Review – Our Lady of Kibeho, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2019

Our Lady of KibehoTime: 1981; Place: Kibeho, a sleepy town in the southwest of Rwanda. 17-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke, student at Kibeho College, receives the first of many visions of the Virgin Mary. Disbelieved by teachers and fellow students alike, she is ridiculed and accused of attention-seeking, or at best hallucinations, until another student, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka also has a vision. Oldest girl in the school Marie Claire Mukangango bullies and taunts the other girls until she, too, has a vision. Perplexed and confused, the local authorities cannot believe what the girls are saying is true, but nor can they account for the obviously otherworldly experiences the girls have, such as acquiring immense weight or floating above the ground in their beds.

olok10Eventually a papal representative makes the journey from Rome to Kibeho to see for himself and test the evidence of the girls. During these visitations, the Virgin Mary has apparently passed on messages to the girls for the attention of both the Rwandan President and to his Holiness the Pope. When all the townsfolk gather together on the Feast of the Assumption to witness a special visitation that the Virgin Mary has promised, she uses the girls to warn of the Rwandan Genocide and the Kibeho Massacre that would take place ten years later.

olok1This is the UK premiere of this superb play by Katori Hall that was first performed in the US in 2014. With elements of The Crucible, but very much its own play, it’s full of beautifully drawn characters, pin-drop hearing suspense, riveting drama and thorough spookiness. It also reveals the dark rivalry and incipient racism between the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples, which spills out into playground violence and of course presages the atrocities to follow. However, it’s also laced with a surprising amount of humour, with the badinage between the girls, the grumpiness of the nun, the cynicism of the bishop and the culturally contrasting Italianisms of the visiting Father Flavia.

olok9But the heart of the story is not only the extraordinary revelations and experiences of the girls, it’s also the reactions and attitudes of the very human and fallible headmaster, Father Tuyishime, who is undergoing his own questioning and misgivings about his faith. He’s the only authority figure inclined to believe the girls; so when they’re doubted and tested, by association, so is he. When the cold-hearted Father Flavia sticks his needle into Alphonsine’s chest to gauge her reaction, you feel him bleed just as much as she does. His journey (yes, it’s J-word time) is the thread that unifies the play.

olok7I don’t know whether it’s the skill of Ms Hall’s writing, James Dacre’s direction or the individual actors’ performances – probably a combination of all three – but what sets this play apart is the range of wonderfully idiosyncratic characterisations. There are so many superb performances in this production that it’s hard to know where to start. Michelle Asante’s Sister Evangelique is more battleaxe than beneficence; long used to the trying ways of teenage girls, no doubt, she shows all the signs of that nun-like cruel to be kindness that convent girls all over the world have spent their lives coming to terms with. She doesn’t care who she’s snappy with – parents, headmaster, bishop, Papal emissary, they’ve all got to do things her way or there’ll be trouble. She’s probably kind too; which makes for a fascinating character blend. Ms Asante’s performance is a total joy; menacing, sarcastic, manipulative but also vulnerable.

olok3Gabrielle Brooks’ Alphonsine is an excellent study of an ordinary girl projected into a position of greatness without seeking it. Confused, resentful even, of the attention of the Virgin Mary, she’s still working out her role in life; for example, to what extent she finds Father Tuyishime attractive, how much she needs to take control of her own situation, must she comply with the demands of the Vatican and the local authorities. Yasmin Mwanza’s Anathalie is a demure, bullyable, unassuming girl, thrust into the religious limelight, surprised by the influence she seems to have acquired. Pepter Lunkuse’s Marie-Clare is a brilliant portrayal of a young person to whom authority comes naturally but with a tendency to abuse it by bullying and hectoring; and when she, too, is visited by the Virgin Mary, she is forced to fall into line with those she has bullied, but still remains a defiant, difficult, bristly person to deal with. It’s a superb performance.

olok4Leo Wringer is outstanding as the beaming and totally untrustworthy bishop; a man with his eyes on the tourism prize, who manages to toe the Catholic line yet still go home to his wife for his creature comforts. We’ve all met authority figures who have carved out a comfortable, hypocritical niche for themselves and get away with murder, and Mr Wringer conveys this brilliantly. Ewart James Walters is also excellent as the parent whose concern is less for the wellbeing of his daughter and more for the consequences on his income, but still wants to be centre stage when the media roll into town.

olok6The ever-reliable Michael Mears is rivetingly good as Father Flavia from Rome; a controlled blend of sardonic mistrust, sadistic ruthlessness and devastated revelation when he hears the words of the Virgin through the mouth of a child. And there are some smart and strong performances from Michaela Blackburn, Ibinabo Jack and Rima Nsubuga as the other girls at the college, and a plaintive, emotional performance from the multi-talented Keenan Munn-Francis as Emmanuel, the local boy who also catches the religious mania.

olok12A big highlight for me was to see Ery Nzaramba again, mesmeric as Dionysus in The Bacchae a few years ago; once more he excels, this time as Father Tuyishime. He’s one of those actors who dominates the stage, whose emotions you can see simply by looking at his eyes. You immediately connect with his character, identify with him, and feel all the doubts, concerns, injustices, and defeats that he experiences. You connive with his backhanded comments about Sister Evangelique. You tentatively explore any sexual feelings he might have about touching Alphonsine with him. You try to talk him out of his career decision at the end. To be fair, Ms Hall has written a humdinger of a role, and Mr Nzaramba brings it to life magnificently.

olok2I have no hesitation in calling this play a Modern Classic. The riveting storyline, the dynamic characterisations, the superb writing, the dramatic wow-factor. And I haven’t even mentioned Orlando Gough’s music, Jonathan Fensom’s convincing set design or Charles Balfour’s clever and suggestive lighting. Carling don’t do stage productions, but if they did…. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd February and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Review – Pinter Six, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Party Time and Celebration, Harold Pinter Theatre, 12th January 2019

Pinter SixSo after a healthy visit to Wagamama, (ok, don’t mention the Sauvignon Blanc… or the White Chocolate and Ginger Cheesecake), it was back to the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for another pre-show Champagne Package experience and then into the delights of Pinter Six, two one-act plays utilising the same cast, both (on the face of it) celebratory in nature, both highlighting social injustice and the politics of class.

