it somewhere else second time round. But, as luck would have it, Ytho? Theatre, which consists of four strong alumni from the last couple of years’ pick of Acting Students at the University of Northampton, have brought back their O,FFS to their alma mater so their contemporaries could see what they’ve been getting up to since graduating; and, fortunately, Mr Smallmind and I managed to get tickets for one of the performances.

Jessica BichardIn this children’s charity office, the usual loafers Ben, the IT manager, Gail, the office supervisor and Angela, the chuggers manager, are idling their time away, concerned at the absence of the Max, the office manager. Max has been sacked for uselessness, and has been temporarily replaced by Sasha, who’s tasked with testing the rest of the team to find out precisely how good (or otherwise) they are at their jobs. Naturally paranoia takes over and it’s not long before their early trickery – like deliberately misdirecting Sasha so that she can’t find the HR department – leads on to more wilful disobedience. As things get more and more out of hand, it’s clear this is more than just a normal day at the office. But what will Sasha’s recommendation be – if she survives the day?

Liam FaikThis gifted little cast turn in a smashing performance in this very funny, quirky and surreal play, that sees the story retold from several different points of view – which means that each of the four characters acquire different characteristics and accents, depending on who’s telling the story. It’s performed at breakneck speed, with absolutely no time to pause for breath between individual scenes, so it builds to a tremendous crescendo; and you also appreciate how demanding it is for the cast to constantly switch in and out of character and voice.

Aoife SmythAll four actors create a perfect ensemble, with great trust and respect between each other, which gives you such confidence that they’re going to give you a great performance – and they do. Jessica Bichard tries to be the sensible voice of the team and acts as a kind of spirit level against which you can assess how bizarre everyone else is. Very effective Russian accent too! Liam Faik, as always, gives a fantastically strong performance, vainly milking the double entendres in his sexualised interview with Sasha, and either splendidly manipulative or manipulated in the office politics, depending on whose point of view you’re watching. Aoife Smyth gives Sasha a range of brilliant characteristics, from the kindly, helpful manager we all hope to get or strive to become, to the gangster channelling her inner Frank Butcher.

Helena FentonBut it’s Helena Fenton who steals the show for me, with her brilliant characterisation of the appalling Angela, the kind of person you really hope you don’t have to sit next to in the office. You know the kind; the type who speak their thoughts no matter how in appropriate; the type that invent irritating office rituals like Quiche O’Clock. Her down at heel voice, with hints of Julie Walters, crossed with James Acaster and a pinch of Jane Horrocks, sent shivers down my spine as I recognised in her a combination of people who used to report to me in my old civil service job. Particularly in her one-to-one meetings with Sasha, when she openly debated how seriously she was going to take the meeting – aargh! Painfully recognisable and devastatingly funny!

Well worth keeping an eye out for this company, as I know they are bringing this play to London in December, and I’m sure they’ll be doing some more great comedy plays in the future.

India – Datia, Sonagiri and Gwalior

DatiaThe drive from Orchha to Gwalior takes a good five hours so Sachun had plans for breaking up the day with some more interesting sights en route. 30 miles north of Orchha is the town of Datia, with a population of around 100,000; and I confess I hadn’t heard of it. But at the centre of the town is the Birsingh Deo Palace.Birsingh Deo Palace Birsingh Deo was a Bundela Rajput chief and the ruler of the Kingdom of Orchha from 1605 to 1626. It was built in 1620, and, having been to the Jahangir Mahal in Orchha the previous day, the palace is exactly the same style and layout, although perhaps not quite as large, but certainly not in as good condition.

TerracesSachun called for a man from one of the local houses to open it up for us so we could have a look around. I don’t think the man was best pleased, and he hung around waiting for us to finish so that he could go back home. “Leave him a good tip”, suggested Sachun. We did. Comparisons are odious, and it’s not as breathtaking as the Jahangir Mahal, but it’s still a lot of fun and has the added benefit of being very rarely visited, so we didn’t bump into anyone Overlooks lakeelse as we wandered around, and there aren’t many places in India where you can say that. Despite the size of its population, Datia is a sleepy little place and all the streets are very narrow and steep. It took all Mr Singh’s driving skills to get us to the front gate of the palace. I wished I’d had one fewer course at dinner the previous night.

