The Agatha Christie Challenge – Death on the Nile (1937)

Death on the NileIn which wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle, the fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, much to the latter’s fury. Miss de Bellefort stalks the newly married couple all round Egypt on holiday just so that she can be a thorn in their flesh. Hercule Poirot, the great Belgian detective is also on holiday in Egypt, where he refuses a commission from the new Mrs Doyle to “do something about it”. However, when one member of the love triangle is found murdered, it is up to Poirot to solve the case, assisted by his friend Colonel Race (whom we met in Cards on the Table). Intrigue piles upon intrigue, and there are many elements to the crime that Poirot identifies and clarifies before finally unveiling the killer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

AlgiersThe book is dedicated “To Sybil Burnett, who also loves wandering about the world”. Sybil Burnett was the wife of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Charles Burnett, and she and Mrs Christie met on a boat trip from Rome to Beirut in 1929. Although they took an instant dislike to one another, they soon became firm friends. As Christie describes her, in her autobiography: “she was a woman of great originality, who said exactly what came into her head, loved travelling and foreign places, had a beautiful house in Algiers, four daughters and two sons by a previous marriage, and an inexhaustible enjoyment of life.” No wonder she merited one of Christie’s dedications. Unlike the majority of Christie’s previous books, Death on the Nile wasn’t originally published in magazine instalments, but was first published in the UK on 1st November 1937 by Collins Crime Club; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1938.

Peter UstinovI have a slight problem with this book – but it’s a good one; it’s that I cannot put out of my mind the superb film adaptation starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot that was made in 1978. As a result, I can remember large sections of the story in good detail, including all the machinations regarding whodunit. So, unfortunately, there was little sense of surprise in my re-reading this book; but the snippets from the film that I could see in my mind’s eye were very rewarding to remember. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d definitely recommend it.

Pearl handled gunIt’s a highly action-packed book, with an intricate plot and several sub-plots that, whilst appearing to be relevant to the main murder story, are surprisingly tangential. Even though they have no bearing on identifying the murderer, they are fully explained and make perfect sense and are a vital part of the book as a whole. Without giving too much of the game away, there are also several deaths for the reader to enjoy – if that’s your thing – including a couple of surprises.

moustache2Poirot is on sparkling form, as you would expect; he continues that behaviour of being shockingly nosey that was very noticeable in Dumb Witness, such as when he’s given the opportunity to rifle through private documents or overhear private conversations. In fact, this book would be rather lost Poirot doing some injudicious earwigging. Tim Allerton gives us a memorable brief description of Poirot: “that old mountebank? He won’t find out anything. He’s all talk and moustaches.” Captain Hastings is presumably back in Argentina, but Poirot has learned enough from his old friend when to recognise unexpected behaviour from an Old Etonian, which helps him understand one of the sub-plots. Assisting him in the investigation we welcome back Colonel Race, although, again, Race is not quite so interested in the murder as he is in discovering the identity of a political agitator who’s been causing the government some problems over recent years.

Archaeological digPerhaps the most interesting new insight this book gives us into Poirot’s modus operandi is a fascinating comparison between investigating a crime and working on an archaeological dig. Christie had been on a number of digs by this stage, both with and without her husband, and she must have been thrilled when she saw the similarity between the two, which she used to excellent effect in this book. “Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition” says Poirot, “and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. That is what I have been seeking to do – clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth – the naked shining truth.” It’s particularly appropriate to this book, not only because of the Egyptian setting, but because there’s an awful lot of extraneous matter that clouds understanding and perception of the crime in question.

Pyramids from our hotel roomChristie’s knowledge of the digs frequently added local colour to her more exotically located books and there are many references to real locations in Death on the Nile which set the scene. Linnet and Simon spend a week at the Mena House Hotel, just outside Cairo, where I also spent a few days when we went to Egypt – I’ll never forget the fantastic views of the Pyramids from our balcony. The scene then shifts to the Cataract Hotel in Assuan (modern day Aswan), still today a fantastic residence currently run as a Sofitel. The book takes in the legendary locations of Abu Simnel, Wadi Halfa (over the border in Sudan), Philae (an island in the reservoir of the Aswan Low Dam), Shellal and Ez-Sebua. There is no attempt by Christie (unusually!) to mask the locations of where the action of the book takes place.

chez-ma-tanteBy contrast, outside of Egypt and the Nile region, there are some invented locations. There is no such place as Malton-under-Wode, home of Lord Windlesham – at one stage prospected husband of Linnet – although there is a Malton in North Yorkshire. Fanthorp is said to live in Market Donnington, Northants, which I suspect is a conglomeration of Market Harborough and Castle Donington, both of which, interestingly, are in Leicestershire. Nor is there a Bellfield in Connecticut, allegedly the home of Miss van Schuyler. The desirable and trendy bistro Chez Ma Tante doesn’t exist – at least not in London, but there’s a well-respected place of the same name in Brooklyn.

