The Agatha Christie Challenge – Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934)

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?In which Bobby Jones discovers a man who has fallen from a cliff and who asks Why didn’t they ask Evans? before he promptly dies; a tragic accident perhaps, but when someone tries to poison Jones and he almost dies, he reckons there’s more to this than meets the eye. Together with his friend Lady Frances Derwent – better known as Frankie – they uncover the real identity of the dead man, and why he might have been killed – and – eventually – who is Evans! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to divulge any of its extraordinary secrets!

BoomerangThe book is dedicated to “Christopher Mallock in memory of Hinds”. Apparently, the Mallock family were friends of Christie’s from the years before her first marriage, although they aren’t mentioned by her in her autobiography. And no one seems to know a thing about what Hinds might have been. Maybe they had a liaison in the local jewellers! The book was published in the United States under the title The Boomerang Clue – which is a bit odd, as I can’t remember a boomerang featuring in it!

Champagne Afternoon TeaThis is a rip-roaring, jolly old read, featuring two splendid young things in the best Christie Tommy and Tuppence/ Secret of Chimneys tradition, although with just perhaps a hint more decent characterisation. You really do get to know Bobby and Frankie very well during the course of the book, and understand their motivations, their strengths and their weaknesses in a way that’s hardly suggested at all in the earlier books. It’s as though Christie is maturing in her writing ability but unwilling to let go of a previously winning formula. So I see this as a distinct turning point away from the flippancy of the earlier novels as she launches a run of some big hitters very soon. Three Act Tragedy, Death in the Clouds, The ABC Murders, Murder in Mesopotamia, Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile would all be hitting the bookshops in the next three years. In fact, the best part of the next decade would be dominated by the egg-shaped head of M. Hercule Poirot.

Car Cartoon with Woman DriverIt’s written in the third person, and Christie employs the tactic of writing very short chapters to help it be the fast-paced page-turner that it is. 35 chapters cover just 184 pages, which averages out at just 5.25 pages per chapter. With those constantly changing scenes, protagonists, story threads and what have yous, it’s no wonder that it bounds along at a breathless pace. About halfway through the book the reader realises that so many of the elements of the book have come together and that you’re racing through the plot at a thoroughly enjoyable rate of knots. On the downside, the element of chance in this book is enormous. There are so many lucky coincidences and some extraordinarily far-fetched events that it is almost impossible to take it seriously, even as a Christie yarn. This is very much a light-relief book, and not one to get your sharp detective brain working hard.

50There’s a rather sloppy piece of repetition early in the book – so we can’t blame that on Christie getting carried away with its pace. It’s when Bobby is reflecting on what an old fuddy-duddy his father is: “nobody over fifty has got any sense – they worry themselves to death about tuppenny-ha’penny things that don’t matter.” Now that’s a perfectly credible thing for Bobby to have said to himself. But only two pages later, when Bobby is explaining to his father about how he has found the body by the cliffs, and his father criticises him for being too light-hearted about it, he says again to himself: “but what could you expect? Nobody over fifty understood anything at all. They had the most extraordinary ideas.” Either Christie was trying to over-emphasise this “over fifty” problem or she’d forgotten that she’d already used it. Either way, it’s a bit unimaginative. As if to make up for it, she allows Frankie to have the most elegant observation in the book: “isn’t it odd? […] We seem, somehow, to have got in between the covers of a book. We’re in the middle of someone else’s story. It’s a frightfully queer feeling.” They’re like innocents abroad, in a way; caught up investigating something that has no specific link to themselves, apart from the fact that someone tried to poison Bobby (which does make it rather personal.)

CheatIn order for the narrative to work, Christie has to cheat a bit. I can’t be too explicit here, lest I give the game away. But she does ascribe some actions and speeches to one person when in fact they are delivered by another. By concealing the true identity of the person speaking, she leads her readers – and indeed her characters – up the garden path a little more before giving in and finally telling us the truth. Whilst it is an effective device at stringing out the denouement, I did feel a little cheated by Christie here; she actually tells us lies which we believe for ten minutes or so, before retracting. I can’t help but think that’s not a good narrative trait.

bobby_jonesI see that Christie gives a mention to an ABC guide in this book – it’s left by the window in the house from where the Caymans have fled. Frankie dutifully takes note of what’s on the pages on display. This does look forward to one of her masterpieces – The ABC Murders – which would appear a couple of years later. In fact this book is littered with contemporary references, many of which I had to research in order to understand. Let’s take the title character first! Bobby Jones is first seen, on the golf course, making a total mess of his shot. For Christie, a keen golfer, this is a nice moment of irony. Bobby Jones was an American golfing hero, who helped design the Augusta National Golf Club, and co-founded the Masters Tournament. He won the US Open four times, in fact he is the only player ever to have won the (pre-Masters) Grand Slam, or all four major championships, in the same calendar year (1930). That was the year he chose to retire from the game, at the grand old age of 28. By the time Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was published, he had already been retired four years.

