The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder is Easy (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there were NoneThanks for reading my blog of Murder is Easy and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is And Then There Were None. Apologies that my copy is from the 1970s, so has the original British title. Frequently cited as Christie’s masterpiece, I’m very much looking forward to reacquainting myself with it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Stuart Goldsmith, Like I Mean It, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 18th May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Matt Crockett

Eurovision 2018 – The Lisbon Experience

Lisbon

Lisbon

The Lisbon Experience sounds a bit like one of those awful tourist attractions where you get on an old fairground ride in complete darkness whilst projections and exhibits show you the history of the city. But that wouldn’t be the right way to see Lisbon. Lisbon is a city that lives on the outside. In cafes, in squares, in boats, in parks. I’m quite proud to say that we spent nine days there and didn’t set foot inside one museum once.

Eurovision Village

Eurovision Village

But of course we were there for Eurovision, so there would hardly have been the time anyway. We had rented a one bedroom apartment near Alameda metro station and it was very charming and useful. Alameda is a great location as the station is on both the green and red lines on the metro. Thus it was just fifteen minutes to the centre of the city and also fifteen minutes to Oriente station, which was just a few minutes’ walk from the Altice Arena, site of all the Eurovision shenanigans.

Eurocafe

Eurocafe

For the first few days it was great to catch up with old friends who had flown into Portugal from all round the world. For the first evening we had dinner with ESC Insight’s own New Zealand correspondent, the Americo-Irish Canadian Kiwi, at the Casa Brasileira on Rua Augusta (if you go out for a meal in Lisbon you can barely avoid the Rua Augusta). Options for entertainment on that night included the fabled Israeli Party but we couldn’t face the prospect of the two-hour queue, although it did mean we met the writers of the Russian song and the brother half of Zibbz. Instead, we paid our first visit to the Eurocafe, which was hot and expensive. One of our friends spent 55 minutes waiting to get served on the Monday evening; that’s not really how you want to spend your leisure nights. Gin and tonics (which were primarily made from ice) were 10 euros. A friend posted on Facebook that a bottle of local plonk and a diet coke came to 44 euros. May I remind you this was in Portugal, known for its relatively low prices.

Sea Bass at O Portas

Sea Bass at O Portas

We went to the same restaurant on the Sunday afternoon with M’Learned Friend from Dublin, where we also met HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford who was experiencing his first Eurovision and indeed his first European holiday as an adult (I use the term loosely). We lingered in the Eurovision Village (much better value for drinks than the Café) and generally wasted the time enjoying ourselves. Monday saw us having lunch at O Portas on Rua dos Correeiros. It was probably the best meal we had in the city; a big sea bass, who swam his last that very morning, was filleted on a plate for the three of us. Nota Bene: very near the O Portas is a rip off joint called Obrigado Lisboa which has ok food but stupid surprise prices for drinks and extras. Just check it on Trip Advisor – I’ve never seen such poor feedback for a restaurant. They caught us out for Tuesday lunch. Thieving toerags.

Belem Tower

Belem Tower

Monday afternoon we did a boat ride to Belem Tower with HRH and M’Learned Friend. Whilst on board we bumped into some other friends, two of whom had also come all the way from New Zealand. The boat ride was fun, if a little delayed coming back; Belem is beautiful but (nota bene again) closed on Mondays. Durrrhh. Monday night was a late one in the Eurocafe, which included a great performance by Suzy (you can’t keep a good girl down). We went to bed before Slavko came on.

Our View

Great view of the fans, not so great of the stage

Tuesday was primarily notable for our first actual attendance at this year’s contest – we had General Standing tickets for Semi Final One. These were about as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot because Mrs Chrisparkle and I couldn’t see a thing. HRH must have stood on someone’s shoulders because he saw a little more, but still not enough to warrant the ticket price. We saw Cesar from Austria during his first verse, because it was staged up in the air; we saw most of Sennek from Belgium’s performance as she performed on a platform nearer to where we were standing. And of course, they turn the screens off, so if you were relying on watching the show that way, think again. We were able to catch the results, but the rest of the show might as well have been on the radio. Mrs C spent the evening reading The Guardian website. Shame. Still, we had the pleasure of attending the Irish meet-up beforehand at Irish & Co near the arena, where I bumped into Finnish representative Saara Aalto (as you do). I happened to be wearing a t-shirt with a lyric from her song and when she saw me she pointed and gave a little cry of delight. It’s nice to know I can still have that effect on women. Dinner was in the D’ Bacalhau restaurant, again near the arena, where I decided to try the pork steaks and they were fab.

Typical blue walls

Typical blue walls

Another very good restaurant for Wednesday lunch – the Cofre Verde on Rua de Sao Juliao. It’s run by a very nice Nepalese lady who took great pains to show us our dead, but otherwise healthy looking, fish before cooking the poor chap. Full of Portuguese people, so that’s always a good sign. The ubiquitous white wine of choice, incidentally, is Planalto Reserva, a bottle of which you should be able to get for something like 14 to 16 euros. It was only 11 euros in D’Bacalhau. It was 40, yes 40, euros in the dreadful Obrigado Lisboa.

