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The Real Inspector Hound / The Critic

Tom Stoppard / Richard Brinsley Sheridan
A Chichester Festival Theatre Production
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
(2010)

The Real Inspector Hound production photo

Two writers with a single thought - to prick the bubble of pomposity and pretension which exists in many theatrical circles, and to question the veracity and integrity of the critics who judge them. Two hundred years apart, but with equal wit and flair for comedy, yet the presentation of each play is very different.

Stoppard’s version parodies the Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle style of crime thriller, and in the ‘play within a play’ the cast are ‘hamming it up’ as they set the scene with excessively detailed explanations. In a lonely, isolated manor house in the middle of marshland, with the mists rolling in and a mad killer on the loose (you get the picture), the housekeeper, Mrs. Drudge (Una Stubbs) is busily polishing and dusting, completely oblivious to a dead body lying on the floor.

The actual play, though, is set in a theatre with the usual ‘fourth wall’ comprising a fourth section of the audience and here, as the play progresses, two theatre critics chat incessantly, eat chocolates, occasionally comment on the play and what they will write, but each really concerned with their own affairs. Richard McCabe is Moon - hunched, shrivelled and shuffling, probably through years of sitting in the stalls - he is a ‘second string‘ critic and envious of his superior Higgs. Where is Higgs tonight? - and if only Higgs were dead!

Nicholas Le Prevost is his companion Birdboot: “A man of scrupulous integrity - a family man, devoted to my homely, but good-natured wife.” Nothing could be further from the truth!

As they watch, the action carries on melodramatically with the manor’s inhabitants arriving: - tennis playing Felicity (Sophie Bould), lady Cynthia (Hermione Gulliford), Major Magnus (Sean Foley) and an extravagantly theatrical Simon (Joe Dixon) - not one of whom notices the body until Inspector Hound (Derek Griffiths) arrives and trips over it with the words, “Is there anything you have forgotten to tell me?” Almost everyone has made a threat of murder and all are suspects, and we proceed to the inevitable conclusion: dead bodies abound and then the ‘Real Inspector Hound’ is revealed, but not before Moon and Birdboot have inadvertently become trapped in the play, taking on the roles of Simon and the Inspector, while these characters are now the critics.

Stoppard is making the point that the dialogue is so predictable that it can be taken up by an intruder almost without anyone noticing.

The same performers appear again in Sheridan’s play - now powdered and wigged and elaborately costumed. Two critics, Dangle and Sneer (Le Prevost and Griffiths), are invited to a rehearsal of “The Spanish Armada - a tragedy by Puff”. This is a totally transformed McCabe - from resentful and grumpy as Moon, he is flamboyantly and pompously confident, sure that his bombastic production is the epitome of taste, yet furiously ripping up a newspaper with an unfavourable review. A stupendous performance - and he hardly stops talking.

Sean Foley (who also co-directs with Jonathan Church) is the delightfully named and self-explanatory Sir Fretful Plagiary while Una Stubbs manages to steal the scene as the confidante to Gulliford’s Tiburina, worriedly attempting to shadow her over-elaborate movements. Joe Dixon takes on the absurd role of a Spanish Galleon as well as Don Ferolo Whiskerandos, and Javier Marzan manages the Prompter, Master of Horse, and a very embarrassed-looking River Thames.

This play is pure satirical farce, played with joyous enthusiasm by a superb cast, who watch with surprised disbelief as it degenerates into chaos, although Puff is unperturbed. “Relax Dangle,” he calls out. “You’re on top of the world” As indeed he is.

Each play is a gem and this is an evening full of surprises - mystery, intrigue, some surrealism, satire and slapstick comedy so expertly timed and performed that it seems natural - and all totally hilarious. It would be a crime to miss it!

Playing until Saturday, 28th August, in repertory with "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist".

Reviewer: Sheila Connor