Saturday, 23 February 2019

Review: Tea and Two Sugars (Two Time Theatre)

Tuesday 19th February 2019
53two, Manchester

I attended the press night of another new play in Manchester this week on behalf of North Manchester FM. This time, it was Tea and Two Sugars at 53Two. My review will be played on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here – as is becoming usual – is the (slightly) longer version.

Tea and Two Sugars is a new play by Salford University graduates Rachel Isbister and Crystal Williams, who work together as Two Time Theatre. Co-written (and co-starring) Isbister and Williams, and directed by Chloe Patricia Beale, Tea and Two Sugars was staged at 53Two – the innovative and creative arts space located under the Deansgate arches.

Tea and Two Sugars is a two-hander, telling the story of sisters Hannah and Izzy, and the impact a cancer diagnosis has on their relationship. The play has a single set – Hannah’s living room – and takes place over a period of several months, in vignettes depicting key moments in the story.

The play’s opening is immediately compelling. The audience walks through the stage to take their seats – having seen other plays at the venue, I can say that this a creative choice, rather than a necessity, but one that’s facilitated by the flexible performance space – and it’s not long before the sound of voices from the bar area indicates that we’re being followed by the characters themselves. Hannah and Izzy arrive on stage chattering and laughing, setting the conversational, everyday tone that will be sustained throughout the play.

Hannah is a level-headed 25-year-old (played by Isbister), and Izzy is a fidgety teenage chatterbox (played by Williams). The performances in Tea and Two Sugars are excellent, and the chemistry between the two is a significant strength. Williams’s Izzy is at once precocious and immature, self-absorbed and vulnerable. Isbister’s Hannah is the counterpoint to this, a poised young woman older than her years (and the play makes a number of well-pitched references to why Hannah has needed to adopt this persona, which evoked backstory without dumping exposition on the audience). Utterly believable as sisters, Williams and Isbister manage to imbue even the most mundane dialogue (which is, as the title suggests, often about making cups of tea) with a meaningful charm.

The sisters’ relationship is put under stress by the revelation that Hannah has been diagnosed with cervical cancer. While I think most audiences will be aware that this is the play’s main subject matter (not least from its fundraising for the charity Jo’s Trust throughout the run), it is interesting to think about how this revelation would look if you didn’t know what to expect. In my opinion, the play works well in this way, particularly in the way it presents Hannah’s (as then undiagnosed) symptoms within the context of discussions about Izzy’s first period, with the younger woman asking her sister if those things are ‘normal’ and receiving no answer.

The conversations within the play about menstruation, puberty and female sexuality are handled with a light touch, but a serious heart. The character of Izzy convinces as an adolescent, and the revelation that this boisterous, make-up-wearing, party-going young woman has actually only just reached menarche was touchingly (and scarily) realistic. Sadly, the idea that Izzy has been taught how to put a condom on a banana, but nothing about sanitary products, also rang true.

Overall, however, while the play has many strengths, I was underwhelmed by the way the cancer storyline was handled. Perhaps this is because it is a one-act play, with limited space to fully expand its narrative. We see little of Hannah’s illness itself – or of the toll the illness takes on Izzy – as the time constraints move us from diagnosis to revelation to bad news to the decision to cease treatment at a rapid pace. Hannah ends more as a traditional heroine of the sickness melodrama, physically unchanged by her illness but inevitably destined to die. I question whether romanticizing the illness to this extent is really offering something new, and I felt the story lacked any real explanation or clarification as to what sort of treatment or symptoms a real-life Hannah would experience. The play side-steps the messiness and complexity of a cancer diagnosis in favour of a tear-jerking coming-of-age finale.

It’s a shame that the story turned to a more melodramatic arc, as its early scenes (and the initial build-up to Hannah’s revelation) are skilfully handled. Williams and Isbister create a believable and likable pair of sisters, who are placed in a milieu that is fascinating in its very ordinariness. The attention to detail in the show’s set is fantastic, making expert use of a rather small stage area. And I really liked the feature of having Hannah pin selfies of the two sisters to a string of lights in between scenes.

Ultimately, this is a well-written, well-directed and beautifully performed piece that exudes warmth and charm. If the cancer narrative itself is somewhat limited in its execution, the ‘world’ of Hannah and Izzy feels very real. Two Time Theatre Company is definitely emerging as one to watch, and I look forward to seeing what’s next from this new company.

Tea and Two Sugars was on at 53Two from the 19th-22nd February.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Chocolate Box (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 a review of ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The sixth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot first aired on 21st February 1993. It was based on the sort story of the same name (aka ‘The Clue of the Chocolate Box’), which was first published in The Sketch on 23rd May 1923.

The story opens with Hastings and Poirot enjoying a quiet night in as a storm rages outside. Hastings is having a hot toddy, and his friend is drinking hot chocolate. It’s a cosy little domestic scene, and Poirot expresses his satisfaction with life.
‘“Yes, it’s a good old world,” [Hastings] agreed. “Here am I with a job, and a good job too! And here are you, famous –”’
I don’t know what to make of Hastings’s comment here, and I’m a bit reluctant to reopen my persistent confusion about Hastings’s background. There’s no explanation as to what job he’s got, and it’s never mentioned again. In later stories, he appears to be back living with Poirot, so it obviously isn’t a permanent change. Given the story’s ending (which I’ll come to shortly), I think this is another nod to the dynamic duo’s forebears: the scene evokes some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, where Watson visits Holmes after leaving Baker Street to set up his own rooms and practice.

Anyway, regardless of the questions raised by Hastings’s comment, the domestic setting serves simply to set up a rather unusual narrative. What’s important here is Hastings’s claim that Poirot is famous, and that he doesn’t know ‘what failure is’. Poirot, moved to a nostalgic mood by the hot chocolate and blazing fire, begins to reminisce about a time that he ‘made the complete prize ass’ of himself.

Slow dissolve…

The story that follows is narrated by Poirot, and it takes place in Belgium, prior to the detective entering the UK as a refugee of German occupation. As a member of the Belgian police force, Poirot was involved in the investigation into the death of Paul Déroulard, a French politician living in Brussels. Déroulard, despite being in good health, has died suddenly of heart failure, and the police do not believe the circumstances to be suspicious.

However, Poirot is drawn into the investigation at the request of a young woman named Virginie Mesnard, a cousin of Déroulard’s late wife, who was living in the household at the time of Déroulard’s death. Virginie does not believe that the man’s death was due to natural causes. She beseeches Poirot to look into the case – and he agrees.

Poirot’s investigation almost immediately leads him to the eponymous chocolate box. Déroulard died after a dinner party, during which all the guests ate and drank the same things. There seems to be no sign of poison being administered through other means. The only possible way the man could have been poisoned is suggested by a large box of chocolates in the man’s study. The chocolates in the box are untouched, but Poirot’s methodical eye is bothered by an anomaly: the box itself is pink, but the lid is blue.

Poirot looks into the case – seemingly as much to explain the mystery of the chocolate box lid than the death of Déroulard (a man whose death seemed ‘fortunate’ to Poirot). His sleuthing leads him to M. de Saint Alard, Déroulard’s neighbour, John Wilson, an Englishman, a prescription for trinitrine (angina medication) tablets, and a missing pill bottle. But, before he can get much further, Virginie visits him and begs him to drop the case.

Eventually, Poirot (after a bit of housebreaking disguised as a plumber) believes he has sufficient proof of Saint Alard’s guilt. The man has a motive, and the empty trinitrine bottle is discovered in his house. He returns to Déroulard’s house and announces his success to the dead man’s mother… who immediately tells him he’s got it wrong:
‘It was not M. de Saint Alard who killed my son. It was I, his mother.’
Poirot did not see that one coming – and that’s why he counts the case as his one and only failure.

As a short story, there are a couple of interesting points about ‘The Chocolate Box’ (aside from the obvious fact that it offers a little bit of insight into Poirot’s pre-Mysterious Affair at Styles life). For me, the best bits come at the beginning and end of Poirot’s tale.

