Stuart King

Review: THE PILLOWMAN at Duke of York’s Theatre

Martin McDonagh’s absurdist and sinister black comedy THE PILLOWMAN has begun a London revival at the Duke of York’s which is set to continue through the summer. The play was first presented at the National Theatre back in 2003, with David Tennant and Jim Broadbent. Here, Lily Allen and Steve Pemberton assume the roles of Katurian the writer of macabre short stories, and Detective Tupolski the police interrogator.

Paul Kaye (Ariel) Lily Allen (Katurian). Pic by Johan PerssonPaul Kaye (Ariel) and Lily Allen (Katurian) in The Pillowman at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Pic by Johan Persson

Set in an unnamed authoritarian police state, a writer has somehow fallen under suspicion of wrongdoing when several child murders occur which emulate the plot devices described in some of the author’s stories. The fact that only one story has ever been published, suggests the writer (or a confident) is at least culpable of wrongdoing. When subjected to torture, Katurian’s apparently simple brother Michal confesses to the crimes and implicates his sibling who becomes resigned to their combined fate, wishing only for the 400 collected stories to be saved for posterity.

In contrast to the glib exchanges of the first interrogation act, the second (of three) serves to deliver a sinister and distressing back story which illuminates Michal’s seeming disconnect from the norms of acceptable behaviour, laying the blame for his monstrous acts squarely at the feet of his parents’ bizarre childhood experiment. Returning to the interrogation room for the third act denouement, McDonagh tidily ensures that good cop bad cop reverse roles so that Katurian’s dying wish is granted.

The ever dependable Steve Pemberton doles-out his trademark, understated menace and perfectly-timed comic delivery in his exchanges with Lily Allen’s Katurian. Meanwhile Paul Kaye as his fractious and altogether more volatile fellow interrogator Ariel hovers broodily, waiting to pounce and intimidate whenever their prisoner shows the slightest uptick in confidence or mounts a thinly-veiled intellectual challenge to his authority. On press night, Matthew Tennyson appeared a little undecided in his delivery of Michal — seeming both knowing and combative whilst determinedly asserting his victimhood, like a child who has progressed from pulling the wings off flies, to boiling the family cat with negligible remorse.

Though quite an achievement, in many places the subject matter is uniquely discomforting and many of the chuckles emanating from audience members seemed born of a determination to be amused despite the underlying darkness and despair inherent in the story.