Review – Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck Live, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th September 2017

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck LiveWhen I saw these two legendary names were appearing together on stage I had absolutely no hesitation in booking straight away. They were among the very first famous people I ever saw on stage as a child. Jimmy Tarbuck played Jack in the London Palladium pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk back in Christmas 1968 – New Year 1969; it was my first visit to a London theatre and my first ever pantomime. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle couldn’t wait to get me in the front stalls to see how I’d react to the Palladium environment (which she adored) – verdict, I loved it. But, even earlier, in the summer of 1967, I was taken to my first ever professional stage show; on holiday in Bournemouth, the 7-year-old me had a seat to see Showtime at the Pavilion Theatre, featuring Kenneth McKellar, Jack Douglas and starring – you guessed it – Des O’Connor.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969 castI’d seen Des O’Connor live just once since then, when I took a young female friend (in the days before Mrs Chrisparkle, c. 1984) to see a recording of Gloria Hunniford’s TV chat show Sunday Sunday – it used to air on Sundays, I kid you not. Amongst the guests was Mr O’Connor. At one point all the lights blew and they had to stop the recording for about twenty minutes. Gloria Hunniford retreated into her shell and wouldn’t make eye contact with the audience. Des O’Connor, on the other hand, got up and did twenty minutes stand-up off the top of his head, and, let me assure you gentle reader, he was absolutely on fire! From that moment, I’ve always had immense respect for him.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 1I’d not seen Jimmy Tarbuck on stage since that panto, and of course it’s been many years since he’s been a regular on TV; so I was very interested to see how he’s progressed, the young feller-me-lad. Well, I can report that he’s doing very well indeed. He’s 77, but looking at him you wouldn’t place him older than his mid-fifties. He still has that irrepressible cheekiness, a very nice line in occasional self-deprecation, natural confidence and authority, and absolutely immaculate comic timing. It’s true; some of his material isn’t very 21st century. Whilst Mrs C was pleased to note the total absence of mother-in-law jokes, they had been replaced by “ugly women” jokes. To be fair, they were often very funny.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 4Mr Tarbuck (hereinafter Tarby) still uses that classic structure for many of his showpiece jokes – I mean those that aren’t one-liners. He sets them up with a statement that will end with a certain sequence of words; pause. Then comes another statement, ending with the same sequence of words; another pause, whilst suspense/curiosity/anticipation builds. There might even be a third statement, that ends with the same sequence of words – audience by now making up their own punchlines. Then comes the killer final statement that will take the sequence of words and turn them on their head to potentially devastating comic effect. I remember him doing that in the 70s, and he still does it today – brilliantly.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 5Mr O’Connor (hereinafter Deso) has quite a close association with our beloved Northampton, as he was evacuated here during the Second World War, worked at Church’s shoes (very posh) and even had a stint playing football for Northampton Town. Today he still has that wicked glint in his eye, and at 85 he can still look down on young Tarby. But he did admit that he wasn’t feeling too well, with an ear infection affecting his balance, and would we mind if he sat down for most of his set; of course not – huge kudos to him for still going on with the show despite his health issue.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 3I’m going to forgive him for starting the evening with a terrible homophobic joke and put it down to the infirmity of his age, as Regan said of Lear. Moving on, with the aid of a big screen, he reminisced about some of his favourite TV appearances – with Morecambe and Wise (naturally), Rod Hull and Emu, Benny Hill, Bernie Clifton and many more. We sang with him as he accompanied himself on a video of him singing with Neil Diamond (are you still with me?) and bizarrely it worked, as the rafters of the Royal and Derngate rang out to the chorus of Sweet Caroline. Deso also led singalongs to Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Tony Christie’s Is this the way to Amarillo, but, sadly, no Dick-a-Dum-Dum, which I’ve always thought was a truly charming look at Swinging Sixties London. Isn’t always the case that artists never perform your favourite song? It’s an unwritten law of Live Performance.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy TarbuckThere was precious little hesitation in the audience to rise for a standing ovation for these two grand old chaps. For Tarby, he absolutely deserves it for still delivering 45 minutes of cracking stand-up. For Deso, he deserves it in recognition of all the years of happy entertainment he’s provided, even from before I was born. They’re still touring this unique get-together show for a few more dates this year: 7th October in Harlow, 29th October in Reading and 5th November in Newcastle. These young lads deserve your support!

Review – Mosquitoes, National Theatre, Dorfman Theatre, 16th September 2017

MosquitoesWhat with the grand Lyttelton Theatre and the imposing Olivier Theatre, it’s very easy to forget there’s another space at the National. Round the back, behind the bikesheds, the Dorfman re-opened under that name in September 2014; before then it was the Cottesloe. I read that it underwent a transformation giving it greater sightlines (tick, our view was great) and more comfortable seating (really? It must have been agony before!) I had to check back to see the last time I’d been to the Cottesloe – it was for Dispatches, in July 1979. That’s a gap of 38 years. Blimey. Mind you, that’s not my longest gap between theatre visits to a particular London theatre; like many people, I suspect, I’ve not been to St. Martin’s Theatre since it became the home for The Mousetrap. Last time I was there was in September 1972 for Sleuth. Lord Lumme.

Mosquitoes-10But I digress. Our main motivation to book to see Mosquitoes was not simply to visit the Dorfman, but to see one of our current favourite actors perform in the flesh – the wonderful Olivia Colman. I know that’s a dangerous tactic – if Ms Colman was indisposed, would we have minded? Yes, probably. However, she was disposed to appear and jolly fine she was too – but more of the performances later.