SavoyWhen we first meet Frankie, she’s getting fed up with society parties: dinner at the Savoy at 8.30, followed by going to the Marionette and then on to the Bullring before fizzling out after breakfast. Bobby is wowed by the thought of such places but I can’t find any reference to them in real life – maybe they were just inventions of Christie. When Frankie’s just chatting with Bobby and understanding his reaction to finding the body, she commiserates: “I get you, Steve” – which is a fairly meaningless turn of phrase popular at the time – but with no particular Steve in mind. I thought perhaps it might refer to Mrs Paul Temple, but Francis Durbridge hadn’t created her by that stage.

Third BloodstainOne of the novels that Bobby toys with in hospital was written by Ouida – a name with which I was not familiar, but she was a writer of what were described as “racy and swashbuckling” novels in the late Victorian era. Here’s a conversation between Frankie and Bobby: “”Oh! But murderers are always frightfully rash. The more murders they do, the more murders they want to do.” “Like The Third Bloodstain,” said Bobby, remembering one of his favourite works of fiction. “Yes, and in real life too – Smith and his wives and Armstrong and people.”” As you might expect, Bobby’s favourite ghoulish work of fiction is precisely that – an invention of Christie. Or at least it was at the time; Kel Richards published a crime novel with that name in 1995. But Smith and his wives? Are they referring to the founder of the Mormon Church? He was murdered, but I’m not sure about his wives. The Armstrong mentioned could be Herbert Rowse Armstrong, also known as The Hay Poisoner, hanged for murder in 1922.

Adolf BeckIn a later conversation, Frankie and Bobby are discussing whether everyone has a double, and cited the case of Adolf Beck “referring lightly to the Lyons Mail.” I can do no better than to quote directly from Wikipedia: “The Adolf Beck case was a notorious incidence of wrongful conviction by mistaken identity, brought about by unreliable methods of identification, erroneous (though probably sincere) eyewitness testimony, and a rush to convict the accused. As one of the most famous causes célèbres of its time, the case led to the creation of the English Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.” The Lyons Mail, on the other hand, refers to a 1916 film, based on the 1854 play The Courier of Lyons by Charles Reade, a very popular stage work of the Victorian era, where a respectable French gentleman is mistaken for his doppelganger, a notorious highwayman.

GFS“My dear,” says Frankie to Bobby, “don’t drone on as though you were recommending a case to the Girls’ Friendly Society”. I’d never heard of them before, so I researched and discovered they were established in 1875 to address, through Christian values, the problems of working-class out-of-wedlock pregnancies. They didn’t support female emancipation but they’re still going to this day. Another society I had never heard of – The Dorcas Society – appears on the final page of the book. A Dorcas society is a local group of people, usually based in a church, with a mission of providing clothing to the poor. Their heyday was in the 19th century, but there are still a few around today.

RhylThere are also plenty of place names in this book to try and identify in real life. Marchbolt, where Bobby comes from, is said to be in Denbighshire, which of course exists, or at least did until 1974’s Local Government changes swallowed it up into Clwyd. There is no such place as Marchbolt, but the Denbighshire coast runs from Llandudno to just before Rhyl, so we can place it somewhere in that area. The local train station is at Sileham, which also doesn’t exist. Staveley, home of the Bassington-ffrenches, is described as being in Hampshire, just off the main road to Andover. Although there are several Staveleys in the UK, none of them is down in that part of the world. Ambledever is said to be ten miles away; that doesn’t exist but it does fit the location of real-life Micheldever. There isn’t a Chipping Somerton either, but both Chipping Norton and Somerton are situated within a few miles of each other in Oxfordshire. It’s also close to Christie’s Medeshot Aerodrome; in real life, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that’s based on Upper Heyford. The other location mentioned a few times in the book is 17 St Leonard’s Gardens, Paddington, home of the Caymans. There are lots of Gardens in Paddington, but none of them is St Leonard’s.

Buenos AiresAs you probably know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only a few mentioned in this book. Firstly, the amount that Bobby is offered to uproot himself and start a new life in Buenos Aires: £1,000 a year. In today’s figure, that’s an annual salary of £50,000. Yes, that’s pretty good for a starting salary for someone with absolutely no hope! However, that’s a pinprick in comparison to the amount left by Mr Savage to Mrs Templeton in his will – £700,000 – which today would be worth a staggering £35m or more. Worth committing murder for, maybe? The tenner that Frankie pays Badger for a beaten up old car would today be worth £500. Quite a lot, considering what a wreck it is!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?:

Publication Details: 1934. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in November 1972, priced 30p. Tom Adams’ cover illustration of a man falling into the sea, with a suspicious looking seagull looking after a golf ball in its nest, doesn’t really do the book justice as none of those actually represent what happens in the book.

How many pages until the first death: 4. That’s the quickest death so far in the Christie oeuvre of novels.

Funny lines out of context: Again, like Murder on the Orient Express, this book is very disappointing as far as accidentally funny lines are concerned. I will continue to keep a look out in future books!

Memorable characters:
Sadly again, there’s not a lot on offer. Whilst Frankie and Bobby are reasonably well fleshed out, the frantic pace of the book doesn’t allow for too much dwelling on the characterisations. I suppose Dr Nicholson is quite creepy; but the Bassington-ffrenches are all rather bland. Badger is quite a character, although I expect there’s more to him than just his stutter, on which Christie relies too much for humorous purposes.

