Stoppard spirals

The Real Inspector Hound (Villanova Players)

Ron Hurley Theatre

May 20 – 22

Before there was “Inception”, there was Tom Stoppard, the Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter, best known for his absurdist, existential tragicomedy “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead”, whose work uses comic wit while addressing philosophical concepts. His 1968’s “The Real Inspector Hound” may be a lesser-known comedy, but it is just as funny, primarily through the paradoxical spirals created by its reframing.

From the initial scene of Villanova Players’ production as part of the group’s Intermezzo series, the Stoppard sensibility is evident. Two self-important London theatre critics, Moon (Luke Monsour) and Birdbook (Pat Leo), are in attendance at an amateurish murder mystery play, a typical British parlour mystery of “The Mousetrap” sort. As they proceed to pontificate about their sacred profession, it become apparent that Moon is frustrated by his status as ‘second-string’ critic to his loathed superior Higgs, while the philandering Birdboot seems to be more interested in propositioning the female members of the cast.

The play they are watching is then simultaneously enacted in on stage…. in a way, as a murder mystery direct parody of Agatha Christie’s closed settings in which no one can enter or leave, so the characters know that the murderer must be one of them. The location is the stately but mysterious and strangely inaccessible Muldoon Manor. Housekeeper Mrs Drudge (Desley Nichols) hears a radio report about a savage madman believed to be nearby. In the meantime, Simon Gascoigne (Oscar Kennedy Smith) appears. Having courted houseguest Felicity (Lillian Dowdell), he is now turning his attention to the lady of the house manor, Cynthia (Steff King), despite her pining for long-missing husband Albert. Romantic tension aside, the trio decide to play an indecipherable card game for four, including Albert’s wheelchair-bound Canadian brother, Magnus (Blaise Ahern). Then a shot rings out at Inspector Hound (John Evans) appears to solve the crime at its source… the body (played by Nikolai Stewart).  

As the action plays out in front of them, the critics share a selection of chocolates and continue their own critical-jargon-filled conversation of suspicion and insinuation, pontificating during its interval about the need to reserve judgement until the final confrontation even when it is clear where things are heading (in some of the script’s most obvious non-spoilery foreshadowing). As things progress, the critics’ own stories appear to increasingly parallel the onstage action, to the point where they become entwined in it. The self-proclaimed scrupulous family man Birdboot may maintain that he has nothing to hide, however, his philandering sees him become involved in on-stage events. This is the absurdly chaotic world of Tom Stoppard and all audiences can do is hang on for the ride.

This switch in its story also represents a wonderful opportunity to elevate the work’s melodramatic possibilities, allowing the ensemble cast opportunity to shine, both individually and collectively. With exaggerated physicality, caricatured mannerisms and clichéd dialogue delivery, the performers contribute much to the play’s essential mockery of the stereotypes of its genre (helped also by Dan Buckley’s sound and lighting that sees music swelling over the top of romantic tryst and punctuating plot revelations). While all they all gloriously embrace the camp and slapstick comedy inherent in the material, Oscar Kennedy Smith gives an early, noteworthy, appropriately-over-the-top performance. And Steff King’s tizzied execution of Stoppard’s rapid-fire dialogue does much to emphasise the escalating chaos. It is Desley Nichols, as the housemaid Mrs Drudge, however, who provides the drollest delivery. With expert comic timing, she drops dialogue hints about it all leading up to something, orienting us with a deadpan commentary that serves as substitute for stage directions.

Finding the balance between the text’s realism and melodrama, and sustaining its satirical pace represents a challenge, and Trevor Bond keeps the pace powering along, which adds to its absurdity, without glossing over its witty examination of the reviewer’s craft. This is a taut one act production that is intelligent, engaging and very entertaining. The classic comedy farce is signature Stoppard, uniquely both profound and silly. Indeed, the hilarious parody of parlour style who-dunnits, is very clever in its feature of metatheatre devices such a play-within-a-play, character switches and many twists and turns, meaning that its audience is kept guessing until the very end. More than just a funny play, however, Villanova Players have given us a quality production that, very appropriately, does not take itself too seriously.

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