Murderer by Anthony Shaffer is a play that, to quote the director’s note, is “insufferable.” Now that is not to say that the KTS’s production of the play directed by Emma Graveson and Aaron Shenkman is anything close to insufferable.
Their production balances the “insufferable” elements of the play’s script with production choices that highlight the story and turn a script that “can be difficult” into a delight to watch. Moments that are intolerable on their own are entertaining thanks to a healthy dose of campiness and the production’s self-awareness.
The story itself is somewhat ridiculous: Norman Bartholomew (Jamie Whitley) is a man obsessed with famous murders from the past, he is unhappily married to Elizabeth (Hilary Allister). One weekend, while Elizabeth is out of town, Norman is spending time with Millie (Chloe Kaulbach), his mistress, when his obsession with murder draws the attention of Sergeant Stenning (Robbie Dryer). Norman has a penchant for re-enacting the past murders he is so fond of with Millie and much of the play deals with the repercussions of his doing so.
The opening of the play warmly embraces the absurdities of the script and breaks down the fourth-wall to let the audience know that it is not taking itself too seriously. In KTS fashion, the producers speech opens the show and the two producers (Daniel Halpern and Nick Harrison) interact with the set in a way that breaks down the fourth wall.
As the show begins, Norman merrily dances around while dismembering a dummy to the tune of Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” among other upbeat and disturbing songs. This opening scene is filled with many wonderful moments of campy absurdity that Jamie Whitley executes well as he romps around his little cottage playing murderer with an appropriate amount of melodrama for the absurd material.
Whitley does a wonderful job throughout the play of bringing the quirks of his character to life. Although at times the melodrama of Whitley’s performance reaches an unbearable point, this probably has more to do with the absurd lines, awkward dialogue and general ridiculousness of Shaffer’s play than the actor’s ability.
Robbie Dryer’s commanding stage presence handles Stenning as the more-serious foil to Norman’s absurdity well. He strikes an excellent balance between the seriousness that Stenning wants to command and the odd lines that his character has, which borders on comedy with a dry sense of humour.
Chloe Kaulbach brings an energy to her performance as Millie that drives her scenes. Kaulbach has a subtlety to her performance as the bubbly mistress prodding and goading Norman towards her goal of having him kill his wife so that they can be together.
The first quarter of the show drags a bit but as the second act begins things really pick up, partly due to the action on stage and partly due to the introduction of Elizabeth.
Hilary Allister’s portrayal of Elizabeth is stellar. She captures the fact that Elizabeth has had to deal with Norman’s twisted nature for many years. The build in emotion that we see from Allister towards the dramatic conclusion for Elizabeth feels completely believable. Much of the other elements of the show seem to be ridiculous and far-fetched, but Allister brings a level of realism to her character that feels raw and more understandable than any other element of the show.
Shaffer’s absurd material is handled well by the production team with a set that features portraits of members of the production, presumably painted by Norman, which further shows that the directors are not taking things too seriously and are happy to be self-aware and break down the fourth wall.
The brightly coloured set with its creepy cellar, flickering furnace and shag carpet gives an odd and believable impression of the country house of a deranged artist/murder enthusiast. There is a fun atmosphere to the set which helps with the campy tone of the play.
The production seems to be inviting you to revel in the absurdity, enjoy the murdering and appreciate the great performances from all the actors. It is fun and it is ridiculous and enjoying that absurdity is what makes this show such a treat.
The directors and actors have done a marvellous job of making sure that you leave the space having enjoyed yourself. They haven’t taken this subject matter too seriously and neither should you; go to the Pit before this show is done and enjoy a murder or two.
Editor’s note: The author has been involved with the KTS in the past, but their capacity in this show was technical work.