Christie in Love was always going to make for interesting viewing. Written by Howard Brenton in 1969 and performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1970, the play explores the story of John Christie, the real life serial killer and necrophiliac who was tried and hanged for the murder of six women between 1943 and 1953. Performed in the wake of an intense media following of the trial, the play concerns itself not just with the twisted workings of a murderer’s mind, but suggests a pointed criticism of the hypocritical public fascination with the gory details of homicide. As the title suggests, this play makes the troubling suggestion that Christie is not simply a deranged maniac, but works according to a personalised internal logic of ‘love’.
The stage is set in the round, and furnished to reflect the highly psychological nature of the piece. Barren, with the exception of what looks like a chicken coop filled with scrunched newspapers at knee height, the only clue as to the content is a reporter-style overhead recording, listing Christie’s various crimes. With only three characters (Joe Peden’s ‘The Constable’, Mil Coen’s ‘The Inspector’, and Rory Grant’s ‘John Christie’) who rarely leave the stage, the timeline and location become ambiguous, moving seamlessly between memory, event, and representation of the simultaneous psychological experience.
The play is not without its faults. It starts slowly, and although this allows Joe Peden’s ‘Constable’ to juxtapose the gravity of the opening scene with light relief, the device of his repeatedly breaking the fourth wall with crude limericks soon wore thin. I found myself wishing for more pacy dialogue, as lingering speech was often performed to the unfortunate detriment of comic timing. Brenton included in his production notes that the play was ‘written to be played slowly’, and while this certainly makes for a slow building of tension throughout the piece as a whole, it came at a cost. Furthermore, the giant papier-mâché head worn by Christie – that has taken a centre point in the piece’s marketing campaign – doesn’t add much to the intellectual coherence of the production. While there were a couple of line-slips, this can easily be attributed to opening night nerves, and did not detract from the three incredibly strong performances.
Having said this, Sam Luker Brown’s impressive directorial choices did not go unnoticed. The decision to use a female mannequin in an unsettling reenactment of Christie’s seduction of one of his victims, instead of a rag doll as has been used in other productions, draws uncomfortable attention to the commodification of women in media coverage of rape and murder. Faceless, this woman’s chief point of interest is that she possessed a sexuality, and was killed for it. This throws into sharp relief the sexist jokes made by the police officers earlier in the play – such as an anecdote in which a man went dressed to a party as ‘a cunt’.
The play is short and sweet. At only an hour long it makes for an engaging (if disturbing) watch. Although it lacks momentum in parts, largely due to a failure to make more use of lighting and sound, I would recommend it as a production that challenges one to reflect on ‘implicit’ moral judgements, and on troubling attitudes towards women that we so often assimilate into our everyday lives.