‘ I think I’ll go and oil my gun…’
The Real Inspector Hound, currently playing Upstairs at the Gatehouse, is ostensibly a murder mystery parody. On the surface it appears to mock the noble art of the theatre critic, undermining his insights and reducing his role in theatrical life to mere braggadocio. Of course this reading of the play is flawed and it falls to a theatre critic to explain Tom Stoppard’s true, explosive meanings.
The murder mystery pastiche might take up most of the play’s running time, but it is a minor element in the playwright’s thinking. With one actor playing dead the entire evening (Joseph Wakelin is a marvellously still corpse, taking the character of dead body to powerful new heights) we can surely say The Real Inspector Hound is actually a virulent Marxist critique of the commodification of labour. A boding reflection, if you will, of society’s insistence on forcing men to daily play dead for hours in jobs throughout the economy.
Two theatre critics, Moon and Birdboot, are watching a Whodunnit set in the drawing room of a manor house. We can see the play they are watching and (if we are sitting in the right place) we can see them as they dissect and discuss it. In the stage directions the critics sit opposite the audience with a playing area between. Here Michael Tonkin-Jones and Matthew Howell’s critics sit on the front row of the left hand bank of seats, amongst the audience. If you are sitting in the same bank you’ll hear them but only see the tops of their heads (and maybe an ear) for most of the play.
Stoppard’s conceit doesn’t quite work as critics don’t talk loudly to each other during productions, but here the action on stage pauses for us to hear the critics offer each other sweets, criticise the players or talk about their private lives. Over the course of the play the two critics move from commenting on the action to become absurdly involved in it, blurring the boundaries between performer and spectator and questioning the relationship between critics and actors.
The play they are watching exploits many of the well-known tropes of classic Agatharian crime fiction. It is set in the isolated Muldoon manor, which is surrounded by swamps and cliffs (yet is also often cut off at high tide). There are suspicious glances and statements, a retired major and of course a cad that everyone has a motive to murder. The telephone lines have been cut and there’s also a madman in the vicinity. Cue clipped accents, overly-detailed exposition, very coincidental radio announcements and plenty of overacting with tennis rackets.
The production directed by Scott Le Crass introduces some amusing elements. Penelope Day’s Mrs Drudge fights eloquently with a recalcitrant tea trolley, whilst James Naylor pulls off a ripping fake moustache gag. The critics begin as real people – I’m sure Howell was queuing for a ticket at the box office before the performance – and when Tonkin-Jones first appears you’re not sure that he isn’t just a slightly late audience member sneaking in when the lights have gone down. A pair of real latecomers were directed to brightly-lit seats right next to the two pontificating critics, which brought a laugh from the audience, but probably affected the couple’s enjoyment of the entire evening.
Written over fifty years ago the script is tired, an intelligent bully mocking a genre for having conventions whilst ignoring its own. There is none of the love for the underlying subject that comes over in Stoppard’s more recent Shakespeare in Love (on now at all good Noel Coward theatres). The Real Inspector Hound does have some funny lines, mainly at the expense of the hifalutin critics (of which Stoppard was once one), theatre customs (‘Same place half an hour later’ Mrs Drudge announces on the phone) and murder mystery devices. It takes a long time to build but the actors all put great energy in to the play (except, for understandable reasons previously explained, Mr Wakelin) and create a pacy denouement.
By the end it is apparent that any suggestion that theatre critics talk nonsense is an ironic gesture to highlight just how important their dialogue is to theatre, culture in general and the world at large. Je suis, ergo sum, as Moon comments, has never been more true.