Elliot Douglas reviews The Pillowman, the latest performance from Mermaids.


There is nothing quite like going to see a good piece of theatre which you know absolutely nothing about. It was only standing in the queue at the Barron, my brain finally relaxed after a week of deadlines, that I realised I was an exceptionally ill-prepared reviewer: I hadn’t even googled the plot. However, I am now delighted that I didn’t. Miles Hurley’s masterful take on Martin McDonagh’s Tony and Olivier-award-winning play The Pillowman moved, shocked, and never failed to catch me off-guard with each twist in the darkly comic and deliciously weird tale.


This “story about storytelling” is a highly disturbing and comically absurd three-hour tour-de-force which frequently caused the sold-out audience to descend into laughing fits. However, it also deals with taboo themes such as child rape, child murder, and torture of the innocent in a police state (a state where everyone who is not a policeman apparently wears pastel-coloured knitwear). The content means this piece is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but Hurley’s treatment of comedy within the text made the play thoroughly watchable. Ariel and Topolski, two detectives who spend much of the play interrogating our antihero, the writer Katurian, were ably brought to life by Jacek Donnell and Bailey Fear. They had to toe the line between violently brutal and farcically absurd, and they managed it beautifully, never missing a beat or slipping in their comic timing. The wiry energy of Donnell was particularly extraordinary, and he gave us a masterclass in how to play an entertaining but terrifying psychopath.


Providing gentler comedy was Adam Spencer’s Michal, Katurian’s “simple” brother. Spencer’s proficiency as a character actor was put to great use here, making the audience fall completely in love with his exaggerated childlike innocence before completely breaking our hearts. The scene between Michal and Katurian was a gorgeously tender moment in a highly cynical and fast-paced play and I found myself almost in tears at its tragic but inevitable conclusion.


Despite his clear talent as an actor, Sebastian Allum’s Katurian was arguably the weak link of the cast. Allum did not lose focus and never dropped a line – an extraordinary feat given the complexity and sheer volume of his dialogue – but his character’s desperation to preserve his own works and defend his stories sometimes lacked a little dynamism. I can only assume that he was directed to play the character naturalistically and thus bring a little realism to an absurd play. As he provides the audience a window into the show’s world, this is a commendable directorial choice. However, amongst the complex and overplayed characters around him, this made Katurian’s characterisation a little one-noted – a less than ideal character trait in such a long, dense performance.


It was also unfortunate that the clever backdrop, made up of children’s drawings, slowly collapsed throughout the play, though this did reflect the somewhat slapdash nature of all the set and props. Even with the limitations of the Barron, it would have been pleasant to see some slightly less-tired looking pieces of stage furniture and props, but nevertheless Grace Cowie’s strong lighting design helped greatly in setting the scene, especially during the storytelling sequences.


Ultimately, I find myself unable to stop sifting my way through the layers of such a clever play, and it is indubitable that Hurley and his team have created something truly outstanding in this grotesque, satirical and thought-provoking piece of theatre.


STARS: * * * *