The late Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth was his first major play which ran eight years (2,359 performances) in the West End. It then crossed the Atlantic, and ran for a further 2000 on Broadway reaping a Tony as Best Play. So successful was the play it was once said to Shaffer that Sleuth “was being performed somewhere in the world every day since he wrote it”. (Jason Buchanan).
In 1972 a film version starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine proved equally successful, hardly surprising given the screenplay by Shaffer himself and the prodigious talents of its performers. This film casting gives insight into Shaffer’s original purpose for the play and how, and how successfully, Alex Lanham’s production with Hugh Brophy and Colin Smith is addressed and whether its sub-text is sustained after 30-plus years.
I have stressed my reluctance to padding reviews with detailed revelation of plot in earlier reviews for Stagediary. For those who by happenchance may never have seen either the film or an earlier stage production I will maintain my stance.
Suffice to say that rags to riches ethnic business-person Milo Tindale (Brophy/Smith) arrives at the Wiltshire country mansion of the highly educated-and-successful upper-crust whodunit novelist Andrew Wyke (Brophy/Smith). As the play opens Milo interrupts Andrew’s melodramatically self-satisfying reading of the closing of his latest masterpiece to announce his intention to marry Wyke’s wife. To his surprise Wyke (who subsequently admits to having a current mistress anyway) is, subject to certain “conditions”, quite amenable to the proposition.
That’s where the game-playing begins, and if you don’t know where it ends, go see the play. As a film, Sleuth was called a “thinking person’s thriller”. To Shaffer it was much more. It spoke to and against the shallow, two dimensional and all too clever whodunit characters of the 20th century and of the class differentials of Britain in the early 1970s (now ethnic differentials in the last decade of the 20th and first of the 21st centuries). Ironically it has by its own popularity become something of a victim of its own intent.
In Act 1, Wyke holds the upper hand in the game playing. It’s he who is writing the plot by which the transfer of the wife will occur to their mutual benefit. In the text it’s an upper hand of an incisively witty wordsmith who enjoys his own jokes and complements his laughter with his penchance for special effects gadgetry, once piece of which provides some of the best moments of the evening.
What Wyke in his upper-crust arrogance fails to appreciate is that the rags to riches Milo is quite a game-player himself, one whose wits have been honed to razor-sharp street wise precision. In Act 2 Wyke learns the errors of his arrogance.
Sleuth is not a comic thriller. Even less is it a farce with thriller elements. Its combatants are equally matched according to their backgrounds with rapiers, not broadswords. This is a clash of sharp tongues and sharper minds. And each character at every moment must believe and be seen to believe that each moment is real. Milo’s fear must be palpable. Wyke’s pomposity genuinely cryptic and cruel.
Neither the production nor the performances meet these critical demands.
The concept of “straight” plays in a theatre restaurant context is novel, exciting and alive with potential. In order to work successfully however the production of the tucker must match the disciplines of the production of the play. I suspect that, like the writer, many of the patrons who arrived at the nominated hour for the chef and service staff to play their roles had their attitude to the play coloured by the delays.