The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy at the Comedy Theatre

There s a bit of a 1960s revival feel at the Comedy Theatre with a double dose of two early plays from Tom Stoppard and Peter Shaffer. It s billed as “1 evening, 2 playwrights, 8 actors, 16 characters”. It is the first time the two plays have ever been paired together and the producers, as is their want, have declared it “a perfect match”. I m less certain.

Stoppard s play, The Real Inspector Hound, deals with two pompous theatre critics watching a country house whodunnit of the type that was very popular in the ‘50s. Gradually, they become embroiled in the play until the lines between observer and participant become totally entangled.

It sounds clever but there are two problems. Firstly, that the country house murder mystery was already dated by the time that Stoppard wrote his piece - it s hard to send up a genre when that genre itself is so preposterous. The second problem is that Greg Doran s production over-eggs the pudding somewhat - the play is awful enough without the cast (within the cast, that is) doing their best to demonstrate the art of coarse acting. An honourable exception goes to Nichola McAuliffe who plays the part of the manor s cleaning-lady to perfection, delivering huge chunks of exposition with aplomb. Nevertheless, the overall Stoppard effect is less than inspiring.

The second half of the evening is more successful. Shaffer s Black Comedy revolves around the misunderstandings and disasters that befall a young sculptor when a fuse blows in his flat - just as he s hoping to impress his prospective father-in-law. The brightly lit stage represents the darkness (and vice versa).

This is pure, old-fashioned farce and the cast handles it brilliantly. Everyday objects become hidden traps - doors are for running into, stairs for falling down, and trapdoors for falling into. It sounds trite but it is screamingly funny. The whole cast is superb, but plaudits should go to David Tennnant s devious sculptor, trying to negotiate the darkness almost balletically, Anna Chancellor s wide-eyed deb and (again) Nichola McAuliffe s spinster.

One cavil: the seats at the Comedy Theatre are the most uncomfortable I ve ever sat in. My recommendation would be to skip the Stoppard and catch Shaffer s comedy for a hilarious hour or so in the lap of luxury.

Maxwell Cooter