Review – Avenue Q, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2019

Avenue QAs a special family treat, we were joined not only by Lord and Lady Prosecco but also our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra (grown up a bit now, you’ll be relieved to hear) together with their Mum and Dad for another revival of Avenue Q. And a jolly good thing too. This is one of those shows, like Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, that never really goes away, and why would you want it to?

Avenue Q characters 2019We last saw it in 2011, at this self-same theatre, and looking back at the characters’ photos of the time, some of them have had a bit of a makeover. Princeton has gone yellow; Kate Monster has become more recognisably a person of fur. Lucy the Slut isn’t as pink as she was; Rod is bluer than he was. The Bad Idea Bears are even more insinuatingly attractive. This can only go one way.

The story is as timeless as ever. Princeton still doesn’t know what to do with a B.A. in English, but he’s set himself up with a job and started looking for digs on Avenue A. It’s only when he gets as far as Avenue Q that he can just about afford anything. On Day One in his new apartment the company downsizes and he loses the job. Never mind, he lives next door to the fetching Kate Monster and finds a whole new bunch of friends in his ‘hood. After a dubious meeting with the Bad Idea Bears (buy some beer! Buy a crate!) he takes Kate on a date where the alluring Lucy the Slut is the headline cabaret artiste.

Lawrence SmithDespite the temptation of Lucy’s pneumatic assets, Princeton takes Kate home where they have earth-shattering puppet sex from every conceivable angle with immense, prolonged sustainability. Kate forgets to go to work and is harangued by her boss, the monster-prejudiced Mrs Thistletwat. But Kate and Princeton’s relationship is doomed because of his fear of commitment, so they split up. Lucy comes back on the scene. And it all goes downhill from here.

Meanwhile, we have the on-off friendship/relationship between the closeted Rod and the affable Nicky, the stormy household of Brian and Christmas Eve (yes, real people), and will Princeton ever find his purpose? Plus Gary Coleman. Yes, the one off Diff’rent Strokes. Yes, I know he’s dead. Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense when he was alive, it makes even less sense now he’s dead. Why did the writers include a real-life character? It’s a one-joke idea. Maybe it’s become so outdated that he’s become retro. I dunno.

Cecily RedmanIt’s a lively, bright production, as slick as ever, and crammed with fabulous bad taste that leaves you laughing for hours. The songs are tuneful and jolly, performed with great pizzazz by Dean McDermott’s six-piece band, and have surprisingly witty and incisive lyrics that stay with you, well, forever. In “The Internet is for Porn”, who can forget the immortal phrase, Grab your dick and double-click? There are a few nicely updated moments too; Donald Trump doesn’t get off scot-free.

Tom SteedonBut we’d forgotten how dark the comedy is. It’s all very well that the Bad Idea Bears suggest a beer – we’ve all been there – but they also creep in to your depressed moments to provide a rope so you can end it all; and they do it with such inexorable cheerfulness that you can see how a vulnerable, unstable person could find it an attractive option. Rod’s selfish insensitivity to the needs of his friend means he sees Nicky being passed from pillar to post to sleep on friends’ floors until they have enough of him, and he’s prepared to let his old friend (whom deep down he loves) become homeless and sleep rough. And, although the puppet sex is a comic tour-de-force, basically, Princeton got Kate absolutely rat-arsed in order to take her home; was it really consensual? The comedy is so perfectly done that you laugh at all these situations without realising their potential seriousness. The final song of the show emphasises that life goes on, whether or not you find your purpose; just live for self-satisfaction For Now; long-term ambitions and New Year’s Resolutions can go to Hell.

Megan ArmstrongThe puppetry works incredibly well; by having the puppeteer visible to the side of the puppet, it’s as though each of the puppet characters has two faces – the puppet’s face, that mainly only moves by opening its mouth, and the actor/puppeteer’s face, slightly overacting so as to give additional expressiveness to what the character is feeling. And the vocalisation is extraordinary too. The singing is extremely strong, and the different voices that each puppeteer gives their characters are instantly recognisable and fully unique to their own character. That works particularly well in the few scenes where one actor is required to talk to him or herself. Although this is truly an ensemble show, I thought the performances of the Lawrence Smith (Princeton/Rod), Cecily Redman (Kate/Lucy), Tom Steedon (Nicky/Trekkie/Bear) and Megan Armstrong (Mrs T/Bear/2nd arm) were outstanding.

First Bad Idea BearIn the real world, there’s an energetically comic performance from Saori Oda as Christmas Eve, as un-PC as you could possibly get in the portrayal of an oriental, I mean Asian-American character, but then again, as the song says, everyone’s a little bit racist. Oliver Stanley nicely conveys Brian’s awkward ungainliness, and Nicholas McLean gave us an excellent Gary Coleman, including spot-on facial expressions and a quality song-and-dance vibe.

Second Bad Idea BearBut it’s the puppets you remember: the fallible Princeton; the hopeless Kate; the fraught Rod; the jazz-handed Nicky; the temptress Lucy; the masturbation-obsessed Trekkie; the innocently irresistible Bears. No wonder this show just runs and runs! This is Week Four of a long, twenty-four venue tour, and after its week in Northampton, it goes on to Chester, Basildon, Derby, Bradford, Canterbury, Wirral, Cheltenham, Reading, Ipswich, Dunstable, Dublin, Leicester, Edinburgh, Brighton, Wolverhampton, Cardiff, Glasgow, Nottingham, Sheffield, and ending up in Belfast in August. There is Life Outside your Apartment – highly recommended!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Death Comes as the End (1945)

Death Comes as the EndIn which Renisenb, a young widow from an ancient Egyptian family of 4,000 years ago, returns to her home, having buried her young husband, and hoping everything will be as it once was. However, she finds herself at the heart of a family torn apart by bitter jealousy, rivalry, tyranny, and, eventually, murder. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

UCL-University-College-LondonThe book is dedicated “To Professor S. R. K. Glanville. Dear Stephen, it was you who originally suggested to me the idea of a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, and but for your active help and encouragement, this book would never have been written. I want to say here how much I have enjoyed all the interesting literature you have lent me and to thank you once more for the patience with which you have answered my questions and for the time and trouble you have expended. The pleasure and interest which the writing of the book has brought to me you already know. Your affectionate and grateful friend, Agatha Christie.” Stephen Glanville was Professor of Egyptology at University College London, and Christie had already dedicated one book to him – Five Little Pigs, in 1943. In her autobiography, Christie relates how she wanted to describe the minutiae of daily living in Ancient Egypt with as much accuracy as possible, so she would pester Stephen Glanville with endless questions of domestic practices, seemingly much to his irritation; but they survived the experience, and were still friends at the end. Death Comes as the End was first published in the US in October 1944 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in March the following year.

ThebesThis book is a one-off. It’s the only book by Agatha Christie not to take place in the 20th century; it contains no European characters; and has the second highest death count after And Then There Were None. Distanced from her usual trappings of the British class system, genteel old ladies with parlourmaids, wartime fallout, and without access to Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence or any of her repertoire of familiar characters, Christie had to fall back on characterisation to make this book come alive. And, boy, does she succeed! This is Christie at her best; psychology, suspense, romance, humour, and a completely unguessable but totally reasonable solution to the crime.

egyptian godsI remember the first time I read it, I struggled with it at first, because there are so many unrecognisable elements. The strange-sounding first names of the characters. The chapter structure, which follows the Egyptian agricultural calendar. The ancient Egyptian gods, religious practices and superstitions, which mean nothing to the modern reader. The notion of how a concubine should be treated within a household, which is completely alien to our culture today. But once you get past these little difficulties, what you’re left with is a riveting domestic drama of jealousy, love, hate, and ambition which is bound to tickle our emotional responses.

CalendarIn her explanatory note at the beginning of the book, Christie introduces the reader to the agricultural calendar: “the dates here used as Chapter headings are stated in terms of the agricultural year of the time, i. e. Indundation – late July to late November; Winter – late November to late March; and Summer – late March to late July.” It’s true that, when reading the book, you don’t get a sense of the passage of time. In fact, the twenty-three chapters cover what we would recognise as a period of nine months, starting on roughly 6th September. Much of the early part of the book covers the time up till when Nofret, the concubine, dies, which is around 31st December. After that, there are no more deaths until about 1st April, after which they come thick and fast, over a period of five to six weeks, the story ending on approximately 8th May. It’s interesting to note that, despite the very different times in which the two novels are set, Christie largely followed the same dating structure that she did in her previous novel Towards Zero, where we see a virtual countdown over the months from the early planning stages of a crime to its conclusion.

LuxorReturning to Christie’s introduction, she tells us that “the inspiration of both characters and plot was derived from two or three Egyptian letters of the XI Dynasty, found about 20 years ago by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a rock tomb opposite Luxor, and translated by Professor (then Mr.) Battiscombe Gunn in the Museum’s bulletin.” These letters were written by one Heqanakhte to his family, complaining about their behaviour and treatment of his concubine. Although the societal norms may change over the centuries, human emotions don’t.

egyptian widowIt’s a traditional third person narrative; however, we very much see the story unfold through Renisenb’s eyes. She is a beautifully crafted character; even though I wouldn’t have a clue how to pronounce her name, I feel I know her very well. She’s a quiet, reflective soul; very traditional, dependant on kindness from her family and friends; she’s also popular, because she doesn’t make a fuss and life has been cruel to her, despite her happiness in the past with her late husband Khay – who frequently re-enters her imagination – and her devotion to her child Teti. As time goes by, she starts to long for married happiness again, but will it be with the reliable, older scribe Hori, who guided her as a child, or the dazzling, exotic Kameni, with whom life could be very exciting. Renisenb’s personal journey, from mourning widow, resenting change, to someone who wants another bright future, is the thread that runs through the book, and I think she’s one of Christie’s great creations. More on the other characters later in this blog post!

ThebesThe story takes place in Thebes, in 2000 BC; a location of which Christie had a good understanding following her archaeological digs with her husband Max Mallowan. The ruins of Thebes are found within modern day Luxor. So Death Comes as the End benefits from a sophisticated, wealthy setting; this is a place where slaves taste your food before you do, so that if it’s poisoned, they die first. Here, it’s vital to impress other people with your wealth when it comes to financing extremely grand funerals; only the finest, brand new sheets are used for the bodies; and more than once we hear complaints about the high prices charged by the embalmers Ipi and Montu.

MemphisThe local people have a high opinion of their illustrious home and a distrust of people from elsewhere. Henet, the old family retainer, blames all the problems on the family on the arrival of the antagonistic Nofret, Imhotep’s concubine: “this house is bewitched. The work of a she-devil who came to us from the North. No good ever came from out of the North.” Nofret’s family is from Memphis, situated 20 kilometres south of Giza. She describes it as “gay and amusing […] there is music and singing and dancing.” No wonder she doesn’t like Thebes’ more stately and sedate atmosphere.

NebhepetreFollowing Nofret’s burial, Christie describes the conversations between the powerful local people: “Thebes was rapidly becoming a very powerful city […] Montu spoke with reverence and approval of the King Neb Hepet-Re. A first-class soldier and a man of piety also. The corrupt and cowardly North could hardly stand against him. A unified Egypt, that was what was needed. And it would mean, undoubtedly, great things for Thebes.” King Neb Hepet-Re, of whom Montu was such a fan, is known more easily today as Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II. He was a Pharaoh of the 11th Dynasty who reigned for 51 years from c. 2061 BC – 2010 BC. Around his 39th year on the throne he reunited Egypt, thus ending the First Intermediate Period. Consequently, he is considered the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.

HeracleopolisThere’s only one other place (I think) that is mentioned in the book: when Hori reads the letter sent from Imhotep whilst he is away on business, Christie describes it thus: “the letter was couched in the ornate style of the professional letter writer of Heracleopolis.” That city, named (obviously) after Heracles, was located 15 kilometres west of the modern city of Beni Suef.

CornelianThe book is positively littered with other references. Esa quotes: “men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women, and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured cornelians […] a trifle, a little, the likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end.” It appears that Esa is remembering a quotation from an earlier work of some sort, but if you try to search that phrase online all you come up with is this Agatha Christie book. Does anyone know if it really is a quote from an earlier work?

NomarchIn conversation with Hori, Renisenb argues a point about Satipy changing her behaviour; impressed with her skills, he replies “you should argue in the Nomarch’s courts.” Who or what was a Nomarch? They were Ancient Egyptian administration officials responsible for the provinces, or nomes, which are also mentioned in the book. Nofret tempts Imhotep with the prospect of fruit and Keda beer. Keda beer? Not quite sure what that is. I can’t see that keda is any kind of plant from which you can make beer, so maybe it’s beer that was imported from Keda; there’s a Keda in Afghanistan, and one in Georgia. I’ve no idea if either of the are famous for beer! Again, can you help, gentle reader?

HathorImhotep swears “by Hathor” how noisy his grandchildren are. Hathor is an ancient Egyptian goddess associated, who was considered the primeval goddess from whom all others were derived. She is usually depicted as a woman with the head of a cow, ears of a cow, or simply in cow form. Hathor also came to be regarded as the mother of the sun god Ra and held a prominent place in his barge as it sailed across the night sky, into the underworld, and rose again at dawn. Montu, who conducts the funeral services for the family, is a Divine Father of the Temple of Hathor. He sweeps the floor of the burial chamber with a broom of heden grass, before it is sealed up forever; this seemed to be a common practice, but I’ve been unable to discover exactly what heden grass is.

EnneadHenet, also, swears; her cry is to “the Nine Gods of the Ennead”. I didn’t know what this referred to; but the Ennead was a group of nine deities in Egyptian mythology worshipped at Heliopolis: the sun god Atum; his children Shu and Tefnut; their children Geb and Nut; and their children Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. On another occasion, when Esa is trying to fathom out a motive for the murders, she says “we have here either enmity against the family as a whole, or else there lies behind all these things that covetousness against which the Maxims of Ptahotep warn us.” The Maxims of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition based on the Vizier Ptahhotep’s wisdom and experiences, a text that was discovered in Thebes in 1847. One of the quotes from the work is: “Think of living in peace with what you possess, and whatever the Gods choose to give will come of its own accord.” Maybe that’s what Esa was remembering.

Natron“Then the Tomb was sealed, and all that remained of the embalmers’ work, pots full of natron, salt and rags that had been in contact with the body, were placed in a little chamber nearby”. Natron? I’d never heard of it. Wikipedia tells me (so it must be right) that Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate and around 17% sodium bicarbonate along with small quantities of sodium chloride and sodium sulphate. It was harvested directly as a salt mixture from dry lake beds in ancient Egypt and has been used for thousands of years as a cleaning product for both the home and body. So it must have been used to clean the dead bodies.

LuxorRenisenb challenges Nofret with an accusation of evil, adding “when you come to deny the forty-two sins at the hour of judgment you will not be able to say “I have done no evil”.” Part of their ancient beliefs was that man was subject to forty-two sins, each of which was examined by forty-two heavenly assessors, who were waiting on the edge of the lake that the dead had to cross. And another of their beliefs: Esa reminds Renisenb that her late husband Khay “sails his boat now in the Field of Offerings”. This was one of the names given to their equivalent of heaven, a place that mirror-images earth, where the dead lived happily and contented, providing they had passed the examinations to get there.

thirteenWhat really does come across in this book is how the characters all have absolute religious adherence to their beliefs; there isn’t one non-believer, nor someone who simply toes the religion line for social convenience. They all believe in it absolutely, and it is interwoven with their day to day lives to an inextricable degree. There’s a very thin line between belief and superstition.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Death Comes as the End:

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in April 1972, price 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, simply shows a dead, embalmed Egyptian lady – quite attractive, so presumably Nofret – surrounded by hieroglyphics, torn sheeting, and a watchful ornamental figure. It certainly covers one aspect of the book.

How many pages until the first death: 64. Given that eight people die in all, you can see how the deaths are concentrated into the second half of the book!

Funny lines out of context:

“Yahmose flushed quickly with pleasure. He drew himself a little more erect.”

Memorable characters:

One of the outstanding aspects of this book. I’ve already talked about how real and believable Renisenb is, but so many of them are. Consider the brash Sobek versus the introverted Yahmose, and the shrewish Satipy versus the distant Kait. Then you have Kameni, who woos Renisenb with his song, the vicious, catty Nofret, the lofty and pompous Imhotep, the vain braggart Ipy, and the cackling busybodies Esa and Henet. Each of them is really easy to imagine in the reader’s mind’s eye, because they are such colourful and lively characters.

Christie the Poison expert:

With so many deaths, unsurprisingly some of them are through poison! However, as this is not the 20th century, and there’s no detective to send samples off to a laboratory, we don’t have an insight into which poisons are used. The only clue given is that one of the victims is said to have drunk “the poppy juice”.

Class/social issues of the time:

I wouldn’t like to assume that Christie has taken a couple of her own usual social themes and deposited them in Ancient Thebes, or whether these two subjects were of particular interest to the Ancient Egyptians – but race and the social position of women do crop again, as usual.

It’s interesting that the slaves are frequently referred to by their colour. Satipy moans about “that hippopotamus of a black slave”; Esa possesses “two little black slave girls”, whom she scolds “in a characteristic, friendly fashion.” Esa is actually very fond of her slaves, a relationship which today feels quite unlikely. Later in the book, Christie describes one of Esa’s slaves as a “little maid”, whom she sends off on an errand. However, when she returns, Christie again describes her simply as “the black girl”. The only other use of the word “black” when describing one of the characters, is when Sobek is furious at the influence that Nofret has acquired over Imhotep: “she has bewitched him – that black, jeering serpent has put a spell on him!” Don’t know about you but this feels more than borderline racist to me.

