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The Pillowman

By • West End
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Once upon a time, there was an enfant terrible of British theatre who wrote a new play. The play\'s publicity material contained a warning, describing it as \"viciously funny\" and \"seriously disturbing\", while advance buzz - reaching a feverish pitch despite the enigmatic author\'s ban on interviews - had it that this one was not just seriously disturbing but much more disturbing than all of his previous seriously disturbing pieces put together. The world premiere was cast with top calibre actors, including an Oscar-winning favourite returning to the stage after a nine-year absence, and the majority of the limited season sold out before a single critic had a peek. This was a major theatrical event to be sure. But could the play really live up to such hype?

Short answer: yes.

With The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh may have ventured dramatically for the first time outside of Ireland - where his controversial hits to date have all been set - but any loss of Gaelic lilt and irony is outweighed by the marked amplification of McDonagh\'s characteristic blackness. \"Seriously disturbing\" is an understatement. The Pillowman makes The Lieutenant of Inishmore look like a quaint Ealing comedy.

In a nameless Eastern European totalitarian state, a writer, along with his retarded brother, is arrested, suspected of being involved in a slew of child-murders that seem to match those detailed in his gruesome short stories, amongst them ones in which a girl is forced to swallow razor blades and a boy has his toes cut off.

The basic mystery of who committed the murders and why is solved well before the interval, but there are other, more sinister revelations to come in John Crowley\'s astoundingly creepy production. Not least, full details of The Little Jesus fiction and the writer\'s own actual childhood horrors, played out in Scott Pask\'s vivid storybook frames (think Shockheaded Peter) above a black box stage and narrated by David Tennant as the writer, Katurian Katurian Katurian.

\"My parents were funny people,\" says Tennant by way of explanation of his eccentric naming. And that\'s another shocker of an understatement. In McDonagh\'s apparent world view, Philip Larkin was spot on and then some - \"They fuck you up, your mum and dad\" indeed.

As the writer, both the creator and the reluctant embodiment of the pillowman of the title, Tennant gives an outstanding performance. An uneasy mix of nerves and arrogance, his Katurian is torn between two desires - to protect his brother and to ensure his own artistic legacy. Does Katurian really believe that \"the first duty - or is it the only duty - of a storyteller is to tell a story\"? It\'s a statement he has ample reason to reconsider. Either way, Tennant has an unquestionable capacity for storytelling that sends a shiver up, and back down, the spine.

The rest of the superb principals layer on the menace: Adam Godley as brother Michael gangles gamely, his \'retard\' label belying his true cunning; while Oscar winner Jim Broadbent and Nigel Lindsay as the alleged \'good cop\'/\'bad cop\' interrogators play beautifully off one another, jockeying for position and trading the insults and in-jokes that provide the occasional light relief in a black black evening.

Heed the warning but go anyway - assuming you can get a ticket and you\'re not too prone to nightmares. You won\'t be able to shake The Pillowman.

- Terri Paddock


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