Moldova

What goes on backstage during Moldova’s entry

Wednesday evening we had tickets for the Jury Final of Semi Final Two, Golden Circle Standing. That’s the bit between the stage and the circular apron that many of the performers decided to run around during their songs. We got in quite early and decided to take a unique position: right round as far right as we could go, virtually under what became universally known as the Ireland Break-Up Bridge. It’s a completely side on view, and totally unobscured. Although you didn’t get any of the feel for the staging of a song like Moldova’s, where the comedy (and I use that term loosely too) is all gathered from the choreography as seen from head on, at least you could see the backstage positioning of the performers whilst that song was being performed – a genuinely fascinating experience. Other great moments were when we stood under the Hungarian guitarist; we could almost shake hands with the San Marino robots; we could peek into the back of Christabelle’s box (if you’ll pardon the expression); and HRH could see where the stagehands were extinguishing a fire backstage during Benjamin’s performance.

Proximity

This is how close we were to the stage

This is probably a good point to bring up the question of security. Little did we know on Wednesday night that some tosser would grab the mic off SuRie and damn near ruin Saturday’s show for everyone – frankly she should sue his arse. However, we were very alarmed, considering our proximity to the stage, at the very poor security presence. We were behind a lowish railing; there was a small bank of chairs in front of us, before another small railing and then the stage. During a few of the songs, one security guard sat in front of us, updating his Facebook, checking sports news, and indeed videoing the performers; in fact anything but watching out for potential Jimmy Jumps. During the vast majority of the evening there was nothing to stop me from vaulting over the two fences and running on stage shouting Justice for Jemini – apart from my innate sense of decorum and 14-and-a-half stone. I can’t see anyone in Israel getting anything like this close to the performers; and if anyone tries to rush the stage there, it will be the last thing they do.

Hungarian guitarist

Hungarian guitarist

For post-show dinner we returned to the D’Bacalhau because the nice waitress from Tuesday said she’d look forward to seeing us again. However, she wasn’t on duty and had been replaced by a couple of elderly grumps who’d learned customer care at the António de Oliveira Salazar Finishing School. Food and drink was still yummy though. Thursday lunchtime was the Radio International Team Lunch at the Tivoli Oriente Hotel near the arena. It was very enjoyable, if a little slow and chaotic, and good to see most of the team there on fine form. As it has been the 20th anniversary of the show – Gadzooks, how can that be? – I thought I would do a little after dinner speech. It would have been even better if we’d all been drunk.

Typical Eurovision Mayhem

Typical Eurovision Mayhem

Thursday afternoon saw us back at the Eurocafe for the OGAE UK party – that’s the UK Eurovision Fan Club, for the uninitiated. Mrs C and I were chosen to do an interview for ITV Anglia News that I think ended up on the cutting room floor. Great to chat to all the UK types and it was a very busy and enjoyable afternoon. Mrs C, HRH and I rushed off to Guacamole, a nearby Mexican restaurant that we had discovered that did tasty (but always cold?!) food and lethal margaritas. Good value and quick, when you want to get on to somewhere else in a hurry.

SF2

Semi Final Two at the Village

Which, for us, was the Eurovision Village, as that was where we would be watching the live show of SF2. It took us a good half hour to get in because of security, but that was still early enough (7:45) to get a good place to watch the show. Queues for the drinks and toilets were stupidly long, so it was a dry and legs-crossed night, but very enjoyable – but also surprisingly cold! The Eurovision Village was based at the Praça do Comércio, which is adjacent to the water’s edge, and when that late-night wind whipped up – boy was it nippy!

Alfama District

Alfama District

HRH took Friday off (feeble millennial that he is) so we decided to go for a wander around the Alfama district and had lunch at the Arcaz Velho on Calcada do Forte. We sat on a corner street table and had the most delicious tuna steaks, proper home-made custard desserts and a decent Galao. Later we decided to meet up with M’Learned Friend for a few drinks in the Village before going on to a nice dinner somewhere. On our way out we met Marty Whelan, the Irish commentator – he and M’Learned Friend go back yonks – and we had a charming chat with him and his wife and daughter whilst they were waiting to get served, slowly, in a restaurant. In terms of speed of service, Lisbon isn’t quite the Boris Becker of restaurant capitals. For dinner we ended up at Le Petit Café in Largo São Martinho, and it was excellent. Always a good sign when you ask the waiter for a wine recommendation and he suggests the cheapest wine on the menu – and it’s delicious enough for you to buy three bottles in all.

Saturday Family Show

Saturday Family Show

Saturday was the big day, in Eurovision terms of course, and we had seats reserved for the Family Show (in other words the final afternoon rehearsal) for which we were joined by none other than the doyen of BBC4 Eurovision coverage, Dr Eurovision himself. The view of stage, screens and arena was second to none and we got a really good feel for what Europe would be watching later that night. Dr Eurovision had to leave before the final song, muttering something about a Turkish Television interview and Sky News. He’d been on his phone throughout the whole Family Show anyway, presumably fending off media enquiries and setting up other meetings. Fascinating to see how what started as pure fandom on his part, and then became the basis for his thesis, has shaped a significant element of his career with the result that he can’t just sit back and watch the damn thing anymore. Mind you, he loves it.

Ruslana

It’s Ruslana

Our friends Mr and Mrs Flying-the-Flag were in town, taking a quick trip into the capital from their holiday getaway in deepest Estoril, so we met them for a beer and a steak and chips; but by 5pm we could already see the queue to get into the Eurovision Village was getting longer. By 5:30 my enthusiasm had won me over so we started queueing, and in fact it wasn’t too long before we got in for the 6pm show with Ruslana. Yes, Xena Warrior Princess is still thwacking out the Wild Dances and Dancing with the Wolves (nothing to do with Molineux). The queues for the bar were already ominously long but it’s a long Eurovision night without some libation, so HRH headed off to join the back of the queue and we agreed to keep in mobile contact as to his progress. This was shortly after 6.30pm. At about 7.40pm he thought he’d got close enough to the bar, so I joined him. We were thronged by a pack of thirsty people pressing hard up to a counter, behind which were a few laissez-faire Portuguese, tending to customers provided it didn’t get in the way of their private conversations. The queue wasn’t moving anymore, and the show started at 8pm. Mrs C was now also engulfed in a sea of other Eurovision punters and didn’t expect us to find our way back to her before midnight. But I remembered where she was, and once we’d finally got served, and took the perilous path back to the big screen, we got there just in time for the fourth song to start. That’s one helluva long queue – and shows how totally inadequate the provision was in the Eurovision Village.

T-shirts

Tasteless T-shirts I photographed in Jerusalem in 2016

Israel won; I was a bit disappointed, as it’s very silly and messy. Even if it is about the #metoo generation it also contains muthabuckas, Pam pam pa hoo, prram pam pa hoos, and Cululoo, cululoos. Curiously, the stupid boy that Netta rejects in her song is probably Mikolas in the Czech Republic’s Lie To Me, dripping on his wood bamboo, with his camel in the mood and standing in a puddle. Honestly, some of this year’s lyrics are execrable. I’d hoped that wholesome girl from Cyprus would win; the prospect of a week at a sunny hotel in Limassol was rather enticing. I can’t see us going to Jerusalem for Eurovision week though. We went there on a cruise a couple of years ago and we’ve never been anywhere so tense (and that includes Hanoi, and the Uzbek-Afghan border.) It’s stunningly beautiful, but scary; and if you show one hint of touristy, dithery weakness, that’s the cue for some ruthless shopkeeper or restaurateur to rip you off mercilessly. Tel Aviv – that would be different. But – currently, at least – that’s not looking likely.

On a tuk-tuk

On a tuk-tuk

Our Sunday was spent back up in Alfama, lunching at the Allfama restaurant – very nice; then doing an hour’s tuktuk tour, seeing some of the historical sights. That was good fun. Dinner was at the Portugalia Cervejaria, a 1920s beer hall, with some of the Radio International crowd and the Americo-Irish Canadian Kiwi, which was chaotic but tasty. Then back to bed. Then early to rise for that dreaded plane back to the UK…

Rasmussen

Denmark’s Mr Rasmussen nobly braving the snowy set

So a final few thoughts; best Schlager song (only Schlager song?) in the contest was Azerbaijan which didn’t get through to the final due to silly staging. Azerbaijan, Romania and Russia all lost their 100% qualifying record (quite rightly, for the other two, IMHO). Norway won their semi then faded drastically after being given position no 7 to sing from. UK and Finland both did poorly in the final results, and were both performed after a commercial break; in fact three of the bottom four songs didn’t have to qualify, which always speaks volumes. The Top 3 were all from Semi Final One, and you have to drop down to 7th place (Sweden) to get a song from Semi Final Two. After Cyprus, Ukraine provided the best singalong opportunity in the final, but was also shafted by singing first. Denmark still won the day for me, with their heroic Viking stomping. The four hosts were good – the lady in the black dress who stood on the right, Filomena Cautela, was hilarious. The staging was exciting, as was the voting, although, visually, the final result was very confusing on the TV screen as they didn’t switch back to a view of the scoreboard, and it was a while before we were convinced that was indeed Israel who had won.

On the whole, a very good year. Every year, fans typically say, “this year is the worst ever” but in fact the quality this year was very high. Remember – after 1st September, songs newly published become eligible for next year’s contest. Get writing!!

Eurovision 2018 – The Preview

Apologies, gentle reader. Normally I provide you with an in-depth analysis and revelatory insight into each of the current year’s Eurovision songs, but this year time, other commitments and real life have bitten into my schedule and I won’t be able to offer this service this year. I know you have a choice of Eurovision Opinion Providers and if you do find it necessary to ask for a refund, my solicitors are instructed to consider each case on its own criteria.

Instead I offer you a snappy(ish) blow by blow account of each entry in order of performance, and we’ll see where it takes us. These are based on the original videos, I’ve not been watching the rehearsals. You’re still going to get my five-star rating for each song. I’m sure that’s a comfort.

Semi Final One

Azerbaijan – Aisel – X My Heart *****
AiselWho’d have thought the best schlager in this year’s contest would come from Azerjeben? Not only is this a bright, up-tempo effort from Aisel (not AySel – they’re clearly limited for girls’ names in Azərbaycanca) but it also has some of the best inappropriate lyrics in the contest. Next time you have to prove your mettle to someone, announce that you’re stronger than cannonballs and watch the reaction. Like Tigger, it’s bouncy, trouncy, flouncy and pouncy.

Iceland – Ari Olafsson – Our Choice *
Ari OlafssonWhereas this is more like Eeyore. Ari takes on the pain of the world and explores it through the medium of coma. There’s no doubting his musicality – apparently he’s off to the Royal Academy of Music in September – but this ploddy three minutes never engages the listener. About as inviting as a plate of buried cod.

Albania – Eugent Bushpepa – Mall ****
Eugent BushpepaSgt Bushpepa emotes his way through an anguished song of yearning (that’s what Mall means – nothing to do with comfy shopping) whilst his Lonely Hearts Club Band whack out a strong meaty accompaniment. Forget your Hungaries, this is where this year’s classy folk rock is to be found. He does look a bit angry sometimes but it’s a blessed relief after the vanilla-lite of Iceland.

Belgium – Sennek – A Matter of Time ***
SennekAccording to Wikipedia Sennek works for Ikea (she’s probably known as Laura Groeseneken there) so I’ll resist jokes about fit Verse A into Hook B. But this song does feel quite manufactured to me, rather than a lovely organic thing of its own. I always think I’m going to enjoy it, but then I end up enduring it. Sennek’s long lanky hair can sometimes give her Princess Fiona ears which take my mind off the song for a bit. It’s not that bad though. Does it remind anyone else of Reynaert’s majestic Laissez Briller le soleil? (not visually, obviously, that would be silly.) That was Belgium too. I think we should be told.

Czech Republic – Mikolas Josef – Lie To Me **
MikolasDisclaimer: I wrote this before Mikolas came a cropper on his backflip in the first rehearsal and I absolutely take my hat off to him for carrying on when doubtless he’s in a lot of pain. /Disclaimer>
Before writing this little paragraph, I’m going to watch the YouTube again to see if I can make three minutes without turning it off. Well, credit where it’s due, I did. This is a song that makes me feel very old. The lyrics need to come with a glossary (I still haven’t worked out what GGY means – although I do understand the concept of a wood bamboo, and the camel grossed me out) and I guess they have plans to remove the four-letter words. I like the Epic Sax Guy-inspired rhythm and Mikolas is obviously a talented chap – and I’m totally prepared to accept that the smug poseur character singing this song is an act. But it does irritate me. When his voice goes down into the lower register it sounds really sleazy. A good Eurovision song needs instant impact and this certainly has it. Just don’t hear it a second time.

Lithuania – Ieva Zasimauskaite – When We’re Old ****
Ieva ZThis quiet, unassuming little song is normally the kind of fodder I’d just skip and move on. But the lyrics are so heartfelt and its nature so charming – plus I am indeed getting old – that its message got to me. Ieva’s married surname of Zasimauskaite-Kiltinaviciene needs a sentence all to itself. They’re going to have to stage it wisely; too much will kill it, too little will feel too stark. But it’s a yes from me.

Israel – Netta – Toy **
NettaHere’s the one that everyone’s talking about. For the first few seconds of the video Netta sounds like she’s trying to discharge something disgusting from her nasal orifices and then she goes into the farmyard impersonations. There’s no doubt this will make that all so important initial impact, and for it to work I think they’ll need to play up the humour. I read someone’s comment that Netta looks like the school bully and combined with the rather cruel nature of the lyrics, I feel that’s a great description. When she finally gets around to singing “I’m not your toy you stupid boy” it’s fab. It’s just the other bits that turn me off. Feminist icon or grotesque, you decide. What do we think of the word muthabucka? Not convinced. Is the woman in the pink rain poncho with blue hair based on the Victoria Wood character looking for her Kimberley?

Belarus – Alekseev – Forever ***
AlekseevA classic example of a song written in English by a non-English speaking lyricist. You can always tell when the music requires the stress to be on the wrong syllable in a sentence: “Windows wide opén, flying so high, both of us roaming through magnificent sky…” Alekseev looks like a moody lad, like a singing James Acaster. In the modern tradition, it’s a trifle whingey, but it has a lush orchestral arrangement, and, despite myself, I rather like it.

Estonia – Elina Nechayeva – La Forza *
ElinaThis year’s popera entry – there’s nearly always one – and it’s a full in-your-ear extravaganza. Sung entirely in Italian, because, as we know, Estonia’s full of Italians, Elina belts out the arpeggios till all the stray dogs in Tallinn come running. Oh, and she’s got one of those Eurovision dresses, you know the type. I don’t care how expert her singing is, it’s everything I hate about Eurovision.

Bulgaria – Equinox – Bones ***
EquinoxI love the bones of you, say the Liverpool half of the family. Equinox go on one better, loving beyond the bones. That’s a helluva lot of love. A rather creepy official video that looks like an out-take from a sci-fi show enhances the moody gloom of this rather anthemic and persistent little song that can get under your skin, if not quite beyond the bones. Like a few other good songs this year it might not be quite substantial enough to go the very top but this won’t be a disgrace by any means.

FYR Macedonia – Eye Cue – Lost and Found **
Eye CueTalking of disgraces… No that’s too strong. Disappointments, maybe. It has a great start – you think it’s going to be a bit like No No Never, but then it acquires an ungainly rhythm of faux-funk, and ends up just pappy pop. The old cliché was that three tunes in a song, you can’t go wrong – here’s proof that’s not true. Not a lot to enjoy here.

Croatia – Franka – Crazy **
FrankaTemptress sex kitten cross garter’d like Malvolio (not in yellow, thank heavens) pouts while man with bad skin condition dances around her. I can just about take this until she starts talking. Three points for spotting the obligatory annual “diamonds and pearls” lyric. Oh and then she swims underwater in a wedding dress. You couldn’t make it up really. She looks like a lovely girl but it’s not a song I can take seriously. Next?

