Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Poirot Project: Dead Man’s Mirror (review)

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

Beware: Here be Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That guest is Mr Satterthwaite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway… off to Hamborough Close…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to have a look at the TV version…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this leads me to think about tubular furniture…

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

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

Allow me to explain my thinking here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 April 2019

Review: Visitors (Oldham Coliseum Theatre)

Thursday 18th April 2019
Oldham Coliseum

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

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

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

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

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

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

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

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

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

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

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

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

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

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Review: Kingdom (Agrupación Señor Serrano)

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

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

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

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

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

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

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

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

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

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

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

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

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

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

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

Photo credit: Vicenç Viaplana

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

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

Phot credit: Vicenç Viaplana

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

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

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

My Year in Books 2019: March

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innocent Blood by P.D. James (1980)

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

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

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

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

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

Arrowood by Laura McHugh (2016)

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

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (2009)

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

Game Review: Phantasmat: The Endless Night Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 11th January 2015
Platform: PC

Another game review for me – and another instalment in the Phantasmat series. I’ve been really impressed with these ones, though it’s making me wonder how I’ve managed to miss this series up until now. The third title in the series is Phantasmat: The Endless Night, and it saw another change of developer. The original Phantasmat game was developed by Codeminion back in 2011 (see my review here). The sequel, which had a similar narrative but a different setting and characters, was developed by ERS G-Studio in 2012 (see my review here). There were no new Phantasmat titles until early 2015, when the series development mantle passed to Eipix Entertainment.

I’ve played quite a few games by Eipix – and they have got form for picking up series and reimagining/developing them – so I was curious to see how much they’d changed the format of the games. Also, having really enjoyed the first two Phantasmat games, I had high hopes for The Endless Night. And I wasn’t disappointed on either front – this one is a definite recommendation from me.

The game begins with the standard HOPA intro sequence… you’re driving your car down the road at night (this time, taking your daughter Aimee to her prom), when something happens and you’re forced off the road. Just before the crash, you’d been talking to Aimee about the devastating accident that killed a load of people at Prom 1965, so it comes as little surprise to discover that this history forms the background to the mystery in the game. That’s right: the ‘Endless Night’ in question is, in fact, Prom Night. Your car accident has left you apparently stranded in 1965 and the aftermath of the horrific accident. Oh, and your daughter’s been abducted – it wouldn’t be a HOPA if your daughter wasn’t in some sort of peril.

I loved the prom storyline that opened The Endless Night. I’ll say something about the game’s design below, but I loved the way the devastation of the accident was evoked and the introduction of the underlying mystery. Several hints early on suggest a sort of Carrie vibe, as the first non-player character you meet is a bullied ‘nerd’ who may or may not have been responsible for killing everyone. (Unlike in some other instalments of the series, there is absolutely no doubt that the NPCs you’re interacting with are ghosts. These are definitely manifestations of people who died in 1965, though they don’t know that.) However, not long into the game, the Carrie-esque story gives way to something more like My Bloody Valentine (if you’ve seen that film, you’ll know what I mean) and a quite different story starts to unfold. By about halfway through, you’ve pretty much left the prom behind, and your exploration of the town is much more focused on the underlying cause of the killer accident.

As this is a HOPA, there are some minor narrative issues and inconsistencies. I’m not sure how old my player-character was supposed to be – and I certainly couldn’t work out how old my PC’s dad was supposed to be – and there was a little bit of suspension of disbelief required. But this is expected of HOPAs, and in some ways it’s part of the charm. Overall, The Endless Night has a really strong and compelling storyline. I liked the swerve away from prom to something different, and I enjoyed the ‘twist’ at the end – although I did guess what was coming, I thought the ‘clues’ were very well-done. So, in terms of story, The Endless Night is way above average for me.

The earlier Phantasmat games were beautifully designed, but I think Eipix have really brought it up a notch with this one. Scenes are detailed, evocative and stylish, with some items and objects being particularly well-illustrated. The prom debris scattered across several of the scenes is a nice touch, and it adds to the general feeling of care and attention to detail. Probably the biggest change of design with this game comes with the use of live actors for cutscenes and dialogue interactions. Live actors in HOPAs are a bit of a divisive issue, but I feel they’re done well in The Endless Night and the animation style makes the transitions between static animated scenes and live action as close to seamless as you’ll find in a HOPA. (The voice acting is all good too.)

