Rachel Garnet’s historical prison drama is a tidy play that offers a prism to look at crime and capital punishment. Set in 19th-century York, a man on death row is offered a reprieve if he will act as hangman for his cell mate. The dilemma arrives swiftly and the debate is an interesting exercise.Garnet’s skill as a writer along with strong performances and precise direction from Natasha Rickman ensure success. The key is taking gallows humour in a surprising direction – Garnet takes wit seriously. The funny remarks come from the characters’ deepest fears and beliefs. Ultimately, it is the humour that engenders the play’s humanity and makes it moving. Prisoner Alistair’s dry logic, his apparent resignation, is contrasted with the naivety of his younger companion, Ludley. But we know one can’t be as calm as he seems and the other can’t be as stupid! Kevin Wathen gives a carefully layered performance as Alistair, making the character suitably imposing. Per Carminger is passionate and convincing as the “tender soul” Ludley. There’s tension in getting to know the men’s crimes and Garnet makes what they have done so satisfyingly complex, the play doesn’t deserve spoilers. As for the history, without giving too much away, Garnet has a brilliantly light touch. One small query – the play might look more at religion, especially given the suggestion of Catholicism. A concern with class has suitably Victorian overtones but is given impressive urgency. There’s a passion in discussing factory conditions I don’t remember from my social and economic history classes – a real achievement. We get to know the men as they get to know each other, Rickman complements the script while the performers relish the roles. Of course, it all makes Ludley’s task harder. That the victim tries to help might seem improbable but both characters see the play’s point – they are trapped in an evil system. Alistair becomes a teacher, but also counsellor, maybe even confessor, to his own executioner. There’s a sting in the piece that is planned, effective, and builds marvellously.
Until 22 October 2023