Review – Lucy Porter, Choose Your Battles, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 20th April 2018

Lucy PorterThis was another of our “we’ve seen them on telly, let’s see what they’re like in real life” punts. To say that Lucy Porter has been around for ages doesn’t sound like a very gentlemanly comment to make but she did intimate during the course of the show that she’s chalking up the years a little, so it was about time we saw her in the flesh. Choose Your Battles is the show she took to Edinburgh last year and jolly well received it was too.

The title comes from the age-old advice not to fight those battles you can’t win (if only the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle could have done that she would have been so much happier) but it also points to the fact that Lucy Porter doesn’t like battles. In fact, she’s the least battlish person you’d ever come across. If you drew a Venn Diagram with her in one circle and, say, renowned battleaxe Christine Hamilton in another, not only would they not intersect, they wouldn’t even appear on the same piece of paper.

Lucy PMuch of the show is given over to examples of how conflict-averse our comic heroine is. She gives us an entertaining insight into how she doesn’t like to engage in conflict with the children, so they run amok in posh restaurants whilst she and her husband discuss the niceties of that day’s Guardian opinion piece. She tells us how difficult it was when her mother came to live with them in her old age, because she found it impossible to challenge her on her passive-aggressive note-leaving. She explains how she and her husband never come to blows on anything, but just quietly seethe in voiceless anger because she can never clear the air on anything disharmonious in the relationship. We re-enact with her an unpleasant experience where a driver almost ran over her and her kids on a zebra crossing because he was on his phone – yet he still made her feel it was his fault. Take a bow, Ed from Peterborough, you did a grand job.

This is a beautifully constructed show, packed with material and incident, with some gentle, totally unforced callbacks that create a satisfying climax, if you’ll pardon the expression. Ms Porter has a very genial air about her onstage – delightfully unthreatening, respectful and polite, and you’d never run the risk of humiliation, unless you really, really asked for it. She engages the audience and draws us in to her life and experiences, so that you get the feeling you’re chatting with an old pal rather than watching a fully scripted stand-up gig. Included in the material are a few opportunities to take surveys of the audience to see how conflict-averse we are too, particularly in relation to social media and dealing with trolls. I was surprised to find that I’m not as conflict-averse as most of my co-audience members. So you can even learn a bit about yourself too. You’ll also find out how much it costs to get a new set of keys for a Volvo.

Lucy Porter Choose Your BattlesIt’s not earth-shatteringly challenging, but nor is it in any way bland or vanilla. Two hours of fully recognisable and quite possibly shared emotions and observations. Very enjoyable, and enormously self-assured. Ms Porter may have chalked up a few years, but experience tells!

Review – Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 14th April 2018

MacbethI remember having to write an essay on Shakespeare’s As You Like It at university. I enjoyed the play, and considered it from many angles, and then I thought I’d identified something no one else had seen before. Taking much of my idea from Touchstone’s lengthy scene with Jaques describing the degrees of a lie, and particularly his conclusion: “Your If is your only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, I constructed an (if I may say so) elegant, well-reasoned and convincing argument that the whole play is about the art of compromise. I read it enthusiastically to my tutor and eagerly awaited his response. He merely looked over his intimidating spectacles and murmured the two words: “possible interpretation”, at which point I instantly realised I’d run amok with my mad idea and had completely missed the point. For “possible interpretation” read “wrong”.

MacbethAs Don says in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, “it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.” So, to Polly Findlay’s new production of Macbeth for the RSC. If I’d taken time to read the programme before it started (yes, my bad, I know), I would have realised that the whole production centres on Macbeth’s relationship with time. And there’s little doubt in my mind that time is indeed one of the themes of the play. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”; “the seeds of time”; “untimely ripp’d” and so on; they’re all there. However, I’ve always felt that the ultimate theme in Macbeth is “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself”. Then you have those important themes of power; cruelty; tyranny versus nobility; not to mention the supernatural element. Macbeth’s also one of the finest examples of dramatic irony, which applies to all true tragedies, where the hero doesn’t know his character failings nor his outcome but the audience does. And then, of course, there’s the hope for the future. Scotland’s afraid to know itself until the noble Malcolm becomes King. So many options for so much dramatic indulgence.

Macbeth and a clockNow, I love challenging theatre. And I’m all for messing about with Shakespeare (to an extent) – he’s big and strong enough to take care of himself, after all. But if you choose to approach a play from a bold, original and unpredictable angle, there has to be a purpose to it. It should open up the audience’s understanding of the play. It must illuminate where before there was darkness. It has to make you understand things you never fathomed before. But this production does the complete opposite. By linking the play inexorably to theme of time, it imprisons it rather than releases it. Despite knowing the play fairly well, I found the narrative surprisingly confusing and difficult to follow, which doesn’t make for a rewarding night at the theatre. In an attempt to cast new light on one of the most magnificent plays in the English language, the creative team have subjugated it under this all-embracing yoke of time, to the near-eradication of all its other subtleties and glories.

WitchesFor example: out go the three witches, to be replaced by three cute little girls in pink jimjams each cuddling a dolly. Congratulations to whichever three child actors were playing the parts last Saturday evening because they carried it off superbly. But ghoulish hags they aren’t, which renders many of Banquo’s and Macbeth’s comments about them meaningless. My guess is that they were meant to be eerie, like the children in Poltergeist or The Omen, or some such horror movie. Way off the mark, I’m afraid.

