Scriptwriter of the classic chiller The Wicker Man and mystery writer for both stage and screen, playwright Anthony Shaffer died last November. Sleuth is the play perennially linked with his name, a very successful thriller which was loudly denounced on its first appearance in 1970, no less a figure than Laurence Olivier denouncing it in trenchant terms, ironic given his starring role in the film version a few years later! It's now back in the West End and features Peter Bowles as the wily crime writer Andrew Wyke pitting his wits and maturity against the brasher appeal of his wife's young lover Milo Tindle (Gray O'Brien) in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Updated to the present and set in Wyke's Wiltshire manor house, on first re-acquaintance it's surprising how dated the play appears. There are token allusions to the present- the spacious, lofty living room set, mobile phones, mention of the Euro et al, but the play still firmly retains its Seventies feel so one wonders why there was the apparent need to modernise. Wyke is a consummate fantasist, obsessed by detective fiction and compelled to turn everything into a gigantic game; such a man takes any upset to his carefully constructed world very badly. Bowles generally convinces as Wyke, conveying both the man's intelligence and instability whilst O'Brien is persuasively audacious as Milo, though his performance needs more smooth confidence to succeed.
Sleuth is a play for which timing is crucial, given the myriad twists and turns of its plot. Director Elijah Moshinsky doesn't extract enough pace or tension from the script and the result is something rather lacklustre. At its best, finely honed and brilliantly played, it still preserves its ability to thrill, but deprived of everything firing on all cyclinders- as is the case here- and all seems highly over-rated.
Anthony Shaffer's thriller "Sleuth", currently playing at Shaftesbury Avenue's Apollo Theatre, is the first of its genre to come to the West End for more or less a decade, and is a more than suitable partner for the long-running "Woman in Black".
As the curtain rises, we are confronted with a body, lying prostrate, centre stage. The place: the living room of a Wiltshire manor house, a splendidly modern and sophisticated set, not at all what one would expect on Salisbury Plain until we come to learn more about the character of the body currently lying flat out on the floor. For it is the owner, Andrew Wyke (Peter Bowles) who is face down on the floor, not though as a result of foul play, but in contemplation, as he crafts the latest investigatory episode in the life of his bestselling fictional detective St John Lord Merrydew. Leaping to his feet, he continues his excitable and unlikely dictation, until he is interrupted by the arrival of a visitor at the front door. The visitor's appearance is no co-incidence, as Milo Tindle (Gary O'Brien) has been invited to the house by Wyke to discuss affairs of the heart, namely his suitability as the future husband of Wyke's current wife (with whom Milo has been having an affair), and in particular his ability to fund her extravagant and demanding life style. And so it is that the scheming and double-crossing begins, as Wyke unfolds his elaborate plan.
"Sleuth" is a clever and enjoyable piece, and this production benefits from a towering performance from Peter Bowles, full of energy, sophistication and brilliant humour. The way in which he plays with Milo during Act I is exquisite, and his slightly eccentric demeanour brings us hurtling, breathless, to the end of Act I. O'Brien too, is convincing as the smooth, stylish younger lover, secure in his superiority over Wyke where it matters most to a middle-aged woman such as his wife.
Yet despite the momentum and poise of Act I, Act II somehow fails to match, fails to ignite. Yes the twists and turns remain, and yes, the acting, Bowles' in particular, continues with strength, but for all this, we arrive at the final curtain unsatisfied, an air of "is that it?" hanging over the stalls. Perhaps I am being unfair, perhaps I expected too much, but there was a palpable sense of disinterest and disappointment by the end of Act II. That said, overall, this is a highly entertaining and engaging production that marks a welcome return of this genre to the West End.
This thiller has received mixed notices from the popular press....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This psychological thriller had me well and truly pleasurably foxed." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, " The play still holds its own, but this should be an evening of fire and ice, fear and loathing; here, it's a rather tepid affair." MICHAEL COVENEY for THE DAILY MAIL says, "Fine revival." BRIAN LOGAN for THE GUARDIAN says, "Bowles and O'Brien don't spark one another off." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Whodunnit still thrills 30 years on." JONATHAN MYERSON for THE INDEPENDENT says, "This tit-for-tat rapier fight rarely loses pace and never gives itself away." MADDY COSTA for TIME OUT says, "Director Elijah Moshinsky...lacks the cruel sense of fun needed to bring out the humour and violence of the writing." ALEKS SIERZ for THE STAGE says, "An undemanding piece of boulevard theatre that is unlikely to appeal to anyone except inveterate cultural nostalgics."
External links to full reviews from newspapers
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