Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: The Dread of Oakville (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 10th July 2015
Platform: PC


I’m continuing my journey through the Phantasmat series with the fourth title: The Dread of Oakville. The series is still in the competent hands of Eipix Games for this title, and this one really has a ‘classic Eipix’ feel about it (in the best possible way). Unusually for me, I played the Standard Edition of this one (because I had a free game coupon that was only redeemable on SEs) – it’s been a while since I played an SE!

So… surprise, surprise… The Dread of Oakville begins with you driving down a dark mountain road, as a storm begins to gather. Suddenly, a landslide forces your car off the road, and rocks block the way behind you. Of course it does. You find yourself in a tunnel, a locked gate in front of you, and a blocked road behind. The only way to continue is to find a way to unlock the gate and enter the town on the other side.

The town is Oakville and, as in other instalments of the Phantasmat series, it is deserted. There are missing person posters scattered around, and you quickly find the driving licence of a young woman called Josie Grimes. What happened to the people of Oakville? And how are you going to escape? It’s not long before you meet one of the residents who seems friendly, though if you’re familiar with the previous titles in the series then you’ll have a good idea what to expect from him.

The storyline in this one had so much potential. There’s a creepy woman, an apocalyptic prophecy, an ancient entity contained in a tree, and a sinister puppet called Mr Nightingale. However, the execution is rather fragmented, and it’s not particularly clear how the elements fit together. For the first time in the series, I was left a little confused as to which characters were alive and which were dead, and I couldn’t quite work out which ones were working together (and what the intended to achieve). There was a bit of a paint-by-numbers quality to the storytelling in this one, with the Big Bad (Mae Grimes) pretty much being bad for the sake of it. It’s a shame, as some of the apocalyptic elements (see below) worked so well (and I’ll even admit to enjoying the jump scares in this one), but the narrative just wasn’t quite coherent enough for me.


Although the storyline of The Dread of Oakville was weaker than some of the previous instalments of the series, I loved the design of this one. It is really excellent, and definitely Eipix at their best. Scenes are beautifully detailed, and the HOGs were clear and well-designed. The soundtrack is also a real plus point, with evocative and atmospheric music that doesn’t loop too much. I do enjoy it when the soundtrack shifts with the action of the game (not all HOPA soundtracks do this), and the music here does just that. The cutscenes (though there aren’t many) are well-illustrated and integrated into the narrative.

But the real highlight of the design in The Dread of Oakville is the impending apocalypse. In my reviews of the earlier Phantasmat games, I mentioned how much I liked the way the design of the NPCs shifts as you learn more about what they are. The Dread of Oakville takes this to a different level, with a really unsettling shift early on in the game. Without giving too much away (there are a few shocks and scares early on in the game that it would be a shame to spoil), the design of the not-quite-living characters in The Dread of Oakville is classy and cinematic.

However, it’s the rain that really makes this game. In mad Mae Grimes’s prophecy/plot, the apocalypse is due to come in the form of a cataclysmic storm that will destroy the world (or destroy Oakville – Mae’s a little unclear on that one). When you first arrive in the town, it’s overcast but still fairly dry. By the time you meet your first NPC, dark clouds are gathering… and then the storm starts. Now, The Dread of Oakville is far from the only HOPA to include constant rain as a backdrop to gameplay, but it does do it so well. It builds up gradually, with rumbling thunder, before driving down in a relentless torrent for the second half of the game. The sound design is great, with the rain effects balanced well with the music, and the storm is beautifully illustrated. I know it might sound a little odd, but the rain was probably my favourite part of the game!


In terms of gameplay, The Dread of Oakville is pretty standard HOPA fare. You move from screen to screen, clicking stuff, picking stuff up, using items from your inventory. It’s fairly intuitive and logical (though the fragmented storyline meant that I occasionally lost track of what I was doing and had to use Hint). There are three difficulty settings, plus Custom (yay!). I played with my preferred Custom options (no tutorial, no sparkles except on HOGs, longer recharge on Hint and Skip), and this worked well for me.

My main criticism of gameplay would be that the HOGs and mini-games are on the easy side. In fact, some are very easy to complete. I enjoyed the variety with HOGs – there are straight item lists, morphing objects, items to be assembled and silhouettes – and the fact that there are no repeats, but there just isn’t quite enough challenge. The mini-games are fun and well-designed, but again they just aren’t particularly challenging. It’s a tough balance to reach, though, as I’m aware I’ve grumbled in previous reviews about mini-games that are too difficult. I also know that all players are different. Nevertheless, as I’d completed the game within three-and-a-half hours, I just don’t think there was quite enough gameplay in The Dread of Oakville.


And now it’s time for my regular rant about non-player characters in HOPAs… I’m a bit frustrated, to be honest, as I’ve been rather impressed by the use of NPCs in the Phantasmat series so far. As you may remember from previous reviews, my biggest pet peeve about HOPAs is NPCs that set you a task and then stand around watching you complete it. Why don’t they help you?? At least with Phantasmat, it seemed that some explanation was given for why the people you encounter weren’t too keen on helping you out.

Sadly, though, we move towards Gregory Logain territory in The Dread of Oakville, and that’s guaranteed to wind me up a bit. At first, it seems like things are progressing nicely: you meet a suspiciously friendly resident who encourages you to stay in Oakville for a while, and a creepy little girl who sings a horrible nursery rhyme at you and then disappears. But, unfortunately, this doesn’t continue. You soon end up hooking up with Josie Grimes and her dad, who have that irritating tendency to say things like ‘We’re going to need fuel for the Limo. I think there’s a barrel in the basement.’ Before standing stock still and watching you. Sigh. I’ll go down to the basement and look then, shall I? And I’m guessing I’ll also need to search the house for a funnel and a hose. Jeez. To make matters worse, the lack of full narrative coherence means that it’s not always completely clear who you’re meant to be helping, and why. I couldn’t quite get my head around what was going on with Ansell Grimes – exacerbated by the fact that a bit of dialogue skipped at a key moment, so I didn’t get to see the full interaction. Despite this – and this is definitely a personal gripe – I will say that the NPCs are illustrated very well, and the voice acting is very good throughout.

I just really don’t like being told to do stuff by NPCs in a game where you can’t answer back.

As I said above, this was a rare Standard Edition for me, so I didn’t get chance to try any bonus content. I believe the Collector’s Edition has a bonus chapter (which I didn’t really miss, as these haven’t been a strong point of the series so far), a jump map (again, I didn’t miss this), Match-3 options for the HOGs, collectibles and achievements.

Overall, an enjoyable game, but not the strongest instalment of the Phantasmat series. Design-wise, The Dread of Oakville is excellent, with some really stylish and impressive features. But it’s let down a bit by a fragmented narrative and lack of challenge in gameplay. Still, it’s not put me off the series, and I imagine I’ll keep going with Phantasmat for a while yet.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Review: Richard III (Headlong Theatre)

Tuesday 30 April 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Tuesday, I was at the press night of Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III at HOME Manchester, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a (slightly shorter) version of this review on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III came to HOME, Manchester this month. It’s a bold, energetic and unsettling adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which uses set design, costume and performance to present a darkly compelling study of a man’s pursuit of power and sovereignty.