However, there are many more references to women in this book. We’ve seen before how Christie has an uncomfortable relationship with the notion of feminism. You sense she feels that it’s generally a good idea but awfully unbecoming of a nice young lady. Yahmose’s vituperative wife Satipy is constantly complaining at his attitude. “You drive me mad, Yahmose […] you have no spirit. You’re as meek as a woman!” Touch of the Lady Macbeth’s there, maybe? The narration talks of the sequence of accidents and mishaps that befall Nofret, as a deliberate act of vengeance against her. Christie, in the form of the narrator, tells us “it was a quiet, relentless, petty persecution – nothing overt, nothing to lay hold of – it was essentially a woman’s campaign.” That doesn’t really equate women to Being Able To Do Great Things, does it?

Esa’s got worse up her sleeve. When she complains to Renisenb about Satipy’s bullying behaviour, she actually advocates violence against her. “I hoped Yahmose had come to his senses at last and given his wife a good beating. It’s what she needs – and she’s the kind of woman who would probably enjoy it.” That really makes the modern reader cringe. Even kind-hearted and level-headed Hori shows traces of misogyny; his description of Satipy is phrased: “like most bullying women, she was a coward.” If he’d said “like most bullies, she was a coward” I don’t think there’d be any objection. But this phrasing doesn’t feel quite equable. It implies that bullying men aren’t cowards (which is not true.)

Let’s give the final words on the subject to Kait, Sobek’s quiet and remote wife. Kait advises Renisenb to remarry because “you are strong and young, Renisenb, and you can have many more children.” “Is that all a woman’s life, Kait?” asks Renisenb, to which Kait replies, “it is all that matters to a woman.” And later, when Renisenb is talking to Kait about Sobek, she replies, “what are men anyway? They are necessary to breed children, that is all. But the strength of the race is in the women. It is we, Renisenb, who hand down to our children all that is ours, As for men, let them breed and die early…” So despite having what sounds to us a very backward attitude to the relevance of women in their society, Kait is adamant that their own special brand of feminism is the power of the nation. It perfectly sums up Christie’s ambivalence on the subject!

Classic denouement: Although it’s an exciting denouement, it’s not exactly classic, with only three people present – the murderer, the next intended victim, and the victim’s saviour. All the details are then back-filled afterwards. It’s interesting that Stephen Glanville persuaded Christie to change the ending, much to her annoyance with herself for letting him do so. She avowed thereafter never to let anyone interfere with her plotting ever again! Tantalisingly, we don’t know what ending she had originally proposed.

Happy ending? Yes; although there aren’t many people left to get on with their own lives, a future wedding is on the horizon.

Did the story ring true? With its foreign, distant setting, in another culture at a point much earlier in history, it’s hard to gauge exactly how realistic or credible the story is. In many respects, this is the closest Christie got to writing a pantomime, in that it’s full of vibrant characters and a somewhat over-the-top death count suggests a murderer who is much larger than life.

Overall satisfaction rating: For me it’s unhesitatingly a 10/10, because I’ve always found it riveting – and on re-reading I found I could almost verbatim remember many of the conversations; that’s how much it gets under your skin.

Sparkling CyanideThanks for reading my blog of Death Comes as the End 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 Sparkling Cyanide, and our final meeting with Colonel Race; I can’t remember anything else about it though, so I shall look forward to re-reading it! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Caroline’s Kitchen, Original Theatre Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th February 2019

Caroline's KitchenTwo years ago, we saw Original Theatre’s production of Torben Betts’ Invincible, and a jolly fine piece of work it was too. So I was very keen to see this next offering from Mr Betts, produced by the same company. It’s fair to say that both plays have similar themes and subjects. People talking over themselves, pretending to listen but much more interested in what they themselves have to say; people revealing the private emotions that lurk behind a public exterior. There’s even a link between the two plays concerning recent campaigns of war. Mr Betts has a lot to say about the little tragedies that pepper our lives and how they mount up to overwhelm us. He also has a good eye for the surreal, and I can understand why he is spoken of in the same breath as Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Caroline and CameramanThe play originally saw light of day back in 2016 under the title Monogamy, where it played at the Park Theatre and where it received a variety of extreme reviews. Torben Betts decided to revise the play, presumably enhancing the aspects that went well, and altering or removing those that didn’t. Has he created a sparkling new comedy? Or does it look like something that’s been through the mincer?

CarolineCaroline’s Kitchen is more than just a name of a play; if it was your subject in a game of charades, you’d have to point out that it was also a television programme and a book. Caroline is a TV chef, whose programme is made in her own charming rustic country kitchen in the heart of north London. The first ten minutes of so of the play is an absolute delight, as we see Caroline in full flight, TV camera watching her every move, as she introduces the show, promises us some fabulous recipes and her special guest, the daunting Ingrid from Sweden. Then we realise it’s a rehearsal, and that Caroline has something of a drink problem, which has encouraged some dreadful paparazzi to snap her falling out of a taxi, with only a newt alongside her for comparison.

LeoBut today is a special occasion; son Leo is returning home for a celebratory dinner as he’s just got a First from Cambridge (as Caroline never hesitates to boast about). Caroline’s PA Amanda – a stand-in as her regular PA, Prem, is unavailable – is a 21st century Sloane Ranger with media luvvies stuffed into her phone contacts, and with no idea quite how abrasive and irritating she can be with her pretentious speech patterns. Caroline and Mike’s house is up for sale, and Mrs Minto has booked a viewing that evening, much to Caroline’s annoyance because she doesn’t want the celebration evening spoiled. Handyman Graeme is also on the scene, finishing some little jobs here and there, but wanting a serious word with Caroline. Leo, too, wants a serious word with Caroline. Trouble is, Caroline’s the kind of person who just doesn’t have the time to have a serious word with anyone, apart from God. Add to the mix Caroline’s husband Mike, who manages to be both a boor and a bore, and Graeme’s mentally unstable wife Sally, and you have a recipe for disaster.

