Patrick Hamilton’s macabre 1929 psychological thriller Rope is best known as the Alfred Hitchcock movie, but the relocation to New York and the celebrated continuous long takes drained the piece of much of its tension and flintiness.
Roger Michell’s revival at the Almeida is the best I’ve seen and renews the shock element not only in the freshness of the casting but also in the re-arrangement of the theatre: there are new seats, and a gallery, behind the stage, where I sat, creating an octagonal “in the round” acting area and the sort of focus Michell found in the first Cottesloe staging of Blue/Orange.
The last West End revival, over ten years ago, played up the homoerotic element in the relationship between Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo, who are here seen stuffing the corpse in a trunk in a smoky Mayfair prologue. Their crime was inspired – though Hamilton always denied this – by the Leopold and Loeb motiveless murder case in Chicago.
But the real fascination for Hamilton was the way in which the pair first of all think they have committed the perfect murder and secondly justify it to themselves as a daredevil escapade, allowing critics who read their programme notes to say things like “holding the mirror up to Nietzsche”.
It’s a most unusual thriller whose quasi-denouement hinges on the discovery of a stray ticket to the Coliseum Theatre. The boys are rumbled by the extraordinary character of Rupert Cadell, a lame poet and melancholic veteran of the First World War; Bertie Carvel plays him, rivetingly, as a sinister agent of all-seeing worldly experience, heavily clipped in tone, manner and moustache.
Brandon and Granillo are compellingly played, too, by Blake Ritson and Alex Waldmann, one smooth and satanic, the other fragile and puppyish, destroyed by the consequences before they even kick in.
The clammy morbidity of the party scene, drinks and crockery laid out on the disguised coffin, is all the more effective for the dry indifference in the playing of Michael Elwyn as the victim’s father, the blank sweetness of Emma Dewhurst’s Mrs Debenham and the daffy delight of Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the good-time girl, Leila Arden.
With Mark Thompson’s spot-on design and Rick Fisher’s wonderfully atmospheric lighting, the whole show is like Pinter by gaslight, strange, hypnotic and suitably chilled for this time of year.