How does a playwright ever shake off their greatest success, especially when it's their earliest and in fact only seriously successful play? I once wrote a review of one such play - "Sleuth, by Anthony Shaffer, author of Sleuth", is how I succinctly described his legacy but also the encumbrance for him of being known for that play only. (Even more difficult is the competing reputation of his twin brother Peter, who would become even more celebrated for a more serious body of work with plays like Equus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Amadeus).
But now the ever-enterprising Menier Chocolate Factory are making a stab, so to speak, at rehabilitating Anthony Shaffer's reputation beyond Sleuth (first produced in 1970) by unearthing this 1975 successor Murderer.
The trouble is that Shaffer himself had already written this playful psychological genre out of existence with Sleuth, and its hard to be taken in anymore by the seemingly endless variations of obsessive cat-and-mouse games of illusion and reality that the characters play with both each other and the audience.
That said, there's still an old-fashioned, hokey fun to be had from watching it all unravel, however improbably but amusingly along the way. Both Shaffer and Adam Speers' production get off to a cracking start, with the tension of the first half hour minutely ratcheted up in a beautifully orchestrated ballet of entirely wordless plotting as we watch Norman Bartholomew (Les Dennis) dope a woman, kill her and then, Lieutenant of Inishmore style, systematically dismember her body in the bath, to the accompaniment of Gresby Nash's portentous soundtrack.
By the time there's the inevitable knock at the door and the local bobby Sergeant Stenning (George Potts) offers the first spoken words of the evening - "Open up, police!" - we've become voyeurs as well as witnesses, not unlike the busybody neighbour next door who has observed it all through a window and reported the events to the police.
But before you report me to the Critics' Circle for blowing the plot, rest assured that this is only the starting point for an intricately plotted meditation on the methods, motivations and madness of murder that the lead character is obsessed by, and might just be the solution to the competing claims of his mistress Millie (Lisa Kay) and long-suffering wife, Elizabeth (Caroline Langrishe).
Les Dennis imbues Bartholomew with the right sweaty slipperiness to hold our attention at the centre, though the stock characters around him are barely animated in a series of stock performances. But there's an ace three-level set by Simon Scullion, superbly lit by Henry Pulling, that both brilliantly contributes to and generates its own broodingly atmospheric tension throughout.
- Mark Shenton