Lockdown Theatre, formed when, as the name suggests, the country went in to lockdown and theatres were forced to close, have already given us such delights as A Bit of Waiting for Godot and Private Lives. Raising money for The Royal Theatrical Fund, the company return for a third outing, with Zoom once again becoming a virtual stage, this time for a full unabridged table read of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.
If the title is a cheeky nod to a certain well-known piece of Agatha Christie writing, then the play within a play element of The Real Inspector Hound is a full-on parody of the beloved whodunnit genre that Christie invented. Throw in a dissection of the role of the theatre critic and it combines to this wonderfully absurdist and delightful escapade.
It follows two theatre critics, Birdboot and Moon, the latter being a stand-in for the unseen Higgs. The drama begins off stage with Birdboot accused of furthering the careers of aspiring young actresses with favourable reviews in return for something that is left to the audiences’ imagination. Moon, on the other hand, is feeling much in the shade of the more prominent critic and fantasises about Higgs’ death so that he may take the mantle of lead critic.
The play they are watching is one of those murder mysteries where the characters are all in some secluded setting, in this case Muldoon Manor, which cannot currently be reached from the outside world. In true Stoppard style, Birdboot and Moon become part of the play while two of the whodunnit characters become the critics sat in the audience.
Robert Lindsay takes on the role of narrator, relaying the stage directions to the audience at home. This may not sound particularly thrilling, but is in fact a terrific insight in to how the play is intended to be performed. This is an all-star line-up and Derek Jacobi and Simon Callow make for a fantastic pairing as Birdboot and Moon, while Gary Wilmot’s arrival as Inspector Hound is more than worth the wait.
Unsurprisingly, Jennifer Saunders steals the show with a gloriously funny portrayal of the housekeeper, Mrs Drudge, but Samantha Bond and Emilia Clarke also have some stand out moments as Cynthia and Felicity. Sanjeev Bhaskar and Freddie Fox embrace the comedy elements by subtly ramping up the overacting as the play progresses.
Director, Jonathan Church has made the best of the situation by allowing the text and the characters to take to the fore. In such a table read there’s nothing theatrical to hide behind, and the actors are forced to let the words do the talking. The decision to leave everyone’s cameras on, whether they were in a scene or not, was inspired, giving the audience at home a glimpse in to how the cast were perceiving what they too were watching.
For anyone remotely connected to the theatre, The Real Inspector Hound is a razor-sharp critique of how the industry works. While it may be a little harsh on theatre critics (Stoppard was himself one at one point), it is undeniable that the likes of Birdboot and Moon still exist, even today, some sixty years since the play was written. Regardless of your connection to the theatre, however, this one-off live table read of The Real Inspector Hound was pure magic, thanks in the main to the outstanding cast, but also to Stoppard’s ability to write one hell of a farce.