On the whole, I’d say that, design-wise, this is the best instalment of the series so far. The only aspect that doesn’t stand out particularly is the music. It’s a perfectly appropriate soundtrack, which doesn’t loop too much and (mostly) mirrors the game in its tonal shifts. But it’s not especially memorable and wouldn’t have been out of place in any number of HOPAs.

While this is a HOPA, so there’s plenty of moving around scenes, hunting through junk piles and finding inventory objects to use, there are some distinct touches. Eipix have also introduced a few features of gameplay that, while familiar from other games by this designer, weren’t included in the earlier Phantasmat titles. There’s now a Custom difficulty option (yay!) and a jump map (meh). The HOGs are more varied – so there are lists, morphing objects, silhouettes and word clues, and some HOGs combine two or more of these. There are also hidden collectible eye symbols (thankfully not morphing) on each screen. It’s not all change though: there’s still the option to switch between HOGs and Match-3 if you fancy it.

That said, my biggest criticism of The Endless Night is to do with gameplay. The game starts off pretty intuitive and logical, with clear objectives and tasks. However, once you leave the school building (and the prom) to investigate the accident, things get a little less intuitive. Objectives are still clearly stated, but there’s quite a bit of back-and-forth, and there isn’t always any logic or common sense behind this. I found myself using Hint and the jump map quite a bit during the second half of the game, as I was losing a clear sense of the what and why of my progression through the game. Coupled with this, inventory items aren’t always used logically. A pet peeve of mine is using coins as screwdrivers – and this is extra frustrating when there’s clearly a coin slot nearby. If you’ve got a magnet and a coin, and there’s a gumball dispenser (with a coin slot) nearby, it’s totally annoying to discover that you have to use the magnet, not the coin, on the dispenser. I really don’t like having to use Hint to discover how to use my inventory items.

So far, characters have been a big part of the Phantasmat series. Despite not being a huge fan of NPCs in HOPAs, I enjoyed the way they were used in the first two games. In many ways, The Endless Night makes similar use of NPCs, though there are substantially more of them. As I’ve said above, this game uses live actors to enhance cutscenes and interactions, but there’s also the addition of a daughter-in-peril character and a stranger who seems to be in the same boat as you. This is a distinctly well-populated game, but it still gets round the problem of inactive NPCs (the ones who set you a task but refuse to actually help you complete it) through the fact that everyone is trapped (and unaware of what is really going on).

A number of the characters share a bit of backstory with you when you first meet them – this is usually a little bit of explanation about what they were doing at the time of the accident, or about some unresolved business they still have. A lot of this is simply set up for a task (e.g. finding an object that will serve to conclude the unresolved business), but some of the NPCs present you with backstory that’s unexpectedly moving. This is usually in the form of some misguided guilt about the fatal accident. In some cases (especially the ghostly fire crew), this is truly sad and adds a sympathetic dimension to the game that’s rather unusual.

I played the CE version of The Endless Night, so there was a bit of bonus content. Firstly, there was a bonus chapter, which was a prologue rather than an epilogue (as in the first two instalments). I’m not sure this prologue added very much to the story though. You play as one of the NPCs from the main game, and the primary objective seems to be to discover more about your own backstory. Gameplay here is even more confusing than in the latter part of the main game, and I really struggled to keep track of the what and why. This was an extra bit of gameplay, which is always nice, but it didn’t really add to the main narrative.

Other bonus features include concept art and soundtrack, achievements, a Souvenir Room (a chance to go back to each screen and look for an additional hidden object) and a Match-3 game. There are also replays on each of the HOGs (with an additional achievement for getting stars on the replays) and a chance to find any eyes you missed during gameplay.

In case it’s not clear – and setting aside minor niggles – I really liked this one! Stylish design and gameplay that’s just difficult enough (challenging, not frustrating) – but it’s the story and characterization that really won me over. I’m definitely going to be checking out the next title in the Phantasmat series.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Poirot Project: The Further Adventures of Mr Satterthwaite

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 Chocolate Box’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

When I was coming up to reviewing ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, I decided to make this blog project even more completist by considering Miss Lemon’s appearances in other, non-Poirot stories. I called that post ‘The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon’, and I said at the time that my plan was to write about the ‘further adventures’ of all the other characters who crop up in both Poirot and non-Poirot stories.

Well, it’s time for another ‘further adventures’ post… This time, it’s Mr Satterthwaite who takes centre-stage.

What do you mean, who’s Mr Satterthwaite? Oh dear.

Actually, you might (just) be forgiven for needing to be reminded about Mr Satterthwaite. The poor chap gets short shrift when it comes to Christie adaptations. And by that I mean, Mr Satterthwaite has never appeared on screen in a Christie adaptation. He was (I think) used as the central character in a ‘modern day drama interpretation’ app produced as a ‘multimedia stream with social functionality’ by Agatha Christie Productions in 2015. I’d never heard of the Mr Quin app before today, but I see from the publicity that Mr Satterthwaite was played by Gethin Anthony, making Anthony perhaps the only person to ever perform as (a version of) Christie’s rather unassuming character.

One adaptation where you certainly won’t see Mr Satterthwaite is ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Although Christie included the character in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ and Three Act Tragedy, the character was removed/replaced in the TV versions. So, you might ask, given that this is a blog about the ITV show, why on earth have I devoted an entire post to a minor character who appears very briefly in a couple of stories and is dropped entirely from the adaptations?

It’s simple really. I wanted an excuse to talk about Harley Quin.

Not you.

In the mid- to late-1920s, Christie wrote a series of short stories for various magazines (including Grand Magazine and The Story-Teller, featuring a certain Mr Satterthwaite and his mysterious friend Harley Quin.

NOT YOU. Go on, clear off.

Twelve of the stories were published in 1930 as a collection entitled The Mysterious Mr Quin, and two further stories ‘The Love Detectives’ (first published as ‘At the Crossroads’ in The Story-Teller, but not included in the earlier collection) and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ were included in later collections of Christie stories. All the short stories, along with ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ and Three Act Tragedy were collected into The Complete Quin and Satterthwaite: Love Detectives and published by HarperCollins.

I know the stories from my 1965 Fontana Books edition of The Mysterious Mr Quin (which I apparently bought for 19p when I was working at the Oxfam shop in the late 90s) and the 2010 HarperCollins eBook edition of Problem at Pollensa Bay (a collection first published in 1991, which includes ‘The Love Detectives’ and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’).

To put these stories in context of Christie’s other detective fiction… the first Harley Quin story was published in March 1924. By this point, Christie had written two Poirot novels and a series of short stories for the Sketch. She was also in the process of wrapping up a second series of Sketch stories (known as ‘The Man who was No. 4’), which finished the same month as the first Harley Quin story appeared. Tommy and Tuppence had appeared in one novel (The Secret Adversary) by this time, but it would be three years before Miss Marple’s first outing (‘The Tuesday Night Club’, 1927) and eight years before we’d meet Parker Pyne (‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, 1932).

According to Christie’s autobiography, the Harley Quin stories were her favourite stories (or, perhaps, her favourite out of the two short story collections she published between 1929-1932 – her statement is a tad ambiguous!), and ‘Little Mr Satterthwaite’ was one of her favourite characters. Is it strange, then, that he has drifted into obscurity? Or is it somehow weirdly appropriate?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Harley Quin/Mr Satterthwaite stories, allow me to introduce you to them. You’re in for a treat.

Our introduction to the characters – and to the type of story in which they will feature – comes in the first published story ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’. Our hero (as it were) is described thus:
‘Mr Satterthwaite was sixty-two* - a little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elflike, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people’s lives. All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker. Only now, with old age holding him in its clutch, he found himself increasingly critical of the drama submitted to him. He demanded now something a little out of the common.’
The story takes place on New Year’s Eve, at a house party at Royston. Mr Satterthwaite is among the guests, as are Richard Conway, a couple called Portal and ‘six or seven young people whose names Mr Satterthwaite had not grasped’. The hosts are Tom and Laura Evesham.