Expertly directed by John Haidar, this Richard III actually begins with a scene from the end of Henry VI, Part 3, in which the Duke of Gloucester kills King Henry. This, of course, sets up the audience for the murders and intrigue to come (and there will be lots of murders), but it also allows for a direct introduction to the character of the future King Richard III – the play begins, not with the ‘winter of discontent’, but with Richard’s ‘I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear’ speech, leaving us in no doubt that we are about to watch a very bad man do some very bad things.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

And Richard here is a very bad man. Tom Mothersdale is both repulsive and mesmerising as the twisted, cruel and power-hungry Gloucester. Snarling, spitting, grasping, cajoling and mocking, this Richard III is a monster rather than a tyrant. And yet… Mothersdale’s delivery is so captivating that it’s impossible not to warm ever so slightly to this version of Shakespeare’s famous villain. His delivery of Shakespearean dialogue is excellent, rendering even the most verbose monologues immediate and accessible – aided by knowing nods and asides to the audience that make us feel almost complicit in his nefarious plots. It takes an accomplished actor to get laughs from a contemporary audience without undermining either the gravity or the literary style of Shakespeare’s dialogue, but Mothersdale is more than up to the task. However, he’s equally up to the task of making the audience’s skin crawl.

As with most modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this is not the complete Richard III. Some scenes are excised or abridged, and the cast of characters is substantially streamlined. We jump from one monstrous act to another with hardly a breath and little time to ponder motive or purpose. For instance, Richard’s plan to marry Elizabeth of York (who doesn’t appear on stage in this production) is even more hot-on-the-heels of her brothers’ deaths than is usual, and he shrugs off her mother’s accusation of incest as though it’s completely irrelevant. He is, after all, a very bad man. While Shakespeare’s play gives some time and space to considering broader questions of statesmanship, sovereignty, sin and consequence, this production focuses more on the facets of a repellent individual – it is a portrait of vileness, in all its glory.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Admittedly, while this is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s histories, the audience learns little of actual history from this production. You would be forgiven if your understanding of the Wars of the Roses, or the messy succession of the English crown, was not expanded by seeing this play. Indeed, this seems like quite a deliberate stylistic choice. Obviously, Bosworth Field is mentioned (though only once), but the play resists adding any signposting of who Richmond will become once he has taken the crown from Richard. This is not simply faithful adherence to Shakespeare’s text, but rather a stylistic decision to present a more timeless story of corruption and power that transcends the rigidity of historical context.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner
While the play is very much a study of its title character, with Richard appearing on stage in almost every scene, it would be remiss of me not to mention the other excellent performances. Stefan Adegbola makes a fascinating Buckingham, transforming the character from the start into a slick, smiling and untrustworthy spin doctor, before crashing hard into Richard’s betrayal. Derbhle Crotty and Eileen Nicholas play Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, exuding almost tangible anger and pain. Nicholas’s Duchess has a powerful scene with Richard in the second act, which is made all the more complex by the earlier inclusion of Richard’s speech from Henry VI, Part 3 – a subtle hint that Richard has been missing a mother’s love. I should also give full admiration and credit to the young actors playing Prince Edward and York – Headlong have taken a bold decision by including child actors in such an intense adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but the performances of the younger cast members definitely justify the decision.

Caleb Roberts’s performance as Richmond is rather curious. Delivering his calls-to-arms and regal monologues with pious grace and innocence, this Richmond stands in as sharp distinction to the grotesque Richard as it’s possible to be. However, there is a sense that he is too pious, too good and, occasionally, a little too wet behind the ears to really carry off the final dramatic act of murder and renewal. In the absence of overt signposting of Shakespeare’s pro-Tudor propaganda, it’s hard to know what to make of Richmond here. And, in fact, we’re given little time to dwell on this – the ‘good guy’ wins, but the play actually ends on an image of the tormented and defeated ‘bad guy’ that is far more memorable.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

There is a stylised quality to the production that further suggests this Richard III has a more timeless quality about it. Characters appear in not-quite-contemporary suits, and the gender of some characters is switched (for instance, we have Lady Hastings – played by Heledd Gwynn – who sports formalwear, high heels and bright pink hair). Chiara Stephenson’s set design adds to the effect: a dungeon-like castle forms the backdrop, with mirrors on every side. These two-way mirrors become an integral feature, not only of the set, but of the performance – Richard becomes reflected in a distorted kaleidoscope effect at times, but at others his ghostly victims appear behind them.

In addition to the mirrors, the first act of the play makes interesting use of the crown. Suspended from a wire in the centre of the stage, the coveted object descends a little with each murderous act, edging ever closer to Richard’s grasping hands until the pre-interval climax. It isn’t a subtle image, but it’s well-done here and recurs towards the end of the second half, when we see the monarch literally begin to lose his grasp on the crown.

The stylisation extends to sound design (by George Dennis) and lighting (by Elliot Griggs). This is particularly apparent when acts of violence occur. The harsh red light and screaming sound effects that punctuate the performance when murders occur are jarring – which is an effective, if disconcerting, technique. In the same way, the movement of actors too and from the stage – as well as the adeptly choreographed movements on stage – is both unnerving and gripping.

Overall, this is a dizzying and intense production that builds to a high-pitched climax (and an incredible final image). It’s unpleasant, nasty and nightmarish in places – but isn’t that the allure of Richard III? Headlong’s vivid and forceful production brings Shakespeare’s villain and his ruthless (but ultimately futile) quest for sovereignty to life in a way that is both captivating and grotesque. I highly recommend it.

Richard III is on at HOME Manchester until Saturday 4th May.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

My Year in Books 2019: April

I'm carrying on my blog review project for another month... though I've pretty much gone back to crime fiction and some favourite authors for this month. No domestic noir for me in April!

In case you're interested, here are the other posts so far from 2019: January, February, March. But here are the books I read in April...

Beneath the Surface by Jo Spain (2016)


I discovered Jo Spain in December, when I bought a copy of her first novel (With Our Blessing) in a charity shop. I enjoyed the book and passed it on to my mum. She enjoyed it so much, she immediately went out and bought two more of Spain’s novels. And now she’s passed those on to me. Beneath the Surface is the second book in the detective series, so it features the same team of detectives as With Our Blessing. D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate a murder at Leinster House, the seat of the Irish parliament. Ryan Finnegan, a highly-regarded government official, has been shot – and the suspects are made up of the great and the good of Irish politics. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as With Our Blessing, but that says much more about my tastes than Spain’s writing. I loved the Gothic atmosphere of the snowed-in convent at Christmas in the first book, and the world of politicians, civil servants and lobbyists wasn’t quite as creepy and evocative. However, Spain’s writing is great, and Beneath the Surface is definitely another page-turner. I also really liked the good balance Spain struck between political intrigue and murder mystery (even if I did spot the killer a little bit too early!). The detectives here are easy to like, and their personal lives don’t dominate too much. A warning though… there are With Our Blessing spoilers in this one, so best to read the books in order.

Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain (2017)


I decided just to go straight to Jo Spain’s next book – also lent by my mum. Sleeping Beauties is another mystery for D.I. Tom Reynolds and his team, though at first it seems to be quite a different sort of crime novel to Beneath the Surface. The book begins with the discovery of a woman’s body at the tourist spot of Glendalough. The body has been buried in a shallow grave, and the detectives quickly work out that it’s missing woman Una Dolan. But they also realize that there are four other grave sites in the same area – Reynolds’s team are faced with a serial killer. While Sleeping Beauties does tread familiar ‘hunt for a serial killer’ ground – there’s some profiling, lots of working out the ‘type’ that the victims adhere to, some pretty grisly and unsettling details – it is still a mystery. As in her previous books, Spain is keen to follow the same rules of detective fiction that you might find in older mysteries (the killer is always someone who has appeared in the story before, for instance). There are also some neat clues – one in particular that I really liked (no spoilers!) – that make this a proper whodunit, rather than a procedural thriller. Again, Spain strikes a good balance between the case and the detectives’ private lives, though I must admit I found myself really rooting for one non-case-related storyline a bit more than I thought I would. A well-written and compelling read – definitely recommend this one.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths (2017)


