53 years on from publication, John Fowles' The Collector remains a deeply disturbing piece of work. The basic story - weirdo lottery winner Frederick Clegg snatches art student Miranda off the street and imprisons her in his cellar - now comes loaded with ominous echoes of Josef Fritzl and Ariel Castro. On top of that, the book is reportedly a cult favourite amongst serial killers; duo Leonard Lake and Charles Chi-Tat Ng were obsessed with the book and proceeded to abduct two young women as part of what they called 'Operation Miranda', just one of many attempts to drag this sadistic story off the page and into reality.
My first exposure to it was in March 2015 at Blink Theatre's production in The Space. I concluded that while I didn't exactly enjoy the experience, it did a fantastic job of unnerving and repulsing me, so I guess mission accomplished.
The Collector is an multileveled work, lifting itself from accusations of being exploitative by being able to be approached from any number of directions. Perhaps most obvious is as condemnation of misogyny: Clegg is a butterfly collector and the text repeatedly underlines his capture of Miranda is an extension of that hobby. Throughout he prefers to think of Miranda as an ideal of femininity rather than a human being, growing angry when she displays individuality. In 2016 it's easy to imagine Clegg being cut from the same species of loser that's sucked into men's rights activism, or perhaps just whiling away his days anonymously abusing female celebrities on Twitter.
Lying underneath that is a sly dissection of the class system. Clegg is painted as a trod-upon member of the working class, cowed into submission by the women in his life. He looks on with paranoid fear at a metropolitan world of intellectualism and cultural elitism, just smart enough to know he's way too dumb to ever properly understand this stuff. Meanwhile Miranda, whilst never being exactly unsympathetic, is kind of a snob. She criticises his choice of decor, his taste in art, his limited view of the world and even his cookery skills. Her behaviour draws awkward giggles from the audience; it's surreal to see her bullying him given the situation. Arguably these are more the social concerns of the 1960s rather than the 2010s, but they're still prescient enough to work.
This class-based, ever-shifting balance of power between the two provides the majority of some pretty rough chuckles. It's fascinating and darkly funny to watch the characters gradually change; Miranda's prodding and poking at Clegg, her fear giving way to pity, followed by manipulations as she works out how far she can push him. Despite her best intentions the two develop an uneasy relationship, though we worry Miranda is at risk of developing Stockholm Syndrome.
It all adds up to a stickily intriguing play that fascinates almost as much as it disturbs. This production has one hell of a location going for it too: the subterranean vaults under Waterloo station. I've seen a tonne of stuff down here, the best of it exploiting the location to the fullest. As The Collector is set in a damp, claustrophobic cellar, this is a better fit than most. The production gets mileage from the simple act of entering the space down an alley and through a cavernous dark tunnel.
But, sadly, the production fails to convince when it comes to the performances. Lily Loveless comes off best: entirely believable as a slightly arrogant art student with few genuinely difficult moments in life. She's at her best in the wistful private moments to the audience, explaining that she thinks everyone should go through a period of imprisonment to understand themselves. She has a couple of stilted interactions with Clegg, but it's easy to be generous and put it down to the character rather than any real performance deficits.
It's in Daniel Portman where things fall apart a bit. First of all, he's too handsome for the role, looking as if has a gym membership and sporting a trendily trimmed beard. Now, it's not written in stone that the character needs to be some sweatily shrimpy loser, but it's difficult to fully accept this good looking beefcake as the pathetic Frederick Clegg. This makes for a curiously unthreatening performance - not such a bad thing - Portman does successful arouse the required pity. Even so, the bedrock of his character is fear, and Portman just isn't scary.
This is a decent production of an excellent play and I suspect I'd be more generous if I wasn't already familiar with the source material, had seen better productions and was aware of just how disturbing it can be. It couldn't be staged in a more perfect venue and Loveless is a great Miranda, but with a miscast Clegg this The Collector isn't half as terrifying as it could be.
The Collector is at the Vaults Theatre until August 28th. Tickets here.