Wednesday, June 1, 2016

'Christie in Love' at the King's Head Theatre, 31st May 2016

Well that makes two plays in the space of a week where a guy fucks a corpse. Even aside from that, my entertainment diet for the last fortnight has consisted of dead wives, paedophilia, a double dose of suicide, stabbings, infanticide, incest and (foulest of all) the Warcraft movie. I hereby partially rescind any comments I may have made about the London fringe lacking teeth.

Christie in Love is a 1969 work by Howard Brenton, written with the intention of creating a "short, nasty little play" that would awaken theatrical audiences to an impending social apocalypse the playwright was sure was just around the corner. Rough Haired Pointer's revival wonders whether we might, finally, be in appropriately apocalyptic climes.

The subject is serial killer John Christie, who murdered at least eight women in the 1940s and early 1950s (in another weird coincidence he rendered them unconscious with house gas, making that two plays in two nights about that). Their rotting bodies ended up buried in his back garden or hanging in concealed alcoves in the walls, cementing the terraced house in London's criminal history and making the otherwise unassuming address - 10 Rillington Place - synonymous with horror.

Christie in Love is a slow-paced, darkly comic imagining of the police investigation of Christie's murders, together with a sustained analysis of the man himself. Strikingly staged, we enter to find a Christopher Hone's set: a swimming pool size open topped box. The edges are wooden and the sides wrought iron lattices. The inside is filled with crumpled up newspapers that conceal... well, who knows what nightmares could lie within?

Digging through this mess is a sweaty, unhappy Constable (Daniel Buckley). He huffs and puffs as he turns the earth down, knowing that each spadeful he moves could reveal a pungent and unjustly snuffed out young woman. To take his mind off the task, he slowly murmurs his way through a series of limericks ("There was a young girl named Heather/ Whose cunt was made out of leather / She made a queer noise,Which attracted the boys / By flapping the edges together." At the conclusion of each one he pauses, gives the horizon a thousand yard stare and repeats it slowly, as if visualising the reality of the joke.

He's soon joined by the shouty Inspector (Jake Curran), who asserts his authority by bullying the hapless Constable, before descending into a lengthy rumination on the horrible but necessary nature of his job. The two stare into the abyss below them, pondering the kind of warped mindset that would lead a man to hunt, murder and bury women - English women - and dump them in the back yard. We eventually learn this and meet Christie (Murray Taylor), but the precise details of what happens next are perhaps best left to surprise.

Brenton's technique reminded me a lot of Douglas Adam's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, in which Adams reasons that to solve a crime, you need to 'solve' the entire society it occurred in and understand it as a symptom of politics and economics. Christie in Love, goes some way to doing this; Brenton zeroing in on ingrained societal misogyny and teasing out a throughline of male objectification of women. In its most harmless form its expressed as the Constable's limericks, which find unsettling future echoes in the stiffened, semen-stained bodies of the victims, or Christie's collection of their pubic hair.

Eventually the men work through a kind of roleplay, using a dummy of a woman/the corpse of one of Christie's victims as a prop to explore what drives this nasty little man. Here, we witness each of the men's perspectives on women - the Constable gradually panicking as he gets a faint comprehension of their vulnerability and defenselessness, the Inspector underlining his disgust with the 'sewers of the human mind' and Christie outlining, at length, his disgust of everything feminine.

At this juncture I should point out that Christie in Love is, broadly, a comedy, and a remarkably funny one at times. You don't get laughs much darker than this, but (mercifully) Brenton steadfastly avoids trivialising Christie's crimes and treats his victims with the respect that they deserve. I was personally a little leery of a comedy about John Christie - as I would be about any real-life murder - it's difficult to summon up many belly laughs when you imagine the terror of being simultaneously throttled and raped. But you somehow don't feel guilty laughing at Christie in Love.

I don't know if I'd say I 'enjoyed' this per se. I certainly appreciated it. I'm familiar with Buckley from Lardo and Curran from Diary of a Nobody, and each of them more than lived up to expectations, demonstrating admirable comic timing, fine control of their body language and, most importantly, a very good sense of balance. But most memorable is Taylor's Christie, a twitchingly hateful and amoral monster lurking behind a microthin veneer of respectableness.

Christie in Love provides a startling, oppressive and disturbing hour at the theatre, compressing the wide-ranging horrors of Christie's crimes in a lump of burning coal that should be held at arm's length. It's great, IF you're into this sort of thing. 


Christie in Love is at the King's Head Theatre until 18th June. Tickets here.

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