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Maynard’s End

by on 20 May 2022

Fagatha Christie – Almost

Maynard’s End

by Jeremy Gill

Q2 at The National Archives, Kew until 21st May

Review by Mark Aspen

Miss Marple meets Midsomer Murders in Q2’s premiere of Jeremy Gill’s post-pandemic parody of a much-loved genre, the murder mystery.  His is a gentle take on the form: it is no harsh send-up, but a lovingly massaged homage to a peculiarly English theatre genre that was popular following both World Wars.  (There is some interesting psychology there.) 

Gill sets Maynard’s End in 1968, perhaps late for the genre, but in a period-perfect setting.  The design trio of Harriet Muir, Bob Gingell and Tamsyn O’Connor create props, costume and, tellingly, hair styles with great authenticity, within a neatly versatile set.  

The only period detail missing was the smoking, even the hashish was eaten (by mistake, in a laced cake) rather than smoked.  Otherwise the play could almost be described as a Fagatha Christie (whoops, couldn’t resist that!).  Nevertheless, Q2 would not want to risk catching on fire a building that is home to the Doomsday Book!  And what a magnificent location is The National Archives: what other local theatre nestles in parkland with lakes, and fountains and swans?

The locations depicted inside, in Maynard’s End (and I counted fifteen scenes) are modestly rural within in the county of Middleshire, in the heart of the Cotswolds.  The local pub tucks in stage right, and book flats transform stage left into variously a confectioner’s shop, the village hall, the cottage hospital and a number of other locations.  Bob Gingell’s equally versatile lighting creates other settings, including the churchyard.  

Maynard’s End, Yartley and the other neighbouring villages are the sort of place where nothing ever happens, except of course the odd random acts of arson, kidnapping, extortion, bigamy and murder.  The churchyard is hence quite busy place, and we witness one particularly poignant burial.  This turns out to be of a much loved village character … a little terrier.  Cue heart-felt arh!-s and oh!-s from audience for the demise of the pooch … no such for the plethora of human corpses.  (More interesting psychology there too.) 

Such is the nature of the murder mystery genre.  And how wonderfully refreshing it is nowadays to see a play without a profound message or, thankfully virtual signalling and culture wars.  It is great to be able to sit back and enjoy unadulterated fun and froth in a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously and can even be a bit non-PC! 

By the way, the pooch was killed co-laterally in a double hit and run.  I was going to say, with the road death of the dog, it was almost a Wagatha Christie (sorry again!), but that one’s already currently taken.  Felicity Morgan on sound consequentially keeps very busy with the vroom, vroom of fast motor vehicles of half a century ago, all deliciously throwing out bags of CO2!  Between revs, she adds in period details like the Workers’ Playtime theme tune on the wireless (BBC Light Programme); all very jolly.

Notwithstanding all this mayhem in Maynard’s End, the plot of the play is no lightweight.  There are plenty of convoluted plotlines, plenty of red herrings and plenty of hidden motives for the aficionados and more twists, turns and cliff-hangers than the Stelvio Pass.  Neither is the show short of knockabout humour and some finely written moments of pathos.

A typical moment of pathos is provided by Sam O’Connor, by far the youngest member of the dozen-strong named cast, as Billy, who is lamenting the loss of the little dog, who once pulled him from the village pond to safety.  Sam is a consummate actor, confident and expressive.

So what of the adult actors?  Well, most of the characters are writ large.  Some were devised in Zoom sessions as a lockdown actors’ pastime.  All are recognisable, as is Billy, and all are played accurately, believably and just short of caricature.  Named characters are backed up by actors drawn from front-of-house and backstage to skilfully play non-speaking parts.  (I spotted a consummate Shakespearian actress amongst them.)

There are social strata in the village, roughly trades-people, upper-middle class, and landed gentry, but there is no real snobbery (although Anne doesn’t like being called Annie) and everyone knows each other and all share the same social spaces. 

We start in the sweetshop, run by Mrs Mac, a lady from north of the border (the significance of which becomes apparent later) who together with Dorothy, a retired-ish district nurse, are the prime movers in the village dramatic society.  Linda Hansell plays Mrs Mac as the dependable go-to in the village.  She sports quite an acceptable Aberdonian accent (but struggles, as do some of the other actors, for audibility against the acoustics of the theatre, designed as the National Archives’ miked-up lecture theatre).  Simone White demonstrates Dorothy’s good natured weariness in her studied body-language.  Dorothy points out that she is working harder now than before her retirement, running classes in the village hall on how to cope with verrucae and bunions.

The other focal point is the Dog and Partridge where the publican, another village stalwart, is Ginger, so called because he isn’t.  Scott Tilley plays Ginger as a big-hearted, rounded character, with human strengths and weaknesses.  Ginger is struggling to run the pub, as the frequent absence of, his wife (as he thought) means he is without a landlady.  In this village though, everyone mucks in to help.  Tilley skilfully portrays the preoccupations of Ginger, who has an emotional bumpy ride during the course of the play.

