Sam Ra’s re-gendered palimpsest of Anthony Shaffer’s famous and twice-filmed play Sleuth is not as bad as some have speculated. And no, that isn’t a cue to say it’s worse… it isn’t. In fact, You Game (surely missing a question mark) is a moderately entertaining, undemanding comedy thriller or at least it would be if it were original. As it is, the substance and sometimes the precise words of Shaffer’s joke-laden and knowingly camp script are largely intact. That said, there are some original one-liners as well, including one about Shirley Bassey’s vagina, which surprisingly got one of the biggest laughs of the evening. However, in sharp contrast to the meticulous balance of Shaffer’s script, the comedy in You Game far outweighs the thrills – and it isn’t always intentional. To succeed as a play, almost everything about this production – in particular the direction – needs to be a lot sharper. Except for the minimalist set. The set is great.
When the play begins we meet Jack Guest, author of blithely trashy films, contemplating his next thriller and awaiting the arrival of a young woman who, like Guest, is not what she seems. As the programme reveals – twice in seven words – that the play involves revenge, you can be pretty sure that one of the characters has wronged the other. As indeed they have but that proves to be the starting point for a whirl of twists and counter twists, all faithfully carried over from the original.
Playing the boorish Guest, Ivan Murphy jousts with Alice McCarthy as an arch young woman who has come to see the famous writer for reasons it would be foolish to reveal. Both actors do a good enough job most of the time but neither is ever convincing as what they are supposed to be. Moreover, there is little if any tension between the two – even when a weapon appears on stage, and this makes one character’s decisions even more implausible than they were in the original. More seriously, the direction – by Matthew Bosley confuses haste with pace and, from the interval bar chat, this left some members of the audience more than a little confused.
That said, thrillers are of course meant to be confusing so it is surprising that Shaffer’s infamous but admittedly fairly well-known twist is disposed of at the start of the second act. In an opening monologue – the only lines not based on words in the original – we are effectively told what is about to happen. While the scene smacks of pantomime villainy, it was probably a wise addition as it forestalled the laughter that would surely otherwise have greeted the first appearance of the character concerned after the interval because the audience would never have been deceived. Not only is the new character not listed in the programme – as they were in the original and the acclaimed 1971 film – the character had exactly the same mannerisms as one of the two characters we have already met not to mention near-identical shoes, an ill-fitted and cheap wig, an even more ill fitting suit and an unerring knowledge of where to look for clues in a house that they are supposed to have never been inside before. And not for a second is it possible to believe in Jack Guest’s astonishment when he realises how he has been duped, greeted here with laughter. At least we were spared a false nose and thick-lenses.
The big twist shuffled out of the way like an unloved elderly relative, You Game eases back into verbal sparring and, while Ra’s updating of most of Shaffer’s lines is funny or clever or both, Shaffer’s ghost would be smiling at the fact that the biggest laughs are for the one-liners that have been left untouched. Interestingly, and in opposition to the trend elsewhere, Ra has replaced the homosexual frisson of the original with a heterosexual one but, disappointingly, the spark never catches light between the actors. Likewise any sense of genuine menace is fleeting. As in the first act, speed of delivery is mistaken for pace and the play hurtles through to a weak end, muffed by an inadequate effect and an over hasty blackout.
So, an interesting experiment but on the strength of this production nothing more.
Review by Louis Mazzini
An immensely successful screenwriter lures his wife’s lover to the house and convinces her to stage a robbery of her jewellery; setting off a chain of events that leaves the audience trying to decipher what is true, and what is fiction for the sake of the game.
Studio Theatre, RADA, 16 Chenies St, London WC1E 7EX
26 November – 14 December 2019