The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Winter 2009-2010
It's easy to see why Alfred Hitchcock was attracted to Patrick Hamilton's 1929 melodrama, which he filmed in 1948 - it exemplifies Hitchcock's theory that true suspense comes when the audience knows there's a bomb under the table but not when it's going to explode.
In this case the McGuffin is a dead body, murdered by two students just before the play began, merely for the thrill of doing it.
The body is in a chest in the centre of the room where they've compounded the frisson by throwing a party whose guests include the victim's father.
But also at the party is an effete and cynical poet who is just clever enough to guess at the secret and just amoral enough that we can't be sure what he'll do with his suspicion.
Now, if I've made that sound exciting, I should apologise because, a few satisfyingly tense moments aside, both Hamilton's play and Roger Michell's production are far too languid to build up or sustain much suspense.
The opening scene is actually clumsy enough to have one of the murderers remind the other, in great detail and with several 'As you know's and 'You will recall's, of what they did moments ago, in order to get the information out to us.
Through the play the most contrived of excuses are found to get people on and offstage or near or away from the deadly chest.
The script keeps getting side-tracked, either into the weak comedy of the other party guests, who include a stereotyped upper-class twit and his airheaded female counterpart, or into the turgid philosophy of the poet, a Great War veteran wallowing in the meaninglessness of it all.
Only at a few isolated points, as when the fools seem about to innocently stumble on the secret, or when the poet and the more self-possessed of the killers play a cat-and-mouse 'Do you know that I know that you know?' game, do we really get drawn into the suspense.
And the most sustained nail-biting doesn't come until the very end, when the poet establishes that he does know, and we have to wonder what, if anything, he's going to do about it.
(To compound matters, Michell has staged the play in the round. This does effectively add a voyeuristic aspect to the experience, but the mode is a difficult one the director hasn't fully mastered, and those sitting in the usual audience area will see more faces at key moments than those at the back and sides of the stage.)
Blake Ritson as the calmer of the killers and Alex Waldmann as the more panic-prone have difficulty fleshing out their characters beyond those simple labels, while Bertie Carvel has to fight through a silly accent and comic effeteness to make us take the poet seriously.
Though the play tries to dismiss the father as comic, Michael Elwyn manages in a couple of short scenes to make him the only sympathetic character onstage.
Rope is the kind of play that was a staple of the long-gone and little-lamented weekly reps of the 1940s and 1950s. The Almeida production is considerably more polished than those would have been, but Rope remains a visit to an earlier, more easily satisfied time.
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