Theatre review: The Private Ear / The Public Eye

Bob (Steven Blakeley) and Doreen (Siobhan Kelly) in The Private Ear
Bob (Steven Blakeley) and Doreen (Siobhan Kelly) in The Private Ear

On the face of it, The Private Ear and The Public Eye, two plays staged back-to-back, are about contrasting the senses of hearing and sight.

The Private Ear is led by Bob (Steven Blakeley), a bachelor living in a London bedsit in the 1960s, the decade when pop music exploded, who can only find true expression in listening to classical music.

The Public Eye sees Blakeley play an offbeat private detective, Juian Cristoforou, hired by an accountant to use his remarkable powers of observation to snoop on his young wife, who he suspects of infidelity.

The one-hour plays are not similar, however. Private Ear is slow-burning and, although dependably amusing, really rests on the touching sensitivity and idealism of Bob, the shy, George Formby-esque, loner who wants to find a woman who is moved by Bach.

And Bob really is moved. The best scenes by far in the Milton Keynes Theatre production, are those when he switches on his state-of-the art record player, ‘The Behemoth’, to a impress his date Doreen (Siobhan O’Kelly) and heartbreakingly conducts the orchestra.

You try to imagine sometimes what directors tell the actors in particular scenes, and I imagine Blakeley must have been told to let his soul soar with the music. He danced on the bed twirled across the room closed his eyes and let the notes move through him.

The transformation from the sincere and worrisome office worker to the passionate hankerer for Tchaikovsky make these scenes all the more compelling and moving.

The best set piece of both plays is when he plays a song from the opera Madama Butterfly and almost suceeds through it in capturing his date. Through their reactions to the music and each other, the pair silently encapsulate the deep love that can be felt between two people who find it difficult to connect through words.

The Public Eye is very different. A delightful dark-ish comedy about quite serious issues of infidelity, the plot itself is uncomplex. But Blakeley again enhances the play immeasurably.

Back in 1962, the part was played by Kenneth Williams and I thought the weight of that iconic personality would make it hard for Blakeley to impose himself on the audience.

But he inhabited the character brilliantly, laying out each new eccentricity with briliant comic timing and leaving us in no doubt of the detective’s peculiar, and unusually moral, way of looking at the world.

O’Kelly - this time playing Belinda, the young wife suspected of betrayal - plays her own part well, articulating pleasingly how it feels to have your eyes opened to the world.

Jasper Britton, playing jealous husband Charles Sidley, was understatedly good too. Jealous, impatient and pompous he had to be, but to make that character likeable takes some skill and his love for Belinda glinted through like sunlight through leaves.

And his intricate back-and-forths with Julian were expertly carried out, helping to showcase the detective’s quick wit and quicker eye.

So there is one world driven by music and one driven by meticulous observation. This is what the writer Peter Shaffer wants us to take home, no?

I wasn’t quite so sure. What I took away from it is that both lead characters found fundamental flaws, even in the 1960s, with the modern boxed-in world where people can forget to use their senses properly and actually lose who they are.

Bob was more consistently articulate in describing how his office job made him question the value of a life constrained by the yoke of work.

But Julian has the better lines in this regard.

As the detective puts it “We are born living, and yet how ready we are to play possum and fake death . . . so scared of looking foolish, so afraid of being touched by life, that we put up barriers against it.”

The plays will end their run at Milton Keynes Theatre tomorrow. See www.atgtickets.com.miltonkeynes