Austria – Cesar Sampson – Nobody but You *****
CesarSo here’s a thing. Gospel in Eurovision normally sticks out like Mr Naef in a beauty contest, but this hint of gospel works really well, IMHO. From the same writing/production team behind the Bulgarian song, and I know who got the better deal. Cesar is a terrific singer and this is a strong, assertive and surprisingly catchy ballad. Not a huge amount more to say – it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Greece – Yianna Terzi – Oniro mou ****
YIannaYianna laments her undying love for her fella while he (presumably) undergoes an SAS Who Dares Wins trial all by himself. Then, rather weirdly, he pulls her out of the earth. They do things differently in Greece. Highly dramatic, incredibly effective, turbulently Greco-ethnic. If you ignore the silly video and close your eyes and dream, you could be transported anywhere you like. In the Peloponnese peninsula, preferably.

Finland – Saara Aalto – Monsters *****
Saara AaltoHere’s another official video that doesn’t enhance its song in any way, but the song is strong enough to survive without it. In the past always the bridesmaid, never the bride, Saara Aalto is going to get on that stage and smash it. Very singalong, instantly appealing, plenty of quirkiness and monsters under the bed – even the six year olds watching will appreciate that. I hope they resist the temptation to go over the top on the staging.

Armenia – Sevak Khanagyan – Qami ****
SevakNot the Armenian for a bar of soap, Qami means Wind, so I’ll let you insert your own joke here. Rivalling Cesar from Austria for the Best Male Vocalist award, Sevak spreads his arms and whirls like the slowest Dervish this side of Yerevan. This atmospheric ballad moves along at a nice andante, and builds for strong finish. Wind, wind, where did you take my warm memories? Didn’t know it was a song about dyspeptic amnesia. Fully deserves to qualify.

Switzerland – Zibbz – Stones *****
ZibbzSo many times in recent years Switzerland have been among my favourites yet have failed to make any impact on the contest. I hope that doesn’t happen again – but I fear it may. Coming a very worthy second to France’s Madame Monsieur for the Best Duo Award, Coco releases some great rock chick attitude and this is definitely one of the funkiest chunes this year. Trouble is, no one votes for Switzerland, do they?

Ireland – Ryan O’Shaughnessy – Together ***
RyanNow for something a little less funky. Inspired by Uncle Gary’s Eurovision appearance seventeen years ago, here comes Ryan O’Shaugnessy with a gentle song about an unexpected relationship break-up. I know many people who rate this quite highly – I can’t help but think they’re inspired by the artistry of the excellent video more than the bare bones of the song, which is a trifle whingey in the modern tradition, and a little introverted for my taste. Perfectly pleasant, though.

Cyprus – Eleni Foureira – Fuego **
EleniEleni is a classy dame but she looks like she’s too good for this song – and I think she’s right. Trying to outdo Aisel in the silly lyrics stakes – someone control that pelican, would you? It’s full of Ivi Adamou-style repetition and I don’t think it’s anything like as good as it thinks it is. One of those triumph of style over substance type songs. Nice feathers though.


Semi Final Two

Norway – Alexander Rybak – That’s How You Write A Song *
Alexander RybakMr Rybak has been responsible for so many excellent recordings over the past few years including his winning (in many ways) performance of Fairytale in the 2009 contest. So it seems such an awful shame that he returns to ESC with this utter drivel. Normally I really enjoy songs that are about the writing process, they have a real inventive and creative edge. Not so this time, this is a cynically envisaged, purpose-built model designed purely to show off Mr R’s incredible showmanship. It’s got a hook you can’t get out of your head, dammit, and if it was that easy to write a song, we’d all be doing it. No! get thee behind me Alexander! Working on the theory that Jamala and Salvador won by being the biggest stand-out anti-personalities with songs just bad enough to win, I reckon this will be Rybak’s year again.

Romania – The Humans – Goodbye *
The HumansStatic, dreary, soporific. I wonder if lead singer Liz Truss MP will get permission from Parliament to front the group for a week. I say “week”… she’ll be back Friday morning. Douze points from Moldova, so that’s twelve points in all.

Serbia – Sanja Ilic & Balkanika – Nova Deca *
Sanja-Ilic-BalkanikaIf neighbours FYR Macedonia prove three tunes in a song doesn’t always work, here’s proof that just two tunes in a song can go wayward too. After a long introductory caterwauling, presumably because they couldn’t think of any more notes for the music stave, there’s only time left for two minutes of song. A moderately interesting Balkan chorus, surrounded by blithering nothingness. Nova Deca means “New Generation”, but there’s nothing much new about that horrendous mess.

San Marino – Jessika feat. Jenifer Brening – Who We Are *
Jessika and JeniferFirstly, yes you can sing the chorus of Mans Zelmerlow’s Heroes to the chorus of Who We Are, so that feels pretty shameless. Jenifer Brening – and I mean this as a compliment – must be one of the poshest rappers in the world. It’s like Missy Elliott went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College. It’s Jessika, though, who has to make sense of words like “We are who we are and who we are is who we wanna be”. Right, got that, I think. Lyrics by existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. There’s no lack of effort from the two ladies, but this has all the musical appeal of Bird’s Nest Soup.

Denmark – Rasmussen – Higher Ground *****
RasmussenAt last, a song in Semi Final Two to enjoy! In fact, gentle reader, this is probably my favourite this year. Yes I know they’re just Hokum Vikings, all beard, gowns and stomping, but I find the lyrics remarkably stirring and I genuinely find something strangely heroic about the whole thing. It’s also a fabulously anthemic tune. Be the first to turn around, take the leap and land on higher ground; I will, oh Captain my Captain. At last we finally find out what’s happened with Frodo nowadays.

Russia – Julia Samoylova – I Won’t Break ***
Julia SamoylovaIt was no surprise that Julia was coming back for a second attempt at a first attempt at winning Eurovision; and I reckon this is a much better song than that old Flame is Burning tosh from last year. There’s something about Julia’s voice that has a gurgling quality that doesn’t appeal to me, but I have to say I get quite taken up by this song when it gets to the even in the darkness part. That said, the video of her performance at the Moscow ESC Party was a proper shocker.

Moldova – DoReDos – My Lucky Day *
DoReDosOne of those three minutes that only Eurovision can throw up, and I use that term most deliberately. A glum Moldovan ménage à trois acted out to a folk salsa beat. It looks like the worst ever song excised from the worst ever musical. They try to be funny, bless them. But honestly. Three points if you call them Doritos.

Netherlands – Waylon – Outlaw in ‘em **
WaylonSo Mr Rybak isn’t the only repeat offender this year, as we also have Waylon, the male half of the Common Linnets, and the only person in The Netherlands to be named after a man made fibre. On paper this should be much better than it is. I can see why some people might like it – but Albania beats it hands down. Probably the best part of it is the lengthy guitar outro which has had to be removed to get it down to three minutes.

Australia – Jessica Mauboy – We Got Love ***
Jessica MauboyHaving been the guest artiste at the 2014, Jessica Mauboy returns as a contestant proper; not quite poacher turned gamekeeper but you get the picture. We Got Love is a bright and breezy number that almost soars – but doesn’t quite. The repetition of the words and notes “cos we got love” in the chorus somehow stops it in its tracks. I’m sure it will do well though, and Ms M is a great performer, so Australia has it all to play for.

Georgia – Iriao – For You ***
iriaoAnd now for something completely different. Georgia offer us five chaps with strong choral voices performing folk barbershop to a charming tune that’s got just a hint of Koit Toome’s Mere Lepsed in there somewhere. It’s the kind of song that just washes over you and three minutes later you re-emerge back into reality. In many respects, very enjoyable, and it’ll certainly chalk up a few points.

Poland – Gromee feat. Lukas Meijer – Light me up ***
Gromee and LukasA Polish DJ and a Swedish singer combine to create a very Swedish sounding entry with ear-disturbing (but still enjoyable) distortions and a summer sunshiny beat. The tune never quite breaks free into perfect bliss but it should be enough to get most people up on their feet. Undemanding, and moderate fun.

Malta – Christabelle – Taboo ***
ChristabelleThe taboo in question is that of mental health; and the video in question is an overblown piece of dramatic nonsense. Strip away the layers and you get quite a satisfying pop song with a neat little hook on the mention of animals, animals. I liked this a lot at first but it has quickly begun to pall. Still, first impressions and all that, it could do quite well. Dear old Christabelle’s been hammering at the door of Eurovision for Malta for many years now so it’s good to see her finally get her chance.

Hungary – AWS – Viszlat Nyar *
AWSNow here’s a Marmite song; you definitely either love or hate this one. Traditional Eurovision lovers don’t care for its rocky guitar edginess; those who like a bit of rock seem to rate it highly. I don’t mind a bit of rock at all – but I think this is sheer agony. The title means Goodbye Summer, which seems to have come at the wrong time of the year for the contest. I wonder what Hungarian for Goodbye Chances is?

Latvia – Laura Rizzotto – Funny Girl *
Laura RizzottoIf you were hoping for a spot of Barbra Streisand, think again. Anything funny about Laura Rizzotto’s self-penned ode to misery is either ironic or simply misplaced. It’s a sad account of a relationship breakdown but if it’s meant to be emotional, it completely passes me by. This Rizzotto is all rice and no meat. It’s a shame because she’s an excellent singer and she looks great. However, she wrote it, so there’s no one else to blame…

Sweden – Benjamin Ingrosso – Dance You Off *****
Benjamin IngrossoYou’ll remember a few years ago that young scamp Frans sang a cheeky little number for Sweden about being sorry, but he wasn’t sorry. This year another young scamp, Benjamin, sings a very similar song about getting rid of an unwanted girlfriend. His musical style is a little breathy but it’s a great tune and feels to me (old codger that I am) pretty much contemporary in style. His mother is Pernilla Wahlgren, so music obviously entered his system through the umbilical cord.

Montenegro – Vanja Radovanovic – Inje **
VanjaAnother of those songs that sound like they’ve come from one of the glummer stage musicals. The verse builds to a flourish but then the chorus is quite reserved – at first, at any rate. It’s all about how frost paralyses a heart and so love gets frozen out. Sometimes these Balkan songs can sound really powerful and moving, but this one comes across a pompous and over-complicated. Still, Vanja does wear a terrific frock coat, well jel.

Slovenia – Lea Sirk – Hvala Ne*
Lea SirkBy means of contrast, Lea Sirk’s contribution for Slovenia is the ultimate in attitude, with Lea having a wonderful time strutting her stuff and making it absolutely clear that it’s a case of No Thanks to anyone who asks. It’s a spiky, uncomfortable song, devoid of emotion so it’s hard to open yourself up to it. It also has a rather alienating robotic feel to it. Very competently done, but it’s not my cup of tea at all.