In introducing the Déroulard case, Poirot offers the following background:
‘It was at the time of the terrible struggle in France between church and state. M. Paul Déroulard was a French deputy of note. It was an open secret that the portfolio of a Minister awaited him. He was among the bitterest of the anti-Catholic party, and it was certain that on his accession to power, he would have to face violent enmity.’
This is quite a serious political backdrop to the story, and it raises the question of religion that is often side-stepped in other Poirot stories. Catholicism, where it is mentioned in other stories, is more usually a domestic matter – a barrier to divorce, in most cases. Here, it is a political issue, and one to which Poirot has a strong connection. He tells Hastings that he was not sorry about Déroulard’s death, because he remains ‘bon catholique’.

I think this is probably the strongest statement Poirot ever makes about his religion, his politics and his connection to his homeland.

If the beginning of ‘The Chocolate Box’ reminds us that Poirot was once a detective in the Belgian police force, the ending reminds us that he’s also (at times) a playful riff on another famous literary detective.

That’s right! ‘The Chocolate Box’ has another brilliant reference to a Sherlock Holmes story, and it’s one of my favourites. (I’ve mentioned some others that appear in ‘The Lost Mine’, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, ‘The Veiled Lady’, ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and – notoriously – ‘The Double Clue’.)

After telling Hastings’s the truth about the Déroulard case, Poirot confesses that he is still haunted by the spectre of his failure:
‘An old lady commits a crime in such a simple and clever fashion that I, Hercule Poirot, am completely deceived. Sapristi! It does not bear thinking of! Forget it. Or no – remember it, and if you think at any time that I am growing conceited – it is not likely, but it might arise. […] Eh bien, my friend, you shall say to me, “Chocolate box”. Is it agreed?’
This is a direct reference to the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’, a rare example of Holmes’s deductions being proved false at the end of the narrative. ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ ends with Holmes exhorting Watson:
‘If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper “Norbury” in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.’
I don’t think there’s any question that Christie was making a clear and direct reference to Conan Doyle’s story here. But there’s a cheeky difference: ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ ends with Holmes’s request to Watson, but ‘The Chocolate Box’ has a coda:
‘“After all,” said Poirot reflectively, “it was an experience! I, who have undoubtedly the finest brain in Europe at present, can afford to be magnanimous!”
“Chocolate box,” I murmured gently.’
Hee hee… let’s see how this is handled in the adaptation then…

‘The Chocolate Box’ was directed by Ken Grieve and written by Douglas Watkinson. Watkinson’s previous script for the series was ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, which was not exactly a faithful adaptation of Christie’s short story. ‘The Chocolate Box’ takes less liberties in its adaptation, but there some significant changes made to the story.

Firstly, while this episode is a two-hander, it’s not the two hands you might be expecting. This episode features just Poirot and Japp; Hastings and Miss Lemon are absent. This isn’t the first Poirot/Japp episode – ‘Death in the Clouds’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ were also Hastings-less two-handers – but it’s the first (only) one to show the two men off on a little trip together.

For services to the Belgian police force, ever since the notorious Abercrombie forgery case, Japp is to be awarded the prestigious title of ‘Compagnon de la Branche d’Or’. The ceremony is to be held in Brussels, but Mrs Japp has decided not to accompany him.
‘Brussels is a far cry from Isleworth.’
So, instead, he is accompanied by his old friend and co-investigator on the Abercrombie case, M. Hercule Poirot.
‘It is an honour to deputize for Madame Japp.’

Of course, returning to Brussels (perhaps for the first time since WWI ended?) provokes Poirot to reminisce about past cases. He decides to tell Japp the story of his one and only failure – though the TV Poirot, unlike his literary counterpart, insists that this failure was the result of others’ mistakes, not his own. Nevertheless, he begins to narrative the tale.

Slow dissolve…

Watkinson’s adaptation presents a reasonably faithful version of the Deroulard/Déroulard case as it appears in Christie’s story. The man has died after a dinner party, and his death is believed to be due to heart failure. His neighbour, Xavier St Alard (played by Geoffrey Whitehead) was present, as was his friend Gaston Beaujeu (David de Keyser) who is an uncontroversial substitute for the English John Wilson. The mismatched chocolate box, trinitrine and housebreaking are all preserved here too.

The main difference to the Deroulard mystery itself comes in a slight tweaking of Madame Deroulard’s (Rosalie Crutchley) motive. The story downplays the political backdrop to the case, with Deroulard being presented as simply being ‘bad’ for Belgium and some non-specific comments about possible collaboration with the Germans (once again, we’re presented with a view of Europe on the brink of war, but it’s WWI rather than WWII this time). Instead, the episode places a heavier emphasis on the death of Deroulard’s wife prior to the events of the case. While the religious and political backdrop is retained – the women in Deroulard’s household are explicitly devout Catholics – a more domestic element is introduced in the (later confirmed) suspicion that Deroulard murdered his wife.

However, these minor tweaks don’t drastically alter Christie’s original plot.

Is this box green and pink? Or blue and black?

The big change comes in the addition of new backstory for Hercule himself. The episode introduces a personal relationship between the detective and Virginie Mesnard (played by Anna Chancellor).

The episode has Poirot fall head over heels in love with Virginie. Now, Christie was quite happy to hint at the women in Poirot’s past in her stories, but this isn’t something that’s really been present in the series to this point. In fact, the TV series has already suggested that there was only ‘one woman’ for Poirot – Vera Rossakoff. The revelation that Poirot’s real true love was a woman he once knew in Brussels is a bold move, and one that may have irritated hardened #TeamVera fans. For me, though, it fits perfectly. I’ve been ardently #TeamVirginie since the episode aired.

I think the thing that swung it for me was the story behind Poirot’s lapel pin that emerges during the story. As you may know, I’m quite the fan of Poirot’s accessories, and I’m building up a small folder of his stylish accoutrements – from spyglass walking stick to silver pocket ashtray. Since the first episode, Poirot has sported a silver pin with minute flowers on his suit. Until ‘The Chocolate Box’, it’s simply a distinctive part of his costume that appears in every episode, the changing (fresh?) flowers showing the man’s fussy attention to detail. I really like that this episode invests this little item with a sentimental value.

During the course of their investigation and burgeoning friendship (relationship?), Virginie presents the policeman with a token of her affection. The fact that he’s still wearing it years later shows that it is Virginie, not Vera, who is the woman.

I’ve always liked the backstory ‘The Chocolate Box’ gives Poirot. However, there are some unanswered questions at the end. Back in the present day, Poirot is reunited with his old friend Jean-Louis (Jonathan Barlow), the pharmacist who helped him identify trinitrine tablets as the source of the poison. It is a warm and heartfelt reunion, and it’s clear the two men were close friends.

But then Poirot is reunited with Virginie – the woman. In Christie’s story, Virginie enters a convent after the case is closed, but in the TV version it turns out Jean-Louis and Virginie have married, and they have two sons (one of whom they have named Hercule). Suchet plays this scene beautifully, capturing Poirot’s bittersweet happiness for his two old friends. However, this does raise the question of why Poirot wasn’t already aware of their marriage. Did he not keep in touch with Jean-Louis at all after he left Belgium? Has he not spoken to any of his old friends in Brussels? Why did Jean-Louis and Virginie not invite him to their wedding? Or at least inform him of it – after all, they obviously still think fondly of him as they’ve named their son in his honour?

There are two possibilities here. Either Poirot literally severed all ties with his old life in Brussels when he was forced to move to England in 1916, or there is more to the story than we see on screen. The first possibility doesn’t seem likely: throughout both the TV series and Christie’s stories, Poirot shows a tendency to long-standing friendships and associations, and to keeping in contact with the people who are important to him. Look at how much he misses Hastings after The Murder on the Links. Are we really to believe he cut Jean-Louis out without a second thought?

The second possibility is more intriguing. What – exactly – happened between the events of ‘The Chocolate Box’ and ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’? Here’s my hypothesis (and I think you’ll agree, it’s really the only viable solution): after the events of ‘The Chocolate Box’, Poirot proposed to Virginie, but she turned him down. Poirot was devastated, and the heartbreak remained with him when he fled to England. He didn’t cut his old friends dead out of malice or thoughtlessness, but because it was too painful for him to remember.

I’ve believed in this theory since I first saw the episode in 1993, and rewatching now has done nothing to change my mind. I think the ‘knowledge’ that Poirot was turned down by the love of his life has coloured my entire perception of the character, to be honest. And for that reason, I’ve always had a lot of affection of ‘The Chocolate Box’. I mean, who couldn’t love that episode?

(My husband – that’s who. He thought it was ‘dull’ and ‘nothing really happened’. I guess he’s not on #TeamVirginie then.)

Two final points…

Christie’s story has Poirot pretend to be a plumber to gain access to search Saint Alard’s house. Due to the increased involvement of Virginie in the TV investigation, this is no longer necessary. Instead, Virginie lures St Alard to the opera, and Poirot breaks into the house in his absence. Nevertheless, Poirot does alter his appearance slightly for his housebreaking.

I was delighted to note that Poirot’s housebreaking costume here is the same as the one he dons in ‘The Veiled Lady’. Mad Dog rides again!

And it would be remiss of me not to at least say something about accents in this episode. This is a problem that will arise in other episodes as well. ‘The Chocolate Box’ is set in Brussels. With the exception of Japp, every character in the episode is Belgian. And yet, not only do they all speak in English, they all speak with English accents (with the exception of Suchet’s Poirot, of course).

In Christie’s story, all the dialogue is given in English, with a few small interjections in French. This is understandable though, as the story is being narrated by Poirot to Hastings. In the adaptation, the flashback sequences are being narrated by Poirot to Japp, so I presume he would be rendering the dialogue into English. However, we also see Poirot’s Belgian colleagues and friends in the present day – why are they all speaking English?

This is, of course, simply a stylistic decision by the programme-makers. Giving everyone a Belgian accent would possibly only highlight the fact that they’re speaking the wrong language, and filming the entire episode in French would’ve been a bit too much for the audience. It’s one that will rear its head again – how to present conversations between Francophones – and one that will be handled differently in different episodes. I guess it’s just more obvious in ‘The Chocolate Box’ as everyone is Belgian.

On that note, it’s time to leave this one and move on. The next episode will be ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, but before I get to that I’d like to take a detour to have a little look at one of Christie’s minor recurring characters: Mr Satterthwaite.

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (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 a review of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 14th February 1993… almost exactly 26 years ago… how time flies! The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch on 24th October 1923. And it’s a corker of an episode.

But let’s talk about Christie’s short story first…

Have you ever thought that Poirot and Hastings’s relationship is a bit too… well… close? Or rather, a bit closed off? While they’re obviously very good friends, and each has the occasional acquaintance who pops up in a story, they don’t really do much socializing with people outside their little duo. Almost all the people they spend time with are clients or suspects. The only person they repeatedly refer to as a friend is Japp, and he’s more a work colleague. They just don’t seem to have any relationships that aren’t formal or professional.
‘Poirot and I had many friends and acquaintances of an informal nature.’
Oops… sorry, Hastings. My bad.

I can’t decide whether this abrupt opening is defensive or lazy. It’s a pretty heavy-handed way to set the scene, either way. The point is, Hastings and Poirot are hanging out with one of the many, many friends – a Dr Hawker – when their evening party (yes, the pair are definitely living together in this one) is interrupted by a ‘distracted female’:
‘Oh, doctor, you’re wanted! Such a terrible voice. It gave me a turn, it did indeed.’
The distracted female is Dr Hawker, and the terrible voice was that of Hawker’s patient, one Count Foscatini, who was calling to beg for help after an attack. Hawker, Poirot and Hastings hurry to Foscatini’s flat and discover the man has been murdered. They investigate, and then call in their ‘Scotland Yard friend, Inspector Japp’ to wrap things up. (Japp proceeds to arrest the wrong guy, by the way.)

‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is an interesting story for two reasons (in addition to Hastings’s weird compulsion to point out how many friends he and Poirot have). Firstly, it continues Christie’s minor fascination with fancy new-build and serviced apartments. This was first seen in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and would be seen again in ‘The Third Floor Flat’. (Don’t be confused here… the order of publication is different to the order of adaptation.)

In ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and ‘The Third Floor Flat’ the stories include details of modern design features, particularly fancy-pants dustbin storage and service staircases. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, Foscatini lives in a full-blown new-fangled serviced apartment:
‘Regent’s Court was a new block of flats, situated just off St John’s Wood Road. They had only recently been built, and contained the latest service devices.’
Christie’s mild fascination with serviced apartments and their thoroughly modern mechanisms for murder inspired a bit of a mild fascination in me when I first saw these episodes. However, I’ll admit I don’t know a huge amount about the history of this type of building. Wikipedia tells me that ‘Regent’s Court’ in this story was fictional, so I have to assume it isn’t related to the current ‘Regent Court’ portered apartment building near St John’s Road – the proximity to Regent’s Park explains the similarity of names between the fictional and real-life buildings. Nevertheless, Christie didn’t invent the concept of a ‘new block of flats’ with ‘the latest service devices’.

Doing internet searches for the history of ‘serviced apartments in London’ is a bit tricky, as we seem to be going through a bit of a serviced apartments renaissance (flats like those in Regent Court, which have a porter service and function as a sort of vertical gated community). But I have found a few little interesting nuggets of information…

The type of apartment inhabited by Count Foscatini experience a brief boom in popularity in the 1920s and 30s. I can’t remember where I read this (so no footnote I’m afraid), but some have put this popularity down to the changing fortunes of the upper classes. After WWI, it became increasingly difficult for rich men to staff a house with live-in servants – and, in some cases, to run a large house at all – and so a smaller, more modern residence with a permanent staff must have appealed. While some residents of these apartment blocks might have a single live-in (e.g. Mrs Grant in ‘The Third Floor Flat’ has a maid, and Poirot himself will take valet George with him when he moves to Whitehaven Mansions), the main work of the building is done by a shared staff who look after the needs of all residents.

One of the earliest examples of this arrangement I’ve been able to find is St James’s Court (now St James’s Hotel) on Park Place. This building – it is claimed – open in 1892 as a block of 44 serviced flats. It described itself as a ‘gentleman’s chamber’, suggesting it was somewhere between a pied-à-terre and a gentleman’s club. Presumably, many of the impossibly posh blokes who owned/rented the flats (like David Cameron’s great-great-grandfather-in-law, for example) would have a ‘primary’ or ‘country’ residence elsewhere.

I don’t think St James’s Court is quite indicative of the type of flats Christie is using in her stories, though. Her apartment blocks tend to be inhabited by wealthy professionals and bright young things, rather than the landed gentry. Prospective tenants are young married couples, single women, consulting detectives and blackmailers, and the flats will be the primary residence for the inhabitants. By the 20s and 30s, these new apartment blocks were accommodating a wave of fashionable city centre living, where the wealthy urbanistas increasingly rely on staff rather than servants (note that Regent’s Court in this story employs a ‘chef’ and not a ‘cook’). Guy Morgan’s Florin Court (built in 1936) and William Bryce Binnie’s Addisland Court (also 1936) are surviving examples of later art deco-designed blocks. Claire Bennie makes this comment on her website London Deco Flats:
‘What these wonderful 1930s buildings remind us is that there used to be a particular kind of tenant, on a medium income, who demanded porterage, parking, perhaps a maid, and sometimes dining and sports facilities.’
The descriptions of city flats in Christie’s earlier stories suggests that the ‘particular kind of tenant’ was also in the market for rented housing in the 1920s. That’s as much as I know about serviced apartments, and I’m sure I’ve probably made some horrible errors in my summary. Please – please – if you have more info on this specific bit of British housing history, let me know. I’ve been interested in this type of flat since February 1993, so I’d love a reading list!

Now… back to the story… and the second reason ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is interesting. I’ve gone on a bit already, but I reckon I can sum this one up a bit more quickly…

When Poirot and Hastings arrive at Regent’s Court, they discover Count Foscatini’s valet-butler Graves, who, like many a helpful and deferential servant in Golden Age fiction, gives the detective a careful and thorough outline of his employer’s movements and visitors. He describes the gentlemen who called to see his master the previous day, the dinner that was served on the evening of the murder, and a simple overview of his master’s entertaining habits. Graves explains that he served a meal to his master and guests, and then was given the evening off. He went out at 8.30pm and returned just in time to find Poirot poring over the body of his erstwhile employer.