party time castParty Time was written and produced in 1991 and presents a party (no surprises there) where people share suggestions, concerns, prejudices, memories; much like any other party really, but there’s an ever-increasing threat outside which we never fully comprehend, but which bursts on stage and disrupts the charming scene right at the end. Jamie Lloyd has created a very stylised production, where all the partygoers are sitting bolt upright, facing us, in semi-darkness, and they step forward and perform in a small space at the front of the stage john simm in party timewhenever we’re overhearing their part of the ongoing conversation. This creates a much less cosy party environment, and a sense that these characters are on display, being judged. It accentuates their individual isolation, as they remain motionlessly unconnected with those speaking unless they’re part of the same conversation; and Mr Lloyd hasn’t positioned couples together, which makes it even more disconcerting.

eleanor matsuura in party timeIt’s a fantastic mixture of the hilarious and the appalling. John Simm’s Terry is rich but lacking in class; trying to impress Phil Davis’ host Gavin with details of the club, and eventually bestowing honorary membership on him, which you just know he’s going to ignore. Gavin golfs, and sails, and hosts parties. Terry dismisses his wife Dusty’s worries about her brother Jimmy, who is part of the outside problem, whatever that is; so whenever she raises concerns about him she makes Terry appear less attractive a prospect for social climbing. party time laughterMeanwhile Fred and Douglas are discussing the use of power to enforce peace, whilst Liz and Charlotte bicker about tarts (not the custard type), and relationships; and Lady Melissa reflects on how life was better in the good old days. Only the sudden arrival of Jimmy at the end, having emerged from the terrible outdoors, breaks the social chit-chat, his body beaten and bloodied, his mental capacity in delusions and darkness. The party’s over.

gary kemp in party timeIt’s a fantastic ensemble performance, from a cast of experienced Pinter practitioners, all immersed in Pinter lore right up to their elbows. We’d seen John Simm in Pinter’s Betrayal in Sheffield some years back; and he, Ron Cook and Gary Kemp all shone in Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming four years ago; how wise to reunite such a winning team. Mr Simm balances his character’s agreeable façade with his brutal inner emotions on a knife edge, in a gripping and deeply unpleasant portrayal of a worm done good. Mr Davis matches him with a faux-avuncularity that is only wafer-thin; you sense he could snap a body in two with a nod (actually, he wouldn’t do it himself, he’d have trained staff to do it for him). katharine kingsley gary kemp and celia imrie in party timeKatherine Kingsley and Ron Cook make a humorously unlikely couple; and it is left only to Eleanor Matsuura’s Dusty and Celia Imrie’s Melissa to show any element of humanity in this otherwise fake and bitter environment. Party Time may only be 35 minutes long, but its mixture of intimidation and comedy of manners means you’re certainly ready for your interval Chardonnay.

celia imrie in party timeThe second half of this brilliant double-bill is Celebration, first performed in 2000 and the last original play that Pinter wrote. This time we’re in an extremely expensive restaurant where Lambert and Julie are celebrating their wedding anniversary in the company of Matt and Prue (who happen to be Lambert’s brother and Julie’s sister). Financially, they’ve obviously done very well for themselves – well enough for their loud and uncouth behaviour not to cause a problem with the Maitre D’ or the restaurant owner. Russell and Suki are also dining; she once had a fling with Lambert, and when he notices her in the restaurant they all decide to sit together. However, for the purposes of this production, ron cook and celia imrie in celebrationrather like Party Time, they’re already sitting together on one long table and it’s only the lighting flashing on and off over different heads that tells you whose table we’re eavesdropping on. As before, this increases a sense of style and artifice; but unlike Party Time, where you had a feeling of isolation, here you feel that people have been forced together – perhaps under duress. Will sparks fly? Or will everything be nicely controlled by the restaurant staff?

tracy-ann oberman in celebrationAgain, there’s an amazing feel for ensemble work, with split-second accuracy of timing between the two “tables” being a vital component of keeping the play moving. Ron Cook, Phil Davis, Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman are all delightfully squiffy and embody various shades of grotesque as they gracelessly trample over everything in life from the comfort of their well-stocked dinner table. phil davis in celebrationKatherine Kingsley’s Suki is another of Pinter’s innocents abroad, with a kindly open heart and a thirst for knowledge, but saddled with John Simm’s self-confessed psychopath of a husband Russell, whom she tries to both impress and subjugate herself. They make for a very entertaining couple.

eleanor matsuura in celebrationAdd to the mix, Eleanor Matsuura’s alarmingly honest Maitre D’, Sonia, Gary Kemp’s painfully tolerant restaurateur Richard, and Abraham Popoola’s hilariously delusional waiter, whose gossipy tales of his close association with all the greats from T. S. Eliot to the Archduke Ferdinand you can almost believe, and you have a scintillating sequence of dramatic highlights that meant my smile never left my lips for the entire play. A fabulous, joyfully funny and satisfying piece that works as a perfect accompaniment to Party Time. abraham popoola in celebrationOf all the Pinter at the Pinters that I’ve seen so far, this is the one I most want to see again. It’s on in repertory with Pinter Five until 26th January, and I very warmly recommend it to you!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Pinter Five, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The Room, Victoria Station, and Family Voices, Harold Pinter Theatre, 12th January 2019

Pinter FiveHaving really enjoyed Pinters One and Two, we regrettably had to miss out on Three and Four due to other commitments and travelling. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it. Nevertheless, we were back at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for the next two shows in Jamie Lloyd’s innovative and exciting season.

rupert graves in the roomPinter Five for the matinee then, not before enjoying the Champagne in the Ambassador Lounge which you get as part of the Champagne Package that went with Row D Stalls seats. Given that everything is expensive nowadays (sounding like a grumpy old man) the Champagne Package was excellent value and very enjoyable. I’d recommend it!

nicholas woodeson in the roomSo to the matter in hand, and first off, The Room, Harold Pinter’s first play, written and produced in 1957, a bleak one-act drama where the comic fringes lighten the load of the menace that lies beneath. It feels very much a forerunner of his next play, The Birthday Party, with similarities in its setting, characters, violence and other themes. Mrs Rose Hudd prepares a meagre meal for her husband Bert whilst worrying about the cold weather outside and the state of the roads. He has to go out – but says nothing about it – indeed, he says nothing about anything. Landlord Mr Kidd (if he is indeed the landlord) comes to call, to check on the pipes and the plumbing, whilst Mr Hudd takes to his bed. Later, a younger couple, Mr and Mrs Sands, pop by to see if the landlord is in as they want to take a look at a room to rent. colin macfarlane in the roomLater still, a blind man, Mr Riley, visits Mrs Hudd, calls her Sal (we know her as Rose) and has a message from her father to please come home. Mr Hudd returns, sees them together, talks meaninglessly about his experience in the car, and then beats and kicks Riley into a corner. Maybe he kills him, maybe he doesn’t. Rose is left clutching her eyes, saying that she can’t see. Curtain.

colin macfarlane in victoria stationAfterwards, Mrs Chrisparkle said that she enjoyed it, but she wished she knew what it really meant. That’s the trouble with Pinter. The change of name (Rose to Sal), the confusion over the position of Mr Kidd, the inability to see (Riley is blind, Rose can’t see at the end), the menace lurking just under the surface. All these things must mean something. But, equally, they could mean nothing; other than that which is self-evidently acted out on stage. It could simply be a slice of life, a series of unrelated incidents that just happen in the same location and to the same person, and any menace that arises is merely what we perceive. Personally, I think the truth is halfway between the two. There’s some symbolism at work there; however, its meaning is what you make it.

rupert graves in victoria stationThe Hudds’ grisly bare room is effectively brought to life in Soutra Gilmour’s featureless and colourless set, and, as you would expect, Jane Horrocks gives a superb performance as the woman trapped in a featureless, colourless life, never betraying any emotions unless they’re based on fear. Rupert Graves’ sullen and taciturn Bert keeps his own counsel mainly, one feels, because he can’t be arsed to reply to his wife’s inanities. But when he returns and unleashes his violence on the defenceless Riley, the savagery is real. Nicholas Woodeson brings some confused humour to the role of Mr Kidd, whom we feel is hiding more than is revealing and Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi as the Sands create a fascinating power-struggle between themselves whilst still – on the surface at least – remaining polite with their temporary host. Colin MacFarlane’s Riley feels like a lamb to the slaughter from the word go. It’s a tough watch, and at the end you feel disturbed and despondent at the way events turned out. But I guess that’s the point.

luke thallon in family voicesAfter the interval, we’re in for some brilliant light relief. Victoria Station, written in 1982, is a short two-hander between a taxi operator control and Driver 274, out and about somewhere around Crystal Palace. The controller wants him to pick someone up from Victoria Station. But he’s never heard of the place. In fact he seems to be in some existential nightmare where he can’t recognise or understand anything, apart from the fact that he’s fallen in love with the passenger on board. The controller tries all sorts of ideas to get 274 to buck his ideas up – but no avail. In the end the controller closes down the office so that he can meet 274 and maybe go to Barbados on holiday together. Or maybe not.

 luke thallon in family voices 1Played for laughs, with immaculate comic timing and expression by Colin MacFarlane as the controller and Rupert Graves as the driver, this is a much-needed eruption of comedy joy. Given that we’re watching what might well be one man’s descent into loneliness/depression/mental illness/hell, the play could easily be performed with much greater seriousness and gravity; but making it upbeat gives it an additional strength all of its own. I loved it; I thought it was hilarious and ridiculous, without being cruel. As a short play, it deserves to be much better known.

rupert graves in family voicesThat led us on to our final piece, Family Voices, originally written as a radio play in 1980. Three characters, only called Voices one, two and three, speak of their sense of dislocation and loss. Voice one, a young man, is surviving on his own in some unspecified shared accommodation and speaks what sounds like a letter home; but voice two, whom we presume is his mother, tells us that she never hears from her son. So maybe these letters are never sent, or never received; or maybe they aren’t mother and son at all. Voice three is his father, speaking from the dead: “I have so much to say to you, But I am quite dead. What I have to say to you will never be said.” Those last lines brought a gulp to the throats of both me and Mrs C as we thought of our own dead fathers. Sad and haunting; but also strangely comforting.

jane horrocks in family voicesOnce again Jane Horrocks was riveting as the abandoned mother figure, and Rupert Graves solemn but supportive as the father. Luke Thallon took us on a moving journey as his Voice One character tried to find his way in life but failed. Three related figures with the will to communicate with each other but lacking the ability or the method. I found it very moving.

luke thallon in family voices 2So with the exception of the fifteen minutes of fun that was Victoria Station, this was a very introspective and hard-hitting programme that took us into some of the darker areas of human existence. Fascinating to experience – and also with some superb performances, Pinter Five continues in the repertory until 26th January.

Review – The Snow Maiden, The Russian State Ballet of Siberia, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th January 2019

Russian State Ballet of SiberiaIt’s always a pleasure to catch some classical ballet from time to time; and as neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had ever seen The Snow Maiden, this visit from the Russian State Ballet of Siberia seemed like a golden opportunity. I always say (stop me if you’ve heard it already) that dance done well is the finest thing you can see on a stage; and dance done badly is the opposite! Although we haven’t seen this dance company before, I had no doubt that they were going to do a good job; previous visits to the Royal and Derngate by the Moscow City Ballet were various kinds of exquisite. However, I do recall a time when Mrs C and I saw a production of Swan Lake in St Petersburg – ok, it wasn’t the Mariinsky, but we had high hopes – and it was just appalling. Bored dancers going through the motions with no thought of artistry so that Japanese tourists could take photos. So we’re always a little bit concerned about dipping our pointe shoes into the murky world of lesser known Russian ballet companies.

in the frost forestBut there was no need to be worried about the Russian State Ballet of Siberia, or to give them their other name, the Krasnoyarsk State Ballet. They’ve visited the UK sixteen times since their first Christmas season in Cardiff in 2002, so I’m surprised I haven’t come across them before. For their current UK tour they have six full length ballets to tempt us with, three of which were performed during their brief three days at Northampton. They’re clearly a hard-working bunch, with only a few days off during their lengthy tour, details of which will follow at the end.

the-snow-maiden-russian-state-ballet-of-siberiaProduction values are commendable. Their relatively simple but extremely effective and attractive sets, with gently moving images like snowfall or water ripples, actually made our Tuesday night audience gasp with appreciation when the curtain went up – you don’t get that with Rambert. Anatoliy Chepurmoy’s sizeable orchestra gave Tchaikovsky’s tunes plenty of attack; full, live music to accompany a ballet always seems to create a greater sense of occasion, for audience and performers alike.