Christie the Poison expert:
Bobby is poisoned with enough morphia to sink a battleship – 8 grains, which is the equivalent of 520mg, more than double the minimum lethal dose. John Savage is said to have taken a large overdose of chloral, which is responsible for deaths in The Seven Dials Mystery and The Secret Adversary. Please feel free to read that blog to find out more about it.

Class/social issues of the time:

There are some light references in this book, but again this is too flippant a book to dwell on serious subjects. However, it is class that first alerts Bobby to the possibility that the Caymans are not who they say they are: “”You don’t believe he could really have been her brother?” “Not for a moment! You know, it puzzled me all along. The Caymans were a different class altogether. The dead man was – well, it sounds a most awful thing to say and just like some deadly old retired Anglo-Indian, but the dead man was a pukka sahib.” “And the Caymans most emphatically weren’t?” “Most emphatically””. On a funnier note, Badger has his own observations about class. After Frankie pays him £10 for the Standard car, he observes: “f-f-f-first time I ever knew anyone with a t-t-t-title who c-c-could pay cash”.

This leads us on to another social issue of the time – the whole world of second-hand cars. Clearly there was no regulation in those days and you really took your life in your hands if you were to pay a few pounds for a beaten-up pile of junk! Badger’s a decent guy but even he has no compunction about selling something that’ll barely get to the end of the street. And there’s another thing – women drivers! “”Her ladyship takes some killing,” said Bobby. “Had many accidents, has she?” “She’s been lucky,” said Bobby, “but I assure you, Mr Askew, that when her ladyship’s taken over the wheel from me as she sometimes does – well, I’ve made sure my last hour has come.” Several persons present shook their heads wisely and said they didn’t wonder and it’s just what they would have thought.” No doubt women drivers have been the object of ridicule ever since cars were invented.

There’s an amusing sequence where Bobby, in order to get a doctor to stop examining Frankie, has to pretend that she’s a Christian Scientist. At the time of publication, Christian Science was really at its heyday, and it’s more or less been in decline since the 1930s. It would quite possibly have been something that trendy young things of Frankie and Bobby’s generation may have considered as a serious faith. It was an interesting time; it was now over fifteen years since the end of the First World War, and only five years before the Second, and there was still a feeling that Britain’s young men weren’t quite on top of things as they should be. When Frankie suggests using Bobby as a decoy in a ruse she’s planning, he’s not keen. “”No thank you, Frankie,” said Bobby with feeling. “I’ve been very lucky this time, but I mightn’t be so lucky again if they changed the attack to a blunt instrument. I was thinking taking a great deal of care of myself in the future. The decoy idea can be washed out.” “I was afraid you’d say that,” said Frankie with a sigh. “Young men are sadly degenerate nowadays. Father says so. They don’t enjoy being uncomfortable and doing dangerous and unpleasant things any longer. It’s a pity.” What we would today call being a snowflake.

Possibly still a hangover from the war days is the slightly racist comment from Mrs Rivington: “He’s a Canadian, you know, and I often think that Canadians are so touchy.” There’s also the unfortunate use of the word “loonies” to describe Dr Nicholson’s patients.

And there’s one more fascinating element to the story – the suggestion that Frankie and Bobby take an air taxi from Medeshot Aerodrome to Marchbolt. Today this would be a very expensive undertaking and would probably require loads of planning. Back in 1934, it seems like it was the equivalent of thumbing a lift!

Classic denouement: Not really. At first we’re all led to believe the murderer is A because Christie tells us so. Then she admits she was lying and that it’s B. Whilst the reader is confused, B manages to make an escape and confesses the crime afterwards by letter. Yes indeed, gentle reader, this is one of those occasions where the murderer gets away with it! Well not entirely, as they’re not operating solo all the time, but if I tell you more, I’ll give the game away.

Happy ending? Yes of course, you wouldn’t expect any other outcome than Frankie and Bobby getting it together romantically. It’s tinged with the sadness that justice isn’t seen to be done though, so there are shades of grey with your emotional response at the end.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely not! It’s riddled with ridiculous coincidences and far-fetched occurrences that are both amusing on the one hand and try your patience on the other! The morphia that doesn’t kill Bobby, the deus-ex-machina appearance of Badger to save their lives, and the real identity of Evans all make it very hard to believe. Even the last words of the dying man that form the title of the book are, in a sense, pointless. I simply don’t believe that that’s what he would have said!

Overall satisfaction rating: 7/10. It’s fun but it’s foolish; it’s pacey but it’s problematic.

Parker Pyne InvestigatesThanks for reading my blog of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? 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, it’s back to the short story format with Parker Pyne Investigates; I’ve not read this for a very long time and I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Sweet Bird of Youth, Festival Theatre Chichester, 24th June 2017

Sweet Bird of YouthWhen they write the history of 20th century American drama (they probably already have, actually) three names will stand out as being the greatest writers amongst them: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. When I was first discovering theatre In A Big Way in my teens, I acquired the scripts to so many of their plays and totally devoured them. Of course, a play is a very different entity when you see it on stage as opposed to when you read it; and I’m not sure how much of the 16-year-old me would have really appreciated the niceties of Sweet Bird of Youth, just reading it propped up behind the bikesheds at school. My Penguin edition also contains A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, both of which I saw in my teens and confirmed me as a massive Tennessee Williams fan. It’s taken another forty years for me finally to see a production of Sweet Bird of Youth and I confess to you, gentle reader, I have committed the sin of overlooking this incredible play all my adult life.

