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28 October 2014

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Sleuth and the stage thriller - 18.07.02
Sleuth offers a textbook example of combining mood, menace and mystery.
spacer Our critic Mark Shenton wonders if a new version of Sleuth heralds a revival of the stage thriller ...

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Given that Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap is now in the 50th year of its West End run, and a stage adaptation of Susan Hill's ghost story The Woman in Black is in its 14th, it's surprising that stage thrillers aren't more prolific than they are.

The West End return of the late Anthony Shaffer's first and only major stage success, Sleuth (pictured above), has also been a long time coming.

The original production opened in the West End in 1970 and ran for 2,359 performances, but though a celebrated film version followed in 1972 - starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier, the latter of whom originally dismissed the play as a "piece of p**s" - it hasn't been revived there since.

Nor have we yet seen a revival of another long-running 80s hit that followed in its wake, Ira Levin's adaptation of his 1979 novel Deathtrap.

Mood, menace and mystery

But audiences clearly lap these plays up. Partly, we like to be teased; we also like to be titillated; and we definitely like to be surprised.

Sleuth offers a textbook example of combining mood, menace and mystery; and even if there is a definite debt to Pinter in the shifting power bases of the two men playing cat-and-mouse games with each other, it's also an original.


Critics face a perennial problem when reviewing the situation, and its one of disclosure: how much do you say before you give the game away?

When I was a student, I reviewed a university production of Sleuth, and one of the cast - now a sometime critic himself - has forever held me responsible for apparently doing exactly that.

The Mousetrap
Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim in the original 1952 production of The Mousetrap

(It's a no doubt apocryphal story, but tourists are warned that if they don't tip the cab sufficiently that drops them off at The Mousetrap, the cabbie will tell you whodunit!).

Maybe that's why they're so slow to be revived: because it's assumed that everyone still remembers how they turn out.

But Sleuth also offers chances for some virtuoso acting, fully seized in the current West End incarnation by the underrated but always accomplished Peter Bowles, to the part born as a middle-aged novelist, and appealingly accompanied by Gray O'Brien (star of the recently axed Peak Practice), who at one point in the evening strips down to his briefs to provide a different kind of thrill.

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