Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Manchester Charity Buzz

I've set myself (and my Charlestown ward colleagues) a little bee-related challenge for later this month...

Bit of background here: Bee in the City is a public art event in Manchester, that's on until 23rd September. All across the city, there are fabulous sculptures of bees (the one in the picture above is 'Polly-do-you-remember' at Clayton Hall, for instance). The 101 'big' bees have each been designed by different artist, and their designs incorporate all sorts of aspects of Manchester's character, celebrities and history. There are also colonies of 'little' bees in various locations around the city, each designed by schools, community groups and youth organizations. Like most people in Manchester seem to, I love the bees.

Never one to do things by halves, I've decided that I want to see all 101 big bees. And I want to do it in a single day. Without using a car. And my Charlestown colleagues Basil and Veronica have agreed to do the challenge with me!

Stretching from Heaton Park to Manchester Airport, the Bee in the City trail takes in so much of Manchester (and loads of iconic locations). I reckon I know our city pretty well, so I think I can handle the challenge! I guess there's only one way to find out...

So, on Saturday 22nd September, from 8am-8pm, Team Charlestown will be racing round the city to spot all 101 bees! And we're going to be raising money for the Lord Mayor's Charity while we're at it. The Lord Mayor's Charity (also known as the We Love Manchester Charity) supports community groups and young people across the city, using the money it raises to support communities and breakdown barriers in the city.

Team Charlestown would love your support! You can sponsor us via our JustGiving page, and follow along with our Bee Marathon on Twitter on the #MancCharityBuzz hashtag. I'll be posting pictures of our journey through the city all day on the 22nd.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Hopefully, I'll be able to persuade some other councillors and council officers to take up the challenge, so I'll update this post when I know a bit more. (And if it does turn into a race, I'm totally confident Team Charlestown can win!)

And if you're interested in doing a sponsored bee-related activity yourself, there's information about fundraising and ideas for activities here.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Clayton Hall’s New Writer-in-Residence

Historic Clayton Hall in Manchester is welcoming its first writer-in-residence! North Manchester writer and poet Hannah Kate joins the team at Clayton Hall Living History Museum from September 2018 as writer-in-residence.

Hannah is the author of numerous short stories and poems, many of which are inspired by her love of Manchester’s history. Often dark and strange, her fiction includes ‘Nimby’ and ‘Knotweed’ (both set in North Manchester parks) and ‘Lever’s Row’ (a sort of love song to Piccadilly Gardens). Her most recent published work is ‘Dust to Dust’, a horror story inspired by Hollinwood’s Hannah Beswick, also known as the Manchester Mummy. Hannah is also the host of long-running radio shows ‘Hannah’s Bookshelf’ and ‘A Helping of History’ on North Manchester FM.

During her residency at the hall, Hannah will be running events and activities for both beginner and more experienced creative writers. She’ll also be writing and performing some original pieces inspired by Clayton Hall and its long and unique history. Watch this space for details of upcoming activities and opportunities to get involved!

Clayton Hall is a Grade II*-listed building and a rare example of a moated, medieval site. Standing on a scheduled ancient monument it is situated in Clayton Park, Manchester. The original hall was built for the Clayton family in the twelfth century. It later passed into the hands of the Byron family, of which the poet Lord Byron was a member. The Byrons lived at the hall until they sold it to two London merchants, George and Humphrey Chetham. Humphrey is famous for founding Chethams School and Library in the centre of Manchester.

Patchwork Poem

Help create a Patchwork Poem at Clayton Hall this Saturday! Meet the hall’s new writer-in-residence Hannah Kate at the Heritage Open Day on Saturday 8th September, 11-4pm. Hannah will be collecting words, phrases and lines of poetry from visitors to the hall – any little scraps and patches people share during their visit. Hannah will be taking these pieces and stitching them together to create a Clayton Hall ‘Patchwork Poem’. If you’re visiting the hall on Saturday, please do say hello to Hannah and leave us a few of your words!

3 Minute Scares is back for its third terrifying year!

North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate wants scary stories for Halloween! She’s asking people throughout Greater Manchester to submit their scariest 3-minute stories for her annual creative writing competition. Writers keen to be crowned Greater Manchester’s Spookiest Wordsmith can submit a recording of their mini-tale via Hannah’s website, with the best entries being played on air on the Halloween edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday 27th October.

The Halloween flash fiction competition will be judged by Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlaínn and Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes of MMU’s Centre for Gothic Studies, with the writer of the best entry receiving a prize from Breakout Manchester, the real-life escape room game. Entries need to be 3 minutes long, meaning a word count of 350-400 words. The judges will be looking for style and originality, as well as how scary the story is. The deadline for entries is Monday 15th October, at midnight.

Last year’s competition was won by Fiona Cullen, with a rather squeamish little tale about a college biology lesson. North Manchester FM presenter Hannah Kate says: ‘I loved Fiona’s story – it was so dark! Over the past couple of years, I’ve been really impressed with the way people can tell so much in just three minutes. There’s a lot of talent out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what people across our region submit for this year’s competition.’

All writers need to enter the competition is a computer with a microphone… and a good story. Entries can be recorded via Hannah’s website. More information and rules of the competition can also be found on the website.

Hannah’s Bookshelf is North Manchester FM’s weekly literature show, and it goes out live every Saturday 2-4pm. The show has been running since January 2015 and has featured guests including Rosie Garland, Ramsey Campbell, Tony Walsh and Gwyneth Jones. The show broadcasts on 106.6FM for North Manchester residents and through the ‘listen online’ feature for the rest of the world.

OUT NOW: The Spooky Isles Book of Horror, edited by Andrew Garvey and David Saunderson (Dark Sheep Books, 2018)

A new collection of stories and articles about the UK and Ireland's horror and folklore, including a short story and essay about Hannah Beswick, the Manchester Mummy, by yours truly...

From The Spooky Isles, the UK and Ireland's favourite horror and paranormal website, this first volume of the Spooky Isles Book of Horror features 20 stories and essays from 18 different authors. Well-established dark literary voices and new writers explore the UK and Ireland's darkest horror and folklore, from long-dead serial killers to malignant fairies, evil cults, spontaneous human combustion, vengeful ghosts and black dogs...

... welcome to the Spooky Isles!


Sparks by Michael Connon
The Black Dog by Tracy Fahey
Letters from a Toxic Heart by Ed Burkley
Lambs to the Slaughter by Chris Rush Havergill's Fetch by Catherine Shingler
Hunger by Ann O'Regan
Jackfest by Phil Davies
Dust to Dust by Hannah Kate
Am Fear Liath, the Grey Man of Ben Macdui by Kevin Williams
The Handfast Wife by Áine King
Ring Around the Rosie by Barry McCann
Churchgoing by Kevin Patrick McCann
The Ear by Jaki McCarrick
Creatures of Rath and Bone by Rachel Steiner
The Final Answer by Will Graham
Camp 46 by Petula Mitchell
Stranger than Before by Barry McCann
The Pied Piper of Essex by Ra Goli
Spoor by DC Merryweather
Come Away by Tracy Fahey

For more information, or to buy a copy of the book, please visit the Spooky Isles website.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Poirot Project: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (review)

Bet you thought I’d forgotten Hercule, didn’t you? Nah – I’ve just been busy again, but I could never forget Hercule. Slow as my progress is, I’m still working my way through the episodes. I’ll finally get to Curtain one day!

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-18 who am I kidding? Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘Death in the Clouds’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the fourth ‘series’ of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 19th January 1992 (have a look at this post to see why I’ve put scare quotes round ‘series’). It was based on the novel of the same name (aka Overdose of Death and The Patriotic Murders), which was first published in 1940. As always, my academic side wants to note the edition I’m using for this post:

Lol! Just kidding!

It’s the HarperCollins paperback edition published in 2016. Just as with The ABC Murders, when I came to do this post, I strangely discovered that I didn’t own a copy of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. Not sure how that has happened, as I’m pretty sure I used to own a copy. Anyway, I’ve rectified that now.