Nile_cruisesAs Captain Hastings is absent, the book doesn’t have a narrator; or at least, not until Mrs Otterbourne describes the decision as to whether to go to Egypt or not as “not a matter of life or death”. Christie then writes: “But there she was quite wrong – for a matter of life and death was exactly what it was.” So Christie herself is the narrator, largely story-telling simply through facts, occasionally casting out a few minor asides. The style works well for this book, which has so much content; there isn’t a lot of room for comment too. The first chapter, which is divided into twelve sub-sections, is a good example of how Christie can give you a series of snapshots, all roughly happening at the same time, to act as a first draft of and introduction to almost all of the main players in the story. Rather like Murder on the Orient Express, she gives us a murder that takes place in an enclosed environment – here a Nile cruiser, there on the luxury train. The murderer must come from within, which gives the story an added excitement, and a sense of slight claustrophobia and imminent danger. Also like Orient Express, Poirot conducts interviews with all the passengers on a one-by-one basis, throwing up clues and red herrings as he goes. This structure drives the reader on to read it with an excitable frenzy.

Scarlet kimonoThere are a few references to Christie’s other books; apart from the reappearance of Colonel Race, Miss van Schuyler is a friend of Rufus van Aldin, who featured in The Mystery of the Blue Train, and Poirot refers to the discovery of a scarlet kimono in his luggage, which was an occurrence on board the Orient Express. Other quotes include a passage from Frankie and Johnny (he was her man and he did her wrong) and La Vie est Vaine, by Leon Montenaeken, after quoting which Poirot confirms he knows whodunit.

NinonTim Allerton uses a term of – not quite abuse but definitely disapproval – horse coper – to describe Sir George Wode. I’ve never heard it before, but it’s the same as a horse-dealer or maybe today we would say horse-trader as a patronising insult. And Mrs Otterbourne is said to wear black draperies made from ninon – another term I hadn’t heard. It’s a lightweight French fabric made from silk of nylon. I thought it sounded more like when a police car drives past.

If 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. There are only a few mentioned, but they’re quite relevant in understanding the difference in wealth between Linnet and Jackie. Simon believes that Jackie lives on less than £200 per year. In today’s values that equates to about £9500. She wouldn’t be paying tax, then. By contrast, Mrs Allerton estimates that Linnet’s white dress for dinner alone will have cost 80 guineas, which today would be £4000. Financially the two are miles apart. Linnet’s pearls, which she carelessly just leaves around the house are valued at £50,000. That’s a whopping £2.4m at today’s values.

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

Publication Details: 1937. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in 1972, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts a pearl-handled pistol in front of a Tutankhamun style mask. Simple, effective, and true to the story.

How many pages until the first death: One of the longest waits for a murder so far – 98 pages. Of the blogs I have already written, only The Secret Adversary and At Bertram’s Hotel make you wait longer. It’s important for the plot development and for the slant that Christie wants the reader to believe, that a particular picture is slowly painted.

Funny lines out of context:
Not a lot really. Christie does tend to have Poirot “ejaculating” a few times in this book, but that’s all.

Memorable characters: This is one aspect in which this book really stands out. You have Mrs Otterbourne, the over-the-top, sex-mad novelist; Miss van Schuyler, the domineering, class-obsessed old harridan; Tim Allerton, the rather effeminate and affected young man (who surprises you by not being gay); Ferguson, the outspoken and aggressive communist; and of course, Jackie, the obsessive and controlling lover.

Christie the Poison expert:

No trace of poison here. Deaths are caused by gunshot or stabbing.

Class/social issues of the time:

A number of Christie’s usual themes get an airing in this book. In a description of Tim’s attitude to Poirot, Christie puts thoughts in his mother’s mind: “Tim was usually so easy-going and good-tempered. This outburst was quite unlike him. It wasn’t as though he had the ordinary Britisher’s dislike – and mistrust – of foreigners.” We’re not all like that, Mrs Allerton. But she is. “Do you think one of those little black wretches rolled it over for fun?” she asks, when trying to understand why the boulder was sent crashing down the hill.

There are mentions of a “negro orchestra” and the fact that, in ancient times, “negroes must pay customs duties” on entering Egypt; but these are just examples of how acceptable language changes over time. However, the word Christie (as narrator) chooses to use to describe the street vendors and bakshish hunters on the river bank at Aswan is “riff-raff”; a very snobbish and patronising term indeed.

There is a character whom Poirot suspects is a blackmailer. His description of this person’s behaviour: “the murderer comes to her cabin, gives her the money, and then […] she counts it. Oh yes, I know that class. She would count the money and while she counted it she was completely off her guard.” Poirot explains the blackmail activity by believing it is typical of “a class”.

Cornelia, who is portrayed as a sympathetic character, has strong views on equality of the sexes – or, rather, inequality. “Of course people aren’t equal. It doesn’t make sense. I know I’m kind of homely-looking, and I used to feel mortified about it sometimes, but I’ve got over that. I’d like to have been born elegant and beautiful like Mrs Doyle, but I wasn’t, so I guess it’s no use worrying.” Christie has often written characters and plot lines where she clearly disapproves of anything approaching feminism. Cornelia’s attitude infuriates Ferguson, but he’s the kind of person Christie will have disapproved of, so she delights in thwarting his romantic interest in the book.

