West Midlands theatre company Clown Funeral have a name which perfectly sums up the ethos of their 2016 production The Murderer in that this devised piece is playful and sombre at the same time. While their style might best be described as “offbeat”, it is none the less highly accessible and raised some interesting questions about the rehabilitation of criminals.
The play is a three hander which, apparently, originally had a rolling cast. In this filmed iteration the trio of Patrick Tobin, Ella Terbay and Sam Thorogood do the honours playing, respectively The Carer, The Murderer and (as the credits had it) Everyone Else. The main protagonists are never named, being clearly defined by their perceived roles in society. One is classified as The Murderer though the circumstances of who, when and why are never explained – we are just asked to accept that is what she is. She emerges from prison into the care of the probation service which seems to be running a new scheme; one in which the felon is paired with The Carer whose job it is to gradually reintroduce her into society by monitoring her progress while she stays in his home and recording verbal impressions. At first all goes well; The Murderer makes good progress and everything seems quite ordinary, even humdrum. But then things take a darker turn. As The Murderer’s freedoms are increased The Carer becomes increasingly obsessed and begins a stalking campaign. Soon we are asking ourselves who is the more socially maladjusted out of the pair and it becomes evident that The Carer could potentially be the more dangerous of the two. This is a neat reversal which was cleverly done.
Ella Terbay as The Murderer is suitably composed and enigmatic – about as far from a disturbed sociopath as you could hope to get. As The Carer, Patrick Tobin exudes a certain aura of geekiness – he has that universal and instantly recognised symbol of geek, a pair of biros in his top pocket – and his “dad dancing” was exemplary. Gradually Tobin reveals hidden levels of danger to his character’s persona while resisting the temptation to go full “Psycho” on us. I wasn’t sure about Sam Thorogood’s Everyone Else (they being a probation officer, a sandwich shop proprietor, several TV shows and so on) simply because the characters didn’t seem to be particularly well differentiated. Though, on reflection, perhaps that was making a deliberate point in which case – job well done.
Director Sam George keeps things straightforward though with a sense of underlying menace at critical points. The set is simplicity itself consisting of just three wooden frames that are wheeled into different positions to represent walls and doorways. Props are all mimed (apart from the biros) and costuming is non-existent. But, hey, that doesn’t matter in the slightest; indeed it’s fine, because it’s that kind of show. Rather it helps us to concentrate on the central dynamic of the characters’ relationships to each other and the slightly askew world in which they find themselves.
The piece is based on a sardonic poem by Luke Kennard which I read after watching the performance. Actually, I wish I had read it before as some of the details it contains shed light on what is happening. For instance, I was slightly puzzled by the scenes of The Murderer and The Carer playing badminton until the poem explained their inclusion. It also became clear why the subject of sandwiches is heavily foregrounded. The filming is a little crude (two basic set ups edited together) but suits the ambience of the piece which I found myself enjoying the more it progressed. I’ll almost certainly be back to check out their other work at a later date.