There are a few particular episodes of Poirot that stand out for me as ones that I loved when they were first broadcast. Admittedly, there are some episodes that I don’t really remember the first time round (I was only ten when the series started, after all!), but 'One, Two, Buckle My Shoe' isn’t one of them. I can clearly remember watching it and loving every minute of it – it’s one of the episodes that cemented my love of the show.

The novel I came to later – probably during my Agatha Christie binge when I was working at an Oxfam shop after I finished my A-Levels. I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, but I spent a year working at an Oxfam shop in the day and at Wilkinson's in the evening (some people go overseas to find themselves during their gap year… I found myself in Middleton). Most days, I had an hour and a half between jobs, and I filled it with reading Golden Age detective fiction (a lot of Christie and Sayers), bought for 29p-39p at Oxfam. Although I can remember reading a few novels before this point, I think this was the year when I really became a Golden Age fan.

Anyway, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

The book was published in 1940, so it sits in the second half of the Poirot collection. It was written after the best-known short stories – and after the ‘big’ books (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, etc.) – but before Christie wrote Curtain (so before she was thinking about the ‘end’). The book is in third person, and Hastings is absent. There’s no mention of Miss Lemon, despite her making her first appearance five years earlier. However, the novel does feature Japp (and George), so Poirot isn’t entirely flying solo.

The book begins, though, by introducing a different character: Mr Morley, a diminutive grumpy dentist who is critical of both the government and his secretary (who has been called away to a family emergency). A short section later, and we’re being introduced to a powerful man named Alistair Blunt, who has an appointment to see his dentist. Before I get on to the novel itself, just a brief eyebrow raise at this name… In Death in the Clouds, there’s a mention of another dental patient named Blunt – this time Colonel Blunt. Although the books were written five years apart, the adaptations were aired just a week apart. Reading the books in the order of the adaptations really does draw attention to this repeated name. In the Everyman’s Guide to the Mysteries of Agatha Christie, Bruce Pendergast highlights this curious coincidence of names, making the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that ‘the Blunt clan had a faulty tooth gene’ (and noting seven other individuals with the surname in Christie’s work – as Poirot says in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, ‘The name, after all, is not an uncommon one.’).

After we find out Blunt is going to see Mr Morley, we also find out a certain Belgian detective has a dentist’s appointment. When he later leaves Morley’s surgery, Poirot has a brief encounter with a woman in patent leather shoes, who manages to wrench one of her buckles off as she gets out of a taxi. Given the title of the novel, it’s pretty obvious that this fleeting moment is going to be significant later.

And sure enough, it’s only a couple of pages later that Japp comes round to break some news to Poirot – Mr Morley has (probably) shot himself. Why would the dentist have killed himself? Was the illustrious Mr Blunt the true target?

As the novel rolls on, the bodies start to pile up. A Mr Amberiotis – a new patient of Morley’s – is found dead at his hotel, and his death is ascribed to an overdose of adrenaline and novocaine given by the dentist. And then another patient, Miss Sainsbury Seale, disappears from her hotel. A body shows up in the flat of a Mrs Chapman, which is assumed to be that of Miss Sainsbury Seale, only for it to be revealed through dental identification as that of Mrs Chapman herself (she was another of Morley’s patients). Of Miss Sainsbury Seale (now the prime suspect in Mrs Chapman’s murder), there is no trace. What could it all mean? And why is Poirot so fixated on Miss Sainbury Seale’s (or is it Mrs Chapman’s) buckled shoes?

Lurking behind these dental shenanigans are repeated references to national and international politics. Even on the first page, we get a sense of political unease, as Morley peruses the morning news (someone’s got to do it in Hastings’s absence):
‘He glanced at the paper and remarked that the Government seemed to be passing from a state of incompetence to one of positive imbecility!’
This backdrop – which includes a character who’s signed up to the Imperial Shirts (a fictional fascist organization, presumably based on Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts) and repeated criticism/fear of ill-defined ‘Reds’ – leads to a glorification of centre-ground Toryism that is way more overt than in other Christie novels. Both small-c and big-c conservatism are lauded throughout the book and presented as the only way in which the ship of Britain can steer its way through such dangerous waters. We get impassioned outbursts such as:
‘You bet there are [people in Britain who would like to kill Blunt]. The Reds, to begin with – and our Blackshirted friends, too. It’s Blunt and his group who are standing solid behind the present Government. Good sound Conservative finance.’
Standing solid! Strong and stable!

‘We’re very tiresome people in this country. We’re conservative, you know, conservative to the backbone. We grumble a lot, but we don’t really want to smash our democratic government and try new-fangled experiments. That’s what’s so heart-breaking to the wretched foreign agitator who’s working full time and over! The whole trouble is – from their point of view – that we really are, as a country, comparatively solvent. Hardly any other country in Europe is at the moment! To upset England – really upset it – you’ve got to play hell with its finance – that’s what it comes to! And you can’t play hell with its finance when you’ve got men like Alistair Blunt at the helm.’
Long live England! Conservative to the backbone! The bankers will save us! We can trust the bankers!

Now, Agatha Christie’s personal politics are contentious, and different critics offer different interpretations. Comments in her autobiography often seem at odds with subtext in her fiction, but the latter itself is not always consistent (e.g. Poirot is generally anti-death penalty, whereas Miss Marple seems to mostly approve and actively mourns its abolition at one point). But whatever her personal beliefs, Christie was a mystery writer, and her books are all about playing tricks on the reader. Often, a character will seem to be the (left- or right-leaning) ‘voice of reason’ (like the ethically-minded NHS doctor Quimper in 4.50 From Paddington or the stolidly English racist Norman Gale in Death in the Clouds), only to be revealed as a callous and self-serving murderer in the end. Far from being a mouthpiece for Christie’s own beliefs, the ‘reasonable’ façade is a sleight-of-hand to make us think they couldn’t possibly be the murderer.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe turns this up to 11. The political message seems so much clearer, more explicitly conservative, based against a backdrop of a Europe gone mad. Of course everyone is terrified of Reds and Blacks – these are major forces duking it out on the European stage, and their figureheads (Stalin and Hitler) are monstrous dictators. Of course Britain wants to preserve democracy, stability and moderation in the face of such horrifying alternatives. Conservative capitalism, as the book repeatedly tells us (way more directly than in most of Christie’s other novels), is the only reasonable path for the nation. And its figurehead, Alistair Blunt, is a screamingly rational alternative to the looming figures of Stalin, Hitler and a government veering from ‘a state of incompetence to one of positive imbecility’.

Obviously… obviously… Alistair Blunt is the murderer. And, appropriately, this is also turned up to 11. Blunt is a bigamist, who married his second wife for money and power; he shoots his dentist simply to allow himself the opportunity to kill Amberiotis (who was threatening to blackmail him); and he is involved with one of Christie’s more brutal murders, the death and mutilation of Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. (Although only the crooked leg and foot of the body of murdered Miss Sainsbury Seale is shown on screen in the adaptation, the idea of someone having their face so badly smashed in they can only be identified through dental records haunted my thirteen-year-old imagination.) He is also more than happy to see Frank Carter – ‘a wastrel’ – hang for his crimes.

Turns out, conservative capitalist bankers can be arseholes.

Before I move on to the adaptation, there are few minor character details that are worth noting in Christie’s novel.

Firstly, Poirot’s fear of the dentist is underlined early on:
‘He was a man who was accustomed to have a good opinion of himself. He was Hercule Poirot, superior in most ways to other men. But in this moment he was unable to feel superior in any way whatever. His morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair.’

This is a facet of Poirot’s character that appears in both Christie’s stories and in the ITV adaptation. Mind you, given the last story we saw on screen was Death in the Clouds, I think there’s every reason to fear dentists. Elsewhere, though, we see a characteristic of Poirot’s that was resolutely not included in the TV show – he travels around London by Tube (the equivalent journey in the adaptation is taken by taxi, as Suchet’s Poirot is never shown travelling on the underground). Interestingly, in the TV version of ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, these two characteristics also come up: Poirot’s Tube journey in the source text is removed, but his fear of the dentist is added in an alteration to Christie’s novel.

