Early on in this intricately-constructed, time-shifting play, we hear two characters discussing movies: the kind of movies where they pull the rug out from under you, revealing that you've misunderstood what you've been seeing all along. There's a similar gambit waiting for you in The Missing Special, but there's more to this show than a clever trick. It's an interesting riddle, a rewarding character study… and a parable on the way we behave towards others too.
The title refers to a restaurant menu, and the fact that daily specials are so often "off" – a curious place to start from, but one that's ultimately justified by a neatly metaphorical conclusion. This topic fascinates Rufus, the lead character and narrator of the tale, who loves to calculate odds and probabilities and is working towards a master's degree in his spare time. I've got a maths degree myself, and I nod approvingly at this: not only have they got the mathematics right, they've perfectly captured the other-worldly enthusiasm of an enquiring scientific mind.
Not everyone, of course, is built that way, and much of the humour surrounds Rufus's dealings with his no-nonsense father and more touchy-feely wife. We're watching events in flashback – like a video on repeat – and Rufus literally carries a remote control, which he uses to pause the action and explain his thoughts. Under Rufus's direction, other actors switch their roles, and respond with surprise to the changes around them when they come "off pause". It's an entertaining device which – like a sprinkle of seasoning – playwright Richard Hearn knows to use sparingly.
This is also a whodunit, though part of the mystery surrounds exactly what's been done. As in all the best detective novels, the answers are guessable if you're alert to the clues, and overall the story slots together with a pleasing sense of completeness. One development turns on a legal technicality which doesn't ring true to me – can it really be the case that if you've lost your passport, you can't get bail? – but that's the only wrinkle in a generally velvet-smooth plot.
Actor Neil James is perfect in his role as Rufus: slightly vulnerable and slightly perplexed by life, but disarming all the same. He's ably supported by a talented cast, and by sharp direction which keeps the complex scenario clear and the multi-threaded storyline zipping along. A play with heart, which says as much about people as it does about maths, The Missing Special is special indeed.