Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Theatre review: Killer

In the second of two Philip Ridley plays running in rep underneath Shoreditch Town Hall, Jamie Lloyd returns as director and Soutra Gilmour as designer, but the creatives who have the most obvious impact are sound designers Ben & Max Ringham and George Dennis. Killer is a collection of three monologues, each with a grisly theme as the title (and the fact that it's Ridley) suggests, performed by John MacMillan in the dingy basement rooms. It's a promenade piece that opens with the audience sitting in a circle, facing away from MacMillan in the middle; the lights go out and he narrates a young teenager's fascination with a new gang who - reminding me of the far-right party in Moonfleece - embrace a fascist style and a philosophy based around preparing for an inevitable apocalypse. When the narrator tries to join the gang they have a brutal way of initiating him.

We move to a long corridor for the second story where an apocalyptic event actually does take place: A prissy carer takes the demanding old lady he looks after on a day out, only to find half the population turn into bloodthristy zombies who slaughter the other half. Finally the audience are separated into two smaller rooms, where we stand to listen to the most blackly comic of the three monologues, about a man fleeing a gangster and taking on a new identity as an ostrich farmer - with an albino ostrich that performs miracles.

The reason the sound design is so important is that we don't see much - the first part is told in complete darkness, the other two are murkily lit with the odd dramatic burst of light. The audience wears headphones that employ the binaural technology used in The Encounter - MacMillan actually spends most of the show in a different room, narrating into a microphone that can control exactly where the sound seems to be coming from. In the opening speech in particular it gives the impression of him sneaking up behind you in the dark. It's creepy, although I probably would have found it more so if I hadn't seen The Encounter and therefore known exactly how it works: I found that, especially since I was completely in the dark, instead of imagining MacMillan whispering into my ear I was picturing exactly how he was using the head-shaped microphone to create that illusion.

Still, it's a much more varied performance than I'm used to from an actor I've not been that convinced by before. I got the impression these monologues hadn't originally been intended to be performed together, so some of the violent themes get a bit much after a while, but the second and third stories, which have a higher level of dark comedy, even tongue-twisting wordplay (the ostrich farmer's friends include a mute milliner and an asthmatic aboriginal with an addiction to Alpen) are the stronger pieces, meaning the evening has scope to develop. It's certainly memorable, and an interesting twist on Ridley's unique world-view, although given the setup I'd been expecting something a bit scarier. In the event it's atmospheric but I never quite suspended disbelief enough to feel like it was a dangerous place - the only shivers are from the fact that it's a cold basement.

Ridley memes: The apocalypse, possible dead children, leg injury (a surfer loses a leg; it's fine, it grows back.)

Killer by Philip Ridley is booking in repertory until the 8th of April at Shoreditch Town Hall.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Matt Humphrey.

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