Mosquitoes-1Mosquitoes is written by Lucy Kirkwood, whose NSFW we saw at the Edinburgh fringe in the summer and what a sparky little play that was; and so, unsurprisingly, is this. It’s the story of two sisters; one, cerebral, reserved, with apparently impeccable judgment; a scientist researching on the Higgs Boson project and a pillar of the Geneva Science community. The other is the opposite; corporeal, extremely outgoing and pragmatic, totally flawed and fallible and living in Luton. The scientist (Alice) has a troublesome teenage son (Luke); her sister (Jenny) lost her baby due to a stupid belief that the MMR vaccine is harmful. Making up the happy family is their mother, Karen; once a great scientist in her own right, now a querulous busybody who enjoys making outrageous demands and being shocking, as the early signs of dementia kick in. As the particle collider project comes to a head, Alice’s family make it more and more difficult for her to enjoy the fruits of her research. And when Luke goes missing, it’s the final straw… or is it…?!

Mosquitoes-5Ms Kirkwood’s writing style is a pure delight: feisty, modern, unpredictable and completely believable. Her characters are beautifully sculpted and you get tantalising glimpses into their back-stories and emotions, even if they don’t affect the tale she’s currently telling. The result is a satisfyingly full piece; there’s so much there to consider and to enjoy beyond the plot itself. At times, Rufus Norris’ production is visually vivid with the excitement of the collider project – news screens on the walls, colourful patterns and projections on the floor and instrumentation (in fact, it reminded me of the good old days of the London Planetarium); at others, it’s suitably sparse and pared back, allowing the emotions of the characters take control of the stage. Paul Arditti’s stunning sound effects stop you in your tracks or jolt you out of your seat, depending on how much of a surprise they are. As a fiesta of sight and sound it all has a tremendous impact.

Mosquitoes-7My only quibble with the play is what is surely a hugely unexpected and unlikely outcome regarding the plot development. Without giving too much away, someone does something in this play which you would expect would result in a considerable prison sentence. Someone else carries the can and deliberately takes the blame. However, that person appears to spend no more than a long weekend at Her Majesty’s pleasure (or the Swiss Chancellor’s pleasure I suppose). Given the characters involved, and the legal consequences of what happened, I found it all ridiculously hard to believe.

Mosquitoes-11Lucy Kirkwood’s writing and characters are brought to life by some top-quality performances. Olivia Colman is fantastic as Jenny; a portrayal of someone getting through life just the best she can, despite all the awful things that life throws at her. She’s warm and funny; she’s hostile and challenging; she’s daring and reprehensible; she’s brave and fearless. She gives every aspect of her fascinating character a truly honest airing and she’s just a joy to watch. Olivia Williams makes a fine opponent for her sororal swordplay; her Alice is a splendidly confident, assertive person but when she feels let down by her nearest and dearest she shows she has vulnerability too. Ms Williams treads a beautiful balance between strength and helplessness in a very fine performance.

Mosquitoes-8Joseph Quinn plays the horrendous Luke with just the right level of awkwardness and brattishness; another vulnerable character, Mr Quinn plays him so that he’s not particularly likeable – which is probably very accurate – even when Natalie (a strong confident performance from Sofia Barclay) treats him with cruelty. Their beautifully written “sex scene” – if you can call it that – is played with tremendous humour. Paul Hilton takes the intriguing but not entirely successful role of The Boson, masterminding, observing and expressing all the scientific processes like a slightly mad boffin. I will confess, he sometimes lost me in all that rigmarole. I was always useless at Physics.

Mosquitoes-12Yoli Fuller is a charismatic Henri, and the other minor roles are all played with great conviction. The other star of the show is a wonderfully funny and strangely moving performance by Amanda Boxer as Karen; resolute in her determination not to be put out to pasture either domestically by her daughters or professionally by younger scientists. She’s great at dishing out the haranguing, domineering, battleaxe material, and then retreats into that wheedling, self-obsessed, hard-done-by attitude only too familiar to those with, shall we say, tenacious mothers. Superb.

mosquitoes-4The fact that the 2 hours 40 minutes fly by without your checking your watch is a testament to what an enjoyable production it is. A funny and thought-provoking play, causing human emotions and the clinical world of science to collide like particles in a lab. Beautifully performed and highly recommended, despite the somewhat incredible plot resolution!

Mosquitoes-6P. S. I’m not going to leave it another 38 years before I come back to the Dorfman. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had a pre-theatre lunch at The Green Room directly next door to the National; plenty of gluten-free choices and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg and Alistair Muir

Review – Rules For Living, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2017

Rules for LivingThe curtain rises and straight away you recognise that comfortable setting; Christmas Day, the living room and the kitchen, a half-decorated tree, and two young people perched expectantly on the sofa. Is it going to turn into Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings by another name? With surprise artificiality, a device projects the words “Rules for Living” on the roof of the house, as if we’d already forgotten the name of the play. Then another surprise; before anyone says anything, the set divides; the living room heads off stage left, the kitchen swerves stage right, leaving a big empty void in the centre of the stage. It already feels like technology is taking over this everyday suburban Christmas scenario.

RFL1Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living first appeared at the National Theatre’s Dorfman a couple of years ago, where it got something of a mixed reception: ambitious and funny, but peculiarly stressful seemed to be the gist, and I entirely understand where that’s coming from. In a nutshell, Matriarch Edith is trying to create the perfect Christmas Day lunch (always a disastrous idea) to welcome back her husband Francis from hospital, who’s been suffering with some undisclosed ailment. Sons Matthew and Adam will be in attendance; Matthew with Carrie, the girlfriend he’s been going out with one year, Adam with his wife Nicole and their teenage daughter Emma, who suffers with depression. As you might expect, the relationships between the sons, their other halves and their mother get progressively strained as the day wears on. Francis comes home, more severely afflicted than Edith had let on, and the day degenerates even further.

RFL2But there’s a twist: and it goes back to that artificiality/technology influence felt in the opening moments. Each of the characters (apart from Francis and Emma) has an individual behavioural trait that they use to cope with stressful situations. Matthew, for example, has to sit down in order to tell a lie. We know this, because it’s projected on the walls and roof. So when Carrie asks Matthew if his mother likes her, and he sits down to say yes, we know he’s lying; you get the picture. Nicole must take a drink in order to contradict. As you can imagine, during a typical lively Christmas Day, quite a lot of contradicting takes place so Nicole gets somewhat boozed up to satisfy this particular behavioural need. And so it goes on. There’s an enormous amount of genuine hilarity to be enjoyed recognising how each character meets their psychological responses.

RFL3Sam Holcroft was partly inspired to write the play as a response to her own experiences of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Emma is undergoing CBT, and it makes her question her own response to the various challenges she faces. Nicole would like Adam to accompany her on some therapy sessions but he’s not remotely convinced. Of course, all the behavioural idiosyncracies that the characters display are ripe raw ingredients for a CBT session. The stress of learning a new card game is another new challenge for Christmas Day; Bedlam – that’s the game – where the rules include your requiring to identify others’ behavioural responses, which the characters attempt to do, whilst still having to obey their own. The furore this causes strongly reminded me of Reg’s wretched board game in The Norman Conquests. No wonder Christmas is stressful.

RFL5It’s a really clever construct; but I always felt aware of a greater being influencing the activities of the characters. The unseen writer truly plays the role of the puppet-master, creating a series of individual havocs that her characters must endure, almost at her random will. I guess that’s the case for any writer creating a story – their characters have to comply with the events that the writer chucks in their path. But the artificiality of it all is really emphasised with this play and production. It’s a most unusual experience. A small part of me wondered if it was an easy cop-out; should we be able to see, through the nuances of the writing, how the characters need to follow certain behavioural paths without having their rules of living flashed up so obviously on a colour-co-ordinated screen? Doing it this way certainly means that the rules are in charge, not the people. The characters even stop what they’re doing every time the rules change, then resume their path to their fate, like flies to wanton boys.

RFL4The cast absolutely pull out all the stops to mine as much humour from the situation as possible, and there are some beautiful moments of physical comedy, classic farce, and an outrageous food fight to enjoy. Jane Booker’s Edith is a superb portrayal of a control freak who needs her own versions of a “little helper” when she’s thwarted. Carlyss Peer turns into more and more of a musical theatre travesty as she shows Carrie’s way of coping with anxieties and rejection. Ed Hughes’ Adam turns from nice guy into sarcastic sod in order to protect himself from his own self-loathing, Jolyon Coy’s Matthew is up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers reflecting his permanent state of mendacity, and Laura Rogers’ Nicole’s tongue gets loosened by alcohol the more belligerent she gets. It’s almost as though Derren Brown has had a session with them before they went on stage so that they react to individual trigger points. There’s a nice irony in the fact that the physically suffering Francis, a delightful performance by Paul Shelley using only a few words but wicked facial expressions, is the only character who mentally knows precisely what he wants and has no compunction about getting it.

RFL6It’s extremely funny and very thought-provoking; despite its Ayckbournian setting it’s a highly original look at a familiar domestic disaster zone. Abbreviate Rules For Living, add an “o”, and you get RoFL, which rather sums it up. And spare a thought for the stage management team who have to clear that mess up after every performance. If you’re wearing nice clothes, I wouldn’t sit anywhere nearer the stage than the third row! This is a co-production between the Royal and Derngate, English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and after its few weeks in Northampton, it tours to Cambridge, Windsor, Brighton, Ipswich and Kingston. You have to see this one!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – Half a Sixpence – revisited – on its last night – Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd September 2017

Half a SixpenceLast Christmas (no, this isn’t a George Michael tribute, but God bless him nonetheless) we saw Half a Sixpence as part of our usual let’s spend a few December nights in London seeing shows because we never go out ritual. Here’s the link to my blog review of that great night. We felt totally exhilarated by the end in the knowledge that we’d not only seen a great show but also a fantastic new star in the shape of Charlie Stemp.

charlie-stempEvery so often, I get visited by Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears – I’m sure they call on you too – and they tempt me with things I really shouldn’t do. But earlier this summer, they suggested I book for the last night of Half A Sixpence. It’s going to be a great party, they said. Sounds like an excuse for champagne, they said. The atmosphere will be overwhelming, they said. And do you know, they were right! But would Mrs Chrisparkle be on board for such self-indulgence? You betcha!

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempWe’d seen An American in Paris in the afternoon, so, fully satiated with well-meaning, classy yet slightly dull entertainment, we were absolutely in the mood for a right royal Folkestone knees up. We arrived at the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre in plenty of time to settle down in Noel’s Bar and crack open a half bottle of Verve Cliquot before the show, which, I think it’s fair to say, prepared us in the best possible way. I bought another programme, so I could see to what extent the cast had changed since last December: answer, not at all. Absolutely the same cast. No one had left. That tells its own story. It must be such a delightful production in which to be involved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsThe theatre was packed – the vibe was truly excitable; this audience is going to give the show its best possible send-off, isn’t it? Oh yes it did. From the moment that Mr Stemp and Devon-Elise Johnson ran into the auditorium and jumped up on the stage to portray Arthur and Ann as kids, the theatre simply erupted. This is going to overrun by at least half an hour, I reckoned. Actually, I was wrong; the cast enforced discipline on us by carrying on pretty promptly after each song – not like when we saw the last night of A Chorus Line, where the audience dominated the proceedings so much with their gratitude and fandom that the cast couldn’t hold back their emotions at all.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamAs each scene and number followed each other, the audience kept up their frenzied response. By the time we’d reached the interval, with Charlie Stemp’s Kipps drenched under the real rain, I genuinely felt like I needed a rest, as my mouth muscles were beginning to spasm from my permanent smile. Whilst stretching our legs (a euphemism for heading to the bar), we overheard one lady say to another “You must come and meet Cameron. In the Albery Bar. Upstairs.” We looked at each other with mischievous intent; shall we gatecrash? No, quickly coming to our senses, let’s not risk being turfed out on our ear. We hadn’t heard Pick out a Simple Tune yet.

ian-bartholomewNow that I’ve mentioned that song title, if you’ve seen the show, that tune has already earwormed itself back into your brain. That scene was as fantastic as I remembered. After its rip-roaring reception from the audience, it put a whole new meaning on Lady Punnet’s assurance that you can’t have more fun than at one of her musical evenings. I’d also forgotten how wonderfully pompous Gerald Carey’s James is when he’s being sonorous on the organ, tossing back his foppish hair, and checking to make sure everyone else has noticed how superb he was. Mr Carey came into his own again as the photographer in Flash, Bang, Wallop, revelling in every single double entendre magnificently. FBW brought the house down as you would expect.

pick-out-a-simple-tuneIt was only at the end that the cast started to drop the professional façade and showed us how much they loved the response. Mr Stemp wasn’t allowed to join the other members of the cast for the joint curtain call until we had elongated his personal ovation for several minutes. Cameron Mackintosh appeared on stage to give a final thank you speech and it was a thoroughly joyful experience. He said he hoped it wasn’t the end for this production – and I don’t see how it can be. This is born to tour and continue to delight audiences of all ages for years to come. A magnificent success for Cameron Mackintosh, Chichester, Charlie Stemp and all the cast. But we still didn’t find out about the results of their filming the show over some of the last performances. Will it appear on BBC4 over Christmas like Gypsy did a couple of years ago? I’m really hoping so.

Congratulations to all. Half a Sixpence, London will miss you!

Review – An American in Paris, Dominion Theatre, 2nd September 2017

An American in ParisIt’s been a few months now since An American in Paris hit the London stage, a much-awaited Big Ticket with a strong reputation for great dance and musical magic. It will probably come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, to discover that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have seen the film (we’re useless cinemagoers) so I came to the show without any preconceptions or knowledge of what to expect.

AIP 4The original movie is of course a product of the Hollywood machine, with a score by those legends George and Ira Gershwin. I knew many of the songs, but didn’t know they came from this show. I Got Rhythm, ‘S Wonderful, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away from Me… all show classics. To do the film justice, I’m guessing they concentrated on high production values, and as a result the show looks stunning. The sets are inventive, with an amazing use of projection to create different locations at the flick of a switch. The orchestra is fantastic, making those famous songs sound truly superb. I particularly loved the whole performance of “I Got Rhythm”; how it starts off as a languid, rather funereal anthem and so unlike the party piece we all know and love, but then gets a kick up the rear with a funky arrangement. The orchestra play it again as the entr’acte music and it’s absolutely brilliant.

AIP 11There’s also a great cast. When I checked my programme – more of which later – I was delighted to see some favourite names in there. Jerry is played by Ashley Day, who was a sensational Curly in the touring production of Oklahoma! a couple of years ago. Zoe Rainey, who was a stylish and charming Hope in Sheffield’s Anything Goes, plays Milo Davenport with elegant enthusiasm. Ashley Andrews, superb in both Drunk and Mack and Mabel, shines as the difficult choreographer Mr Z, and there’s even the evergreen Jane Asher providing a frosty warmth to the role of Madame Baurel.

AIP 10However, something’s just not right. It was Mrs C who pointed out that for some reason it just does not add up to the sum of its parts. Once you’ve got over the amusing set up of having three friends all chasing the same girl and none of them realise it, the story is paper thin, and doesn’t really sustain two hours forty minutes. The famous American in Paris ballet sequence, which acts as the climax to the show, whilst musically strong and immaculately performed, left me just a little bit bored. Leanne Cope, who plays Lise, is a remarkable performer for her combination of ballet (a First Artist at the Royal Ballet) and superb voice, but for me she maintains that beautiful ballerina countenance at the expense of emotional reaction to all that happens around her. I never got that spark of attraction between her and any of her three suitors, so their combined plight was never as moving as I’m sure it ought to be. It was like observing an immaculately beautiful museum piece, finely constructed by a master craftsman, but almost totally devoid of passion. There’s a slight disconnect in the dance too, with Miss Cope’s feet firmly in the ballet camp and Mr Day’s firmly in musical theatre, so that when they dance together something doesn’t quite gel. The ensemble and swings do an amazing job at filling the stage with their colourful energy but, again, I felt that some of Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography lacked a little imagination. So it all never really soared.

