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The Real Inspector Hound and An Actor’s Nightmare

by on 3 October 2018

Just a Stage I’m Going Through

An Actor’s Nightmare

by Christopher Durang, and

The Real Inspector Hound

by Tom Stoppard

OHADS Double Bill at Hampton Hill Theatre, until 6 October

Review by Matthew Grierson

There’s more to tonight’s double bill at Hampton Hill than simple meta-theatrical mischief. Yes, both are plays about plays, but that was old when Hamlet did it. More particularly, they are plays about the kind of behaviour that plays force us into, and try as he might the Dane’s Mousetrap never manages that with Claudius or Gertrude.

Just as procrastinating as the prince is the protagonist of An Actor’s Nightmare, who finds himself extemporising throughout Christopher Durang’s one-act piece, in an attempt to perform a part he has not rehearsed. The remorselessly dreamlike logic sees the hapless George (or is it Stanley? It’s definitely not the mega-star they all expected), called on to the stage unexpectedly to appear in a play that some of the cast think is Coward and others Beckett, before it ends up on the executioner’s block à la Thomas More – a Bolt from the blue, you might say.

So unsure are this cast of George (or Stanley’s) identity that the poor fellow is not even credited in the programme. Perhaps that’s just as well. If the play were to feel truly like a nightmare we should be squirming in our seats, but such is the competently nonplussed performance of the enforced understudy that we never feel involved in his plight. I say ‘we’ on the assumption that many of my fellow theatregoers are like me onetime or sometime thesps, so there would have been considerable potential in mining our collective stage fright. Instead, having been plucked from obscurity, our (non-)hero seems barely to register our presence again, and has no sense of the embarrassment that would attend being onstage without line or reason. He also seems unfazed to find himself wearing a lycra cycling one-piece accessorised with ruff and a gold medallion that keeps annoyingly catching the light.

Nightmare1

As a result, a capable and versatile supporting cast expend a lot of energy to keep things going. At least they’re having fun as they do so, sending up the various milieux of Coward, Beckett, Bolt and the Bard: Joolz Connery gives a fine turn as a Riviera honeymooner trying to get George/Stanley to remember his lines, while Denise Rocard has a brief appearance as her rival before a quick change into a bin liner for the Happy Days-cum-Endgame pastiche, where she showcases her proficiency at face-pulling.

Craig Cameron Foster then chews the scenery as a courtier in a sporting spoof of Shakespearean tragedians, and Lily Tomlinson serves throughout as a harassed stage manager in the guise of a maid whom George/Stanley summons to prompt him at regular intervals. Nevertheless, despite the combined efforts of the cast and crew orbiting George/Stanley, the play rather peters out. Even the executioner’s chopping block lacks threat because, well, it’s all just a dream, isn’t it?

Once everyone has woken up with their interval drinks we go further behind the curtain, and in front of it, for Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. As I said, there’s more than simply stage play that the two pieces have in common: if in An Actor’s Nightmare the supporting cast find themselves repeating dialogue in increasing desperation, Hound – which might just as easily have been called A Critic’s Nightmare – is built on the repetition that results from the characters’ own fixations. As in the first play, the relationship between audience members and cast on stage is blurred. Oh, and there’s a maid in both.

OHADS make good use of Stoppard’s device of critics being part of the show, sitting Birdboot (Andy Smith) and Moon (Luke Daxon) as far apart from one another as possible when the curtain goes up. This means that once the former recognises the latter, he fusses his way from one side of the stalls to another, and for maximum effect disrupts an entire row in the process. There is then plenty more to enjoy as we switch between overhearing them and keeping an eye on the play they and we are watching together. For as long as the reviewers engage in dialogue they are talking around their own preoccupations, but once they get down to taking notes they are effectively soliloquising, revealing their respective statuses as egotistical philanderer and jealous pseud.

Hound2

The action onstage meanwhile unfolds with gleeful over-explanation, making the machinations at Muldoon Manor seem much more straightforward than the reviewers’ hyperbolic reaction to it. As in Nightmare the cast have a game old time, and on this occasion the interlopers seem more than capable of keeping pace with them in sending up the Christie clichés. Indeed, it is Birdboot’s fondness for hackneyed turns of phrase, not to mention himself, that means he is first to cross the fourth wall to assume the role of bounder, recently vacated by the murdered Simon Gascoyne (Matt O’Toole).

In contrast to that young man’s sharp turns between diffidence, lust, suspiciousness and vulnerability, well handled by O’Toole, Smith proves an adept blusterer, his character’s critical instincts so poorly attuned that he does not realise that his affairs with Felicity (Francesca Stone) and Cynthia (Dionne King) have drawn him into the fiction. The ladies themselves are spot-on as the perky love interest and older vamp respectively, and Lara Parker adds excellent value as Mrs Drudge, whose dialogue is as laboriously delivered as the card table she has to carry to and fro.

Birdboot getting in on the action, so to speak, is much to the exasperation of Moon, a more cerebral form of critic whom the entire audience can get behind, a model of probity and insight who … Oh no, wait, I’m looking in the mirror. Moon is after all as hung-up as his companion, and it’s frustrated ambition that eventually carries him beyond the pros arch. Ostensibly there to resolve (spoiler!) Birdboot’s murder, Moon soon discovers that the corpse who has lain, elephantine, in the room since the beginning is his rival critic Higgs, whom he has himself fantasised about bumping off. (Incidentally, given that both scripts are peppered with up-to-date references, might there be a gag to be made about Higgs lending weight to proceedings, like the namesake boson? Wait and see, I suppose.)

Hound3

Thank heavens Inspector Hound – in a fun cameo by Fran Billington – is on hand to clear things up. Or is she? Once the critics have written themselves into the play, she and Gascoyne take their turn in the stalls to comment on proceedings, leaving wheelchair-bound Major Magnus (Jim Trimmer) to cast off his own well-conjured bluster to stand up and be counted as the real Inspector Hound.

If this sounds like a reviewer’s nightmare, the clarity of the direction makes it much easier to follow than it is for me to précis. It also helps that the structure of the play around which Birdboot and Moon orbit, before they are fatally drawn into its gravity, is relatively simple. That said, I’m still not sure why the third act of the play within a play rehashes its first; neither by what agency Gascoyne and the first Hound are granted temporary critical oversight. Perhaps what was a convention-busting device fifty years ago would benefit from a bit of tidying, now we are all familiar with it?

Then again, perhaps they are commenting on the need for essentially meaningless structure in a world without God. The moment Moon thinks aloud ‘Where is God?’ and Birdboot frantically scans his programme for said deity to show that Hound handles its religious ruminations much more deftly and humorously than An Actor’s Nightmare, where repeated references to George/Stanley as a monk manqué fail to find their mark. On the other hand, like Stoppard’s reviewers, yours truly may just be projecting his own critical unconsciousness on to the plays.

I wish it weren’t so. As it happens, though, among the deliberately miscued slides that serve for scenery in An Actor’s Nightmare is one bearing the legend ‘Conservative Party Conference 2018’, and once the image was in my head I found it hard to shake off the fact that the lead resembled a certain …  …  Well, let’s just say that prospect would have been a genuine nightmare

Matthew Grierson
October 2018

Photography by Raymond Wheatan

From → Drama, Reviews

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