Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 9 July, 2010

Faced with a double bill of plays about theatre critics, my colleagues and I are almost certain to be seen as sour grape merchants if we give sniffy reviews, or conversely as merely affecting to like the production in order to seem good sports. Well, so be it.

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound premièred in 1968, though written several years earlier. What is surprising is how little it has dated. The Mousetrap, which is parodied in the country-house-thriller play within the play, was already quaint even then. But the critical pronouncements of reviewers Moon and Birdboot still sound plausible; Richard McCabe and Nicholas Le Prevost also bear a passing visual resemblance to particular current or recent critics. As for their character traits, some members of our tribe have indeed been known to give warm write-ups to ingénue actors or actresses they might fancy, and some still grow excessively het-up over swearing and “smut”.

The play is early-clever-Stoppard at or near his cleverest. The parodies, the verbal and structural patternings, the intricacy yet deftness with which first Birdboot then Moon is drawn out of his seat and into the action onstage... all are delightful. Jonathan Church’s production adds a generous dose of comic business, thanks I suspect to co-director Sean Foley, who is a master of such hi-jinks and who, playing the crusty and semi-sinister Major Magnus Muldoon, engages in some remarkable wheelchair acting, skidding from pose to portentous four-wheeled pose. That fine parodic actor Joe Dixon quivers his false moustache enthusiastically as Simon Gascoine, and Una Stubbs as Mrs Drudge the cleaning lady gets the greatest whoops-exposition line of all time, on answering the telephone: “Hello, the drawing-room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring?”

It is possible to talk about the play’s attitude towards notions of critical distance and objectivity, and the relationship between reviewers and reviewed, but really it’s best simply to sit back and enjoy. Similarly, Sheridan’s The Critic (1779) has views of its own about the links between authors, critics and the press in a period when critics were largely self-appointed (a situation somewhat revived by the advent of the blogosphere); however, although the author especially prized the first act, for us the cream of the piece is the second-act rehearsal staging of The Spanish Armada by Mr Puff, a kind of 18th-century Max Clifford, to which he has invited the opinionated Messrs Dangle and Sneer. Those parts of the play which have not already been either mangled or simply excised by the actors are then derailed by Puff’s constant interference. Consequently, we flounder (but happily) in incomprehensible plots, incompetent staging and ludicrous effects which at one point lead to Derek Griffiths as Sneer being hoisted aloft on a large globe whilst Foley as Britannia inadvertently moons the audience. McCabe is as florid as Puff as he is self-effacing as Moon, whilst Le Prevost as Dangle voices the incredulity of us all at the goings-on.

The only serious caveat I have is that, on nights when the pace may either drag or be hobbled by its own success, with too many pauses for laughter, the double bill will fall prey to its own criticism in Birdboot’s opening line in Hound: that it is “first-class family entertainment, but if it goes on beyond half past ten it’s self-indulgent.” Otherwise, in the same gentleman’s opinion, “A rattling good evening out. I was held.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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