mizgir regretsOne doesn’t tend to go to the ballet to witness an intricate tale; but, as far as story-telling goes, this company did a very good job. The Snow Maiden runs away from the snowy forest because she wants to live life with real people; doesn’t seem unreasonable. She chances on a village where she is invited to join the youngsters watch a young merchant, Mizgir, choose a bride from the single village girls. He chooses Kupava, and all seems well at first, until the Snow Maiden bursts on the scene and she completely steals his heart, much to Kupava’s distress. If he liked it, then he should have put a ring on it. She runs away (again) and meets her mother Spring (the beautiful and graceful Anastasiia Belonogova), who bestows on her the capacity to love. But Spring warns the Snow Maiden that she must stay out of sunlight. Mizgir finds her, falls in love with her all over again, but as soon as she is revealed in the sun’s rays, she melts away. And the moral of this tale is: never forget your Factor 50.

snow maidenFor our performance, the role of the Snow Maiden was danced by Anastasiia Osokina, who, according to the programme, isn’t a soloist but a member of the Corps de Ballet. If that’s the case, her career is definitely on the up. However, I think that might be a mistake in the programme as she appears to have been dancing with the company since 2003 with many notable roles to her name. Whatever, she’s an exquisite dancer with superb expression (something you can sometimes miss with Russian ballerinas) and a joy to watch. When she first meets Lel, the young shepherd danced by Daniil Kostylev, they shared one or two ever so slightly ropey balance moments which I can only put down to slight lack of rehearsal – unsurprising with their performance schedule – because separately, they were as sure-footed as mountain gazelles.

KupavaWhere the ballet really came alive for me was the extensive pas de deux between Ivan Karnaukhov’s Mizgir and Elena Svinko’s Kupava; partly because that is the most luscious of Tchaikovsky’s tunes in this particular ballet (was it borrowed from another of his works, because I can’t locate it on any recordings!) and partly because Ms Svinko’s elegant displeasure at the Snow Maiden’s butting in and stealing her merchant was gripping! Both dancers filled the stage with their superb technical prowess, Mr Karnaukhov leaping from end to end, and Ms Svinko channelling her emotions in the sumptuous grace of her dance. Mr Karnaukhov was also fantastic in the second Act, where his athletic dancing movingly told the character’s mental agony at the Snow Maiden’s unexpected and puddly departure.

snow maiden1After all those high emotions, next came the appearance of the three clowns, led by Maxim Ikonostasov, who provided an amusing and thrilling interlude before the final scene. Looking at it from a dramatic point of view, it’s ironically amusing how quickly Kupava gets over her disappointment. There are a few disconsolate tableaux, and the inevitable graceful salutary waving of the Corps de Ballet on the sidelines, before Lel makes his mark and takes advantage of being Last Man Standing. Their final pas de deux together was typical of the usual classical Russian Wrap-up of a ballet, with some terrific leaps and pirouettes which really impressed and entertained.

Lel and Snow MaidenBritish provincial audiences may not play along with the Russian practice of lengthy rounds of applause after each element of dance, which is why the show comes down earlier than you might expect. But it doesn’t mean we didn’t appreciate it; and the applause at curtain call was sustained and hearty! If you fancy a spot of classical Russian ballet without having to pay Covent Garden prices, I’d really recommend the Russian State Ballet of Siberia. Their UK tour continues until 16th March, taking in – deep breath – Norwich, High Wycombe, Bournemouth, Darlington, Swindon, Wimbledon, Southend, Brighton, Bristol, Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Hull, Leicester, Basingstoke, Ipswich, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Halifax and Oxford. And then they get a day off!

Review of the Year 2018 – The Ninth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome again to the glittering excitement that is the announcement of this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has diligently assessed each and every eligible performance (i.e. I’ve thought hard about them) to create longlists then shortlists and then finally the ultimate prize for some splendid practitioners of their arts. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 11th January 2018 to 7th January 2019.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

Last year the Committee decided to combine all the dance productions seen in the year, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in other theatres, and this year we have decided to continue this practice. That gives us seven shows to consider, and it’s been remarkably difficult to come to a conclusion, but we have.

In 3rd place, the two hilarious and skilful programmes that made up the triumphant return of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (The Trocks to you and me) at the Peacock Theatre, London, in September.

In 2nd place, the immaculate and riveting performances of the dancers from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 1st place, never failing to hit the mark on technique, emotion and sheer entertainment, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, London, in December.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We only managed five classical concerts in 2018 but the quality was, as usual, excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the Committee insisted, so here goes:

In 3rd place, Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, with an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music including Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor played by Alexander Romanovsky, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 2nd place, Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, including a magical performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, and Michael Petrov giving us a spellbinding performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rory Macdonald, at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

In 1st place, A Night at the Ballet, a superb programme of ballet music including Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, with Nathan Fifield conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June. A clean sweep for the RPO!

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very few contenders this year, and it looks remarkably like last year’s awards, but here’s the top three:

In 3rd place, the unstoppable Damian Williams starring in Peter Pan at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, the humour-enhanced reincarnation of the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2018.

In 1st place, the utter filth and pure showbiz hilarity of Snow White at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Eight big-name stand-up comics qualify for this year, and it’s very difficult to judge because they were all excellent in their own way, so I can only rank them in the order that I enjoyed their show. I only listed a top three last year but this time I need a top five:

In 5th place, the beautifully constructed and thought provoking Choose Your Battles tour from Lucy Porter, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 4th place, the fearless use of a range of awkward subjects brilliantly mixed up by Paul Chowdhry in his Live Innit tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

In 3rd place, the quirkily intellectual and extremely clever Total Eclipse of Descartes tour by Rob Newman, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 2nd place, and the winner of last year’s best Screaming Blue stand-up, the sheer delight of Daliso Chaponda and his What The African Said tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, on unbeatable form, the fantastic Devil May Care tour by Marcus Brigstocke, at the Royal and Derngate in October.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

It’s been a great year of Screaming Blue Murder nights; a longlist of seventeen comics brought forward a shortlist of seven and here are the top five:

In 5th place, hilarious and outrageous as always, Robert White (28th September)

In 4th place, for his ability to invest a room with such sheer happiness, Jonny Awsum (13th April)

In 3rd place, always expect the unexpected with the extraordinary Russell Hicks (16th February)

In 2nd place, a new name to me and a superb talent with refreshing material, Stefano Paolini (12th October)

In 1st place, again, a first timer at Screaming Blue (I believe) but what a gifted way of weaving comedy magic out of some tough material, Sean Meo (14th September)

Last year, the Committee introduced a new category; as we continue to see so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award. Again, a long longlist of nineteen was whittled down to a shortlist of ten, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the sheer professionalism and endless inventiveness of Patrick Monahan, in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show, Goals, at the Comedy Crate Festival, Black Prince, Northampton in July.

