Theatre review - Sleuth, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Sleuth at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Sleuth at the West Yorkshire Playhouse - Credit: Archant

Jo Haywood

Sleuth Actors Miles Richardson and James Alexandrou

Sleuth Actors Miles Richardson and James Alexandrou - Credit: Archant

It sounds like a back-handed compliment to mention the set when reviewing a play – like attending a dinner party and praising the host for their napkin folding – but the clever jiggery-pokery of Barney George’s revolving, evolving design for this new production of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth really does deserve its own ovation.

Ably abetted by lighting designer Alexandra Stafford, video designer Simon Wainwright and sound designer Martin Curtis (there are far more designers than actors in this show), he has created a pivotal third player in what is nominally a tricksy two-hander.

The scenery – and mood – changes at the push of a button, spinning and metamorphosing like the mind and character of the play’s central actual and metaphorical button-pusher Andrew Wyke, played with reptilian charm by Miles Richardson.

Sharp as a dagger one minute and smooth as poison the next, Richardson imbues his character – a successful writer of old-fashioned murder mysteries sleuthed by St John Lord Merridew – with a honey-tongued playfulness that makes the audience (all fine upstanding members of the community, no doubt) want to applaud his Machiavellian manoeuvrings.

His nimble dexterity with Shaffer’s labyrinthine lines and sly glances that almost – but not quite – break the fourth wall make it impossible to ignore the fact that Richardson is the son of the late Sir Ian Richardson, who brought evilly eloquent Francis Urquhart to our screens in the 1990s TV adaptation of House of Cards.

He has the same quick-witted dazzle and dash about him as his much-missed father, which allows him to zip about the stage as the cuckolded crime author like a firecracker full of fizz and danger.

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James Alexandrou, on the other hand, is a less frantic presence as Milo Tindle, the cuckolder in Wyke’s nest. But don’t be fooled by his first slightly lumbering steps, as this young actor (who many will recognise from his time in EastEnders as the human frown that was Martin Fowler) soon proves himself as fleet-footed with Shaffer’s staccato style as his nifty stage partner.

This is not an easy play to perform, partly because there’s so much to say and so much to do (including several shootings, lots of running up and down stairs and a spot of clowning – in size 28 shoes). The main potential sticking point, however, is that this is such a well-known piece that most of the audience know most of the twists.

The key to making it work – other than populating the entire auditorium with Sleuth virgins – is to make the physical gamesmanship and verbal jousting feel fresh and punchy; something that Alexandrou and Richardson do with great aplomb under the guiding hand of director Giles Croft.

The end result is a cat-and-mouse caper in which one should never assume that the cat will best the mouse. And as for who actually is the cat and who the mouse in the final satisfying scenes? You might think you know, but we couldn’t possibly comment.

Sleuth runs in Leeds at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday 15th October.