Simon, too, has strong views about relationships between the sexes: “”You see, a man doesn’t want to feel that a woman cares more for him than he does for her.” His voice grew warm as he went on. “He doesn’t want to feel owned, body and soul. It’s that damned possessive attitude! This man is mine – he belongs to me! That’s the sort of thing I can’t stick – no man could stick! He wants to get away – to be free. He wants to own his woman; he doesn’t want her to own him.”” Those are very much the kind of antifeminist sentiments of which Christie would approve.

Classic denouement: Whilst the denouement is without question exciting, I wouldn’t describe it as a classic. There are a number of loose ends and red herrings that need to get cleared up first, and every time you think Poirot is about to start the j’accuse procedure, he ends up going off on another tangent. It also lacks a certain something in that the murderer isn’t present at the time – and all you have is their follow-up reaction, or indeed the reaction related by a third party. Poirot – or Christie – is also extremely naughty with their reader, for holding back a vital piece of evidence that really gives the game away; Poirot only mentions it at the denouement, and I think the reader can be rightly peeved not to have had access to that information in advance.

Happy ending? Somewhat mixed. Although there are clearly two weddings on the way – both of them rather unexpected – another person who did not win the lady’s affections is left out of the love stakes. And a surprise twist at the end means that you don’t really get the sense of justice being seen to be done.

Did the story ring true? In part. But how did Jackie afford to travel to Egypt and stalk Linnet and Simon when she only earns £200 a year? And the manner of two of the three murders are a blend of far-fetched and extraordinary luck. Despite that, and perhaps due to Christie’s use of real life Nile locations, you can really picture the action taking place with surprisingly realistic effectiveness.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not quite a 10/10 for me, with the slightly less than classic denouement, and Christie cheating by withholding evidence from the reader; but it’s definitely worth a 9/10.

Appointment with DeathThanks for reading my blog of Death on the Nile 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 Appointment with Death; a story that features an appalling old woman who, if I remember rightly, gets what’s coming to her. More details than that, I cannot recall. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Cilla the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th February 2018

Cilla the MusicalOne of the ways in which you can categorise celebrity deaths is whether or not they were expected. In 2015 we said goodbye to Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Val Doonican, George Cole, Patrick Macnee and Warren Mitchell, who were all in their 80s or 90s so perhaps they were no shock. But we also lost Keith Harris (and, as a result, Orville too), Errol Brown, and, Surprise Surprise, Cilla Black. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Cilla, who’d been a huge pop star in the 60s, then the mainstay of Saturday night BBC1 entertainment for many seasons; who then bounced back in the 1980s with Surprise Surprise, Blind Date and many other guest appearances and shows; Cilla, who after a few years never needed to use her surname because everyone knew who you meant; Cilla was dead at the age of 72 following a simple fall at her apartment in Spain.

There have been many stories, both before and since her death, about how down to earth she was (or wasn’t), how genuine her Scouse accent was (or wasn’t), and suchlike. I’m not going to go down that path, as Cilla the Musical takes its own occasional sideswipe at her character. There’s no sentimentalising her professional jealousy of Bobby’s upcoming musical career, or how unnecessarily cantankerous she could be in dealings with – for example – Burt Bacharach. But lives are full of intrigue, and if the story of Cilla didn’t dip into a few less rosy aspects of her character or her career, then it wouldn’t be as interesting as it is.

Cilla the singerBill Kenwright’s production took Jeff Pope’s brilliant TV series about her life (starring Sheridan Smith) as its inspiration to create a musical that tells the story of her early years as a typist, trying to break into music, meeting Brian Epstein, palling up with the Beatles, recording with George Martin, an unsuccessful attempt to break into the US market, and finishing up with her own Cilla BBC TV show. Maybe there’s nowhere else to go with that particular stage of her life and career, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the story just stopped a bit too early. It utilises the songs of the time – not only Cilla’s hits (not all of them, mind) but also a couple of Beatles numbers, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ I Like It and the Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin’. It would be wrong to say there isn’t a duff song in the show (those early numbers are a bit weak, and I’m not a fan of Through The Years which rounds it all off) but musically it really packs a punch, with some truly classic hits which really push your nostalgia button.

I loved Gary McCann’s set from the start – a brilliant evocation of the Cavern club, with all those brick archways stretching further and further back; you really get the sense of being in some vibrant, creative basement where extraordinary things could happen. It combines perfectly with Nick Richings’ amazing lighting scheme, which gives vitality to a drab setting transforming it to somewhere genuinely exciting. The big sparkly Cilla sign that heralded in her TV show said everything you needed to know about the dual identity of celebrity – its irresistible flashiness, its essential artificiality.

Cilla the Cavern club performerThe presentation of real-life people on stage is always a sticky wicket. To what extent do you do an impersonation? A half-impersonation? A mere suggestion of the real person? It’s almost impossible to get it right. And this for me is where I have something of a problem with this show. Executive Producer, Robert Willis, Cilla’s real-life son, said “we wanted somebody who wasn’t going to impersonate my mum but someone who could capture her spirit.” Kara Lily Hayworth, who won the open audition to play Cilla, is a splendid singer with a rich, beautiful voice. She also has a great feel for the character, her young cheekiness, her determination; the two moments where she rejects Bobby’s support are so realistically portrayed that they leave you quite breathless with shock. And I think it’s absolutely true – she does capture the spirit of the one and only Cilla.