As midnight strikes, Mr Satterthwaite finds himself intrigued by Eleanor Portal, and by what he perceives to be the strange effect she has on her husband. The party toast to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and a rather melancholy mood comes over them. In typical NYE fashion, they begin to get a little maudlin, remembering the death of Derek Capel (the previous owner of the house), some years earlier. (Except the ‘serious political’ Laura Evesham, that is. She’s just hoping the New Year will be happier: ‘But the political situation seems to me to be fraught with grave uncertainty.’ Bloody Brexit.)

Up to this point, ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ reads like a fairly standard Golden Age country house mystery, albeit one with a curious central character. As midnight chimes, though, a somewhat different atmosphere descends. There’s talk of Royston being haunted, of an old case that has never been fully explained, and a wild wind begins to blow outside. Laura Evesham (in a somewhat less ‘serious political’ vein) talks of an old superstition: ‘it must be a dark man who first steps over the door step on New Year’s Day’. And Alex Portal is unsettled by the weather:
‘“A good night for ghosts to walk,” said Portal with a reckless laugh. “All the devils in Hell are abroad to-night.”
“According to Lady Laura, even the blackest of them would bring us luck,” observed Conway, with a laugh.’
It should come as absolutely no surprise that, at this point, the men’s laughter is interrupted by the heavy sound of three loud knocks on the door.

Is it a dark man come to cross the threshold and bring good luck? Is it a ghost? Is it a devil?
‘Framed in the doorway stood a man’s figure, tall and slender. To Mr Satterthwaite, watching, he appeared by some curious effect of the stained glass above the door, to be dressed in every colour of the rainbow. Then, as he stepped forward, he showed himself to be a thin dark man dressed in motoring clothes.’
This is Mr Harley Quin. And he is most definitely not a consulting detective.

Before I come on to what – exactly – Mr Quin is, I want to say something about the type of cases he solves with Mr Satterthwaite. I guess the modern way of describing them would be ‘cold cases’ – these stories feature puzzles from the past, where there are no clues or opportunities for re-investigation. Harley Quin has no interest in different types of cigarette ash or footprints in the flowerbed, but rather he is concerned with the details of an event deeply hidden in the memories of those present. In ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, he gently encourages the house party to think back to the death of Derek Capel and piece together the seemingly unrelated scraps they all recall.

This use of memory – the idea that the truth can be obtained by a group of people sharing what they remember of an event – is something Christie would come back to in later Poirot stories. Both Five Little Pigs and Elephants Can Remember have this idea as a central conceit, for instance. As with these later novels, this act of remembering is coupled with a detective character who observes the participants as they remember, in order to put together a plausible theory of what must have occurred. While it is Mr Quin who nudges the memories in ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, it is Mr Satterthwaite who is able to divine the significances.

This is the general pattern of the subsequent Harley Quin stories as well. While there are two stories in which Satterthwaite is able to prevent an impending murder (‘The Face of Helen’ and ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’ – arguably ‘The Voice in the Dark’ could be counted here as well, though it’s not completely clear what ‘Clayton’ plans to do to Margery after killing her mother) and one where Satterthwaite is himself present at the time of the murder (‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’), the stories tend to focus on cases that have happened elsewhere and, usually, at some point in the past. Few of the stories actually end with an arrest, and there is very little mention of the police.

What does get more of a mention in the Harley Quin stories is suicide. In a number of stories, Mr Satterthwaite is able to discern suicidal intent in a chance acquaintance and, almost always, avert this by solving the problem at the root of their desperation. ‘The Man from the Sea’ is probably the clearest example of this, but there are a number of other stories featuring characters brought low by a crippling melancholia quite unlike anything found elsewhere in Christie’s fiction. These are stories about, above all, sadness.

While I guess it’s tempting to imagine reasons why Christie might, in the mid- to late-1920s, have written a series of short stories with sadness as the overriding theme, I don’t want to do that here. What I’m interested about is her choice of ‘detective’ for these stories – what’s the deal with Harley Quin?

What – exactly – is Harley Quin?

‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ gives a few possibilities… he’s a ghost, he’s a devil, he’s a good luck charm. Elsewhere in the stories, he takes on more explicitly supernatural qualities. He appears where he should not be – sometimes apparently willed there by Satterthwaite himself (e.g. ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’) – and disappears in equally baffling ways (e.g. he seems to walk off a cliff at the end of ‘The Man from the Sea’). On one occasion (‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’), he appears to send Satterthwaite a summons from afar via table-turning.