MikeThere are dark comedies, and dark comedies. This is a DARK comedy, especially in the first act, where there is a lot of scene-setting and character-establishing. What primarily came across to me was a sense of watching a middle-class tale of suburban angst strung out amongst the sauté potatoes and garnishes of rosemary. With the drama of Leo rebelling by doing charity work, the flashing of cash in order to pay off his debts and buy him a flat, and above all – gasp – smoking! – there was a teeth-jangling tweeness mixed with the darkness, which is a weird combination. Sadly, at this stage, it had also forgotten that it should be funny. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed that, although the performances were good, the play itself was just about limping along.

Leo, Mike and SallyAfter the interval, the second act was considerably funnier, with a few strong laugh-out-loud moments, and the tweeness was replaced by some more demonic undercurrents. I felt uncomfortable at the comic use of the character of Mike’s latent racism and homophobia; of course, it’s absolutely fine to laugh at someone with bigoted viewpoints, but I just felt we were more being asked to laugh with him, which is a very different matter. This wasn’t the only heavy-handed aspect to the play; symbolic rain outside gets heavier and heavier as the evening progresses, even though when people come on stage from the garden, they weirdly don’t appear to be particularly wet. There is, however, a classic Ayckbournian moment; when preparing to toast Leo’s success with champagne, Mike times the popping of the cork a split-second after Sally lets slip that her brother took his own life. Very nicely done.

AmandaAs the relationships between all the characters continue to decline throughout the course of the night, there is some element of farce, but, to be honest, it could have pushed the boundaries of savagery even further than it did. The rather unoriginal ending was a mash-up of Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party.

GraemeNevertheless, it is a very good production; the detailed, attractive, fully operational kitchen set strongly impresses when you enter the auditorium, and there are faultless performances from the whole cast; particularly Aden Gillett’s objectionable Mike, and Elizabeth Boag’s tragic Sally. However, I have to confess, I was disappointed with this one. I had high expectations that it only partly met; I was hoping for something funnier, something sharper, something a little more original. Unlike Invincible, there were no characters with whom you feel a connection; they’re all on the spectrum somewhere between ineffectual and unpleasant, so you don’t particularly care about their fate.

Leo and SallyBut you can’t win them all, and I expect I’m out of kilter on this one, because the packed Monday night house really enjoyed it. After its week in Northampton, the tour continues to Liverpool, Cheltenham, Norwich, Eastbourne, Bath, Worthing and Colchester.

Production photos by Sam Taylor

Review – Pinter Seven, Pinter at the Pinter Season, A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2nd February 2019

Pinter SevenWith the glorious memories of Company earlier that afternoon still zinging in our heads, it was time to return to the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for a very different form of entertainment for the evening. We’d seen most of the previous Pinter at the Pinters – unfortunately we had to miss 3 and 4 because of travel commitments – but they’d all been of a pretty high standard, with Pinter Six’s Party Time and Celebration being the absolute stand-out production of the season so far. How would Pinter Seven’s A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter fare against such illustrious competition?

G WhelanA Slight Ache was written in 1958 and first performed as a radio play in 1959. Flora and Edward are breakfasting in the garden on a hot summer day. After fretting over a wasp and getting confused over shrubs, an old matchseller appears at their back garden gate. His presence disturbs them, because a) they can’t understand why he positions himself there, b) they can’t decide what he’s actually doing (selling matches, obvs), and c) he never says a word, even when they try to engage him in lengthy, abstruse conversations. Eventually they invite him in, and their casual, polite conversation turns to the occasional insult and the downright surreal. Eventually Flora decides the matchseller is called Barnabas, and whilst she and Edward compete for his attention, he remains mute and invisible. At the end of the play, we see the Matchseller for ourselves – and we see that it is Edward, dressed up as a matchseller. Ah-huh.

John Heffernan and Gemma WhelanThis is one of Pinter’s deliberately puzzling little plays, with his recurring themes of false names – Edward doesn’t like it when Flora calls him Edward – false jobs (I bet he isn’t really a matchseller, just as I bet Flora wasn’t a Justice of the Peace and I bet Edward isn’t writing an essay on the Belgian Congo), ridiculous place names (the Membunza Mountain Range, south of Katambaloo, in French Equitorial Africa, which doesn’t exist in real life) and, in this case, pretentious wines (Wachenheimer Fuchsmantel Reisling Beeren Auslese – which does), blindness, (Edward has a slight ache in his eyes) and thinly veiled violence. As usual, you get the sense that the characters are courting danger from outside their immediate environment but are too hardwired in their own behavioural patterns to do anything about it.

John HeffernanPersonally, I didn’t find it a terribly satisfying play; it just doesn’t go far enough to make its point – whatever that may be. I did however enjoy Jamie Lloyd’s production. I thought it was smart to start it as though it were a radio play, being acted by two clipped-vowel BBC actor-types, seated on tall chairs in front of microphones, with an On Air sign distinctly On; and as the play progresses they leave that environment and start occupying the garden breakfast table in your mind, with just the occasional reminder that it is a radio play, such as when Flora treads on top of a tray of gravel to give the aural impression she’s walking up the garden path.

Gemma Whelan and John HeffernanJohn Heffernan’s Edward is an excellent study of a pompous and pernickety man, barely repressing the streaks of violence and anger in his soul. Gemma Whelan’s Flora is straight out of Brief Encounter, with an exquisite vocal turn that’s more 1930s than 50s, trying to make herself attractive for Barnabas whilst fantasising about bathing him; whether that’s like a baby or like a lover, is for you to decide. Well performed, and entertaining, but, for me, missing an edge that is more noticeable in most other Pinter plays.

Gemma WhelanA Slight Ache was really just a curtain-raiser for the long-awaited star-clash of Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer in The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s 1957 two-hander, which features two gangster-type hitmen waiting in a basement for the instructions for their next job. As in A Slight Ache, the outside world encroaches on to their comfortless, although well-organised, little domestic arrangement, with an unruly kettle and an even unrulier toilet in the adjacent room, an envelope containing a dozen matches thrust under the door by hand unknown; and of course, the dumb waiter.

