The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Stage Production
Just a few months after Notes from a Small Island, it was back to one of my local theatres, The Watermill, for the stage adaptation of another book club selection, this time the Victorian true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize (now called the Baillie Gifford Prize) for non-fiction in 2008.
I must have read the book in 2009, the year after it first came out, and while I had the best intentions of rereading it in time for our book club meeting earlier this month, I didn’t even manage to skim it. I remembered one fact alone, the method of murder, which is not surprising as it was particularly gruesome: A young boy had his throat slit and was stuffed down the privy. But that was all that had remained with me. My husband filled me in on the basics and the discussion, held at our house, reminded me of the rest. We then made it a book club outing to the theatre.
The crime took place in late June 1860 at the Wiltshire home of the Kent family: the patriarch, a factory inspector; his four children from his first marriage; his second wife, formerly the older set’s governess; and their three young children. Jonathan “Jack” Whicher, sent by Scotland Yard to investigate, was one of London’s first modern detectives and inspired Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Constance Kent, 16, later confessed to the murder of her three-year-old half-brother, Saville, motivated by anger at her stepmother for replacing her mentally ill mother, but uncertainty remained as to whether she had acted alone.
The play was very well done, maintaining tension even though there was a decision to introduce Constance as the killer immediately: the action opens on her and Mr Whicher in her cell at Fulham Prison in the 1880s. This is an invented scene in which he has come to visit, begging her to tell him the whole truth in exchange for him writing a letter to try to secure her early release. (She appealed four times but ended up serving a full 20-year sentence.)
Cold, stark lighting and a minimal set of two benches against a backdrop of steel doors and a mullioned window evoke the prison setting, with only the subtle change to warmer lighting indicating flashbacks as Constance and Whicher remember or act out events from 20 or more years before. These two remain on stage for the entirety of the first act. Four other actors cycle in and out, playing Kent family members and various other small roles. For instance, the bearded middle-aged actor who plays Mr Kent also appears as a coroner giving a precis of Saville’s autopsy – he mentions Collins and Dickens, but the evolution of the Victorian detective is, by necessity, a much smaller element of the play than it was in the book.
It’s a tiny theatre, but projections on a screen (such as a sinuous family tree) and a balcony, used for wordless presence or loud pronouncements, made it seem bigger than it was. Saville himself is only depicted as a mute figure on that upper level, in the truly spooky scene that closes the first act. I remember when the Watermill put out a discreet call for child actors, warning parents about the sort of content to expect. Three children play the role (plus one other bit part) in rotation. Pulsing violin music enhanced the feeling of dread, and each act was no more than 45 minutes, so the atmosphere remained taut.
A missing nightdress – presumably blood-stained – as well as her own father’s hunch, were among the main evidence against Constance, so Whicher did not secure a conviction at the time and was publicly ridiculed for his failure to crack the case. That and his own loss of a child are suggested to be behind his obsession with tying up loose ends. While Constance expresses regret for her actions and calmly takes him through the accepted timeline of the murder, she refuses to give him anything extra.
The second act delves into what happened next for Constance: living among nuns in France and then in Brighton, where she decided to confess, and then relocating to Australia, where she worked in a halfway house for lepers and troubled youth, as if to make up for the harm she caused earlier in her life (and she lived to age 100!). This involved the most significant change of set and actors, with the former Mr. and Mrs. Kent now filling in as the older Constance and William, the brother closest to her in age.
The play fixates on the siblings’ relationship, returning several times to their whim to run away to Bristol and be “cabin boys” together. I wondered if there was even meant to be a sexual undercurrent to their connection. William Savill-Kent went on to be a successful marine biologist specialising in corals and Australian fisheries. One theory is that they were accomplices in the murder but Constance took the fall so that her brother could live a full life.
Intriguingly, the team behind the production decided to espouse this hypothesis explicitly. In the chilling final scene, then, a crib is wheeled out to the centre of the stage and Constance floats on in a white nightdress to lower the side closest to the audience. Just before the lights go down, William, too, appears in a white nightdress and stands over the far side of the crib.
Although I referred to the book as “compulsive” in the one mention I find of it in my computer files, from 2011, I only gave it 3 stars – my most common rating in those years, an indication that a book was alright but I moved right along to the next in the stack and it didn’t stick with me. My book club had mixed feelings, too, generally feeling that there was too much extraneous detail, which perhaps kept a narrative that could have read as fluidly as a novel from being truly gripping. The play, though, was thrilling.
Book (c. 2009):
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Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island: Reread and Stage Production
Bill Bryson, an American author of humorous travel and popular history or science books, is considered a national treasure in his adopted Great Britain. He is a particular favourite of my husband and in-laws, who got me into his work back in the early to mid-2000s. As I, too, was falling in love with the country, I found much to relate to in his travel-based memoirs of expatriate life and temporary returns to the USA. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see things clearly.
