The Real Inspector Hound and My Second Best Bed

Date 26th February 2022
Society NOMADS
Venue The Nomad Theatre, East Horsley
Type of Production Play
Director Paul Asher (Inspector Hound), Moyra Brookes (Bed)
Written By The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard; My Second Best Bed by Barry Syder

Report

Author: Pauline Surrey

The Real Inspector Hound was originally written in 1961-2, yet only premiered in 1968 – an intriguing fact, I wonder why?  So a very early play by Stoppard, it reflects his experience as a theatre critic in Bristol. As I began watching the 2 critics reviewing the Whodunnit, I wondered whether it was the work of a playwright constantly under attack from pompous, self-obsessed reviewers, and was thus interested to read that Stoppard had started out as a critic himself! It is a play-within-a-play parody of the delicious drawing room murder mystery:  house guests, servants, majors, actresses, card games, gunshots and all. But of course, being a Stoppard play, it is fast-paced, clever, inventive, and full of erudite and biting wit, and originality.

My Second Best Bed was written in 2016 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and premiered by Barry Syder’s local Sussex theatre group that year at the Horsham Festival. It is a tender and interesting exploration of Shakespeare’s family a few weeks after his death, upon the reading of his will in which, famously, he left his wife only his second best bed. The theme basically I guess is the family as citadel.  Despite strong sibling rivalry between the Bard’s two daughters, their strong bond prevails as they defend their father from the curate’s preconceived ideas, and protect and venerate their elderly, vulnerable mother.  A thought-provoking work, with many comic moments, as well as moving ones.

It was an interesting choice of plays for the Nomads, two such contrasting pieces, but it worked very well indeed. The decision to start with the jolly, fast-moving Stoppard and finish with the more gentle, thoughtful piece, was I feel the right one.

For the Stoppard, the set was a typical early 20C drawing room, with chaise longue, card table, vases and candlesticks, plus some rather incongruous folding chairs. The backdrop of the Essex marshes behind the garden was interesting, and the important ‘sea fog’ wafting in from those desolate marshes made its presence felt at all the appropriate dramatic moments.

For the Syder play the action took place towards the front of the stage, in a humble looking 17C house’s kitchen/living room with table, chair and bench.

The costume of costumes in the Stoppard was, of course, the fabulous wig, makeup and attire of Lady Cynthia. Sparkly gowns and shawls, lots of bling, she looked absolutely fabulous. The rest of the cast were dressed appropriately for their country house roles in tennis gear, dress suit, tweeds. And of course the Inspector in long trench coat, deerstalker hat, and sporting a huge magnifying glass.

A stark contrast then in the Syder piece. The women in hair-concealing workaday bonnets, long gowns and aprons. The Curate in long clerical garb.

The Real Inspector Hound

We open onto the empty set, a body behind the chaise longue, the critics seated in their box to the right of the stage. Within seconds we learn of Moon’s frustration at playing second fiddle to the missing Hicks, who is evidently Top Dog amongst the critics on his publication. Moon is also very well aware of Puckeridge, just waiting to step into his shoes should he slip up or no longer cut the mustard. Murray Stephen brought out all Moon’s obsessions, his frustrated ambition and fear of obsolescence, very quickly. We really felt for him, as he struggled for exactly the right phrase, and we wondered at the strength of this rivalry. His colleague Birdboot, in complete contrast, seemed totally confident in his work, nonchalant even, and far more obsessed with escorting glamorous young actresses, making their careers with his flattering reviews, and enjoying their ‘company’ in the process.  Jason Spiller was ideal for this role, oozing relaxed confidence, (until of course his long-suffering wife phoned.)

On stage then Mrs Grudge, plus expertly wielded feather duster, appears. She answers the phone, hilariously setting the scene. The whole thing is such a delightful mickey-take of the whodunnit genre, and Mrs Grudge, with her Mrs Overall type movements, and mouth-wide-open eavesdropping, plays a pivotal role. A great comic performance by the versatile Moyra Brookes.

Simon (Stuart Tomkins), the sophisticated Lothario, turns up, and is confronted by the young tennis-playing best friend of Lady Cynthia, Felicity (Vykki Mash), who he has passed over for another woman. This of course turns out to be the slinky Lady Cynthia herself (Nikky Kirkup). Fun ensues. Especially when the arrival for tea of Major Magnus (Julian Warner-Edney) is announced. We hear him before we see him, as he bumps his wheelchair down the stairs! Of course, Simon gets shot, I can no longer remember exactly why.

Then we arrive at the twist, as Moon, irritated by the ringing of the on-stage phone on the empty set, rushes on stage to answer it. The call turns out to be from Birdboot’s wife, so Birdboot takes the call, and is thus embedded in the play now as the Simon character. Suffice it to say that anarchy reigns, comedy and confusion levels rise, and the whole play comes to a marvellous conclusion. Very clever writing on the part of Stoppard – I would have enjoyed seeing the piece a second time, there was so much in it. The fine cast must have had great fun doing it, we in the audience certainly had great fun watching it.

My Second Best Bed

After the interval then, a total change of mood. We entered Shakespeare’s house, where the shy young curate (Josh Locke) had strangely entered without knocking, and was torn off a strip by Shakespeare’s confident elder daughter Susanna (played to perfection by Nikky Kirkup, who had excelled previously as Lady Cynthia in the Stoppard). Susanna continued to question the curate’s prejudiced attitude throughout the play, as, for example, when he was amazed to learn that Susanna, a woman, had been present when the will was written.  We sensed that he learned a lot throughout this meeting.

Judith (Suzanne Doherty), the younger sister, appeared, and became quite angry that she hadn’t been invited to the will reading, not realising that the curate had turned up out of the blue. Remarks were made about Judith’s husband, one sensed that in her sister’s eyes she had married a wastrel. So sibling bickering continued a while before the sisters turned their attention to defending their father, and emphasising to the curate that the situation with the family was not as he had assumed. The mood changed perceptibly, the sisters shared fond memories, the family citadel prevailed. We found out why their mother had been left the second best bed – in fact the couple’s life-long bed (the best bed being the rarely used guest bed).

There were many comic moments as the curate was teased, as the sisters bickered, but the mood gradually changed to a celebration of the depth of a long-lasting marriage and the strength of family ties. Good performances throughout.

At the end, Anne Hathaway herself appeared. A frail old lady in her nightgown, she was gently led to the bench. The curate was clearly affected by the sight, and the play ended with the two daughters embracing their mother protectively. This tender and intensely moving ending to the play left me leaving the theatre in a thoughtful and reflective mood.

Conclusion

A fine evening’s theatre, much food for thought in both plays. Well directed by Paul Asher, the Stoppard, and Moyra Brooks, the Syder, and as I said, a good decision to put them on together, with the Stoppard first, so we didn’t lose the mood produced by the second.

Photos from The Real Inspector Hound:

 

Photos from My Second Best Bed: