by Sophie DuncanMost of us know the disappointment and irritation felt, when, approaching the final page of a mystery novel, the author produces a deus ex machina which solves the crime and undercuts all our literary sleuthing. The butler who has an identical twin: the housemaid having run off to join her husband whose existence was hitherto unsuspected. The plot twists of Rhys Jones’s latest production are rather more complex, but the eventual disappointment is the same.
By the final scene of Anthony Horowitz’s Mindgame, each of the characters is revealed to be something other than what they seem. Herein lies the problem: is the revelation that the characters themselves are “acting” -just as much as the actors themselves– worth two hours of previously unconvincing performances?
This is not to say that Mindgame is without its highlights: there are two standout performances, in Tom Richards and Joseph Thomas. Unfortunately, both double the same role – another complexity of Jones’s production is its rolling cast. Sadly, the usual pitfalls of uneven ability haven’t been avoided: delicacy prevents me from telling you on what nights to see the play, but certain audiences will fair far better than others.
Richards, unnerving audiences with his dead eyes and whitewashed face, brings a patrician impassiveness to Dr Farquhar that quickly turns to a nightmare. Thomas, meanwhile, is a sad-eyed Crippen in the same role, pinched and melancholy, feeble and frightening. Mindgame mixes the Gothic and the farcical: both actors hit the mark precisely, but in fascinatingly different ways.
Their opposite numbers, Stewart Pringle and Rob Hemmens, are uneven as true crime novelist Styler. Hemmens is unconvincing, substituting breathlessness for fear at what should be moments of terror. Pringle is rather better, spiky unpredictability suggesting what is to come. Neither, however, makes good use of the dialogue: Hemmens in particular holds an emotional monotone, with darkest revelations in the same register as casual observation. Admittedly, some lines are simply dreadful (I’m not surprised that this is Horowitz’s only play): revelatory moments are reduced to melodrama, but without melodrama’s intensity.
Then again, this could be intentional: after all, most character identities in Mindgame collapse not once, but twice. What, then – aside from Richards and Thomas – can recommend this production? One answer is the set. The company boasts several magicians (including Jones himself) and the complex set promises a feast of misdirection, surrealism and sleight of hand.
This attention to design is half the story of Mindgame, the set disintegrating and warping with the perceptions of Styler. For all my reservations, this is one aspect of the show I absolutely loved. Successful and original design is a rarity in Oxford, and I would be delighted to see Jones further hone his talents in this field. This psychological thriller is “not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit” and if “whydunnit?” was a question I occasionally wanted to ask the director, Richards and Thomas nonetheless provide chills and thrills in the central role. My only regret is that Jones was unable to fulfil his original desire of having every actor play every part: that way, Mindgame would have been a much better show.
Dir. Rhys Jones
OFS 7.30 Tues-Sat