Can murder be a perfect intellectual exercise? In Patrick Hamilton's 1929 play Rope, student Ronald Kentley has been murdered by fellow students Wyndham Brandon (Joe Sowerbutts) and Charles Granillo (Christopher Walsh). They hide the body in a chest before hosting a party for the dead boy's friends and family, at which the chest plays the central role of buffet table.
Originally described as a "thriller", Director John Fricker pushes the piece towards dark comedy, with plenty of laughs from the horror of the situation. The opening sound of a voice on the radio declaiming something Nietzschean in German and other ominous sound effects are intended to set the scene but merely delay the action, as well as sounding pretentious rather than building tension. Once the scene-setting is out of the way, the play proceeds in real time, a loudly ticking clock on the drawing-room mantelpiece reminding the killers they have little time to make their escape.
Sowerbutts presents Brandon as the total intellectual psychopath, without an iota of humanity or compassion in his demeanour. It becomes a one-note performance, all mannered posturing and posing and a permanent look of "See how clever I am". Walsh's performance is more textured as the vulnerable Granillo, who has clearly been dragged into the crime through his adulation of Brandon. Their nemesis, Rupert Cadell, is ably played by Will Bryant as a damaged veteran of the Great War.
This being a play set in the 1920s, there's a scatty female, Leila, played by Ana Luderowski whose only interest is gin and "it", partying and men. In this case, the object of her attention is Kenneth Raglan (Marco Petrucco) and together they provide some light-hearted nonsense. Mrs Debenham (Jean Apps) says little but raises a laugh. Sir Johnstone Kentley (Alec Gray), the dead boy's father and Cadell are the only really sympathetic characters, Kentley because the audience knows his son's body is lying a few feet in front of him and Cadell because of his humanity borne of his war experiences.
Usually presented as a standard three-act play, Fricker has elided the first two acts with a very short second act. While this has the effect of keeping the action flowing, there are times when it feels interminable and there's little ratcheting up of tension. There's also an entirely unnecessary recap of the end of Act 1 at the start of Act 2 (a TV-style "previously on" scene, in case the audience had forgotten what happened before the interval). The psychological underpinning of the crime is lost in the mannered performances and the whole piece becomes a simple question of whether the boys' crime will be found out.
Rope is a play of its time. Possibly loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924, it's worth seeing simply as an historical piece of theatre, but it no longer entirely works as a thriller.