When we heard that Notes from a Small Island (1995), his account of a valedictory tour around Britain before returning to live in the States for the first time in 20 years, had been adapted into a play by Tim Whitnall and would be performed at our local theatre, the Watermill, we thought, huh, it never would have occurred to us to put this particular book on stage. Would it work? we wondered. The answer is yes and no, but it was entertaining and we were glad that we went. We presented tickets as my in-laws’ Christmas present and accompanied them to a mid-February matinee before supper at ours.
A few members of my book club decided to see the show later in the run and suggested we read – or reread, as was the case for several of us – the book in March. I started my reread before attending the play and had gotten through the first 50 pages, which is mostly about his first visit to England in 1973 (including a stay in a Dover boarding-house presided over by the infamously officious “Mrs Smegma”). This was ideal as the first bit contains the funniest stuff and, with the addition of some autobiographical material from later in the book plus his 2006 memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, made up the entirety of the first act.
Bryson traveled almost exclusively by public transport, so the set had the brick and steel walls of a generic terminal, and a bus shelter and benches were brought into service as the furnishing for most scenes. The problem with frontloading the play with hilarious scenes is that the second act, like the book itself on this reread, became rather a slog of random stops, acerbic observations, finding somewhere to stay and something to eat (often curry), and then doing it all over again.
Mark Hadfield, in the starring role, had the unenviable role of carrying the action and remembering great swathes of text lifted directly from the book. That’s all well and good as a strategy for giving a flavour of the writing style, but the language needed to be simplified; the poor man couldn’t cope and kept fluffing his lines. There were attempts to ease the burden: sections were read out by other characters in the form of announcements, letters or postcards; some reflections were played as if from Bryson’s Dictaphone. It was best, though, when there were scenes rather than monologues against a projected map, because there was an excellent ensemble cast of six who took on the various bit parts and these were often key occasions for humour: hotel-keepers, train-spotters, unintelligible accents in a Glasgow pub.
The trajectory was vaguely southeast to northwest – as far as John O’Groats, then back home to the Yorkshire Dales – but the actual route was erratic, based on whimsy as much as the availability of trains and buses. Bryson sings the praises of places like Salisbury and Durham and the pinnacles of coastal walks, and slates others, including some cities, seaside resorts and tourist traps. Places of personal significance make it onto his itinerary, such as the former mental asylum at Virginia Water, Surrey where he worked and met his wife in the 1970s. (My husband and I lived across the street from it for a year and a half.) He’s grumpy about having to pay admission fees that in today’s money sound minimal – £2.80 for Stonehenge!
The main interest for me in both book and play was the layers of recent history: the nostalgia for the old-fashioned country he discovered at a pivotal time in his own young life in the 1970s; the disappointments but still overall optimism of the 1990s; and the hindsight the reader or viewer brings to the material today. At a time when workers of every type seem to be on strike, it was poignant to read about the protests against Margaret Thatcher and the protracted printers’ strike of the 1980s.
The central message of the book, that Britain has an amazing heritage that it doesn’t adequately appreciate and is rapidly losing to homogenization, still holds. Yet I’m not sure the points about the at-heart goodness and politeness of the happy-with-their-lot British remain true. Is it just me or have general entitlement, frustration, rage and nastiness taken over? Not as notable as in the USA, but social divisions and the polarization of opinions are getting worse here, too. One can’t help but wonder what the picture would have been post-Brexit as well. Bryson wrote a sort-of sequel in 2015, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which the sarcasm and curmudgeonly persona override the warmth and affection of the earlier book.
Indeed, my book club noted that a lot of the jokes were things he couldn’t get away with saying today, and the theatre issued a content warning: “This production includes the use of very strong language, language reflective of historical attitudes around Mental Health, reference to drug use, sexual references, mention of suicide, flashing lights, pyrotechnics, loud sound effect explosions, and haze. This production is most suitable for those aged 12+.”
So, yes, an amusing journey, but a bittersweet one to revisit, and an odd choice for the stage.
A favourite line I’ll leave you with: “To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.”
Original rating (c. 2004):
My rating now:
Have you read anything by Bill Bryson? Are you a fan?
The #1954Club: Moominsummer Madness and Under Milk Wood
A year club hosted by Karen and Simon is always a great excuse to read more classics. The play’s the thing for this installment of the 1954 Club: Tove Jansson’s delightfully odd creatures end up in a floating theatre and rise to the occasion, and I’ve finally read Dylan Thomas’s famous play for voices. I’ll try to manage another couple of write-ups this weekend, too. (Both: University library; )
Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]
One never knows what magic or mischief will bubble up at Midsummer. For Moomintroll’s family, it all starts with the eruption of a volcano, which leads to a flood. Moominmamma does her best to uphold comforting routines in their inundated home, but eventually they leave it for a better-appointed house that floats by. One with thick velvet curtains, doors to nowhere, and cupboards full of dresses. I wearied ever so slightly of the dramatic irony that this is clearly a theatre but the characters don’t know what one is and have to be enlightened by Emma the stage rat. Meanwhile, Snufkin becomes accidental father to two dozen “woodies” and Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden are arrested for burning officious signs.
