TOM ELLIS finds an una-bash-edly dark and gooey set of playlets at the Corpus Playroom.

charlie risius Corpus Playroom crime Drama Jess Peet killer Max Upton monologue neil labute Olivia Emden thriller Tom Ellis tom russell

Corpus Playroom, 1st-5th May, 9.30pm, £5-6

Directed by Charlie Risius

[rating: 4/5]

Neil LaBute will perhaps forever be tarred (feathered, and covered in bees, NOT THE BEES) by his disastrous 2006 train wreck/remake of The Wicker Man. But his pitch-black collection of short plays bash is compelling for all the right reasons.

In a quasi-immersive touch that rarely bodes well, the audience enters to find the cast already on stage glowering silently. Fortunately, doubts soon dissipate through a combination of tight direction and impressive performances.  Each play is a confession, of sorts, undercut by a sadistic sense of irony.  An anonymous businessman ruminates to an unseen companion, a photogenic couple recount wildly different versions of a “magical evening”, and a prisoner gradually reveals her motives. Running through them all is the question of what makes seemingly “ordinary” people capable of committing horrific acts.  Romantic moonlit walks, idyllic field trips and apparently natural displays of grief are polluted when viewed in the harsh light of the truth.

The first play is a stellar opening. As a teetotal Mormon family man away on business, Max Upton creates a powerful sense of pathos. At first, his wheedling middle-management drone seems to indicate a classic victim. As he queasily ingratiates himself with his listener, however, an initially tragic story takes a decidedly darker turn.  With such bleak subject matter, bash is hardly light entertainment, but Upton’s monologue is punctuated by tension-releasing moments of black comedy. Amidst his dreadful revelations he admits he doesn’t watch much TV, but offers a sheepish caveat: “There is some quality programming out there”.

After such a tough beginning to follow, the second playlet “A Gaggle of Saints” continues the nightmarish descent. John and Sue, an attractive young couple, speak in a wholesome high school vernacular; enthusing about corsage and true love.  Once again, their dialogue is peppered with references to the Mormon faith – an unsettling running theme. Beneath the placid exterior lurks a subtext of violence and contempt.

Tom Russell’s John is a truly captivating monster: all hate-filled intensity one minute, goofy locker-room banter the next. Sue, on the other hand, is utterly oblivious. Jess Peet delivers a complex and understated performance that contrasts nicely with Russell’s more expressive style. Her girlish naivety beggars belief, but we get an ominous glimpse at why they are so well-suited to each other during her description of how they got together.

“Medea Redux” is initially undermined by the fact we have already seen Olivia Emden in her prison overalls, and the title is pretty unambiguous when it comes to guessing the victims. Emden’s performance is suffused with barely surpassed rage and, as her character struggles to vocalise and rationalise her inner turmoil, we get the impression she is moments away from exploding.

Whilst the momentum and American accents occasionally slip, bash is nonetheless a welcome reminder that monologues needn’t be prefixed by “The Vagina” or followed with “written by Alan Bennett”. Come to bash for the superb performances, stay for the lingering sense of dread.