I read one of Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels last month, after buying it from a charity book sale at the supermarket. This month, I discovered another book in the series on the same shelf so I thought I’d give it a go. It was kind of a weird experience. The previous book I’d read was the second in the series (The Janus Stone), but The Chalk Pit is the ninth – so I was picking up with characters nearly seven years after I’d last seen them. However, the basic set-up remains the same: Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist who helps the Norfolk police out with their investigations. D.I. Harry Nelson is the lead cop for the series (and his relationship with Ruth is… complicated). In The Chalk Pit, bones are discovered on an underground building site (which is also how The Janus Stone kicked off, but that’s fair enough, since there’s very little other reason to bring in a forensic archaeologist) – certain markings on the bones lead Ruth to suspect something very sinister has been going on under the streets of Norfolk. When Nelson’s team are contacted about a missing homeless woman, the picture starts to look even creepier. This is an entertaining read, with some interesting bits about tunnels and catacombs (and some virtuous commentary on homelessness and rough sleeping). However, as with The Janus Stone, the book tends to get a little bogged down in the ongoing (increasingly complicated) soap opera of the detectives’ private lives.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018)


I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s novels (though weirdly not, as I discovered last year, of her Jackson Brodie books). Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my favourite books of all time, and I really loved Life After Life and A God in Ruins – now there’s a book with a twist. Like Life After Life and God in Ruins, Transcription is partly set during WWII, though (as with the other two) there’s a good chunk that takes place after the war as well. Transcription is a spy novel, and it follows the story of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited into the Secret Service to help with an operation to root out Fascist sympathizers in Britain. As befits a spy novel, the task Juliet is given is sometimes murky and uncertain, and the chain of command isn’t always clear. The story moves between 1940, when Juliet is working for MI5, and 1950, when Juliet is working for the BBC; however, the war casts long shadows, and the 1950 storyline sees figures from the past coming back to confront Juliet. Transcription is written in Atkinson’s characteristic style, so it’s full of things that are unsaid, unclear and confusing. Everything is connected, though, and the book builds towards an ending that is full of revelations. And yet, it’s also a spy novel, so that ending also leaves some questions unanswered. The historical details in Transcription are really captivating, and Atkinson draws you into Juliet’s world with her usual brilliance.

The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters (2000)


Don’t know where to start with this one – this book devastated me (I literally stayed up all night to finish it, so I’m shattered too). I really enjoyed The Sculptress, but haven’t actually read any other books by Walters. So I thought I’d give The Shape of Snakes a go. The book begins in Richmond in 1978, with the death of a woman known as ‘Mad Annie’. Annie is the only black person on the street and has suffered a variety of torments at the hands of her white neighbours. As we learn early on, Annie also has Tourette’s (hence the ‘Mad’ soubriquet), and drinks to self-medicate. Annie’s death is recorded as an accident, but the narrator (known only as ‘M’ or ‘Mrs Ranelagh’) believes she was murdered. And she is not for letting that go, even when the neighbours turn on her. However, all of this happens before the story really begins – the bulk of the book takes place in 1999, when M returns from overseas ostensibly to investigate, but actually to resolve the unsettling situation. You may know that I’m fond of unreliable narrators – and M is just that. There is so much to the story that the narrator is withholding from the reader in this one. It’s a deeply disturbing book (with violence, sexual assault, racism and animal cruelty – be warned), but so incredibly well-constructed and well-written that it completely blew me away. The last page reduced me to uncontrollable tears – that’s how you write an ending!

Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh (1941)


I recently had a bit of charity shop binge while we were staying in Bakewell (there’s a lot of charity shops in Bakewell). The Shape of Snakes was one of the books I bought – the next one on the pile was Surfeit of Lampreys, which is quite a different kettle of fish. I haven’t read a huge amount of Ngaio Marsh – I’ve never rated the Inspector Alleyn books quite as high as some other Golden Age detective fiction – but I’ve enjoyed the books I have read. And Surfeit of Lampreys is certainly enjoyable. The book introduces the Lamprey family, a gaggle of charming eccentrics who coast from financial crisis to financial crisis without getting particularly ruffled about it. The early section of the book is mostly concerned with setting up the characters (the many Lampreys, and their friend Roberta Grey) and their idiosyncratic lifestyle. However, things take a darker turn when the Lampreys’ boring (but rich) Uncle Gabriel is murdered at their London flat. It’s up to Inspector Alleyn to work out whodunit. Surfeit of Lampreys is a curious book: the fatuous, fashionable silliness of the Lamprey family is juxtaposed with a particular brutal and grisly murder, and the investigation takes place almost entirely at the scene of the crime. It’s a wonderful – and very entertaining – character study, with some light-hearted commentary on the finances of the landed gentry, but the puzzle at the heart of it isn’t quite as fiendish as it first appears. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Poirot Project: Dead Man’s Mirror (review)


This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was an introduction to one of the minor recurring characters in Christie’s fiction: Mr Satterthwaite. The previous review was of ‘The Chocolate Box’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The seventh episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot (the penultimate hour-long episode) was first broadcast on 28th February 1993. The episode was based on Christie’s (long) short story ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ (first published in 1937), which in turn was a revision of the slightly earlier, and much shorter, story ‘The Second Gong’ (1932). As with ‘Murder in the Mews’, ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’ and ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ is more than a simple expansion of a shorter story – much is altered, revised, added and removed – and yet there is still, at its heart, something that recognizably links it to the earlier version.

Let’s begin, then, with the earliest version of the story. ‘The Second Gong’ appeared in the Strand Magazine in July 1932. For this post, I’m using the version of the story that was included in the 2010 HarperCollins eBook edition of Problem at Pollensa Bay (a collection first published in 1991.


‘The Second Gong’ opens just before dinner is served at Lytcham Close, ‘one of the most famous old houses in England’. The house’s owner is Hubert Lytcham Roche, an eccentric old man and the last in a long line of Lytcham Roches. One of Lytcham Roche’s eccentricities is an obsessive hatred of people being late for dinner, and so the residents of his house have long understood that they must obey the sound of the dinner gongs (sounded ten minutes apart). The story begins with the sound of the first gong… or is it the second gong?… there seems to be a little confusion…

Christie’s story sets us up for a quintessential country house mystery, so it’s important that we learn the cast of characters up front, as these will undoubtedly be our suspects. As well as Hubert Lytcham Roche – who we don’t actually ‘meet’ as such – there’s his wife (just ‘Mrs’ in this version of the story), who is ‘naturally vague in manner’ and ‘wearing floating draperies of an indeterminate shade of green’. The house’s other residents are: Harry Dalehouse (Lytcham Roche’s nephew), Joan Ashby (a friend of Harry’s), Geoffrey Keene (Lytcham Roche’s secretary), Diana Cleves (the Lytcham Roches’ adopted daughter), Gregory Barling (a family friend and financier) and Captain Marshall (the agent for the estate). Oh, and Digby the butler, who gets the honour of sounding the gongs.

At the sound of the second gong, the household gathers for dinner. It has been slightly delayed on this occasion, because apparently a visitor is arriving on a delayed train. Unusually, Lytcham Roche himself has not appeared in the drawing room (as is his custom), so the assembled party are happy that none of them can be accused of being late.

And then the door opens and…
‘[T]here advanced into the long drawing room a very small man, palpably a foreigner, with an egg-shaped head, a flamboyant moustache, and most irreproachable evening clothes.’
That’s right! It’s Hercule! (Just in case you thought Christie had forgot to put him in this one!)

Poirot has been summoned to Lytcham Close by its eccentric owner, as Lytcham Roche has become convinced that someone is swindling him. He wants the little Belgian detective to investigate, and Poirot has reluctantly agreed (‘M. Lytcham Roche, he is not quite the King of England, though he seems to think he is.)’

Introductions aside, the party realizes that their host is yet to make his appearance. Digby informs them that Lytcham Roche was last seen going into his study, though the door to this room is now locked. On getting no reply from the host, the group decide to break open the door… and discover Hubert Lytcham Roche, dead from a gunshot, at his desk.