Ukraine – MELOVIN – Under the Ladder ****
MelovinLucky last in Semi Final Two is MELOVIN with the bizarrely titled Under the Ladder, and the first thing you have to admit about it is that boy, is it a catchy tune! 21-year-old Kosytantyn likes his stage name to be spelled in capitals, just in case you didn’t hear it the first time. It’s a very likeable entry but I’m just wondering how his voice will come across. From the videos I sense a little immaturity and insecurity there, but I think if he nails the vocals he could do very well.

Finalists

France – Madame Monsieur – Mercy *****
Madame MonsieurAlthough I am a self-professed Denmark fan this year, France’s Mercy has been on my head far more than any other song in the run up to this year’s Eurovision and I think it is the classiest composition, given the full gamine interpretation by Emilie, the Madame half of Madame Monsieur. Crammed with pathos, bursting with simplicity, you’d have to be a very hard-hearted sort not to get carried along with it. It wasn’t my favourite from the French final, but on reflection I think it’s the perfect song for Eurovision and for the first time in Donkeys’ Years there’s a real prospect of a Parisian contest next year.

Germany – Michael Schulte – You Let Me Walk Alone **
Michael SchulteFrom one heartfelt song to another, but for me with much less of an impact. Michael Schulte is rocking his Ed Sheeran look, and it’s suitably whingey and self-indulgent for the era, so I think it might appeal to those suffering with teenage angsts, and anyone who’s missing their parents. There’s no question it’s elegantly written, with its escalation up the numbers in the chorus (one love, two hearts, three kids, four no trumps) but at the end of the day it’s rather schmaltzy, and I feel it’s more admirable than enjoyable.

Italy – Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro – Non mi avete fatto niente *****
Ermal and FabrizioOne of the difficulties for some songs that weren’t written directly for Eurovision, is how to cut them down to the requisite three minutes. It killed both Amir’s J’ai cherché and last year’s favourite from Italy, Occidentali’s Karma, all that was left of which was a hollowed out shell of a brilliant song. The otherwise very wordy Non mi avete fatto niente actually benefits from being cut down and the three minute version flows superbly. Like France, it takes a serious subject and gives it a serious and sympathetic treatment without getting maudlin. The two Italian lads are great performers and you write this one off at your peril.

Portugal – Claudia Pascoal – O Jardim ***
Claudia PascoalCongratulations to Portugal for finally winning Eurovision last year with a song that many loved and many didn’t get. The Portuguese always feel more comfortable being represented by a song that has an element of moroseness about it and this year is no exception. Isaura Santos’s song is all about tending the (symbolic) flowers that are all that remain from a lover who’s died, so if you’re waiting for an uplifting song from the Big Five and host, keep waiting. The melody reminds me significantly of the Lightning Seeds Sense, but offers a very different atmosphere. Claudia has a very beautiful style to her voice; similar to Ieva’s from Lithuania, but stronger. The song doesn’t really go anywhere, but I’m not sure that matters. Not a winner, but very nice.

Spain – Amaia and Alfred – Tu cancion **
Amaia and AlfredNot Su Cancion, otherwise Betty Missiego would su(e). Amaia and Alfred were thrown together on Spanish Reality TV and their song reflects the genuine relationship that built between them as the series developed. It’s all very sweet; a little drippy perhaps, but its heart is in the right place. Not the kind of song I’d be likely to play usually, and probably my least favourite of the Big Five + Portugal.


United Kingdom – SuRie – Storm ****

SuRieAnd finally, we hit the 43rd song and it’s the United Kingdom entry with SuRie singing Storm. One thing’s for sure – SuRie is an amazing performer, and with her experiences as part of the Belgian teams with Loic Nottet and Blanche, she shouldn’t be fazed by the big occasion. The song has a nice build and the subtle emotions conveyed in the second verse when she’s talking to her mother and father knock the emotions of the German and Portuguese songs into the proverbial cocked hat. However, I fear it won’t have the necessary initial impact to do well, although I know SuRie will give it a stunning performance. We saw her perform it at West End Eurovision and she’s definitely a safe pair of hands. And lungs.

This never has any particular relation to how the final results will end up, but let’s have a quick look at which songs have received the most looks on YouTube as at this moment now (which is already history) – and the ones that go big are Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Sweden, Norway, France, Austria, Australia, Macedonia, Russia, Lithuania, Belgium, Poland, Estonia and Denmark – but exceeding the second placed song by a good ten million it’s that muthabuckin experience from Israel. Make of that what you will.

It merely remains for me to wish you all a happy Eurovision week; don’t overlook the Semi Finals because they’re a vital part of the whole shenanigans. Have a wonderful time and here’s hoping for a 2019 contest from Paris or Copenhagen. (But I fear it will be Oslo.)

Review – Persecuted, United-Force Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 27th April 2018

Flash Festival11th May 2005. The Iraq War at its bloodiest. Tony Blair’s move to topple Saddam Hussein had been initially successful, but the fallout was now telling. In a camp in Basra, British troop commander James Farrell and his Lieutenant, Dan, find themselves with the vital task of interrogating Mohammed bin Osama bin Laden, the son of the Al-Qaeda leader, to ascertain the details of an imminent attack.