Danny DyerI’ll return to the play in the next paragraph, but let’s just take a minute to respect that curious entity, the dumb waiter. You may not know this, gentle reader, but my parents ran a village pub, and in 1970 the brewery who owned said establishment decided it was time we had a refurbishment. To encourage the early art of pub grub, they installed a dumb waiter that connected our kitchen upstairs to the sink area behind the Saloon Bar. It was a big, heavy contraption. Two thick ropes worked a pulley mechanism that sent this wooden box, with two shelves, up and down between the floors. It rather blew my childish brain that there was part of the building that belonged both upstairs and downstairs. I was fascinated by it, and would happily spend hours pointlessly sending items upstairs and downstairs just because I could. It linked two separate worlds; when you were in the kitchen, you had no idea what was going on behind the bar, and when you were in the bar, you had no idea what was happening in the kitchen. But you could send these enclosed shelves, up and down, as a kind of fact-finding emissary; ever-reliable, sharing the secrets of the seedy underworld and the lofty overworld. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle finally retired from that pub in 1988; but eighteen years on, the dumb waiter still worked as smoothly and as magically as ever.

Dyer and FreemanPinter’s Dumb Waiter comes with a voice tube; much more high-tech than our humble example, and providing an even stronger link from that dingy basement to the outside world. Ben and Gus, the nefarious couple, have no idea it’s there at first; which is why, when it suddenly comes to life, it’s a shock to us all; and the random sequence of food orders, that the guys have absolutely no way of fulfilling, is hilarious in its total pointlessness. But whilst they’re doing their best to please the masters upstairs, Ben also receives his orders for the job that he and Gus are expecting. And although Ben confirms that it’s “the normal method to be employed”, it looks like this will be the last job they do together…

Martin FreemanThe combination of Messrs Freeman and Dyer is something of a Pinteresque dream team. Mr Freeman’s Gus is a nervous, fidgety, inquisitive guy; the type who has to break a silence (and being Pinter, there are plenty of those!), the type who thrives on being reassured. Mr Dyer’s Ben is more laid-back, with the natural authority of superiority and the confidence to wait quietly; it’s he who communicates with the powers that be up above, but it’s also he who sweats the pressure of satisfying the bosses. In civil service terms, Gus is the Administrative Assistant whilst Ben is the Executive Officer.

Freeman and DyerBoth actors lend aspects of their own personalities and style to their characters, so that they’re immensely believable – in a sense you feel that perhaps there’s not a lot of acting required. Mr Dyer, in particular, always has that cheeky, irreverent sparkle in the corner of his eyes, so even when he’s being Proper Menacing, there’s a glint of a Likely Lad in there too. And although there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of menace lurking about the backwaters of this play, it’s performed fully for laughs and the audience recognises it as the crowd-pleaser it’s clearly designed to be. Only 27 performances scheduled for Pinter Seven, so you’d better be quick – it finishes on 23rd February!

D DyerP. S. Pinter Seven was to be the last of the season but that plucky little Tom Hiddleston has popped up with a production of Pinter’s Betrayal, which has now been tacked on to the end to make an unofficial Pinter Eight. This could carry on for ages. I think it’s unlikely we’re going to see this one – I’m very happy with my memories of John Simm in Betrayal in Sheffield in 2012 – and ATG have somewhat cynically whacked up the prices for this new production. One can have too much of a good thing!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019

CompanyFew theatrical creators have as great a reputation as Stephen Sondheim. With a CV as long as a Baby Grand, he’s done it all from West Side Story (1957) to Road Show (2008) with an ability to write not only incredible music but also deep insights into the human psyche and relationships. My first brush with him was Side By Side By Sondheim, for which the 16-year-old me had a top price ticket in January 1977; but the night before the show thirteen bombs exploded in Oxford Street, including one setting Selfridges on fire, and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle refused to let me travel to London on grounds of safety. I was furious; with her, with the terrorists, with life. But I was barred, and I couldn’t do anything about it; defying her would have had even worse consequences. My lovely Wyndhams’ ticket had to go to waste.

Rosalie CraigBut three months later I got the chance to go again, on the day after my 17th birthday, and I loved it. Such a sophisticated entertainment – and the perfect introduction to the man’s work. I was hooked on Sondheim, and determined to hear and see whatever I could in those pre-Internet days. Many of the songs from Company (1970) were performed in Side By Side By Sondheim, so that was an obvious show for me to track down. But there were to be no London revivals until 1995, and it wasn’t until Mrs C and I took Lady Prosecco to the excellent production at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 2011, that I finally got to see the show. And, because that was so enjoyable, when I heard that there was to be a new West End production, I wasn’t particularly motivated to book for it, as I already had happy memories of the previous production, which didn’t need wiping from my mind.

Company castBut then I saw the reviews. And the word of mouth, not only generally online, but also from friends who had gone to see it; and to say they were bowled over is an understatement. So we booked; and I can tell you now, gentle reader, that even before the interval had come along, I already knew I had to see it again. And possibly again after that. I have no hesitation in saying that this is probably one of the ten best productions I’ve seen in my life (and, as at today, according to my spreadsheet, I’ve seen 1,751 shows of some sort or other).

Company partyThis Company has a twist. Let me briefly (if you don’t know) explain the story as it’s normally presented. Bobby is 35, all his friends are married, and he’s feeling the pressure to comply. But (and there are two buts); 1) all the people he knows, who could have wife-potential, don’t come up to scratch for one reason or another and 2) all his married friends seem to have totally bonkers relationships, which doesn’t really sell the concept. On his 35th birthday, they arrange for a surprise birthday party for him (which he knows about), and this brings matters to a head. And that’s basically it.

Paul and JamieHere comes the science part. Marianne Elliott’s innovative new production turns Bobby into Bobbie, a 35-year-old woman, which makes absolute sense to me; most 35-year-old unmarried guys in my opinion would be congratulating themselves on successfully avoiding the commitment, whereas a 35-year-old unmarried woman will most definitely be seen as Left On The Shelf by some people. In another twist, Paul and Amy, who are engaged – and Amy is a nervous wreck about it – have been changed to Paul and Jamie; in the sophisticated New York social scene it’s highly unlikely that Bobbie wouldn’t have been friends with at least one gay couple. In fact, we saw the very first performance of a same-sex Paul and Jamie version, at Sondheim’s 80th Birthday Celebrations at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in 2010 (crumbs that means he’ll be 89 this year), where Daniel Evans and Graham Bickley teamed up to perform Getting Married Today together – it worked well then, and it works even better now.

