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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

It's a bloody sight harder to entertain than to bore. —Anthony Shaffer
Peter Bowles as Andrew Wyke and Gray O'Brien as Milo Tindle
(Photo: Sheila Burnett)
The Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue is one of London's most beautiful old theatres. You can easily think back a century and see naughty Prince Bertie lurking outside in a hansom cab. His Highness is waiting impatiently with a bottle of cold champagne, ready to fill up both the chorus girl and her slipper. Today the intimate Apollo is the perfect venue for the intense chamber drama of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth. When a burglar gets carried away and throws the manuscript of his victim's latest book up high in the air, sheets of paper flutter down like autumn leaves on the front stalls.

Dating from 1970, Sleuth was the first piece of Anthony Shaffer, twin brother of playwright Peter, and clocked up a creditable 4000 plus performances in London and New York. Shaffer went on to write movies, including Death on the Nile, Frenzy and Sommersby. Sleuth itself was also filmed successfully with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. But you have to forget about all that because Sleuth is a tricksy-twisty play full of surprises you need to come to afresh. If you plan to see it yourself, avoid those who already have: loved ones must be shushed, strangers put politely but firmly in their place. It won't hurt you to know that rich and famous Andrew Wyke (Peter Bowles), thriller writer to the gentry, invites young businessman Milo Tindle (Gray O'Brien) to his mansion for a drink. There is something urgent to discuss: Milo's affair with Andrew's wife. Andrew is urbane, even cynical, about marriage, while Milo is passionate and sincere in his love for the older man's wife. Recognising this, Andrew suggests an unusual plan, a plan both dangerous and criminal. Milo's reaction starts a deadly chain of events that leaves bodies on the carpet, blood on the stairs and detectives at the door. It is like playing Cluedo with Tom Stoppard.

Sleuth juggles a number of themes — deceit, jealousy, game playing, class war, British arrogance, and the humiliation of the outsider—- and manages not to drop any of them. But does it still work 30 years later? I think not. Sleuth is sadly dated. The world has moved on. No one now writes cosy crime novels like Andrew's; both he and they seem very corny to us. Andrew's schemes would not fool a modern teenager, even less a successful businessman. It is also hard to sympathise with Andrew's motive for hating Milo: this is not sexual jealousy, as he makes clear, but because his rival only went to a minor private school! Upstart Milo needs to be put in his place.

By now we have seen too many detectives and detective stories to believe in Sleuth's plotting, characterisation and stage craft. Audiences in 1970 may have thrilled to the spectacle of a safe blowing open, but today it looks mildly silly, as does the waving about of a revolver.

Director Elijah Moshinsky perversely highlights these anachronisms by trying to update the play. Social dinosaur Andrew now has a mobile phone and remote-controlled hi-fi. His baronial hall, hinting at the play's origins in the genre of country house murder, has been whited-out and minimalised in a way that is completely at odds with everything the man says and thinks. Andrew is a snob with 1950's ruling class values. He shudders at the sight of a bright jacket lining so I cannot imagine this staunch traditionalist even entering a gallery selling white on white paintings, let alone buying one. The total effect is as if Britain's Queen Elizabeth were to open Parliament dressed in DKNY tee-shirt and jeans - stylish perhaps, but decidedly misjudged.

Directorial uncertainty also makes for uneven pacing, weak characterisation and loss of subtlety. The rising climax of the second act which should be tense and chilling comes across as a ludicrous parlour game. The excellent Peter Bowles is Andrew, but seems to have been told to impersonate John Cleese. This is a mistake. His natural amiability works against Andrew's menace and neither his venom nor his crack-up really convince. Gray O'Brien as Milo carries half his burden very well, but seems uncertain otherwise. He cannot convey Milo's essential tragic vulnerability, particularly when stripped to his shorts and flexing a beefcake of a body that belongs to a runner-up in the local heat of a Mr Universe contest. As a result neither his fatal entanglement in Andrew's games nor his final action make any real sense. Nor does his one day transformation from plain travel agent to witty expert in Latin and 14th Century French.

Both actors work very hard, but are easily defeated by the play itself and the choice of direction. Perhaps the only way to produce Sleuth is as a straight revival, creating the sets, costumes and values of its time, as you might enjoy a Victorian melodrama or an old Sherlock Holmes movie on TV. The sad truth is Sleuth is not as clever as it thinks it is: it can still entertain, but it needs to work a lot harder than this production does.

Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Elijah Moshinsky
Designed by Paul Farnsworth
Starring: Peter Bowles
With: Gray O'Brien, Seamus Dobony, James Forge, Matthew Knott
Lighting Designer: Nick Richings
Sound Designer: Simon Whitehorn
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1101
Booking to 28th September 2002
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 11th July 2002 performance at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (Tube Station: Picadilly Circus)
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