But Cilla had a unique vocal quality in comparison with the other female performers of her era – the ability to combine the sweetness of the melody with the harsh reality of the lyric. It must have come from her association with George Martin or Lennon/McCartney, because you also see it so clearly in many Beatles’ tracks. Whilst I love (and to be fair, prefer) the big hits of Dusty Springfield or Sandie Shaw, in some of Cilla’s major recordings there is almost an undercurrent of anger, or violence, or utter sorrow moulded into her phrasing and enunciation. Phrases like “loving you the way I do, I take you back”, “love comes love shows, I give my heart and no one knows that I do” and perhaps most of all “when he hears the things that you did you’ll get a belt from yer dad” are all infused with true desperation or sadness; and I’m sorry to say I don’t think Ms Hayworth conveyed any of those emotions at all.

Cilla the guitaristsWe know that she’s not impersonating Cilla, but simply giving a suggestion of her musical performances whilst singing to her own personal strengths and style. That is a fair enough position to take when you’re recreating a well-known real-life person on stage. The trouble is – the Gerry Marsden impersonation was excellent; the Beatles’ impersonations were pretty spot-on; and the Mamas and Papas sequence was fantastic. In his brief appearance as Ed Sullivan, Alan Howell absolutely captured that rather formal, uncomfortable and stilted manner of speaking that Ed Sullivan had; his slightly patronising tone when he was addressing the youth of the day on his TV show. So when the main character isn’t a strong impersonation, but so many of the other performances are, then it leaves a feeling of unbalance.

For me, Ms Hayworth’s interpretation of Cilla’s songs was simply too pretty, too stylish and insufficiently hard-edged. Singing to a child that he can face physical punishment from his drunk father, with a soft, sweet, optimistic tone, just felt wrong to me. Sometimes I don’t think the very showbizzy arrangements of some of the iconic songs did her any favours. Listen to the original recording of Step Inside Love and feel that haunting and haunted concern at the end where the trailing guitar solo just fades away as if to say… maybe he won’t come back this time. It’s a spine-tingling arrangement by Paul McCartney. In this show, it ends with a triumphant showbiz major key happy ending. That was weird. It wasn’t even as though that’s how they did it on Cilla’s TV show.

Cilla at the PalladiumDon’t get me wrong; Ms Hayworth is a terrific singer and a wonderful new find – I just felt that emotionally she didn’t quite give enough. Mrs Chrisparkle observed that in the very moving scene where Bobby’s and Cilla’s relationship appears to be at an end, their performance of You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ was notable for the way Carl Au’s Bobby absolutely stole the number, with his passion, regret and sorrow, whilst Ms Hayworth was almost a backing singer in comparison. Talking of whom; Carl Au is superb as Bobby. The cheeky lad down the bar; the hapless negotiator; the guilt-laden son; the self-effacing boyfriend; the nervous prospective son-in-law; the desperate one who eats humble pie and asks for forgiveness. He gets them all perfectly, and is also a fantastic singer; his performance of A Taste of Honey is one of the highlights of the evening.

Cilla the managerAndrew Lancel is very convincing as the enigmatic Brian Epstein, a man who had everything and nothing. Softly spoken, quietly manipulative, full of the sexual repression that is heartbreakingly brought out in the juxtaposition with John Lennon’s You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, I thought he really brought the character to life. Tom Sowinski also gives a good representation of George Martin’s extremely polite, business-like but friendly manner. Pauline Fleming and Neil Macdonald are excellent as Cilla’s parents, squeezing every ounce of humour out of their old-fashioned ways. Billie Hardy and Amy Bridges give great support as Cilla’s girl friends and also in a variety of other minor roles.

Hopefully the few snags we saw on the Tuesday night were ironed out for the rest of the run; it was a shame that the emotional scene where Cilla and Bobby hear of the death of Brian Epstein (sorry, spoilers) was almost ruined by frantic running sounds from backstage as cast members tried to get into place for the next scene in time. As it is, when the next scene started, one microphone was swung round too quickly to get into place and hit one of the singers on the nose (I think she may actually have yelped), and some of the solo musicians (very effective brass, by the way) were late getting on to stage so that it all felt a little shambolic. Ah well, first night in a new theatre, and all that.

Cilla the signIt’s a feelgood show that overall looks superb and is full of great songs to enjoy. Whilst it’s not quite a singular sensation in my book, it’s still very enjoyable and if you like a dollop of 60s nostalgia to accompany a fascinating biographical storyline, It’s For You. After Northampton, the tour continues to Newcastle, Chester, Bristol, Woking, Nottingham, Aylesbury and Norwich, with further dates to be announced.

