Relocated @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Frances Grey
Phil McKee
Stuart McQuarrie
Katie Novak
Jan Pearson
Nicola Walker

directed by
Anthony Neilson
Anthony Neilsons latest play is an uncomfortably tense and physically and emotionally unsettling piece of theatre that takes the trappings of a horror film darkness, dripping blood, barking dogs and the glitter of unseen childrens voices and merges them, mashes them, with the echoes of real life horror stories.

The endlessly flexible Upstairs Theatre at the Royal Court has been totally transformed yet again, by designer Miriam Beuther, this time into a black-walled, featureless room (through which the audience must pass to take their seats) with an oppressively low ceiling. A sheet of gauze has been stretched across the front of the stage and precise shifts in the lighting cause this to switch from transparent to opaque, concealing scene changes.

Information is meted out in small parcels and nothing is straightforward; the play looms and imposes like the creature under the bed outgrowing its home. There are anagrams and overlaps and repetitions and an almost unbearable sense of foreboding.

At the start we see a woman vacuuming, who abruptly collapses. A menacing man appears at her door, brandishing pornographic pictures of her that she has no memory of being taken, and tells her that its time to move on. A central narrative thread develops amidst the talk of missing and murdered children, that of a classroom assistant who became complicit in a vile crime and was forced into hiding. The mind immediately leaps to Maxine Carr and the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, but given that Neilsons plays are continually rewritten and honed throughout the rehearsal process, there are also explicit references to stories plucked from the media glare, such as the appalling Fritzl case in Austria, and to numerous tales of disappeared children, of Madeline McCann and the many before her.

The production has a jagged, fragmented quality, intentionally dislocating. At one point it steals a slice of David Lynchs Lost Highway and has two women inexplicably switch roles mid-conversation. There are echoes of the supernatural, of ghost stories, the sound of children laughing in a playground in the middle of the night, and women who seem to coexist in a space without seeing each other, though this also brings the Fritzl case to mind.

The cast all put in strong performances and it is, without doubt, a highly effective staging, repeatedly plunging the audience into black, cleverly focusing the eye on certain details and delivering several nasty jolts to the senses. A palpable sense of menace is created, but atmospheric as it is, there is a sense of superficiality to the piece, a nagging feeling that its being purposefully provocative without having that much to say.

The production did its job well: it shook me up, it creeped me out, but I found myself repelled by it more than anything else. It told me little about the way these abhorrent, terrifying stories so fascinate people, why we comb over the details, hungry to know more, eager to be appalled. Is it ‘too soon’ to be dealing with these things on stage? Some will feel so, but I’m not sure that’s the issue. If you are going to deal so specifically with real events there should be more to it, more meat. In the end this just left me feeling slightly grubby and tainted.

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