We also learn a couple of other things about our detective as well. He sometimes goes back to Belgium for short visits (first we’ve heard of it!), and he still hangs around with Joseph Aarons (at least, I assume that’s the ‘theatrical agent of his acquaintance’ he goes to see). Aarons, who I talked about briefly in the post on ‘Double Sin’ appears periodically in the Poirot stories – though often ‘off-screen’. Here, while we don’t see him (and he isn’t named), he provides Poirot with some important background information on the case.

Another blast from past here appears to be Countess Rossakoff, who I talked about in the post on ‘The Double Clue’. She’s not identified by name either, but I think it’s clear who this quote refers to:
‘He, Hercule Poirot, remembered women… One woman, in particular – what a sumptuous creature – Bird of Paradise – a Venus…’
Four little bonus points:

1. Japp wears a bowler hat! (Bit hard to imagine Philip Jackson’s Japp rocking a bowler!)

2. Japp also uses some nice slang in this one. We get ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’ – a phrase with unclear origins – but also ‘Na Poo, my lad. Na Poo!’ This latter is a bit of a throwback: it appears to have originated amongst British soldiers in WWI France or Belgium as a corruption of il n’y a plus, and means ‘it’s finished’ or ‘there’s no more’.

3. There’s a curious reference to a film in the book… As the detectives look for the illusive Mrs Chapman, one of her neighbours states that she hasn’t seen Mrs Chapman ‘since we had spoken about going to see the new Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire the following week’. This clearly lets us know that the book isn’t set in 1940: 1939’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was Astaire and Rogers last film together until 1949. Mind you, the fact that there’s no mention of the war in an overtly political story – never mind that the British Union of Fascists hasn’t been disbanded – are probably the more obvious clues that the book is set in the late 30s.

4. One of my relatives is mentioned in the novel! (Don’t know why I put an exclamation mark – it’s a bit grim, to be honest.) While they’re hunting for the lost Miss Sainsbury Seale, Japp wonders if they’ll ‘find her in a quarry, cut up in little pieces like Mrs Ruxton’. Isabella Ruxton (née Kerr) was murdered (along with her housemaid Mary Rogerson) by her husband Buck Ruxton in 1935. Both victims were dismembered and mutilated, and Ruxton even removed teeth to prevent identification by dental records. It was a pretty notorious case. Isabella Kerr was a relative of mine on my mum’s side.

On that bleak little detail, let’s move on to the TV version, shall we?

The episode was directed by Ross Devenish and written by Clive Exton. The first thing that strikes you – and this may be one of the reasons the episode stuck in my mind all those years ago – is the horror film-like opening credits sequence, in which slow-mo, distorted images are paired with ghostly children’s voices singing the nursery rhyme that the book is named after.

As we’ve come to expect from Exton’s work, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of Christie’s story. It’s true to the spirit and plot of the novel (Hastings and Miss Lemon are absent, but it remains a Poirot ‘n’ Japp adventure), but there are changes to the way the story unfolds. Specifically, the backstory of Blunt’s marriage to Gerda Grant is played out in front of our eyes, rather than being discovered (quite late) by the detective.

After the creepy-as-hell credits, the episode takes us to India in 1925 and a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. Amongst the cast, we see clearly, are Gerda Grant and Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. After the show, Alistair Blunt (played by Peter Blythe) calls into the dressing room to see the women, and later that evening he proposes to Gerda (Joanna Phillips-Lane). When Mabelle (Carolyn Colquhoun) runs into Blunt twelve years later, she explicitly refers to his wife as Gerda.

However, I don’t think this ruins the story as such. Obviously it doesn’t, or the episode wouldn’t have fascinated me so much when it was first broadcast. Exton’s script does explain some things up front (particularly Blunt’s relationship with Gerda), but it leaves a lot of things mysteriously unexplained (what happened to Gerda? how did Blunt end up married to Rebecca Arnholt? why does he let the detectives think Miss Sainsbury Seale knew Rebecca, when she was actually friends with Gerda?) And, of course, it retains Christie’s emphasis on a fancy buckled shoe to keep us pondering its significance.

Much of the politics is also retained. Many of those strident speeches on strong and stable conservatism are repeated word-for-word in the adaptation, though Blunt is a helluva lot more arrogant than his literary counterpart and makes much more of the fun he and Gerda have been having. In the episode, as in the novel, Poirot is not impressed with the idea that Blunt’s role in keeping the country stable is a get-out-of-jail-free card. Suchet’s Poirot gives a very similar summing-up to that found in the book:
‘I am not concerned with nations, Monsieur. I am concerned with the lives of private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken from them.’
While Poirot’s opinion of Blunt and his crimes remains the same, there is quite a dramatic change in his view of another character. We need to talk about Frank…

In Christie’s novel, Frank Carter, the Blackshirted boyfriend of Mr Morley’s secretary, is an unpleasant character whose fascist affiliation is presented almost as a symptom of his underlying nastiness. Blunt refers to him as ‘a wastrel’; Morley calls him ‘a wrong ’un’. Even Poirot, who is usually so repelled by even the thought of the noose, considers the possibility of letting Carter take the wrap for the murders:
‘He did not like Frank Carter. He disliked him very much. In his opinion Frank Carter was a bully, a liar, a swindler – altogether the type of young man the world could well do without. He, Hercule Poirot, had only to stand back and let this man persist in his lies and the world would be rid of one of its more unpleasant inhabitants…’
Things play out differently in the TV version. Here, Frank (played by Christopher Eccleston, who interestingly was fresh from playing Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It) is more troubled and misguided than unpleasant.

When we (and Poirot) see Frank waiting to confront Mr Morley in his surgery, he seems anxious. The little Belgian detective’s curiosity is piqued, but there doesn’t seem to be any animosity or repulsion. Morley (Laurence Harrington) has previously stated that Frank is in with ‘that Black Shirt mob’, but other than that we have no suggestion that he is one of the world’s ‘most unpleasant inhabitants’.

The next glimpse into Frank’s story comes from his distraught girlfriend Gladys (Karen Gledhill). She consults with Poirot – more than once – because she is terrified of what will become of her fella. Poirot is touched by her concern and goes to see Frank with her – at a full-blown British Union of Fascists rally (complete with lightning bolt sign and black shirts galore). This version of Poirot seems determined to get Frank to just be honest and reveals a certain sympathy for the young man.

Now, don’t get this wrong, Poirot is certainly not letting fascist sympathies slip out. His conversations with Gladys explain the nuance here. Gladys speaks out against the fascist organization, claiming that it exploits young, working-class men like Frank. The Black Shirts manipulate these lads, convincing them that what they’re doing is patriotic. Poirot agrees, and seems as keen to save Frank from the insidious brainwashing of the extreme right wing as he is from the noose. Towards the end of the episode, Frank is reunited with Gladys, who promises to keep ‘a close eye’ on him, to keep him from being exploited by sinister fascist movements that prey on disillusioned young working-class men.

I don’t know for certain why Exton chose to make this change to the source material in early 1992, or why it was important to underline how exploitative the so-called ‘patriotism’ of right-wing movements can be. But I will say that the episode aired at the time of the creation of Combat 18, and just months after the formation of the Anti-Federalist League, which would become UKIP in 1993. Food for thought, n’est-ce pas?

As always, I’m going to end with a couple of more minor things from the episode…

I love the fact that Poirot pops round to see Japp at home. While Christie gave us Japp in a bowler hat, the TV version gives us Japp in his shirt sleeves cutting his privets.

Poirot’s acceptance of his friend’s hospitality is obviously difficult for him – we’ll see this again when he pops round for tea in ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ – but Japp chides him for requesting tisane instead of tea: ‘Come off it, Poirot. This is Isleworth, not Juan-les-Pins!’

Still, at least it’s only a cuppa this time, and not faggots and mushy peas.

And finally (or almost finally), there’s a couple of weird little threads that connect the episodes in the fourth ‘series’. I’m particularly curious as to what led to the decision to make ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ back-to-back. Clearly, with so many of the short stories televised already and ‘Peril at End House’ having worked as an adaptation, someone made the decision to do a few adaptations of novels to mix things up. Perhaps the intention at this point was to solely focus on the novels, I don’t know. But with so many to choose from, why do one about the murder of a dentist and one about a murderous dentist at the same time?

I can only assume that someone in the production company was suffering from a pretty bad toothache. Dentistry was certainly playing on their mind when this ‘series’ was planned out.

(And just in case you think I’ve forgotten that ‘The ABC Murders’ was aired a couple of weeks earlier as part of the same group of episodes, there’s a nice connection with this one as well. It’s what I call the ‘hosiery as clue’ or ‘significant stocking moment’.)

And so, time to move on to 1993’s offerings and a return to the short storie… no, wait. I wasn’t going to say anything, but there’s something I want to get off my chest. I know you’ll probably think I’m taking this too seriously, given how fixated I got with a Daily Mirror headline in the last episode, but I’m curious about a phone call Poirot makes to Japp after his visit to see Frank Carter in prison.

With news to tell his friend, Poirot grabs the receiver and dials a number – but it’s clearly seven digits long. And, more confusingly, he appears to get straight through to Japp without speaking to an operator. Is that not a bit anachronistic?

In Christie’s novel, Poirot’s own phone number is given as Whitehall 7272 (though the TV series has Trafalgar 8137, according to his business card in ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’). Any aficionados of ITV’s Poirot or the made-earlier but set-later BBC Miss Marple adaptations will be familiar with the detectives picking up the phone and requesting the operator connect them with the number they require. So what’s the deal with Poirot’s crazy seven-digit dialling?

Well, from 1927 London began to roll out Director automatic telephone exchanges (beginning with Holborn). I’m not an expert in telephony systems, but I think this was when people could automatically be connected with numbers from neighbouring exchanges in a network, without the need to go through an operator to request the connection. A caller had to dial the first three letters of the exchange, followed by the four digits of the number they wished to connect to. So, Poirot’s phone number would be WHI 7272 or TRA 8137. The three letter codes would come to be translated into numbers with the advent of alpha-numeric phone dials (keypads would come much later, kids) – WHI = 944 and TRA = 872 – and then replaced entirely by the numbers with the advent of ‘all-figure dialling’ in 1966.

In 1934, Scotland Yard rolled out a new phone number for the public to use for emergency and non-emergency calls. It was Whitehall 1212 (later 944 1212). In 1937, the 999 emergency number was introduced, and so Whitehall 1212 came to be the number for reaching the information room, rather than reporting a crime in progress. However, Whitehall 1212 would surely have got you through to the switchboard of the Metropolitan Police; you would have had to request a switchboard operator to connect you to the individual person you wanted to talk to.

So, Poirot’s seven-digit dialling is perfectly plausible – it just shows he’s an up-to-date kinda guy, tech-wise (which I guess is plausible, in a way). The anachronism lies in the fact that those seven digits get him straight through to Japp’s phone without having to request a switchboard operator to transfer his call. I’m not happy about this at all.

Am I wrong here? Would a Scotland Yard detective in 1936/37 have had a direct phone number that could be reached automatically from an outside line on another exchange? Or did the programme-makers simply choose not to show the bit where Poirot politely asks to be connected to Japp? Does it matter? Answers in the comments section, please.

I’m sorry this post was so long. And I’m sorry I didn’t say anything about the characters that were missed out of the TV adaptation (I miss Colonel Arrow-Bumby) or Poirot’s own political statement at the novel’s close (a world with freedom and pity, thus avoiding the excesses of both left and right, capitalism and idealism), or the lack of any ‘Mrs Middleton effect’ in the presentation of Helen Montressor/Fake Sainsbury Seale (interestingly also narrowly avoided with Madeleine/Anne Giselle in ‘Death in the Clouds’). I just got so caught up in fascism and phone numbers I ran out of time.

Next up, I’ll be back to the short stories again with ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’

Monday, 20 August 2018

My Year in Books 2018: July

And so... I've stuck to my New Year's resolution for another month! This is definitely the best I've ever managed! (And I managed to read more than last month too, so I'm doing okay at this.)

So here are the books I read for pleasure in July...

(Here are my lists for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

This one was a recommendation (of sorts). I have a bit on my radio show (Hannah’s Bookshelf) called Apocalypse Books, where I ask my guests: in the event of the apocalypse, which three books would you save? A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the books Emma Jane Unsworth saved when she was a guest back in 2016, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. Egan’s novel is actually a series of interrelated stories – when I started reading Chapter 2 I thought for a moment it was a short story collection – about a series of people connected to New York record producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha. The stories move about in time, and the book begins in the middle of Sasha’s story, and the characters move in and out of each other’s lives. It’s an interesting structure, but it’s definitely not a gimmick. The book’s title refers to time – ‘Time’s a goon, right?’ says one character – and the back-and-forth nature adds pathos to time’s cruelty. We often see what characters will become, before moving back to how they once were (and what they dreamed of being one day). Despite the fact (or maybe because of it) that most of the characters are kind of unlikeable, I found it a really compelling read (to be honest, I was really taken with Egan’s writing from the first chapter, so would have been happy if it had turned out to be a short story collection after all!).

The Missing Girl by Jenny Quintana (2017)

So, I managed to get a bit hooked on domestic noir this month. Last month I read a couple of crime/psychological thriller novels, and I think they were my gateway drug. I’m using the term ‘domestic noir’ for this thriller subgenre – though it goes under other names – as I think it best captures what links these books. The best known examples are probably Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and domestic noirs tend to have troubled female protagonists dealing with some sort of secret (often something from her past) and with people who are not who they pretend to be. They’re also often advertised as having a ‘mind-blowing twist’. Quintana’s novel is about Anna Flores, whose teenage sister disappeared thirty years earlier. Now, Anna’s mother has died, and Anna has to return to the village where she grew up to clear the family home – and to finally face up to what happened to Gabriella. The Missing Girl is certainly well-written and engaging, and I did get quite immersed in Anna’s story. But I’m not sure it’s really a thriller, and it certainly doesn’t have a twist (the truth about Gabriella is pretty obvious about halfway through the book). Overall, it’s a bit too pedestrian for a thriller, and the mystery doesn’t quite work. I did enjoy the character of Anna, though, and the descriptions of family life were well-done. I’m not convinced domestic noir is for me, to be honest, but maybe I just need to keep trying…

Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

And now… more domestic noir… Friend Request is probably a bit more typical of the subgenre than The Missing Girl, and it ticks a lot of the generic/cliché boxes as well. I was promised an ‘addictive psychological thriller’ with a ‘genuinely unexpected’ twist. One day, Louise gets a Facebook friend request from a girl she knew at school, Maria Weston. But Maria Weston died over twenty-five years earlier. (Admittedly, that’s a pretty cool premise, and it certainly had me hooked initially.) Louise’s story switches between the present day – as mysterious Facebook messages unsettle and long-denied secrets threaten to surface – and flashbacks to 1989, as Louise remembers what happened in the final year of school. In true domestic noir style, the main story is told from the protagonist’s POV, but there are mysterious other chapters sprinkled throughout (in third-person, with an unclear subject, and presented in italics). Also in true domestic noir style, the protagonist is troubled and is responsible for quite unpleasant actions in the past that may have affected the present. Like The Missing Girl, Friend Request’s heroine was pretty horrible to a more vulnerable kid when she was younger. But outside of these generic conventions, there really is very little to Friend Request. The Facebook mystery and its resolution is disappointing, and there is absolutely no twist (again, the solution is quite obvious early on). Maybe I’m a bit too fussy about what counts as a twist? But this one fell a bit flat for me, I’m afraid.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (2017)

Without sounding like a bandwagon-jumper, I really did like The Girl on the Train. A good indication of how much I enjoyed the book is that I haven’t wanted to see the film version yet. I encouraged my mum to read it after me, and she also loved it (and hasn’t seen the film). It was my mum who got Into the Water and read it first, and then she lent it to me. In typical style, she was a bit cryptic in her comments before I read it: ‘It’s a bit different to The Girl on the Train,’ was all she’d say. And she was right! Into the Water is the story of a woman – well, several women really – who died after plunging into a ‘Drowning Pool’ in a river. While Girl on the Train had multiple narrators, Into the Water turns this up to 11. Hawkins uses these multiple narrators very well. Each one has a distinct voice and story to tell, and these weave together well to create both a mystery (the deep secrets of the Drowning Pool) and a sad tale of sisterly estrangement (Jules – the closest the book has to a protagonist – has returned to her old family home after her sister’s death). The thing is, though, it’s not The Girl on the Train. The narrators are, on the whole, pretty reliable (I’m so bored of reliable narrators), and there really isn’t a proper twist ending here. But it’s a compelling and creepy tale nonetheless.

The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell (2007)

As I say, I’m not sure domestic noir is really for me. So my next book was a deliberate change of pace. I am a big fan of Ramsey Campbell’s work, but I still have a lot of titles I haven’t read yet. The Grin of the Dark sounded right up my street: Film Studies lecturer Simon Lester is commissioned (in a decidedly suspicious way) to write about forgotten silent comedy star Tubby Thackeray. The problem is, Tubby seems to have been forgotten for a reason, and it proves very difficult to begin tracking down his lost films. Why did Tubby’s career end so abruptly? And why is it being actively forgotten now? In Ancient Images (which I loved), Campbell explores the world of the ‘lost film’ and its potential for horror, but in that book, the object of the search is actually a horror film. Here, it’s comedy all the way – and that makes it even more unsettling. The first description of Tubby on film was gloriously unnerving, despite the feeling of familiarity and similarity to other (‘real’) silent comedies. In many ways, this is a more philosophical (almost academic) book than Ancient Images, as there is a pervasive feeling throughout that there’s something wrong with comedy itself, not simply the creatures that lurk behind it. Added to this, there’s some creepy language games going on that add an uncomfortable absurdist element to the events that unfold. This is a definite recommendation – Tubby Thackeray is a truly disturbing creation!

Monday, 30 July 2018

Review: Hanging (Tangled Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 25 July 2018
The Whiskey Jar, Manchester

And so, my little wander through this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe programme comes to an end. After musicals, puppetry, physical theatre, farce, poetry and me crying at a surprising number of shows, the final show I saw at this year’s festival was Hanging (as in the mode of execution, not the Mancunian adjective) by Tangled Theatre.

In many ways, this was a very fitting end to the festival for me. Hanging is the very essence of a fringe show. It’s a new play by an emerging playwright, produced by a brand-new company, featuring actors at the beginning of their careers. I went in not really knowing what to expect, and came out still processing what I’d seen. It’s odd, unsettling, experimental – definitely not ‘mainstream’ – and difficult to categorise in terms of genre and style. And it was performed in the basement of a pub. You can’t really get more characteristically ‘fringe’ than that, can you?

Hanging is written and directed by Marco Biasioli. The press release promised an experience ‘suspended between reality and dream’, in which a man awaits execution for an unnamed crime and is taunted by his executioners. I will admit to having had little more background info on this one, as I interviewed produced Elena Spagnuolo and actor Jasmine Oates for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special back in June. Nevertheless, I still didn’t know exactly what to expect from the play, as Spagnuolo and Oates were intriguingly circumspect in our interview!

The play opens on a bare set, the only decoration being a series of nooses strung from the ceiling. A man sits on a chair on one side of the stage, and on the other, two cloaked figures place a second man (this one with a sack over his head) on another chair. The cloaked figures – listed only as 1st Executioner (played by Oates) and 2nd Executioner (played by Lee Martyn) – begin to chatter about the upcoming execution, with 1st Executioner questioning whether 2nd Executioner remembers everything from his training and asking whether he has appropriately drugged the convict. This descends into a more mundane conversation about 7-a-side football, which 1st Executioner plays in her spare time.

This bizarre and rather unsettling opening is interrupted when the man – named simply as Man (and played by Brandon McCaffrey) – seated on the other side of the stage wakes up. Or is he falling asleep? Is any of what we see next really happening? Or is it all a projection or dream inside the Man’s mind?

What follows is a series of increasingly uncomfortable and abrasive interactions between Man and members of his family. Rory Greenwood (who is also the convict hidden under the sack) plays Man’s father, a bullying and overbearing character who tips into violence rather easily. Agnès Houghton-Boyle is Wife (or, rather, Ex-Wife) who appears to berate Man for his failure in their relationship. Martyn doubles up as Grandad, a seemingly benign figure in Man’s life, who may or may not be suffering from dementia.

Man rails, argues, beseeches and cowers from the circling taunts and aggressions of these family members, while focus switches between him and the unnamed convict at the other side of the stage, and the executioners who are, by turns, gleeful and bureaucratic in the face of their task.

Things escalate – or rather oscillate – as Man’s interactions with his family becoming increasingly surreal and hostile, and the sacked convict waking up to pronounce his final words. The play takes on a rather unhinged tone, almost suggesting Man’s descent into madness or the disjointed irrationality of a dream. Everything becomes exaggerated, with constant threats of violence and rape (Wife is attacked by both Man and 2nd Executioner, who believes she is a porn star), and a surreal exchange in which the sack-headed convict and Man tell the story of a mining town lost in its pursuit of gold.

As I have said, this is a new company and a cast of actors at the beginning of their careers. In places, performances are a little laboured and some dialogue is a bit stilted. The play’s style is heightened and surreal, so I wasn’t expecting completely naturalistic dialogue; however, some lines are slightly awkward and unidiomatic (e.g. ‘You’ve got chances’, instead of ‘You’re in with a chance’), which is a little jarring.

These criticisms are really only minor teething problems though. Overall, Hanging was compelling, strange and ambitious (and, as I said, that’s what I like to see at a fringe festival).

Greenwoods performance as Father is great, and he convinces as a man (literally) old enough to be Man’s father – even though there appears to be little age difference between Greenwood and McCaffrey. I was also quite taken by Greenwood’s performance as the unnamed convict – entirely delivered from underneath that sack. Had I not known differently, I would have assumed these parts were played by very different actors (and the incongruous gravitas that Greenwood infuses into a peculiar monologue about carbonara was undoubtedly one of my favourite bits of the play).

Martyn also does an excellent job of doubling up, with his 2nd Executioner and Grandad appearing substantially different, despite only minor costume changes. The latter character is particularly well done, with Martyn’s bent-double old man exuding an interesting mixture of confusion and irritation that is as discomforting as it is sympathetic.

As a final comment, I will say that the choice of venue was superb. I’ve never actually been to The Whiskey Jar before, but their basement performance space was a great choice for this play. While I’m sure the bar upstairs is lovely, the space downstairs has the feel of a horror film set – or at least it does for this production (stringing it with nooses obviously helps) – and this adds a general feeling of bleak dilapidation to the bizarre visions that unfold.

Overall, Hanging is a strong debut from Tangled Theatre. Unsettling – disturbing, in places – thought-provoking and ambiguous, this piece made for a great finale to the Fringe for me. And I look forward to seeing what Tangled Theatre do next.

If you’d like to see my other reviews of productions at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, click here to see all my posts.

Review: The Fishermen (New Perspectives)

Tuesday 24 July 2018
HOME, Manchester

I know I’m in the middle of reviewing GM Fringe productions at the moment, so it’s a bit weird to break off to review a piece of new theatre that, although it was staged in Manchester during the month of the Fringe, isn’t part of the GM Fringe. To add to the confusion, the play is travelling up for the Edinburgh Fringe in August (so it’s ‘fringe’ theatre in Edinburgh, but ‘mainstream’ theatre in Manchester – make of that what you will!).

Anyway… I attended the press night of The Fishermen, an adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s award-winning novel, at HOME. Set in 1990s Nigeria, Obioma’s novel tells the story of the Agwu brothers (and narrated by Benjamin Agwu), whose lives are torn apart by a prophecy. The New Perspectives production has been adapted from the novel by Gbolahan Obisesan, and is reimagined as an intense and dynamic two-hander, told by, and from the perspectives of, brothers Benjamin and Obembe.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
The play’s set (by designer Amelia Jane Hankin) is simple but incredibly effective. A curved line of vertical metal poles cuts the stage into two halves. Behind the poles sits Benjamin (played by Michael Ajao), and in front we see Obembe (Valentine Olukoga). Before any introduction to the characters or their story, this visual device instantly evokes the sense of division and distance that will be explored throughout the play. Lighting (by Amy Mae) and sound design (by Adam McCready) add to this effect, creating an eerie, tense and compelling opening scene – beginning to tell the story before the actors have even moved a muscle.