Production photos by Matt Martin

Review – Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2018

Michael Petrov Performs TchaikovskyI reckon that attending live performances is habit-forming and after a while, if you see enough, you can end up on auto-pilot. That’s the reason that Mrs Chrisparkle and I kept checking our tickets on Sunday to ensure that this visit of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really was scheduled for 3pm and not the usual 7.30pm. It just didn’t quite feel right to be there in the afternoon! There’s no doubt, however, that the matinee performance enabled several more children to attend the concert which is a great thing, especially as this was by no means a children’s programme – there were four, perfectly meaty, substantial and adult pieces of classical music to enjoy, and I hope any new youthful concertgoers found it as exciting and rewarding as we did.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this concert was Rory Macdonald, whom we’ve seen just once before, when Natalie Clein performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor three years ago. He still doesn’t seem to have aged at all, and I’m more than ever sure that he has a grand selfie mouldering in his attic somewhere. He’s an exuberant conductor, one who likes to reach out on tippytoes to get the maximum out of his musicians. With his sleek black hair and formal attire, I couldn’t get the vision of Mary Poppins’ cartoon penguins out of my head. But he does a great job, so far be it from me to take the mickey.

Our first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. What a grand way to start a concert, with its compelling tunes and robust orchestration. It’s a superbly muscular and self-confident piece of music – everything an overture should be – and the orchestra rose to the challenge magnificently. I also appreciated the slightly pacier tempo which made its strength and power stand out. A great start.

Next we had two pieces of music that were new to me. Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 by Edvard Grieg. I love Grieg’s music and it was a treat to discover something new by him. All the woodwind and percussion left the stage so that we only had the string players – I say “only”, but the lush sound they produced was sensational for these two pure and sincere reflective pieces. There’s nothing comfortable about the Elegiac Melodies, and I found them strangely disconcerting; but I really loved the performance.

After this, there was some general reorganisation as the rest of the orchestra returned and a platform was provided, centre stage, for our soloist, the cellist Michael Petrov. Amongst all the black evening dresses of the ladies of the orchestra and the formal suits of the men, Mr Petrov strode on to the stage in a white shirt not tucked in at the waist, no collar, no jacket, no tie, but with a calm and creative aura about him. He looked like a benign dentist – the sort who doesn’t complain at you if he suspects you haven’t been cleaning your teeth properly.

Michael PetrovMr Petrov was there to play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33. This was another piece I’d never heard before and I was instantly taken by it. Tchaikovsky takes a relatively simple theme and wraps it around his little finger with seven variations and an astonishing cadenza from Mr Petrov where you could hear a pin drop, so alert were the audience to the passionate tones he produced from his 1846 J B Vuillaume cello – proving that old is often best. The Variations are a great vehicle to show off a bravura performance and Mr Petrov did that with apparently effortless ease. He brought out the humour of some of the cheekier variations and the solemnity of the andante sections. No sheet music, no grand gestures; just a thoughtful and disciplined performance that held the audience spellbound. We absolutely loved it – and now I need to find a decent recording of this piece for my own music library.

This performance was of the Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Variations; Fitzenhagen was the principal cellist with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow, to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated the work, but then who chopped and changed the Variations around, much to the annoyance of Tchaikovsky. But maybe Fitzenhagen knew what he was doing, because it’s such an enjoyable mini-concerto, and it’s usually his version that gets performed.

RPO3-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op 40, better known as the Italian Symphony. As soon as its happy and playful major theme strikes up in the first movement, you’re transported away to sunny climates and a lovely Mediterranean lifestyle. Under Mr Macdonald’s enthusiastic direction, the orchestra brought us all the joy of the first movement, then to change dramatically to the crestfallen sound of the second movement, with its connotations of funereal respect, the stately minuet of the third movement and the raucous scampering of the saltarello dance of the fourth. It was all performed with amazing vigour and energy and had the audience on the edge of its seat with excitement at the end.

A fantastic concert that introduced me to some riveting new pieces and a super soloist. And it was all over by teatime! The next classical offering from the Royal Philharmonic will be in April, with a varied programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Can’t wait!

Review – The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre, 17th February 2018

The Birthday PartyDo you remember doing your A-levels, gentle reader? If you had the…pleasure…of that experience, you won’t have forgotten it. Staying up half the night cramming in essays on everything left right and centre – well for me it was English, French and German, but that’s not the point. We knew that one of the A level papers in English would have a question on Harold Pinter. Our teacher took us through The Caretaker, and I voluntarily read The Homecoming – but didn’t understand it of course. We also read, in class, The Birthday Party, and our teacher suggested we should write an essay on it for homework, but he wasn’t going to insist on it. We already had enough on our plate.

Birthday PartyBut I was entranced by The Birthday Party and started an essay on it at 7pm which I finished at 1am. I had no idea where I was going with it but I just felt the need to express my reaction to it. I handed it in, hoping that the labour of love would get me some brownie points. But I got more than that. The teacher marked me a straight alpha for it, read it out to all the other classes, and told everyone “here is a man who really loves his subject.” I’ll never forget that. And I got a Grade B in English A level!

TBP Zoe WanamakerThis was Pinter’s first full-length play, originally staged in 1958 when it ran for a dynamic eight performances, no doubt curtailed because of the savaging it received from the critics. Only Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times (always the most reliable observer of drama of his age) recognised Pinter’s talent and saw in the play what others failed to see. Since then it’s had precious few revivals in the UK and I’ve been waiting for a chance to see it for over forty years. Hurrah that Ian Rickson’s production has arrived at the Comedy (I mean Harold Pinter – appropriately) Theatre, and I could not wait to book.