Graves’s evidence is standard. This is how servants are used in so much Golden Age detective fiction – they’re essentially depersonalised narrators of the ‘background’ events of the case. They give neutral evidence of the household’s comings and goings, the timings of meals, the layout and security arrangements of the building. In these cases, the word of the servant is taken as a matter of fact, because the staff are simply plot devices to convey the material situation in which the murder has taken place. At times, a detective like Poirot might be able to push a servant to speculate, gossip or reveal a secret they are not supposed to know but, again, this almost always taken as a matter of fact.

Now, sometimes, a servant might have a secret of their own. They may be guilty of a crime – fiddling the household accounts, for instance, or colluding with some wrong ’un from outside the household. They may not be who they claim to be, or they may have falsified their references, but they are never seriously in the frame for the murder.

The whole point of Golden Age detective fiction is that the murderer represents the dark heart of the domestic set-up. It’s the spouse, the child, the parent, the family doctor. The call is coming from inside the house.

Agatha Christie does love playing tricks though. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, she assumes that we assume that the valet-butler’s evidence is neutral evidence, a statement of fact. It’s enough for Hastings and Japp, who take everything Graves says at face value, leading to the hunt for Foscatini’s dinner guest and the erroneous arrest of Ascanio.

It’s not enough for Poirot (naturally):
‘What evidence have we that Ascanio and his friend, or two men posing as them, ever came to the flat that night? Nobody saw them go in; nobody saw them go out. We have the evidence of one man and a host of inanimate objects.’
The characteristic Christie misdirection in this story was making us think we were listening to a butler, when really we were listening to a man.

(As a sidenote, I now wonder if my two ‘interesting points’ are actually related. The standard country house mystery has the murderer at the heart of the family/household, then how can this be updated to reflect the new fashionable urban living arrangements of the middle classes? For unattached men like Foscatini – well-to-do city renters – their household is their valet.)

(As a more pressing sidenote… OMG! What’s the deal with 1920s speed-eating??

To recap… Graves claims that two men came to visitor his master. A dinner (for three) is ordered and served at 8pm. This is a fact corroborated by the Regent’s Court chef. The meal consists of the following:
‘Soup julienne, filet de sole normande, tournedos of beef, and a rice soufflé.’

Okay, looks like a perfectly fine dinner. Apparently the men casually conversed about ‘politics, the weather, and the theatrical world’ while dining. Graves then placed the port on the table, served them coffee, and headed out to meet a friend.

Graves left the apartment at around 8.30pm.


So, these men managed to put away soup, sole normande, beef tournedos, a little bit of rice soufflé (admittedly most of it was left) and some coffee, all the while conversing merrily… in half an hour? Seriously??

This gets even more indigestion-inducing when we discover the truth: in fact, there were no visitors, Foscatini was dead before 8 o’clock, and Graves himself consumed all of the ordered food. And then smoked a cigar and two cigarettes.

And then left the apartment at around 8.30pm.

Is it even possible to eat that much food in half an hour? He ate three quarters of a fish, for god’s sake! And around 15-21oz of steak! No wonder he bursts back into the flat later ‘with every appearance of grief and agitation’.)

Anyway… that’s enough beef for this vegetarian; I’ve spent enough time Googling what ‘sole’ and ‘tournedos’ actually are and asking my husband cryptic questions about how much fish he could eat in a single sitting. Let’s move on to the adaptation…

The episode was directed by Brian Farnham and written by Clive Exton. And it’s just excellent.

The beauty of this episode is that Christie’s story is retained faithfully, but the episode is fleshed out with the expansion of subplots and some lovely storylines for ‘the gang’. While this is true for a number of other early episodes of Poirot, the Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon storylines here are just beautiful.

Ironically, given that Christie’s story begins with Hastings curtly announcing that he and Poirot do have other friends, you know, the TV episode begins with him being utterly baffled by the concept of Miss Lemon having a social life. He enters Poirot’s office in a tizzy, because he’s discovered that Miss Lemon… isn’t there. Poirot tells him calmly that Miss Lemon is out with a gentleman friend.

I love this storyline – it belongs completely and utterly to the TV show and has absolutely no basis in any of Christie’s fiction. I love what it reveals about the ‘family’ dynamic of Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon, with Hastings assuming the role of protective older brother and Poirot that of affectionate pater. I love that Poirot insists Miss Lemon’s friend comes to tea, and that both men appear to be sizing him up in their different ways. I love Miss Lemon’s comments on the class system (‘the way we were all brought up to think’) when she discovers Edwin is a butler and not a private secretary. And I love the fact that this is (I think) the first time we hear someone call Miss Lemon ‘Felicity’.

But, more importantly, I love the way the gang react when Edwin Graves’s (Leonard Preston) crimes are revealed. After apprehending the murdering, cheating butler (more on that shortly), Hastings gives him a proper punch in the chops:
‘You swine! That’s for Miss Lemon!’
Avuncular Poirot, however, has to break the news to Miss Lemon. And I love this too. The little Belgian tiptoes into Miss Lemon’s office, prepared to gently explain that her boyfriend was (a) married and (b) a murderer. It’s such a sweet scene, and I love the way Suchet conveys Poirot’s palpable concern and pain on Miss Lemon’s behalf.

But I also love the fact that Miss Lemon doesn’t care. She has to ask Poirot who ‘Edwin’ is, because Mr Graves is dead to her. Not because he killed his employer. Not because he stole a load of money. Not because he had a secret wife. Not because he was weirdly proficient at speed-eating beef. But because he was planning to have Foscatini’s cat put to sleep. For Felicity Lemon, that is the ultimate crime.

The Miss Lemon storyline is probably my favourite bit of this episode, but the Hastings bit comes a very close second. As cats are to Miss Lemon, cars are to Captain Hastings. And oh boy! There’s a car and a half here.

In this episode, Hastings has decided to ditch his beloved Lagonda and purchase a swanky Eliso Freccia (a fictional Italian make). In bare plot terms, this is done to allow an expansion of the ‘sinister Italian’ red herring of Christie’s story. In the original, Foscatini is not a count, but rather a blackmailer. Ascanio – presumed to be a political assassin – is actually Foscatini’s victim, and his earlier visit to the man’s flat was for the purpose of paying him off. (In the story, as in the TV version, Foscatini is revealed to be a very reasonable blackmailer.)

In the adaptation, Foscatini’s web of blackmail goes further, involving Bruno Vizzini (David Neal) and Margherita Fabbri (Anna Mazzotti) of the Eliso Freccia firm. This allows for two further expansions: (1) the obligatory reference to the brewing conflict in Europe, as Vizzini’s ‘crime’ is to have supported anti-fascist groups in Italy; and (2) a somewhat underwhelming subplot for Japp, where he’s on the trail of the ‘Maznada’, an Italian organized crime family that’s ‘older than the Mafia’. But while these are perfectly sensible reasons for including the Italian car firm in the episode, I think we all know the real reason for including it… it’s an excuse for some Hastings car porn!

There’s a bit of a joke among some fans of the series that early episodes shoehorned in car chases at the drop of a hat. Hastings does tend to jump behind the wheel with ease in the first couple of series, but ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ gives us the ne plus ultra of car chases.

When the police descend on Chichester to apprehend the absconding Mr Graves, the murderous valet spins his car round and floors it. Hastings spots an opportunity, jumps into a waiting Eliso Freccia car (apparently played by an Alfa Romeo 2900A with its understandably protective owner body-doubling for Hugh Fraser, in case you’re interested) and goes in pursuit. What follows is a brilliant sequence, in which the two men wheel their rather cumbersome cars through increasingly narrow streets, at a speed that could hardly be called ‘breakneck’. A passer-by shrieks and drops her crockery; the chase is held up by a wandering flock of geese; holiday-makers in an open-top bus point in amazement. It’s pure magic.

Fun as the car chase is, I do have some concerns about the Eliso Freccia car. You see, I paused the episode at the moment Hastings signs the purchase contract…

Woah… how much? £1900? So, about £130,000 in today’s money? Where on earth did Hastings get that much money from? Why is he still mooching off Poirot if he’s got £1900 burning a hole in his pocket? Once again, the finances of Captain Hastings baffle me.

Argh… it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m in danger of getting sidetracked by Hastings’s bank balance again. Time to wrap this one up, I think. Just a couple of additional points of interest with this one…

1. I like that Hastings employs the same visualisation techniques as Miss Lemon used in ‘Double Sin’ when she lost the flat keys. Here, Hastings has to cast his mind back to seeing a postcard of Graves’s boat in order to remember where it was docked.

2. The (fictional) Regent’s Court of Christie’s story is replaced by a real building – Addisland Court. The scenes at Foscatini’s flat were actually filmed on location at Addisland Court, which makes this block of flats one of the few buildings to actually play itself in the series.

3. The gut-busting reality of what Graves actually does clearly bothered Exton as much as it bothers me, as he makes some subtle changes to ease the strain on Graves’s digestive tract. While the menu is identical to that in Christie’s short story (the interview with the chef is one of the scenes adapted almost verbatim from the source), the TV Graves only pretends there is one guest coming. Thus, he only has to Man-versus-Food two full dinners, instead of three. Exton also makes a minor adjustment to the timings: the dinner is served at 8pm, but Graves doesn’t go out until just before nine, giving him a little bit longer to finish the steaks.

4. Poirot doesn’t respond well to the arrival of Count Foscatini’s cat.

And with that, it’s time to move on. The next episode is ‘The Chocolate Box’

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Review: SparkPlug (Box of Tricks)

Thursday 14th February 2019
HOME, Manchester

Another theatre review from me! On Thursday, I was at HOME again for North Manchester FM, this time attending the press night of SparkPlug, a new play by Mancunian writer and performer David Judge. My review played out today on Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the (slightly) longer version…

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

SparkPlug is a new production by Manchester-based theatre company Box of Tricks, which is currently on at HOME Manchester. The show is written and performed by David Judge and directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder.

This is a one-man show, and Judge has spoken in interviews about how it’s inspired by his own childhood and upbringing. Technically, the piece is a monologue, but the lyrical script and energetic performance style ensure that SparkPlug is so much more than a soliloquy. Its verbal style is poetic, with the rhythms and cadences of a spoken word piece, and its decade-long narrative unfolds in vignettes.

This is the story of Dave, a white working-class man from Wythenshawe with dodgy tattoos and a Ford Capri (well, it is the 1980s). Dave falls for Joanne, a friend of his sister, and near the beginning of the show he ‘rescues’ her from a drink- and drug-fuelled party at her flat in Moss Side. The party has descended into violence, and Dave narrates his concerns (and, significantly, his prejudices) about being a white man in a predominantly black neighbourhood. He also talks about his role as big brother to Angela, driver to his friends and family, and (potentially) lover to Joanne.

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

Joanne, it transpires, is pregnant, and the father of the baby is black. Dave falls in love with Joanne, and then falls in love with the baby (a boy named David). As SparkPlug unfolds, this latter love – paternal love – is the central focus. This is not a play about a man’s relationship with a woman (though some aspects of Dave and Joanne’s relationship are covered), but rather a man’s relationship with his son. Interestingly, the word ‘stepson’ isn’t used at any point in the play – in SparkPlug’s world, you’re either a dad or you’re not.

The story takes place from 1983 to 1993. It charts the first ten years of young David’s life, though told from the perspective of Dave, a white man bringing up a black son (sometimes single-handedly) in Wythenshawe. The play tackles the question of race and skin colour head on, and is unafraid of addressing the more complicated aspects of dual heritage (or mixed race) identities. Racism, in various forms, is represented – from the direct, dehumanising comments of David’s white Irish grandmother to the polite but prurient curiosity of a Butlins holiday rep – but the play avoids reductive statements and commentary. Most strikingly, the play doesn’t hold back from presenting the prejudices of its central character, though that’s not to say that Dave is presented as an unreconstructed racist. This is a slice of life piece – warts and all – albeit one looked at from an unusual and unexpected angle.

This is also a story about masculinity and fatherhood – the script draws specific attention to the difference between being a (biological) father and being a dad. The character of Dave is drawn with real affection and warmth – he is, after all, our protagonist throughout – but the play doesn’t shy away from representing the darker side of masculine identity, with one sequence in particular, towards the end of the play, offering a painful and prolonged exploration of more destructive tendencies. Again, SparkPlug avoids hand-wringing explanations or excuses: Dave’s behaviour is presented as it is, and the audience is left to come to their own conclusions.

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

The play’s set, and Judge’s performance style, work well with the lyrical script. The metal frame of a car dominates the stage, and parts of this frame are removed, replaced and repurposed throughout the play to conjure different scenes. Although the car is a car for much of the performance (it is Dave’s Ford Capri, before becoming subsequent cars as time moves on), it is also a stage – on which Judge climbs, stands, curls and clings. Judge is barely still for a moment during the performance. With a near-static set, the audience is reliant on verbal and physical performance to set the scene – there are no set or lighting changes between vignettes, and the story jumps ahead by months or years at a staggering pace. Judge handles this with style, skill and exuberance – and with a little help from some well-selected music that serves as both soundtrack and thematic motifs.

As I’ve said, this is an autobiographically inspired piece, and Judge offers a short introductory ‘scene’ from the perspective of the son (drawing on his own life experiences), before entering the character of white, Capri-driving dad Dave. This introduction serves to set up the story as an affectionate homage to the man who raised David, and encourages the audience to view him with sympathy and humour.

However, I found myself wondering whether the audience’s feelings towards Dave would be different if the part was played by a white actor. Or if the introductory scene and subsequent monologue were performed by different actors. SparkPlug’s harder hitting lines are – at times – almost cushioned by the knowledge that we are watching a son pay tribute to his beloved dad. For instance, Dave’s difficulty at stating outright that he doesn’t like the Afro-Caribbean culture that attracts his sister and her friends, or his resistance to talking about introducing his son to ‘his roots’, raise spectres of entrenched prejudice and a particular view of race and culture. Would we respond differently if these lines were delivered by a white actor? Or if there were more separation between the characters of father and son?

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

I’ve read a couple of interviews with Judge where he’s talked about his intention to create a play that could be performed by other actors. In the current production, it’s hard to separate Judge-the-performer, Judge-the-writer and Judge-the-son – I’d be fascinated to see a future production with different casting. This is not a criticism, though, as Judge’s embodiment of the character of Dave is really skilfully and compellingly done.

Ultimately, SparkPlug is a tribute to, and an exploration of, what it means to be a dad – that’s where its undoubted strengths lie. It’s rare to see a production tackle questions of race, masculinity and violence in such a direct, honest and sympathetic way. Judge’s performance is captivating, carrying the audience through the messy complexities of Dave’s life with energy and compassion, and the show’s final lines are just excellent.

SparkPlug is a play about men, boys, race, sexuality, Manchester and cars. You’re unlikely to see a story quite like it at the theatre – so I’d recommend you check it out if you can.

SparkPlug is on at HOME, Manchester until 23rd February, before touring nationally.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Game Review: Dreadful Tales: The Space Between Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Entertainment
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 3rd January 2019
Platform: PC

I had a couple of game credits to spend on Big Fish, so I thought I’d take a chance on a series I hadn’t heard of before. The Space Between looked like pretty standard haunted house stuff, and the reviews were good. Turns out, the reason I hadn’t heard of the series before is that this is the first Dreadful Tales title by Eipix. But the game’s publicity – and a couple of little in-game hints – definitely appears to be suggesting there’ll be further titles in the series. And if The Space Between is an indication, I’ll probably be giving them a go.

The Space Between is a bit unusual for a HOPA, because it has a framing narrative, rather than a straightforward intro scene. And it quickly becomes clear that the first-person perspective in the frame story isn’t the first-person player-character of the game. (It’s never quite made clear who the first-person character in the frame story actually is.) The game begins in a curiosity shop, and the PC is shown a strange box by the shopkeeper. He begins to explain the story behind the box… and the game begins…

The main game is the shopkeeper’s story – you become the characters in his tale. This is a pretty cool device, and not one I’ve come across before in a HOPA. As I’ve said, the story is a haunted house one – with little echoes of Amityville: Mark and Martha Spencer have bought a house (unseen) to ‘flip’. It’s falling to pieces and filled with piles of junk (handy!), as well as being miles from anywhere. Within minutes of the Spencers arriving, bad things start to happen. The ‘bad things’ are pretty much as you might expect, though there are some nicely off-beat touches to the backstory that I enjoyed.