PorterOut, too, goes the comedy drunken porter, and in comes a lugubrious presence who sits at the side of the stage for the whole performance and crosses off random chalk tallies on the wall; if there was a symbolic reason for this, I’d love someone to explain it. He has his uses; when Lady Macbeth didn’t properly turn off the tap on the watercooler, he was there with a deft knob turn. More significantly, and elevated to a level of importance way beyond Shakespeare’s original, he sets off an LED clock on the back wall of the stage, ticking down the minutes and seconds from 2 hours to zero, which will be the point at which Macbeth dies. He becomes the Zeitmeister. Sadly, the ticking clock was much more mesmeric than the nonsensical things that were happening on stage; I almost skipped the interval as I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “Here’s a knocking indeed” says the Porter. And he’s right. I’ve never heard such loud knocking – way too loud to be realistic, so I presume they’re going for a symbolic effect. But for me it’s the perfect example of how this production sacrifices subtlety for an attempt at a wow factor.

English ForceFly Davis’ setting incorporates a second small stage high above the first and hidden behind a screen, which can only be seen when it’s lit from within. This provides a useful additional acting space and works very well. What works less well is the constant projection of random phrases from the text at the top of the stage – I’m never a fan of these Brechtian distancing devices, and, believe me, they are very random. To tie in with the ever-present time theme, the word later often appears over the hidden stage. No kidding. Sometimes it says now but mainly it says later. The observant theatregoer already knew they weren’t seeing a production of Pinter’s Betrayal so they guessed it was taking place in chronological order. Everything’s always later, dang my breeches. You only have to look at the ticking clock staring you in the face – of course it’s later, what else could it be? However, the clock is ticking down in real time, but the play doesn’t proceed in real time; so there are now two timescales, and, presumably, two different types of later. Does that help? No. It’s confusing rather than illuminating. And talking of playing with time, the last fifteen seconds of the production completely rewrite both the original and the nature of all Shakespearean tragedy, with the implication that the whole thing is going to start again with another 2 hour countdown. NO! It isn’t! They’re making up their own story, gentle reader. This shouldn’t be called Macbeth, it should be renamed Macbeth’s Time Machine, based on an idea by Shakespeare.

BanquoWhen you pretty much hate everything the production is trying to do, it’s very difficult to see through that and pick out the good aspects. But I’ll try. The set is functional and clear. There’s one exceptionally good performance – more of which shortly. The technical tricks with the clock were accurate and memorable. The lighting is stark but effective. The costumes were of course excellent – well some of them were a little unusual but when have you ever seen the RSC perform with poor quality or inappropriate costumes?

Lady MacbethWith a starry cast headed by Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack I had high expectations for a dynamic duo on stage. But I sensed there was very little magic between them. Theirs felt more like a business arrangement than a marriage. To appreciate the pressure on Macbeth and the influence of Lady Macbeth, you have to believe that if he doesn’t screw his courage to the sticking place he’ll have one helluva domestic price to pay. But in this production, that sense of threat is missing. This Macbeth could easily have gone talk to the hand and said whatever as she was nagging on. Mr Eccleston spends the evening being bluff and dour, with not a lot of light and shade to his delivery. Ms Cusack sometimes looks like she’s on a sugar hyper, so jumpy and over-animated is her behaviour. Only in the dining scene, where Macbeth is tormented by the ghost of Banquo, did Ms Cusack seem at ease with the role, with her embarrassed, hurried excuses to their guests. Bizarrely, throughout the whole play, I also found that many of their speech inflections seemed, well, just wrong; stressing the wrong word in a sentence, or the wrong syllable in a word. Much of it was very alien and uncomfortable to the ear.

Donalbain and DuncanMost of the other roles lacked a sense of individuality, but to be fair they weren’t helped by the over-stylistic presentation. David Acton’s Duncan stood out as a thoughtful, credible portrayal of a noble king, so it was annoying that Macbeth killed him so early. Michael Hodgson’s Porter became something of an audience favourite with his deliberately stilted, mocking, laconic characterisation. It’s not often that I find the Porter’s crude speech funny; and sadly, this was no exception. I did, however, have to resist the temptation to let out at derisory laugh when he got his carpet sweeper out. OK, in the castle, I expect the Porter would have to do a bit of cleaning now and then. But on the battlefield? I’ve never heard of the detritus of war being cleared up with a Ewbank, particularly as slowly as he was doing it. Either I’m too stupid to get it, or it was too stupid to care about. Your choice.

MacduffThank heavens for Edward Bennett as Macduff, who exuded the perfect degree of upright respectability, spoke with utmost clarity, and, in the words of Ronan Keating, said it best when he said nothing at all when told of the murders of the rest of his family. That stunned silence, that emptiness behind the eyes, that controlled need for repeated confirmation of what had happened, all conveyed more emotion, sorrow and quiet fury than the rest of the show put together. Kudos to him and Mr Eccleston for timing their fight so that the lethal blow was struck at the just the right moment – it would have been agony to be a second out. Although Mr Eccleston was hanging around just waiting to be sliced for a little longer than was believable; I guess that’s the price you pay when you sacrifice the truth for the effect.