TBP Torturing StanleyHow the memories came flooding back. On the written page it’s very hard to get a feel for this play. Just how menacing is it? (Very.) Just how funny is it? (Surprisingly, quite a lot.) What does it mean? (Now you’re asking….) Here’s the bare bones: Stanley (morose, unkempt, petulant, seedy) has been staying at Meg and Petey’s seaside boarding house for a year now. Petey is a deck chair attendant so is out all day and in all weathers (although who sits on a deckchair in the rain?) which leaves Meg the run of the house, doing the cleaning and the cooking and generally looking after Stanley. He is their only guest. So is he really a bona fide boarding house guest, or just a figment of their imagination, a son figure to complete an otherwise empty family set-up?

TBP Zoe Wanamaker and Toby JonesShattering the status quo, two mysterious men, Goldberg and McCann, arrive, looking for a place to stay. Meg is unsure at first, but they’re gentlemanly and flattering and win her over with ease. But what of their relationship with Stanley? It seems like he knows who they are. It seems like they know who he is. And what appears to be at first polite, distant dealings with him turn into haranguing, menacing, threatening interrogations that he cannot cope with. It’s also, apparently, Stanley’s birthday (although he denies it) and a party is scheduled for 9pm that night. What could possibly go wrong?

TBP Tom Vaughan-LawlorYou could analyse this play for a year and a day and still not come up with anything like a this is what this play is about statement. But that’s the point. Pinter delights in contradiction and obfuscation. Characters say one thing and do another. They assume several identities. Symbols like Stanley’s missing piano or his toy drum take on a force of their own and challenge you to apply reason to them. But if a clear meaning did emerge, Pinter would have had to go back to the drawing board and start again. The audience is a vital part of the production as they fill in some of the gaps in an attempt to make some sense of what’s going on. But there will always be gaps when watching this play, and my suggestion is simply to revel in them.

TBP Toby JonesThe curtain rises to the Quay Brothers’ meticulously realised set; grimy wallpaper peeling from the walls, dark brown wooden panelling that needs updating, dumpy comfortless furniture that reflects the harsh reality of the household. Their costume design is also perfect for the time, location and characters: Stanley’s soiled pyjama top; Meg’s dowdy pinny and dress; Goldberg and McCann’s formal business suits; Lulu and Meg’s glamorous party outfits. For a play and production that relies on high impact lighting cues, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design works perfectly, from the effect when Stanley strikes a match, the sunlight that comes in from the door that illuminates Stanley’s profile to the shock of the blackout and its subsequent revelations. There’s so much in the background to admire in this production.

TBP Stephen ManganThen you have six tremendous performances that really get to the heart of the text, two of which come under the “perfect casting” heading. Toby Jones is chillingly good as Stanley, a fantastic portrayal of this lethargic lump of barely concealed neuroses, pathetically pretending to a greater existence in his past whilst all too closely fearing for his own mortality. No one does “wretched” quite like Mr Jones and he was absolutely born to play this role. And Zoe Wanamaker gives a masterclass performance as the under-achieving, suggestible Meg, waxing lyrical about those lovely flakes and affecting shock but actually aroused when Stanley calls her succulent. Like Shirley Valentine, Meg has had such a little life, and Ms Wanamaker makes you feel her character long ago stopped trying to break out of it. Her “belle of the ball” moments are genuinely moving, as is Petey’s attempt to protect her from bad news at the end of the play – some great characterisation from Peter Wight there in what you might otherwise think is just a filler character. No line is wasted in a Pinter play.

TBP Peter WightStephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor are excellent as Goldberg and McCann but a complete contrast from how I would have imagined them. In my mind’s eye Goldberg is almost a stereotype east-end Jew, probably lifted from a not very PC sitcom from the 1970s – very Sydney Tafler-esque (whom I note played Goldberg in the 1968 film which I didn’t even know existed). I’ve always thought of McCann as a thuggish Irish navvy-type; the kind who’d wallop you with a spade and then ask questions afterwards. These imaginary characterisations in my head are so different from the realistic, true to life performances on offer in this production. Mr Mangan gives every one of Goldberg’s lines a weight and resonance that I hadn’t known was there before. This makes the character more sinister and threatening – even before he starts becoming sinister and threatening. You can see in Mr Mangan’s eyes how Goldberg is plotting his every move in a chess game where Stanley can never occupy a safe square.

TBP Pearl MackieMr Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann is more cerebral than thuggish, in a linguistic fencing match where he forces Stanley into a position where Goldberg can go in for the kill. His newspaper-tearing torture, which I had always felt evoked the sound of bones breaking, is actually more like an attack on the mind than the body and is carried out with such intimidating concentration that it made me feel queasy. The two actors work together so well on their combined verbal attacks on Stanley, with beautifully orchestrated and executed delivery so that the poor man is powerless to protect himself. Completing the sextet is a spirited and likeable portrayal of Lulu by Pearl Mackie, the free-thinking outsider who gets caught in Stanley and Goldberg’s cat and mouse game and pays the price.