Obembe has returned home to southern Nigeria after eight years’ absence. While the reason behind his absence is only revealed gradually, it is clear that there is some estrangement between Obembe and his family. Ajao’s Ben exudes a tangible sense of resentment in the opening exchange between the brothers, which Olukoga counters by giving his Obembe a forced joviality that hints at underlying guilt.

As the brothers reluctantly face up to their reunion, they begin to reminisce about the events that led to their separation. And it’s at this point that the cleverness of Obisesan’s adaptation is revealed.

Obioma’s novel is a family saga, narrated with a reasonably linear chronology by Benjamin. In order to ‘distil’ the story for the stage, Obisesan has reimagined this as Benjamin and Obembe recollecting events years after the fact. Ben and Obembe narrate the events of their childhood, ‘playing’ the various characters who appear. The story is presented as a series of fragmented vignettes – some comical, some serious – but always with the ominous sense that something is going to go horribly wrong.

And so the story unfolds: Despite their father’s aspirations, the Agwu brothers decide that they will become fishermen. Led by oldest brother Ikenna, they decide to fish in the forbidden Omi-Alu river (their mother has ruled this strictly off limits – bad things happen here). And it’s all fun and games until local madman Abulu prophecies that Ikenna will be killed by a fisherman, and an angry old woman grasses the boys up to their mum. Family tensions and the desire for revenge spiral out of control, as Benjamin and Obembe bring the story to its shocking and violent climax.

Ajao and Olukoga’s performances were near-flawless. The two embody a range of characters with such skill that it genuinely feels at points as though there is a cast of more than two. (I say ‘near-flawless’ as there were just two times when I think the transition from one character to the next was not quite right, and an actor delivered a line in the wrong character’s voice.) From troubled Ikenna, to his swaggering slightly-younger brother Boja, to the frankly chilling appearance of Abulu, each of the characters ‘appeared’ on stage distinct and embodied.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
I’ve already mentioned the staging, but as the story unfolds the power of this production’s deceptively simple design is revealed. Just as the two bodies on stage transform into a larger cast, the set design becomes a range of locations. Those metal poles are river reeds one minute – which the boys run around in childhood glee – then are pulled up by the actors to become fishing rods, then form walls, marking out rooms in a house, then become the tool of the ultimate act of vengeful destruction that seals Ben and Obembe’s fates.

Added to this, lighting and sound are used to excellent effect. With no backdrops or scenery to aid them, Mae and Macready use their respective techniques to conjure a river, a house, a small town with impressive style and effectiveness. Jack McNamara’s skilful direction transforms the small raised stage of HOME’s intimate Theatre 2 into a grand and near-unlimited landscape.

Reviews of Obioma’s novel almost inevitably included comparisons to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – indeed, the book itself includes a reference to Achebe’s work. Obisesan’s adaptation retains a little nod to the earlier novel (one of the boys’ ideas for enacting revenge is called the ‘Okonkwo plan’), but the comparison isn’t laboured. Instead, this adaptation allows space for an exploration of the other influences and echoes in Obioma’s work, in particular the biblical story of Cain and Abel, and classical tragedy.

By focusing so keenly on the interaction between two estranged brothers – who, in turn, evoke and enact a past antagonism between their two older brothers – the Cain-and-Abel element is foregrounded. The refiguring of the play as a retrospective narration of events that have already occurred lends the story the fatalism and inevitability of high tragedy.

For all this, though, there is a brutality and a coldness to The Fishermen that is really quite arresting. While it is easy to fall into sympathising with Ben and Obembe – mostly because of nuanced and emotive performances by Ajao and Olukoga – they (and Ikenna and Boja) aren’t actually very nice kids. Remove the highbrow symbolism, biblical and classical allusions, and metaphors for national identity, and what you have left is four arrogant and aggressive young men who ignore their parents and victimise people beneath them on the social hierarchy (cutting the head off a neighbour’s chicken, attacking Abulu). This is also a very male story; the only women in The Fishermen are the ignored mother (who later becomes a figure of abject grief and semi-madness), the beleaguered neighbour who loses a chicken, and the mentioned-but-not-seen mutilated corpse found in the Omi-Alu. Viewed in this way, the Agwu brothers emerge as callous, destructive and lacking in empathy.

The brothers’ contradictory status as aggressive, victimising men who are simultaneously victims of a society that doesn’t allow for masculinity that isn’t aggressive and victimising undoubtedly returns us to comparisons with Things Fall Apart. But I was particularly struck by the way that the New Perspectives production of The Fishermen dealt with this contradiction and, in fact, put it at the heart of the play’s distinctive storytelling style.

Throughout the play, we are led to see the ‘characters’ of the boys’ mother, the local madmen, Ikenna and Boja, their overbearing father, all appearing as though ‘in the flesh’. But, really, as we can see, there is no one there. There is nothing but Ben and Obembe, alone and estranged on a near empty stage. Things fell apart long before the play even began, and the emotional journey we travelled was, in the end, a memory tale told by two haunted young men.

The Fishermen is an accomplished, ambitious and intelligent piece of theatre – a strong recommendation from me. It’s finished its Manchester run now, but it will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. And it’s well worth going to see.

Review: lionman (Dapertutto Theatre, GM Fringe)

Sunday 22 July 2018
Footlights House, Media City

Just two more Greater Manchester Fringe shows left for me this year – which is a shame, as I’ve really been enjoying my little wander through this year’s programme. The penultimate show on my schedule was lionman, a new piece of physical theatre devised by Dapertutto Theatre.

lionman’s press release promised a ‘surreal’ and ‘dystopian’ world, and a performance that would ‘explore masculinity’ and ‘what it means to be a man’. To greater or lesser extent, the production did do all of these things – though not necessarily in the way I’d expected.

The play begins with a montage of TV and film clips playing on an old TV set in a sparsely furnished bedroom. These were pretty varied – I caught glimpses of Bruce Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger (I think), but also clips of sitcoms like Frasier. All this is interrupted by the arrival of a masked (well, more faceless) figure on stage, who silently produces a small plastic lion, holds it aloft, and then hides it in the drawer of a filing cabinet.

So the ‘surreal’ box is ticked pretty quickly. What about the dystopia?

As the masked figure leaves, the audience becomes aware of a mound of covers on the small fold-out bed in the room. But then the covers move, and we realize that there’s actually someone in there. This is our introduction – and a very impressive introduction – to the physical theatre style of the show. More than that, it introduces the company’s grounding in the aesthetics of theatrical biomechanics (which is highlighted on their website). As an actor’s body began to emerge from a space where there had seemingly been no body before, it was clear that this piece would be offering something very interesting.

The body that appears is that of Leonard (played by Tom Hardman), a lonely and struggling writer who lives alone in the aforementioned sparse bedroom. Leonard is attempting to write a significant piece of fiction, though his bread-and-butter work is that of writing verses for greetings cards. After a physical sequence in which Hardman dresses and makes an attempt at breakfast, Leonard finally sits at a typewriter to pen his masterwork – but, of course, he is interrupted in this task by a number of incidents.

The design and aesthetics of the set – and of Leonard’s appearance – certainly conjure up dystopian precursors. Leonard listens in to his neighbours’ conversations by means of a large silver duct, and this, along with the vaguely bureaucratic feel to his typewriter and small desk, is a nod to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and possibly also to some of Philip K. Dick’s short stories. There’s also a noir-ish feel to the production design, which heightens this vaguely dystopian aesthetic.

However, I’m not fully convinced that this is a dystopian world. The things that disturb Leonard’s work are all rather mundane and… well… topian. A neighbour plays loud music, causing Leonard to lose his patience and bang on the floor. Another neighbour – the object of Leonard’s unrequired desires – gets into an argument with someone and is reduced to tears. The landlady comes by with a demand for rent and the threat of severe consequences.

While none of these incidents really suggest a dystopian society, the way in which they are presented points to a certain absurdist narrative that enhances – and is enhanced by – the performance style and composition. For example, Leonard’s complaint about his neighbour’s music leads to a confrontation when the man angrily arrives at Leonard’s door. This confrontation becomes a stylised and carefully choreographed fight sequence between Hardman’s Leonard and the unnamed neighbour (played, like every other figure we see on stage, by Cameron Jones). When the fight is over, the actors ‘rewind’ the action (an impressive piece of performance in itself), so that Leonard can rerun the situation to reach a better outcome.

While Hardman is the person we see on stage continuously, Jones appears and disappears in numerous guises, sometimes seeming to change almost instantaneously from one ‘character’ to another. (I’ve put ‘character’ in inverted commas, because this doesn’t really do justice to Jones’s appearances – while he sometimes embodies a character in the more traditional sense, like the angry neighbour, many of his appearances involve manipulation of props to create puppet-like creations, like the fantasy version of Leonard’s female neighbour that is conjured on stage through the movement of a raincoat.) Both actors reveal incredible performance skills, with no marks or beats missed and no actions mistimed.

The technical design of the show is also very accomplished. Both the visual design and lighting (by Leon Hardman) and the sound design (by Kris W. Laudrum) are stylishly effective. The climactic sequence that follows Leonard’s discovery of what has been hidden in his filing cabinet is really stunning, with all elements (physical performance, staging, sound and lighting) coming together to create a really extraordinary set-piece.

That said, there are moments in the play where this performance style and technique threaten to overwhelm. I am not a fan of slapstick – not even exquisitely choreographed slapstick – and so Leonard’s comedic mishaps with a coat stand as he tried to get dressed were a little grating for me. While not as overtly comedic, the fight sequence between Leonard and his neighbour is perhaps also a bit overdone. It’s certainly accomplished, but it seems to serve more to showcase performance technique than offer any real narrative development.

Ultimately, lionman offers an unusual, absurd and surreal take on the story of a man’s thwarted ambitions and desires. Dystopian in aesthetic and atmosphere, if not in social or political terms, this is a stylish and arresting piece of theatre. I’m not sure it really explores what it means ‘to be a man’, but it’s certainly a visually compelling and flawlessly performed representation of one particular man.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Review: Once a Year on Blackpool Sands (Skint Productions, GM Fringe)

Friday 20 July 2018
Salford Arts Theatre

Another (slightly delayed) Greater Manchester Fringe review from me… This time it’s Skint ProductionsOnce a Year on Blackpool Sands.

Written by Karlton Parris, and inspired by true story told to Parris thirty years ago in Mykonos, Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is set in 1953, just after the Coronation. Eddy and Tommy are Yorkshire miners and secret lovers, who travel to Blackpool for their Wakes holidays. I must admit I was really intrigued to see this one, as the play is due to travel to New York for an Off-Broadway run in September, and a film version is also in pre-production. This is pretty big stuff for a Fringe show, so I was excited to see what the play has to offer.

The play begins with Eddy (played by Kyle Brookes) and Tommy (Macaulay Cooper) arriving in the seaside town. Eddy has decided that they won’t be staying at the same hotel as the rest of their party, and has instead booked them into Withering-Heights-on-Sea, a down-at-heel and almost empty guest house where they might be able to get some privacy.

Withering-Heights-on-Sea is run by a rather odd woman named Gladys (Wendy Laurence James), who is at turns snobbish, social climbing, overly solicitous, inappropriate, and impatient. Gladys is assisted (in a way) by her daughter Maureen (Mollie Jones) and her mother, former communist showgirl ‘Red’ Ethel (Linda Clark). The trio of women are loud, brash and inquisitive – suggesting that Tommy and Eddy may not get the privacy they want and need.

The final character is Mr Elbridge, the only guest in the B and B. Mr Elbridge is a transvestite – to use the 1950s terminology generally employed by the play – and is trying to find the courage to walk from the North Pier to the South as a woman (which the play emphasizes as an important rite of passage).

As the characters interact, interrupt and reveal their stories to one another (and to the audience), we come to see Withering-Heights-on-Sea as a refuge from the outside world, an escape from the judgments of a society that not only doesn’t accept trans identities, but criminalizes homosexual behaviour. Within the walls of the guest house, a range of identities are free to express themselves without fear of repercussions.

The central storyline is that of Eddy and Tommy. Brookes and Cooper play their parts excellently. There’s real chemistry between the two, but they also present the complexities and conflicts of the relationship. Eddy is the more forthright of the two, keen to abandon the constraints of their lives and flee to America. Sporting a noticeable shiner throughout the play – the origin of which is only revealed part way through the second act – Eddy is tense, unsettled and angry. But he is also fragile, and Brookes handles the gradual revelation of everything that has brought Eddy to this point with sympathy and credibility. Tommy is the more composed character – reluctant to do anything to rock the boat and keen to return home to their ‘normal’ lives after a brief escape in Blackpool. But there’s more going on under the surface, of course, and Cooper gives an often understated performance that is, again, very sympathetic.

While Eddy and Tommy’s relationship is the central story, the women of Withering-Heights-on-Sea have their own series of tales to tell. Red Ethel is foul-mouthed, disabled by a stroke, and antagonistic towards her daughter, but her brash mix of put-downs and nostalgia (for the days when she was the girl-about-town in Moscow) eventually gives way to a poignant description of her own tragic love life. Ethel’s granddaughter Maureen – constantly described as useless and ‘simple’ by her mother – is a girl desperate to shake off the 1950s and enjoy sex without fear of moral condemnation. But it is Gladys who is, perhaps, the most interesting of the women. A bag of complete contradictions, Gladys doesn’t seem to know what she wants to be. On the one hand, she is making a rather pathetic attempt at social climbing – serving ‘scooones’ and boasting about her connection to the Deputy Mayor – on the other, she is a former chorus girl who understands and respects the secrets her visitors harbour.

The play presents these intertwined stories through a series of scenes in the various bedrooms of the guest house. At times, these scenes risk feeling a little static – characters sit together in rooms and tell their stories, often in rather lengthy speeches, and the only movement comes from brief interactions with props and costume. However, on the whole, this works, as the play really is about the stories (or secrets) people hold inside themselves, and so it seems fitting that these are revealed through dialogue rather than action. I will be interested to see how this is handled in the film adaptation, however, as I suspect more of these stories will be ‘seen’ rather than ‘told’.

Parris’s script moves us from heartbreak to fear to bawdy seaside humour. On the whole, the men get the hard-hitting anger and pain, while the humour falls to the women (with the notable and unexpected exception of Ethel’s poignant speech about a lover in Russia). The humour is very well done. Although there is plenty of dirty jokes and innuendo (as is probably expected of the Blackpool setting), there is also some very witty commentary on sexuality and identity – Maureen’s black pudding/pasty analogy was a highlight for me. Nevertheless, as I say, the women do have pains of their own. Clark and Laurence James do a great job of suggesting the internal conflicts that lurk under the comic façade.

Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is certainly the longest play I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe. If I have a criticism, it’s that the play occasionally felt a bit too long. In places, there was tendency to over-explanation – things that had already been conveyed through the performances were stated explicitly in the dialogue, and it may have been better to trust in the subtext more. That said, there’s a lot of story here, and a clear desire to do that story justice.

The play’s climax is moving and well-staged. The use of a projector – used elsewhere in the play to cast backdrops and scenery – to cast images highlighting the significance of the finale was poignant and moving. And yes – this is another GM Fringe production that made me cry.

Once a Year on Blackpool Sands is a big show – bigger than I was expecting, to be honest. There’s a lot of story, powerful performances, and emotive writing. I definitely enjoyed the stage version, and will be looking forward to seeing the film version when it’s released.

Review: King Lear (alone) (Inamoment Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 19 July 2018
International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Another Greater Manchester Fringe review from me… this time, a one-man show performed at the Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Inamoment Theatre staged a production of Frank Bramwell’s sequel/reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear: King Lear (alone). The piece begins with Lear alone (funnily enough) on the heath, after the events of Shakespeare’s play have ended. The erstwhile king reflects on the things that have led him to this point, variously railing against his perceived persecutors and beseeching comfort from his family and followers. It’s an intense monologue, which moves Lear through heightened emotions of anger, fear and distress, to more reflective moments, tenderness and even acceptance.

That said, King Lear (alone) isn’t a straightforward sequel. This isn’t simply what Lear did or thought after Shakespeare’s play finished. Nor does it move Lear to a different place or introduce new actions or characters. Rather, Bramwell’s script is more of a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play, told entirely through the voice of the protagonist. Other characters are addressed, but do not speak. (There are points at which Lear calls out to Goneril, Regan and others, and appears to hear something in response, but the audience only gleans this through his reaction.) Bramwell weaves lines taken from Shakespeare with his own lines (and, at one point, a bit of a plot twist) to create a version of the narrative presented entirely from the perspective of the unstable – and abandoned – king.

And this really works. Bramwell’s own lines fit seamlessly into the reordered Shakespearian dialogue, but also reveal the presence of other influences. In particular, the fragmented futility of Lear’s desperate ramblings feels almost Beckettian in places, as lines and phrases were repeated ad absurdum. This is heightened by the absence of response from other characters. No matter how much Lear wants the situation to be explained or resolved, no reply is forthcoming.

Of course, a play of this type lives or dies by the standard of the performance. Fortunately, things were in very safe hands here. Bob Young plays Lear excellently, fully embodying Bramwell’s pitiful, yet not quite resigned, king. Young’s Lear begins as a broken and confused man, but over the course of the performance moves back and forth as the quixotic moods of the character demand. Young offers a (slightly unhinged) joviality in his delivery of lines from early in Shakespeare’s play, a deep melancholy in his depiction of Lear’s lonely state, and full-blown Shakespearean wrath in his condemnation of those who have abandoned him – without going over-the-top and losing the audience’s engagement with the character.

For me, this engagement was one of the most surprising things about the production. I will admit to never being a huge King Lear fan (though I’m pretty familiar with the play), due to the distinct lack of sympathy I’ve always had with the central character. In King Lear (alone), however, we are invited ‘in’ and asked to consider things more directly from Lear’s perspective. While my anger and annoyance at Lear hasn’t entirely gone away – Bramwell’s script and Young’s performance don’t entirely dispel the notion that Lear brings much of his suffering on himself – there is way more scope to pity, sympathize and (most surprisingly) forgive Lear for his erratic excesses.

The staging of the play adds to this effect. As expected, King Lear is indeed alone, on a sparse set (no backdrop, save a wonderfully evocative bare tree) and minimal props. While there are no other characters, he is ‘joined’ on stage by two figures. A creepy (and eyeless) jester’s marotte becomes a companion for a time, and Lear addresses this ‘fool’ with Shakespeare’s lines and Bramwell’s interpolations. And from that evocative tree hangs a blonde-haired doll, which (rather effectively, I thought) Lear ignores until around two-thirds of the way through the play, building a dramatic tension in audience member’s familiar with Shakespeare’s play and growing curiosity in those who are not.*

Ultimately, there are a couple of different ways to interpret King Lear (alone). For some people, it will be a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play – i.e. we’re seeing Shakespeare’s play unfold, filtered through the perspective of a single character. For others, it is a straightforward sequel (sidestepping the death of Lear) – the events of Shakespeare’s play have concluded, and Lear is left to reflect on all that has happened in order to decide what the future might hold. But it’s also possible – and very tempting – to see this as an even closer sequel to Shakespeare’s play – Lear has indeed died, and all that we see is a dying man’s dream or a purgatorial vision.

I thoroughly enjoyed King Lear (alone). It’s great play, made even better by Young’s strong work in bringing this version of Lear to life. Like all good literary reimaginings, it has made me reconsider the original and has changed the way I look at King Lear. While the play has now finished it’s GM Fringe run, it is moving to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, and I would highly recommend it.

* I should say, I went to see King Lear (alone) with my other half, who knows nothing about Shakespeare’s play. This gave us the chance to compare our experiences of the play, given the different awareness we had when we came into the performance.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Review: Paisley (Tea Party Party, GM Fringe)

Sunday 15 July 2018
LEAF on Portland Street

Another new GM Fringe show review from me today… this time it’s Tea Party Party’s new production, Paisley.

Written and directed by Andre Anderson, and co-created by Emeli Hartness, Paisley uses an all-female cast to explore questions of culture and oppression. The information I got before the show prepared me for a focus on women’s experiences of culture and tradition; it also prepared me for the all-women cast and the ‘feminine’ setting (a girl’s bedroom, as she gets ready for a party). But I really wasn’t prepared for the unusual performance style or the range of talents showcased in this piece.

Paisley (played by Jordan Chisholm) is on the verge of getting married, but she’s having doubts. As she delays getting ready for a party, she’s joined in her bedroom by her mother (played by Rowan Birkett), her mother-in-law-to-be Kira (Mackenzie Clapperton) and her friend Gaby (Alice Woodsworth). Paisley tries to articulate her doubts, and in turn each of the women tells their own story of societal oppression.

Paisley’s unexpected element comes in the decision to use a variety of performance techniques to tell each of the stories. We begin with Paisley’s mother’s story, which flashes back to her childhood in India. Although the story begins with Birkett offering some scene-setting narration, the story quickly moves into a Bollywood-inspired interpretative dance sequence, which describes a young woman’s terror at discovering the meaning of ‘dowry’ and the reality of arranged/forced marriage. An ambitious and well-staged sequence, the dance is arresting in both visual and narrative terms.

Next up, Kira tells the story of her abusive first marriage. Again, the story begins with the actor’s narration, but quickly develops into something quite different. The bedroom’s fireplace moves aside to reveal Japanese-inspired shadow puppets, and a tale of escalating domestic abuse and violence. Elegantly rendered and performed by Hartness (who manages both the shadow puppets and the 3-D figures that move in front of the sets), this is both moving and compelling – while both stories speak of women’s oppression by patriarchal structures of marriage, the first two stories are markedly different in tone and style.

Finally, Gaby shares her story with the other three women. Here, we have a story about sexuality and family pressures. Gaby is gay, and her family have disowned her. This story is told through a haunting bilingual song, with lyrics moving seamlessly from English to Spanish, beautifully performed by Woodsworth.

The ambition of Paisley is truly impressive. For a new company to attempt such complex staging and diverse techniques is really quite exciting. But this ambition would have fallen flat were it not for the strong performances from the cast and Anderson’s careful direction. Dance moves were sharp, the puppetry slick, and Woodsworth’s singing pitch perfect (and very moving).

The show’s finale is a tad heavy-handed in its message – the cast members join to intone a statement that, to be honest, has already been clearly conveyed in the rest of the play. I felt that Paisley was strongest in its ‘show, don’t tell’ sequences, and in the way these diverse stories were brought together in the evocative space of a young woman’s bedroom.

One of the key elements of Paisley is that each of the characters has a different cultural background. In the first sequence, this allows for traditions and oppressions not common in the UK (particularly dowry payments and forced marriage) to be highlighted. In the case of Kira and Gaby’s stories, the issues presented transcend culture and so the characters’ backgrounds are used to more to introduce the type and style of storytelling. Or perhaps it’s the other way around… we imagine different cultural backgrounds for each of the characters precisely because of the techniques used to tell their stories.

The set and design of the show – the bedroom that is so key to the storytelling – is also very carefully done, and there is a real style to Paisley’s staging. In fact, I’d say that the use of set design here is the most elaborate (and, that word again, ambitious) of any of the GM Fringe shows I’ve seen this year. However, this did mean that I felt the limitations of venue more keenly than in other shows. While LEAF has a very nice performance space, there were some issues with sound, lighting and audience view (some people on the back row had trouble seeing the fireplace puppetry set). Fortunately, good performances and direction distract from any minor venue niggles.

Overall, Paisley is an enjoyable and striking piece of theatre, which showcases the range of talents of its cast and crew. I definitely look forward to seeing more from Tea Party Party in the future.