The local Women’s Institute is run with steely resolve by Anne, who is very Cheltenham Girls and finishing-school, although there are hints she may have had an eventful life.  In her portrait of Anne, this is Mandy Stenhouse at her best, the raised eyebrow or the sparkle in the eye at just the right moment.  And sozzled, literally under the table, Stenhouse does well; plus here Anne is stoned from a combination of sherry and hash from the spiked cake. 

From the top drawer, the village is graced with Sir Harold Maynard, a popular squire, very much part of village life and all-round good egg.  Charles Halford cracks the part in style, the cut-glass accent and general bonhomie with honed confidence.

However, Sir Harold’s reprobate son, Amhurst Maynard, a would-be playboy living in debt, is a great disappointment to his father, who threatens to disinherit him.  Amhurst is back in the village, where has built up a not insubstantial bar tab in the Dog and Partridge, and proceeds to write off yet another fast classic sports car.  Paul Huggins, in the role, tempers Amhurst’s   disregard and amorality with a louche edge.  But will later discover that Amhurst has a double life, or possibly a triple life.

One of those eccentric characters, that most villages seem to have to spice up local life, is Old Beth.  Beth has come from a long line obsessed with calling every member of the family Seth.  So when a baby girl came along many, many decades ago it was a bit problematic.  Beth lives of the land and has no truck with anyone much.  Harriet Muir has huge fun playing this part, her Gloucestershire country burr being quite unfathomable, in what might have been just an amusing cameo, expect that Beth turns out to be well-bred and in due course a real heroine.

So, there is quite a demand on the village hall, between the parish council, the church, am-dram, WI and verruca treatment, a demand exacerbated by the local village halls being the targets of the arson attacks!  This all keeps the local police sergeant, Ernie very busy.  Dominic Lloyd imbues the part of Ernie with vigorous bustle and grounded matter-of-factness.  Ernie has a constable as his assistant, PC. Newton, doubled efficiently by Paul Huggins, and for moral support his sweetheart Penny, the nurse and general factotum at the cottage hospital, which has become quite busy at present.  Chloe Jones acts the role of Penny to a tee, the multi-facetted, multi-tasking participant in village life, as well as helping with the dramatic society, and soother of brows.  Jones portrays the authority of the nurse-in-charge, the helpfulness of a village supporter, and the coquettishness of the bobby’s sweetheart with balance and with equal exactitude.  When Ernie is eventually promoted to superintendent, and it looks like wedding bells are imminent, Penny remarks how the new top cop had “already taken down my particulars”.  

Note we are now in flower power days, and attitudes are broadening, albeit slightly.  On the scene now arrives Virginia … by motorbike and clad in leathers.  Wow!  She is the Middleshire County Council’s Environment Officer.  (Weren’t that called Sanitary Inspectors in those days, the sani-man for short?  Not sure sani-women works though.)   She knows all about drains, and contaminated water, and the differences in the gearbox selectors of Nortons and the new-fangled Hondas.  (The author is a motorcycle fan.)  Nicola Doble makes an imposing Virginia.  She has great stage presence and absorbs the role with energy and verve.  Virginia is soon sucked into village life, including helping out at the pub when Ginger is called away on delicate, and upsetting, business. 

Virginia becomes one of the Holmes-Maigret solvers of our intricate whodunit, but a pointer to the new era of the sixties.  Ginger and Virginia become drawn to each other.  Ginger discovers he was never married.  Virginia appears in swinging-sixties miniskirt.  As we said, Wow!  Oh … and then they disappear behind the arras.

An ubiquitous character, and essential in the village of the sixties (and largely now) is the Vicar, and in this play the role turns out to be key.   Douglas McFarlane plays the role quite low key and matter of fact, but then later doubles as Fyfe, a BBC presenter when the village hits the television news.   I had almost forgotten the real-life BBC personality, Fyfe Robinson, but McFarlane brilliantly plays him, that you would think the reporter had come back to life (he died in 1987, aged 84).  Voice, mannerisms and demeanour were spot-on, as were his wonted clothing and hair and beard style.  (Well done again Tamsyn O’Connor).   It turns out that (the fictional) Fyfe and Mrs Mac had grown up together in Edinburgh and had later had a bit of Lowland Fling.

Another nice piece of doubling is by Mandy Stenhouse as the French lady, Geraldine, who lives in nearby village and is active in their Amateur Theatrical Society, called the TWATS.  Geraldine, I think, is “un hareng rouge”.

There are whole shoals of red herrings in this play … and an impenetrable plot, but don’t worry about that, just enjoy a good bit of knockabout fun.  And, with the sex hovering just below the horizon, you can safely take the children to Maynard’s End ’s next outing.  Gill has cherry-picked much local acting talent and directs the show himself, it seems with quite a light touch.  It is refreshing to see a play that does not take itself too seriously and is great fun.  As Gill himself says, it’s “a right load of escapist nonsense really”.

Mark Aspen, May 2022

Photography by Ben Gingell

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  1. Maynard’s End review – Q2 Players

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