Frank Roddy, Pretty Far From Pillow Talk: A Review of The Pillowman

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
Presented by the Gaiety Theatre and Decadent Theatre
Performance: February 5th 2017 matinee

Martin McDonagh is probably best known for his films. In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are two movies drenched in morbid humour and this play shares that. In fact, The Pillowman makes McDonagh’s films seem positively cheery. While In Bruges’ story is set in motion by the accidental murder of a child, The Pillowman is about the investigation into a series of grotesque murders; all children.

The play opens with short story writer Katurian being questioned about the contents of his stories and the connection between his works and the butchery of these kids. Detectives Tupolski and Ariel are the faces of the police state in which Katurian lives and provide a good cop/bad cop dynamic that feels less like a trope and more like a fresh twist on a cliché. This is largely down to how there is barely a good cop between the two of them.

This first act stands on its own so well so that people appeared to get ready to leave the theatre at the interval until they were informed that there was a second act. It would have been a good play had it ended there, but one that lacked a real conclusion.

The second act does not open as strongly as the first, and the lengthy speech near its start would have bogged the performance down much more if it weren’t for the amusing and effective delivery by Peter Gowen as Tupolski.

McDonagh’s movies have attracted huge Hollywood talent like Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, and two personal favourites of mine in Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. No names as big as these appeared on stage for this performance, but the acting was anything but lacking.

Gowen shone throughout the first act and in the second act he was matched by his co-stars. Diarmuid Noyer, as Katurian, covers the broadest range in the play and never falters. Ariel is brought to life by Gary Lyndon, who has previously received acclaim for the role, and after seeing it, there is no way I could dispute any of it.

However, if the first act was Gowen’s, then the second act belonged to Owen Sharpe as Michael, the mentally damaged brother of Katurian. Sharpe is able to garner sympathy and laughs from one moment to the next.

While the script undoubtedly cultivated the audience’s laughter and endeared the characters to us, it walks a dangerous line. With lesser performances, the risks it takes likely would not have been met so well. The play includes jokes about infanticide, race and cruelty, and the actors do not hold back from these moments, both the humorous and dramatic ones.

The result is outbursts of laughter followed by intakes of air, the indicator of people realising what they just laughed at. Other times, the laughter was nervous; no one sure if they should laugh or not, but doing it just a bit anyway. And then times of silence, as the play hit its dramatic notes and truly captivated the audience.

Apart from the script and the acting, The Pillowman manages to have even more going for it. The set design by Owen MacCarthaigh initially appears simple but quite literally opens up, allowing director Andrew Flynn to create some of the most fantastic – if morbid – visuals I’ve seen in a theatre. To describe them would be doing them a disservice and spoil half their fun.

Overall, The Pillowman is a dark, twisted comedy about a writer, his brother, his potential legacy and a slew of child killings. If you have enjoyed McDonagh’s films then his humour will illuminate the darkness of the subject matter and give you fantastic piece of drama.

However, if you thought In Bruges was a bit much, well then you would not have been part of the standing ovation this particular performance received – if you were still there at all.

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