Revival of a classic sleuth

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Ahead of the opening of classic thriller Sleuth at West Yorkshire Playhouse next week, Phil Penfold speaks to one of the stars.

He’s not quite sure which drama structure he likes the best. Miles Richardson contemplates how plays are put together and believes that “basically, you’re on stage all the time, (or nearly all the time) and in full view of your audience, or you happen to get a great Act II, when you can really let rip – and then, when Act III comes, you’re never ever seen at all – but all the other characters talk about you”. He laughs: “I’ve honestly never discovered which suits me best! All I do know is that, well, time drags when I’m not out there in front of the audience.”

At the moment, he’s very much in the former structure, starring in Sleuth, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, with James Alexandrou. The classic thriller first saw the light of day back in 1970, was a resounding success both in the West End and on Broadway, was made into a box-office smash movie with Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine, and, since then, there have been few revivals.

“You’ll find that there are three main characters”, he reveals, carefully not explaining the plot too precisely, “One is a crime writer, whose speciality is detective fiction, the other is a young man who has become the lover of his wife, and the third is the investigating police officer.” Richardson is the author, one Andrew Wyke, who has amassed a small fortune from his novels, and who now lives in his Wiltshire retreat. It is in this country mansion that the confrontational action takes place. “You have to be incredibly careful when you’re trying to talk about the play”, chuckles Miles, “one slip and ‘all will be revealed’, long before it should be!”

He believes that Anthony Shaffer’s play is “a bit of a see-saw, a balancing act. Andrew leads all the action before the interval, he pushes the story forward, whereas, when everyone comes back after the interval, it’s Milo (James’ character) who takes over. I think that it is very clever – but not so clever that it gets too precious.”

He can never ever recall a time, he says, when he didn’t want to be an actor. And, given that his father was the late (and much loved and missed Ian Richardson), and his mother the actress Maroussia Frank, then that is hardly surprising. He and his father acted together “maybe four or five times”, he remembers, “but the odd thing is that there was no single occasion where we had any dialogue together in those productions. I think that the first time that we shared a screen was when dad was King Oberon to Judi Dench’s Queen Titania, in Peter Hall’s amazing production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That would have been about 1968.

“So there’s this very little boy, on a major film set, and it was on location. You might recall that there wasn’t, well, a lot of costume. I think that dad wore a single fig-leaf, and Dame Judi had three, which would have been alright if the weather had been warm, or if we’d been on an indoor set, but in fact it was one of the coldest and wettest summers that the UK ever experienced, and everyone in the cast was covered in goose-bumps. I had to scamper forward and slither between dad’s legs. That was all I was asked to do. So I ran, and I slithered. End of movie debut! But I suppose that being in this business was pretty much a given – although my brother hasn’t gone down the same path, and neither have either of my teenage sons. The boys are far too worldly-wise to know already that this is not a profession in which one can expect to make a fortune!”

He wonders how today’s audiences will react to Sleuth. “It’s got a lovely crisp plot, very carefully constructed by Shaffer”, he ponders, “but it does come from that era before we all used mobile phones. So younger audiences today will have to go with the idea that if you wanted to make a call, you either had to use a landline in your own home, or nip out to use the nearest phone box.

“The strange thing is that so many thrillers and suspense plays and films of a few years back relied on the ring of the phone, or someone making that vital call, to keep the story going. Many of them would be impossible to make today, the plots who stretch credulity in this modern age. So we decided that there would be no ‘tinkering about’ with the time and place of Sleuth. The action is in 1970, so we’ve kept it there. In effect, it becomes a ‘period drama’”.

Richardson has had a long career as an actor, writer and director, working across the world, but if he is instantly recognisable to one set of fans, it is for his work, on the radio and audio dramas that are spin-offs from the cult series Dr Who. He has also provided his unique vocal talents for hundreds of voiced characters. This has been a lucrative side-line for someone who describes himself as “a jobbing actor” .

He is always in demand as an actor and has his own personal record as probably the only actor to have played Charles I, and his son, Charles II (in The Regicides) as well as our future King, Charles III in the recent West End play of the same name. “It was Tim Piggot-Smith who was supposed to be there on stage”, he chuckles, “and he played the role for several months before he had a terrible accident, he was off for many weeks, and I had to step in.”

When he’s not performing, Miles is a keen collector of military memorabilia and artefacts – and has a room at his Stratford on Avon home that “is stuffed full with all sorts of objects, all of them on shelves and in cases. I do believe that all of us should be allowed one little refuge at home that is full of dust and clutter, don’t you?”

“An audience in Japan will react completely differently to one in Yorkshire,” says Richardson. “I remember taking a stage version of the Dream over there, and we had that sequence where the ‘rude mechanicals’ were rehearsing. Every one of us on the stage thought that it was hysterical. But there wasn’t a sound from our audience. Not a chuckle. When we got a glimpse of them, they were all being terribly polite, with their hands over their faces, trying not to laugh. A very different culture, you see!”

Sleuth is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, September 28-October 15.