The Pillowman

PillowmanRAODS have made a brave choice here: one of which I, as a theatre goer, lover and participant, whole-heartedly approve. The decision to stage a play whose subject matter, language and overall theme are highly controversial and hard-hitting is not one to be taken lightly. It is a piece that, in my view – and the view of proper theatre critics globally – is nothing short of a masterpiece of dystopian theatrical art.

The Pillowman is, as the director Paul Green tells us in his programme notes, ‘a violent roller coaster of a ride that threatens to come off its rails at times’. Reading this, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is going to be a tough watch. It isn’t. What it is, however, is a different and utterly fascinating watch. It is a tale, set in a fictional totalitarian police-state, centring on a series of child murders, the manner of which reflect child murders detailed in stories written by the main protagonist, Katurian.

These stories are told throughout the play and are delivered beautifully and, in one case, presented in a very inventive manner which makes the most of the dark humour running as a thread throughout the play – a humour which unforgivingly brings out some real belly laughs, which you must allow yourself to enjoy, despite the framing subject.

To make a play like this work, you need not only great actors but great story-tellers. RAODS have those in abundance and they are used to their full here. The lead, Katurian, is taken up by Steven Lilly. He performs his part exceptionally well and, where he tells the stories, either to us or to the other players, he lives them and gives them a vibrancy that they need.

Katurian’s brother, Michal, has learning difficulties and is a treat of a character part for any actor. Sometimes, a character such as this can tempt the actor to overplay the ‘simpleton’ role. Jonathon Barney-Marmont resists this and gives an exceptional and measured, child-like performance which is totally spot-on.

The play opens with Katurian’s interrogation by ‘bad-cop /bad-cop’ duo Tupolski and Ariel. These need to be played in an occasionally violent and seemingly overstated manner. But it is not overstatement in a bad way and is totally necessary, especially in the moments where an explosive change in demeanour is needed. Matthew Ellison is superb as Tupolski and the pace of conversation in his duologues with Katurian really fizzes, while the delivery is at once understated but absolutely electrifying: measured but terrifying. As Ariel, Ruth Kibble starts off as the archetypal ‘bad-cop’ and would be forgiven for giving a one-dimensional performance, but she finds the soul of a character doing what she feels is an important job while struggling with her own, very real demons. She also has some skilfully choreographed violent moments that work well.

A couple of very nice cameos from Sarah and Anna Mitchell cap off an extremely talented cast. I don’t wish to spoil the surprise or imagery by describing what they do, but rest assured, it is innovative and a treat for the eyes.

This play is sweary, but necessarily so. It is violent in places, but necessarily so, and borders on, though does not reach, the gratuitous – but again, necessarily so. Done well, it is a compelling watch. And yes, here at the Plaza, it is done very well indeed.

Further performances are Friday and Saturday, 22and 23 September. I strongly recommend that you check out this important and gripping piece of theatre.