Let’s be clear about the good parts, which were few and far between: Christopher Page (Michael) and Joseph Stephenson (Tupolski) deliver first-class performances that capture the black comedy and dark themes of Martin McDonagh’s excellent and morally challenging script. Page is particularly brilliant, playing the mentally disabled Michael with commendable nuance and gentleness. There are also two particularly inspired directorial decisions: beginning the final act with a video playing on an old TV works well; and the use of beautiful Deathly Hallows-esque shadow puppets brings the play’s disturbing internal stories to life.
Unfortunately this moment is marred by visible stagehands, and woefully embarrassing timing and clumsiness when removing the sheet for a big reveal. This gracelessness is seen across the play as a whole – the lights turning on whilst stagehands are still on stage, horrifically long and inelegant prop changes, and a blatantly obvious bloodbag that didn’t even go off. If a single word were to be used to describe this production, it would be ‘sloppy’.
More importantly, two as yet unmentioned actors let things down. Lillian Bornstein (Katurian) does not have the presence or gravitas to be the lead: when playing the role of a storyteller, she reduces tense and engaging stories to dull monologues. And though Christian Amos’ Ariel is superb in his emotional and angry scenes, he fails on the comedic front – displaying poor comic timing and seemingly little understanding of his lines’ intended effects. With such a carefully crafted and funny script, these errors are significant.
The problems are likely attributable to the lack of direction throughout. Almost all the jokes in the first act fall flat – emphasis is put on the wrong words and the pacing is uneven. The actors’ physicality (with the exception of Page), is awkward and unrealistic. Poor costume and lighting exacerbates this. And incomprehensible artistic decisions cement the general feeling of an incohesive production: why, exactly, was it deemed necessary for Surfin’ USA to play after the interval?
Towards the end things improve, and the second act with Michael and Katurian discussing their imminent deaths is enjoyable – but only when Page is talking. Ultimately, things never achieve the level needed or deserved by McDonagh’s script. The Pillowman is an example of a bad production failing to do justice to a very good script.