The Real Inspector Hound & Black Comedy

Surely it is easier to write a one-act play than a full-length piece? On the contrary: to tell a story well in one act, let alone to convey any sort of message behind that story, you need tautness in both writing and thought. BLTC are offering a double bill of comedies by masters of the genre, and the similarities and differences between the two are fascinating.

First up is The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard. Two theatre critics are watching a traditional Agatha Christie-type thriller set (of course) in a remote manor house cut off by the weather. At first, the development of the critics’ personalities takes place in parallel with the action in the thriller. Slowly, the two strands intertwine, reality and fantasy collide and even time and space become confused, all in a completely surreal manner.

Stoppard would have us believe that theatre critics are pompous and self-centred (well, really!) and the pretentious whingeing of Moon and the hypocritical lechery of Birdboot are clearly portrayed by Mike Bicknell and Chris Huggill respectively. Among the characters in the play being watched, Nicola King gets full comedy mileage from Mrs Drudge’s theatre-programme-speak. Denise King quite rightly hams it up and does so with charm. Alan Dester has been known to overdo the facial expressions, but here he underplays them and they are very effective. Carole Allen surely has the sexiest, huskiest voice since Joan Greenwood, and wonderful eyes to go with it: as always, she is a delight to watch.

The claustrophobic nature of the play is helped by a set which makes the already small stage smaller still. Don Cherrett’s direction has a mass of little comic touches which add to this very clever, excellently performed play.

Black Comedy by Peter Shaffer, which occupies the second half of the evening and is also directed by Don Cherrett, is very clever, too, but in quite a different way. Again, it turns preconceptions on their head and one cannot really talk about it without giving away its main feature – so spoiler alert. It revolves around a blown fuse, and Shaffer decrees that whenever the action is taking place in the light, the stage is blacked out, and when it is all happening in darkness, the stage is brightly lit.

It is an unusual and very creative idea, but the problem is that that is about all the play has going for it. Take away that device and the plot is pretty thin, with a dearth of funny lines. It is sacrilege to suggest that a playwright of Shaffer’s distinction was having an off day when he wrote this one, but apart from the lighting bouleversement, we are in Ray Cooney territory and Cooney did it rather better.

This makes it tough for the actors, who have to appear to grope towards a piece of scenery, prop or character which they can see very clearly, but they stick to the task manfully. Lora Townsend as Sloaney Carol and Wanda Sorge-Daniel as sexy Clea make notable Little Theatre debuts. Rob Dorey camps it up very effectively as Harold and Don Gent needs only a big white moustache for the full Colonel Blimp. Steve Rudge’s agitation as Brindsley is rather one-paced and his adopted (?) Northern accent sometimes creates audibility problems. The outstanding performance is from Beverley Beck, whose slide into drunkenness, culminating in a rambling monologue, is beautifully underplayed.

It all makes for a most interesting evening, but if it is something of a curate’s egg, most of the excellent parts come in the first half.

Future performances: 13-17 December at 7.45.