SBOY1Lousy gigolo and wannabe actor Chance Wayne is found in bed with formerly great actress Alexandra Del Lago, now hiding behind the soubriquet of Princess Kosmonopolis, in a posh hotel room littered with empty champagne bottles. Wayne’s back in his home town of St Cloud, much to the horror of the local Finlay family and their acolytes, who govern the town with a corrupt iron fist. Wayne’s former girlfriend, Heavenly, is the daughter of Boss Finlay and he’s not happy. In fact, he wants Wayne “gone by tomorrow – tomorrow begins at midnight”. Last time Wayne was with Heavenly, she got “infected”, and the infection had to be cut out, so that now she’s barren. If he stays, the local heavies are going to apply the same treatment to him (nasty). Wayne has this self-delusional idea that Miss Del Lago could get him into the movies (she could probably barely get him into the two-and-sixpenny’s) and that his new-found success will win Heavenly back. But none of this is going to happen. The women are washed-up, the men are corrupt, and hapless Wayne is caught in the middle. The only person in St Cloud on Wayne’s side is kindly Aunt Nonnie, who begs him to leave for his own safety; but Wayne is too much in love with himself to listen. How’s it all going to end? I was going to say, you’ll have to go see it for yourself, but you can’t because we saw the final performance! So you’ll just have to find another production!

SBOY4It’s interesting that it is among the later of his great plays – Glass Menagerie first saw light of day in 1944, Streetcar in 1947, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955; Sweet Bird of Youth first appeared in 1959. Whereas those older plays were the product of Williams’ fervent youthful imagination – and considerable life experience – of his early to mid-thirties, by the time Sweet Bird hit the stage he was 48, and entering that time of life when it’s traditional to start your midlife crisis. The play is packed full of reminiscence, regret, and harking back to a time of youth. Alexandra Del Lago has lost her youthful attractiveness and box-office power; at 29, the wretched Wayne has only a few years left in him of his wayward lifestyle which showed such promise in his youth; his ex-girlfriend Heavenly is only a shadow of her former self (she was just 15 when Chance “had” her). In addition, local political scumbag Boss Finlay is holding a “Youth for Tom Finlay” rally upstairs at the Royal Palms Hotel, which emphasises the importance of youth and associates it with success; but what we actually see is the youth followers of Finlay beating up an (older) heckler, showing us the violent and destructive side of youth. Finlay has a policy of “southern segregation”, so these beautiful young things are actually supporting a thoroughly ugly concept. Youth may be a sweet bird at first, but it turns into a tough old bird if it doesn’t realise its promise.

SBOY7This is the kind of big play and production that always feels absolutely right on the Festival Theatre stage. Anthony Ward’s brilliant set surprises you, scene by scene, as he creates a decadent hotel suite, the Finlays’ grand mansion, and the bar at the Royal Palms hotel with flowing ease. You get glimpses of the backstage area at the Royal Palms, where the rally is taking place, giving the illusion that the room goes on for miles. That bar scene is particularly effective, with all its bar-room trappings: the lethargic pianist; the vacuous young things laughing whole-heartedly at nothing at all; the well-paid discarded mistress dolled up to the nines; the very well-stocked bar tended by an arrogant young barman. It’s a superbly convincing staging.

SBOY3The marketing for this show was very heavily based on the star performers playing the roles of the Princess and Wayne: Marcia Gay Harden, who’s done loads of films, TV and Broadway work; and Brian J Smith, who’s also done loads of Broadway, films, and Netflix’s Sense8. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you, gentle reader? Yep. Hadn’t heard a jot about either of them. Sometimes I feel we live on a different planet. However – hopefully this marketing did attract the audiences, because I have to say Miss Harden and Mr Smith both turn in incredible performances.

SBOY2Much of the text concentrates on conversations between just the two of them – all of the lengthy first scene, and of course the final scene – and they are mesmeric. In that first scene, they instantly capture the atmosphere of both decadence and failure; Mr Smith in his offensively expensive satin pyjamas, always hovering around the bed but never comfortable in it; Miss Hayden, the opposite; emerging under the sheets in her black nightie that just manages to cover her enough to be decent, making sarcastic demands from the boy so that she doesn’t have to lift a finger. It really conveys the power imbalance within the relationship. Through the course of two and three quarter hours, Miss Hayden lets loose a full range of emotions from wheedling insecurity to provoked anger, and you just can’t take your eyes off her. Mr Smith, too, is fantastic at revealing his character’s catastrophic emptiness, always playing No 2 to those around him, relying on drunken happy-go-luckiness to survive his experience at the Royal Palms bar, understanding in the final scene that he has no more aces to play. It’s a brilliant performance.

