It’s a clever concept: take a hard-to-solve 1950s crime, with a spider-web of deaths in its wake – and imagine the departed could talk. Though, of course, that would be too easy – where’s the suspense when the truth is so accessible?
So in this new play, Knackerman’s writer Rosanna Negrotti cleverly – and with dark comedy – has created a cast of capricious characters and banished them to her version of purgatory. Here, gentle new arrival Bill Wiles (Will Bryant) must navigate a frustratingly opaque new world and work out who, if anyone, he can trust. For any chance of redemption, he must also fathom why he’s there at all. What was behind his own brutal death, what – if anything – links him to his new companions and why, to them, is he “as famous as Errol Flynn”?
First Bill meets thieving Jack (an effortlessly geezerish Paul Bygraves), chirpily lifting the valuables from people at the moment of their deaths. As Jack introduces Bill to the Fagin-like Sir William Coningham (who TE Canning imbues with enjoyably nasty duplicitousness), has our protagonist found his Underworld guides, shady as they are? Or will the lascivious monk, Matthias (played with a Brian Blessed flourish by Sion Tudor Owen) lead him to the truth? And hang on, who’s this? Oh, it’s John Christie, aka the “Whispering Strangler” – the real-life serial killer whose murders included that of his own wife at the cinematically immortalised address, 10 Rillington Place. The inclusion of Christie was inspired by the writer’s family connection to the man – her aunt and mother were waitresses at the west London cafe where he was a regular. And while Terry Jermyn plays him with an excellently mad glint in his eye, and a maniacal smile that provides some good comic moments, Christie’s presence here is arguably gratuitous. Especially in a cast of nine – the stage at the White Bear (a lovely and well-respected venue in the back of a gloriously unreconstructed old boozer, if you haven’t been) is not large.
But that’s a minor criticism. And, in fact, the sparse staging is atmospheric and the space never feels cluttered. The first half of the play, however, does. The volume of information packed into a long hour and a quarter is dizzying, or perhaps it’s just the heat – the night we go it’s surprisingly balmy outside. And in the pacy second half, with strong performances by Jonathan Hansler, as the tormented Inspector Banks, Kelly Craig, as troubled Nettie and Miranda Colmans as the unfortunate Lily, things pick up as the plot satisfyingly moulds itself into a classic whodunnit climax. Interestingly, Knackerman has just been optioned for a feature film production – if it goes ahead, I wonder if this is the angle it will focus on – and what will get pruned in the edit.
Words: Kate Burt