Bobbie and friendsAs a result of the gender switch, all Bobbie’s possible suitors are now guys, which brings a totally new dimension to the gender power struggle. In this scenario, Bobbie has the same potential for control over her relationships as Bobby does; plus it transforms both the pathos and comedy of songs like Barcelona and You Could Drive a Person Crazy. Bobbie is an empowered woman, but the empowerment befuddles her somewhat – and the prospect of settling down with Andy, for example, is, frankly, horrendous (as depicted in a fantastically well reimagined Tick Tock) – so she is left to make the best of a sequence of relationship crises. The final song, Being Alive, is a desperate plea to experience all the mental anguish of a tough relationship which, so far, Bobbie has conveniently excised from her life. No longer a “watcher”, she’s going to be a “doer”. An optimistic ending? You decide. If ever there was a grown-up musical, this is the one.

the setFrom the moment you enter the stunningly beautiful auditorium, the impact of what appears on the stage hits you. In bold neon colours, COMPANY stares out at you like a warning sign, both intimidating and enticing, with its strong coloured border around the word. This visual motif continues with Bunny Christie’s brilliant stage design, which features a brightly lit coloured border surrounding individual pod modules of sets that slide in and out, up and down across the stage, creating interconnecting rooms, that – bizarrely – emphasise both the isolation of the characters and their relationships with each other. Of course, it goes without saying that, technically, everything about this production is of such a high standard that it takes your breath away. Not only the superb set, but also Neil Austin’s vibrant lighting, Liam Steel’s swish choreography, the superb costumes – Bobbie’s flashy red dress stands out for many reasons – and Joel Fram’s fantastic orchestra.

Bobbie and palAnd the cast – they’re just sensational throughout. At the centre of this show, and hardly ever off-stage, is an overwhelmingly fantastic performance by Rosalie Craig as Bobbie. This is the third time we’ve seen Ms Craig on stage – and, boy, hasn’t she come a long way! At that Sheffield production of Company she played Marta, one of Bobby’s three on-off girlfriends; then she was a feisty Miss Julie at Chichester in 2014. If she carries on like this she’ll be the greatest Dame of the Theatre that ever lived by the time she’s 50. She has an instant connection with the audience; we’re completely on her side, no matter what life throws at her character. Not only is she at home with the dramatic intensity of Bobbie’s life, but her feeling for the comedy is immaculate, and her facial expressions are so clear and direct, we know precisely what she’s thinking all the time. And then, of course, she reveals a superb singing voice. She’s just a knock-out.

Patti LuPoneIt’s also a pleasure and a privilege to finally see Miss Patti LuPone on stage – our paths have never crossed but we don’t get that many opportunities to see her this side of the Atlantic. She plays Joanne, the most cynical and hard-nosed of all Bobbie’s friends. We all know a Joanne – she’s the one with no time for fake sentiment, who constantly (and hilariously) avers that if you don’t blow out the candles on your cake, the wish doesn’t come true. Musically, she has two big moments – The Little Things You Do Together, in which she is beautifully acerbic, and The Ladies Who Lunch, where she is impeccably tragic. But all the way through the show she adds fantastic little touches of magic, and I now see why people love her so much. When she’s on stage, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. Absolutely brilliant.

Sarah and HarryMel Giedroyc brings out all the neurotic and sinister humour of the horrendous Sarah, perpetually correcting her long-suffering husband Harry (a great performance from Gavin Spokes), not letting him get away with glossing over the minutest peccadilloes if there’s a chance of making him look bad in public. Their ju-jitsu scene is superbly comic and alarmingly terrifying. Daisy Maywood (fantastic in both A Chorus Line and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk) and Ashley Campbell are also a treat as Susan and Peter, the couple who get on so much better when they’re divorced than married; she’s so composed and he’s so fluttery, with his endless fainting spells – it’s a really funny combination. Ms Maywood is also the vital third part (as the Priest) of the hilarious Getting Married Today, the song that expresses Jamie’s pre-wedding jitters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a song in a musical staged so inventively, expressively and hilariously as this number. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s theatrical magic.

the castJonathan Bailey (showing a hugely different range of talents from when we saw him as the self-effacing Edgar in Chichester’s King Lear a couple of years ago) is magnificent as the doubting, uncertain Jamie, and his performance of that song is a total tour-de-force. He is matched by the brilliant Alex Gaumond, one of my favourite actors, as Paul; a completely opposite character – calm, reliable, able to withstand anything that life chucks at him. When it looks like the wedding is off, his quiet, dignified reaction is incredibly moving to watch.

Company in bedIt’s a large cast, so if I mention everyone we’ll be here all day, but I must commend to you Richard Fleeshman’s absolutely brilliant Andy, the air steward himbo who’s as thick as two short planks but kindly as. The lengths to which Bobbie has to go to properly get him into bed should be worth some award of its own. The all-feller You Can Drive a Person Crazy, in which Mr Fleeshman plays a considerable part, isn’t just three guys mimicking three ditzy blondes, but is full of masculine attitude and asides that take that favourite old song and completely reinvents it. I don’t know what more I can say to you to express just how good this show is. For some criminal reason, it’s closing on 30th March, having already had one extension. But I’m sure it could go on for years if they wanted. We enjoyed it so much that it completely blitzed our minds so that we could barely concentrate on our evening show; and we’ve done nothing but talk about it since then. You have to see it!

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2019

Screaming Blue MurderThe first Screaming Blue Murder of the year is always an excuse for a celebration and by the time we arrived at the Royal and Derngate, the queue to get in to the Underground was already longer than I’d ever seen it before. Fortunately we still managed to get our favourite seats – back row of front section, on the central aisle – which is close enough to feel part of the action and safe enough (usually) not to catch the comic’s eye and thus become part of the act.

