It is nine years since Ian Richardson last set foot on a West End stage. Perhaps best known for his portrayal of the Machiavellian Francis Urquhart in the TV drama House Of Cards, Richardson now stars in an equally psychological drama, The Creeper. Pauline Macaulay’s 1964 play is comic, dark and no one is as they seem. Caroline Bishop attended the first night at the Playhouse theatre…
Edward Kimberley (Richardson) is a self-confessed eccentric. That doesn’t mean he’s mad, he says, in fact he’s particularly sane, despite all appearances to the contrary. An insomniac, he likes playing cards at four in the morning, he enjoys shooting bows and arrows clad in a feathered headdress, and he keeps a dog’s eyeball pickled in an elegant silver box.
Infuriating, quick-witted and, in his own words an “old queen”, the wealthy Kimberley lives alone bar his manservant Holmes, and employs a succession of young companions to keep him company, whose lives he proceeds to dominate entirely. The latest, Michael (whose name Kimberley insists on pronouncing the French way), is a camp, devious young man at the end of his tether after six months of employment by Kimberley. To replace him, Kimberley advertises and finds Maurice (Oliver Dimsdale), a young, innocent man who is awkward and uncomfortable at Kimberley’s probing questions and bizarre demands – the companion must give up his life and belongings; all his material needs, including clothing, are met by Kimberley.
However, the eccentric persuades the innocent to stay and gradually the two build up a dependence on each other based on their mutual loneliness. As time goes on, however, the power balance between them shifts and the younger man’s disturbing psyche and less-than-innocent past are revealed. When a disgruntled Michael, jealous at being replaced in Kimberley’s affections, returns to challenge Maurice over his past, the consequences are brutal.
Though Macaulay’s play gets darker and more disturbing as it progresses, it also has some great comedy moments. In one such moment, Richardson’s Kimberley shows himself to be the true upper class eccentric that is he is by saying, with unapologetic flair, that he doesn’t even know if his cook Atherton is a man or a woman. Despite this, he becomes a more sympathetic character when it becomes clear that his need for companionship and control has ultimately doomed him. The metaphor of the creeper in his garden, which is “so beautiful but is killing the tree”, points to the play’s conclusion.
The Creeper is at the Playhouse theatre for a limited season until 22 April. em>CB