The game’s design is fairly characteristic Eipix stuff – it’s dark and atmospheric, with some well-detailed scenes and animations. The music fits well with this overall design. While there aren’t any real surprises design-wise here, there are some carefully rendered details (particularly when you find evidence of the house’s former occupants in the form of documents and newspaper clippings). It’s a pretty stylish game with some great artwork – if I have one criticism it’s that (unusually for me) I found some of the scenes too dark, and I really struggled to make out the morphing objects and collectibles. I don’t normally have a problem with this, so I think the design is particularly dark here.

The frame story is one unusual feature of The Space Between, but there are a couple of other surprises in store. When the main game begins, you play as Martha – so, the usual female-character-saves-the-male schtick. However, there’s something unexpected around the corner. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler… in The Space Between, you switch player-characters at various points in the game. So, although you start out playing Martha, you will at times also be playing Mark. I really liked this twist, and at one point in particular it leant a properly cinematic feel to the game. (There is another fun surprise to the gameplay – quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a HOPA before – but I know revealing that would be a spoiler!)

This is a HOPA, so gameplay is mostly point-and-click movements from one screen to another. There are different difficulty levels, including a Custom option (yay!), and Hint and Skip are available. There’s also an interactive jump map, though I didn’t use this. HOGs in this game are mostly junk piles – but at least there’s a reason for this – but there are also some variants with silhouettes, assembling an item, and one very very creepy ‘find the pictures in the storybook’ puzzle. There are also mini-games here, which are fun but not too tricky, and there are also some in-game tasks (like climbing walls and hitting targets) that give a bit of variation to gameplay. None of the puzzles or tasks feels impossible, but they’re pleasantly challenging. I didn’t use Skip for any of them (yay!).

However, while the HOGs and mini-games were enjoyable, the game does suffer from the perennial problem of illogical and counter-intuitive gameplay as you move between the screens. It’s not always apparent what you have to do next, and some items in the inventory are used in incongruous ways. This is something I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, because it is really frustrating to have to use Hint just to find out how to use everyday inventory objects. It’s also annoying to have to run back and forth between rooms, over and over again, to see if there’s anything new to do. I much prefer games to have clear objectives for each stage and, if possible, to attempt a scenario that’s vaguely plausible.

Once again, I seem to also have a gripe about characters! This is becoming a recurring theme! In The Space Between, you begin playing as Martha. She’s a typical HOPA player-character – running around, finding things, doing puzzles and generally getting stuff done while Mark (the NPC at this point) stands around having a good think. If you’ve read my previous game reviews, you’ll know that I hate it when NPCs send you to find/do something, while they just stand around ‘keeping an eye on things’. There are plenty of moments like this in The Space Between – at one point, Martha has to visit almost every scene in the house, hunting down items and discovering evidence to explain what’s going on, while Mark stands next to a door, claiming he can’t get it open.

Of course, all this changes when you switch to playing as Mark. Except… it doesn’t quite. I had high hopes for Mark. You get a little bit of his backstory revealed as you’re playing as Martha: Mark’s a horror novelist suffering from writer’s block. This doesn’t really go anywhere though, and it doesn’t add much to his character apart from some light moaning about not having written anything lately. You see, it turns out that Mark is almost as useless when he’s a player-character as when he’s an NPC. The ‘Mark’ sections of the game are characterized by internal dialogue (whining) and catastrophic mistakes. I was quite pleased to switch back to being Martha again!

I played the Collector’s Edition, which has a bonus chapter. This is a prequel chapter, and you play as a different character, which fleshes out one of the bits of evidence you find in the main game. It’s not a long chapter, and there aren’t many surprises, but it’s a bit of decent extra gameplay that draws on one of the more grisly scenes from the main game. As well as the bonus chapter, the CE offers achievements, morphing objects and two different sets of collectibles (moths and cassettes). As I’ve said, I struggled with the morphing objects and collectibles in this one. Fortunately, there are replay scenes for all of these, so I did manage to get the cassettes after I’d finished the game (which gives you a neat little endgame treat). Finding the moths gives you a code for a ‘souvenir room’, but I didn’t have the enthusiasm for trawling back through all the scenes to get this. I’m not really sure what the point of the morphing objects was, aside from the fact that they are pretty much de rigueur for HOPAs now. The final extras in the CE – aside from downloadable artwork, videos and music – are replays on the HOGs and mini-games, which is always useful if you’re after all the achievements.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Space Between. Despite some illogical gameplay and a bit of an irritating character, there are some nice unexpected touches here that make the game stand out. If Eipix are planning to make Dreadful Tales into a series, I’ll definitely be checking out the next title.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Review: 2084 (Pure Expression)

Friday 8th February 2019
Central Library, Manchester

On Friday, I was at Central Library, watching another play for North Manchester FM. This time, it was 2084 by theatre company Pure Expression. A (slightly) shorter version of this review aired on A Helping of History on Tuesday, but here’s the (slightly) longer version.

2084 is an immersive theatre performance, adapted from George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is being staged at Manchester Central Library by Pure Expression, a theatre company who specialize in adapting classic texts for unique performance environments (such as libraries, galleries and museums). Pure Expression’s last performance in Manchester was an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The current show, 2084, is directed by Rosanna Mallinson, and performed by Aamira Challenger, Robin Hellier and Simon Gleave.

When I first saw the press release, I was very intrigued by the concept of 2084. I was really keen to see how 1984 was adapted for the twenty-first century, and I was fascinated by the idea that this would be an immersive production – the show’s blurb appeared to be hinting that the audience would be made complicit in Big Brother’s hunt for traitors and thoughtcriminals. This is rather a bold direction to choose, situating the audience as new recruits at the Ministry of Truth, rather than sympathetic observers.

2084 begins wonderfully. The audience are divided into groups in the foyer of Central Library and given headsets. Soft music is pumped in through the headphones and then – something happens. I don’t like to give spoilers in reviews, so I won’t tell you exactly what happens – but suffice to say, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when it became clear the show was properly beginning.

This immersive experience has headset-wearing groups led through the grand corridors and spaces of Manchester Central Library. If you’re not fully familiar with the building, this would be rather disorienting (in a good way), but for me it was a great way to experience a building I know very well in a different way and to look at it in a different light. The performance’s opening makes good use of the space, and this was by far my favourite part of the show. (It’s worth noting, though, that this first part of the show involves a bit of running around and cramming into a lift – you have to keep up with the pack if you don’t want to miss anything.)

After this opening, the audience is led into one of Central Library’s performance spaces for the (somewhat) more static body of the play. At this point, we begin to experience something closer to an adaptation of sections of Orwell’s novel. The conceit is that we (the audience, that is) are new recruits at the Ministry of Truth, and that the performance we are watching is our induction – and an introduction to the power and control of the Party.

Guided through this by a Party member – a loose version of O’Brien from Orwell’s novel – we watch the unfolding story of Winston and Julia’s relationship. The production is not entirely static, with the audience being commanded to stand, move, march and salute at various times. Iconic elements of Orwell’s novel are staged – the Two Minutes Hate, Winston and Julia’s tryst, Room 101 – and the audience is invited to look on the proceedings as good Party members. These scenes are fairly faithful to Orwell’s novel, and so if you’ve read the book then you’ll know the basic trajectory the show is following.

However, I found myself frustrated by the selection of scenes being staged. 2084 centres Winston and Julia’s relationship entirely, to the exclusion of other elements of Orwell’s text. There is no mention, for instance, of Goldstein and the Brotherhood, and the Party member leading us through the ‘induction’ isn’t quite O’Brien. During the Two Minutes Hate sequence, our attention is drawn to the behaviour of the actors on the stage, rather than to the audio-visuals accompanying the performance. While the audience is encouraged to stamp and shout along, there’s no real sense of what the sequence signifies, beyond an opportunity for a clandestine encounter.

