Vertigo Mystery Theatre
Starring David LeReaney and Noel Johansen
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Margaret Bard
Runs until October 9
Vertigo Playhouse (Tower Centre)
In any good game, tension drives the fun. Win or lose, one mind pitted against another, its simply no fun to play if the outcome is assured. Unfortunately, Vertigo Mystery Theatres season opening re-staging of Anthony Shaffers Sleuth suffers from a severe lack of this essential element.
Arriving at the home of the successful mystery writer Andrew Wyke (David LeReaney), the younger Milo Tindle (Noel Johansen) is presented with a tantalizing if unorthodox offer. In exchange for the younger mans co-operation in a staged jewel robbery, Wyke gives Tindle his blessing to marry the older mans wife, with whom Tindle has already been having an affair. Staged in the quiet of Wykes country estate, the deal soon becomes increasingly complex as the two men match wits in a game of deception. Who is playing whom becomes increasingly less clear as the pair wage an intellectual battle.
Sleuth hinges heavily on the tension inherent between its two protagonists as they exchange verbal attacks and cunning psychological strategies. Driven by their mutual manipulation, it is imperative that the interchange between these two remain at the forefront of the production. Unfortunately, with distracting production values that include an elaborate set and a heavy-handed sound design, Vertigos production loses much of this interaction in its own background. And the lacklustre performances dont help.
On the Playhouse stage, the central room of Wykes estate has been created by Scott Reid, replete with bookshelves full of knick-knacks and a chic liquor cabinet concealed in a dartboard a piece of 70s tack appropriate to a play more than 30 years old. But while the sets often absurd details belie the dramatic nature of Wykes personality, as the backdrop for a two-character play this detailed construction becomes overwhelming.
The audience is further alienated from the onstage exchanges by the sound design. As the game shifts in tone from the humorous to the dark and back again, this production feels compelled to cue the audience with an almost comic earnestness. However, composer David Nielsens dark segues serve only to draw attention away from the actors.
Both LeReaney and Johansens performances reflect a tight rehearsal schedule and they were still uncomfortable with the plays dialogue after a week of performances. Oscillating between the absurd and the tragic, with their typically British costume comedy and over-the-top characterizations set against often deadly serious games, the actors lack the assurance needed to drive the audience from laughter to suspense. While LeReaney is able, at points, to reveal the profoundly theatrical nature of his character, Wykes frequent bouts of high drama remain largely lost against the Playhouses imposing backdrop. And neither he nor Johansen engage each other with the flair required to make this particular game interesting.
Since its première in 1970, Sleuth has remained a staple of mystery theatre for a reason. But to make it work, its important to let its characters play their games, to remember that the shows principal attractions are the devious minds of its two competitors. Overwhelmed by its scenery, Vertigos production of Sleuth finds itself down two players, and wheres the fun in that?