Killing Other People

This piece of new student writing doesn’t quite reach the profundity it aims for, writes JAMES MACNAMARA

campbell killing other people macnamara student play

by Michael Campbell

directed by Fergus Blair

Corpus Playrooms, 9.30pm, Tue 22nd – Sat 26th Jan, £6/£5

The first ambiance cultivated by this unsettling production is one of military secrecy; the dark bureaucracy of MI6 or the late nights of a WWII code-breaker. Books, boxes, blankets, sheets; a map pinned to the wall of an ill-lit office and the detritus of an individual dedicate to difficult work. Miss Pennyfeather and Pierce Black exchange cut-glass accents: this is straight from John Le Carré, with names pinched from an early draft of Casino Royale.

However a taut, difficult opening dialogue begins to reveal something much darker. A nod is made to genocide, another to all-consuming totalitarian ideologies. These references are spun into an uncomfortable power-play between male boss and female secretary that becomes one of the play’s most interesting features. Henry St Leger-Davis and Kim Jarvis project calm assurance whilst making the dynamic sinister, almost pathological; St Leger-Davis breathes down Jarvis’ neck with the menacing beauty of Cillian Murphy in Red Eye or Batman Begins, Jarvis harnesses a strength that, only just, prevents him from dominating her.

But then this atmosphere is abruptly shattered by a jolly, bellowing fellow interrupting a tense, subtle dialogue with grinning pleasantries and an irritating joie de vivre. And so Killing Other People unfolds, struggling to contain its own atmospheres and the shape of its unusual dialogue.

For example, close to the beginning, Miss Pennyfeather spits a biting ‘fuck‘. With her delicious RP this profanity manages to be strangely erotic, feeding a relationship that at least glances at the sexual. However it jars against the sense of time and place the set, voices and language have all suggested to us. Modern vernacular sits against the clipped politeness of 1950s office-speak in a way that suggests a kind of uncanny alternative universe or history – but one that is not fully realised or maintained.

However, there is much to be stimulated by in Killing Other People. Trying to announce something by holding something back, as this text does constantly, is a fascinating methodology and it translates to mechanisms on stage that are original and at times very effective. Fergus Blair has developed the uneasy naturalism of the text with simple, unforced blocking, and the performers are all in control of their characters and interactions. George Longworth deserves a mention for his remarkably convincing five minutes of stage time. But this production’s potential for a promising Pinteresque examination of totalitarian obsession isn’t quite followed through; too much is distracting (in particular the very unwelcome sound effects), and too much is unresolved in a way that doesn’t aid the play’s aesthetic.

Campbell’s world is one of smudged realism in which relations between characters are never quite concrete and information that we expect to be foregrounded is continually held back. The problem is that the subject matter this play deals with commands that more facts be made available. In a play that mentions mass killing the most interesting thing should not be atmospherics.

Black hints at a plot involving poisoning a water supply, and says something cryptic about how some people can live only through the death of others. To its credit it is impossible to paraphrase exactly what is going in this play. But it is still a shame that something advertised as a ‘powerful one-act dissection of the mechanisms of genocide’ quickly becomes a study of affected ambiance, rather than an artwork with something to say.