Theatre Review: Murder, Marple and Me, Ambassadors Theatre, London

Janet Prince in Marple, Murder and Me

Janet Prince in Marple, Murder and Me

The Stella Duffy-directed Murder, Marple and Me ended its short tour with four nights at London’ Ambassadors Theatre, appropriately next door to the St. Martins Theatre that’s been showing The Mousetrap, the play based on the Agatha Christie novel that’s gone on to be the longest running stage production ever, since 1974.

The Mousetrap would have already been going nine years when Margaret Rutherford brought Christie’s silver-haired spinster to the big screen. Not that Rutherford would have seen it. When the comedy actress reluctantly agreed to play Miss Marple at the age of 70 she’d never read – or intended to read – any of Christie’s books. She was also, mysteriously uneasy about the idea playing a woman who relished a good murder.

And the indifference was mutual. Christie was less than impressed at the idea of her beloved ‘birdlike’ OAP sleuth being played by a comedy actress whose fondness for treats from Fortnum and Mason left her with a waistline more ostrich than robin. But despite their lack of interest in each other’s professional lives, the pair formed a friendship of sorts during shooting of the first Rutherford Marple, Murder, She Said (I assume, I don’t remember it being referenced during the performance) in 1961. Murder, Marple and Me is a fictionalised account of what might have brought the two women together based on real life events.

Murder, Marple and Me is a one-woman show with Janet Prince at the helm, breaking down the fourth wall as Agatha Christie, Margaret Rutherford and Miss Marple. Miss M, as ever, sits observing from the sidelines, the click of knitting needles soundtracking her telling of the more grisly details of the story that eventually unravels.

Prince plays Rutherford with a jolly hockey sticks joviality, physically embodying her less gym teacher like briskness brilliantly; legs wide apart, back slightly hunched. Prince’s Christie meanwhile has a warmth I’ve never associated with the Queen of Crime, but which suits her. Not that she’s a sweet old lady, the steeliness that made her the world’s best selling author is never far away. Her Miss Marple meanwhile was probably the closest to what Christie had in mind, her “my dears” concealing a sharpness of mind and genuine enjoyment of murder.

In many ways there’s a fourth character; ‘Peggy’, Margaret’s guileless, childlike persona that counts cuddly toys as “her family” whose odd regressive behaviour alerts the sharp-eyed Christie to Rutherford’s secret – no one, Agatha surmises, could slip so naturally into such an innocent state if they weren’t in hiding from something. That, and her belief that no-one would turn down the opportunity to play her beloved Miss Marple without a very, very good reason. Sensing a mystery, Christie extracts the dark secret that  made the actress queasy at the idea of playing a woman who lives for murder over high tea in Rutherford’s parlour.

As is so often the case, Murder, Marple and Me is a play of two halves. And, like Christie’s novels, where her world of bone china tea cups and dollies hides sinister secrets, Murder, Marple and Me is, as Miss M says, “bittersweet”. Philip Meeks’s script in the first half is littered with great one liners, while Prince’s physical performance, particularly as Margaret, is often brilliant comic turn. The second half is darker, I actually winced during Miss Marple’s exuberant re-enactment of one of the key scene.  Not that the end is gloomy, Margaret is upbeat, despite losing her Oscar and Miss Marple and Agatha have got their murder. And we, the audience, have got a charming hour of great theatre about three fascinating women.

 by Suzanne Elliott

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women by Barbara PymAs part of my English degree I wrote an essay defending Jane Austen on charges of triviality. There she was, so some gruff academics sniped, writing about bonnets and the regiment while a war raged across the Channel and the smoke of the guns of two foreign revolutions still lingered over a jittery Georgian Britain.

I was incredulous that I had to put pen to paper (quite literally, this was the ‘90s) and stand up for Miss Austen on this ridiculous charge. The small things are the important things, they’re what make us human and unless we understand ourselves at our smallest, most trivial, we will never understand – or care – about war or revolutions. Austen may not have been writing books about the Napoleonic Wars, but those seemingly inconsequential little domestic matters are what it is to be human. Love, hate, petty little squabbles, “these little frictions” as the protagonist in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women puts it – are ultimately what send us off to war and drive us to revolution.

This accusation of triviality is one that I’ve only ever heard thrown at female writers, and one that was lobbed so much at Barbara Pym that she hung up her typewriter in the 1960s when London was swinging so violently it made itself dizzy with pomposity.

Pym only came back into favour in 1977 when two male heavyweights Philip Larkin (a master of extracting the art out of the ordinary) and David Cecil said it was okay to like her. Larkin’s exact words were: “I’d sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen”. Just as well, what with one of them being very dead. And the man was a librarian.

