Lockdown Theatre returned on Sunday, October 25, for another livestream table reading in aid of the Royal Theatrical Fund (RTF). Thus far, Lockdown Theatre has raised over £100,000 in support of the entertainment industry, which has taken a hard hit from COVID-19 restrictions. The organization has really homed in how to best use Zoom for online productions and they keep taking things to the next level.
The play for the evening was Tom Stoppard’s comedy, The Real Inspector Hound. It pokes fun at two critics named Birdboot (Derek Jacobi) and Moon (Simon Callow) who are at the theatre. Moon is a second-string critic, subbing in for another critic referred to as Higgs. They watch what they deem a formulaic whodunit play, while they have a conversation about their insecurities. Moon pokes fun at a substitute critic named Puckeridge, but he also mentions seeing Birdboot out recently with the actress (Emilia Clarke) from the whodunit. As the plot thickens in the mystery, the action draws in the critics and shifts unexpectedly to a hilarious and surprising outcome.
Aside from Clarke as Felicity, there was Jennifer Saunders as maid Mrs. Drudge, Freddie Fox as Simon Gascoyne, Gary Wilmot as Inspector Hound, Samantha Bond as Cynthia Muldoon, and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Cynthia’s brother-in-law Major Magnus Muldoon. Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Bhaskar (Unforgotten) were both in the previous Lockdown Theatre production, Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Another Lockdown Theatre veteran is Robert Lindsay, who has been in every single livestream table read. This time, Lindsay was the Narrator, reading the stage directions and other descriptive information audiences would normally see onstage for themselves.
Hound uses Lockdown’s largest Zoom cast to date, with nine actors, more than double the cast of Private Lives. With Private Lives having four actors, it was possible to watch on a cell phone, tablet, or laptop and still see all the cast on your screen. However, for Hound it’s necessary to use either a tablet or a laptop to see all nine webcam feeds at once. I was on my phone initially, but I made the quick switch early on to a laptop without an issue.
I enjoy the Zoom table readings by Lockdown Theatre for a few reasons. You not only see the actors portraying their characters, you also see them doing other things. The moments right before the Zoom play begins always remind me of those theatre documentaries showing the actors in the dressing room or the wings. But translate that to Zoom and you end up with: one actor checking their tech settings, another sitting in deep concentration, and someone else looking expectantly into their webcam ready to go. During the table reading, you can see the actors watching other actors who are speaking, laughing at a funny line whilst muted, and having a good time. It’s a fun reminder that we’re on a conference call.
I like to see what the actors will use as their props in the Zoom calls. It’s not required because they are reading the lines, but it adds a nice touch. Several characters use a telephone. I was relieved none of the actors opted to use a cell phone, which would have been an obvious choice. Instead, when it came time to signify that they were on the phone, Saunders, Jacobi, Callow, and Wilmot used bananas. Afterwards, Wilmot jokingly asked if the bananas could be eaten.
Costumes weren’t necessary for the table reading and were used minimally. Saunders wore a hat for her role as Mrs. Drudge the maid. Bond opted to wear a glittery top, which reminded me of the Agatha Christie films where the lady of the manor wears a glittery dress. Bhaskar was clever with his representation of a disguise, pulling a scarf away from his collar at a crucial moment.
Gestures were also used sparingly, but to great effect. It was funny and heartwarming at the end when Cynthia Muldoon hugs another character, which Bond represented by crossing her arms and touching her own shoulders. For the most part, the action was depicted expertly by Lindsay’s narration and the interjections by the actors.
The banana early on was a clue that the play is not one to be taken seriously. It’s an all-out comedy lampooning not only critics but the whodunit genre, complete with perfect deadpanning moments by Saunders and Wilmot and the stereotypical outbursts of “I’ll kill you” by Clarke, Fox, and Bond. Lindsay and Bhaskar fit in some great eyebrow movements as they read their parts, too. Callow and Jacobi play off each other well as theatre critic rivals, especially when Jacobi raises his voice defensively as Birdboot in reaction to perceived accusations from Moon.
Q&A with the Cast and Director, Jonathan Church
After the table reading, there was a brief and lively Q&A session with the cast and director. Questions were submitted in advance by email and during the call by Zoom texts. One question was whether the actors ever had the chance to confront a bad critic. A few cast members chimed in that they don’t read their reviews.
Hound was the first major Zoom play for veteran actors Callow and Jacobi, so they were asked to share what they thought of the experience. Both of them enjoyed the live table reading. Callow, who is 71, said, “It’s rather extraordinary because you have very little sense of anybody else at all – your fellow actors or yourself. The play becomes rather pure… You only have the words there and it’s rather exciting. I like it very much.”
My question was whether the actors ever get a chance to switch characters during rehearsals. Church confirmed he has not used the technique, though directors and actors always listen to feedback about the characters. He added,
There are number of plays where people famously switch roles. True West has been done a number of times with the two leads switching on alternate nights. I think it was Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud who swapped Romeo and Mercutio on different nights. I believe once upon a time there was a plan that never happened for Robert and Derek to swap roles in Becket.
Lindsay and Jacobi confirmed that to be true of the 1991 production at the Haymarket Theatre. “That was the plan, but then you just become so attached to your character that you don’t really want to let it go,” Lindsay explained.
The Q&A also highlighted that the actors have a unique opportunity to watch the entire play unfolding. When a production is in the physical space of the theatre, actors often wait in their dressing rooms or in the wings for their next entrance. Sometimes, they even leave the theatre. Jacobi shared a story about his time in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet. “About four years ago, I played Mercutio, who dies before the interval. I used to go out and have my supper and come back for the curtain call,” he said.
More Lockdown Theatre, Please
Lockdown Theatre not only serves a good charitable cause, but also answers our desire as audiences for live theatre. While some physical theatres are opening, there are many factors preventing some people from attending in person, such as limiting their travel, not being able to travel, or being high risk individuals.
Overall, The Real Inspector Hound was a hilarious and fun live table reading by Lockdown Theatre. Church directed a star-studded cast of talented and beloved actors. Lockdown expanded to a much larger number of actors, with no impact to the quality of the Zoom call. It felt very much like watching everyone doing a recording for a radio program, except everyone is in a separate and uniquely decorated sound booth. Using the complete and unabridged version of the script was an excellent choice, as if recognizing that the audience too wants to enjoy and wrestle with the full texts.
I hope Lockdown Theatre will put on more live table readings to keep us going through the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not only entertaining, it also offers educational insights about the scripts, the cast, and crew. Check the Royal Theatrical Fund website regularly to stay updated on the latest events.