SBOY5The large ensemble company, many of whom have very brief but nevertheless effective roles, are all excellent. Dominating the stage in his own scenes is a superb performance by Richard Cordery as the horrendous Boss Finlay, chomping on and spitting out his cigar with all the finesse of a warthog, shaming his family members because they’re too weak to stand up to him, deluding himself about the existence of Miss Lucy; basically encapsulating everything you’d hate about a Southern Political Baron. And there’s definitely something of the Trump in there. I also really loved Ingrid Craigie as the much put-upon Aunt Nonnie; her scene where she approaches Wayne to encourage him to leave is heartfelt and gently funny – I loved how she goes there full of resolve but then just melts with his charm – totally believable. Emma Amos is a delightful Miss Lucy, fluttering around the bar like a true Tennessee Williams southern belle, relying on the kindness of strangers even though she isn’t in A Streetcar Named Desire.

SBOY6I thought this was a stunning night’s theatre, performed with heart, a sense of injustice and a truthfulness that reveals the horror of life for a number of rather dissolute people. As I mentioned earlier, that was the final performance so I hope you got to see it. For me, Sweet Bird has now definitely taken its place among the great plays of the 20th century. There’s so much to get out of it; so much that’s only hinted at; so much to fear in it, so much to empathise with. Absolutely first class!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Country Girls, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 24th June 2017

The Country GirlsEdna O’Brien is one of those very famous authors whom absolutely no one I know has ever read. “What play are we seeing for the matinee in Chichester?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle showing surprising interest a couple of hours before curtain-up. “The Country Girls”, I replied, “it’s an adaptation of that book by Edna O’Thingy…” She looked blankly at me, but I don’t think she would have been any the wiser if I’d remembered her surname. “It’s a very famous book” I added, although by then Mrs C was back on the Guardian website.

KateYou are, of course, much better informed, gentle reader, and will be aware that The Country Girls was Edna O’Brien’s debut novel back in 1960 and she’s written around 40 books in all, including short stories, poetry, non-fiction as well as her best-selling novels. The book was banned by the Irish censor upon publication, so it must be doing something right. Set in the West of Ireland in the 1950s, the first act introduces us to Kate and Baba, two girls subjected to the full convent regime of education and repression; we see Kate’s friendship with the young Sister Mary; and the girls’ shameful expulsion when some sexual teasing goes wrong. The second act sees the girls in Dublin, freed from their shackles and finding their own way; meeting unsuitable men and struggling to pay the rent. Whilst the story really builds beautifully in the first act, and you really get to understand the main characters and their motivations very well; for me the play rather fizzled out in the second act, as whatever relationships they had came to nought.

BabaNevertheless, it’s still a very entertaining play, which gives you a very good insight into what life was like in Ireland in the 1950s, and how very different the country and the city life were. Fathers were either kind and helpful or drunk and violent; nuns were either warm-hearted or sadists. Similarly, girls were either like Kate – ambitious and innocent, or like Baba – reckless and sinful; and both were equally entertaining for the audience to watch. Little moments, like when Baba buys an ice-cream when they first arrive in Dublin, speak volumes and paint a much bigger picture than the words of the play alone can do. Isobel Waller-Bridge has composed some very elegant but inevitably sombre music which recurs throughout the piece and for me had the effect of bringing the mood down, as if preparing us in advance for some great tragedy. Call me shallow, but I’d have killed for a little fiddle and a tin whistle.

This could get a girl expelledThe play is dominated, wonderfully, by the brilliant performance of Grace Molony as Kate. From the very first scene she captures your heart and you spend the next two and a half hours willing her to succeed and survive at everything life throws at her. Both as a gullible girl and an out-of-place young woman, Ms Molony expresses so much about Kate’s character without even having to say a word. Her conversations with Mary are charming – a delightful performance from Jade Yourell; and as she opens up to Rachel Atkins’ superbly Germanic Joanna you see her becoming an independent woman, holding her own opinions whilst still being kind and thoughtful. It’s a beautiful performance.

Joanna and GustavGenevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Baba is an amusingly irreverent character; the archetypal naughtiest girl in the school, always chirpy with an answer for everything. She longs to lead Kate astray in Dublin, but when she finds she cramps her style, it’s easy for this Baba simply to dump her. Again, it was a very realistic presentation of a spirited young woman, desperate to make her way without any restrictions, and it was a joy to watch her; even though we thought her re-appearance at the end of the play was rather improbable. The remainder of the cast give a great ensemble performance to suggest the stifling backwardness of the countryside and the diversity of Dublin.

Baba buys an ice creamI’d have liked the story to have a bit more oomph in the second half, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a very enjoyable, intelligent and rewarding piece of drama that leaves you much better informed about Ireland in the 50s. It’s on until 8th July.

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – The Twelfth Player, Northampton Town FC and the Royal and Derngate at the Sixfields Stadium, Northampton, 23rd June 2017

12th PlayerDo you remember the great heatwave of 1976? Of course you do, we all fled to the beaches and the parks, tore off our clothes and went lobster red for the summer. How about the great storm of 1987? The one Michael Fish didn’t predict, where trees were uprooted, roofing tiles were flung about with gay abandon, and we all took the day off work. Well, if you’re a Northampton Town FC fan – and of a certain age – you’ll also remember the great season of 1965-66, when the Cobblers played in the First Division; their one and only year in Football’s Top Flight since they were founded in 1897. To be fair it wasn’t that great a season as they only won ten matches out of forty-two (although they still finished higher than Blackburn). But for our little club it was the stuff that dreams are made on.

Dad in the showerThe Royal and Derngate have got together with Fermynwoods Contemporary Art and Seven Sisters Group to create The Twelfth Player, an original and interactive tour around the Sixfields Stadium. In groups of no more than four – and two would I think be preferable – you’re given an iPod which guides you round some familiar and some unfamiliar areas of the stadium. You walk around, at the pace directed by the iPod, and whilst so doing you follow the story of a mad fan family who keep popping up on your screen. You may also see some ghosts of the past in “real life”, and, if you’re lucky, bump into Clarence, the Cobblers’ mascot. The story weaves some significant figures of the club’s past into its present to give it an extra dimension which will probably appeal to true devotees of the club more than just your average visitor.

12th-Player-prod6What it does provide is an opportunity to go “backstage”, as it were, and see the places you wouldn’t normally visit – the changing rooms, both home and away (I was really surprised by how small the shower areas are); the laundry area, and the famous “tunnel” which takes the players on to the pitch. You get to walk all around the pitch (sadly not on it) – although some guys were tinkering with some machinery at the corner of the pitch and I definitely got the feeling we were getting in their way, which slightly disrupted the illusion of the event!

ClarenceThere’s no doubt that this is a unique entertainment, approximately 40 minutes long, and I think you’d get the most out of it by being a big fan of the club or (even more) a child who is a big fan of the club. The technology is very clever and entices you in to the extent that you may occasionally forget to keep taking a good look around you, and not just concentrating on the screen! I was accompanied by Mr Flying the Flag who is a Northampton Town Nerd (he won’t mind me saying that) and he did point out that there were a couple of factual inaccuracies in some of the historical data given, which I guess is a shame. Not that I would have known. Primarily it’s a great chance to see the places only the professionals go; and I’m never going to come under that category! It’s on until 12th July – but not every day, so make sure you book ahead!

University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting, Undergraduates 2017 Showcase Programme, Tristan Bates Theatre, London, 21st June 2017

ShowcaseOver the past eight months it’s been my privilege to attend several productions featuring the 3rd Year Acting students of Northampton University. I’ve been to Isham Dark (isn’t that in The Lord of the Rings?) to see Shrapnel andShe Echoes. I’ve been to the Royal Theatre to see Posh, Pornography and Vinegar Tom. I saw all fifteen of this year’s Flash Festival shows. And I was honoured to be invited to attend their London showcase on Wednesday, where they once again showed their talent in front of an audience including many theatrical agents and directors.

Karr KennedyWhilst I also saw the 2016 bunch at the Royal and in some Flash shows, I didn’t get to see their early productions and I didn’t see their showcase. The benefit of seeing individual performers in at least four different productions is that you can really get a sense of their versatility, their strengths, their vocal abilities and so on. You can see when an individual really excels in a role, or when they rise to a challenge and really surprise you; just as sometimes you can see when someone takes an unsuitable role, or for some reason just doesn’t bring to the stage what you hope from them. I love going to the theatre – I always want to enjoy it, I always want to appreciate the best of what I see. And that is my watchword for when I write a review; I will always try to concentrate on the good, and if I have criticisms, I try to be constructive with them. But I also always have to be honest, because there’s simply no point in doing it if I’m not. As at today I think I’ve seen approximately 1450 productions – so I do have quite a lot of experience from the front stalls!

Ben HamptonThe showcase was a fascinating experience for me to witness for the first time. Almost all the students appeared in fifteen short sketches or playlets, either parts of a longer work or mini-masterpieces in their own right. It seemed to me that it was essential to make the correct choice to show off each individual’s most marketable qualities. Use of humour was important; two of the pieces were absolutely hilarious, and in both cases the four performers – Karr Kennedy and Jessica Bichard in Diary of a Madman, and Lauren Scott and Olly Manning in Beyond Therapy – came across with really top quality performances. High drama also works well: scenes with great conflict, soul searching, confrontation and argument were memorable and brought out the best in the performers: Olivia Sarah Jayne Noyce and Benjamin Hampton in a scene from Closer, Victoria Rowlands and Joseph T Callaghan in The Mercy Seat, and Steven Croydon, Connor McCreedy and Jack James in First Light all excelled here.

Becky FowlerIt’s when the scene really feels like it’s part of a much larger work that I sometimes felt the performers had a harder task to project themselves. Nevertheless, I thought that Kundai Kanyama and Ben Barton created a fascinating scenario in their scene from Let the Right One In, as did Jennifer Wyndham, Becky Fowler and Jessica Bridge in Di and Viv and Rose; both scenes were very engaging and the actors created very identifiable and believable characters. There were some quirky scenes too; Luke Mortimore and Tom Garland presenting a very disconcerting but strangely convincing scenario in Perve; and Jennifer Etherington and Rachel Graham-Brown rounding ominously on the hapless Daniel Ambrose-Jones in the picnic from hell in Morning. Regarding the six sketches I haven’t mentioned – that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them or think they were well performed, but perhaps they didn’t quite have the same impact as the others.

