The Real Inspector Hound / Black Comedy

Cremorne Theatre (Queensland Theatre Company)


The good news is that you have 22 days left in which to go and laugh yourself silly at one of the funniest and best done couple of plays that I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying. And, happily, there is no bad news about these plays. To give you just some idea of what to expect, this is what according to playwright Peter Shaffer happened during the first night of the one that he wrote, Black Comedy:

“A stern-looking middle-aged man sitting directly in front of me suddenly fell out of his seat into the aisle during this section of the play and began calling out to the actors in a voice weak from laughing, “Oh stop it! Please stop it!!” I cannot remember a more pleasing thing ever happening to me inside a theatre.”

And, in both The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy, the accent has been put on the comedy part of the phrase “black comedy”, while playwrights Tom Stoppard and Shaffer each give their own original twists to ways of blackening their contribution to this double bill. Please note, first of all, that that reads as original in 2004 terms, which is pretty remarkable since both these plays were written in the 1960s. And secondly, that if you want to enjoy the surprises that underpin each of them, the one thing that you must not do is to read anything that tells you what to expect in terms of the plot developments. So, while (due to great restraint) it is safe to read on here, do not I repeat do not read the program notes when you go in, and do be very wary of any other reviews before you go. Put them all aside until afterwards, when reading about both these plays is one way of prolonging the enjoyment of the evening.

It is not, however, giving too much away to say that The Real Inspector Hound involves two critics focusing on their own obsessions at a performance of a traditional English-thriller-set-in-an-isolated-country-manor that has the mickey taken out of it with surgical skill. While Black Comedy twists the conventional situation of nervous-engaged-couple-waiting-for-stern-but-doting-dad-of-daughter upside down and over its head. And that a particular delight of having two such different plots is that each member of the cast gets to display their versatility in two absolutely different roles.

And one of the reasons for actually going to see these plays on stage, rather than waiting for the movie, is that unlike many plays the stage is where these two work best, because they draw out of their situations and everyone involved in creating them all that is best in theatrical craft. At least, when it is in good hands. As it most certainly is, both in front of and behind the scenes, under the direction of Michael Gow.

Daniel Murphy swings from the philandering husband and critic Birdboot to the gaily aesthetic Harrold-with-a-double-r Gorringe so convincingly that I didn’t realise that they were played by the same actor. And Hayden Spencer offsets the embittered monologues of the lugubrious stand-in critic Moon with the fabulous physicality required by the amorous Brindsley as he tries to salvage an increasingly impossible situation. The only quibble I have, in fact, is that as Brindsley the tone he adopts doesn’t always match either the level of comic exaggeration favoured by the rest of the cast, or his consummate skill in every other part of this role. As part of which, his brilliance at the centre of the scene that had Shaffer’s first nighter falling out of his seat is a hysterically funny highlight of the evening, as well as being a miracle of timing, balance and co-ordination by everyone on stage at the time. As well, however, as this scene also shows to maximum effect, what makes both of these plays ensemble works in the fullest sense of the phrase are the highly active (rather than typically supportive) roles that are played on stage by the settings, sound, lighting and special effects. And the production skills of Alison Ross, Pete Goodwin, Matt Scott and Allana Sheard, respectively, deserve a special bow.

It is a pleasure, also, to see QTC perennials Carol Burns and David Clendinning working their magic. Burns’ Mrs Drudge is a perfectly hammy Greek chorus for the country manor goings-on, and then a delightful contrast as the slowly unravelling Miss Furnival in the dark…..Well, you’ll see for yourselves. Clendinning is not in the least confined by the fact that most of his action takes place in a seated position, first as the lecherous, wheel-chair bound Magnus, and then as the progressively reseated and unseated military dad. As the two female romantic leads, both Rebecca Murphy and Melinda Butel are competently humorous as country manor stereotypes, and gloriously over the top as Brindsley’s public and private love interests. Lucas Stibbard’s shining moment is as the louche, Tom Courtney-like Simon, but he has little to do as Bamberger, while Joss McWilliam’s blustering Inspector Hound takes second place to the way he lobs a series of spanners into the works as Schuppanzigh. And last but not least is Geoff Mullins (the Geoff Mullins?) whose voice has a cameo role as the portentous Radio Announcer activated at crucial moments by Mrs Drudge.

All in all, this polished combination of wit and slapstick is such a delight that I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, and do something that I’ve never done before. By the time I’d finished telling my partner (at some length) what he’d missed by being inconveniently in Perth, he’d decided to see it, and I’ve decided to go with him and enjoy it all over again. And for me to see something twice in one season says it all.

— Anne Ring
(Performance seen: Mon 16th February 2004)