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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

2:22 A Ghost story

Lily Allen’s star casting worked wonders for the West End run of ghost story “2:22”. But “The Pillowman”, Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play about child mutilation, state tyranny and freedom of expression, at the Duke of York’s theatre, London, until 2 September, is a very different kind of gothic horror.

Cerebral and slippery, it requires an accomplished actor to navigate its odd structure and changes of tone that slide between horror and humour, with punchlines tucked in between tales of children buried alive or attacked with drills.

Allen does not meet the challenge. The singer turned actor plays Katurian, a writer held prisoner in a police state reminiscent of a 1970s eastern bloc country, awaiting execution without trial, with her brother Michal (Matthew Tennyson, bringing eerie energy) arrested in the next room. She has written stories featuring eye-watering murders and mutilations that are being enacted by a copycat killer.

‘The Pillowman’ is the great ’00s British play that got away. Martin McDonagh’s dark 2003 comedy was extravagantly praised upon its debut at the National Theatre’s smallest venue, the Cottesloe. But for whatever reason it never made it to the West End: all the more frustrating because it splashily transferred to Broadway, with Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup joining the cast. McDonagh’s subsequent colossal film success has only embellished its legend, and plans for a West End revival have long been mooted.

Under the direction of Matthew Dunster, who also directed Allen in “2:22”, the shifts between the comic and macabre do not come off. Allen’s Katurian is too indistinct, quivering with fear or blank-faced, though she delivers her lines efficiently. In the play’s original staging, the part was played by David Tennant, and the character’s gender reversal brings nothing new.

The unfailingly excellent Steve Pemberton plays Katurian’s interrogator, Tupolski, and Paul Kaye as his thuggish sidekick, Ariel, is also marvellous. They do an entertaining turn in Pinteresque menace with added comic twists, while Allen ends up looking like their anodyne foil.

When she has to hold the stage alone, the drama, as shocking as it is, fails to grab viscerally. Even with Pemberton and Kaye there, the production does not work on a dramatic level overall.

Katurian insists her stories carry no political message, although the analogy between their violence and the tyranny of the unnamed state torturing her is clear enough. The play was written in the shadow of the Iraq invasion, and an essay in the programme by Andrey Kurkov reminds us of the current atrocities in Ukraine.

There is the more dangerous idea that Katurian needed a tortured childhood as grist for her creativity. This brings with it the cliche that happiness writes white, and sits oddly beside the analogy of the storyteller as witness and chronicler of truth.

That Katurian’s stories inspire the killer to imitate their crimes compounds the confusion: is this a critique of the idea that stories are capable of moral corruption or its opposite? It is a loaded theme, ever live now with British rappers being criminalised for their lyrics, but it does not resonate. It merely adds to the soup of ideological opacity in which this play swims.

Anna Fleischle’s gloomily atmospheric set unleashes the gothic psychodrama of fairytales: children lost in forests, psychotic parents whose savagery might be a metaphor for state brutality, too, and a gallery of deaf, mute and blind characters as heavy-handed reminders that McDonagh is working from a Brothers Grimm tradition.

There is a potentially explosive brilliance in this play, but its many ideas do not make a coherent whole here. When, at one point, Katurian retells a bedtime story about “a pillowman” to her brother, he says he has never understood the ending. He might be speaking for us.

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