TBP Boarding house from hellThis is a simply brilliant production that really brings Pinter’s text to life and surprises you with its humour, its anarchy and its sheer menace. You don’t need to be a Drama or English student to enjoy this one. Seriously impressive and highly recommended.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2018

Screaming Blue MurderIt was a welcome return last Friday to the effervescent Dan Evans hosting another Screaming Blue Murder with three wonderful acts and two delightful intervals. Another packed house – aren’t they all nowadays? – but with a really strange crowd. I think there was a large party that arrived quite late so they couldn’t all sit together; therefore the room was scattered with people who knew each other very well – which was perplexing to some of the comics but comedy gold too – as you will see…

Dan EvansAmongst the crowd were three baby-faced youths on the front row who admitted to being 19 years old, but I’m not so sure; but they were very good sports as almost everyone picked on them at some point. There was also a lady who worked at John Lewis’; Dan got very excited about the prospects for wheedling discounts out of her until he discovered she worked at the warehouse. Dan was on great form as always and got us in the perfect mood for an anarchic night.

James DowdeswellOur first act was James Dowdeswell, whom we’ve seen here three times before, but there’s been a goodly gap since the last time, so his act was fresh as a daisy to us. With an IT geeky face and a certain degree of west country poshness, he delivers a range of very funny and frequently self-deprecating humour, and struck up an excellent rapport with the audience. He has some great stag-do material, and gets a lot of mileage out of his recent engagement and arrangements for his forthcoming nuptuals. All very enjoyable stuff.

And at some point during James’ routine, at the back of the room, and more vocal than was good for him, came the voice of Reg. Reg is a lorry driver. What kind of goods does he transport? White Goods. Cocaine! shouted half the people who knew him. It wasn’t long before Reg was “the supplier” to the whole audience. Nice work if you can get it. Little did we know how Reg would feature later on.

Kate LucasOur second act, and a change to the advertised programme, was Kate Lucas, who was new to us. Where has she been hiding all this time? Kate’s speciality is comedy songs with a twist – a twist of a neck, that is, as she gets so angry during her songs. They’re really funny and inventive – and because she has the voice of an angel and the charm of a Swiss Finishing School Product, her venom is all the more surprising and effective. She has songs that express the disappointment of how ugly a baby can be; a typical argument between husband and wife; and where you can choose to go to Heaven or to Hell. They’re all super-savage and absolutely brilliant. We even joined in. Everybody loved her!

Russell HicksOur headline act, and someone you can always trust to react to the room, was Russell Hicks. The first time I saw him I was disappointed that he went off tangent so much to react to what was going on around him that I felt like I missed out on his act “proper”. Now I know going off on one is his raison de comédie. He was wearing a rather flash sheepskin coat, of which he was clearly proud until someone said he looked like John Motson. Mr Hicks’ American upbringing meant he never got to watch the beloved Motty on Match of the Day, so he insisted on someone Googling his photo for him. One look at the picture and he threw the coat on to the floor in disgust and declared war on us.

But we had Reg as part of our ammunition, who, as I intimated earlier, wasn’t backward in coming forward. Mr Hicks unearthed him from the back of the room, made him swap places with Ravi (the most amenable of the 19 year olds) but then Ravi started kicking off. Mr H was clearly beguiled by a lady in an orange dress and spoke of his admiration for her primary colours when we all shouted back that orange isn’t a primary colour (because you can make if from mix red and yellow of course!) Flummoxed that we all knew our primary colours – but having whipped the room into a frenzy of enjoyment – all Mr H had to do was keep jabbing away at our idiosyncrasies and oddities, and his forty minutes just flew by. As he said at the end, this was one of the absolute weirdest sets he’d done but also one of the funniest. An absolute master at running with whatever the crowd chuck at him, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite so in control.

A genuinely hilarious night’s comedy. Next Screaming Blue is on 9th March. Don’t miss it!

Review – Daliso Chaponda, What the African Said, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th February 2018

Daliso ChapondaThe country knows – and has taken to their heart – Daliso Chaponda from his appearances on last year’s Britain’s Got Talent; but Mrs Chrisparkle and I know him from one of last year’s Screaming Blue Murder shows where he absolutely slayed the audience and I had no hesitation in awarding him the 2017 Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Stand-up! Now he’s back at the Royal for one of his first dates in his first ever UK tour, and already he’s selling out (seats, not material) everywhere he goes. And there’s a good reason for this. The man is utterly hysterical.

Tony VinoBut first – a support act. We spent the first half hour in the company of Tony Vino – whom we’ve not seen before – and he’s a very funny guy! He has a lot of nice observational comedy about family life including kids on roller shoes, and dealing with American customs officers’ sense of humour (they don’t have one.) I particularly enjoyed his material about having a vasectomy and sharing surgical memories with other snipped guys in the audience. But best of all was his Lion King finale, ostensibly to create an African atmosphere to welcome Mr Chaponda back for the second half, but really an excuse to get about ten people up from the audience in a hilarious re-enactment of Simba’s Greatest Hour. If you get called up, just go for it, like the Northampton guys last night. It was brilliant.

Daliso-ChapondaBut it’s all about Mr Chaponda. There are few comics who strike up such an instant rapport because they are so genuinely likeable. He is the epitome of cheekiness, with a permanently sunny personality that he uses to enormous effect to deliver sometimes quite serious material. He doesn’t shy away from race; in fact there’s a considerable segment of the show where we’re asked to judge the relative seriousness of examples of celebrity use of the N word. But he frames it all with both irreverence and kindliness, which is a unique mix. He has some killer jokes regarding slavery. He even has a little material that’s based on his being abused as a child, whereat the audience falls silent with shock and empathy; and then he rounds it off with a perfect punchline that had me snorting into my hand.

