The Murder at the Vicarage – Agatha Christie

Colonel Protheroe is murdered in the vicarage, not long after the vicar Len Clement has expressed his dislike of the man. Protheroe was not a popular man in the village of St Mary Mead and the list of possible suspects seems long, but luckily an elderly observant woman by the name of Miss Marple is on the case.

This is the first Marple novel by Agatha Christie and it is typical of her type of story – lots of characters and plenty of red herrings. I enjoyed reading it very much and I didn’t work out who the murderer was. I was surprised that the story was narrated by the vicar but it worked well, and I liked the characterisations in general. However there seemed to be several similar gossipy old ladies and it was difficult to keep track of which one was which. However this was an enjoyable read and I look forward to reading more Agatha Christie in future.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

In 1930s Edinburgh, Miss Jean Brodie has chosen her six favourite girls in her class, the Brodie Set, and she chooses to give them what she believes is a more valuable education, in matters such as her personal love life, travels, art history and classical studies. Miss Brodie informs the girls regularly that she is in her prime, and tells them of her love triangle with Gordon Lowther, the singing teacher, and Teddy Lloyd who teaches art. As the girls grow older, Miss Brodie tries to live vicariously through them.

This novel is short and easy to read. There are several jumps in time but this doesn’t make the narrative confusing at all. It keeps the mystery in the story as we are told very early on that one of Brodie Set betrays Miss Brodie, but the culprit isn’t revealed until the end.

I enjoyed this novel very much, and liked the writing and the cleverly structured narrative.

North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

When her father decides to stop being a minister and leave the church due to religious doubts, Margaret Hale and her parents move to the north of England from Hampshire. Although she isn’t keen on her new industrial surroundings at first, Margaret learns of the local mill workers’ poverty and suffering, and develops a sense of social justice. When she tries to discuss the treatment of employees with the mill owner, John Thornton, a tempestuous relationship develops.

I enjoyed the characterisation in the novel, and particularly liked Margaret as a character. The matters of social justice that are raised would have been innovative at the time, but I felt the novel was too long and at times unfortunately a bit of a slog to read.

North by Northwest – Theatre Royal Bath

Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, North by Northwest is a playful, clever and funny adaptation.

Roger Thornhill (Jonathan Watton), a successful advertising executive, is abducted by thugs who believe that he is a man called George Kaplan. What follows is a cat and mouse game which includes spies, and chases over Mount Rushmore and through corn fields by a plane.

What made this production so clever was the stage effects. On both sides of the stage there were tables with miniature models and a camera. Members of the company, fully visible to the audience, would move the models and the images were projected on the back of the stage. This was how the plane chase and Mount Rushmore were shown, and it was extremely clever and very funny.

I haven’t seen the original film so I cannot compare, but this was a thrilling and hugely enjoyable production with a charismatic leading actor. It deserves to transfer to the West End.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death – James Runcie

This novel is six short mystery stories starring Sidney Chambers, a young priest in the 1950s who helps his friend Geordie, a Police Inspector, to solve the crimes.

I enjoy the ITV Grantchester series set on the books and I was looking forward to reading the first novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. I like Sidney as a character. He is far from the stereotypical vicar, and he is depicted as a ‘normal’ human being who enjoys an occasional drink and likes jazz music. There was also a good mixture of mysteries, such as murder, theft and forgery. A great light read, and I look forward to reading more in the series.

The Addams Family – Wales Millennium Centre

Wednesday Addams (Carrie Hope Fletcher) has fallen in love with a ‘normal’ human, Lucas (Oliver Ormson). When his parents come to meet the Addams family at their home, it leads to some secrets, transformations and humour.

This musical is good fun with some amusing moments, and it has a strong score by Andrew Lippa. I particularly liked ‘When you’re an Addams’, ‘Pulled’, ‘Just around the corner’ and ‘Crazier than you’. Cameron Blakely is fantastic as Gomez, and is without a doubt the strongest cast member. Carrie Hope Fletcher is the strongest singer, but personally I feel her voice is better than her acting. Samantha Womack was good as the deadpan Morticia and Les Dennis was likeable as Uncle Fester.

The storyline is a little weak, but it’s a very enjoyable show and perfect for a night of escapism.

Angels in America (NT Live)

I confess I had never heard of Angels in America by Tony Kushner before the National Theatre production was announced, but after reading the hype around it I decided to see what all the fuss was about at the NT Live screenings.