‘The Second Gong’ is quite a short story, so the ensuing investigation moves a long quite quickly. An Inspector Reeves is called in, and quickly rules the death as suicide (mostly due to the locked door and a quite-obviously-fake note scrawled next to the dead man). Poirot asks questions about the various ‘gongs’ people heard, notes some footprints in the flowerbed, spots someone picking something up off the floor, and comments on a broken mirror in the dead man’s study.

And then, of course, he gathers everyone together and reveals that the death wasn’t suicide at all. It was murder: the ‘first gong’ that Joan Ashby heard was, in fact, the bullet hitting the gong. The murderer realized that the sound would reveal that the study door was actually open at the time of the murder, so arranged things to throw people off the scent. The door was locked, the body moved, the fake suicide note written – and the mirror was broken to make it look like it (rather than the gong) was in the path of the bullet. Then the killer left by the french windows, snuck back to the drawing room, and fired a service revolver out of the window so people would assume that gunshot was the fatal one. With a final flourish, Poirot reveals that the murderer was Geoffrey Keene, who had been using his position as private secretary to defraud his employer.

In a way, it’s a bit of a disappointing motive. Murderous private secretaries are a bit of a cliché in Golden Age detective fiction (second only to GPs, I’d imagine), and the revelation that the victim really was being swindled is a bit deflating. Sure, there are a few red herrings thrown in – Lytcham Roche is attempted for force his adopted daughter to marry his nephew (to continue the family line), despite the latter’s relationship with Joan Ashby; there’s a mention of Gregory Barling’s ‘wildcat schemes’, which have lost Lytcham Roche money; a rosebud from Diana Cleves’s bag is found near the scene of the crime. However, these are summarily dismissed by Poirot, and we’re left with nothing but a money-grubbing secretary.

Fast forward five years, and Christie decided to rework ‘The Second Gong’ into a longer piece entitled ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. What’s fascinating to me here is the way she took (often quite minor) plot elements from the earlier story and developed them into much more interesting story devices. I’d argue that this is probably the most successful of the revised stories, because it seems to be a project in ‘revamping’ the somewhat flat bits of the original.

Let’s move on to ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ then…

The story begins with Poirot receiving a letter from a man who believes he is a victim of fraud. Here, though, the supposed victim is Gervase Chevenix-Gore of Hamborough Close. He requests that the detective be at his disposal should he require his assistance at any point.

Poirot is not impressed with the arrogance of this missive and decides to find out more about this Chevenix-Gore fella. He puts his glad-rags on and heads out to a party, specifically to seek out one of the guests who he knows will be able to help him.

That guest is Mr Satterthwaite.

There’s a passing reference to the ‘Crow’s Nest business’ to remind readers that Poirot and Mr Satterthwaite had previously become acquainted in Three Act Tragedy (because I’m reviewing the stories in the order of the adaptation rather than publication, I haven’t got to that one yet). However, there’s a suggestion here that the two men have continued a friendship beyond that particular adventure.

In fact, it seems here that Poirot is using Mr Satterthwaite as a sort of society consultant, due to the peculiar skills and personality we’ve seen emerge in the Harley Quin stories:
‘He was a keen observer of human nature, and if it is true that the looker-on knows most of the game, Mr Satterthwaite knew a good deal.’
Poirot gently questions Satterthwaite about his prospective client, and this is how he discovers that Chevenix-Gore is the last of his family line, that he is very wealthy, and that he is known for his eccentricities. Satterthwaite also outlines the family situation: Chevenix-Gore is married to Vanda (who gets a first name in this version of the story, and has ditched the ‘draperies of an indeterminate shade of green’ in favour of ‘amulets and scarabs’). The couple couldn’t have children, but they have an adopted daughter named Ruth (a girl ‘in the modern style’). And then there’s the nephew, Hugo Trent, who is the son of Chevenix-Gore’s sister.

Now, at this point, you would be forgiven for thinking that Satterthwaite is going to be a substitute Hastings in the story. ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ – like ‘The Second Gong’ before it – is both Hastings-less and Japp-less. George, Ariadne Oliver and Miss Lemon are also absent, though all of them had appeared in at least one Poirot story prior to the publication of ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. The story’s set-up suggests that Satterthwaite is going to be filling the role of associate in this particular tale.

But it’s not to be. At the end of the exchange at the party, Poirot simply concedes that he probably will go to Hamborough Close if summoned. And that’s it. That’s the end of Satterthwaite’s part in the tale.

It’s a bit weird, to be honest. Why did the story need Satterthwaite at all? Why set up Satterthwaite as an invaluable source of society knowledge for Poirot when the man doesn’t appear in any further Poirot stories? Is this just a cheeky crossover? Or did Christie just want to remind us of one of her favourite characters?

I guess we’ll never know the real reason for Satterthwaite’s inclusion here. Personally, I prefer to think that it’s a little Easter egg for fans.

Anyway… off to Hamborough Close…

‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ follows pretty much the same template as ‘The Second Gong’, but with some important alterations.

Chevenix-Gore is an egotistical eccentric, like Lytcham Roche, who insists on strict observance of the dinner gongs. On the fatal night, there’s a confusion over who heard which gong (and, later, which of the ‘gongs’ was actually a gunshot), and the non-appearance of the host signals that something sinister has occurred. His wife is superstitious and rather vague – though she’s progressed from worrying about broken mirrors to believing she is the reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen.

Diana Cleves, the adopted daughter who is (allegedly) an orphaned distant cousin, becomes Ruth Chevenix-Gore. Ruth is similar in many ways to Diana (who was described as having a ‘daredevil grace’ and a ‘witchery in her dark eyes’), though there is less emphasis on her ability to charm every man she meets. Some of Diana’s dialogue is retained almost verbatim for Ruth, including her assertion that she was, in fact, very fond of her adopted father:
‘I don’t indulge in sob-stuff. But I shall miss him… I was fond of the Old Man.’
Like Lytcham Roche before him, Chevenix-Gore is determined to see the continuation of his family line through the marriage of his adopted daughter to his nephew (upon whom the estate is entailed). But as in the earlier story, this plan looks set to be thwarted as both are in love with other people.

The nephew here is Hugo Trent, who replaces Harry Dalehouse. Hugo is engaged to Susan Cardwell, who replaces Joan Ashby. Captain Marshall is switched for Captain John Lake, and in the final denouement it’s revealed that, not only is Ruth in love with the Captain, she’s been secretly married to him for three weeks.

Other substitutions abound… Inspector Reeves is replaced by Major Riddle, the Chief Constable of Westshire. Gregory Barling is replaced by Colonel Bury, who has convinced Chevenix-Gore to invest in something called the Paragon Rubber Company and is rather over-friendly with Vanda. (As an aside, I like the fact that Colonel Bury is described as a ‘tame cat’ about the house, while his counterpart in ‘The Second Gong’ was known for his ‘wildcat’ schemes.) The character of Geoffrey Keene, the murderous private secretary, is split into two for the later story: Godfrey Burrows is the secretary, but he is joined by a typist named Miss Lingard, who has been helping Chevenix-Gore write up his family history. And Digby becomes Snell, but he still gets to do the gonging.

However, while all these little character tweaks are interesting, there are two major changes to the story that are much more engaging.


Big Change 1: As the titles suggest, there’s a shift in focus on furniture. In the earlier story, a lot of attention is given to the gong, and to the fact that some members of the household believe they heard a sound before Digby sounded the actual first gong. Much of the investigation involves ascertaining who heard what noise, before it’s eventually revealed that the ‘first gong’ was the bullet from the first gunshot, the ‘second gong’ was really the first gong, and the gunshot was a fake second shot fired by the murderer to throw the timings off. While the later story retains all of this (with one slight difference), there’s somewhat more emphasis placed on the broken mirror in the dead man’s study, with Vanda quoting Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and Poirot likening the investigation itself to a reflection in a shattered mirror.

Big Change 2: Shock! horror! Both the murderer and motive are changed (sort of). As I’ve said, the character of the secretary is split in two in the later story. The culprit turns out to be one half of this split. But rather than Burrows (who is closest to the character of Keene from the original), the murderer is revealed to be Miss Lingard, the mild-mannered typist. And she didn’t do it to cover up a financial fraud.

The big surprise in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ is the revelation that Ruth is, in fact, Chevenix-Gore’s illegitimate niece. Her father was Gervase’s brother, following a fling with a typist who gave her baby up to the family to avoid scandal. Miss Lingard was that typist, and she confesses to murdering Chevenix-Gore to prevent him from changing his will to disown Ruth unless she marries Hugo Trent. Interestingly – despite the fact that this is clearly a ridiculous reason to murder someone – Poirot is sympathetic to the plight of (secret) mother and (unacknowledged) daughter, allowing Miss Lingard the courtesy of keeping her motive secret.

(This is also one of the many Poirot stories in which the murderer escapes the noose – almost always an indication of the detective’s sympathy. In this case, Poirot doesn’t have to resort to leaving Miss Lingard alone with a weapon/poison/stash of cocaine, as he reveals with a bizarrely happy flourish that she’s got heart trouble and ‘will not live many weeks’.)

Nearly time to move on to the adaptation (because I really want to talk about tubular furniture), but just quickly before I do… I want to share two of the tiny and less significant changes that I nevertheless enjoyed in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’.

Tiny Change 1: In both ‘The Second Gong’ and ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, the murderer’s escape from a seemingly locked room is through the french windows. Poirot reveals that, if the window is pulled to in the right way, the catch will fall down and make it appear they were shut from the inside. In the earlier story, the detective simply states this as a matter of fact. However, in the revised version, he gives a little explanation of how he knows that is pure Poirot. After asking Susan Cardwell if she’s acquainted with any burglars (!), he makes the following pronouncement:
‘The chief constable, he, too, has not had the advantages of a friendly relationship with them. His connection with the criminal classes has always been strictly official. With me that is not so. I had a very pleasant chat with a burglar once. He told me an interesting thing about french windows – a trick that could sometimes be employed if the fastening was sufficiently loose.’
I love the way this conjures up an entire storyline that is never really explained.

Tiny Change 2: In ‘The Second Gong’, the murderous secretary creates the fake gunshot illusion by firing a service revolver out of the drawing room window to throw confusion on the time of death. Obviously, this isn’t an option for Miss Lingard in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, so she creates her illusion using other means… she blows up a paper bag and bangs it. Poirot finds the remnants of the bag in the wastepaper basket in drawing room, and this clinches things for him:
‘The paper bag trick was one that would suggest itself to a woman – an ingenious home-made device.’
I think Poirot is suggesting here that female murderers are more ingenious, and more inclined to improvise home-made devices out of bits of stationery and children’s tricks, which is ironic given the next-but-one episode in the series.

Time to have a look at the TV version…


‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ was directed by Brian Farnham and written by Anthony Horowitz. The TV version of the story is even more mirror-heavy than Christie’s 1937 story. It begins in an auction room, with Poirot bidding on a fancy mirror on which he appears to have completely set his heart. He is outbid, unfortunately, but accepts this with good grace.

The successful bidder is, it transpires, Gervase Chevenix (played by Iain Cuthbertson) – there’s no Gore here, as it’s a family show (har har!). This Gervase is somewhat different from Christie’s character (and his Lytcham Roche predecessor) as he isn’t landed gentry, but rather a wealthy art collector. He also, sadly, doesn’t look like a Viking (both Chevenix-Gore and Lytcham Roche are described as having ‘Viking beards’ for some reason).


When Chevenix realizes the identity of his mirror rival, he asks Poirot to visit his home. As in the previous versions of the story, he says he believes he is the victim of fraud. And, as in previous versions, Poirot finds the man’s demands rather arrogant. Here, though, there’s an added sweetener… Chevenix suggests that he might perhaps be up for exchanging the mirror for Poirot’s services. And the little detective is sold.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Mr Satterthwaite is removed from the adaptations of the two Poirot stories in which he appears, so Poirot doesn’t get any inside information from his friend beforehand. Instead, he travels to Chevenix’s home with Hastings, and the two of them meet Susan Cardwell (Tushika Bergen) on the train. In this version, it’s Susan who fills in some of the necessary background.

Like a lot of Horowitz’s adaptations, the plot of this episode pretty much follows that of Christie’s story, and some of the dialogue is retained as well. Nevertheless, the story is quite a long one, and so there is a bit of alteration here and there to fit the TV episode format.

Colonel Bury is absent from the adaptation, and the character of John Lake (played by Richard Lintern, in the first of his two appearances in the series – he’ll be back in Mrs McGinty’s Dead) is changed to fill this gap. No longer a ‘Captain’ or an ‘agent’, Lake is now a family friend who has persuaded Chevenix to invest in a property development scheme that may or may not be a fraud (it’s no Paragon Rubber Company, but it’s a decent enough equivalent). As Chevenix is no longer a member of an ancient gentry family, Miss Lingard (played by Fiona Walker) is now employed to help him with art history, rather than family history, research, and Godfrey Burrows is dropped entirely.

Ruth Chevenix (Emma Fielding) is still the adopted daughter – though I feel this version of the character really lacks the ‘witchery’ of her original counterpart, Diana Cleves – and Chevenix still has plans to see her marry his nephew, Hugo Trent (Jeremy Northam). Because of the changes to the status of the characters, this proposed marriage seems more to do with Chevenix’s overbearing and obnoxious personality than any continuation of family legacy or inheritance – given there’s no estate or entailment here, he has no reason not to just name Ruth his heir or to divide up his wealth between the two of them. This Gervase is just petty for the sake of it.

The final change to the dramatis personae sees Major Riddle – himself a substitute for Inspector Reeves – replaced with Inspector Japp. This isn’t the most controversial alteration ever; however, Japp is more inclined than his predecessors to accept that it’s a case of murder, rather than suicide, so he’s sticks out the investigation to the end.

Snell (James Greene) still gets to do the gong.


The location used for this episode is quite interesting and, in a roundabout way, this relates to the biggest change in Hugo Trent’s character in the episode.

Gervase Chevenix’s house in this episode is played by Marylands, a country house in Surrey built in Spanish style in 1929-31 by the architect Oliver Hill. Hill’s other work includes the Midland Hotel in Morecambe – which was one of the locations used in ‘Double Sin’ – and Joldwynds in Surrey – which was used in both ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’.

This isn’t massively earth-shattering – after all, there’s a limited number of surviving buildings in the UK that fit the style and aesthetic of these early Poirot episodes (hence the reuse of Joldwynds, for instance). But I think the recurrence of Oliver Hill’s work is worthy of at least a note.

But this leads me to think about tubular furniture…

As Chevenix is no longer a titled landowner, his nephew can no longer be a gentry heir waiting to acquire an entailed estate. The TV version of Hugo Trent has to at least attempt to earn a living. In a nice creative touch, Horowitz has his Hugo trying his hand at making tubular steel furniture. Yep. That’s right.


This may seem like a rather specific and idiosyncratic pursuit – it’s certainly one that Gervase Chevenix is unhappy about, as he has refused to give financial support to Hugo’s struggling business – but on reflection it’s a really neat nod to the aesthetic of the early ITV episodes and acknowledgement of the very style that led to the repeated use of Oliver Hill buildings.

Allow me to explain my thinking here…

Tubular steel chairs might be commonplace today, but in the early part of the twentieth century they were avant-garde and represented the cutting-edge of design innovation (which is briefly alluded to in the episode itself). This furniture style was pioneered by the Bauhaus studio, and developed by German company Thonet. Manufacture began in earnest in 1930, meaning that, in the world of ITV’s Poirot (with its permanent setting of 1936/1937), this is absolutely the newest thing in furniture design.

In the UK, the tubular steel baton was picked up by Practical Equipment Ltd. (PEL), a company founded in Birmingham in 1931 with the hope of replicating Thonet’s success. Unlike Hugo’s endeavour, PEL were a successful company throughout the 1930s, finding domestic markets for many of their products (such a stackable chairs) and receiving high-profile commissions.

Among PEL’s commissions were Embassy Court in Brighton, which featured briefly in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, which had a much bigger role in ‘The ABC Murders’. While none of this is particularly significant, I guess, I like this connection as it implies that Hugo Trent is playing a role in designing the very aesthetic that we associate with the series.

And although that aesthetic is very much the creation of the show’s creative team, it’s not completely divorced from Agatha Christie’s own experience either. One of PEL’s designers was the architect Wells Coates, who built (amongst other things) the Isokon Flats in Hampstead. While we might associate Christie more with country houses, especially Greenway in Devon, she was a resident at Isokon Flats between 1941-47. Again, it’s not the most significant connection, but it’s enough to make me appreciate the tubular furniture of ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ just a little bit more.


To end this post, I’m going to mention the two things that bug me about the episode. And one that just confuses me.

Firstly, in a move that we’ve seen in other episodes in the series, some details that are hidden in the source text are made explicit from the get-go in the TV version. Most notably, Ruth and John’s secret wedding – which is revealed in an outburst towards the end of Christie’s story – is shown on-screen right at the beginning of the episode. I have little else to say except I don’t like this decision.

Secondly, the complete over-exaggeration of Vanda Chevenix’s Egyptian fascination doesn’t work for me. In ‘The Second Gong’, Mrs Lytcham Roche was a ‘vague’ woman, who was a tad superstitious. In Christie’s revision, Vanda Chevenix-Gore was more definitively interested in ‘occultism’ and believed herself to be a reincarnated Egyptian queen.

But the TV Vanda (played by Zena Walker) outdoes both of her counterparts. Not only does she fully believe in the Egyptian afterlife and various other hodge-podge occult ideas, she also has a ‘spirit guide’ named Saffra to whom she talks every now and then like some sort of art deco Derek Acorah. In a rather desperate attempt to zhoosh up the denouement, the murderous Miss Lingard uses Vanda’s delusions against her, by impersonating Saffra (from a cupboard) and attempting to force the hapless Mrs Chevenix to hang herself in penance for killing Gervase. Because… why not?

Of course, Poirot and Japp are on hand to pull Miss Lingard out of the cupboard and remind Vanda that she didn’t actually kill her own husband, no matter what the mad-typist-pretending-to-be-an-Egyptian-spirit-guide keeps shouting in a spooky voice. This doesn’t really work for me, but it does lead on to a small but unsettling change that’s made right at the end of the episode.

In the TV version, Poirot himself works out that Miss Lingard is Ruth’s mother (he doesn’t have to wait for her confession). However, as in Christie’s 1937 story, Miss Lingard begs the detective (here accompanied by Japp) to keep the secret from her illegitimate daughter. As in the earlier version, Poirot gives her his word that he won’t reveal Ruth’s parentage.

As I’ve noted above, in Christie’s story, Miss Lingard is spared the noose by her imminent death from ‘heart troubles’. Here, though, the story ends with the murdering typist thanking Poirot for his discretion and claiming that she’s only ever cared about Ruth’s happiness. ‘I don’t care what happens to me,’ she exclaims. And as she does so, we get one final shot of Poirot’s (pained? sympathetic?) face, as the image of a ghostly noose is overlaid.

It’s one of the creepier endings in the early series – and one that hints at the darker tone that’s to come. But it also serves to remind us that this Miss Lingard will have no convenient heart troubles – it’s off to the gallows with her.


On that bleak note, it’s time to move on to the next episode – and the final short story adaptation of the series, which also marks a milestone in my own relationship to Agatha Christie’s Poirot (but more on that anon).

The next post will be ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’

Friday, 19 April 2019

Review: Visitors (Oldham Coliseum Theatre)

Thursday 18 April 2019
Oldham Coliseum

On Thursday, I was at the press night of Visitors at Oldham Coliseum, for North Manchester FM. You can hear my (slightly shorter) review of the play on Tuesday’s episode of A Helping of History, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Visitors is a new production of Barney Norris’s 2014 play by Oldham Coliseum Theatre. It’s a tender, moving and often very funny story about growing old. On a single set – the living room of an old, remote farmhouse – the play’s four characters sit, chat, drink tea, and face (or sometimes try to avoid) the challenges of dealing with dementia.

At the play’s heart are Edie and Arthur, a long-married couple who’ve spent their life in a cosy farmhouse together. Arthur still works the land, though he’s now struggling with the physical nature of the job and the prospect of having no one to take over once he’s unable to carry on. Edie is facing the onset of dementia – an illness that afflicted her mother – and the possibility of having to go into a care facility. While the couple are constantly forced to think about the future, they also reflect on the past (a result, in part, of Edie’s memory problems), and of the happy life they have shared.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

As well as Arthur and Edie, we meet their son Stephen, an insurance salesman who moved out of the farm as soon as he was able. Initially, Stephen seems rather brash and uncaring – keen to arrange professional care for his mother, and uncomfortable in his father’s company – but as the play unfolds we discover more about his character and what lies beneath the surface. The play’s fourth character is Kate, a blue-haired young girl who is taking part in a house-share programme (she stays at the farm rent-free, in return for helping Edie and Arthur with various chores). Like Stephen, Kate is a character who develops as the story unfolds: she begins as a something of a stereotype, a flaky young millennial hoping to ‘find herself’ by flitting from one thing to the next, but something deeper and more moving emerges as we learn more about her and see her relationship with the older couple blossom.

The treatment of dementia here is unusual – and that’s no bad thing at all. The play does make some comment on the illness’s inevitable and incurable progression, and there are some references to both physical and mental decline, this is not the central subject of the story. Visitors is a play about a person, not about an illness. Or rather, it’s a play about people. Arthur and Edie are a closely entwined couple with a shared past. Stephen is struggling to cope with the mess of the present-day. And Kate is unable – despite being told by others that she has ‘everything ahead of her’ – to imagine what shape her future will take.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

The subject matter of Visitors might sound fairly hard-hitting – depressing, even. But it’s really not that sort of play. Nor is it mawkish or sentimental. Norris’s excellent writing gives a story that is gentle, believable and sympathetic, without veering into maudlin clichés. It is, above all, a human story, which celebrates life (and love) in all its troublesome complexity. Interestingly, given that this is a play essentially about a woman’s decline after the onset of dementia, Visitors isn’t really a tear-jerker (though I will admit to welling up at the final dialogue). Instead, it’s marked by understatement, humour and a sense of authenticity that’s thoroughly engaging – and also rather heart-warming.

While much of this can be put down to Norris’s perfectly-pitched script, a lot of the charm comes from the performances. Kitty Douglas makes a great Kate, beautifully balancing the blue-haired cockiness of youth with fragility, uncertainty and even fear over the future. Ben Porter plays Stephen, and manages the difficult task of getting the audience on side with a character who – at first appearance – is set up to be the villain of the piece (of course, the play is more subtle than that). Arthur is played by Robin Herford, who gives us a moving and likable portrayal of a man unsure of what to do next, and – a product of his generation – unable to vocalize his fears and concerns.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

Undoubtedly, though, the star of the show is Liz Crowther, whose performance as Edie is just excellent. Along with Norris’s writing, Crowther’s performance gives us a rare thing: a character with dementia who remains a character throughout. Edie’s memory losses and physical decline are presented with a light touch, allowing us to engage with the character as a human being throughout. Much of the play’s humour comes from Edie – from her wit and personality, not her diagnosis – and this is pleasantly surprising. And Crowther’s comic timing is spot-on.