More frustrating still, in my opinion, is the presentation of Winston and Julia’s relationship as one of real romance, rather than rebellious expediency. The play essentially reimagines Orwell’s novel as a love story, with Big Brother’s greatest cruelty being the separation of two romantic idealists. For this cynical Generation X-er, it all seems a little bit… well… Millennial. Or perhaps I’m just getting more anti-individualist in my old age (how very Big Brother).

As noted above, 2084 flirts with the idea of audience complicity. The show’s conceit is that the audience are potential Ministry of Truth workers – we are being led through an induction designed to encourage condemnation of Winston’s actions. Overall, I felt that this complicity wasn’t fully developed. It was fun (in a creepy way) to see how quickly everyone got to their feet and marched on command, but this didn’t go any further. Perhaps that’s for the best… the Room 101 sequence was (as expected) fairly disturbing, and it was probably best that the audience watches as shocked witnesses rather than an involved mob. Nevertheless, I was somewhat disappointed at the show’s ending: it reveals something of a misconception about how groupthink and complicity work in Orwell’s, and seems to imply that the Party would be looking for unusually cruel individuals, and not an acquiescent herd. Still, it provoked a grim laugh, which was much needed.

I found myself wondering why this production was titled 2084, rather than simply 1984, given that it is an adapted (rather than updated) version of Orwell’s novel. However, while I had some frustrations watching the show – particularly around the rewritten ending – I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot afterwards. It’s really made me think about the representation of individualism and selfish desire in Orwell’s novel and in dystopian fiction generally – and it’s encouraged me to reflect on why, exactly, I am so unsympathetic to a version of the story that has Winston and Julia fall truly in love.

Ultimately, theatre should be thought-provoking – even discomforting – and 2084 is certainly that. It’s also an entertaining and fun way to experience the grandeur of Manchester’s Central Library. Cynical Orwell-purists (like myself) may find it annoyingly selective in its adaptation, but it’s certainly an interesting production and worth experiencing.

2084 is on at Manchester Central Library until 14th February.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Case of the Missing Will (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 a review of ‘The Yellow Iris’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fourth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 7th February 1993. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was published in The Sketch on October 1923 – though the closeness of this adaptation is something I’m going to come back to shortly.

Christie’s short story is a neat – but rather straightforward – little puzzle for the great detective. It begins with Poirot and Hastings receiving a new client, which Hastings says is ‘rather a pleasant change from [their] routine work’ (though he doesn’t say what, exactly, he counts as ‘routine work’). Hastings’s happiness is short-lived, however, as it transpires that the client, Violet Marsh, is… shock, horror!... a New Woman:
‘I am not a great admirer of the so-called New Woman myself, and, in spite of her good looks, I was not particularly prepossessed in her favour.’
Poirot seems to quite like Violet, though, so the reader is prepossessed in her favour. Is this fair? Hastings can be a pretty bad judge of women… but then again, so can Poirot. After all, it’s Poirot who is taken in by Nick Buckley and Jane Wilkinson, and he’s got a definite soft spot for Jacqueline de Bellefort and (obviously) Vera Rossakoff. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry too much about these murderers and jewel thieves, as Violet Wilson has come with quite a different sort of puzzle.

Violet was the niece (and only relative) of rich businessman Andrew Marsh. During his lifetime, her uncle held ‘peculiar and deeply-rooted ideas as to the upbringing of women’, and was not happy when his niece decided to go to Girton. To teach her that her new-fangled ‘book learning’ is no match for his masculine brains, he uses his will as a final posthumous battle of wits: Marsh leaves all his property to Violet for one year, during which time she must ‘prove her wits’ or the fortune will pass to charities.

After Marsh died, Violet made a quick search of the house, couldn’t find anything obvious, and so immediately came to hire Poirot to solve the puzzle for her. Which he does.

It really is as simple as that.

Poirot visits Crabtree Manor, Marsh’s former home, spots a couple of inconsistencies, and then uses these to ascertain the whereabouts of a second will (dated shortly after the first), which leaves everything unconditionally to Violet. To be brutally honest, it’s a bit of a waste of his excellent little grey cells.

Hastings is thoroughly disappointed by the whole business. He seems bored as he narrates Poirot’s forensic search of the house, unimpressed by Poirot’s discovery of a label that doesn’t match the others, and confused by a last-minute epiphany on a train. As Poirot makes a dash back to Crabtree Manor for the big reveal, Hastings is grumpy and complains that Poirot isn’t paying him enough attention.

Despite his friend’s strop, Poirot is delighted by the case and sums it all up with ‘triumph’. He’s worked out the puzzle, and his client has won the battle of wits. He suggests that this means she has ‘justified her choice of life and elaborate education’, and also that her uncle’s trick was always intended to vindicate his niece’s academic career (assuming she was successful, of course).

Cranky Hastings sees things differently. ‘The old man really won,’ he grumbles.
‘“But no, Hastings. It is your wits that go astray. Miss Marsh proved the astuteness of her wits and the value of the higher education for women by at once putting the matter in my hands. Always employ the expert. She has amply proved her rights to the money.”
“It’s not fair! You never listen to me! I wish I’d never been born!” I shouted, as I ran out of the room and slammed the door.’
Okay. I made that last bit up.

‘The Case of the Missing Will’ is probably not on many Top 10 Poirot Stories lists. It’s a little bit of fun for both Poirot and the reader (not Hastings though), but it’s not the most memorable case. Nevertheless, Christie was clearly quite happy with the central conceit, as it’s one of the plots she reused later on.

The Miss Marple story ‘Strange Jest’ was first published in the US in 1941 and then in the Strand Magazine in 1944 (under the title ‘A Case of Buried Treasure’).* In this little tale, Miss Marple is introduced to kissing-(third)-cousins Edward Rossiter and Charmian Stroud, the sole heirs to their shared Great-Great-Uncle Mathew. Edward and Charmian are convinced that their Uncle Mathew was in possession of a large fortune in gold bullion, but when he died there was no sign of any fortune. Their friend Jane Helier convinces the lovebirds to enlist Miss Marple’s assistance to get their hands on the loot.

As in ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, the detective here accompanies the putative heirs to the dead man’s house, rifles through his property, and then produce the booty with a flourish. But it’s the differences between the stories that are most interesting.

What I really like about this pair of stories is the way that Christie fitted each of the ‘missing will’ pranks to the idiosyncrasies of the respective sleuths. So, in the earlier story, the clue comes in the form of a label that doesn’t match the others; in the later one, the hints come in sly uses of outdated slang (‘gammon and spinach’, ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’). In ‘Missing Will’, Poirot pores over an account of the day of the will’s writing and finds an interesting item in the schedule; in ‘Strange Jest’, Miss Marple sees a possible parallel with her own Uncle Henry.

It’s lucky that Charmian, Edward and Violet picked their detectives so carefully. I wonder if Miss Marple would’ve guessed Andrew Marsh’s invisible ink – and what would Poirot have made of Uncle Mathew?

I must admit, I really warmed towards ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ after I read ‘Strange Jest’. I thoroughly recommend reading them as companion pieces to remind you of the important differences between Christie’s two famous sleuths.

And now… controversy! It’s time to look at the ITV adaptation of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, and the first Poirot episode to veer substantively away from its source story. Dun dun dunnnnnn…

‘The Case of the Missing Will’ was directed by John Bruce and written by Douglas Watkinson. It does not follow the plot of Christie’s short story, though it makes some allusions to it.

I’m just going to get this out of the way up front: I don’t think this is a problem. Christie’s short story would not have made a good episode of the TV show – or, at least, not one that would have fit with the rest of the series. I know the 90s was a simpler time, but I just can’t imagine us all curling up in front of the TV to watch David Suchet meticulously looking through drawers for an hour while Hugh Fraser stropped about in the background. I mean, obviously I’d watch that now. But I probably wouldn’t have liked it so much when I was fourteen. I would’ve probably changed over to… *checks 1993 TV listings*… So Haunt Me?? Urgh. Only one thing for it…

Picture Credit: TV Whirl

Fortunately, Douglas Watkinson stopped teenage me from having to make the choice between So Haunt Me and Bamboozle, as the TV version of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ is a pretty standard Poirot episode. It’s also, in my opinion, very well done – I only realized that it’s not actually a Christie story years later when I started reading the early Poirot short stories.