DalisoThe show is very cleverly structured, much of it spent with his telling us all the times when he thought a joke wasn’t in any way “unacceptable” but then discovering it was – with us hearing the material in order to judge it, of course. And, naturally, it’s inevitably incredibly near the knuckle and absolutely hilarious, whilst he feigns surprise at how this “innocuous” joke could possibly cause offence. He’s very quick-witted and you sense that you could see his show a number of times and you’d get a different slant each time. That said, there was some repetition of his Screaming Blue material from last year, but it’s all brilliant, so it was great to hear it again. I’d forgotten how much I love his visual representation of the problems a shorter man faces when attempting a 69.

DChapondaAs an encore we re-enacted his Britain’s Got Talent audition, with members of the audience as the panel, including a very butch Amanda Holden and a very white Alisha Dixon. It was an appropriate way to end the night, linking it to his best-known TV appearance and delivering a few sure-fire one-liners. Mr Chaponda is pure comedy gold. Thank heavens his history lessons concentrated on Henry VIII so that he just had to move to the UK. His tour continues right through till June so do yourself a favour and book!!

University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice, Graduates 2018 Showcase Programme, 14th February 2018

2018 ShowcaseI was delighted to receive an invitation to the Dress Rehearsal for this year’s London Showcase for the 2018 Graduates of the University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice course. Last year, when I saw the London Showcase, I had already seen the actors in a number of different roles from their appearances at the Royal and at the Flash Festival. This really helped assess the versatility of the performers, and I was surprised at the range some of them achieved. Because of a change in structure of the courses, I’ve only seen these 2018 Graduates in one previous production, Balm in Gilead. So this was just my second opportunity to see them show off their talents, hopefully to attract the attention of agents and managers and to give their careers a jolly good kickstart.

Joe ConroyMy friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind braved the icy cold to trek up to the Maidwell Hall to watch the cast of fourteen assemble a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical delights, either short sketches or extracts from longer works. Some were extremely serious, giving the cast the opportunity to plumb the depths of aggression or bereavement, to create passionate and hard-hitting drama; others were light-hearted and funny, which brings a totally different strength and skillset to the Showcase. It’s human nature to identify with, and moreover like, someone on stage who makes you laugh; so when you’re trying to win the attention of professionals, whom you want to have on your side in the future, personally I think a good dollop of endearing humour can go a long way.

James GraysonThere were some stand-out sketches and performances for me that I thoroughly enjoyed and thought were superbly acted. The best of the more serious fare was a scene featuring James Grayson and Joe Conroy as two antagonistic attendees at a funeral, with Bobbie-Lee Scott caught between them as a grieving mother. All three gave powerful performances, spitting out the venom of their speeches with glee, but I particularly enjoyed Mr Grayson’s ability to convey controlled anger – every insult hit home, each word was deliciously enunciated. Ms Scott also appeared in a very enjoyable sketch with Amber Jade Harrison where she hilariously ridiculed Ms Harrison’s character’s previous choice of boyfriend, outrageously assassinating the poor off-stage chap whilst she herself was horrendously clad in a ghastly sparkly pink shell suit top. Her comic timing was perfect and, despite the brevity of the sketch, we had a very strong understanding of her character.

Dean AdamsAnother sketch that worked very well featured Dean Adams and Rhiannon Flambard loafing around in the great outdoors whilst he fantasises about being a duck. It’s an immensely silly but strangely touching little scene which both actors delivered perfectly; he stood out for his ability to convey the character’s quite childlike ideas, delivered completely straight-faced, which just made it even more funny. He was also excellent in a rather dark scene with Tiana Thompson, which begins with his amusing self-congratulation on how good a lover he had been the night before, but which gets creepier as you realise that his character probably committed rape. Ms Thompson, too, was very strong as his victim, carefully but powerlessly piecing together her recollections of the night and unable to conclude whether there’s anything she can do to put it right.

Bobbie-Lee ScottThere’s a delightfully cringey scene between a painfully awkward Ross Bayliss and a voluptuously forward Freya Mawhinney where she realises, post-party, that she accidentally went off with the wrong bloke; I really liked Mr Bayliss’s self-deprecating persona in both his scenes. Daniel Peace, James Grayson and Jemma Bentley all feature in a part hilarious, part harrowing scene where a menage a trois seems to have gone seriously wrong; and Mr Peace was also excellent in a two-hander (pardon the pun) where he asked Mr Conroy to inspect his undercarriage as he thought he had a lump down there. Both actors really conveyed the awkward humour of that situation superbly.

Jemma BentleyIf I were to be handing out awards for the best performers, then I would say James Grayson, Jemma Bentley, Bobbie-Lee Scott and Dean Adams would probably be jockeying for position with the best chances. But the great thing about this Showcase is that everyone gave a great account of themselves and the standard of performance was very high. The big event is at the Soho Theatre on Friday 16th February and I’m sure the whole group will deliver some outstanding performances!