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REVIEW: Gallowglass, Salisbury Playhouse
Helena Gomm enjoys the creepiness of an engaging psychological drama
When Ruth Rendell started writing under the name Barbara Vine, it was partly to allow herself to move away from the cosiness of the Inspector Wexford crime novels into something rather more edgy and less formulaic. Thus it is that Gallowglass, playing at Salisbury Playhouse in a version adapted for the stage by Margaret May Hobbs, is more of a psychological drama than a thriller in the whodunnit mould – more of a whydunnit.
And a good thing too. The British obsession with crime drama, particularly on TV, means that we have mostly become rather too knowledgeable about the genre to find much of it surprising. After all, you can almost always tell who the murderer is going to be in long-running series like Midsomer Murders and Lewis just by looking at the cast list: it’s always the best-known name amongst the guest actors.
Well, the producers are hardly going to persuade big-name actors to appear in one poxy episode of Midsomer unless they get the thrill of playing the baddie, are they? (One exception was an episode of Lewis where they killed off David Soul five minutes in – but he was so monumentally bad that this was probably a good thing!) Rather too many hours spent watching crime dramas has also made me suspicious of apparently under-used minor characters…
So, in Gallowglass we have dispensed with the who, at least at the beginning, and we are left with the what and the why. The first question that most people will ask is What is a ‘gallowglass’? The answer appears to be some sort of elite mercenary warrior in thrall to an Irish chieftain – and in this story, the gallowglass is Joe (Dean Smith), a naïve young man with a history of depression and learning difficulties, who is rescued from throwing himself (or perhaps just falling) under a train at Paddington Station by manipulative and psychotic Sandor (Joe Eyre).
Sandor quickly points out that by saving Joe’s life, he now owns him. Joe, desperate for any kind of attention and human contact, whether abusive or not, quickly acquiesces and becomes Sandor’s creature. Interestingly, both men, broken in their different ways, are the product of bad parenting. In Sandor’s case, by Diana (Karen Drury) an overindulgent lush, who happily allows her son to steal her car and her credit card, and in Joe’s, by cold unloving foster parents, who kicked him and his foster-sister Tilley out of the house as soon as they were of age, and then rented out their rooms. I liked the well-observed detail that despite the fact that her son has reinvented himself as ‘Sandor’ to the rest of the world, to Diana he is still her little ‘Alex’.
The relationship between Sandor and Joe is obviously key to the story and much of the slightly slower first half is devoted to establishing this. Neither character develops much during the course of the play, but their interactions, in which Sandor gradually drip-feeds Joe the story of a kidnap that took place five years ago in Italy, involving a ‘princess’, two Italians and an Englishman, sets the scene for what is going to happen.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Sandor was himself the English kidnapper. His victim, Nina, now on her third marriage and living in constant fear in a mansion in Suffolk, is once more in his sights, as he plans to repeat the crime with Joe’s help. At one point, Sandor reminisces about the ‘golden age of kidnapping’ in Italy, when a succession of targets simply handed over vast sums of money to get their loved ones back, the police were never called and there was no need for violence. We can, however, tell that a plot involving the creepy and deeply-disturbed Sandor, needy Joe and sly, brash Tilley is never going to go that smoothly.
So much for the what. The why is rather more complex, but not too difficult to guess, as you do start to wonder how come Sandor chooses to live in rather squalid bedsits and needs to sponge off his mother all the time. If he was the perpetrator of a successful kidnap plot, shouldn’t he be rolling in money? Also, he shows little interest in the potential financial gain when Tilley and Joe press him to say how much they are going to demand from Nina’s husband. There’s clearly rather more to it than money…
Sandor’s victim, the lovely Nina, played admirably by Florence Cady, is the one character who does develop during the play, transforming – with the support of her driver, and ultimately her lover, Paul Garnett – from a frightened agoraphobic rabbit, scared of her own shadow, into a confident woman with the strength to confront her tormentor and put an end to her unbearable predicament.
The story moves between multiple locations, and designer and director Michael Lunney has addressed this by dividing the stage in half. One half is the converted barn in which Paul Garnett lives with his 11-year-old daughter Jessica (convincingly portrayed by Eva Sayer, despite being twice Jessica’s age).
The other half shows, at different times, Sandor’s bedsit, the flat he rents in Suffolk to be near Nina and Tilley’s campervan. Switching between the two halves means that one side of the stage is almost always in darkness, with no simultaneous action in the two locations, and the constant changes give the play a rather episodic quality, reflecting I suppose the chapters of the original book, but not really moving away from it to suggest a more skilfully-constructed stage drama. Exterior scenes are cleverly done by projections onto a gauze curtain, though a draught from backstage causing the gauze to billow, and the fact that the projections are rarely straight detracts from the realism here.
All in all, this production provides an engaging and thought-provoking evening’s entertainment. I won’t reveal what happens at the end, but, as you might expect from Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, there are twists aplenty.
However, some of these don’t quite add up, and I was left wondering about a number of puzzling aspects of the somewhat rushed final denouement. But it certainly gave my guest and me a lot to talk about in the car on the way home.