The Pillowman (Bedlam Theatre 2 – 6 Feb. ’16)

Scott Meenan as Katurian. Photo: Mollie Hodkinson

 “This show  will wring the life out of you, in the best way possible.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

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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‘Equus’ (Bedlam: 3 – 7 March ’15)

Douglas Clark as Alan Strang Samuel Burkett as Nugget, the God Equus Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic.

Douglas Clark as Alan Strang
Samuel Burkett as Nugget, the God Equus
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic.

“You’re out there with the cowboys”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Outstanding

Track suits and gloves of chestnut velour, anyone? Well, maybe in 1973 when Equus first cantered and careered into stage history. Now, we’ve lost the strutted hooves and it’s black Sculpt Tight leggings and sports bras. No matter, for this is a super fit production and the horses look the part. Do not, under any circumstances, think germinal, theatrical, War Horse, for director Emily Aboud achieves blinding drama.

Literally. Alan Strang (17) took a hoof pick to four horses and put out their eyes. (It was six in the original production but play fair with Bedlam’s space). Martin Dysart is the psychiatrist who gets inside Alan’s head to see what went ‘wrong’ and – maybe – to make him ‘well’. These are troubled and relative terms, as becomes extremely clear. Dysart reports Alan’s story as Alan tells it and is assisted by the testimony of parents, girlfriend and employer, and in so doing lays bare his own obsessions and vulnerability. This is one treatment plan where the word sacrificial does not beggar belief.

The two principals are admirable. Douglas Clark as Alan is lean, hurting, and his voice breaks from soft assent to pain and furious anger with remarkable force. His few scenes with Jill (Chloe Allen), his unexpected girl, are both tender and acutely awkward. He is also, in the extraordinary last scene of Act One, and alone with Equus, in complete control of what could be disastrously affected language. Charley Cotton plays Dysart as the decent doctor who has just about given up on the prescription ‘to heal thyself’. His dreadful marriage – to a Scottish dentist! – is as neatly dissected as his vain hopes to discover real pagan Greece in his Kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus.

Douglas Clark as Alan Strang Chloe Allan as Jill Mason Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic.

Douglas Clark as Alan Strang
Chloe Allan as Jill Mason
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic.

Designer Emiline Beroud respects Peter Shaffer’s original setting. The cast is on stage throughout, sitting at the back or to the sides when not performing. The centre stage is railed off on two sides and provides consulting room and stable floor. The horse masks hang left and right. Bedlam cannot accommodate the back-drop of tiers of seats, as if in an old anatomy lecture theatre, so Dysart’s talk becomes more confessional than public spirited and – if anything – more characterised by what Shaffer called its ‘dry agony’.

And the visual action is extraordinarily effective. That’s a lot of rehearsal time, I reckon. Mimetic movement, snap-tight lighting (predominately blue) and an electric beat do deliver Shaffer’s choric element. When these horses move and when one is ridden you’re out there with the cowboys of Alan’s wishes. When it all goes dark, in between the strobe flashes, it’s a stampede of the mind.

Equus has an awesome reputation and that’s in the classical, God fearing sense of the word but its notoriety has probably gone and it might seize up and appear contrived. There was some first night stiffness to the supporting roles but for the most part this exacting production gives its language and ideas free rein and exciting liberty.



Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 3 March)

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