By Calysta Morgan

To say this show was “one of the summits of contemporary theatre…a smashing night out…it had me held every moment” would be both plagiarism on multiple levels, and yet absolutely true. Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound plays with layers of narrative, cliches, and tropes in a way which is both expected and familiar, and yet still clever and engaging at the same time. For this reason, Hound is a perfect choice of vehicle for Artefact Theatre, whose productions over the last few years have shown a proclivity for teasing out relatively well-known works into intelligently ridiculous performances.

For a play which deals with stereotypes and caricature, there has been a lot of work done by cast and creatives on the specifics of characterisation and the ‘business’ on stage, where even prop movement has been very deliberately and amusingly delineated. The erstwhile ‘hosts’, theatre critics Moon and Birdboot (a very competent and comfortable pairing of Annabelle Tudor and James Cutler) seem very much “concerned with the nature of identity”, both in their dialogue with themselves and each other. The way in which Tudor and Cutler flesh out these two imperfect interlopers is fascinating to observe – just watch out for flying bits of debris. Deft costuming, hair and makeup for Moon and Birdboot place them in the 1970s (and along these lines, the program for both the ‘play’ and the production as a whole are design stand-outs as well), whereas the same attention to details for the ‘cast’ and setting of the ‘play’ ease us into an Agatha Christie-esque world of some decades  earlier.

Besuited Simon Gascoyne (Ben Andrews) is a cheerful cad, whose somewhat fickle affections work in tandem with those of Birdboot. Andrews’ physicality and accent work at times recall aspects of John Cleese’s work in Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, highlighting the way in which Hound also moves between straightforward and silly at the drop of an icecube.

The objects of his affection – the jilted ingenue Felicity Cunningham (Seon Williams) and widow of the manor, Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Julia Grace) – are suitably peppy and slightly histrionic respectively. Some well-placed lighting and judicious posing both enhances and makes fun of the stereotypes used for these two, and Lady Cynthia’s fans should gain some new fans themselves in the process.

Dylan Watson is a brooding and suspicious liability-on-wheels as Major Magnus Muldoon, with swing Jen Bush standing in as charwoman Drudge (ordinarily played by Bridie Pamment) for the opening night performance. The way in which Artefact have clever fun with their cast and productions is well captured by the way in which these four play with repetition and expectations in the non sequitur tea-and-biscuit sequence.

A whodunit would be incomplete without a detective, in this instance, crowd favourite Ross Dwyer as Inspector Hound. Much in the vein of Leslie Nielsen or Peter Sellers, Dwyer injects as much gravitas to the show as one can whilst in the presence of multiple rubber duckies.

With Stoppard lampooning the pomposity of theatre criticism, Tudor and Cutler in particular often have their work cut out for them dialogue-wise, and handle this with aplomb. For the cast as a whole, accent work – with some sly digs at the connection between social status and speech along the way – is generally well managed. The farcical nature of the work is also well brought out in the interplay of tension and release, with dialogue speed, the use of emphasis and accent, and some deliberately over-the-top effects all combining to keep the audience amused.

The St Martin’s theatre space is always somewhat unexpected for the audience, with Hound’s staging relegating those watching almost entirely to the sidelines. Whilst this highlights the play-within-a-play nature of the work, there should be no fear that Artefact – and in this particular case, director Matthew Cox – consider the audience to be secondary to the on-stage action. We are both ‘in’ on a number of the jokes, and at times – amongst the frequent fourth-wall breakages – part of their creation and unveiling. The end result is all rather delightful: a controlled chaos which is very on-brand for Artefact.

Images: Jackson Loria