SonagiriAfter an hour or so wandering around Datia, we got back in the car and drove another eleven miles to reach the extraordinary collection of Jain temples at Sonagiri. After walking beneath a welcoming archway you ascend a path and on the way there are 77 Jain temples of all shapes and sizes, built in the 9th and 10th centuries, and all in superbly maintained condition. They’re all painted white, elephantalthough some have some other coloured decoration, and each one bears a number in a circle, denoting which temple it is – the temples don’t otherwise have names. These are extremely holy in the Jain religion and I believe all Jains should visit here at least once. You have to walk barefoot throughout insidethe whole complex and on a hot day, which this was, you have to be very careful where you step because it’s easy to burn your feet. You can end up hopping from temple to temple which is hardly the dignified spirit that the complex deserves.

Sonagiri templesTemple No 57 is the most important and has an elephant outside, to welcome you in. It’s round, like an amphitheatre, and full of beautiful and delicate images of God. I didn’t discover until the end that you weren’t meant to take photos in there – sorry about that. At the top of the hill is a small square with a school and some memorials, where a young Indian family were taking a look around. Sonagiri boyThe boy was very keen to have his picture taken with me, and after his father snapped his shot, son and I bonded. I kept on turning corners and finding him there. The last photo I took at the top was of him looking back at me as we left. I gave him a wave, and he waved back.

Making sugarWe retraced our steps back down the hill, through the archway and back to the car for the onward journey to Gwalior. There was only one more stop to make before we got there – and that was at a roadside farm where they grew sugar cane and converted it into sugar – or, rather, jaggery. It’s fascinating to watch the process as they feed the huge stalks of sugar cane into a mill – it looks rather like an enormous old-fashioned food blender – and at the bottom out comes this juice and mixture that gets boiled up in huge pans over open fire and eventually cooled into blocks. It’s incredibly sweet, really delicious and is great for restoring an upset tummy.

Taj Usha Kiran Palace We snoozed the rest of the way to Gwalior but we woke up in time to enjoy the sight of the Hotel Taj Usha Kiran Palace coming into view. This is a sensationally beautiful place to stay, with a fabulous fountain outside that lights up at night, and so many beautiful courtyards scattered all over the hotel. We had a deluxe room, which totally spoiled us, and dined at the Silver Saloon, which was also jolly nice. The Bada Bar, which looks superb, was sadly closed when we there, but I’m sure it would be worth your while popping in for a gin and tonic.

Man MandirWe were only there for one night though, so the next morning we had to check out and leave our bags safely in Mr Singh’s boot before going off to explore Gwalior. We had said goodbye to Sachun the night before, so our guide for Gwalior, Pawan, met us at the hotel and took us into town. Gwalior is blessed with some stunning sights but none more than the amazing multi-storeyed Man Mandir Palace, Man Mandir duckswhich dominates the city and takes up the majority of the northern end of Gwalior Fort. It was built in 1508 by Raja Man Singh of the Tomar dynasty, and is decorated with blue, yellow and green tiles depicting parrots and peacocks, ducks, elephants, banana trees and crocodiles.

Sas BahuInside it’s in such good condition, it takes your breath away. At one time it was used as a prison, and the subterranean floors beneath the central courtyard were used as dungeons. There is so much ornate decoration, so many exquisite tiles, so many sudden surprise views to the valley below from unexpected balconies, that you wander around it with a silly grin on your face. Once you’ve explored the Man Mandir palace, there is also the Jain SculpturesGujari Mahal, built for the queen, which now houses an archaeological museum, and the Sas Bahu temples, 11th century Vishnu temples covered with brilliant carvings. At the foot of the fort, best seen from outside, are some very tall Jain sculptures lining the side of the road into the old town. You can appreciate their size best when you see people standing in the same photo!

Mohammed GhausAmongst the other must-see sights in Gwalior are the two Islamic tombs, one of Mohammed Ghaus, a Mughal nobleman, and one of Tansen, the famous singer. The lattice work in the windows is absolutely lattice workstunning and suggests true craftsmanship on behalf of those who created them. It’s worth spending some time here and just appreciating the glorious result of their hard work. We also visited the Jai Vilas Palace, Jai Vilas Palacebuilt in the late 19th century in the Italianate style for the Maharaja of Gwalior. The ex-royal family still live there, but part of the palace has been turned into a museum, showing some of the Maharaja’s toy trainmore eclectic interests. Bewitching chandeliers, elaborate vases, and, most fun of all, a toy train on the long dining table that was used to carry liqueurs around to all his dining guests. How the other half lived.

on the road againAfter that, our tour of Gwalior was done. It just remained for us to bid a quick goodbye to Pawan and to get into Mr Singh’s car for the 75 mile journey north to Agra. The Oberoi hotel in Agra, my favourite hotel in the whole wide world, was waiting for us.

Review – Pinter One, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The New World Order, Mountain Language, One For The Road, Ashes To Ashes, plus five other short pieces, Harold Pinter Theatre, 20th October 2018

Pinter OneBack at the Harold Pinter Theatre for another session of Pinteresque shorts, and an outstanding programme, beautifully sequenced, of nine fascinating pieces – ok, maybe there was one I wasn’t that keen on, but I just don’t think I had the time to pay attention to it. Eight short pieces were crammed into the first half, plus another one-act play after the interval, and a fantastic night of dramatic tension it truly was. I’ve rarely had such a varied and challenging experience in the theatre, on both an intellectual and emotional level.

jonjo-oneillJonjo O’Neill opened the proceedings with Press Conference, a piece Pinter wrote for the 2002 National Theatre show Sketches, and a role which he himself originally performed. To an explosion of confetti that lingers, ironically, in your clothes and on the seats and floor for the rest of the evening, the Minister for Culture is received rapturously in some kind of totalitarian state, and then answers questions about the state attitude to children and women, which includes killing them and raping them (“it was part of an educational process”). It’s so outrageous that you’re completely shocked, but the juxtaposition of upbeat jollity and Mr O’Neill’s excellent performance, means it’s hard not to laugh, even though you hate yourself for doing so. You reassure yourself with the thought “it couldn’t happen here…” but then you look around you at the world today, and wonder…. A perfect introduction to a disturbing evening’s entertainment.

kate-oflynn-and-maggie-steedPrecisely, a 1983 sketch originally performed by Martin Jarvis and Barry Foster, featured Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn, suited up like two overfed and over-indulged politicians, discussing how to carve up the country for some unknown plan that’s clearly just for their own benefit and no one else’s. Maggie Steed in particular reminded me of the way they used to represent Mrs Thatcher in Spitting Image – with Churchill’s suit and cigar – gritty, cynical, powerful. As is nearly always the case with Pinter, the non-specific nature of the threat made it all the more unsettling. Terrifically acted, brief to perform but hard to forget.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThe New World Order, first performed in 1991, shows Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and Lionel (the brilliant Paapa Essiedu) tormenting a naked, silent, blindfolded prisoner (Jonathan Glew), and reminded me so much of the mental torturers Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party only forty years on. Whilst the majority of their vitriol is hurled against the prisoner, the more experienced Des sometimes challenges the more youthful Lionel about his approach, criticising his use of language: (“You called him a c*** last time. Now you call him a prick. How many times do I have to tell you? You’ve got to learn to define your terms and stick to them.”) Like Press Conference, at times it’s incredibly funny, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of terror.

maggie-steed-and-paapa-essieduNext, Mountain Language, a 1988 play that Pinter wrote following a visit to Turkey, although he always insisted that it was not based on the political situation between Turks and Kurds. In some miserable military camp, prisoners are apparently taken captive for the crime of speaking the “mountain language”. They are mountain people, the language is their own language, but it has been outlawed. The deprivation and penalties for transgressing this law are severe. Even though the threat in this play is a little more obvious, it’s no less sinister; and, as in The New World Order, paapa-essieduthere is an element of comedy in the interplay between the captors and interrogators, as well as some nonsensical rules that cannot be followed – such as when the old woman has been bitten by a Dobermann Pinscher but the authorities won’t do anything about it unless they can tell them the name of the dog. Jamie Lloyd’s direction brings out the starkness of the situation and I loved the decision to give the role of the Guard to the disembodied voice of Michael Gambon – a very effective way of increasing the “otherworldly” aspect of the play. Riveting, disturbing, unforgettable.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThen we had Kate O’Flynn performing Pinter’s poem American Football. I think I was still so overwhelmed by the themes and imagery of Mountain Language that I scarcely noticed this short piece. It was written in 1991 as a reaction to the Gulf War, and satirises the action of the American military at war as if they were just playing a game of football. It didn’t, for me, have the stand-out nature of the other pieces; maybe if it had been repositioned in the running order it might have worked better? Genuinely not sure.

jon-culshawThen an unexpected moment of lightness. The Pres and the Officer is a short piece only discovered by his widow Lady Antonia Fraser last year in a notepad; she remarked that his handwriting was quite frail so presumably he wrote it sometime in his final years – he died in 2008. Lady Antonia said she has often been asked what Pinter would have made of Trump – so now we know! This presages the American president so accurately that it takes your breath away. The simple premise: the President gives the order to nuke London. He says they had it coming to them. After a short conversation with his officer, he realises he made a mistake and it should have been Paris. So many questions, so little time. With a guest star playing the unnamed President (I think it was Jon Culshaw) this little sketch is horrifyingly hilarious.

antony-sher-and-paapa-essieduAnother poem next; Death, from 1997, given a sombre but effective reading by Maggie Steed. It takes the form of a clinical set of questions about a dead body that have a strange way of making you think about death and the dead in an unemotional way. A simple, but fascinating poem, which I enjoyed very much, despite its dour subject matter.

quentin-deborneThat led us into the final piece before the interval, One For The Road, and the first time I’d seen Antony Sher on stage since Peter Barnes’ Red Noses for the RSC in 1985. His performance as the creepy, faux-avuncular Nicolas, doing a one-man nice cop nasty cop routine as part of an interrogation procedure, was outstanding and worth the ticket price alone. antony-sher-and-kate-oflynnDominating both Paapa Essiedu’s Victor and Kate O’Flynn’s Gila into nervous wrecks, the most chilling scene was his interrogation of seven-year-old Nicky, their son, played with fantastic confidence by young Quentin Deborne. It was when Nicolas was fingering the neckline of Nicky’s T-shirt you could really feel your sweat forming and your gorge rising. A riveting play with an immaculate performance, and, despite its awfulness, I loved it.

paapa-essieduAll that, and it was only just time for the interval! After the ice-cream and Chardonnay break, it was back for Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams. Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu starred in this moving and disturbing one-act play from 1996; partly a stream of consciousness between a couple in a relationship, partly a sequence of reminiscences and imaginings, partly a conversation with a counsellor in therapy.  paapa-essiedu-and-kate-oflynnBecause Pinter keeps all the references as obscure as possible, this play can mean all things to all people, but there is definitely a suggestion of families being torn apart on the way to a Concentration Camp at the end of the play. Superb performances – and an exceptional lighting design by Jon Clark that added enormously to the mood and the terror.

paapa-essieduAfter the relative frothiness of the afternoon’s Pinter Two programme, this was an emotional sucker punch that left us sitting in our seats for minutes after it had ended, trying to make sense of all that had gone before. Brilliant performances throughout, but it’s Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu who had the majority of the work to do, and they carried it off amazingly. And, to cap it all, Antony Sher’s nauseatingly superb interrogator Nicolas ran off with the Best Characterisation of the Night award. Congratulations to the whole cast for an awe-inspiring production.

Production photos by Marc Brenner