I recently re-read Pym’s Excellent Women for a book club having first read it little over a year ago one rainy Sunday. It’s a book that holds up well, if not better, under a second reading as those human truths that are buried under a seemingly throwaway plot bubble to the surface on closer scrutiny. Pym’s world is a world of jumble sales and knitting; the Church of England and weak tea; shared bathrooms and depressing pork chop suppers for one. Excellent Women is an amusing, rather poignant novel that deals with the everyday drabness of life with a wry eye.

Mildred Lathbury is the novel’s protagonist, one of the excellent women of the title who are holding dreary post-war Britain together like a pair of darned socks. Unashamedly spinsterish at the ripe old of 30 (ish), Mildred’s closest friends are the vicar Julian Malory and his overly-romantic sister, Winifred. Mildred is a woman who’s “always making tea”, her life one of “clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works”. For all of Pym’s comparisons to Austen, Mildred is no Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse. She’s fussy and straightlaced, school-marmish and rather dull.

But Mildred’s quiet life is gatecrashed by the arrival of new neighbours (with whom she shares a bathroom) the Napiers. Husband Rocky is a charming, dashing naval officer, wife Helena an anthropologist and domestic slut (sometimes she even leaves the dishes for her husband to do). Mildred is intrigued and appalled by them in equal measure.

Simultaneously, things over at the vicarage are heating up as the Vicar becomes engaged to their recently arrived lodger, the pretty widowed Allegra Gray. And then there’s Everard Bone, a cool, stern and rather mysterious acquaintance/colleague of Helena Napier who, like Mildred, is also a fan of Him Upstairs. What exactly is his role to be in Mildred’s life?

Excellent Women is a novel, to paraphrase Alexander McCall Smith in the introduction, about nothing and everything. It’s a tender book with a veil of depressing resignation hanging over it that says more about the human condition than bigger, brasher, more revered novels that deal with the Big Stuff. Don’t read Pym for rollercoaster, rollicking plots, but for the gentle observations of the merry-go-round of life.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: The Audience, Gielgud Theatre, London

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Following her Oscar winning performance in Stephen Frear’s 2006 film The Queen, Helen Mirren once again slips into Elizabeth II’s sensible court shoes in the West End smash, The Audience.

She does it with such aplomb that I wonder whether the actual real-life Queen, standing “we are not amused”-like watching The Script at Radio 1 wishes she could employ Dame Helen as her life understudy. Or if one night she might fancy treading the boards and coming on as herself in The Audience. Although, she’d probably get panned for not playing herself as well as HRM (her Royal Mirren). For The Audience is as much about Mirren as it is about the Queen.

The audience refers to the weekly meeting between The Queen and her Prime Minister, a ritual that’s found it’s way into the British constitution allows the PM to discuss matters – both state and personal – of the day and the Queen to drop in a few sensible words of advice (usually: resign). David Cameron is the 12th PM to sit opposite her Maj once a week; if he dies suddenly before the next election then Nick Clegg will be her 13th, something Peter Morgan’s Lizzy II would no doubt see the funnies in.

Peter Morgan was also the man behind 2006’s The Queen, and he picks up (his no doubt souvenir Buckingham Palace) pen again to write this wholly fictional account of this very private ritual. No minutes are kept and even QE2’s trusted servants are banished from the room. No PM has ever blabbed about their weekly 20-minutes with The Crown and The Queen has yet to take to Twitter to spill the beans on what Cameron and Clegg really think of each other. So Morgan has little but rumour, Prime Ministers’ reputations (Thatcher’s demented; Major’s a cry baby) and imagination to go on.

The play, which behind the green curtain of its star performance, is slight and pantomime-light, at times careening off into caricature status – like Spitting Image without any of the  caustic humour, most of the PMs’ reputations are left remarkably unscatched – manages to be bigger than the sum of its parts thanks to HM, who is brilliant. She takes her 2006 role and adds humour, a dash of political flair and a dose of every-dayness to her Maj’s little chats with our dear leaders. Or some of them at least, there are notable absences, most obviously no Blair (was that to avoid The Queen comparisons? Is he too recent and complicated a leader to distill into a non confrontational script?).