MalcolmIt wasn’t long into the show before Mrs Chrisparkle fell asleep. She wasn’t tired; she was a combination of bored, confused and irritated. I knew better than to wake her up. The temptation to leave at the interval was strong; but I have to say, everyone came back for the second half which really surprised me; and it received a very warm reception from the audience at curtain call, so I’m fully prepared to accept I’m out of kilter on this one. But I think this is one of the most misguided productions I’ve ever seen, choked by gimmickry. As Macbeth himself says, Confusion hath made its Masterpiece. He’s right there.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

Review – The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 14th April 2018

Fantastic Follies of Mrs RichI don’t think I’ve ever encountered the works of Mary Pix before. She lived from 1666 to 1709 and I presume must be considered one of the earliest female playwrights whose works are performed today; only the still renowned Aphra Behn appears earlier in history. In 1700 Mary Pix wrote The Beau Defeated, or The Lucky Younger Brother, which Jo Davies and her team at the RSC have unearthed and re-shaped into The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, a later Restoration period comedy of manners, and with which they have chalked up a most palpable hit.

Mrs Rich as Mrs RichMrs Rich (employing all the usual subtlety of 18th century character names) yearns for acceptance into society which she feels would fully recognise her innate style, elegance and quality. Trouble is, she’s all cash and no class. Pally with her cheeky maidservant Betty, whom she renames De la Bette because it sounds French, (although it sounds like it would mean of the beast!) she is the widow of a banker (who were clearly as popular in 1700 as they are today) and desperate to marry someone to get a title. Just the mention of the word Countess make her nose twitch excitedly like some Restoration Bisto Kid. In an attempt to become a Lady, she dallies with the foppish Sir John Roverhead, but he has an eye and a kiss curl for other ladies. Will Mrs Rich hit the big time with her social status or not? Will perhaps country squire the elder Lord Clerimont be the man she is looking for? You’ll just have to watch it to find out.

Susan Salmon, Tam Williams, Sophie Stanton, Sandy FosterMrs Rich is a dream of a comic character; one of a long line of pompous persons in drama who are ridiculed because of their pretentiousness. But she’s not just a female Malvolio. It’s her desire to achieve recognition of her quality to the outside world that is her true weak spot. She’s not actually an unkind person – far from it, although she will trample over you to get what she wants and if she spies a rival, woe betide them. She has Hyacinth Bucket’s need for everything to look perfect; she has Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby’s desire to impress the mayor and join the golf club. You sense Mrs Rich would definitely wear The Emperor’s New Clothes if she thought it would bag her a Baron.

Laura Elsworthy, Daisy BadgerThis totally superb new production also plays around with the gender assumptions of the era. Though she may not have class, Mrs Rich has power, by virtue of her money. Normally it would only be men with that luxury. We see her powerplay with Sir John through her eyes rather than through his. She is surrounded by her own set of sycophantic women who, of course, support her every whim, until rivalry in love rears its ugly head and a duel ensues – but this time, it’s between two women.Jessica Turner, Daisy Badger In a side plot, it is the Lady Landsworth, who has come to a position of power by inheriting from a rich old reprobate when she was extremely young – we’re sensing Operation Yewtree levels here – who seeks to test potential future husbands/lovers/wealth providers by pretending to be a courtesan to see if they take the bait. Again, women control the men. Lady Landsworth’s object of desire is the pathetically lovelorn young Clerimont, who swoons to his bed with woeful regularity, thereby adopting the traditionally feminine role of languishing and being pursued whilst Lady L does all the running. It’s a fascinatingly different slice of life and of course extremely funny to see it from the other perspective.

Susan SalmonWhen you enter the auditorium, the fantastic orchestra is already there, knocking out Classics’ Greatest Hits but on saxophones! So you’ve already got a classic setting but with a surprisingly modern treatment, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. The backdrops inform you of the setting – so the salon chez Rich has an extravagant Hogarthian large scale painting on the back with the words Mrs Rich’s House spray-painted irreverently over the top. It’s classic, but it’s audacious. Young Clerimont’s rooms are depicted with a backdrop of a washing line with the name Mrs Fidget’s picked out in cross-stitch like a Victorian sampler. Colin Richmond’s costumes are exquisite, reflecting all the finery money can buy for Mrs Rich and her like, the practical country tweed for the huntin’ and fishin’ brigade, and Mrs Fidget’s “seen better days” cheap and cheerful look. Aretha AyehThe songs are by Grant Olding, who seems to be composing everything nowadays, and he’s clearly on top form as Mrs Rich breaks off from the narrative to deliver a few cabaret style numbers that do precisely what all the best songs in musicals do – push forward both the action and our understanding of the characters, with humour and pathos. If there was a cast album, I’d buy it.

Sandy Foster, Sophie Stanton, Tam WilliamsAt the heart of all the action is Mrs Rich, played with a tremendous sense of fun by Sophie Stanton. From the moment we meet her, dignity in tatters following an affront, you never want her to leave the stage. With her hair all bouffant’d up, and her portly skirts all hooped out, she looks like a cross between Madame de Maintenon and one of those dollies your Gran used to conceal a toilet roll. It’s a simply fantastic comic performance from start to finish, with brilliant throwaway lines (don’t forget your things, she mutters, as she dismisses her upstart niece), fabulous knowing looks to the audience we’ve not seen the like of since we saw Tyne Daly on Broadway, and – oh my stars – a complete revelling in the magnificent grandiloquence of her lines. Added to which, she has a startlingly beautiful and sincere singing voice that’s a perfect match for Grant Olding’s songs. She dominates the stage, but it’s a generous performance too, that allows her to be upstaged by the appearance of two lurchers over whom everyone fawns, whilst she’s left to pirouette vacantly as an attention-seeking device because the dogs are much more cute. A memorably classic comic performance.

Solomon Israel, Will Brown, Sadie ShimminShe is accompanied by a brilliant ensemble who take to the comedic opportunities of the show like a canard à l’eau. Too many to mention individually, but here are a few of the performances that really stood out for me. Solomon Israel’s brilliantly feeble Younger Clerimont had me in stitches throughout, as he mopes around in his blanket, lamely seeking solace from his manservant and landlady, the cheeky yet loyal Jack, played absolutely spot on by Will Brown and the delightfully faux-posh Mrs Fidget, played by Sadie Shimmin – whose fabulous drunk act brought back memories of Freddie Frinton.

Solomon IsraelDaisy Badger is a charmingly enthusiastic and confident Lady Landsworth, Laura Elsworthy a fearless and nicely impudent Betty, and Tam Williams a hilariously flamboyant Sir John. “I am…” he bows, flouncingly to Mr Rich, trendily removing “your humble servant” from the usual greeting to show his flighty modernity. “You’re what?” grumpily replies the surly brother in law.

Tam WilliamsMrs Rich’s gaming partners (who of course are out to fleece her) are beautifully played by Sandy Foster as the brilliantly pinch-expressioned and two-faced Mrs Trickwell and Susan Salmon as the trying-very-hard-to-be-French-but-not-quite-that-classy Lady La Basset. Amanda Hadingue is a hearty Toni the gamekeeper, and Leo Wringer an even heartier Elder Clerimont, terrifically conveying the unrefined enthusiasm of the rough diamond out-of-towner; a bit like Crocodile Dundee in New York but without the knives.

Amanda HadingueWe absolutely loved it and laughed all the way through. We could easily have gone back in and watched it again that evening; Duchess of Malfi was on instead though, so it wasn’t an option. I don’t think this is scheduled for a London transfer, so I urge you to get on to the RSC straight away to book tickets. It’s on until 14th June. Refusal is futile. You have to go!

Leo Wringer, Jessica TurnerP. S. Got to love those lurchers. Never work with animals they say, but these two spread joy on every appearance. On its final entrance to the stage the bigger one got sidetracked by the presence of an interesting chap in an aisle seat. You could almost hear the dog’s thought processes. “Hey! You look like a friendly type! Would you give me a stroke? Awww thanks! Any sweeties? I bet you do!! OK better get on with the show now. Bye! See you at the stage door!”

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 13th April 2018

Screaming Blue MurderYet another packed house for the latest Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate, with host Dan Evans on tip-top form again as he brought out the best of us rabble in the audience. Amongst the paying guests whose intimate back-stories he delved into were the assistant psychologist from St Crispin’s whose dementia tests he passed with flying colours; Dan Evanstwo rival soil experts in a relationship; and some noisy crisp eaters seated behind us. When one of the audience confessed to coming from Wellingborough, someone at the back shouted “it’s a sh*thole”, to which Dan observed that the mayor was in.

Diane SpencerWe’d seen all three of the acts before but that did not diminish from the fun of the night – because this was a truly top class night of comedy. First up was Diane Spencer, whom we last saw at the Leicester Comedy Festival in February, but who has also graced us with her presence at Screaming Blues in 2011 and 2015. Ms Spencer has a brilliantly funny stage presence – a delightful mixture of posh and obscene which can really take you by surprise when you’re not expecting it. Amongst her memorable moments on Friday night were re-enacting a rather squeaky, unlubricated pole dance and its unfortunate physical repercussions, what happens when you try to get “Russian slim” and the diplomacy required to rename stepchildren. She was hilarious as always, but what really impressed us was the fact that this was all completely different material from her Leicester appearance. She just oozes natural funniness. A fantastic start to the evening.

Andrew WattsNext up, and in a change from the advertised programme, we had Andrew Watts, a wonderfully dry gentleman who specialises in unladdish behaviour and cricketing analogies but is deceptively streetwise at the same time. We’d seen him here twice before, and he gave us his regular material and indeed memorable punchlines – a couple of which I use myself whenever out clothes shopping with Mrs Chrisparkle – you’ll know the ones if you’ve seen his act. He pitched his material absolutely spot on, and I loved the necrophilia sequence (no, honestly) and the fielding positions set up for the medical team delivering his wife’s baby. He also has this brilliant idea of being the perfect partner for a woman looking for a mediocre night of lovemaking; he’s there to step up to the mark. It may be time for Mr Watts to gather a few more ideas together to enhance his act but, there’s no question about it, he was absolutely hilarious and everyone loved it.

Jonny AwsumFor our final act, we welcomed the return of Jonny Awsum, who just seems to get more awesome every time we see him. Fresh from his appearance on Britain’s Got Talent last year, he attacks the stage with such winning gusto, getting everyone to join in his comedy songs right from the very beginning. He has some fantastic musical parodies; his Take That’s Back for Good is just brilliant, and his Sexy Noises cocks a knowing snoop at the Osmonds’ Crazy Horses. His enthusiasm is such that you cannot help but throw yourself into it. We were howling with laughter. A perfect way to end the night.

That was a fantastic Screaming Blue Murder – and there’s another one coming in two weeks’ time! Dan won’t be hosting this one, so I wonder who we’ll get to accompany us for the night. A show with an already built-in added surprise; you should come!

Review – Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 8th April 2018

Alan Buribayev Conducts ChopinOnce again we welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to one of their satellite venues around the UK here at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, for an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Our conductor was the ebullient and hard-working Alan Buribayev, whom we saw here two years ago in a fantastic concert that was the winner of the 2016 Annual Chrisparkle Award for Best Classical Concert. So we knew we were going to be in for a treat. This was also our first chance to see Alexandra Wood as First Violinist for the orchestra.

Alan BuribayevWe started with the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, his 1866 opera that remains one of his best-known works. The overture was written separately, before the rest of the opera, which possibly explains why it’s such an arresting stand-alone piece of music. The strings of the Royal Philharmonic could not resist the opportunity to launch into a full-scale attack on Smetana’s buzzy, vibrant, compelling arrangement, which gripped the audience instantly like a hundred angry bumble bees and did not let go for six brilliant minutes. A great way to start the concert.

Then it was time for the orchestra to disperse whilst the heavy mob brought in the Grand Steinway for our soloist for the afternoon, Alexander Romanovsky, a (fairly) last minute replacement for the original billing of Mark Bebbington, so we’d hoped he’d had long enough to practice Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op 21. We needn’t have worried. Mr Romanovsky takes to the stage like a snazzy younger version of Will Self, serious and controlled, seated business-like at the piano awaiting his cues. Whilst he’s not playing he simply looks straight ahead, relaxed but unemotional, almost like a non-participatory observer – but looks clearly can be deceptive.

Alexander RomanovskyIf he gives off an unemotional air, that doesn’t translate to his playing. He has the most exquisite lightness of touch, delicately coaxing the fullest and most resounding note from each deliberately pressed piano key. He’s the perfect exponent for Chopin at his most fluttery, his fingers going nineteen-to-the-dozen up and down the keyboard whilst his expression remains one of swan-like calm. It was an incredible performance; and really drew out all Chopin’s superb melodies that are packed into this vivacious concerto, especially the final movement, which I found particularly exciting. When it was all over, Mr Romanovsky allowed himself to crack a smile, so I guess he was pleased at the result. He certainly should have been.

After the interval we returned for a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 43. I’d not heard this symphony before and, I must confess gentle reader, I found it a real challenge. Whilst some of Sibelius’ music has an instant appeal, there’s also quite a lot that sounds to me rather murky and hard to appreciate on first hearing. The excellent programme notes discuss how the first movement of this piece is like a mosaic, with small fragments of music appearing disparately at first but finally coming together to create a whole. Well, I have to confess I found that rather obscure whole hard to recognise! Of course, the RPO were on great form, and individual moments sounded terrific. But I couldn’t grasp it somehow.

RPOgroupThe second movement felt easier: tempo andante, ma rubato – so, at a moderate pace but not rigidly; flexible, to bring out the emotion, and I thought the orchestra (and Mr Buribayev) achieved this brilliantly. The third and fourth movements seemed so crammed with all sorts of musical ideas, that it came across as a difficult and challenging piece to listen to, exhausting even; but also incredibly rewarding. There were some truly superb passages that really sang out, and I think I need to give the symphony another listen before long to try to appreciate what I missed!

Another superb performance by the Royal Philharmonic; when the audience’s sustained applause brought Mr Buribayev back to the podium for a fourth time, no one was in any doubt the extent to which the whole programme had been appreciated. This was another matinee performance by the RPO; it’s great if that encourages a wider age range of concertgoers, although I still, personally, prefer my classical concerts in the evening. I look forward to their evening of Ballet music coming up in June!

Review – The Selfish Giant, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th April 2018

Selfish GiantThe Selfish Giant is one of a series of short stories written by Oscar Wilde and published in the volume The Happy Prince and Other Stories in 1888. I’ve never been especially familiar with it, although I did have to read a few pages from The Remarkable Rocket (that’s one of the Other Stories) for an elocution competition at the Chiltern Festival, Chesham, in 1973. You missed it? Damn, I was brilliant.

Selfish-Giant-gal2It’s a reasonably simple tale; a giant owns a great garden where the local children play. He’s been spending time with his ogre friend in Cornwall for seven years, but when he comes back he’s aghast at the childish trespassers who’ve been treating the place as their own. So he builds a Trump-like wall to keep the kids out; but then a strange thing happens… Spring never comes. But kids will be kids and they find a way into the garden, which causes Spring to return; and that’s when the giant eventually twigs that it’s his selfishness that has caused perpetual winter. The wall comes down, the children come back and the garden is once again filled with colour. All except for one corner, a tree bedecked with white blossoms, where a little boy, whom the giant had earlier helped to climb a tree, is stuck… and appears to bear the wounds of the stigmata…. Yes, if you’re not expecting the Christian element of the story it comes as something of a surprise.

