Psychological farce, Sleuth comes to The Alhambra where Leo Owen caught the show

Designer Julie Godfrey’s lush wood-panelled set submerges the audience in the decadent lifestyle of Anthony Shaffer’s lead, successful novelist Andrew Wyke (Todd Boyce, infamous as Coronation Street’s villain, Stephen Reid). Pacing the library of his Wilshire manor house, Wyke plots out his next whodunit. Self-congratulatory and immersed in his imagination, he’s interrupted by the doorbell ringing.

Shaffer confounds audience expectations from the outset through a bizarre opening exchange between Wyke and his visitor. It transpires he has indeed been anticipating this particular caller and has carefully orchestrated their meeting, concocting a preposterous ploy involving a clown costume for both to financially gain.

“I understand you want to marry my wife,” Wyke says coolly, flabbergasting Milo (Neil McDermott of EastEnders’ fame) and the audience alike, epitomising Shaffer’s dry wit.

Wyke’s proposal that Milo steals his wife’s jewels to sell them on while he collects the insurance money sounds far too good to be true but bluster and bravado is enough to convince.

Shaffer’s first successful play, the Tony Award-winning Sleuth, triggered a career writing for both stage and screen, predominantly specialising in thrillers, notably screenplays of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, cult classic The Wicker Man and a Sleuth adaptation starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Stripped back and reliant on slick dialogue to engage, with Sleuth Shaffer knots up the audience in double bluffs, pitting the slick London travel agent against the masterful crime writer.

Wyke’s verbal diarrhoea gives Sleuth its darkly humorous tone, from his matter-of-fact observation that “Property has always been more highly regarded in England than people” to his acerbic reflection “Sex is the game, marriage the penalty.”

Shaffer has ingeniously created a character to be both admired and loathed while Milo feels less fleshed out, more two dimensional. The plot twists, however, give his character more kudos as a true battle of wits commences, culminating in a tantalising end, encouraging the audience to act as moral judge.

A sumptuous set, captivating lead performances and plenty of subterfuge, Sleuth stands the test of time.

Sleuth showed at The Alhambra March 13-16 before continuing its UK tour: