This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
There were serial killers on the loose in London’s East End long before the Cereal Killer moved in and Peter Hamilton’s new play (his seventh) centres on a continuation of this great tradition. The bodies of young children are being found everywhere, decapitated with copies of an Enid Blyton Famous Five novel thrown on their corpses, open at page 100. Oranges and Lemons sung (by Sarah Quish) between scenes establishes the East End setting, climbing frames and a suspended tyre suggest a playground and enlarged covers of Blyton books make a colourful backdrop for the play, an absurdist black comedy that questions the lines between reality and insanity. As would be expected, the investigation is led by two inept police officers – the dim-witted DI Mitchell (Dan MacLane) and his cross-dressing sidekick, DC Birch (Christopher James Barley). They explore avenues (“hoping that they will be tree-lined”) and, using Holmes-like logic, they decide that the killer has to be a Welsh lesbian librarian, which would rule out Danny (Richard Fish), who has recently bought a job lot of Enid Blyton books. In fact, Danny is starting a book club devoted to Blyton, the first member being Carolyn (Josie Ayers) who he talks out of committing suicide, she wishing that she could be “young, poor and Pakistani”. The other two members are working class Stuart (Simon Every) and middle class Communist, Tamsin (Laura Garnier), both patients of Dr Ross at Bow psychiatric unit. Danny himself was once a patient there, but now thanks valium and vodka for his sanity. All four members become prime suspects. Tamsin’s political views and Stuart’s opposition to them support the play’s assertion that socialism is advocated only by the liberal middle class intelligentsia in places like Islington “where everyone talks about literature and politics” and not by workers themselves. Well this is an absurdist comedy and, ironically, it is being performed in Islington. However, political satire remains secondary to a style of dark humour that brings to mind another one-time Islington resident, Joe Orton. Hamilton gives us a fine example of the quality of writing now being found in Fringe Theatre, the foundation for the comedy being his talent for taking phrases in everyday use and twisting their meaning. This play takes time to build and it would benefit from having a stronger central narrative to hold everything together, but the laughs, when they come, are plentiful enough to make us overlook such shortcomings. Ken McClymont’s production milks all the comedy from the quirky characters, but sees beyond their humorous facades to show them as lost souls in a big city, searching for somewhere to belong. Poignantly, once the murderer has been revealed, the book club begins to drift apart, as if it had been only the horrific killings binding them together. Neatly summing up the murders and the suspects, the unseen psychiatrist Dr Ross prescribes decapitation as “the definitive cure for all mental illness”. Playground may not be perfect but it is often absurdly funny.
Performance date: 15 October 2015