first night

The Real Inspector Hound

Jonnie Grande plays a critic in HCT's production of Tom Stoppard's play-within-a-play whodunnit.

So, Stoppard season has well and truly arrived in Durham. And The Real Inspector Hound surely vindicates there being so many offerings from one playwright in two weeks. The play follows two theatre critics, Birdboot and Moon, as they become inextricably bound up in the world of the country-house whodunit they are watching. Parodying Agatha Christie’s cosy parlour mysteries, satirising the profession of theatre critic and playing on the spectator’s desire to become involved in the action (following the curtain call, the audience member behind me proclaimed that she wished she could act), it is a minor comic masterpiece. Despite being an avid Christie fan, and a reviewer, my ribs were tickled throughout.

 

Perhaps ironically, the two critics steal the show in Hill College Theatre Company’s production. As the pompous, philandering Birdboot who attempts to launch the careers of young actresses in return for their ‘gratitude’, Felix Stevenson is irresistible. The voice and mannerisms he adopts accurately portray the stuffy age and slight eccentricity of the character, and he draws out all the comedy hidden within Stoppard’s writing with apparent ease. His interest in the play-within-the-play that he sits watching remains palpable throughout, whilst never stealing our attention. His long, lingering look at a plate of biscuits as they are carried across the stage is a favourite moment, and emblematic of the detail he pursues in his performance.

 

Chris Guard’s pretentious yet down-at-heel second-string critic, Moon, almost matches him. Standing in for Higgs, he is clearly never comfortable sitting next to Birdboot and, although he occasionally feels a little too sorry for himself, his monologues are suitably lofty. The circumlocutions and impenetrable rhetoric are made delightfully engaging in his delivery.

 

The distinction in style of acting between the critics on the one hand and the characters in the play-within-the-play on the other is, while correctly conceived, unfortunately never fully played out. Harriet Tarpy, as Cynthia Muldoon, pursues it furthest, as with her wonderfully hackneyed reaction to the appearance of her lover. Lucy Cornell as the help, Mrs. Drudge, also brings great amusement with her reactions to the various declarations of love and murder she repeatedly stumbles across.

 

Joe Terry (Simon Gascoyne) and Emmeline Mattinson (Felicity Cummingham) are less successful however, unable to ever really get to grips with the comedy within the text and never able to supply the intentionally over the top and ham acting their characters require. Their timing is not as precise as Stoppard demands, and they fail to bring in any of the extravagant gestures and facial asides employed by Tarpy and Cornell. As a result, the scenes of the whodunit seem to jar slightly and they lack any consistent style.

 

The production also suffers from a lack of any coherent aesthetic concept, particularly in the costume department. Simon wears a blue shirt, although the description of the madman we are surely meant to mistake him for is described as wearing white; Felicity’s tennis skirt looks more like a short formal dress; and Magnus’ modern wheelchair doesn’t seem to fit with the 1960s props and décor of the set. Minor quibbles perhaps, but combined with the inconsistent acting, they leave the separate world of the whodunit never fully demarcated. We therefore lose much of the comedy when Birdboot and Moon enter into what appears to be another, and a fictional, world, only for it to become their reality.

 

That said, Stoppard’s wit and a number of fine performances ensure the production never fails to amuse and delight, even if it never quite sparkles. Running at little more than an hour, it never overstretches its parodic ideas, and it really is very gratifying to see those wielders of notebooks who haunt darkened auditoriums knocked off their perch for once (myself excluded, of course…).

 

2 December 2010

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