The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton (Old Red Lion)

‘Hamilton’s black humour is given free rein’

It was at his father's funeral that the playwright and novelist Patrick Hamilton finally decided to tell his mother about his marriage. With mordant bathos he notes in retrospect, "I could have picked a better time". It's a joke, which in Mark Farrelly's excellent study of the writer seems typical of his subject: ironic, absurd, facetious, self-deprecating to the point of self-defeating, and not a little spiteful. Pressing at the borders of the permissible, Hamilton's black humour is given free rein as Farrelly plays the writer reminiscing about his life and loves as he waits in a sanatorium lounge to begin the ECT procedure he hopes will cure, or at least mitigate, his depression.

'His own worst enemy' - Patrick Hamilton
'His own worst enemy' – Patrick Hamilton

Alone on stage throughout Farrelly's performance is suitably electric – belligerent, assured and unashamed he eyeballs his audience throughout. Jackanory this is not. His story takes us through the career of a writer who found success early – with dramatic thrillers including Gaslight and Rope – matured (somewhat) into the comic novelist of Hangover Square – before he sputtered out in his forties when a kind of existential bitterness, always implicit in his work, finally took over completely. His last book, his publisher complained, lacked a single likable person, and he refused to publish any more of his work.

Farrelly's subtitle 'the silence of snow' comes from Hamilton's own metaphor for loneliness, and in this biography it's suggested as the wellspring for all his creative work. It certainly gives form to the unhappy narrative of Hamilton's life; from the monstrousness of his father (a fan of Stalin and if anything slightly downplayed here) to his various disastrous relationships with women. His idealistic formula for happiness – "to approach life with an unguarded heart" – Farrelly suggests, equally opened the floodgates to depression and abuse. Not that Hamilton wasn't usually his own worst enemy – asked his opinion of Hitchcock's version of his play Rope he replied that it was "utter balls".

The shadow of Geoffrey Barnard is Unwell lingers over this sort of theatrical biography – and is maybe one of the reasons why Farrelly's version doesn't tell the story from the roué's barstool that might have been equally appropriate to Hamilton's life. Instead, though the invocation of ECT may seem a touch schlocky, it's not far from the kind of setting Hamilton himself might have chosen. Thoughtful set, lighting and sound design are also at the service of its theme of isolation.

The only drawback to the story's relentlessly dark tone is that Hamilton himself is inevitably slightly reduced – his charm and his humour – the explanations for both his success and for why is work continues not only to be admired but loved by many people, slip away early. For all the brilliance of Farrelly's performance, and the skill in drawing his story together, it's not quite unguarded about pure fun. Nevertheless this is a fine show well worth catching, and for fans of Hamilton's work absolutely required viewing.

The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton continues at the Old Red Lion until 11 October