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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Pillowman
Cottesloe Theatre       Winter 2003-2004

If I begin by reminding you that the author of this new play, Martin McDonagh, also wrote The Lieutenant of Inishmore, you may need nothing more to help you decide whether you want to see it.

Like that play, it is rich in comic and poetic imagination, and like that one, its imagery leans more than a little toward the macabre and disturbing.

There is nothing like the infamously over-the-top bloody scene in Inishmore that had a few people walking out at every performance, but there are verbal accounts that may deeply upset some.

On the other hand, there is such an abundance of creativity that others will revel in the richness of the imaginative banquet McDonagh serves.

The play is a kind of macabre fable filled with the telling of smaller macabre fables, that recall the brothers Grimm at their grimmest or Strewelpeter at its darkest (and, by the way, John Crowley's direction and Scott Pask's design nod openly to the Shockheaded Peter of a couple of seasons back).

An author who specializes in dark little tales in which bad things happen to good children is called in to be interrogated by the secret police because there have been a series of crimes a little too closely resembling his stories.

As his questioners take turns terrorising him, and he tells how his life and that of his mentally damaged brother shaped his dark imagination, what begins (and continues) as a kind of whodunit takes on deeper meanings as an exploration into the depths of the human potential for depravity.

And it is very, very funny. No doubt, some of the laughter is nervous, a protection against the dark tales and darker psychologising. But much of it is a reaction to a wit and comic imagination that always catches you by surprise.

And I suspect that some laughter is pure pleasure at the bursts of inventiveness - of language, imagery, characterisation and insight - different from, but just as thrilling as Tom Stoppard at his best.

Consider for example the two policemen, so obviously good cop and bad cop that we are repeatedly disoriented by discoveries that the vicious thug has the ability to understand his prey on the deepest level, while his urbane colleague is capable of the most shocking sadism.

David Tennant plays the writer as a seemingly ordinary guy who, we gradually realize, has had such a bizarre life that his normalcy must be a mask held on with the greatest effort, and whose bloody short stories are probably closer to his soul than he can admit.

Jim Broadbent has an obvious and infectious ball using his immense personal charm to play the good cop with the meanest of streaks, while Nigel Lindsay keeps us off balance as the bad cop with more brains than he lets on. Adam Godley mixes innocence with deviltry as the brother.

There is very little blood or violence onstage. But there are things in this play to make your flesh creep, not with the cheap scares of someone shouting 'Boo!' but with news about the human condition that is discomfiting.

But, as with McDonagh's previous plays, it is all done with such high energy and unfettered inventiveness that you probably won't be able to help having a great time.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Pillowman - National Theatre 2003

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