An English landowner, sipping whiskey in his crumbling Wiltshire pile, rails at the ‘spick Jew’ of Italian descent who has come over here and stolen his wife. Anthony Shaffer’s classic revenge play may be dated in its evocation of a peculiarly idiosyncratic branch of the privileged classes, but Giles Croft’s production finds some pleasing post-Brexit resonance in the desperate attempts of a nostalgic, insulated nob to forestall his own obsolescence.
In fact, Miles Richardson’s Andrew Wyke plays as a wish fulfilment fantasy of the Leave campaign. Imagine if we could, one by one, trick the immigrants into our castles and humiliate them, not only with our intellect, wit and absolute command of social etiquette, but with our very architecture. Barney George’s set is a revolving network of grand staircases, fireplaces, dressing rooms and drinks cabinets, operated by a number of garish red buttons that Andrew plays like a piano, befuddling James Alexandrou’s Milo as the house reorganises itself around them. The inclusion of large screens to pad out the physical set doesn’t quite work, flattening what is otherwise an impressively physical and labyrinthine environment for the actors to work around, but Andrew’s command of his house’s bizarre mechanics is all part of establishing his own superiority and right to be here.
Richardson, with his distinctive voice that effortlessly recaptures the RP preferred in ac-tors of the early twentieth century, is a perfect fit for Andrew. He is a man resistant to the world of flats above shops and practical trade that the interloper Milo represents. Ignore the script’s claims that Andrew is a mystery novel writer; Andrew is a classical actor gone to seed, living in a house filled with the detritus of theatrical machinery and dressing up. He’s Norma Desmond, if Norma Desmond was to star in a remake of Home Alone. Or Saw. Richardson has a ball in a role that demands virtuosity and variety – putting on accents, skipping and dancing, switching between impersonations of villain and victim in a flash. But he is at his best when simply relishing the play’s language, adopting the erudite condescension peculiar to those who judge a fellow by whether or not he takes ice with his scotch.
Milo does, of course. James Alexandrou is outclassed by Richardson in every sense, both rightly within the context of the play and somewhat more unfortunately in terms of their relative stage presence. Like Richardson he is a perfect fit for his role – Milo is (initially, at least) awkward, unsure, stilted and somewhat humourless. He is arrogant enough to voice his opinions of Andrew frankly, but sensitive enough to social niceties to let Andrew take the lead. In the first act, as Andrew feeds Milo drink after drink and slowly manipulates Milo into carrying out his outlandish plot, the two work brilliantly together to make the extreme arc (from complete strangers to co-conspirators in insurance fraud) natural and fluid. The issues come with Alexandrou’s performance, which is disjointed – he pauses fractionally too long before each line, disconnecting his response from the prompt, and the staccato bursts of delivery make his words difficult to disentangle. This isn’t fatal, especially as the play rather depends on Milo’s awkwardness relative to the easy, privileged confidence of Andrew, and as the actors relax into the run I’d expect that the rhythms will settle.
The shift in the second half, as Andrew is faced with Inspector Doppler (Cliff Williams, whose programme bio rather marvellously notes he trained at the Pour School and is best known for playing the Dromio twins in The Comedy of Errors), works well. Doppler is stiff, hobbling about the stage and poking into corners while using his Wiltshire drawl to undermine Andrew’s eloquence. The production does its best to conceal the play’s secrets, and the effect of these sequences on Richardson is to slowly deflate his confidence. As Richardson responds to Doppler’s methodical, amiable observations, he slips into gibbering panic and ashen-faced bluster. Again, there are some issues with pace and rhythm, as the Doppler-Andrew scenes at times slow down to an interminable crawl, but the energy returns for the play’s final movement as the stakes build with the imminent arrival of two new police officers and Andrew’s frantic attempts to cover his tracks.
Sleuth was dated in 1970, deliberately hearkening back to the world of Agatha Christie and her peers, and a revival now feels like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. But Andrew’s world is under threat. His sense that he can act without impunity towards those he considers foreign; his belief that his borders are inviolable; and his loveless possessiveness towards the unseen woman in his life are all scuppered over the course of this evening. The play ends with two figures laughing joylessly as the nostalgic bubble bursts, a reminder that revenge is a game with no winners.
Sleuth is on until 24th September 2016 at the Nottingham Playhouse. Click here for more details.