Visitors isn’t exactly what you’d call an action-packed play. As I’ve said, the story unfolds on a single set (though expertly designed and detailed by Sammy Dowson), with an occasionally changing backdrop and minimal movement of props and costume. Nevertheless, Chris Lawson’s direction makes full use of this stage setting. Although all the ‘action’ takes place in a single room, the placing of characters around the stage at different points reveals the various separations and intimacies between them. Centre-stage is Edie’s comfortable old chair, around which the family (including Edie herself) moves.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

I’ll admit that Visitors confounded my expectations. While I knew I was going to see a ‘slice of life’ drama, I had expected the emotiveness of the subject to overwhelm. It really is rare to see a story about dementia presented with such a light touch and so little mawkishness. The adjective ‘tender’ seems to the most common descriptor used in reviews, and I think this is fair. ‘Warm’ also feels like an apt adjective.

Overall, Visitors is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre. Superb writing, excellent performances (especially from Crowther), and careful and sympathetic treatment of an emotive subject – I highly recommend it.

Visitors is on at Oldham Coliseum until Saturday 4th May.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Review: Kingdom (Agrupación Señor Serrano)

Wednesday 10 April 2019
HOME, Manchester (¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival)

This week, I was at HOME Manchester for the press night of Kingdom for North Manchester FM. A (slightly) shorter version of this review will be going out on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

This year marks the 25th birthday of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival at HOME. Headlining the festival this year are Barcelona-based theatre company Agrupación Señor Serrano with their multimedia theatre experience, Kingdom. Blending live music, multi-lingual performance, dance, video projection and models, Kingdom is an unusual exploration of the history of capitalism – or is it the history of bananas? – using the character of King Kong and footage from the various versions of the film.

Señor Serrano are pioneers of ‘cinema-in-real-time’, and Kingdom makes great use of this technique. Performers hold video cameras, filming scale models of plantations, an explorer in the jungle, a montage of newspaper covers and ephemera, and the footage is projected – in real time – onto the large screen behind them, changing the clutter of small objects on the stage into cinematic images and montages. Performers interact with plants, props and backdrops to create ‘live’ sequences, and models are used to conjure entire scenes. Additionally, through inventive use of green screens, the ‘real time’ footage melds seamlessly into edited clips from other sources: most notably, the King Kong films and a Chiquita banana advert.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

In lesser hands, this idiosyncratic style could become fragmented, but Señor Serrano have created a piece that is much more than the sum of its parts. The pace is frenetic, with only brief moments of calm reflection (and unsettling tableaus of masculinity that veer towards physical comedy) to break the relentless drive of the piece.

This is not narrative theatre, but nor is it a documentary (though the show makes a nod to its expositional style in a rather slick bit of video projection and editing in the first half). If it is ‘story-telling’, then the story it tells is one of global and systemic socio-economics (and bananas). The closest Kingdom comes to a character – unless you count the increasingly dominant figure of King Kong – is the representation of Minor Cooper Keith, the American businessman who pioneered Central American banana plantations in the late nineteenth century. Even the brief portrayal of Keith, however, is more of a cipher than a character – the man, like the fruit, symbolizes something bigger.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

From Kingdom’s opening speech about the state of the world, which ends with the repeated refrain ‘Estamos bien’ [‘We are fine’], the show’s message of capitalism and catastrophism is writ large. Indeed, the examination of capitalism is fairly heavy-handed throughout. The surprise and innovation lie in the way this is tied to bananas (and, ultimately, to King Kong). Nevertheless, the show strikes a careful balance. This is not a documentary or lecture, and so the ‘banana story’ is sketched out, rather than explained in ponderous detail. Some aspects – the funding of Keith’s endeavours and his subsequent role in Costa Rican politics isn’t explicitly mentioned, and nor is the curious history of the Cavendish banana – but this is a sensible decision. As I’ve said, the banana serves as something of a cipher here, though it is a remarkably apt one.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

After the introductory speech, Kingdom moves us to its central thesis: the idea that the banana has fundamentally shaped the very world in which we live. That we are introduced to this idea through a high-octane, dual-language (Chinese and English), rap-infused musical number with interjections like ‘Sexy Latin!’ and ‘Nasty Bananas!’ tells you a lot about how Kingdom conveys its content. If this number doesn’t convince you, what follows is an entertaining and spectacular set of proofs for the thesis, which end up being really quite convincing.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

While capitalism, bananas and King Kong loom large here, Kingdom has another, less trumpeted, story to tell (though, by the end of the performance, this is no less subtle). The performance also addresses the relationship between capitalism and masculinity – or, rather, machismo. The five on-stage performers all strip to the waist at various points in the show, adopting ‘muscleman’ poses to the backdrop of Kong-on-the-rampage. On the whole, this works well, particularly in the context of the final video montage and dance performance.

However, at times, the physical comedy of these moments threatens to undermine any serious critique. Perhaps this is the point, though: the story we are being told is, while true, utterly ludicrous. The extended sequences of muscle flexing and macho posturing can sometimes seem overdone, but they aren’t out of place.

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

Performances by Diego Anido, Pablo Rosal, Wang Ping-Hsiang, David Muñiz and Nico Roig are excellent, and the use of the stage space is creative and inventive. Certain set pieces really stand out. The video projection sequence of the creation of a banana plantation is a real highlight – despite the fact that the audience can see the performers on stage manipulating tiny scale models, the images on screen could be mistaken for pre-edited animation. The show’s final speech (and the projected montage that precedes it) is an excellent crystallization of the ideas that underpin the show – entertaining, yes, but also a truly hard-edged commentary on the state of the late-capitalist world. Estamos bien.

This speech is not the end, however. Kingdom builds to a finale that is almost overwhelming in its intensity. In many ways, it is the final dance and music performance that really underlines the show’s message: in a capitalist system, the only way to go is bigger, louder, faster. Is this hope? Or hopelessness? Or is it an exhortation to eat more bananas and dance?

Phot credit: Vicenç Viaplana

Kingdom is a show that expertly combines a hard-hitting socio-political message with truly inventive stagecraft and performances. It’s loud, extravagant, dynamic and energetic – and above all, it’s completely bananas.

Kingdom is on at HOME in Manchester until Saturday 13th April, as part of the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

My Year in Books 2019: March

Another post in my ongoing book review series. I read quite a few novels this month, though I must admit I was a bit disappointed by some of them. I apologize in advance for the overuse of the word 'Sigh' in my reviews. Still, there were some that I enjoyed, so it wasn't all bad.

(For the curious, here are the links to my reviews from January and February.)

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (2018)


Sigh. I feel like I’ve relapsed back into my old habit. Last month, I mentioned this blog post by Sophie Hannah, listing books with ‘twist endings’. I also said I’d be reading the six titles on the list that I’ve not already read. With one exception, these are all… domestic noir. And if you read my reviews from last year, you’ll know my feelings on this genre. The Woman in the Window is, sadly, not even a good example of domestic noir. Agoraphobic and alcoholic psychologist Anna Fox watches her neighbours from her window. One day, she believes she sees one neighbour (Jane Russell) being murdered… but Jane’s family insist that it hasn’t happened. Nobody believes Anna’s story, because she’s clearly an unreliable witness… but can she prove that she really saw what she thinks she saw? Blatantly derivative, the book blends plot elements from Hitchcock films (Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes being the most obvious) with ‘twists’ reminiscent of other domestic noir thrillers (especially The Girl on the Train and We Need to Talk About Kevin). I think one of my big problems with this genre is that I like unreliable narrators, but domestic noir thrives on narrators who are called unreliable, but actually are telling the absolute truth. Spoiler alert: what Anna thinks she saw is indeed exactly what happened. Sigh. The Woman in the Window is clichéd and poorly written (I can’t take another synonym for ‘drink’), and I don’t think the ‘twists’ were really twists.

