By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s a tricky business to give a theatre audience a spine-tingle of suspense, clenches of tension, periodic jolts of surprise, an invitation to exercise their own puzzle-decoding skills — ah, and laughter.
That’s the fun of Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer’s devious and intricately plotted 1970 comedy thriller/ satire, which arrived on the big screen a couple of years after that (with heavy-hitters like Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, and then Jude Law). It’s at the Mayfield, in a deluxe production directed by the distinguished Canadian artist Marti Maraden. And an expert cast of five, led by Michael Hanrahan and Tyrone Savage, undertake to propel you into a hall of mirrors.
Sleuth is, in effect, an elaborate mystery about the creation of mysteries, a charade about charades, a puzzle about the construction of puzzles, a power game about power gamesmanship. Classic high stakes, yes, though the stakes keep changing, as you discover along with the characters. And it’s all underwritten by Shaffer’s satire of English-ness — its snobbery, its class-consciousness, its pompousness, its xenophobia and anti-Semitism — rooted in the old-fashioned murder mysteries that Sleuth parodies in its self-referential way.
We meet Andrew (Hanrahan), a well-heeled, blustery, hale-and-hearty lord of the manor — fond of noblesse-oblige openers like “my dear boy…” He pens his hit murder mysteries, in the Dame Agatha style, from his stronghold in a grand Wiltshire country house. “I set my work among the gentry,” declares Andrew suavely to the young man (Savage) he has invited to visit. And even “in these squalid times, people seem to enjoy it. In spite of the welfare state.”
John Dinning’s two-storey set, incidentally, the most impressively elaborate I can remember at the Mayfield, is crammed with toys, trunks, paintings, expensive objets d’art, knick-knacks of the playful sort, all lit by Stratford veteran Louise Guinand.
If his genial host is old-school — “some of my best friends are half-Jewish” — Milo on the other hand represents something of the new man in England. He’s a second generation Italian immigrant scrambling to find a way up into the English middle-class via his south London travel agency. Since it comes up right away I can tell you that Milo has been having it off with Andrew’s wife. But I’m really off the hook for revealing anything much about the plot after that, save that it thickens (“and it nearly always does when the subject of insurance comes up”).
Almost immediately, the wary young Milo, along with the audience, is taken aback by this gambit, from Andrew: “I understand you want to marry my wife.” Andrew has a proposition. And now you’re on your own.
Anyhow, both principal characters are skilfully conveyed in exemplary performances from stage veterans Hanrahan and Savage. The former conjures the easeful brocade-clad complacency of the English gentry, tossing off Shaffer’s epigrams about everything from marriage and sex to taxes with lordly suavity. Is it acting? Is it a game? To Savage falls the ticklish assignment of a character who finds himself on the wrong foot at the outset and has to re-calibrate his responses constantly without visible signs of effort. Is it acting of another sort? He delivers.
As Sleuth “proceeds” (now there’s a studiedly vague word), you’ll get to wondering if it’s all some sort of game, and what the rules are, and and who’s in charge. The pair are backed up by a compelling set of comical and menacing rustics.
It’s a convoluted entertainment that makes fun of convoluted entertainments, expertly done, from our ever-surprising dinner theatre.
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.
Written by: Anthony Shaffer
Directed by: Marti Maraden
Starring: Michael Hanrahan, Tyrone Savage, James Blakely, Gavin Montgomery, Wade Nugent
Running: through Aug. 4
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca