FringeReview UK 2017
Directors Dan J Walker and Mary Allen have brought a double bill to New Venture Theatre in Hughie and The Real Inspector Hound. Simon Glazier’s unfussy set, a bar that becomes a mantlepiece, minimal chairs and table, ensure nothing gets in the way of words. Emma Shiel’s lighting cleverly hollows for the lobby, and spotlights for the Stoppard. Ian Black’s sound comes into its own in the Stoppard too, though we get a burst of rather animated three a.m. traffic. To April 29th.
Directors Dan J Walker and Mary Allen have brought a double bill to New Venture Theatre, a contrast that has precedents when for instance the second item Tom Stoppard’s 1967 The Real Inspector Hound was triumphantly revived at Chichester alongside Sheridan’s The Critic in 2009. Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, sole survivor of eight short plays he wrote in 1942 very near the end of his writing life isn’t exactly a comedy, but very near it. Ah Wilderness!, O’Neill’ only official comedy boasts a very different companion here; but it’s comedic and curiously affirmative, not a word O’Neill would have enjoyed.
Simon Glazier’s unfussy set, a bar that becomes a mantlepiece, minimal chairs and table, ensure nothing gets in the way of words. Emma Shiel’s lighting cleverly hollows for the lobby, and spotlights for the Stoppard. Ian Black’s sound comes into its own in the Stoppard too, though we get a burst of rather animated three a.m. traffic.
Hughie’s set in 1928, where a colourless hotel night clerk’s interrupted by a guest Erie Smith, gambler and compulsive liar, returning at three a.m. Hughie was the previous night porter at this fading hotel, and this one Charlie Hughes no relation apparently (a typical O’Neill bit of metaphysics) becomes the litmus absorbing ‘call me Erie’ Smith’s tales of how he took Hughie for a sap, but gave him a huge wreath; for with Hughie’s death recently he’s lost all his luck.
Simon Messingham’s Erie combines atavistic energy at nodal points spinning on world-weariness and a moral torpor of a man who knows he’s sliding; the Wall Street Crash is a year off. Perhaps that’s the Iceman in this piece though nothing outside Erie’s life and relations with Hughie gets a look-in. Messingham relentlessly conveys a man spinning a life to save one, with a clinching presence half-boozy, half on stalks. Though pacey he’s never afraid of pausing to effect, not for effect, and the bleak drowsy hour seeps wary confidences into this production. We learn how Erie’s identity gains energy from both giving Hughie some life, whilst infuriating his wife, and occasionally fleecing him of a dollar. It’s not clear if Erie abuses Hughie much, since Hughie’s poor. But somehow Erie’s energized to win elsewhere.
Erie’s a co-dependant who in Steven Mallen’s minimally inflected night clerk Charlie Hughes finds a listening post who occasionally nods off – but watch his tiny inflections from jerks to waking boredom. When all seems lost in sleep and despair Hughes springs s surprising question. The play suddenly turns.
The Real Inspector Hound has two critics Moon and Birdboot sitting in on a second-rate whodunit with a body no-one notices. Moon’s the second-string critic in the absence of Higgs the first, and conscious that Puckeridge the third-string wants Moon out of the way too. Birdboot writes dazzling reviews for starlets in return for sex whilst placating his wife Myrtle.
Des Potton’s Moon is superbly pompous, with the right tone of someone who thinks he should achieve greatness when something else is thrust upon him. Potton has form in the absurd: an apparently impeccable exterior profoundly subversive. Alistair Lock handles Birdboot as a more down-at-heel but shrewder critic; after all he chases the juvenile leads.
Various critical modes and clichés are paraded, just as the clichéd action begins when a young interloper Simon Gascoyne caddishly arrives, throws one girl Felicity over for another, young widow Cynthia, and then as critics predict gets killed (straight onto the other body). Tom Cunningham enjoys his handsome rotter spotlight. Major Magnus Muldoon wants Cynthia too, though crippled in his armchair. Teresa Kuna vamps this delightfully over the vulnerable, shrill ardours of Keziah Israel’s more innocent Felicity. By now everyone could have killed Simon except Mrs Drudge the help (Zoe Edden, neatly taken) who answers phones giving plot-points and over-explanations like an exo-skeletal parody of whodunit clichés, including rolling fog cutting everything off.
Hound himself of course might have a fluid identity in Adam Kincaid, and Culann Smyth’s deep-voiced Major Magnus for all his bluff is a weaver of coups – Smyth lends a measure of distinctiveness here. Matthew Jeffrey’s body gifts a posthumous surprise.
Absurdities erupt when the phone rings when all but the body are offstage. Moon eventually answers it handing it to Birdboot. Both critics find themselves onstage at different points, Birdboot re-enacting Simon almost word for word, but for ‘real’. That includes his very real seductions of the actresses. Moon too is drawn in and makes a startling discovery about the body, Magnus reveals a trick out of the denouement of The Mouse Trap. Apparently Christie et al couldn’t sue lest that draw attention to her own play’s plot. By this time two other critics have turned up.
Critical and creative identity, the nature of acting and reality, are all things Stoppard would explore in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1966 (The Real Inspector Hound originates from 1961-62). Here it’s parodic farce emerging as a kind of genius for taking existent forms, conventions, others’ plots, and like his early critic days, using original plays to create an overwrite from the whisky seat, the ultimate critics’ revenge.
This is a very fine revival of The Real Inspector Hound, counting on timing as much as the consummate Hughie counts on pauses. Allen’s pace refuses to break necks with slapstick but never drags. Potton is the commanding presence in Stoppard’s farce, whilst Messingham’s Erie is an exceptionally observed teeter to despair and a sudden lurch back. You wonder what he would have made of the 1930s, and how O’Neill might have answered him.