Selfish-Giant-gal4This new version has been conceived as a folk opera by Guy Chambers, best known for his collaborations with Robbie Williams; he’s the co-writer of Rock DJ, Angels, Millennium, Let Me Entertain You and many more. However, don’t expect much in the way of Take That-like elements to the music in this show. He has written a delicate, charming, fragile and reflective score that reminds me in parts of some lesser-known Genesis album, or maybe there’s a hint of Howard Goodall’s Hired Man in there somewhere. There are no spoken sections, the whole show is sung through, but with a running time of only a little over an hour the time flies by. Some of the lyrics are taken directly from Wilde’s own text, others are Mr Chambers’ own invention, but unless you’re very au fait with your Wilde, you won’t see the join.

Selfish-Giant-gal3Simon Kenny’s design is simple and inventive, with lidded cardboard boxes (you know the office papers archive type of thing) creating the wall, stepladders suggesting trees and proud upright balloons representing the colourful flowers. White sheets and balloons create the perpetual winter, enhanced by James Smith’s deliberately cold lighting. A starry night is evoked by cast and audience alike holding aloft tiny torches, a symbol of hope in the darkness. Guy Chambers himself heads up the nine-strong band that produces a sophisticated level of orchestration way beyond expectations. The gentle combination of music, lighting and design create a compellingly beautiful portrayal of the contrast between childish innocence and the harsh reality of a life without love and kindness.

Selfish-Giant-gal5Presenting this story is a wonderful ensemble of young actors and singers, full of fresh enthusiasm and superb voices that create some fantastic harmonies. I loved Rose Shalloo’s ultra-innocent portrayal of the lost little boy, Olly Dobson’s slick-smart Hail, Laura Sillett’s fun-loving Girl/Narrator and Laila Zaidi’s stunning vocals as Charlie. But the whole team give an overall superb performance as the gang of children, each with their own individual characterisations, and with no weak spots anywhere. Dominating proceedings, both basso profondo and statuesque, Jeff Nicholson’s Giant is more aloof than terrifying until he sees the error of his ways.

Selfish-Giant-gal7This brief run at the Royal and Derngate precedes the show’s appearance at the Vaudeville Theatre as part of that venue’s Oscar Wilde season which has – I believe – already had some great productions. The Selfish Giant is an eloquent, reflective and incredibly satisfying piece of theatre that lingers on in the mind long after the last balloon has been popped. It’s only on in London until 14th April so catch it while you can.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)

Hercule Poirot's ChristmasIn which Hercule Poirot’s plans for a cosy Christmas Eve as guest of Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, go awry when local bigwig Simeon Lee is found murdered in his locked bedroom that evening (that’s Lee’s bedroom, not Johnson’s – that would have been a very different tale). Poirot joins Johnson and local Superintendent Sugden to work out which of the Lee family Christmas visitors did the heinous deed. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Macbeth kills DuncanThe book is prefaced by a letter in the form of a dedication: “My dear James, you have always been one of the most faithful and kindly of my readers, and I was therefore seriously perturbed when I received from you a word of criticism. You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. You yearned for a “good violent murder with lots of blood.” A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder! So this is your special story – written for you. I hope it may please. Your affectionate sister-in-law, Agatha”. The James in question was James Watts, who had married Agatha’s sister Madge in 1902. He owned Abney Hall, in Cheshire, where Christie would later write The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and After the Funeral, and which she had already used as the inspiration for Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. The book also starts with a quotation from Macbeth, that reappears later in the story too: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” Of course, Shakespeare was referring to the murder of King Duncan, but it applies just as well to Simeon Lee.

ChristmasHercule Poirot’s Christmas had quite a torturous route to the bookshelves. It was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly from November 1938 to January 1939, under the title Murder for Christmas. In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in twenty parts in November and December 1938, under the slightly different title Murder at Christmas. The full book was first published in the UK on 19th December 1938 by Collins Crime Club as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1939, again as Murder for Christmas. A 1947 US paperback edition by Avon Books changed the title again to A Holiday for Murder, and it seems to me that both these latter titles are now equally used in America.

1930s CinemaThis is an exciting, well-structured book, taking place over the seven days of a Christmas week, split into seven parts (one per day) and with several smaller sections in each part. The structure gives it extra pace and also an inevitability – you know in advance, just by looking at the chapter breakdown, that everything will be solved by December 28th. What is lacking, however, for the most part, is any sense of Christmas. It’s as though Christie has taken the festive season simply as an excuse to get a warring family together, but nothing happens that would be thought of as “Christmassy”. There isn’t a big meal. There is no talk of presents. The valet goes out on Christmas Eve to the pictures like he does every Friday night, he doesn’t do anything special. Similarly, and oddly, there’s no mention of any Christmas plans by any of the police or the other staff – it’s all just like any other day, or week. Odd.

butlerChristie employs simple, third party narration throughout the whole book apart from a few paragraphs shortly before the body of Simeon Lee is discovered, where Tressilian, the butler, takes over and gives us his thoughts. It’s a very interesting device, to change the perspective and see it all through his eyes, and it breaks up the standard narration technique. But the early part of the book is very heavy with exposition, listening in to conversations between the various Lee sons and their wives, where they appear to be talking about the family structure and relationship difficulties for the first time ever – which is highly unlikely – all for the benefit of filling in some useful facts for the reader before the action really gets underway. I thought that was rather heavy-handed of Christie; she can do better!

detectiveAnother slightly disappointing element to the story is that we see very little of Poirot’s fun and games that he normally can’t resist in his previous cases. There are no conversations where you get a closer understanding of his personality; there’s little humour in his language; there’s none of his usual vanity. The only thing he does that is true to form is to create a truly exciting denouement, where your suspicions hop from suspect to suspect before he finally reveals the truth. You feel that Poirot misses Hastings in this book; he doesn’t really have another person to spark off. Colonel Johnson is a nice enough chap, but the two men don’t have that special understanding that encourages Poirot to be outspoken and candid. Superintendent Sugden is a rather bombastic bruiser of a man with none of the lightness of touch that Poirot would normally admire. So Poirot ends up being quite isolated in this story; and for the most part he could be just any old detective who was good at solving crime. Interestingly, Christie took a break from Poirot for a few years after this book; his next appearance would be in Sad Cypress in 1941. Let’s hope he comes back to form next time out.

FrancoBy late 1938, Franco’s hold on Spain, through the Spanish Civil War, was getting progressively tighter. It would only be a few months later that Barcelona, and then Madrid, would fall and he would assume complete control of the country. There had been massive amounts of bloodshed for over two years; and, of course, the Second World War would start the following year too. It was a fascinating choice on the part of Christie to have her Spanish character, Pilar, so prominent in this book. She is the second character that we meet, and a lot of time is given over to her experiences, her motivations and her personality. She talks about how back in Spain the mayor is pro-government and the priest is pro-Franco. She has seen bombs destroy houses and kill car drivers. Colonel Johnson’s comment: “can’t be very pleasant being in Spain just at present” is the epitome of English understatement. When the family are deciding whether to make a financial allowance for Pilar, Alfred isn’t keen; “he is so British”, says his wife Lydia, “he doesn’t really like Lee money going to a Spanish subject.” Whether that’s typical Christie distrust of foreigners, or a specific reaction to the war, isn’t clear. But Spain was clearly at the forefront of people’s minds at the time. Even the film that Horbury, the valet, goes to see on Christmas Eve is entitled Love in Old Seville. It’s a Christie invention, by the way, no such film exists.

Long DaleThere aren’t many references to follow up in this book. All the place names (apart from Madrid, obviously) are made up by Christie: the Lee family home is Gorston Hall, Longdale, Addlesfield, which bears no similarity to any real place I can find – there is a Long Dale in the Derbyshire Dales (and also a place in Oklahoma with the same name) but that’s about it. Mr Lee was said to have been in contact with the vice consul in Aliquara, trying to locate Pilar; there’s no such place in Spain. Colonel Johnson is the Chief Constable of Middleshire; I suppose at a push one might think that represents Middlesex. Superintendent Sugden says he comes from the nearby county of Reeveshire, which I think is no more than a play on words; reverse the two parts of the name and you get Shire Reeve, which is the derivation of Sheriff, which basically describes Sugden’s role.

Henry Wadsworth LongfellowMuch notice is taken of David Lee’s quote when his father dies: “the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.” I’d never heard this phrase before; apparently it suggests the certainty of eventual divine retribution. It’s a direct quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his translation of a 17th-century poem, Retribution, by Friedrich von Logau. But it seems to be from an original concept by Plutarch. Unusual to find such a cultured family and police force! Colonel Johnson knows of Poirot because of his superb sleuthing in the case of Sir Bartholomew Strange, better known as Three Act Tragedy; but if you can’t remember him from that tale, that’s because actually he doesn’t appear in it.

PoundIf you’re a regular reader, you’ll 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. In her last book, Appointment with Death, there were no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so that eliminated the need for that paragraph! However, this time round there are a couple of interesting sums. Just how rich is Simeon Lee? He is described as a millionaire twice over. So if we convert £2 million in 1938, in today’s value that works out as £94 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. So even if his sons all had to share in that inheritance, it’s still an extraordinary amount of money. His diamonds, said to be valued at between £9 – £10,000, today would be worth between £420,000 and £470,000. Definitely worth stealing.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas:

Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in March 1977, price 65p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a miserable old man surrounded by grotesquely ornate candlesticks and what appears to be the front two legs of a prancing horse – don’t quite understand that. Embellishing the picture are some red-berried sprigs of holly dripping with blood. The blood works well in the picture – not sure about the rest, not certain this one of Tom Adams’ best illustrations!

How many pages until the first death: 48. By that stage in the book – Christmas Eve – all the family members have arrived at the house and no further characters are introduced apart from Horbury’s cinema date, although we never actually meet her. As far as the reader is concerned, the death comes along just at the right time.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could discern. It isn’t a particularly funny book, to be fair.

