Tom Stoppard’s sharp pastiche of whodunnit plays and theatre criticism is deeply entertaining, and as timely today as when first performed in 1968. After all, The Mousetrap is still running, and it remains difficult to rise up the ranks as an arts journalist…
Moon (David Miller) and Birdboot (Matthew Vickers) are the exact people you don’t want to be sat next to at the theatre. They talk throughout, pontificating and making lofty, ‘cultured’ comments to show how smart they are, and then, just when things are getting good, get up on stage and start taking part in the play.
Signs at the door welcome us to a production of The Murder at Muldoon Manor, the show that Moon and Birdboot have been sent to review, and The Tower Theatre Company’s production makes excellent use of the venue’s space – a small room with raked seating and a high, domed ceiling.
This murder mystery has it all: an escaped madman, conveniently inconvenient weather, a love triangle, a servant who sees everything, a poorly hidden corpse, and pretty much every hallmark you’d expect from such a production. “Derivative, of course, but quite sound”, as the critics put it.
The quality of theatre criticism is questioned immediately. Birdboot and ‘the lads’ have already decided on a party line for their reviews in the bar, whilst Moon’s existential readings of a simple narrative sees him employing rhetorical questions, existential musings and phrases like “it must be said” more frequently than a first year English literature undergrad trying to make up wordcount. Just as The Murder at Muldoon Manor is an eminently believable iteration of the murder mystery genre, Moon’s comments have undoubtedly featured in reviews across time.
The hammed-up acting, performed brilliantly by the ensemble, is the cherry on top. Without each actor fully committing to their exaggerated parts the play would be a slog, but their understanding of the genre and their character archetypes — partnered with Stoppard’s quick dialogue — makes for a wonderfully entertaining watch. Maeve Curry has the melodrama of professional widow Cynthia Muldoon down to a tee, while the slightly crazed look in spurned lover Felicity Cunningham’s (Emily Hassan) eye throughout feels right out of an Agatha Christie drama. Sheila Burbidge deserves a mention as housekeeper Mrs Drudge, her continuous pottering about and exhausted loops with the tea trolley drawing much laughter from the audience.
Alongside the drama on stage, we learn about the critics’ personal and professional grievances. Moon feels stuck in the shadow of fellow critic Higgs, a man whose death – or at least departure from the paper – he anxiously awaits. Birdboot is a cad, wining and dining new actresses with promises of stardom. They’re reminiscent of Statler and Waldorf, providing a running commentary on events on and off stage.
At points, the over-the-top, self-aware and clichéd nature of The Murder at Muldoon Manor seems like it might veer into The Play That Goes Wrong territory. However, there are two fourth walls at play. The one between the outer audience and the stage isn’t breached, but the second is firmly smashed as Moon, irritated by the phone’s interminable ringing, goes on stage and picks it up. This marks an abrupt and wholly unexpected shift in tone, as the play takes on an absurd and somewhat nightmarish (although still funny) tone for the rest of its short 70-minute runtime, and we hurtle towards an answer to the titular question — who is the real Inspector Hound?
This is a slick, entertaining production that hits every beat it sets out to. To conclude plainly, without wanting to fall into the flowery language of Moon: a great evening out.
Written by: Tom Stoppard
Directed by: Rob Ellis
Set Design by: Max Maxwell
Costume Design by: Lynda Twidale
Lighting Design by: Stephen Ley
Sound Design by: Stanley Piper
Produced by: The Tower Theatre Company