“The detective novel is the art-for-art’s sake of our yawning Philistinism, the classic example of a specialized form of art removed from contact with the life it pretends to build on.”
—V.S. Pritchett, English writer and critic (1900-1997)
“The detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds.“
—Attributed to Philip Guedalla, British historian and biographer (1889-1944), via Andrew Wyke’s (Graham Roebuck) mouth and Anthony Shaffer’s script.
Gypsy Theatre’s opening production of its 15th Season bodes well for the ambitious and varied menu to come, and like the “Evening of Magic” that brings the curtain down in the fall, is filled with a heady array of illusions, deception and mystery. With excellent sightlines, reasonable cost and beverage-at-your-seat convenience, the novice or veteran theatregoer is assured a pleasing experience.
This production might well be subtitled “An Evening with John Dalingwater,” as he designs, directs, and stars as Milo Tindle in Shaffer’s thirty-four-year-old gem.
The set is magnificent, realistically capturing the tone and detail of a well-to-do mystery writer’s country estate. The self-centred creator of detective John Lord Merridew’s digs are filled with real games, puzzles and even dice-supported end-tables that silently bring home the author’s obsession. The stairway to the upper gallery and rear-lit windows serve the break-and-enter sequence admirably, with only two fall-downs too many by the hapless burglar-in-clown’s costume pushing the comedy a bit too close to farce.
The effect of the slapstick might have been balanced by having Wyke conduct the gramophone, as indicated in one version, to Beethoven’s “Allegretto” from the Seventh Symphony (tellingly a theme and variations), but we had to settle for a snippet from the “Scherzo” as we found our way home.
Wearing his director’s hat, Dalingwater has done an admirable job of keeping the small cast moving well and using the full set to advantage (although, given the prominent role that serving drinks takes in nearly every scene and Wyke’s financial standing, it seems odd that a portable bar would be used to quench the non-stop thirst).
Tinkering with the script is another matter. Given the play’s many comments about British gentry, their snobbishness and the notion that only “noble” minds can create or unravel “intellectual” puzzles, the attempts to modernize some of the lines only weakens the satire. Inserted phrases like “sheep rapist, over-sexed boy scout,” or “penis envy” got a snicker or chuckle but more from recognition of the contemporary, resulting in characterization confusion.
With so many issues from racism to homosexuality (just why was the self-proclaimed sexual Olympian discovered to be impotent with his mistress?) lurking in Shaffer’s rich subtext, it would have been better to drill down into the material as it is than “modernize” its carefully constructed meaning.
As actor, Dalingwater brought believability to the role of Tindle, particularly in Act II when his rage, desire and need for revenge at any cost was compelling. His counterpart, Andrew J. Gonliath, brought a great sense of Columbo-like perseverance and admirable tribute to Michael Caine’s dialects in his portrayal of Inspector Doppler whose shameless duplicity was expertly revealed.
As the constantly plotting, man-about-murder, Wyke, Roebuck had the formidable task of being continuously on stage and gluing the piece together. A slightly uneven delivery kept some of the scenes from crackling with repartee and the inner loneliness that all writers experience—except through their creations—simmered rather than soared. But in the moments of greatest power (especially the turning of the tables in the second act) Roebuck showed great depth and style that carried the moment.
But no matter whose domain the detective story belongs, the classics, well told, must solve more than the crime. JWR