Theatre Royal Bath review: Sleuth

Theatre Royal Bath until 17 February
Words by Melissa Blease

A rambling, remote manor house in Wiltshire. A hugely successful mystery writer with a penchant for playing complicated games. A young man who’s having an affair with the writer’s wife. Put ’em together and what have we got?

According to multiple sources, we have the set-up for a play that’s billed as “the greatest thriller of all time”: Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth, which premiered over five decades ago, ran for eight consecutive years in the West End (and four in New York) and has since been adapted for three feature films, of which Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1972 version starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine has earned iconic status amongst film buffs and murder-mystery fans alike.

But is it a murder-mystery… or is it a beautifully-scripted dark psychological thriller that uses the prospect of manslaughter as a metaphor for a deep-dive into the personality of a crazed psychopath and crime as a conceit on which to base that analysis? Or, in today’s terms, is it a timepiece reminding us that, back in the early 1970s, toxic masculinity, casual racism and misogynists with seriously screwed up perspectives around women were commonplace – the women themselves, in this instance, so secondary to a good plot that they’re never even introduced in person? 

a tense, dramatically turbulent journey through a harrowing, impeccably constructed, twisty-turny drama laden with plot pivots and zigzag swerves

You could, of course, simply hang all supposition in the cloakroom and settle in for a tense, dramatically turbulent journey through a harrowing, impeccably-constructed, twisty-turny drama laden with plot pivots and zigzag swerves – and therein lies the enduring power and popularity of Schaffer’s hugely complex, captivating yarn: multiple levels resonate with multiple people.

Todd Boyce is massively impressive as manipulative, egotistical, boastful and – as it turns out – hideously insecure upper-crusty author Andrew Wyke, flitting from complex to shallow at the elegant flick of a wrist, balancing witty bon mots with threatening harbingers of menace faster than you can say the word “psycho”. As Milo Tindle, Neil McDermott is Boyce/Wyke’s perfect opponent, all youthful, arrogant righteousness and watchful wariness, his increasing terror carefully hidden behind smooth, smooooth ripostes. We’re on power-struggle/class war/battle of wits territory from the get-go and, by the time the duel comes to an end, we’re left exhausted – and, perhaps, more than a little perplexed?

Say wha-a-a-at? That’s the summary? Ah, but the very nature of Sleuth demands that that’s really all I can say; there are several pertinent Big Reveals throughout the whole tempestuous drama – to focus on any of them would give the gripping game(s) away. 

But despite the intelligent, fast-paced script and the carefully contemplated depiction of the personalities of the two main characters, the denouement almost feels as though a chess board has been upended halfway through a tantalising tournament; the skilful breakthroughs, en passants and blockades that keep us engrossed for two hours don’t quite live up to the endgame, leaving us with more of a sense of who did what to whom rather than a straightforward “whodunnit?” conundrum. 

But as Wyke himself says, at one point, “there’s nothing like a little bit of mayhem to cheer one up” – and Sleuth is, overall, a magnificently sharp, up-cheering example of classic murder-mystery mayhem.

Todd Boyce as Andrew Wyke and Neil McDermott as Milo Tindle. Photo by Jack Merriman

Todd Boyce as Andrew Wyke and Neil McDermott as Milo Tindle. Photo by Jack Merriman

Theatre Royal Bath