The Wife Between Us by by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (2018)


Right. That’s it. This is definitely the last one. I really can’t read any more domestic noir. Once again, I’ve fallen for the promise of MASSIVE TWISTS, and once again I am disappointed. The Wife Between Us is absolutely in the mould of The Girl on the Train. We’ve got an unreliable (possibly alcoholic) first-person female narrator, a horrible ex, and a new girlfriend that’s a source of… jealousy? But (and this obviously goes without saying) things are not what they seem. The first-person chapters are narrated by Vanessa, the ex-wife of a man named Richard, who appears to be obsessed with the man’s new fiancée. Interspersed with this are third-person chapters describing Nellie’s preparations for her upcoming marriage to Richard, and her concerns that someone is following her. The first twist comes at the end of Part 1, but I have to admit I saw it coming. Perhaps if the book’s blurb hadn’t been so insistent that, if you think Vanessa is a jealous ex obsessed with her replacement, ‘you will be wrong’, the ‘twist’ would have been more of a surprise. Following this, there are three (maybe four, depending on whether you’re surprised by the revelation that Richard isn’t very nice) additional twists, each more far-fetched than the last. The final reveal – in the book’s epilogue – is just silly. Sadly, this is not a recommendation from me, though I might be in a minority with this one. It feels like a paint-by-numbers domestic thriller, and it’s quite disappointing.

Innocent Blood by P.D. James (1980)


So, I decided to carry on with Sophie Hannah’s ‘twist list’. (I notice that some people on Goodreads have called it that, and that they’ve been just as completist as me – nice to know I’m not alone!) I couldn’t face any more of the domestic noir titles, so I went with the P.D. James novel on the list. Now, I read a few P.D. James novels last year, and I’m pretty sure I came to the conclusion that her books are not really my cup of tea. But I didn’t let that put me off. Reader, I should’ve let it put me off. Innocent Blood is not a pleasant read. It’s the story of a (unlikeable) young woman, Philippa Palfrey, who decides to trace her (unlikeable) birth parents, partly to spite her (unlikeable) adoptive parents. Philippa quickly locates her birth mother and decides to attempt a relationship with the woman… but are there secrets still to be discovered? In short: no, there aren’t. I think I know the reason the book was including on a list of ‘twists’, but the revelations in Innocent Blood are fairly obvious. I must’ve misread an earlier scene, as I thought the ‘big reveal’ had been described from the beginning. Added to this, the book has James’s usual judgemental tone that I find discomforting, and a shock revelation in the epilogue that just seems distasteful. Sadly, this month’s theme seems to be ‘books I didn’t enjoy very much’, which is a bit of a shame.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson (2008)


I’m not having much luck with this ‘twist list’, am I? But I’ve decided to press on with it… what’s the worst that can happen? Well, it turns out… not Before I Go to Sleep. This one was alright. I pretty much knew what I was getting into with this one. I like 50 First Dates. I like Memento. So I imagined I’d probably enjoy a mash-up of the two. Christine Lucas is a 47-year-old woman with a form of anterograde amnesia, meaning that she wakes up every morning with no memory of who she is or what has happened to her. Each morning when she wakes, her husband Ben eases her into the day and explains their life together and her condition (aww… sweet). The story begins on one such day, but after Ben leaves for work, Christine gets a message to meet a Dr Nash. He’s been treating her (secretly) for several weeks, and reveals that Christine has been keeping a journal each day to help with her recovery. When she opens the journal, she’s shocked to see the words ‘Remember Sammy Jankis’ ‘Don’t Trust Ben’ written on the front page. What is her loving husband hiding from her? And can she trust Dr Nash? Or herself? This was a very quick read (just a few hours), but an enjoyable one (albeit requiring some suspension of disbelief). I did guess the twist part way through. But do you know what? It was actually a twist this time. Finally!

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris (2016)


Last book on the ‘twist list’ – the completist in me rejoices. Sadly, I think I saved the worst for last though. Behind Closed Doors isn’t an enjoyable read. And it certainly doesn’t have a twist. It does exactly what it says on the tin (well, the blurb anyway). To outsiders, Jack and Grace have the perfect relationship. But ‘behind closed doors’, Jack is an abusive psychopath who keeps his wife imprisoned and punishes her for any transgressions. This was not a pleasant book to read. It’s pretty offensive to survivors of domestic abuse – or ‘battered wives’, as the book repeatedly calls them – and utterly unrealistic about the mechanisms of abuse or the patterns of coercive control that result in people staying with abusive spouses. It’s also very demeaning of people with Down’s Syndrome: Grace has a sister with Down’s Syndrome (Millie) who is slated to be Jack’s next victim, and the representation here is highly problematic. Jack threatens to throw Grace’s (almost adult) sister ‘into an asylum’ if she doesn’t comply with his bizarre abuse fantasy – and at no point is it noted that this… just isn’t a thing. The storyline doesn’t go any further than this, and there are certainly no twists. I know that domestic noir thrives on bad husbands, but at least there’s usually some semblance of confusion or doubt thrown in. There’s very little suspense or intrigue here, leaving this as simply a book that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sadly, one to avoid.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh (2016)


This next book is one I found on a charity book sale shelf at my local supermarket. I’d not heard of this one, but it promised a ‘Gothic mystery’ so I thought it was probably worth a go. And I’m happy to say this was the right decision. McHugh’s novel is a compelling Southern Gothic tale about a young woman haunted by the past. Arden Arrowood returns to her home town of Keokuk, after her father dies and she inherits the (crumbling) family home. Arden and her parents left Keokuk around sixteen years previously, after the mysterious disappearance of Arden’s twin sisters. Despite an extensive search, no trace was ever found of the two toddlers, and this past tragedy casts a long shadow over Arden (and her family). Returning to Arrowood, Arden is forced to confront this unsolved mystery, especially as a writer is determined to interview her for a book he’s writing about the case. Arrowood’s mystery isn’t particularly original, but I was definitely gripped by the way it developed. More than this though, I loved the descriptions of Keokuk and its various run-down historic houses. The town takes on a character all of its own, and I’d have been quite happy to defer the revelation of what happened to the twins in order to spend more time in this faded, jaded place. If you fancy a Southern Gothic mystery with some evocative descriptions, cleverly placed clues, and a compelling central puzzle, then this one is a definite recommendation.

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (2009)


Another one from the supermarket charity book sale. This one looked pretty cool: it’s a detective story where the central character is a forensic archaeologist. Ruth Galloway (the archaeologist investigator) is called in when bones are discovered at a construction site. A child’s body is found buried underneath an old house that’s being pulled down on the site. It’s quickly revealed that the house was once a Catholic children’s home, and that – several decades earlier – two children disappeared from the home. When the cause of death is revealed, Ruth is drawn into the murder investigation with DCI Harry Nelson (and some help from her Druid friend Cathbad and fellow archaeologist Max Grey). This was an okay read, but it didn’t completely grab me. It’s quite clear from the start that this is the second book in a series (I haven’t read the first one), and that the relationships between the characters were established in the first instalment. Normally, this doesn’t matter too much in crime series. However, I felt like these relationships dominated the story too much. The balance between the investigators’ private lives and the actual investigation wasn’t quite right – if you isolate the ‘case’, it’s really quite light on story and intrigue. And, sadly, the murder mystery itself is pretty obvious – I think I worked out every single one of the reveals. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the characters of Ruth, Harry and Cathbad, but I would’ve rather had a more intriguing puzzle to draw me in.