The teasing commentary on the pretensions of the theatre is sweet: Moominpappa decides to write a tragic play with a lion in; Emma tells him it simply must be in blank verse, so he obliges, but no one in the audience can understand a word until the actors speak normally. As usual with Jansson, there is separation and longing, disaster mitigated, disorientation navigated with pluck or resignation. While I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of her others, I appreciated the focus this time on bending the rules of how things must be done. My favourite quotes were about the overwhelming nature of choice and the value of a good cry:
(The Snork Maiden on the dresses in the costume closet) “They were far too many, don’t you see. I couldn’t ever have had them all or even choose the prettiest. They nearly made me afraid! If there’d been only two instead!”
(Misabel) “I’m taking the chance to have a cry over a lot of things now when there’s a good reason.”
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
I discovered A Child’s Christmas in Wales just last year and delighted in the language and the flights of fancy. Under Milk Wood is a short play completed just a month before Thomas’s death at the age of 39. It features a chorus of voices as the inhabitants of Llaregyb, a made-up coastal Welsh town, journey from one night through to the next. Gossipy neighbours, bickering spouses, flirtatious lovers; a preacher, a retired sea captain, fishermen; and much more. Some of the character names are jokes in and of themselves, like “Nogood Boyo” and “Willy Nilly,” and others sound so silly they might as well be rhyming slang.
The dead feel as vibrant as the living. The musicality of the prose sometimes made me feel I was reading poetry instead (indeed, a number of songs and rhymes are performed), and there is a bawdy charm to the whole thing. What might be stage directions in another play are read aloud here by “First Voice” and “Second Voice,” who trade off narration.
Maybe it was too much to hope that there could have been a plot somewhere in there as well? No matter. I could see how Thomas influenced the likes of Max Porter and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo, anyway). I’m sorry I missed the chance to see this performed locally last month.
A favourite passage:
“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”
(I’ve also participated in the 1920 Club, 1956 Club, 1936 Club, and 1976 Club.)
Smile: The Story of a Face by Sarah Ruhl
“Ten years ago, my smile walked off my face, and wandered out in the world. This is the story of my asking it to come back.”
Sarah Ruhl is a lauded New York City playwright (Eurydice et al.). These warm and beautifully observed autobiographical essays stem from the birth of her twins and the slow-burning medical crises that followed. Shortly after the delivery, she developed Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face that usually resolves itself within six months but in rare cases doesn’t go away, and later discovered that she had celiac disease and Hashimoto’s disease, two autoimmune disorders. Having a lopsided face, grimacing and squinting when she tried to show expression on her paralyzed side – she knew this was a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, yet it provoked thorny questions about to what extent the body equates to our identity:
Can one experience joy when one cannot express joy on one’s face? Does the smile itself create the happiness? Or does happiness create the smile?
Women are accustomed to men cajoling them into a smile, but now she couldn’t comply even had she wanted to. Ruhl looks into the psychology and neurology of facial expressions, such as the Duchenne smile, but keeps coming back to her own experience: marriage to Tony, a child psychiatrist; mothering Anna and twins William and Hope; teaching and writing and putting on plays; and seeking alternative as well as traditional treatments (acupuncture and Buddhist meditation versus physical therapy; she rejected Botox and experimental surgery) for the Bell’s palsy. By the end of the book she’s achieved about a 70% recovery, but it did take a decade. “A woman slowly gets better. What kind of story is that?” she wryly asks. The answer is: a realistic one. We’re all too cynical these days to believe in miracle cures. But a story of graceful persistence, of setbacks alternating with advances? That’s relatable.
The playwright’s skills are abundantly evident here: strong dialogue and scenes; a clear sense of time, such that flashbacks to earlier life, including childhood, are interlaced naturally; a mixture of exposition and forceful one-liners. She is also brave to include lots of black-and-white family photographs that illustrate the before and after. While reading I often thought of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Terri Tate’s A Crooked Smile, which are both about life with facial deformity after cancer surgery. I’d also recommend this to readers of Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss, one of my 2021 favourites, and Anne Lamott’s essays on facing everyday life with wit and spiritual wisdom.
More lines I loved:
imperfection is a portal. Whereas perfection and symmetry create distance. Our culture values perfect pictures of ourselves, mirage, over and above authentic connection. But we meet one another through the imperfect particular of our bodies.
Lucky the laugh lines and the smile lines especially: they signify mobility, duration, and joy.
With thanks to Bodley Head for the free copy for review.