Sleuth, Bath Theatre Royal and touring

SLEUTH is described as “the world’s greatest thriller” – which you might think is hyperbole, unless you recall the almost breathless excitement of the movie with a shocking Laurence Olivier (who had previously dismissed the stage play as “a piece of piss”) and Michael Caine, filmed at Dorset’s historic Athelhampton House.

This new touring production, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, has its tongue firmly in its cheek. And that is a problem if you want a real, nerve-tingling thriller – not so much if you want to enjoy a vastly entertaining couple of hours, with a gorgeous set and two actors having a lot of often very physical fun.

The two stars are Coronation Street veteran Todd Boyce, as the ageing crime novelist Andrew Wyke, and Neil McDermott, popular East Enders bad boy and Bath’s 2023 pantomime prince, as Wyke’s wife’s lover, Milo Tindle.

The slightly unlikely – very theatrical (that’s the point!) – premise is that Wyke has invited the much younger Milo to meet him, while the errant wife, Marguerite, is away from the novelist’s very grand country house. Why? Does he, as Wyke initially suggests, simply want to facilitate the new relationship by helping the impecunious travel agent son of an Italian immigrant to have enough money to keep Marguerite in the style to which she is accustomed? Is he, indeed, glad to get his bored and demanding wife off his hands?

It’s very much a story of the games people play, and Andrew and Milo prove to be very able games-players. It’s a familiar trope from theatre back to who knows when, silent film, endless movies and more crime novels than you can shake the most skull-crunching stick at. Just one recent example of bluff-double bluff-and then some is Val McDermid’s latest excellent Karen Pirie mystery, Past Lying.

Right from the opening scene, Andrew Wyke reveals himself to be a vain, arrogant snob, a man who believes he is better, by birth, talent, success, location and wealth. He is smooth, patronising and (whisper it, since it is such an over-used term these days) a narcissist. He has a lack of interest in ordinary people, a withering contempt for the PC Plods of his books (and by extension real cops) and a lack of empathy or understanding that is certainly chilling.

Milo is smarter than he lets on, but he’s young, in love, slightly over-awed by the older man and ultimately appears willing to play the game.

So far, so Anthony Shaffer’s clever plot. The divergence comes with the character interpretation and that’s where you may think this production falls down. Do you BELIEVE in Todd Boyce’s Andrew Wyke? More to the point, does he?

There’s no problem with Neil McDermott’s Milo – he is convincingly romantic, by no means as stupid as Wyke imagines, physically up to the demands of the role and thoroughly versatile.

One thing you do need to understand about Sleuth is that it’s all about play-acting and over-acting – two skills that Laurence Olivier had down to his fingertips. Andrew Wyke is a games player and Olivier knew exactly how that worked. That’s why we remember him in so many villainous roles, from the utterly, hilariously, gloriously evil Richard III to … well, Andrew Wyke.

From the start, you feel Todd Boyce is over-acting knowingly. He has all the voices, including Wyke’s plummy aristo-sleuth, St John, Lord Merridew, but he is hollow. McDermott’s Milo feels real – and that creates a balance that worked for many in the audience. It was the old smart-ass, the ageing Lothario with his boasts of virility, versus the young lover.

Sleuth, now more than 50 years old, is a classic theatrical war-horse – it is of its time, satirising what was already a somewhat dated trope, the country house murder, the aristocratic amateur sleuth besting the dullard Plods.

You can play it for real, as if you believe in your character, and enjoy the gasps and tension in the audience – or you can over-play it and enjoy the knowing chuckles and warm recognition of an audience that is in on the game.

This is an enjoyable production – as long as you take it in the spirit it is played. And the set is spectacular – almost as beautiful as the great hall at Athelhampton. It is at Bath Theatre Royal until 17th February and touring.

Production photographs by Jack Merriman.

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