So, let’s talk about the episode…

We begin with a flashback to 1926. A man named Andrew Marsh (played by Mark Kingston) is seeing in the New Year with friends. As the clock strikes twelve, he announces that he has made a will leaving most of his fortune to a medical foundation, with some to be held in trust for his ward (Violet Wilson)’s education. Violet (played as a child by Stephanie Thwaites) excitedly watches through the bannisters with the sons of Marsh’s friends, Robert Siddaway (Simon Owen) and Peter Baker (Glen Mead), but is dismayed to hear that her guardian imagines that her future lies in marriage, possibly to one of her young companions. Marsh’s friend Phyllida Campion (Susan Tracy) remonstrates, but it is clear that Marsh has rather fixed views on the role of women.

Thus, the stage is set for an episode that alludes to, but doesn’t follow, Christie’s story. We have a rich man named Andrew Marsh, who made his money farming in Australia (as Christie’s character had done), a young (sort of) heir named Violet, and some eyebrow-raising at the idea of women’s education. However, we also have a gang of Siddaways and Bakers (the Bakers here are not quite the household servants of the same names from the short story), a Miss Campion and Dr Pritchard who are not found in the source text. And, most important, Marsh’s will is definitely not missing.

The episode then jumps ahead to the present day. The present day being 1936, of course. Poirot and Hastings are attending a Cambridge University debate in the company of Violet Wilson. (As a side note, the adult Violet is played by Beth Goddard, in the first of her two Poirot appearances. Her second appearance will be in Appointment with Death ¬– another rather loose adaptation of Christie’s work. But we’ll talk about that one later.)

The debate is on women’s education – and women’s rights generally. Marsh is speaking against, and Robert Siddaway (played as an adult by Edward Atterton) is speaking for. Robert makes an unsurprisingly prescient speech, arguing that – when the inevitable war in Europe comes – women will be expected to work in factories, munitions works, and even the armed forces. The guffawing idiots in the audience (clearly oblivious to the roles women played during the war that ended less that twenty years earlier) shout him down with derogatory comments about the W.I. Overcome with outrage at the sexist nonsense she’s hearing, Violet interjects and the meeting descends into boorish chaos.

Robert’s invocation of an upcoming war is interesting here. I’ve said several times in these posts that the TV series conjures up a world that is permanently on the brink of WWII, but never actually fighting it. This episode comes closer than many to accepting that a war will happen: Robert makes specific reference to an alliance between Hitler and Mussolini, and – unexpectedly – we actually see a young British man in army uniform, as the Bakers’ son Peter (now played by Neil Stuke) is home on leave for the duration of the episode.

All this is perfectly in-keeping with the rest of the series, but it just feels a little bit heavy-handed in these opening scenes. That probably doesn’t mean anything though. It’s not like Britain’s relationship with other European nations was a particularly hot topic in early 1993 or anything.

Picture Credit: TV Whirl

Anyway… as I’ve said above, Christie’s short story is simply a treasure hunt for our little Belgian detective. The TV episode has to add a few extra twists and turns to keep us away from Bamboozle. Those twists include… Andrew Marsh decides to change his will! Then he gets murdered! Japp turns up to investigate! And he recognizes shifty Dr Pritchard (Richard Durden)! The will goes missing! Hastings rides a horse! Dr Pritchard says he thinks Andrew has a secret son! Miss Campion gets pushed down a moving staircase! Poirot questions Margaret Baker (Gillian Hanna) about her son Peter! Sarah Siddaway (Rowena Cooper) hints that Robert in Marsh’s son! Miss Lemon investigates!
‘What’s going on? What on earth is happening?’
(Violet has obviously read Christie’s short story.)

Joking aside, the story plays out in a typically Poirot way. A man is murdered shortly after making a new will (which goes missing), and there is a small circle of suspects. A red herring is dismissed (Japp recognized Dr Pritchard from an earlier case), and a misunderstanding is revealed (Marsh’s comments about parenthood meant that he had a daughter, not a son). And in typical Christie fashion (though not actually written by Christie), the case hinges on the question of who has specific medical knowledge (were you listening carefully?).

I have kinda mixed feelings about the episode’s ending. On the one hand, I like that Watkinson brings us back to Christie’s short story at the end. It’s revealed that Violet is, in fact, Marsh’s daughter (her mother is Miss Campion). After the pesky business of the murder has been cleared up, Poirot assures Violet that Marsh wanted to change his will to leave everything to her: ‘As proof that she was his daughter!... And his equal.’ This is a nice echo of Poirot’s assertion in the short story that Violet has ‘proved the astuteness of her wits and the value of the higher education for women’. At least the TV version of Marsh saw the error of his assessment before he died.

On the other hand, the revelation that Violet is Marsh and Miss Campion’s daughter leaves a couple of question marks. Violet grows up believing that she is the daughter of Marsh’s late business partner in Australia. When this unnamed partner – and, presumably, his wife/girlfriend – died, Marsh benevolently assumed guardianship of the orphan and employed Australian Margaret Baker as a nanny. When Marsh moved back to England, he was ‘called away to fight in France’, and Margaret married a policeman (played by Jon Laurimore) and had Peter.

The problem is… this isn’t true. Violet was born in 1913 to Phyllida Campion, while the woman was a student at Cambridge. Her birth was registered in England. So how did the baby end up in Australia? (Presumably she did end up in Australia, as Margaret Baker gives no indication that the nanny story was a lie.) Did Miss Campion send her straight over? Did she go with her? What exactly was the relationship between Phyllida and Andrew? Did no one spot that Andrew made a quick jaunt to Cambridge from Australia in 1912, and then miraculously produced his dead business partner’s child nine months later? Did Andrew falsely register Violet’s birth in Australia – giving her the surname ‘Wilson’? Did no one question why a single man, with apparently no blood relationship to the child, was registering the birth of a baby at least two weeks old (and that’s assuming Miss Campion gave birth and then immediately shoved the baby on a boat), with the implausible claim that both the child’s parents had died. The more you look at it, the harder to swallow it seems.

Quick! Let’s distract ourselves with Hastings on a horse!

Despite my concern about Baby Violet’s ocean voyage, I still really like this episode. There are some great little details to enjoy. Hastings’s horse ride, for instance… This is the moment when our intrepid sidekick discovers Marsh’s body. As he rides across the countryside with Violet, he looks up and exclaims:
‘What a charming folly!’
This always makes me smile – follies are never good news in Agatha Christie stories.

But by far my favourite bit of the episode is the return of Miss Lemon’s investigative skills. Obviously, I enjoy seeing her peering over card catalogues and registers with her acute eye for the detail of a filing system. But I also like the fact that it is specifically Miss Lemon who spots a slip from the doctor – he refers to ‘Mrs Campion’, rather than ‘Miss Campion’ – and, from the way she questions this, it seems she guesses the reason for the slip before any of the men. For this reason, Poirot entrusts the task of hunting down Miss Campion’s records to her, leaving poor old Hastings kicking his heels on his own in the car park (at least he doesn’t have a strop this time).

And so, ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ might not follow Christie’s original story, but it’s still a great episode. Watkinson does a good job of riffing on Christie’s story to create a script that is convincing as an adaptation (for viewers unfamiliar with the original). There are just enough allusions to reassure fans of Christie’s stories that the writer had read the original as well.

Oh, and we get to see Poirot in his pyjamas again. I’m building up a collection of these pictures, because I have a theory that the detective’s bedtime attire gets distinctly fussier as the series progresses. As you can see, he is not wearing a hairnet or moustache protector in this episode. I doubt anyone apart from me cares.

Right, onto the next episode (and a real favourite of mine) – ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’

* Academic footnote ahoy! Just to say, I have the version of ‘Strange Jest’ that appears in the eBook edition of the Miss Marple and Mystery: The Complete Short Stories collection, published by HarperCollins in 2011 (2008).