In 4th place, the fantastic delivery and fresh material of Drew Fraser (Upfront Comedy) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 3rd place, the musical madness and effervescence of Friz Frizzle, Song Ruiner (Leicester Comedy Festival, Late Night Jokes On Us, Manhattan 34 Bar, Leicester) in February.

In 2nd place, the fantastic comedy character creation that is Barbara Nice (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, a solid gold discovery of great confident delivery and material, Kane Brown (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

Best Musical.

I saw seventeen musicals this year, and only – perhaps – three weren’t really up to scratch. So that meant it was a tough choice to come up with a top five. But I did it!

In 5th place, and still very fresh in the memory, the superb production of Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2019.

In 4th place, the invigorating and hugely emotional revival of Barnum, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in February.

In 3rd place, the stunningly technological revival of Chess at the London Coliseum that we saw in May.

In 2nd place, the visually and musically overpowering experience that is the new look Les Miserables, at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 1st place, believe the hype, it simply blew us both away; Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London in December.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 14 such plays this year; one of which we left at the interval, but most of the rest were very good indeed. Here’s my top five:

In 5th place, Alan Bennett’s quirky, funny and sad examination of the current state of the NHS in Allelujah, at the Bridge Theatre, London in July.

In 4th place, the very challenging and in many ways absolutely bonkers A Very Very Very Dark Matter, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in October.

In 3rd place, a production which most other people didn’t seem to appreciate but I thought was masterful in so many ways, Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in March.

In 2nd place, the abstract, fanciful, and totally adorable, Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 1st place, the heart-stopping, tragic, hilarious and exciting The Lovely Bones, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Best Revival of a Play.

I saw twenty revivals, the majority of which were absolute smashers. Eight made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the immaculate characterisation and brilliantly realised humour of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the RSC in Stratford in August.

In 4th place, the powerful performances and clarity of story-telling of Timon of Athens, by the RSC in Stratford in December.

In 3rd place, the brilliantly clever updating of Tartuffe by the RSC in Stratford in September.

In 2nd place, the eye-opening and redefining version of Hamlet by the RSC touring to the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, the fabulously funny and joyful revival of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, by the RSC in Stratford in April.

A clean sweep for the RSC is pretty amazing! However, as always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – and my biggest disappointment was the tedious and generally pointless production of Macbeth, also by the RSC in Stratford in April.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 20 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the individual tour-de-force of and by Alison Skilbeck in Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 4th place, another gripping solo performance in Fear No Colours’ Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

In 3rd place, the very funny and beautifully written Gayface, written by Chet Wilson (The Space on North Bridge)

In 2nd place, the anarchic and hilarious Holy Sh*t by Jack Fairhurst (Paradise in the Vault)

In 1st place, the play that had us in stitches for the first 75% and then tears for the rest of it, Sheffield University Theatre Company’s incredible My Mate Dave Died by Mike Alexander (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

As always, a really hard one to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Wilf Walsworth for My Mate Dave Died (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

In 2nd place, Alison Skilbeck for Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 1st place, Chris Duffy for Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Only eight shows this year gives this top three:

In 3rd place, still as funny as ever but this year eclipsed by a couple of truly brilliant shows, Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, a comic we have seen many times before but never on fire like this, the fantastic Abigoliah Schamaun in Do You Know Who I Think I Am?! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 1st place, someone who tickled our funnybone in a way it hadn’t been tickled before, Olaf FalafelThere’s no I in idiot (Laughing Horse @ The Pear Tree)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

A short list of ten provides this top five, which was agony to choose, so I decided to favour new talent over more established artists:

In 5th place, the always hilarious and increasingly popular Foil Arms and Hog, Craicling (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 4th place, the emotion-packed and fantastically musical, John Partridge – Stripped (Assembly Checkpoint)

In 3rd place, always worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Taming of the Shrew with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, a brilliant comedy find from the likeable Patrick McPherson and Zac Peel – Camels (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 1st place, throwing away all the rule books, the brilliant Garry Starr Performs Everything (Underbelly Cowgate)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so awful we had to walk out at a convenient break (along with the majority of the audience), was Hillary’s Kitchen (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

Best Local Production

This would normally include the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections. However, of these groups, I only saw productions by the University students, so they sweep the board!

In 5th place, the 2018-19 3rd Year Students’ production of A Christmas Carol at the Isham Dark Studio in December.

In 4th place, Ytho’s production of O,FFS that they took to Edinburgh, but which I saw at the University in October.

In 3rd place, from the Flash Festival, Blue Shift Theatre’s production of Deciding What to do with Dad.

In 2nd place, again from the Flash Festival, Open Eye Theatre’s production of Drained.

In 1st place, the 2017-18 3rd Year Students’ production of Accused at St Peter’s Church in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Here are the top five, they were all fantastic in their own way:

In 5th place, Sharon Rose as Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Alexandra Burke as Svetlana in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 3rd place, Rebecca Lock as Lilli/Katherine in Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Charity in Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London in February.

In 1st place, Caroline Quentin as the Duchess of Hareford in Me and My Girl at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

In 5th place, Ash Hunter as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Killian Donnelly as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 3rd place, Tim Howar as Freddie in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 2nd place, Dom Hartley-Harris as George Washington in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 1st place, Callum Francis as Lola in Kinky Boots at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Fourteen in the rather long shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Penelope Keith as Mrs St Maugham in The Chalk Garden, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in June.

In 4th place, Sophie Stanton as Mrs Rich in The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in April.

In 3rd place, Zoe Wanamaker as Meg in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 2nd place, Kathryn Turner as Timon in Timon of Athens, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in December.

In 1st place, Christine Beaumont as Susie in The Lovely Bones at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Another long shortlist, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, but here is the top five:

In 5th place, a short appearance, but what a masterclass, Sir Antony Sher as Nicolas in One for the Road, part of Pinter One, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in October.

In 4th place, Ben Whishaw as Brutus in Julius Caesar, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 3rd place, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine in Tamburlaine the Great, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in September.

In 2nd place, Toby Jones as Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet in the RSC’s Hamlet, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in March.

Theatre of the Year.

For the fourth year running there’s no change in the Number one theatre but we have a new Number two! Continuing to present an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre/Swan Theatre as runner-up.

Didn’t quite exceed last year’s record number of shows seen but still managed to do quite well with 178 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2019!

Review – Peter Pan, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2018

Peter PanHaving had a wonderful afternoon in the company of Fred and Lilli, Mrs Chrisparkle, Lord and Lady Prosecco and I regrouped after a brief rest to see Peter Pan at the Lyceum. Our annual visit to Sheffield would not be complete without the usual two and a half hours of the sheer joyful childishness of feeling ten years old again. As usual, Damian Williams returned as the fat bloke in a dress (his words), this time as Mrs Smee – we never found out what happened to Smee; I can only assume he suffocated.

damian-williamsWhat sets the Sheffield panto apart from all the rest is its pure energy. There may well be (indeed there are) pantos that are more lavishly produced, with starrier names and with bigger song and dance numbers. But when I’m in the Lyceum, laughing along with a thousand other souls, there’s simply nowhere else I’d rather be. There are, of course, all the usual running gags – the patter sketch which is just an excuse to make puns out of fruit and vegetables, the-castthe constant comparison with the Rotherham panto, and, naturally, the famous Lyceum bench scene, where we constantly shout out It’s Behind You as a ghostie picks off members of the cast one by one till only Mr Williams is left – and we all join in with Well! We’ll have to do it again, then, won’t we? Mrs C and I continue to use that phrase at appropriate moments the whole year long.

damian-williams-and-gemma-huntAs usual Mr Williams is just sensational. His constant asides, his stupid laugh, his magical connection with the audience, his infectious sense of fun, and his determination that every show should be even more enjoyable than the last, means that he is simply the best in the business. That’s why we have to keep coming back!

shaun-williamsonOur baddie this year was Shaun Williamson, who’ll never lose his association with a certain well-known soap opera; indeed, at one point Mr Williams turns to the audience and said You didn’t expect to see Barry from Eastenders doing Taylor Swift, did you? We certainly didn’t. Other things we didn’t expect to see were Mr Williams emerging from the Tardis dressed like the Jodie Whitaker Doctor Who (well, it is Sheffield, after all); Wendi Peters as Mrs Darling singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd, wendi-petersallegedly as a lullaby but forgetting that it’s originally when Mrs Lovett is trying to track Tobias down so he can be made into a meat pie; or two new characters – Ethel the Overacting Pirate (I don’t know how Emily Watkins kept up that hearty performance for the entire show), and Dave the Don’t Care Pirate (fantastic sulking from Emily McAvoy until Mr Williams deliberately made her giggle).

shaun-williamson-and-damian-williamsMr Williamson grabbed the baddie role with both hands (well, one hand and one hook) and revelled in it completely. He gave a delightfully stagey performance, whilst still being the perfect straight man foil to Mr Williams’ never-ending one-liners. emily-watkinsHe also has a surprisingly good singing voice! Ms Peters, of course, has a fantastic vocal range and enjoyed playing with her characterisations of a very posh Mrs Darling, an Estuary (appropriately) Mermaid and a right-northern Big Chief Squatting Cow.

gemma-huntNot being a CBBC or Channel 5 Milkshake watcher, I’d never seen Gemma Hunt (Tiger Lily) or David Ribi (Peter Pan) before, but they both threw themselves into the fun of the role; Ms Hunt in particular has a very warm and entertaining stage presence, and I was very pleased to be on her side of the auditorium when it came to the traditional out-singing the other lot number towards the end of the show. (For the record, it was a draw between the two sides. Yet again! How does that always happen?) Jo Osmond was a very punchy Tinkerbell – samantha-dorrance-and-david-ribiI bet she could get you into all sorts of trouble if she was your best friend – and Samantha Dorrance perfect as a very sweet and lovable Wendy; as usual, her enhanced affections for Peter went right over his head. Boys, eh, what are we like? For added thrills and spills this year, we had the very entertaining Diamond Acrobats, all the way from Tanzania; and our children on stage were the Red Team – full of fun and some extremely good acting too!

jo-osmondWith lively music, a cheerful ensemble, a very funny script (of course) and that fathomless energy that the Sheffield panto always inspires, this was another fantastic end to our Christmas season. Cinderella awaits this December – we’ve already booked!

Production photos by Robert Day

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Moving Finger (1943)

The Moving FingerIn which brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton move to the tranquil country town of Lymstock to help with his recovery after a flying accident. But instead of quiet rural life they become embroiled in a hunt for a poison-pen letter writer who appears to have driven one poor resident to suicide. When another body is discovered, the police begin to investigate; and are stumped until one Miss Marple is invited along to consider the evidence. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

British MuseumThe book is dedicated “To my friends Sydney and Mary Smith”. He was Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum; by all accounts a charismatic and thought-provoking man who always stirred Agatha’s imagination and brain, and the two of them loved to exchange intellectual banter together. His wife Mary was a painter; and the couple remained good friends with Agatha and Max throughout their lives. The Moving Finger was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in eight parts between March and May 1942. It was first serialised in the UK in Women’s Pictorial in an abridged form, in six parts, in October and November 1942 under the slightly shorter title, Moving Finger. The full book was first published in the US in July 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, only two months after her previous book, Five Little Pigs. It was published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in June 1943. Like Three Act Tragedy, the American version of the book is abridged by about 9,000 words from the UK version.

village-lifeThis has always been one of my favourite Christie novels. It hits the ground running at a tremendous pace, it has an intriguing and relatively unusual plotline and the central characters of Jerry and Joanna are very well drawn and completely likeable; quirky, mickey-taking, modern young things, Their growing romances as the plot develops are charming to observe, and Christie writes with a humorous flair and a very accurate sense of village life, with some intense characters. Sadly, it didn’t take me long to remember whodunit, but even so it doesn’t disturb one’s enjoyment of the narrative. Christie herself thought that this one of her best books.

after accidentIt’s narrated in the first person by Jerry, an amiable, slightly feckless fellow of sufficient means that it matters not one jot that he’s unable to undertake any form of work or rigorous exercise. Life for him and Joanna is a long round of lunches, afternoon teas and mock sibling rivalry. The reader identifies himself with Jerry so readily that the “I” of the narrative almost becomes the reader’s own perspective of the book, which makes it a quick, easy and comforting read. At one stage he points out a fact that he says, in retrospect, should have stood out as a huge clue to solving the mystery – that the “a” of Barton had been changed to the “u” of Burton, on the envelope containing the letter opened by Joanna. In retrospect, he’s right; but at the time you’re too deep down in the narrative to come up for air and try to work that one out for yourself. Still, it’s very decent of him (and Christie) to telegraph a major clue for us to recognise in that way.

