The Real Inspector Hound / The Critic, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, July 2010

Both these entertaining plays end rather suddenly after a few bangs and plenty of laughs. With a poor cast they could easily fail, but in these performances the stylish overacting kept the audience in suspense and drew out the humour without ever overdoing it.

Moon and Birdfoot

In The Real Inspector Hound, Tom Stoppard uses his intellectual gymnastics to create a spoof of the murder mystery in an isolated house, temporarily cut off from the world by the rising tide. But it’s more than that — it’s also a parody of The Mousetrap, with the inspector arriving not on skis but wearing ‘two inflatable — and inflated — pontoons with flat bottoms about two feet across’. Stoppard used the title The Critics in an early draft of the play, and its connection with Sheridan’s Critic in this double bill is that both plays involve critics taking part in the action. In Hound the critics Moon and Birdboot are played with understated panache, and in true 1960s style, by Richard McCabe and Nicholas Le Prevost. They were both utterly convincing, the one as a second rank theatre critic, and the other as a womaniser who takes advantage of his alleged ability to influence careers.

Hound, The Company

The other actors were equally superb, with Una Stubbs as Mrs Drudge, and Sophie Bould and Hermione Gulliford as the attractive ladies of the house, Felicity and Cynthia. Joe Dixon played a creepily foppish Simon, Derek Griffiths a suitably single-minded Inspector Hound, and Sean Foley provided excellent spice as the irascibly assertive Major Magnus, as well as collaborating with Jonathan Church in directing both plays. The audience sat on all four sides of the stage, with the small critics’ section replaced after the interval by a curtained stage for Sheridan’s play within a play.

Puff, Sneer and Dangle

In The Critic we had many of the same actors, with Nicholas Le Prevost now playing Mr. Dangle, a rather boring and unctuously sincere theatre critic of the late eighteenth century. Una Stubbs was his wife, showing ennui and wit in equal measure, and Derek Griffiths was the supposedly more professional critic Mr. Sneer. Sean Foley reappeared in the delightfully camp role of Sir Fretful Plagiary, giving a marvellous solo performance, and Richard McCabe was superb as the playwright and impresario Puff whose play The Spanish Armada is given a rehearsal in front of the critics.

Mr. Puff's play

While the real Spanish Armada was of course in 1588, recent events in the summer of 1779, in which Britain found itself in a state of war with Spain, had inspired Mr. Puff to his creation, and this production of The Critic cleverly inserts some absolutely up-to-date remarks on politics during the preamble in Mr. Dangle’s drawing room. As to Mr. Puff’s play, which the actors had mercifully cut in places, the ham acting is very funny, yet the author of the text remains brilliantly in charge of his rehearsal, despite inconvenient questions and alterations. The entire ‘rehearsal’ cast worked wonderfully well together, with Joe Dixon delightful in overacting the part of Don Ferolo Whiskerandos. The final crash of part of the scenery was, at least to me, wholly unexpected and dramatic, and in case any audience member had got up to leave in proximity to the imminent event, an usher was ready to stop them. If the crash seemed dangerously real, it was, and along with other howlers it formed a glorious ending.

This wonderful double bill continues until 28th August — for more details, click here. All photos by Manuel Harlan.

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