By Anthony Shaffer
Sleuth is a beautifully crafted play, an example of superb writing and theatrical technique. It is thoroughly entertaining, utterly gripping and occasionally wickedly funny. Above all it builds Hitchcockian tension to breaking point and never lets up. The audience become completely hooked and each new twist in the plot is met with audible gasps.
In essence it is a murder mystery seen from a new point of view. The murder hasn’t actually happened (or has it?) and the investigation is not yet under way (or is it?). The simple act of two men enjoying a convivial evening planning an insurance fraud suddenly dives into dark and sinister territory. The end is always a complete surprise to those who do not know the story.
It was initially turned down by the then producer king of London’s West End, Binky Beaumont, who told Shaffer it would not last a fortnight. It opened – for a fortnight – in January 1970 at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, won a prolonged standing ovation and was promptly labelled a “piece of piss” by Sir Laurence Olivier.
Once in the West End, Sleuth played for 2,359 performances, and, playing for more than 2,000 performances on Broadway, won a Tony Award as the best play of 1970. Two years later, it was turned into a movie, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Its stars were Michael Caine, as the younger man, Milo Tindle, and Olivier himself in the role of the scheming Andrew Wyke. The great man won a New York critics’ award for his pains, and an Oscar nomination.
Acknowledgement: Some of this has been borrowed from Nigel Fountain’s obituary of Anthony Shaffer which first appeared in The Guardian November 8th 2001.
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