In 1969, with the dust barely settled on the Lord Chamberlain's desk, British theatre was still busy healing itself from the open wound of censorship. It took playmakers a decade or more to calibrate themselves for the new freedoms, and the theatrical shock tactics so commonplace in the seventies were an inevitable reaction against what had gone before.
From this brew of change there emerged a talented young Turk who was destined for great things. Forty years on Howard Brenton has nothing left to prove, but back then he had to shout to be heard. This early play is certainly deafening; yet if its Artaudian outpouring of sound and fury wasn't quite so loud it could be described as a meditation on the People versus John Reginald Christie, the mass murderer of 10 Rillington Place.
Following Christie's execution in 1953, a young constable digs for undiscovered bodies in the garden. The place gives him the creeps so he recites obscene limericks to ward off the terrors. His superior encourages him in his work by cracking jokes of his own that are as demeaning to women as the younger man's own crudity. Then Christie's ghost appears.
From this point on a surreal, puzzling play unfolds. Does Brenton want us to sympathise with a mass murderer because he was damaged by gas poisoning in the First World War? Are we expected to draw parallels between the coppers' mindless misogyny and a ruthless killer's crimes against women? That would be a tough call on our sympathy.
There is a clue to Brenton's deeper intentions in the striking designs of Rhiannon Newman Brown, whose shabby garden is knee-deep in screwed-up newspapers. This, perhaps, is less a play about Christie than an excoriation of British prurience, as epitomised by a hypocritical tabloid press (which Brenton would later anatomise in Pravda) as well as by the degrading things that make us laugh.
Three terrific actors make a powerful case for the play. Mike Aherne and Phillip Whiteman are manic cops à la Dario Fo; Peter Henderson's Christie, on the other hand, could have escaped from the Marat/Sade asylum. This clash of styles makes for gripping theatre, directed by Dan Ayling with a sure eye for organised chaos even if he does overlook the explosive potential of the odd moment's hush. The intimate, in-the-round setting ensures that the audience itself is a constant visual presence – fittingly so, given Brenton's war on our collective shortcomings.