AIP 2I was also slightly disappointed at the way some of the big numbers came across. ‘S Wonderful felt like a very slight kind of song somehow, like a wispy feather struggling to stand still in a breeze. I’ll Build a Stairway to Heaven was given a very grand Hollywood setting (think the finale to A Chorus Line but even more so) but it seemed strangely inappropriate; for me, the look and the sound clashed. I can’t explain it more; I simply remember watching the performance and thinking, no, this isn’t for me. And I like musicals!

AIP 7There’s a running joke in the show that Jerry’s designs for the American in Paris big ballet sequence are not up to Mr Z’s demanding standards, and it’s only when Milo Davenport threatens to remove the funding for the show that Mr Z relents. The adaptation of Jerry’s designs to the actual staging of the number and the costumes of the dancers is incredibly well done – technically fantastic. However, I think I have to agree with Mr Z. When it actually came to the big number, I thought the abstract designs were rather cheap looking, and didn’t enhance the narrative of the dance.

AIP 8You’d think from this that I didn’t enjoy the show. Not true – I certainly did. There was so much to appreciate musically and from the performances, and from the entertaining script (I enjoyed the occasional tongue-in-cheek references to George Gerswhin!) It looked sumptuous, and the orchestra were fantastic. It’s just that we didn’t connect with it. Still, a very appreciative house did; and I see that it has recently extended its booking to April 2018, so it’s obviously doing something right. I’m very glad to have seen it; I wouldn’t want to see it again.

AIP 1P. S. The programme is a big colour brochure full of great photos (but then so is their website). £8. “Do you have smaller ordinary programmes, or is this the only one”, I asked the slightly surprised programme-seller. “No, this is it”, she replied. I duly paid out my £8, and wondered how I was going to break the news to Mrs C. It was so big I could hardly stuff it into my man-bag. I’m not going to use the words “rip off”, because it’s probably not bad value for what it offers. It’s just that it almost offers too much! For £8 I could buy a week’s worth of undies at Primark.

Production photographs by Johan Persson and Helen Maybanks

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Death in the Clouds (1935)

Death in the CloudsIn which that famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot travels on board one of those new-fangled aeroplane things and one of his fellow passengers is murdered in plain sight of everyone else. With the help of Inspector Japp and contributions from fellow passengers Jane Grey and Norman Gale, Poirot uncovers the truth of this extremely bold murder. And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

OsteopathyChristie dedicated the book to Ormond Beadle. This is likely to be Ormond A. Beadle, 1903 – 1976, osteopathist and writer, but I can find no evidence of a friendship between him and Christie. The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during February and March 1935 under the title Murder in the Air; in novel format, again in the US, it first appeared in March 1935, its publication coinciding with the final magazine instalment. In the UK, an abridged version was published at the same time in six instalments in Women’s Pictorial Magazine as Mystery in the Air; the full novel appeared in the UK in July 1935, this time as Death in the Clouds.

Cat-and-MouseThis is a terrifically exciting and entertaining read. Even though I was fairly sure all the way through that I could remember whodunit – and I was right – this didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the book. In fact, in many ways it enhanced it, as you realise what a clever cat-and-mouse game Poirot plays with the murderer on and off throughout the investigations. He tells us early on that he is certain he knows who the murderer is – it’s apparent to him as soon as he receives the list of the contents of everyone’s luggage – but he cannot fathom a motive. “Poirot gathered up the loose typewritten sheets and read them through once again. Then he laid them down with a sigh. “On the face of it,” he said, “it seems to point very plainly to one person as having committed the crime. And yet, I cannot see why, or even how.”” From that point of view, Christie is scrupulously fair with her reader, as she gives us all the same information that Poirot receives, alerting us to the fact that he has already virtually solved the crime under our noses, so it’s easy for us to go back and re-read the information that Poirot found so crucial. Which item(s) is/are so revealing to Poirot? Unless we make our own guess, we do not find out until the very end. And it’s not until he is satisfied with the motive that he calls for one of those exciting showdown denouements.

waspElements of the book examine the subject of the psychology of crime. Much is made of the boldness of the crime; how it was committed in an enclosed environment, and the fact that it must have been witnessed by a number of people who simply didn’t recognise or weren’t aware of what they were looking at. Christie had a similar enclosed environment in Murder on the Orient Express, but in that book, there was always the possibility that someone could have got on, or got off the train, whilst it was stuck in snowdrifts. No one can get off an aeroplane mid-flight! Furthermore, it was committed in front of the great Hercule Poirot, but I’m suspecting that the murderer wasn’t aware he would be on the plane. Fournier, of the Sûreté, is convinced there must have been a psychological moment – either a point in time when everyone was distracted by another event, or when everyone simply forgot to pay attention for whatever reason – when the murderer struck. They may, for example, have been distracted by the wasp. Poirot reflects on the fact that there was such a moment in Three Act Tragedy.

DentistAnother of Poirot’s observations on the psychology of crime addresses a major problem of his trade: “In every case of a criminal nature one comes across the same phenomena when questioning witnesses. Everyone keeps something back. Sometimes – often indeed – it is something quite harmless, something, perhaps, quite unconnected with the crime; but – I say it again – there is always something.” And Christie makes a further observation that I don’t believe had appeared in her books before, that of the societal implication of being associated with a crime. Rumour and gossip work in two directions. Jane Grey, for instance, suddenly becomes much more in demand at Antoine’s, the salon where she works, whereas Norman Gale’s patients at his dentists’ practice start leaving in droves. The same association with the same crime can have very different effects on an individual’s work, socialising, reputation and character. Poirot accepts that this wider effect is something one cannot overlook when trying to solve a crime.

watsonOnce again, there is no named narrator for this book; just Christie’s own voice telling us the story. But she creates a brilliant first chapter by interspersing the third person narration with the first-person thoughts of many of the passengers. We hear the commentaries of Jane Grey, Norman Gale, the Countess of Horbury, Venetia Kerr, Dr Bryant, Mr Ryder and indeed Poirot himself. It’s a quick and effective way for us to get inside the skins of the main characters and it gets the book off to a fast and furious start. Structurally, the book is typical of a number of Christie’s books where Poirot involves some of the younger people in assisting him to solve the murder – here he gets Jane and Norman to accompany him on meetings and act as his eyes and ears in different locations. It’s been a while since we last met Captain Hastings (that was in Lord Edgware Dies) but he would return for Christie’s next book, The ABC Murders, and Poirot seems to lack a degree of male companionship that helps him find the truth. However, in this book he does have Mr Clancy, writer of detective fiction, off whom he can bounce some ideas.

writing at a deskClancy is possibly more like Ariadne Oliver, last seen as part of the Parker Pyne Investigates team, on whom Christie based herself to a large extent. There are a few tongue-in-cheek passages in the book about Clancy where Christie pokes fun at herself; Japp is not a fan, for example. “These detective story writers… always making the police out to be fools… and getting their procedure all wrong. Why, if I were to say the things to my super that their inspectors say to superintendents I should be thrown out of the Force tomorrow on my ear. Set of ignorant scribblers! This is just the sort of damn-fool murder that a scribbler of rubbish would think he could get away with.” Christie also employs her own personal knowledge of the world of archaeology to colour the characteristics of the Duponts, almost ridiculing them as they argue amongst themselves to the extent that they notice nothing else going on around them; a typical archaeologist’s trait, one expects she would argue.

Pile of suitcasesScience and technology are wonderful things, are they not? is a question Poirot might have rhetorically asked during the course of this book. For Christie’s contemporary readers, the thought of travelling in an aeroplane would probably have been an exciting and innovative thing to do, and you can sense more than a little general wonderment at the whole air-travel experience here. “Jane caught her breath. It was only her second flight. She was still capable of being thrilled. It looked – it looked as though they must run into that fence thing – no, they were off the ground – rising – rising – sweeping round – there was Le Bourget beneath them.” For her readers today, it’s fascinating to see the differences between the 1930s and modern day air travel. There’s no obvious weight or baggage restrictions: “The maid passed along the gangway. At the extreme end of the car were some piled-up rugs and cases.” The Countess of Horbury and Venetia Kerr both assume they would be allowed to smoke during take-off, but the steward tells them off – no doubt they could smoke later on though. Seats don’t all face in the same direction, some of them face backwards as in a traditional railway configuration. Stewards provided food and drink to the passengers and expected to be tipped like any other waiter. This is a very different aviation experience from today!

selfieBut it’s not only air travel that makes a technological impact in this book. When the case causes him to interrogate someone in Canada, Fournier remarks “it is romantic, you know, the transatlantic telephone. To speak so easily to someone nearly halfway across the globe.” Poirot’s response: “the telegraphed photograph – that too is romantic. Science is the greatest romance there is.” Today we text each other photos without a second’s thought. But in the 1930s, this was a huge achievement; and the evidence it provides wraps up the case for Poirot: “a photograph of your transmitted by telephone has been recognised” is the killer line he uses to capture the killer.

le Bourget airportThere are many references in this book, that I couldn’t resist but research. The flight of the Prometheus was from Le Bourget to Croydon. Le Bourget airport opened in 1919 and was the only airport to service Paris until the arrival of Orly in 1932. It was at le Bourget that Nureyev defected to the West; and Hitler made his only tour of Paris from le Bourget airport. It closed its doors to international traffic in 1977, but it is still used for domestic and international business aviation. It is also the home of the Paris Air Show. Croydon Airport, on the other hand, opened in 1920 and was the main airport for London at the time. It was the commercial home for Imperial Airways who operated from 1924 to 1939, and it remained in use until 1959.

Tzaribrod stationSeveral of the passengers on board had been to visit either Juan les Pins or Le Pinet. The former is a well-known resort on the French Riviera; the second a small town near Beziers, not far from the French coast. When Mr Clancy was being pestered by the wasp on the plane, he was working out a plot concerning the 19:55 train at Tzaribrod. Christie is playing a little game with us there, as Tzaribrod also featured in Murder on the Orient Express, and no doubt she too had to investigate its train timetables. Modern day Dimitrovgrad, it’s on the extreme edge of modern day Serbia near its border with Bulgaria (and would indeed be taken over by Bulgaria for three years during the second world war).