Memorable characters:

In the same way that Mrs Boynton stands out in Appointment with Death, as being the tyrannical ruler of a subjugated family, Simeon Lee takes precisely the same role in this book. To my mind he’s not quite so striking a character because his cruelty is less psychological and more real, as a grumpy shouter of instructions and insulter of sons. But there’s no doubt that, like Mrs Boynton, he deserves everything coming his way.

Pilar is also a strong character; Christie imbues her with the exotic mystery of passionate Spain, and she has none of the English reserve that characterises so many members of the Lee family. She openly talks about how handsome Sugden is, much to his embarrassment. She makes no concession to the delicate subject of money and speaks openly about her desire for an inheritance from Simeon, which is an area where the other characters would fear to tread.

Christie the Poison expert:

Poison doesn’t play a part in this book, apart from Johnson’s recollection of the Three Act Tragedy case. This gives rise to a brief conversation about the pros and cons of solving a case where poisoning is the method. But it has no bearing on this crime.

Class/social issues of the time:

Usually one can find something in a Christie book where she propounds what she feels is the natural British (or English) distrust of foreigners. But there are very few instances of it in this book. In the conversation about poison referred to above, Poirot notes that murder by poison might be thought of as “unEnglish” – “a device of foreigners! Unsportsmanlike!” Elsewhere there’s the strangely ironic conversation between Stephen and Pilar where he says “it’s just a little bit more than tiresome, my dear. Then there’s that lunatic foreigner prowling about. I don’t suppose he’s any good but he makes me feel jumpy”. So let’s just get this straight: here we have a South African man whingeing about a “lunatic foreigner” to a Spanish woman. Funny how when you have a prejudice against someone you never question its reasonableness.

One other thread that is developed here, that you find in some other Christie books of this time, is the role of women in society. In the past Christie has shown herself to be no feminist. But in this book she changes tack halfway through. Consider the motivations of Simeon Lee’s late wife, the mother whose death the character of David can’t quite get over, often comes into question in conversations between the family members.

David remembers her in conversation with his wife Hilda. “”She was so sweet, Hilda, and so patient. Lying there, often in pain, but bearing it – enduring everything. And when I think of my father” – his face darkened – “bringing all that misery into her life – humiliating her – boasting of his love affairs – constantly unfaithful to her and never troubling to conceal it.” Hilda Lee said: “She should not have put up with it. She should have left him.” He said with a touch of reproof: “She was too good for that. She thought is was her duty to remain. Besides, it was her home – where else should she go?” “She could have made a life of her own.” David said fretfully: “Not in those days! You don’t understand. Women didn’t behave like that. They put up with things. They endured patiently. She had us to consider. Even if she divorced my father, what would have happened? He would probably have married again. There might have been a second family. Our interests might have gone to the wall. She had to think of all those considerations. […] No, she did right. She was a saint! She endured to the end – uncomplainingly.””

Sorry about the long quotation. But the detail into which David goes to express his appreciation of his mother’s selflessness suggests (to me) that this is a continuation of Christie’s usual anti-feminist stance. However, there’s an interesting comparison with (who else?) Pilar, who justifies what Stephen calls her “gold-digging”, when he confronts her over her attitude to Simeon’s will. (Slight spoiler alert, although it still doesn’t tell you whodunit) She tells Stephen: ““If that old man had lived, he would have made another will. He would have left money to me – a lot of money! Perhaps in time he would have left me all the money!” Stephen said smiling: “That wouldn’t have been very fair either, would it?” “Why not? He would have liked me best, that is all. […] The world is very cruel to women. They must do what they can for themselves – while they are young. When they are old and ugly no one will help them.”” This approach to a design for life doesn’t really sit comfortably with Christie’s usual moral tone but it does suggest a change in her philosophy about the role of women. For (I believe) the first time in a Christie novel, you might say sisters are doing it for themselves.

One small observation: it’s certainly a different era from today when a Superintendent of Police could be believed to be usefully spending his time visiting houses collecting for the Police Orphanage.

Classic denouement: Yes! All the suspects are present, Poirot goes through a long rigmarole explaining why everyone could have done it, only then to explain how one-by-one they didn’t do it, whilst the reader turns the pages with bated breath not knowing what to believe. It’s an extremely exciting ending, with a classic “J’accuse” moment, and an unrepentant murderer.

Happy ending? Yes. One whirlwind romance culminates in the promise of a marriage, and there’s a general sense that the majority of the family members will be able to put their problems behind them and move on.

Did the story ring true? Chance meetings and coincidences obscure the truth of the case but yes, on the whole, this is one of Christie’s more believable stories.

Overall satisfaction rating: On the plus side, it’s an exciting read, with an excellent denouement and a suitably surprising solution to the crime. On the negative side, Poirot isn’t himself; there are no references to little grey cells, no moments of breathtaking vanity. And the whole idea of the amount of blood involved playing a significant part in the story doesn’t really hold water. So for me this averages out as an 8/10.

Murder is EasyThanks for reading my blog of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas 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 Murder is Easy; my memories of this book are of reading it on holiday in Spain as a teenager and really enjoying it. I think we may be in for lots of murders! And I don’t think I can remember whodunit, which is always a bonus. 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!