In Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, the murderer-narrator is driven to insanity, and confession, by what he imagines is the deafening sound of the still-beating heart of his victim, whose corpse he buried beneath the floorboards of their home.
The characters in How to Act Around Cops are plagued by a similar noise, an indeterminate pounding. Is it in their collective heads – perhaps a by-product of carbon monoxide poisoning, racing adrenaline, paranoia, guilt – or is there a battered girl in the boot of their car? And if there really is a girl, will they choose to do anything in time to save her?
Since its Fringe First-winning UK premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, this modern Gothic, occasionally farcical, thriller has become much more focused. On a Las Vegas night, Barnum and Madson are pulled over for a minor speeding infraction by the unnamed rookie Cop. Madson’s police phobia and epileptic amnesia coupled with an incriminating handbag, filled with cocaine and a handgun, in the backseat, spark off the evening’s high-octane chain of events.
Uniforms notwithstanding, while the lines are still semi-blurred, the distinctions between the ‘good guys’ versus the ‘bad guys’ are more identifiable in the newly revised script, co-written by Logan Brown and Matthew Benjamin (who also performs paranoid perfect as Madson, the play’s first frenzied, and foaming, casualty). It’s arguable that, by answering previously dangling questions, this less enigmatic version of Cops has lost some of its darker menace (though Christopher Wagner’s murky lighting ensures that darkness remains the order of the day, sometimes frustratingly so).
But, if it has, newcomers won’t notice and, in any case, it hasn’t diminished by one iota the gripping pace and exhilaratingly breakneck ensemble acting achieved in Jon Schumacher’s compelling 75-minute production. There are no weak links in the five-strong company, in which, in addition to Benjamin, Chris Kipniak bumbles along as the compromised Cop, Daniel Breaker and Flora Diaz are a kinky college couple in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Andrew Breving is Barnum, Madson’s mate who is driven to extremes.
It’s to the last that the play’s most chilling moment belongs. As Barnum grapples to choke the handcuffed Cop, he muses: “I’ve never done any of this bad guy shit before. I just happen to be really good it…. I mean, I’ve always wondered what I would do in a bad situation. Here it is…and I’m like surprising myself. My hands are steady, my mind is like ice, dude. I think I could be somebody.”
Poe would approve.
For those who make the mistake of missing it at Soho, Cops will be patrolling the UK on a three-month tour from January 2005.
- Terri Paddock