Dan EvansOur host was the ever-genial and effervescent Mr Dan Evans, who whips us up into a frenzy so that we’re ready for our acts. As usual, Dan spent some time getting to know the people in the front rows, which included blingy Jo and her drama-teacher sister; front row Brian, who didn’t quite participate to the extent he should have; Frank from the Netherlands who met his wife in a field; and the fresh-faced family from Brackley, who looked like butter wouldn’t melt but ended up revealing themselves as a partner-swapping outfit. The dynamic’s different from week to week but Dan always comes up trumps.

Julian DeaneOur first act was Julian Deane, whom we’d seen once before, when he was Paul Chowdhry’s support act. He has a very dry, subtle style, which means he lulls you into a false sense of security, and when you think you know which way his story is going it suddenly goes off in a different direction that you totally weren’t expecting; for instance, when he tells us he and his girlfriend are not ready for children yet – which really upsets them. He’s especially good at taking an innovative approach to a familiar subject. We’d heard some of his material before at the Paul Chowdhry gig but nevertheless spending half an hour in his company is still a fresh and hilarious experience. I love his line about how it’s wrong to have a favourite child, and the brilliant gag which reveals the difference between dyslexia and paedophilia. Very assured, very enjoyable, and a great way to start the night.

Micky OvermanNext up was Micky Overman – new to us, and she’s a bright, confident, young Dutch lady. Funny material, full of attack; but some of the audience didn’t quite seem to know just how to take her. Maybe she was just a little more sexually aggressive than we’re used to with our young ladies. From the older ones, we expect it; but when it comes from the younger ones, it surprises us more. She had a lot of good stuff about the association of Amsterdam with drugs; and also her friendship with the thirteen-year-old girl she’s been nannying. A strong stage presence and nice interaction with the audience.

Steve BestOur last act – and a fairly last-minute change to the advertised programme – was the one and only Steve Best, whom we’ve now seen five times at Screaming Blues, always doing the same madcap act and always a complete delight. The trouble is, if you don’t “get” his act, you won’t like it, as illustrated by the reaction of the front row drama-teacher who had a face like a ripped trainer throughout. Fortunately, Mr Best didn’t let that slow him down, and his usual set involving a balloon, a red nose, a toilet seat and a blow-up doll went down like the proverbial house on fire. Fast, frantic, slapstick and ridiculous, don’t come to him expecting an evening of intellectual rigour; but if you like your humour ultimately silly, he’s your man.

Next Screaming Blue is in two weeks on 15th February. We can’t go, so let us know how it went.

Review – Trial, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Studio, Northampton, 1st February 2019

TrialWhen I first heard that the Final Year Acting Students were going to present a devised adaptation of Kafka’s First World War novel The Trial, I was excited by the prospect of seeing a bold and ambitious piece of work. I remember reading it at school and discovering it was an unsettling, murky book; I didn’t like it (I’m sure I didn’t understand it either) but there’s something about it that makes you carry on reading. It leads you down one path only to show you that there’s nothing there after all and that all the action’s down another path. And once you get down the second path, you wonder what it all meant. In a word – Kafkaesque.

Charlie MackenzieSo the medium of an immersive, promenade performance works perfectly for this story, leading the audience up to one part of the acting space to share in one scene, only to then move to another part for the story to continue. In the end, we’re all in a huge circle with the actors enveloped by us, like one massive Ring – a – Ring – a – Roses, and indeed, they do all fall down dead.

Moses GaleBefore that, there is the usual mix of danger and discomfort that is often an element of an immersive show. Even before you enter the studio, an armed, balaclava’d soldier stands at the door, so you sneak past hoping not to make eye contact only to be bellowed at by another soldier for trying to walk in the wrong direction. When you’re not seated in rows but instead are walking around the acting space aimlessly, waiting for the play to begin, it’s surprisingly isolating. Add to the fact that you are required to wear a mask, and that the lighting is turned down very low, you do feel very vulnerable. So when a soldier bellows at you to “f***ing move”, it’s hard not to take it personally. But it’s all part of that dangerous sense of tension and conflict, which the ensemble convey superbly well.

Michael GukasThe programme notes tell us that, rather than being a formal staging of the novel, this adaptation takes the concept of Trial and applies it to the problems faced by young people today; whilst still keeping many of Kafka’s original characters. The protagonist, Joseph K, is played by six actors; and why not? Like Walt Whitman, K contradicts himself; he is large, he contains multitudes. We first see the six of them, inextricably linked, asleep on the floor, slowly waking up in sequence as though in slow shutter speed movement; only to be disturbed by the arresting officers, when they fracture into their six identities and are never reunited again.

Amber KingIt’s a very loose adaptation. I’m sure Donald Trump and Chubby Checker don’t appear in the original – but that’s not to say they wouldn’t if Kafka had heard of them! Characters come together, argue, kiss, have sex and move on with no sense of commitment. A fatuous judge is borne aloft on stage to tell us that she is a judge and everyone else is dead impressed. Some scenes from the book are closely recognisable – like the scene with the court clerk, or in the church with the priest; others are not. Gracious hosts welcome us all to a party with a variety of dance numbers that we can join in with if we wish. I would be lying if I said I understood the relevance of every scene, but it was all done with compelling commitment.

Tonia ToselandIt’s very hard to identify individual performers from this strong ensemble because they’re all part of the jigsaw; if one were to go missing, so to speak, it would disrupt the whole picture. However, I was very impressed with how Charlie Mackenzie swung from sadistic guard to charming party host, Moses Gale’s unctuously threatening priest, and all the members of the whispering mob who chattered behind the judge’s back.

Chris CutlerI love challenging theatre, and I love immersive theatre; so, this production wins on both fronts. At fifty minutes this is perfect fringe festival material and gives you loads to think and talk about on the way home. Great stuff!

Abi CameronP. S. I decided to let myself go during the dance scene. I shared a beautiful moment with Michael Gukas, singing along to Strawberry Fields Forever like two drunken sots; only then to ruin it with my disgraceful, dad dancing rendition of Night Fever. Sorry about that. Don’t have nightmares.