Victoria RowlandsIt was great to talk to so many of this year’s “team” after the show, and to hear about what plans they have for the immediate future and in which directions they hope the careers will go long term. They really are a splendid bunch of people! What I learned specifically from an alcohol point of view was that Helena Fenton is not to be trusted with any sharp movements if you have a full glass in your hand (almost a calamity), Chris Drew can’t pour prosecco for toffee and Hans Oldham was shocked when I lurched for a third glass of the aforementioned prosecco – although less so when we agreed to share the remainder of the bottle.

Liam FaikI was there with my friend and co-reviewer A Small Mind at the Theatre and he has very bravely committed to paper his award-winners for the year. Whereas last year there were a few absolutely stand-out performers that were very obviously the best, this year, for me, choosing the best is a much harder task. I’ve had a stab at selecting my favourites, but I cannot come up with a short-list that I think truly represents everyone’s capabilities. To be honest, any one person from this intake is a potential star in the making. All I can do is wish everyone the very best of luck and I look forward to following everyone’s careers in the future – and thanks again for a year’s worth of great shows!

Review – Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th June 2017

RPO June 17It’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton – this time, on the hottest day of the year so far; as the concert began we were still basking in 29° sunshine outside so very wisely the gentlemen of the orchestra adopted shirt sleeve order – otherwise they would have found it unbearable on stage.

Martyn BrabbinsOur conductor – new to us – was Martyn Brabbins, whose credits include 120 recordings on CD and who is currently the Music Director of the English National Opera. He’s an avuncular looking chap, a little like Great Uncle Bulgaria’s younger brother, who’s not averse to leaning back on his tippy-toes and then stabbing his baton at full force into the general vicinity of the orchestra if that’s what it takes to get the best out of them.

Two harpistsOur opening piece was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-mid d’un faune, a beautifully gentle way to start the evening. We were presented with the stirring sight and sound of not one but two harps and harpists, Suzy Willison-Kawalec (who taught my Goddaughter to play the harp) and Emma Ramsdale. You can really hear the difference when two harps are playing side by side, the music is so much more powerful, even when it’s delicate. The orchestra really brought out the fragility of this piece and it was a stunning opener. I was also struck by how similar its first few bars are to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Debussy predated it by almost twenty years.

Jan MracekFor our next piece, we welcomed our soloist, Jan Mráček, for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. You know you are getting older when the soloists are getting younger, and pan Mráček clocks in at 25 years old but with the gravitas of a man much older. He’s already won some kind of award by being the only person in a jacket (poor him) and as soon as he plunged himself into the first movement, we knew we were in for a treat. He played the Mendelssohn with an elegant seriousness but tempered with true enjoyment. He gave it fantastic expression and we were both absolutely wowed by his performance; all from memory, with amazing control and superb finesse. There’s a section where (as it seems to me, in my layman’s terms) the bow has to bounce lightly over all the strings in sequence, and then bounce back, and then back again and back again across the bridge and so on and all that time there wasn’t one moment where the tone suffered – none of those little squeaking or clattering noises you sometimes hear when the playing gets intense, it was absolutely precision perfect. I don’t know how he does it. I read that pan Mráček plays a violin made in Milan in 1758; it may well be that the craftsmanship of the centuries adds to the warmth and passion of his performance.

RPOAfter the interval we welcomed back the orchestra – still with two harps – for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Written at a time when Shostakovich was persona non-grata with the Stalin government, he was literally composing to save his life – and the power of the symphony really reflects this. Too complex for someone like me to give it any kind of narrative, the Fifth Symphony is full of superb tunes and dramatic explosions, and the whole orchestra gave it so much life and zest. Outstanding for me was a beautiful pizzicato sequence and again the way the harps blended with the celeste was just plain gorgeous.

It wasn’t the largest audience I’ve seen at the Derngate for one of these RPO concerts, but it was certainly an appreciative one as the orchestra gave us a memorable night of exquisite performances. They’re back on 16th July with something a little lighter – a Film Music Gala. Why not come and join us?!

Review – Death of a Salesman, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th June 2017

Death of a SalesmanThey say good things come to those who wait… Originally we had tickets to see this on 13th April, but, as you no doubt are aware gentle reader, everything was cancelled due to the sad and unexpected death of Tim Pigott-Smith, who was to play Willy Loman. I can only admire the tenacity and integrity of the cast and creative team for rescuing the production from the jaws of tragedy and creating such a brilliant phoenix to rise from the ashes of a terrible mixed metaphor on my part. The performance is dedicated to Tim Pigott-Smith, whom I only saw on stage once, ten years ago, playing Henry Higgins in Pygmalion at the Oxford Playhouse and damn good he was too.

