“This show will wring the life out of you, in the best way possible.”
Pillowman is to dark comedy what heroin is to vapor rub. Martin McDonagh’s tale of bloody flesh and fairytales is dark, dirty and sometimes barefacedly brutal – and in the hands of director Emily Aboud, often stingingly clever as well.
Set in a faceless concrete prison, ‘Pillowman’ tells the story of writer Katurian questioned about gory child murders strongly resembling the short stories he writes. Throw in a heaping helping of torture, a pinch of weirdly psychotic police banter and as much moral relativism as you can stomach, and you’ve got a play which (despite quite a few good laughs) stays tensely uncomfortable the entire way through. Make no mistakes: this show will wring the life out of you, in the best way possible.
But a script without a director doesn’t get too far, and with Emily Aboud returning to the stage after her barnstorming production of Equus, there’s never any doubt it’s in safe hands. Apart from some strangely static blocking at the beginning, her overall vision for the production strikes gold: McDonagh’s work feels just as grittily surreal as it should.
And on the note of surreality, the set for this production is a gem- it’s not often I’ve seen twists dependent entirely on clever set design, let alone done so with such skill. There were some design choices, though, which seemed less prudent than others: a series of videos projected onto the stage wall would have had twice the impact if performed live. Whilst the presentation detracted nothing, it was slightly disappointing to think of its potential. And to sound designer Alex Greenwald, I’ll say only this: The low ambient drone? Fantastically slithery.
Luckily, the propitious problem of wasted potential is brilliantly absent from the cast. Theatre veteran Scott Meenan captures the quiet intensity of Katurian excellently. Subtle yet passionate is a hard duality to pull off, so it was a joy to see it done so well. And even more so when combined with Douglas Clark as Michal: the burden of the fool in black comedy is a heavy one, but Clark makes the part feel as natural as breathing.
Hot off the heels of EUSOG’s Addams Family, Esmee Cook expertly runs the emotional gamut as wonderfully sadistic second-in-command Ariel – but the indisputable star of the police parade is Paddy Echlin as Detective Tupolski. Sardonic and hilariously removed from normal logic, Echlin dominated the stage whenever his annoyingly wrong tie came flapping through the set doors.
The supporting cast were noticeably solid, especially in terms of physical theatre – Sian Davies in particular has a peculiar knack for playing tragically adorable kids.
With such energy and dynamism throughout, however, it was a disappointment to see the production fall into the trap of lengthy and jarring set changes. For a piece which, in every other aspect, set up a wonderfully naturalistic and believable surreality of tone, these seemed like a strange choice. They were luckily few and far between, but are still a bit like stopping a delicious meal to eat a couple of handfuls of packing peanuts.
Overall, I was impressed by Pillowman. It has creative and well-crafted direction and maintains the kind of thick atmosphere most other shows could only dream of (although, making the Bedlam Theatre feel like a freezing cell requires little help). Combine with stellar acting and a well-chosen crew, and you’ve got a production that’ll knock your socks off – and then probably strangle you with them, but still.
Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 3 February)
Go to Pillowman at Bedlam here.
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