Persecuted twoThere’s more than one way of skinning a cat, as the old saying goes. James favours a Softly, Softly approach, luring the terrorist into a false sense of security, dropping the emotional hot brick of an update on his wife and kids, teasing out the truth as a psychological victory. Dan, on the other hand, favours the threat of violence and punishment, and thinks torture is the only sure way to get what they want. But Dan has his own reasons for revenge; he attributes the death of his father to the terrorists, so this time it’s personal. Together they adopt a kind of nice cop, nasty cop tactic, crossing between each other to unsettle the suspect. But it’s not working, and the terrorist knows he’s winning. When he sees his two interrogators at each other’s throats with despair at their lack of progress, his mind is made up to stay silent. Shoot me and make me a martyr is his goading wish.

PersecutedThis is a very powerful play, with great characterisations and performances from actors whose work I’ve already admired, in The Accused, and The Night Before Christmas. Alexander Forrester-Coles is excellent as James, clearly an officer by birthright, with an innate nobility and natural authority. You can almost see his brain whirring away as he works out the best way to outwit the terrorist, and there’s no mistaking his clipped irritation when things don’t go his way. Chris Tyler is also superb as Dan, with his redoubtable physical presence being put to great use as he dominates the wretched terrorist and tries to dominate his senior officer – who’s having none of it. Radostin Radev makes up the cast as the silently mocking Bin Laden Jnr, sticking to his story of being an honest farmer, singing verses from the Koran, alternating perfectly between innocence and insolence; and being on the receiving end of the most vicious stage combat when Dan can hold back no more.

Radostin Radev and Chris TylerI say stage combat; there’s a fine line to be drawn between performing this vital and difficult skill perfectly, and getting it wrong. Nothing looks more risible than a stage fight where it’s so obvious that no one’s touching anyone; they may as well be doing ballet. On the other hand, there’s the kind of stage combat where the hits are clearly landing, and landing hard. In the course of the torture, Mr Radev is, inter alia, smashed over the head with a tin tray that buckles with the force and has his head plunged several times into a bucket of water. Not so much stage combat as…, well, combat. Whilst it was incredibly effective to look at, and really brought the tension to a head, I couldn’t help but wondering where acting ended, and assault began. I asked Mr Radev afterwards how much he hurt, and he replied quite a bit! I’m not sure how well received the idea of that kind of physical pain would go down if the cast members weren’t mates too. Just a nagging doubt in the back of my mind – unlike the nagging ache at the top of Mr Radev’s head.

The brutality of the events on stage were echoed by the brutality of some of the images on the accompanying video clips; I know that Iraq is hardly playing doctors and nurses but maybe the selection of some of the video was a little more forceful than it needed to be – at least without some prior warning. If they were trying to shock us, it worked.

A production that maybe lacked just a tiny bit of finesse, but with absolutely no questioning the commitment of the cast or the dramatic intensity of the piece, which was riveting throughout. Great work!

Review – An Error in the Medley, Carousel Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 26th April 2018

Flash FestivalThere’s a scene in Tom Kempinski’s play Duet For One, loosely based on the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and which I remember reduced me to tears when I saw it back in 1980, when the musician Stephanie, who can no longer play the violin because of her disability, bawls her heart out to her psychotherapist. “Music is the purest expression of humanity there is”, she affirms, and I was strongly reminded of that theory when watching Carousel Theatre Company’s An Error in the Medley, a one-woman play performed by Amelia Renard.

An Error in the MedleyWe find ourselves in an exclusive salon, having an audience with a young musical phenomenon, Leonie Owens. Miss Owens is a composer extraordinaire, with (one presumes) a catalogue of great achievements for her young years, and fanning a desire to soothe the fevered brow of the general populace with her amazing skill. Will she play for us? No, rather like Princess Anne said many years ago, she doesn’t do tricks. Maybe she would be so kind as to just pick out a few notes to give an example of how music can soar and bring light to others? (Hence my memory of Duet for One, mentioned above). Just a few then; and she falters at the keyboard. She graciously allows a short Q&A to follow, but is quickly thrown by the preponderance of questions about her parents. Why are they concentrating on them, rather than her? It’s just not fair!

The big question that the promotional text poses is just how far can a dream take you? Leonie’s desire to become a great composer has blinded her to the fact that she can’t actually play. It’s all a fantasy, which falls apart when subjected to the simplest questions. When exposed as a sham, she can only see one noble way out of the mess she’s created for herself.

Amelia RenardMs Renard has devised a fascinating character; pompous, faux-refined, patronising, and with an ugly superiority complex. When the mask slips, she’s just an ordinary young woman with dreams way beyond her ability. It’s a very good performance; I loved the arrogant tone with which she gave voice to Leonie’s pontificating. It was only a shame that there wasn’t something a little more substantial to the play. It wasn’t enough just to see Leonie being Leonie; we needed to observe her actively do something. It starts with a long pause, whilst she’s getting her CDs in order; and there’s another long pause in the middle, between the showdown with the audience’s questions and the confession that it’s all a lie – and these pauses, with her back to the audience so we couldn’t see her facial expressions, unfortunately served to reduce the drama rather than heighten it. The end result was like a tiny two-act play in miniature; fragile, delicate, and like Lady Macbeth’s candle, out too briefly.

There’s the basis of a really good play here, but I think it just needed a little more work and exploration to capture our attention fully.