DOAS1I’ve also only seen Death of a Salesman once before, back in 1979 at the National Theatre with Warren Mitchell as Willy Loman. I remember it like it was yesterday, and as you can imagine, Warren Mitchell was all kinds of special. But I do also remember that the production itself was a little iffy; I didn’t believe the characterisations of Biff and Happy at all, and by trying to use up all the large Lyttelton stage, it just all felt a bit thin. No such problem here, with this magnificent production by Abigail Graham, where all Willy’s hopes and aspirations, his past and present relationships with his wife and his sons, his humiliating dismissal by his boss, and his sordid little affair all take place inside a claustrophobic boxed set, which really emphasises what a little person Willy Loman is. The lights may proclaim “Land of the Free”, in homage to Willy’s pursuit of the American Dream, but they have a tendency to short-circuit and fail; and when the Lomans are finally “free” – of their biggest debt of all, the mortgage – Linda’s there to endure it on her own.

DOAS2Like many others, I read it at school; and judging from the number of (very well-behaved) students in the Royal last night, it’s not going to be leaving the syllabus any time soon. You couldn’t describe it as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece; but it’s a very fine piece of writing nonetheless and in Willy Loman he created a memorable figure of the little cog in the big wheel, who regrettably deludes himself into thinking he’s a much bigger cog. A mass of self-contradictions (“Biff is a lazy bum!” “one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy”); blind to the faults of his beloved older son (indolence, kleptomania, law-breaking); ignoring the approaches of his younger son (“I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?”); intolerant of his wife Linda’s interjections, biting the hand that feeds him, sucking up to a system that has destroyed him, and living up to the maxim that it isn’t enough to be liked, you have to be well-liked – Willy Loman is one helluva creation.

DOAS3Older son Biff, too, is a chip off the old block, although both of them would absolutely deny it. A fantasist, chasing the American Dream in his own, more lethargic way, envisioning a world where he and Hap can work together without actually having to work. Whereas Willy would go away for weeks on end selling as hard as he could, Biff would rather get up late and cross his fingers. They all want the trappings of the American Dream, but only Willy spends his life actively trying to achieve it; and largely failing, as all the HP payments on the various household items seem to be in a constant state of arrears. Happy will go along with anything so long as there are girls involved.

DOAS4If there was ever any doubt that Nicholas Woodeson’s performance as Willy would be under some kind of Tim Pigott-Smith shadow, that doubt is cleared within one nanosecond of Mr Woodeson struggling home from a terrible day at work, through the auditorium, up the stairs, and pausing before walking on to the stage. He immediately grabs our attention and doesn’t let go for the next three hours. Railing against the injustices of the world, this Willy is very realistic, very true-to-life; his flights of fancy and his excursions into reminiscence come across as the early stages of dementia. With the small enclosed set, there’s nowhere for these vivid flashbacks to go other than right in our faces, making them seem even more like reality and less like mere memories. This Willy Loman is visibly captivated by the romance of the American Dream; when his sons outline a possible plan his eyes slowly light up and widen as he grasps the hope it offers with all his mettle. When the grandeur inevitably gives way to the inconsequent, he barks his bitterness furiously like an abused dog. It’s a fantastic performance; very powerful, incredibly moving, totally pathetic (in the best meaning of the word).

DOAS5Watching George Taylor’s performance as Biff made me realise this was the first time I’d really appreciated quite how damaged the character is. He suffers mental fallout following his unfortunate dropping in on his dad and Miss Francis in a hotel in Boston in a beautifully played scene by Connie Walker, refusing to go anywhere without her new nylons, and Mr Taylor, dumbstruck into almost a coma of confusion. Mr Taylor looks like the great American hope with his football prowess and his Uni of Virginia trainers, but strip a layer of veneer away and he’s just the sad case waiting five hours at Bill Oliver’s office without hope of recognition. Mr Taylor takes you on Biff’s journey of self-realisation; you hope it’s not all self-delusion but when it so obviously is, he makes you appreciate what a straightforward no-hoper Biff is. I thought he was superb.

DOAS6Tricia Kelly’s Linda is long-suffering, optimistic, and above all, undemanding of any real attention from her husband. When he returns at the beginning of the play, she neither offers nor expects any warmth from him; yet she remains completely loyal to him throughout, in sharp contrast to his affair which we assume she never finds out about. I very much enjoyed her scenes with the sons when she finally starts to bite back at them for their thoughtlessness. Ben Deery is excellent as Happy, always the sidekick in the younger days, now the debonair smoothie setting up the girls for a night on the town. All the minor roles were very well performed, particularly the aforementioned Connie Walker, all barely concealed sexual naughtiness, and Thom Tuck as the self-centred Howard, droning on about his family voice recordings and dismissing Willy without a thought.

DOAS7A superb production – and a true testament to the idea that the show must go on. It’s halfway through its tour at the moment, with Edinburgh, Truro, Guildford and Oxford still to come. A must-see.

P. S. “So how did he die?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle as we walked home afterwards. “Well, he…” I replied, but then stopped short. I cast my mind back. Actually, how did he die? He seemed to just stop, and drop. Heart attack? Arthur Miller has him driving hell-for-leather into a crash in the goddam Studebaker, but there was none of that here. But somehow it doesn’t matter. You know Willy’s going to die from the moment you first read the first word of the title. That’s no surprise. The production takes the deliberate view that how Willy dies is the least important thing in his story. And I’m rather inclined to agree.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan