Bertie Carvel, Emma Dewhurst, Michael Elwyn, Henry Lloyd Hughes, Blake Ritson, Alex Waldmann, Pheobe Waller-Bridge
Patrick Hamilton has been rediscovered in recent years as a penetrating observer of the seedy underbelly of London middle-class life. Like the Victorian-set melodrama Gaslight, successfully revived at the Old Vic in 2007, his 1929 play Rope (also famously filmed, by Hitchcock) is a psychological thriller with social reverberations.
Inspired by the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case in Chicago in 1924, Rope focuses on two Oxford undergraduates who strangle a fellow student in their London flat for no apparent reason.
The more dominant, ruthless Wyndham Brandon and the anxiously submissive Charles Granillo then hide the body in a chest before hosting a party in which the guests (including the dead mans father) obliviously eat and drink off this de facto coffin. Only the foppish poet Rupert Cadell begins to suspect anything is wrong…
Rope is not a whodunnit but a whydunnit, and the suspense comes from waiting to see if the two cold-hearted murderers are found out. Hamilton implies that they have been influenced by amoral Nietzschean philosophy which claims that exceptional individuals are not bound by conventional morality, but there is also a sense of the emptiness of post-First World War hedonism as the killers take a life for kicks.
The most interesting character is the limping war veteran Cadell, physically and psychologically disabled by his experiences, which have turned him into a heavily drinking, cynical nihilist. But as he becomes amateur detective, he is forced to re-examine his own views on the worthlessness of life and whether he believes in any absolute moral values.
Roger Michells terrific production, performed without a break in one hour and forty-five minutes, maintains the tension but allows the plays ideas to breathe. In the added prologue we see the two murderers stuffing the fresh corpse and rope into the chest in the gloom, while recorded applause suggests they see themselves performing the art of murder, followed by a fraught conversation demonically lit only by the tips of their cigarettes and the growling log fire. The final superfluously melodramatic flourish is the only false note in this gripping show.
Performing the play in the round (the first time at the Almeida) increases the intensity, while Mark Thompsons period set features the wooden chest at the centre of the hexagonal stage dominating the atmosphere with its horrific secret contents.
The excellent cast is led by an outstanding performance from Bertie Cavel as Cadell, a rather camp Wildean figure carrying a cane, who specializes in elegantly bitchy bon mots before rediscovering his humanity. Blake Ritson also impresses as the arrogantly cool Brandon exhilarated by the idea of committing the perfect murder but who cant resist taking unnecessary risks. The homoeroticism of his relationship with his partner in crime is subtly but clearly indicated, with Alex Waldmanns boyish Granillo torn between eagerness to please and hysterical guilt.
A murder drama, even one with plenty of macabre humour like Rope, may not be the obvious thing to stage at this season, but the Almeida have certainly produced a horribly good Christmas treat.