Review: Funny yet menacing, Vertigo's Sleuth mostly excels

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As wickedly entertaining as it is, Vertigo Theatre’s production of Sleuth is not all it could be.

Written 53 years ago, this comic thriller is a devilishly clever cat-and-mouse game in which the roles of feline and rodent keep switching because it’s all about one-upmanship.

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The wealthy, urbane, and very British Andrew Wyke is a highly successful writer of detective fiction. He has invited Milo Tindle, the son of an immigrant Italian watchmaker, to his Wilshire manor house to discuss a joint venture which Wyke insists will make them both much happier. Wyke is aware that Tindle is his wife Marguerite’s not-so-secret lover, and he wants Tindle to steal Marguerite’s well-insured jewelry. This way Tindle will have enough money to keep Marguerite in the style to which she is accustomed. Wyke doesn’t want Marguerite to come running back once she has exhausted Tingle’s meagre funds.

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Wyke is the kind of role that fits Christopher Hunt like a well-tailored suit. He gets to be a pompous, smarmy, self-aggrandizing wordsmith. Hunt is able to make him simultaneously appealing and obnoxious, a feat that is not as easy as he makes it seem. In the first act, Wyke is clearly in control and he enjoys being a puppet master.

With great skill, Braden Griffiths goes through a gamut of emotions as Tindle tries desperately to understand Wyke’s motives. Wyke keeps plying Tindle with expensive liquor as he bombards him with insults, and yet he seems to be offering Tindle a great deal of money and permission to be the adulterer.

Initially, Wyke and Tindle may not be evenly matched, but Hunt and Griffiths are, and that’s what makes the first act bristle with barbed humour. It’s such great fun watching the two actors spar so elegantly.

English playwright Anthony Shaffer understood the importance of theatrics or else all the clever banter would not have been able to sustain a play in excess of two hours. His script has Wyke insisting that Tingle disguise himself, and the costumes he suggests are delightful. When Tindle settles on a clown outfit, it allows Griffiths to indulge in some tricky, and seemingly painful, pratfalls, especially down the staircase. Watching Griffiths break into the upstairs window is hilarious, as is the use of some dynamite, but there is always a sense of menace in everything Wyke suggests.

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Braden Griffiths in Vertigo Theatre’s Sleuth. Photo by Tim Nguyen Co. /Tim Nguyen Co.

It’s the first half of the second act where things fall apart.

There are any number of Calgary directors who would have trusted Griffiths’ abilities to carry off the grand deception that Shaffer devised, but Toronto-based director Cherissa Richards decided to let Helen Knight play Inspector Doppler, robbing Griffiths of what is meant to be a head-shaking, star turn. Knight takes up the assignment with great relish, mining all the clever schtick Shaffer has written for the character, but it’s not what the playwright intended.

During the second half of the second act, Hunt and Griffiths get to spar again and vie for status in their now edgier games, and both actors are once again in fine form.

Another missed opportunity comes with Andy Moro’s set. There is no way Andrew Wyke, a man so firmly grounded in the past, and in tradition, would be living in such a cold, sterile, Formica retreat.

Richards’ staging ensures that Sleuth is not some musty museum piece but a twisty and twisted, thoroughly engaging thriller. It runs in the Vertigo Theatre at the base of the Calgary Tower until Dec. 17.

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