The Real Inspector Hound is an odd, yet humorous and enjoyable experience. Tom Stoppard’s play-within-a-play satirises two egotistical theatre critics: Moon (Ed Barr-Sim), a bitter and obsessive second-stringer for his rival Higgs, and Birdboot (Sam Carter), a dashing, charismatic womaniser who is constantly defending his devotion to his wife.
Carter and Barr-Sim make a strong pair. Their rapport extends well beyond the dialogue, which won’t disappoint Stoppard fans. The intimate space of the Burton Taylor is skilfully transformed into the claustrophobic country retreat of Muldoon Manor, the setting for this Christie-esque whodunit. The characters are portrayed at the height of farce, with enough sharp head-turns and intakes of breath to keep the audience tittering for most of the hour. But it is Mrs Drudge (Phoebe Hames), the Essex housekeeper, who really steals the show. Hames’s hilarious background acting, overly vigorous eyebrows, docile smile and fine accent, together lend themselves to a perfect characterization of the wily domestic servant.
Yet in the fitting words of Moon, “the second half fails to live up to the promise of the first”. Compared to the perfect pitching of the first act, the second could have benefited from a few more rehearsals. This dip in quality could be attributable to the central role falling squarely on Moon. While confusion is inherent to his character, Barr-Sim struggles to grasp the audience’s attention or sympathy to the same extent as Carter, who fits his philandering role as well as he does his suit. When he breaks the fourth wall to answer a stage telephone call from his wife, his dry reply – “I told you never to ring me at work” – is hilarious, a credit to his strong performance.
The costumes and props are excellent, although possibly too authentic. The major’s wooden wheelchair, for example, is prone to collapse, but this only adds to the humour and the actors recovered well with a quick replacement.
On the whole, no actor is ever lost in Stoppard’s dialogue – no mean feat – and the audience are kept constantly laughing or enthralled in the melodramatic action. With dead bodies and double identities galore, The Real Inspector Hound is a well-acted treat for fans of murder mystery.