Of course, it should go without saying that Harley Quin is also directly associated with… well… Harlequin. There’s the name (obvs), and the fact that he’s often described as appearing to be dressed in multi-coloured clothes or motley, though this is often simply a trick of the light. At the end of ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’, he cheekily suggests Mr Satterthwaite checks out the Harlequinade at the theatre: ‘It is dying out nowadays – but it repays attention.’ In subsequent stories, Satterthwaite runs into Quin at a fancy restaurant named Arlecchino and a country pub called the Bells and Motley. In ‘The Harlequin Tea Set’, the H-word is used repeatedly to describe the eponymous multi-coloured tea service, and then there’s ‘Harlequin’s Lane’… but no… you’re not ready for that one yet.

Now, I drafted a whole long section about Harlequin that I was going to include here. About his appearance in the Italian Commedia dell’arte as a comedic zanni (servant) character. About the theories that this zanni Harlequin is a development of earlier mischievous ‘devil’ characters in medieval drama, explaining Harlequin’s common role as a trickster. About the English Harlequinade and pantomime, and the importing of Harlequin as a key character. About the development of the English Harlequin into the sophisticated romantic lead, to be contrasted with the chaos and brutishness of Clown. I had a whole big thing about Joseph Grimaldi and the Payne Brothers, the relationship to Punch and Judy, the significance of ‘motley’ and its jester heritage.

But the thing is… that’s not what Harley Quin is. Harley Quin is something that derives from – to quote Max Mallowan – ‘Agatha’s peculiar imagination’. He isn’t a mischievous trickster, or a romantic lead. He isn’t a jester or a comedic servant. He is an immortal death deity – a psychopomp.

I imagine you think I’ve lost the plot now, don’t you?

But I totally stand by this claim. Agatha Christie’s series detectives are: a Belgian refugee, a married couple who dabble in secret service work, an elderly spinster, a life coach and an immortal psychopomp. Fact.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a trip down ‘Harlequin’s Lane’, shall we?

In this story, Mr Satterthwaite is visiting a couple called Denman. John Denman is a solid Englishman ‘devoid of imagination’, and Mrs Denman is a Russian who escaped the revolution as a refugee. The Denmans live close to an old-fashioned ‘rural lane’ named Harlequin’s Lane, and Mr Satterthwaite is unsurprised to find his old friend hanging out on said street.

What follows is probably the trippiest, most disturbing story of the lot.

In a nutshell: the Denmans are planning to stage a little entertainment for their friends. They’re putting on a ballet performance of ‘Harlequin and Columbine’, and they have some exciting dancers arriving to take part. Turns out, Mrs Denman trained as a dancer in Russia. Talk turns to the tragedy of Kharsanova, Russia’s greatest ever dancer (apparently), who was killed during the revolution. People arrive and there’s hints of intrigue (Does John Denman fancy Molly Stanwell? Does Mrs Denman have a history with Prince Oranoff?). But then a car accident prevents the arrival of the professional dancers… Mrs Denman decides to dance the part of Columbine herself, with Oranoff playing Harlequin.

Plot twist: Mrs Denman is Kharsanova!

I’ll gloss over the reasons for Anna Kharsanova’s decision to disappear to England and change her name (just for info, not saying it’s relevant, but the story was published just five months after Christie disappeared and was found staying in Harrogate under a false name). What matters is the resolution to the story. Despite Mrs Denman/Kharsanova’s implication that she is now going to leave her husband to be with Oranoff (‘For ten years I have lived with the man I love […] Now I am going to the man who for ten years has loved me.’), the story quickly reveals that her words mean something else entirely. She explains to Satterthwaite:
‘“Always one looks for one thing – the lover, the perfect, the eternal lover… It is the music of Harlequin one hears. No lover ever satisfies one, for all lovers are mortal. And Harlequin is only a myth, an invisible presence… unless –”
“Yes,” said Mr Satterthwaite. “Yes?”
“Unless – his name is – Death!”’

Shortly afterwards, Satterthwaite sees Kharsanova being led down Harlequin’s Lane by his old (at this point, terrifying) friend. Her maid, however, saw her walking down the lane alone.

They all hurry to the end of the lane and find Anna Kharsanova… lying dead on a rubbish heap.

Seriously, WTF??

Satterthwaite – quite understandably – asks Mr Quin what the hell is going on:
‘“What is this place?” he whispered. “What is this place?”
“I told you earlier to-day. It is My lane.”
[…] “And at the end of it – what do they find?”
“The house of their dreams – or a rubbish heap – who shall say?”’
And with that, Mr Quin literally vanishes into thin air.

Mr Satterthwaite better hope his friend is a psychopomp. The alternative is that he’s a psychopath, gleefully offing Russian ballet dancers and chucking their bodies onto his homemade murder tip.

Anyway, I’ve looked everywhere for some academic source for this association of Harlequin with death. There’s nothing. Harlequin-as-psychopomp really does seem to be Christie’s own unique take. It’s easy enough to find information about Christie’s fascination with the characters of the Commedia dell’arte (or more accurately the Harlequinade): in her autobiography, for instance, she writes about some of her early poems, which drew on stories of Harlequin and Columbine, and breezily suggests that Harley Quin was simply a ‘kind of carry-over’ from these. Her first Poirot short story (‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ featured characters dressed as figures from the Commedia, supposedly inspired by a set of china ornaments she’d had as a child. But none of this explains why she repeatedly associates Harlequin with death.

I don’t have an answer to this. And I’ve just remembered that I’m supposed to be talking about Mr Satterthwaite, and not Harley Quin. Oops.

To return to where I began: Mr Satterthwaite has never appeared on screen. In fact, the Harley Quin stories themselves have barely been adapted. Nevertheless, there is an interesting story about the only (loose) film adaptation to tackle the tales – or, rather, one of the tales.

In 1928, a silent film version of ‘The Coming of Mr Quin’ was made. It was the first British film adaptation of a work by Christie, predating Alibi by three years. The film was called The Passing of Mr Quin, and, like Alibi, it was directed by Leslie S. Hiscott. The film took… erm… quite serious liberties with the plot and characterization, to the point of revealing at the end that it was Mr Quin himself who carried out the murder. Mr Satterthwaite – poor Mr Satterthwaite – is removed from the story entirely.

I have not seen The Passing of Mr Quin. The film was a ‘quota quickie’, and it has since been lost. However, the studio decided to publish a novelization of the film shortly after its release. Agatha Christie was reportedly horrified by this, not realizing that the film rights she had sold gave permission to the studio to use her characters in this way (and suffice to say future contracts were worded quite differently). The novelization only had a single print run, but it did survive.

In 2017, HarperCollins republished The Passing of Mr Quinn (note the spelling of the character’s name), with a fantastic introduction by Mark Aldridge that outlines the history of the film and the novelization, as well as the publication history of Christie’s own stories. It’s well worth a read.

So what have we learnt?

Mr Satterthwaite is one of Christie’s more overlooked creations, despite being one of her favourites. He’s an unassuming gent of good taste and sociable habits, who enjoys the arts. After many years of simply observing life’s drama, he has decided to make more of an intervention, and this leads him to offer comfort, explanation and resolution to the troubled people he encounters. The stories in which he features are characterized by deep sadness, with suicide being a common theme.

Mr Satterthwaite hooks up with a possibly malevolent, and almost definitely immortal, psychopomp, who may or may not be Harlequin. Among his more human acquaintances is Hercule Poirot, who he chums up with in ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’ (briefly) and Three Act Tragedy.

We’ve also learnt that you, dear reader, will put up with me rambling on for 3500 words about characters that aren’t even in the ITV Poirot series.

Shall I get back on track? The next episode is ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, which doesn’t include Mr Satterthwaite. But it’s an adaptation of a short story that does include Mr Satterthwaite. Of course, that short story is an expansion of an earlier story that doesn’t include Mr Satterthwaite. You know what? Let’s just move on to ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’

* I believe that Christie made some changes between the original magazine publication and the 1930 book publication of the story. One of these changes was to shift Mr Satterthwaite’s age forward from 57 to 62.