Morgan spins the word on the (Downing) street that no-nonsense Labour man Harold Wilson was her favourite Prime Minister (some say after Churchill, but that wouldn’t have made quite so an amusing face-off). Shamefully I know little of Wilson, in fact most of my knowledge on the Labour leader came from a recent reading of Ian McEwan’s (brilliant) Sweet Tooth. But I doubt very much he was anything like the rude, naive, over-awed, “oop north’ buffoon he’s depicted as being in this play. But I enjoyed the Queen’s and Wilson’s moments, played out like a tale of friendly understanding across the great class divide and Richard McCabe’s Wilson did have most of the best lines – I particularly enjoyed his take down of Balmoral and the current Monarchy’s German ancestry.

Inbetween her tete-a-tetes, which aren’t told in chronological order, there are flashback scenes of a spirited Elizabeth as a young princess struggling to come to terms with her future as a Monarch. The scenes, designed to add a humanness to HRM, a humanness I’m not particularly interested in and I think adds little value, left me a little queasy, not helped by the young Queen coming across like the eighth member of the Secret Seven (the Esoteric EightEnid Blyton’s great, unfinished novel).

The Audience is sentimental, at times almost mawkish, but it’s charming, if unchallenging and often very funny. And it’s been a long time since I saw quite such a standing ovation…

by Suzanne Elliott

Film Review: Summer In February

Summer in February

Dan Stevens and Emily Browning in Summer In February

I feel a bit of a fraud writing a film review as I am not much of a film fan. In my cultural league, films languish mid-table, somewhere above medieval art and modern dance. There are many films I like, but no movie has ever had a life changing effect on me in the way books and music have, or had me absorbed like a great piece of theatre, work of art or even (even!) a brilliant TV series.

With some notable exceptions, I find modern movies too often derivative and unimaginative, especially those adapted all-too clumsily from books. It’s an oft touted cliche that film adaptations of books are inferior to the original, but the only film I’ve enjoyed more than the original novel was Trainspotting and I suspect that had a lot to do with the soundtrack and Ewan McGregor.

Where books can be multi-layered, rich in detail and introspective, films are often one- dimensional, conventional and necessarily plot-driven, hitting viewers over the head with symbolism, character traits and spelling the details out to us like the popcorn-munching idiots they think we are.

Sometimes it’s simply Hollywood’s arrogance that ruins book adaptations, with directors and scriptwriters believing they can do a better job than, say, this jumped up writer called Thackery can do (what Mira Nair did to his Vanity Fair in her 2004 film still makes me angry years after subjecting myself to it).

I read Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February last year after hearing about a film version that was, at the time, being shot.

Intrigued by the synopsis I sought out the novel, keen to get in with my ‘but the book was better’ opinion before anyone else. The film, out this week, is scripted by Jonathan Smith himself, looks lovely and sticks pretty rigidly to the original story – although the skeletal version of it. Understandably, Smith reins in the details and focuses on the love triangle between Florence Carter-Wood, Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings and our hero Gilbert Evans, while Laura and Harold Knight, Joey Carter-Wood are amongst the characters swept largely off the screen (a particular shame in Laura Knight’s case; she was an intriguing character and played by the brilliant Hattie Morahan could have been a scene-stealer). But romance and scenery are what sell cinema tickets and Summer in February has both in spades.

Based on a true story, the film follows the gentle, eminently sensible Gilbert Evans, an estate manager in the Cornwall coastal town of Lamorna. He’s resolutely middle of the road is our Gilbert, but he finds himself taken into the bosom of the bohemian artist set, in particular by the captivating horse-loving painter AJ Munnings. They have sing-alongs in pubs and matey chats while trotting on horseback along the beach, avoiding the life-drawing nude models. Then Florence Carter-Wood turns up as Australian Emily Browning whose lovely cheekbones and pouty lips soon bewitch both AJ and Gilbert. Their story – in short: a marriage, a death, a trip to London, lots of drinking, a bit of painting – all takes places against the beautiful backdrop of Lamorna which is everything you want from a Cornwall movie scene, all frothy waves, spectacular cliffs and a lovely sandy beach. Well played Cornwall.

The actors are all perfectly fine; no one does spurned-in-love puppy-dog sadness like Dan Stevens while Dominic Cooper, who I thought too slight, too young, too unassuming to play the demonstrative, overbearing, charismatic AJ Mannings strikes a good line between being a sexy bad boy and an oafish bore. I liked him; AJ isn’t a bad man, just one that lacks that sensitivity chip.  Emily Browning pouts beautifully and is winsome and fragile enough, but she’s concentrating so hard on her (very good) cut-glass English accent that for the most part she forgets to inject Florence with a personality.

Summer In February is lovely wet Sunday afternoon kind of film. The intensity and spell-binding passion and intrigue of the original may have been swept away like a sandcastle at high tide, but what’s left is pretty and enchanting. Just make sure you read the book too…

by Suzanne Elliott