The decidedly menacing expression on Ian Richardson's face peering out from the front cover of the programme for this production of The Creeper is the first mistake made by the producers. This and its pre-production blurb describing the play as a psychological thriller gave rise to the expectation of an evening of tension and jeopardy which ultimately it did not deliver.
Instead it is largely played for comedy: from the macabre discovery of a deceased dog's eye encased in glass which the central character keeps as a memento, to the eccentricities of grown men playing with train sets or bows and arrows.
The play opens in the sumptuous surroundings of the Sussex country house of Edward Kimberly (played by Ian Richardson) who, in is own words, is an 'old queen'. No longer interested in sex, but desperate for the company of young men, he is forced to pay for their services as his companion. However, his meanness, his demanding nature and his selfishness ensure they all tire of him very quickly. An insomniac, he has a penchant for playing piano at two in the morning and cards at four. Additionally, he seeks to control them totally. Whatever presents he gives them during their tenure (including their clothes), they must leave behind them on departure. The action begins at the changeover of companions. The incumbent, Michael (played by Alan Cox), or Michel as Kimberly pretentiously calls him, has been sacked while Maurice (Oliver Dimsdale) is being interviewed as his replacement.
As Maurice is hired to take over Michel's duties, Kimberly appears to have everything he wants, but Maurice's strange trances point to troubles ahead. The re-emergence of Michel acts as a catalyst for the play's inevitable disastrous conclusion.
One can wonder why this play (set and first staged in1964) is being revived at this time. At its first outing, Britain then was poised on the brink of social upheaval. Homosexuality was three years away from being decriminalised but there was a sense that the old order was changing and that nothing would ever be the same again. The Britain of today is also experiencing turmoil but of a different kind and I'm not sure that there are any parallels to be drawn.
The message of the play appears to be the opposite of Wilde's "each man kills the thing he loves"; in The Creeper, whatever you wish for will eventually destroy you. The play's title refers to the insidious plant that looks beautiful but has sapped the life out of the tree it surrounds. The tree symbolises Kimberly's life - once vibrant but now dead and empty. But this theme feels unsatisfactorily explored. Kimberly seemed far too selfish to love anyone apart from himself - as embodied by his treatment of his companions. He would only look after them as long as they danced to his tune. Nor is there a sense of the tables being turned - Maurice is far from devious and is reactive rather than active.
Bill Bryden, an Olivier Award winner, who directs opera, film and television as well as theatre, is perhaps not best served by this play. There were long silences as the actors moved furniture around to no good effect which contributed to the sometimes sluggish pace and some of the climactic moments felt more humorous than dramatic.
Though the play had some shortcomings, the performances were uniformly good. Richardson, who has been absent from the West End for eight years, was in fine form. He played the comic moments to the hilt, yet he still had the ability to move us by his vulnerability in a rather under-written part. Of particular note was Alan Cox as the highly camp Michel, who enlivened the sometimes leaden pace by his energy.
Running until 22nd April
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart