The early part of the year in the theatre always brings annoyances. It's the flu season, and although the avian variety fortunately hasn't smitten the theatre-going public as yet, the ordinary variety is sufficient in itself to cause torture. But apart from staying at home, there's little that theatre-goers can do about it. Thus, we all sit through January and February with stiff upper lips, and grin and bear it.
What's harder to take is another plague that also seems to have hit epidemic proportions. Sitting next to me during this play was a man who had brought a gigantic bag of 'M & Ms' to scoff his way through. His choice of sweets was unfortunate on two counts. First, the nature of the packaging caused rustling that could have been heard inside the National Theatre on the opposite bank of the Thames. And second, the nature of the product requires it to be cracked, munched and crunched before being digested, rendering it a murderously irritating accompaniment to any drama. But more irritation was to come from the stage.
Set in the early 1960s when homosexuality between consenting male adults was illegal in the UK, 'The Creeper' is billed as a psychological thriller, but it has little in the way of accurate psychology, and much less in the way of thrills. Moreover, it encapsulates a view of homosexuality which is at best misguided, and at worst grotesquely insensitive. Although there are some humorous lines which the able cast use to good effect, there's an oddness about this play which even the likes of Ian Richardson can't overcome.
A young salesman, strangely named Maurice Morris (played by Oliver Dimsdale) arrives at the home of misogynist millionaire, recluse, and self-confessed ‘old queen', Edward Kimberly, to be interviewed for the post of 'companion'. Residing along with Kimberly is his manservant, Holmes (played by veteran actor Harry Towb) and the present incumbent in the post of companion, Michel (Alan Cox) who is about to leave his position in a state of considerable bitterness and under a cloud of acrimony. It becomes clear why this is so when, during the interview, Edward informs Maurice that as companion he can have almost anything he wants in the goodies department - clothes, trinkets, good food, fines wine, etc etc - on condition that he doesn't take anything with him when he leaves Edward's employment. In Michel's case he's not allowed to depart with his transistor radio or his nice suits.
Maurice is reticent about taking the post, but is persuaded to stay by Edward. As Maurice settles in to his new way of life, we see him becoming more confident and comfortable in his position until events put him under pressure, whereupon we see Maurice in quite a different light, but to say too much more would give the game away.
First brought to the London stage in 1965, Pauline Macaulay's 'The Creeper' has been rather overtaken by changes in attitudes towards homosexuality, so that it seems bizarre if not actually absurd in a modern context. For example, Edward wears a suit but shows Maurice that he's wearing mauve socks – supposedly a sign that he's gay. Now I'm no expert on gay practices of the early '60s, but this seems like a heterosexual writer's stereotypical interpretation to me. And it extends to Edward's character, which to say the least is unsympathetic, if not decidedly cruel. He eagerly destroys Maurice’s pictures of girls, and throws his ex-companion out into the street with no money or possessions. And we're led to believe that Edward’s homosexuality and misogyny were 'caused' by his mother leaving when he was 12 - an archaically erroneous view even by present-day homophobic standards.
Hayden Griffin's fine set was a little too fine in the gardening department, which served only to highlight one of several inconsistencies in the play. Various references are made to the dilapidated state of the garden, but from my seat at least, it looked quite superb. And Bill Bryden's direction seemed off key in Oliver Dimsdale's performance as Maurice. Edward makes considerable play of Maurice's 'stiffness', but Maurice seemed quite relaxed throughout, which failed to convey any real sense of menace, threat or terror. So that, when Maurice’s true nature is revealed, most of the audience quite simply laughed.
Harry Towb's shuffling manservant, Holmes, is a man of very, very few words. Disapproving of all the young men who turn up to be his master's companion, he's basically a skivvy, though he's worked for the family for eons. Even when asked by Edward to partake of a brandy, he's no sooner got his lips on the glass and he's briskly told by his master to get off to bed.
Now in his 70s, Ian Richardson is a particularly fine actor who first came to my attention through the highly acclaimed BBC adaptation of John Le Carré's 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' in which Richardson played the 'mole', Bill Haydon. In the lead role of Edward Kimberly, Richardson fights his way bravely through this inappropriate vehicle with a subtle blend of camp charm and wit. But it’s an ‘uphill battle’.
Possibly daring when it first appeared, ‘The Creeper’ is now long past its sell-by date. The only good thing I came away with from this play is one method of dealing with people who bring cavernous quantities of sweets to the theatre - I'll be wearing a neck tie in future, or at least stuffing one in my bag before departing for the theatre!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Even though the sexual psychology and modest homophobia of The Creeper, has not dated that much, it deals with a world of vanished manners and morals...could have generated more excitement." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Macaulay also seems uncertain in the end as to what kind of play she is writing. If her piece is meant to be a psychological study of the dangers of repressed sexuality, it never digs deep enough into Kimberly's solitary past. And if it is intended as a gothic shocker, it fails to spring enough surprises...The chief consolation lies in Richardson's performance" BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Not quite a comedy of manners, not quite a thriller, not quite anything...The play lacks depth. The performance doesn’t." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Even as a period curiosity or a camp collector's item, Pauline Macaulay's mid-Sixties "psychological thriller" fails to pass muster."