It’s a little over half a century since Sir Peter Shaffer’s intimate one-act double-header, The Private Ear & The Public Eye, first hit the West End stage when it made stars of a young and impressionable Kenneth Williams and an equally talented Maggie Smith, writes Alan Wooding.
But back in August, The Original Theatre Company director Alastair Whatley took up the reins of this much acclaimed multi-award winning comedy drama and relaunched it on a UK wide tour which checked in at Milton Keynes Theatre last night for the week-long run.
These twin bittersweet plays are a real contrast for Shaffer, now aged 87, whose back catalogue of intense dramas includes Equus, Lettice & Lovage, Amadeus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun – but the ‘Ear & Eye’ double produces a comedic and often dark insight into life in early 1960s London.
Starring Steven Blakeley and Rupert Hill – who are perhaps better known as television’s dopey Heartbeat policeman PC Geoff Younger and Coronation Street’s Jamie Baldwin respectively – the two other cast members are 50-year-old Jasper Britton (son of veteran actor Tony Britton) and former Irish soap star, Siobhan O’Kelly.
The Private Ear is set in a dingy London bedsit and is an often cringeworthy tale which features reclusive office clerk Bob (Blakeley) whose passions in life are his love of classic opera and his record collection.
Having attended a Proms concert, he meets an equally shy Doreen (O’Kelly) and, after picking up and handing back her concert programme, he asks her out for a coffee before plucking up the courage to invite her back for supper the following evening to his Belsize Park pad.
But not sure how to make small talk, Bob invites his worldly-wise work colleague Ted (Hill) who promises to give him tips on what to say to her … and he also offers to cook their meal.
Hill has a great time playing Ted who is a proper cocky Cockney-type, a real Jack the Lad who must surely have been based on Michael Caine’s 1966 film character Alfie.
There are plenty of laughs as it’s hardly gourmet cuisine on offer. A tin of Heinz Mushroom Soup followed by barely thawed lamb chops and tinned marrow peas. “You really should have bought petit pois as they’re classier,” Ted suggests to Bob while he promises faithfully to leave the couple alone by 9.30pm.
Naturally Ted makes a play for Doreen which appears to spell disaster for the foolish and naive music buff. But what looks set to be a predictable finish to the evening didn’t quite pan out as one would expect.
The brilliance of Blakeley comically conducting Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes on his stereo – much to Doreen’s and the audience’s amusement – Bob then repeats it by conducting an aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and that sees her begin to get romantic as she stretches out on the put-u-up bed.
It almost borders on slapstick and just as things look like hotting up, it quickly changes and Bob suggests she leaves, taking with her the fake Ocelot coat – “I thought an ocelot was a bird or is that an ostrich,” he says. He is then left all alone standing centre stage as the curtain falls at the end of the first act.
The big surprise when it rises again for the second act is that Bob is still standing there and that everything in the bedsit remains in place.
However for The Public Eye, the three understudies – Charlie Hotson, Zachery Holton and Esther Shanson – are dressed in the removal men’s traditional brown coats and they begin to lift and clear all the fixtures and fitting before slickly turning the set into London account Charles Sidley’s Bloomsbury-based office.
Charles (Britton) has hired a private detective to spy on his pretty young, horror movie-loving wife Belinda (O’Kelly) whom he suspects is having an affair.
But when the fast talking and oh-so-dippy Julian Cristoforou – again played brilliantly by Blakeley who turns into an Inspector Clouseau lookalike with hat, glasses and a fake moustache on stage as the scene shifting is taking place – turns up to represent the hired detective agency, all manner of quirky things begin to happen.
Britton is superb as the pompous account and while there’s a case of mistaken identity with the storyline bordering on a Brian Rix Whitehall farce, the eccentric detective – who has a passion for eating, and especially macaroons! – puts a twist on proceedings as he attempts to save Charles’ marriage instead of bringing it to an end.
All four actors thoroughly deserved the rapturous applause which brought the curtain down with both Blakeley and O’Kelly in particular outstanding. All in all it’s highly entertaining and Shaffer’s offering is a truly stylish dark comic double.
The Private Ear & The Public Eye revival is also a real triumph for The Original Theatre Company as all to often, plays written so long ago (1962 in this case) rarely stand the test of time… but this one really does!
It plays nightly at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday (there are matinees on Wednesday and Saturday) and to book call 0844 871 7652 or visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply).