Ambassadors Theatre, London – until 10 June 2018
Gotta love the buccaneering quality of West End theatres: the Small Faces musical at the little Ambassadors off Cambridge Circus closed early, and David Haig’s wonderful Pressure doesn’t come in for another fortnight. So a quick pounce by producers hauled in this pocket psycho-thriller by the alarmingly prolific Antony Horowitz (he of the junior James Bonds and sexed-up Sherlocks, plus TV Foyle’s War). The play has been touring for years in bursts, having just delighted the Isle of Wight: so tell the cast of three they’re coming ‘Up West’ for a couple of weeks, keep the tickets well under the 50 mark, set up bargain packages and hope for thrilled bums-on-seats.
By serendipity, this weary but gallant little theatre is bang next door to that very un-thrilling geriatric landmark, The Mousetrap. So I slithered in. Always worth observing the vagrant, less-celebrated creature that is UK theatre in the wild. Especially when it’s a retro, schlock-horror mystery psycho bamboozle.
I can certainly tell you, hand on heart, it’s better than the one next door. Though I had better be careful, since two-thirds of the cast and the producer are ex Mousetrappers, with natural affection for the fusty old beast. This one is set in a psychiatrist’s office in an improbably bijou secure hospital for the criminally insane in Suffolk A certain artificiality about this is, you find, part of the delusion under which one or other – or all three – of the characters are labouring. So is the view through the window, a portrait on the wall which it is worth keeping an eye on, and a full skeleton in a remarkably camp hand-on-hip pose as if saying “Duh! Can he really be a doctor?”
Added to the usual task of persuading us they’re not actors, the cast has the burden of acting as if they might be acting. On the face of it, Styler (Andrew Ryan) is a supercilious true crime author who has arrived, in eyewateringly tight Dad jeans, to persuade Michael Sherwin’s Dr Farquhar to let him interview a serial killer in his custody.
An occasional scream in the distance, a strangely tense nurse and an unnerving malfunctioning speaker system create the required traditional loony-bin atmosphere. Not quite the ticket for Mental Health Week, I suppose, but it feeds nicely into two of our favourite worries: fear of psychiatrists, and a conviction that murderous insanity involves devilish superhuman cunning. Blame Anthony Hopkins and his damn fava-beans. Tyler’s fascination with the subject is questioned by the shrink, who lectures him for slightly too long on reformation, psychodrama therapy etc.
Who is deluded, and what is real? What is the significance of this stuff about wisteria and dogs called Goldie ? What is wrong with the presumed nurse (Sarah Wynne Kordas, who valiantly maintains her own confusing is-this-acting-or-acting-as-acting ). What is in that sandwich? Why is Dr Farquhar growing ever more elfin in his manner? Sherwin conveys a powerful air of an accomplished light-comedy actor wondering how far he dares push the camping-up. When he asks “Is this spiralling into farce?” the urge to shout “Oh yes it is!” is extreme. There’s a strait-jacket and some nasty menace (not one for the kids, this). But the skeleton in the corner has, by Act 2, assumed an even more “ooh-Matron” pose with one hand on hip and one in front of his mouth. That won the third mouse, to be honest.