It is in many ways a difficult play to describe, but put simply it is the story of 5 characters living in New York in the mid 1980s during the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration. It explores a myriad of themes, including life, death, love, sex, heaven and hell. The fear and uncertainty surrounding AIDS and homosexuality in entrenched throughout the play and shown through the experiences of many characters. Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) rejects the label of homosexuality as he states that homosexuals have no ‘clout’. The married Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey) is unable to accept that he may be gay, and Louis (James McArdle) cannot cope with supporting his longterm partner Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) when he is diagnosed with AIDS, and leaves him. Although thankfully in many ways things have changed for the better for gay people and those living with HIV, but unfortunately the fact that there is a Republican administration in the White House at the moment who has recently banned transgender people from serving in the military means that the play is still relevant today, not least because Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s legal adviser.

The production itself was fantastic. All of the actors’ performances were stellar, particularly Andrew Garfield. Nathan Lane also managed to make me feel slight sympathy for such a detestable character. I also thought the staging was great, especially the revolve when switching scenes, and when the set was pulled back during one of Harper’s (Denise Gough) hallucinations to reveal the huge Lyttleton stage. The way the angel was moved around the set by ‘phantoms’ was also very clever.

As for the play itself, I’m unsure. There were things I loved about it but others I’m undecided about. I’m sure in a way the fact that the play has such a hype around it played against it because I was expecting to be completely blown away. First of all I felt it was too long, although in fairness to this production it did not feel long at all when I was watching. However, during some scenes I did wonder what they were adding to the play, such as the opening of Perestroika (part 2) with the oldest living Bolshevik. I was also confused by the angels, and especially felt that Prior’s angel’s explanation of how God abandoned them was explained clearly enough.

However, it is a play that has stayed with me and I have found myself thinking about it a lot after seeing it. I have also enjoyed listening to some of the National Theatre’s podcasts with some of the cast and the director, Marianne Elliot. I definitely would like to read it, as being such a wordy play it was easy to miss some things when watching. The play itself may not have blown me away, but the production and performances have meant that in some ways it has stayed at the forefront of my mind for a while. I’m definitely glad that I went to see it.

 

Right Ho Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse

I first tried reading something by P.G. Wodehouse a few years ago and for whatever reason I couldn’t get into it. I have no idea why, because I loved reading Right Ho Jeeves, the second full length novel featuring Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

Bertie is fed up. Not only does Jeeves disapprove of his new white mess jacket, but his family and friends all think that Jeeves gives better advice than him. To try and prove them wrong, he insists on taking on a number of problems to solve, such as bringing together his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett, cousin Angela and Tuppy Glossop’s broken engagement, and Anatole the chef’s resignation.

I found the writing extremely funny and now definitely want to read more P.G. Wodehouse.

Jane Eyre – Wales Millennium Centre

I first saw this National Theatre production of Jane Eyre at an NT Live screening and I enjoyed it immensely, so when I saw that the national tour was coming to Cardiff I knew I wanted to see it again ‘properly’ in a theatre rather than a cinema.

Although I knew what to expect this time it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. The set isn’t what you’d expect for a production of Jane Eyre at all. It’s fairly bare, with many climbing frames, ladders and wooden planks which are used extremely effectively to convey the different locations as well as Jane’s varying emotions. I also liked the soundtrack which included some original music but also some contemporary songs such as Mad About the Boy and Crazy.

The cast is small with everyone apart from Jane (Nadia Clifford) playing multiple characters including Mr Rochester’s dog, Pilot. All the performances were strong and convincing, with some particularly quick role changes.

It’s a funny and emotional production, which stays very close to the novel by Charlotte Bronte, and I love that some dialogue from the novel was used. I do feel however that it is too long. I know that when it was originally performed at the Bristol Old Vic that it was in two parts, which were cut down to one part before going to the National Theatre, but I feel some further small cuts would have been beneficial, as the first half in particular is very long. However, this was an innovative and engaging production and I’m glad I saw it for the second time.

Racing Demon – Theatre Royal, Bath

Racing Demon is a play by David Hare about an inner London team of clergy. They include the Reverend Lionel Espy (David Haig), a traditional, likeable but slightly noncommittal priest who is having a crisis of faith, and whose job is under threat by the bishop of Southwark (Anthony Calf), Tony Ferris (Paapa Essiedu), a newly ordained and well-meaning priest with more evangelical ideas about faith and religion, and gay Harry Henderson (Ian Gelder).

The play had a good combination of humour and drama, and the performances by the three leads were strong and emotional at times. Although the play was written in 1990 many of its themes still resonated, such as how the church can stay relevant as society changes and develops.