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Review of The Pillowman at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton

The Pillowman sounds such a friendly title, and to be fair, his story is one of the lighter aspects of Martin McDonagh's script. It still involves dead children though, if you want to get a clear vision of how dark this play is.

Set in a police state of the future, Katurian (Toby Pugh) is taken in for the content of his often violent stories and a similarity to a spate of recent child killings. Here in detention cell 13, his police captors, Tupolski (Adrian Wyman) and Ariel (Steve While) play good cop, bad cop while holding over the threat of violence against Katurian's mentally disabled brother Michal (Patrick Morgan), being held in another cell.

The Pillowman is clearly a very warped story, with the blackest of black comedy, and often also very offensive with it's racial stereotyping and disability. In fact, it is no surprise that a couple left in the interval, as I would happily admit that this play is far from everyone. I like a good black comedy though, and lifting an immense amount from the tale of the Grimm Brothers, The Pillowman, despite its often repulsive moments, has a charm about it as well.

It helps that director Gary Amos has also managed to assemble a talented cast. Lead, and rarely off stage is Pugh's Katurian, who brings a tormented nature to the role. It's a magnificently strong performance, ranging from the confusion over his initial situation, building to the realisation of the plight that both he and his brother are in. When he is tortured, you feel the pain through Pugh's performance. Impressive work.

As his brother Michel, Morgan has a childlike innocence to the disabled character but also exhibiting at times a lot more intelligence and understanding than perhaps he should in some areas, allowing him to do what he does, but without the perception of how wrong it is. Morgan is a tall actor, and through this, the character very much has a lot of links with the towering, and equally mentally disabled Lennie from Of Mice and Men.

The two officers are played by Wyman and While with a mixture of menace and often crazy comedy. While, the bad cop, Ariel, uses his height and ferocity of word to create the belief that he is doing more to his captors than he perhaps is, however, there is no doubt the ferocity of his attack on Katurian, with very effective use of a stanley knife, comes as quite a shock.

Wyman's Topolski is a much calmer character, just only very occasionally showing bursts of anger. He creates the bulk of the comedy moments, and Wyman as ever relishes in these. He has perhaps one of the more challenging scenes to sell to the audience with the depiction of a deaf boy and Chinese man in a story of his own. It's very funny, but also, perhaps a little near, or probably over the edge for many people.

The cast is completed with April Pardoe, David Pardoe and Eleanor Morrison as Mother, Father and Girl respectively, creating very effectively the backdrop of both the stories and of the life history of Katurian and Michel.

The set was a curious concoction of "clutter", a mixture of things drafted in, many not necessarily in keeping with the environment, but perhaps still managing to represent the warped mind of the show. A cloth and bin bags acted as flooring, which while also in keeping, by this third night, has seen better days and on occasion tripped up the performers and slightly prevented doors from opening. A unique set indeed.

Director Gary Amos uses the space well and keeps the action flowing on the stage and while I did feel less clutter could have helped the situation, it never impacted too much to the performances. The Pillowman tale was delightfully portrayed with a nicely produced toy theatre, and the only slight issue with this was the height it was performed at, as it was clear from the audience leaning left to right, that for those in some of the rows it was obscured a little.

A review of the evening I saw The Pillowman has no way of not mentioning chairs in it because as events often conspire against us, the evening saw three of the chairs on the stage break in a matter of ten minutes. Live theatre, unfortunately, is nature to these events, but they could not go unmentioned simply because of the brilliant way that Wyman and While dealt with the situation, perfectly in character. So well in fact, that come the interval, many believed that it was actually part of the play.

Tech under the control of Megan Lucas was a delightful little affair, with a brilliant, and more or less constant soundscape, never interfering with the dialogue. It whipped to different sounds, as did the lighting when the storytelling nature of the show become prevalent. Really nicely done.

The Pillowman is a tough play for many to watch, clearly, it is often not pleasant. However, for those that like their comedy nicely black, and with more than a touch of modern day Grimm, McDonagh's play is a wicked delight.

Performance reviewed: Friday 1st June 2018 at the Playhouse Theatre, Northampton.

The Pillowman was performed at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton between Wednesday 29th May and Saturday 2nd June. Details of Illusion Productions can be found on Facebook at

For full details of the Playhouse Theatre visit their website at

Photos: Vicki Holland

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