Bruton StreetChristie gives us the home addresses of all on board the plane, so naturally I have checked to see how many of them are real places. Madame Giselle lived at 3 rue Joliette in Paris; there are two rue Joliettes in France but neither of them is in Paris. Dr Bryant lives at 329 Harley Street; the street of course exists, but in real life only goes up to number 125. Lady Horbury lives at Horbury Chase, Sussex; the village of Horbury exists, but it’s in Yorkshire, near Wakefield. She also has an address at 315 Grosvenor Square, but Grosvenor Square maxes out at number 50. Venetia Kerr is said also to live in Horbury Chase. Norman Gale lives at 14 Shepherd’s Avenue, Muswell Hill; there are plenty of avenues in Muswell Hill – Kings, Queens, Princes and Dukes but no Shepherds. Jane Grey lives at 10 Harrogate Street, NW5, and works at Antoine’s in Bruton Street, which is also the location for Mrs Dacres’ posh shop in Three Act Tragedy – Christie obviously liked the area. NW5 is the Tufnell Park area of London, but there’s no Harrogate Street. Mitchell lives at 11, Shoeblack Lane, Wandsworth (a good old working-class type name for that address) but sadly it doesn’t exist. Mr Clancy lives at 47 Cardington Square; success! This is a real address in Hounslow, just off the Staines Road.

susaSome other references to grapple with – the Duponts have been excavating in Persia (Iran) at a site not far from Susa. According to Wikipedia, so it must be right, this was an ancient city of the Proto-Elamite, Elamite, First Persian Empire, Seleucid, and Parthian empires of Iran, and one of the most important cities of the Ancient Near East. It is located in the lower Zagros Mountains about 250 km east of the Tigris River, between the Karkheh and Dez Rivers. Mr Clancy’s book that features a blowpipe is The Clue of the Scarlet Petal, but sadly such a book does not exist. In other book news, Mr Ryder possesses a copy of Bootless Cup, which Christie tells us is banned in this country. It also doesn’t exist, but it implies that Ryder is a bit of a lad. Miss Kerr has two Tauchnitz novels. Not a writer, but a publisher – Kipling, Galsworthy, Henry James, all published by Tauchnitz.

Alexandre_Stavisky_1926Jane won her holiday by entering the Irish Sweep. Properly known as the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, this was a lottery game based in Ireland before the legalisation of lotteries in the UK, but many British people entered it anyway. Winning tickets were assigned to a horse expected to run in one of several horse races, including the Cambridgeshire Handicap, Derby and Grand National. The sweepstake raised money for hospitals and the health service all over Ireland, and the final sweepstake was held in January 1986. Fournier refers to the Stavisky business, when assessing the honesty or otherwise of the Duponts. Alexandre Stavisky was an embezzler whose death caused a political crisis in France in 1934. You can read all about it here.

FoxhuntingJane and Norman speculate on the kind of person that Lady Horbury and Venetia Kerr might be tempted to murder – and come up with an MFH. This didn’t mean anything to me, and it doesn’t really seem to fit in here either. The nearest I can come to understanding this is Master of Foxhounds. I suppose that might be correct…. Unless you know different!

BlackmailAs usual, I’ve converted any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. The sum of £100 is mentioned twice – it’s the amount that Jane won on the Irish Sweep, and also the amount she is offered by the hound at the Daily Howl for an interview. Today the equivalent would be a little under £5000. When Poirot gets Gale to pretend to be a blackmailer and call on Lady Horbury, he tells him to ask for £10,000. You can probably work out that that tidy sum is the equivalent of nearly half a million pounds. Madame Giselle’s estate is valued at between 8 and 9 million francs. Today this is an astronomical figure – somewhere in the region of £600 million. Worth committing murder for?

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Death in the Clouds:

Publication Details: 1935. Pan paperback, 7th impression, published in 1983, priced £1.25. The simple illustration on the front cover shows the wasp-like dart that Poirot finds on the floor. Quite a dull cover, really.

How many pages until the first death: 8. No messing around.

Funny lines out of context: I drew a blank here. Shame!

Memorable characters: Characterisations aren’t really this book’s strong points. However, Jane Grey and Norman Gale appear like the typical Christie sweet young things, and Jane, in particular, is a well-drawn character. Madame Giselle’s maid Elise is also fiery and solid in support.

Christie the Poison expert:
Christie takes the mickey out of herself for the suggestion that the death is caused by the “infamous arrow poison of the South American Indians”. Dr Bryant confirms that would be curare. The second death is caused by hydrocyanic acid, a solution of hydrogen cyanide in water; better known in the detective books as Prussic Acid.

Class/social issues of the time:

Plenty of examples of Christie’s usual bêtes noires; none more so than that strange xenophobia frequently expressed when it comes to characters from overseas. The coroner’s jury that considers the death of Madame Giselle decides to find Poirot guilty of the crime. “”Foreigners,” said the eyes of the square-faced man, ”you can’t trust foreigners, even if they are hand in glove with the police””. The verdict rather pleases Poirot: “”Mais oui! As I came out I heard one man say to the other, “that little foreigner – mark my words, he done it!” The jury thought the same.” Jane was uncertain whether to condole or laugh. She decided on the latter. Poirot laughed in sympathy.” Later, when Poirot is questioning Mitchell, his wife adds her twopenny worth. “I tell him not to bother his head so. Who’s to know what reason foreigners have for murdering each other; and if you ask me, I think it’s a dirty trick to have done it in a British aeroplane.” Christie adds – as if we couldn’t imagine it ourselves – “She finished her sentence with an indignant and patriotic snort.”

M. Zeropoulos, the antiques dealer, on the other hand, offers quite a low opinion of Americans. “An American – unmistakably an American. Not the best type of American either – the kind that knows nothing about anything and just wants a curio to take home. He is of the type that makes the fortune of bead sellers in Egypt – that buys the most preposterous scarabs ever made in Czecho-Slovakia […] He asks the price and I tell him. It is my American price, not quite as high as formerly (alas, they have had the depression over there). I wait for him to bargain but straightaway he pays my price. I am stupefied. It is a pity; I might have asked for more!”

In some more purely racist moments, at Antoine’s, Jane’s friend Gladys uses the pejorative slang term “Ikey” to refer to their Jewish boss. And when Norman and Jane are finding out about each other on an early date, they discover that they have a mutual dislike of “negroes” (along with loud voices and noisy restaurants) – and there’s no sense of embarrassment or discomfort at this revelation. That’s quite a hard one to take nowadays.

The French also come in for their fair share of the disapprobation. When Jane is engaged in conversation with Jean Dupont she tells herself “he’s French, though. You’ve got to look out with the French, they always say so.”

There are also observations about class; one is almost the reverse of the anti-French sentiment, where a character (Mr Clancy’s housekeeper) is belittled by Christie in a rather Dickensian way, poking fun of her language; she announces Hercule Poirot as “Mr Air Kule Prott”. On another occasion, Christie returns to a subject she’s tackled before, that certain members of the lower classes (that would be her terminology) are intimidated by the police. “Fournier was much excited, though distinctly irate with Elise. Poirot argued the point. “It is natural – very natural. The police? It is always a word frightening to that class. It embroils them in they know not what.””

The 1930s were not a time of great financial security. As Zeropoulos noted, “they have had the depression” in America. One of Christie’s more unusual observations on the world around her comes with Cicely Horbury’s conversation with Poirot about the family finances. “”You have a generous heart, Madame; and besides, you will be safe – oh, so safe – and your husband he will pay you an income.” “Not a very large one”. “Eh bien, once you are free you will marry a millionaire”. “There aren’t any nowadays.” “Ah, do not believe that, Madame. The man who had three millions perhaps now he has two millions – eh bien, it is still enough.””

One last and maybe surprising issue of the day: “Nowadays, we have discovered the beneficial action of the sun on the skin,” notes Poirot. “It is very convenient, that.” People were starting to cover up less in public, even if this was rather shocking to some older fuddy-duddies.

Classic denouement: Yes, although there are a limited number of people present, so unless the murderer is going to be unveiled in absentia – no reason why that can’t be done – Christie has done some narrowing down for us in advance. Once again, there is no indication as to the identity of the murderer in advance. It’s a beautifully written finale to the book and you want to savour every moment of it, as the murderer goes through various self-assured, then anxious phases before Poirot makes his final pronouncement.

Happy ending? Yes. There’s almost a Shakespearian getting together of couples; nothing certain though, Poirot is merely content to have created the possibilities that various people might hit it off. He’s distinctly playing the matchmaker.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely. I can easily imagine how the murder could have been achieved in the way Christie suggests, and the general plot progression all makes perfect sense. It’s a first-class book.

Overall satisfaction rating: Even allowing for a couple of unfortunate, non-PC, racist comments, I still can’t see a reason not to give this a 10/10. Christie achieves a truly fluid and entertaining writing style in this book, and Poirot has never been so manipulative.

Murder in MesopotamiaThanks for reading my blog of Death in the Clouds and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Sequentially, Christie’s next book is The ABC Murders but I’ve already read and written about that here, as it was one of the first three of her books that I read when I were a nipper. So next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge will be Murder in Mesopotamia, featuring Hercule Poirot in among the ruins of Christie’s beloved Middle East archaeological digs. 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!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Late’n’Live, 26th August 2017

LatenliveOur very last show in Edinburgh this year is Late’n’Live at the Debating Hall @ Gilded Balloon Teviot at 01:00 in the early hours of the morning of Sunday 27th. Let’s read that last blurb: “’Still the best late night show on the Fringe’ (Scotsman) is back for its 31st year! Different shows every night, but always the same recipe: one hilarious compere, four amazing acts, one incredible band, two hours of dancing and a whole lot of fun… Leave to simmer from 1am–5am and you’ve got yourself ‘the celebrated comedy abattoir that has slain a thousand comics’ (Scotsman). Comperes will include Scott Gibson, John Hastings and many other top names.”

I really can’t see us staying up till 5am. However, I’m sure some people will! We’ll just stay for the one hilarious compere and four amazing acts, whoever they are. Check back sometime after 3 am (or preferably on Sunday morning, or later) to see whether we survived.

If you’ve been following our reckless pursuit of entertainment over the past eight days, thanks very much for your loyalty! If not, I can’t blame you. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

And we fell at the final hurdle. We already thought that this was going to be A Show Too Far, and so it proved. So rather than watching this show, we’ve treated ourselves to a bottle of shiraz in the hotel bar. Rather a quiet way to end our Fringe week, but the quality has been outstanding. Hope you had fun too!