dresden dollPart of the appeal of this book is the superb evocation of country life in a rural backwater. The Burtons rent from Miss Emily Barton, “a charming old lady who matched her house in an incredible way.” She’s often described as looking like a Dresden doll with formal petticoats and all that entails; and clearly her chintziness stems from her upbringing and her environment. “I must confess I did shrink from the idea of having Men here!” squeals Miss Barton, to whom the presence of a man in a house felt no more comfortable than having a horse in the house; probably less so. It’s the invasion of the outside world in the form of Jerry and Joanna that makes the disruption of the country life so interesting. Miss Barton “inquired diffidently if I smoked.” “Like a chimney,” said Joanna. “But then,” she pointed out, “so do I.” “Of course, of course. So stupid of me. I’m afraid, you know, I haven’t moved with the times […] yes, everyone smokes now. The only thing is, there are no ashtrays in the house.” […] “We won’t put down cigarette ends on your nice furniture, that I do promise you” replies Joanna. Times do change; today the Burtons would almost certainly not be allowed to smoke in a rented property.

witchThis is a world and a time when neighbours like Emily Barton “came solemnly and left cards. Her example was followed by Mrs Symmington, the lawyer’s wife, Miss Griffith, the doctor’s sister, Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife, and Mr Pye of Prior’s End. Joanna was very much impressed. “I didn’t know,” she said in an awestruck voice, “that people really called – with cards.” “That is because, my child,” I said, “you know nothing about the country.” At first Joanna can’t adapt to the country style of dress: “she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect. She had sheer silk stockings and some irreproachable but brand new brogues.” Jerry advises she should wear “an old tweed skirt, preferably of dirty green or faded brown. You’d wear a nice cashmere jumper matching it, and perhaps a cardigan coat, and you’d have a felt hat and thick stockings and old shoes.” Christie goes to great length to describe the town and its heritage; phrases like “rival butchers” and a “hideous school” tell you so much of the quality and tone of life there. And of course, it wouldn’t be a country town if it didn’t have a witch; so everyone suspects Mrs Cleat, of being the letter-writer. Mrs Cleat may or may not be a witch, but she’s well aware of the usefulness of the reputation. “Mrs Cleat came from a family of ‘wise women’ […] and she’s taken pains to cultivate the legend. She’s a queer woman with a bitter and sardonic sense of humour. It’s been easy enough for her, if a child cut its finger or had a bad fall, or sickened with mumps, to nod her head and say, “yes he stole my apples last week” or “he pulled my cat’s tail”. “

PoliceThe official investigation into the wrongdoings in Lymstock is undertaken by Superintendent Nash, a man who impresses Jerry as “the best type of CID county superintendent. Tall, soldierly, with quiet reflective eyes and a straightforward unassuming manner.” He brings in Inspector Graves from London to assist, because Graves has experience with other anonymous letter cases. “Inspector Graves smiled mournfully. I reflected that a life spent in the pursuit of anonymous letter writers must be singularly depressing. Inspector Graves, however, showed a kind of melancholy enthusiasm. “They’re all the same, these cases,” he said in a deep lugubrious voice like a depressed bloodhound.” However, they wouldn’t get to the bottom of it all without a certain Miss Marple from St Mary Mead.

Magic trick on stageIt had only been a year or so since we had last met Miss Marple, and this will be her final appearance in a Christie novel for seven years. She makes a delayed entrance; it’s not until 117 pages have passed that Jerry makes a mention of “an amiable elderly lady who was knitting something with white fleecy wool”. She is a friend of Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife (whom we will meet again in The Pale Horse, some eighteen years in the future), and is staying as a house guest at the vicarage. She instantly pricks her ears up at the mention of murder and offers us a very incisive comment about the nature of “successful” murder: “To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick […] You’ve got to make people look at the wrong thing and in the wrong place – misdirection, they call it, I believe.” That’s very much at the heart of the crime in this book. No wonder, later on, Mrs Dane Calthorp says of Miss Marple: “that woman knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known.” Apart from those little insights, there’s nothing more for us to learn about the character of the old lady in this book.

plymstockRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Sadly, there’s no such place as Lymstock, although there is a Plymstock, which is an outer suburb of Plymouth, which is where I expect she got the inspiration. Combeacre, home of Colonel Appleton, Nether Mickford, where Rose the cook lives, and Exhampton, where Mildmay is a solicitor, are also fictional towns, although it’s not hard to see how they could be concatenations of other better-known places. Of course, when Jerry goes to London, he visits Harley Street which is most definitely real.

kitkatMoving on to some of the other references in the book; “merely kit-kat” says Jerry to Joanna, as the latter is teasing Dr Griffith for having walked past her rudely in the street. Merely kit-kat? What relevance is a chocolate snack? I’ve tried hard to work out whether this is some form of mid-20th century slang but I came to a standstill. Any ideas? Similarly, “bow at a venture”, which is what Jerry says to Griffith when he questions whether the Symmingtons’ son might have different parentage. To “draw a bow at a venture” is an old saying that comes from the Bible (1 Kings, 22:34), and means to make a random remark which may hit the truth. Well, I never knew that.

sir edward greyJerry defends the art of not working in a brusque conversation with Aimée Griffith, where he cites Sir Edward Grey, who was sent down from Oxford for “incorrigible idleness”. Sir Edward, who had died in 1933, had indeed been a lazy student, but managed to create a career that included being Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1905 to 1916 under Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, as well as being the MP for Berwick upon Tweed.

winged-victory-of-samothrace-3When Jerry is talking to Elsie Holland about the second death, he notes “as she flashed around the corner of the stairs, I caught my breath. For a minute I caught a glimpse of a Winged Victory, deathless and incredibly beautiful, instead of a conscientiousness nursery governess.” Forgive my ignorance, gentle reader, but I had no idea what Jerry was referring to. But it’s the Winged Victory of Samothrace, on display in the Louvre Museum, a marble Hellenistic sculpture of Nike (the Greek goddess of victory), that was created about the 2nd century BC. You live and learn.

oh fair doveChristie quotes a Shakespeare sonnet: “So are you to my thoughts as food to life, Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground” – this is Sonnet 75. Jerry also sings a song to himself: “Oh maid, most dear, I am not here I have no place, no part, No dwelling more, by sea nor shore, But only in your heart” – this is “Oh Fair Dove, Oh Fond Dove” written by Jean Bigelow in the 1860s.

meerschaumDid you know that Meerschaum pipes change colour with age and with use? Nor did I until I read that Jerry broke his by accident when he dropped it in astonishment at something Megan said. Who said that Christie isn’t educational?

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book are both quite small, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Megan’s allowance is £40 a year – and she says you can’t do much on that. At today’s rate, that’s the equivalent of about £1300, so she’s absolutely right. The other sum is when she asks Jerry for a penny so she can buy some chocolate. How much is one old penny in today’s money? It’s about 30p. There’s inflation for you. That wouldn’t buy you anything!

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

Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in March 1971, price 5/-. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a pestle (but no mortar), with a cranberry coloured glass of… water? on top of an old handwritten piece of vellum. The pestle was probably used to commit the second murder, and the glass could contain dissolved cyanide… but the old scroll? Not a clue.

How many pages until the first death: 43. Sometimes you want a death to occur quite quickly, so as to keep the interest going. However, this is such a well-written book that you don’t think about it!

Funny lines out of context:

“I should imagine the people in these country places tend to be inbred – and so you would get a fair amount of queers.”

Memorable characters:

There are plenty of well fleshed-out characters to enjoy. Jerry and Joanna are a good starting point, townies camping out in the countryside and liable to make loads of mistakes. Prissy Mr Pye, blustering Miss Griffith, domineering Mrs Dane Calthrop, nudge-nudge wink-wink Marcus Kent all leave an enjoyable impression. And Partridge, the unforgiving maid to Miss Barton whom Jerry and Joanna inherit, is a great creation. As Jerry/Christie writes: “it was Partridge who brought the news of the tragedy. Partridge enjoys calamity. Her nose always twitches ecstatically when she has to break bad news of any kind.”

Christie the Poison expert:

The first person to die in the book consumes a solution of cyanide kept in the potting shed, used to destroy wasps’ nests. Today that all seems highly dangerous to keep such things in the household. There is some discussion in the book as to whether one would be more likely to take Prussic Acid – the old name for Hydrogen Cyanide – or some kind of soporific that would kill you more gently. Dr. Griffith describes Prussic Acid as “more dramatic and is pretty certain to do the trick.”

Class/social issues of the time:

A few issues raise their head, as they nearly always do. Much as I like the character of Jerry, from time to time he’s an unutterable snob, and he makes some assumptions that we will agree with him – and I don’t think we do! Trying to establish the writer of the poison-pen letters, Graves is convinced it’s a local woman. “I shouldn’t have thought one of these bucolic women down here would have had the brains” says Jerry. Bucolic is a harsh word to describe a person; and he falls into the trap of assuming country people and stupid people. Wrong, snob! In a later conversation he talks of “hitting miserable little maidservants on the head”; the word miserable shows a deep-seated dislike of working-class people; and later, again, he equates being homeless with being a criminal. Describing an inquest, where it was virtually ruled out that a stranger had committed the murder in question, Jerry notes: “no tramps nor unknown men had been noticed or reported in the district.” The fact that he mentions tramps specifically shows, I think, that he has very deep class issues.

The phrase “black slaves” is mentioned twice; once by Mr Pye as he recollects how the Barton girls had to fetch and carry for their monster of a mother, and once by Joanna as she disapproves of the tradition that a maidservant can’t arrange for friends to visit her at the house where she lives and works. Of course, it stands out today as a very uncomfortable phrase to use; however, at the time of writing it was, dare I say it, relatively enlightened. In another conversation, between Jerry and Aimée, about idleness, he shows her a Chinese picture of an old man sitting beneath a tree. “Aimée Griffith was unimpressed by my lovely picture. She said: “Oh well, we all know what the Chinese are like!”” Sometimes it seems as though Christie, through her characters, never misses a chance to take a dig at a foreign culture.

Being out-of-towners, you might expect Jerry and Joanna to be more forward-looking in their attitude to women’s rights and feminism. Jerry takes the rise out of the practice of keeping unpleasant issues away from the female of the species: “in novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women. It is implied that women must at all cost be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems. I am sorry to say that it never occurred to me not to show the letter to Joanna. I handed it to her at once. She vindicated my belief in her toughness by displaying no emotion but that of amusement.”

However, when he comes up against Aimée Griffith in full flow, it’s a different story. Christie never seemed certain of her own attitudes to feminism, and here you can see it in action. Christie has had plenty of likeable heroines (like Tuppence, Bundle, and of course Miss Marple herself) and she liked to see them get into scrapes through their own daring, but she also liked to see them get rescued by men. Here she has created Aimée Griffiths, who is somewhat cantankerous and who dislikes the book’s joint heroines of Joanna and Megan. She rounds on Jerry and what she takes to be his 19th century views with no holds barred. “”Your attitude, Mr Burton, is typical of that of most men. You dislike the idea of women working – of their competing –“ I was taken aback. I had come up against the Feminist. Aimée was well away, her cheeks flushed. “It is incredible to you that women should want a career. It was incredible to my parents. I was anxious to study for a doctor. They would not hear of paying the fees. But they paid them readily for Own. Yet I should have made a better doctor than my brother.”” It will be interesting to see if there is a noticeable change to Christie’s tone regarding feminism as time progresses – and the Second World War is over.

Classic denouement: Good, but not classic. The guilty party is caught in the act of a probable third murder by the police and, rather like Iago in Othello, we never hear from them again. We then pay a return visit to Miss Marple for her to plug the gaps. It’s quite exciting and rewarding, but not heart-pounding like some.

Happy ending? Yes. Marriage bells are heard for one couple, are in the offing for another couple, and a restoration back into acceptance is on the cards for a fifth person. We don’t discover the fate of the murderer, which is perhaps a trifle frustrating.

Did the story ring true? Yes. Unusually for Christie, this story doesn’t rely on some very far-fetched coincidences. The characters are largely credible, as is the motive for the crime. And you can easily appreciate how it would feel to be part of that village community, concerned that one of your number was a poison-pen writer or even a murderer.

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a couple of tiny rankles it’s such a good read that I’m giving it a 10/10.

Towards ZeroThanks for reading my blog of The Moving Finger 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 Towards Zero, the final appearance of Superintendent Battle, in a story where the murder comes towards the end. I remember being frustrated by the lack of crime when I have read it in the past – it will be interesting to see if I still feel the same! 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!