The Pillowman

“It tells the story of a short story writer called Katurian K. Katurian. (No prizes for guessing what the ‘K’ stands for.)” NANCY NAPPER CANTER is as enthused as the cast by Martin McDonagh’s black comedy.

katurian katurian maddie skipsey martin mcdonagh the pillowman

Magdalene College, Cripps’ Court, Nov 22nd-24th, 7.30pm, £4/6

Dir. Maddie Skipsey

What an excellent choice. No one beats Martin McDonagh at black comedy. This production is not perfect, but it’s such a delight to see The Pillowman done with so much energy – and a good deal of great acting – that I can’t give it any less than four stars.

It tells the story of a short story writer called Katurian K. Katurian. (No prizes for guessing what the ‘K’ stands for.) Katurian is under interrogation by detectives Topolski (Freddy Sawyer) and Ariel (Adam Shuman) because of the resemblance between the gruesome acts of violence towards children in his short stories, and several real child murders that have recently taken place in the ‘unnamed totalian state’ in which this is set. Tupolski is the good cop, Ariel, the bad. Tupolski actually tells us this. But you can’t take anyone’s word for anything in The Pillowman.

McDonagh has been likened to Tarantino, and it’s an apt comparison. The Pillowman, like all his plays, oozes blood. And humour. (It’s often drawn to our attention that the blood it oozes is fake, for example.) This production handled both with panache.

Freddy Sawyer as Tupolski was particularly excellent. Smart, sharp, witty and frightening, Tupolski got the biggest laughs, and it was a pleasure rather than an irritation that we were aware that Sawyer, too, was enjoying it. Stephen Bermingham’s Katurian is also strong. In this production, Katurian struck me as dislikeable from the off; even when terrified, his pomposity is evident. The vim with which read out passages from his stories was – given their subject matter – particularly unsettling. I’ve seen Katurian characterised more generously – he can be a locus of sympathy. But this interpretation worked just as well.

Some things irritated. Although I was pleased that Shuman abandoned the distractingly husky voice he had in the first interrogation scene, the inconsistency didn’t make for a very convincing Ariel. It was also a shame that Michael was so obviously younger than Katurian. I’ll fill you in on Michael: he is Katurian’s mentally disabled brother, and, as Katurian tells us, ‘all I have’. That Katurian can hear Michael’s screams from the next-door room while he’s being interrogated, adds to the tension. As does the possibility of Michael’s involvement in the child murders.

What detracted from the tension, however, was that when Katurian was reading Michael stories, it looked comfortably like an adult reading to a child. It is important that Michael is older than Katurian: that is what makes his combination of childlike and sinister particularly disturbing. This aside, Jamie Webb was an excellent Michael; as alert to the wit of the script as to its darkness.

Although more could have been done with lighting, direction was overall strong. At three hours, this took an unexpectedly large chunk out of my evening. But it was a chunk I was more than willing to give. This is violent, refreshing, witty, and uplifting. Don’t miss it.