The Sorrowful Tale of Sleeping Sidney

''The Sorrowful Tale of Sleeping Sidney'' is a puppet show, by Daisy Jordan, based on a notorious Victorian poisoning case, which took place in my home town, Brighton, in 1871. Christiana Edmunds ('The Chocolate Cream Poisoner'), romantically obsessed with Doctor Charles Izard Beard, made an unsuccessful attempt to murder his wife with poisoned sweets. When the doctor grew suspicious, she went on a chocolate poisoning spree to divert the blame onto a local confectioner, Mr Maynard. Although people all over town fell ill with strychnine poisoning there was only one fatality – four year old Sidney Albert Baker (Sleeping Sidney, above left).

In Daisy's reshaping of the story, Christiana’s obsession with Dr Beard begins when he treats her for hysteria with 'a unique form of muscular massage suited exclusively to the fairer sex '. You'll know about this therapy if you've ever read or seen The Road to Wellville. Here’s Daisy's hand-drawn poster advertising the treatment.

The show was staged last Thursday as one of Brighton Theatre Royal’s ‘Out of Hours’ events. When the main theatre space is dark, audiences are invited backstage to see intimate performances in various parts of the building. We went in by the stage door, in a small building behind the theatre in Bond Street, where we were welcomed by Jackie Alexander, the theatre's development manager. She told us that the building we were standing in was originally a fisherman’s cottage, and later a sweet shop! Then it was across the back of the stage and up to the circle bar for the performance.

Daisy Jordan's drawings of her characters from the souvenir programme 

Daisy Jordan, a fine artist by training, makes beautiful and expressive puppets. The adults are sinister, forbidding and eccentric. Her child puppets are wide eyed, and their faces can express excitement or fearfulness. Her puppets, and her macabre sense of humour, remind me of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, his alphabet of small Victorian/Edwardian children who come to gruesome ends ('C is for Clara who wasted away').

I borrowed these photos from Daisy Jordan's instagram 

For a stage setting, there was a chair, a wash stand, representing outside locations, and a table with a closed apothecary chest. This represented Dr Beard’s house on Grand Parade. The chest, constructed by Sophie Saunders, also opened up to become Mr Maynard's sweet shop.

There are three children in the story: a flowergirl called Lavender; Conrad, an urchin sent on errands by Christiana; and Sidney, the victim. They are hand puppets, with Daisy's fingers and thumbs protruding through the sleeves for manipulation of objects. In this, the opening scene, Lavender is showing Conrad her chocolate 'Sleeping Sidney' – one of a range of Mr Maynard's chocolates inspired by dead children (Kelly-in-a-Coffin, Mangled Martin, Perished Peter, Breathless Brian).

The play was written by Daisy with Ulysses Black (who also directed). Adding to the atmosphere was an evocative score by Kate Daisy Grant, with violin and saw playing by Nick Pynn.

I loved the writing so much that I got Daisy to send me a copy of the script. It’s economical and direct, with flowing rhythms and great use of varied registers of language. After Sidney swallows the poisoned chocolates, the narrator says, ‘Now, for the benefit of those of you of a sensitive disposition, I will spare you the gruesome details. But I will say that it was not quick, and it was not peaceful.’ 

Doesn't that second sentence pack a powerful punch?

This is the eccentric Mr Maynard (above) who likes to experiment with less conventional ingredients:

Well, every confectioner worth his sugar knows that snail pulp is an essential ingredient in marshmallows. Of course, it wouldn’t be until the 1970s that we would begin adding spiders’ eggs to bubble gum to keep it soft. And despite the Puritanical protestations and fearmongery put about by pious persons, I must clarify that boiled horses play no part in the manufacture of liquorice bootlaces… ahem! [Looks at Narrator] Liquorice Bootlaces! [Narrator puts the bootlaces at the front of the counter on the floor.] We do, in fact, use rats’ blood, [Narrator secretly puts rat in front of counter while Maynard isn’t looking] which aside from being more ethical, promotes resistance to consumption.

There’s one right there! Where’s my broom?

This is the pompous and self-righteous Dr Beard. He refuses to believe that Maynard has anything to do with the poisoning, declaring, 'I have the pleasure of lancing his rectal boils every other Tuesday. He is a Quaker, a pious man of honour.'

I’ve seen Daisy’s puppetry before, as part of the fringe shows at Bom-Bane’s restaurant. In those, she played the role of the backstage puppeteer while Jane Bom-Bane and the other performers sang. Now she's become a fully fledged performer in her own right. Apart from providing different comic voices for each character, she’s onstage, in Victorian costume, as the narrator. She tells the story (pausing occasionally to eat the props) and has conflicts of authority with her own puppets. Here's a lovely scene in which Inspector Gibbs, the policeman, makes his entrance.

INSPECTOR GIBBS - [Appears from behind back of chair, stands on top of chair back] I’ve been sent to investigate a poisoning epidemic around the town. I was wondering whether you could offer me any information which might lead to identifying and apprehending the criminal.
[Stands] I’m afraid I can’t help you in my current position…
[Rises up so he is taller than narrator] Well, as Narrator, I would expect you to know exactly what is going on.
[Pushes him down by top of the head] I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. You have to find out the answers yourself.
INSPECTOR GIBBS – alright, suit yerself [He throws one side of his cape over his shoulder rather huffily] Now, did you poison the chocolates?
NARRATOR – No. I did not.
INSPECTOR GIBBS – Damn. I can see this is going to take all of my inspectoring

For me, that's a much more effective way of making your puppet come to life than dressing in black and pretending to be invisible.

There’s a lot of the atmosphere of a Victorian Punch and Judy show here. When Mr Maynard is hunting a rat in his sweet shop, there was a moment when I wanted to shout ‘It’s behind you!’ But the audience was so rapt and silent that I only said it under my breath. In another scene, the policeman asks various audience members if they committed the crime. There's a lot of scope for audience interaction, which I'm sure will grow.

The play ends with a lovely twist, which pulls all the threads together and explains why Daisy is telling the story in the first place, but I won't spoil the surprise here.

I can't think of a better place to see this show than in the Victorian splendour of the Theatre Royal, a stone's throw from the scenes of the crime. But Daisy tells me that she's applying to put it on outside Brighton. You can follow the story on her website.  


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