Showing as part of the Rialto Theatre’s Pretty Villain programme at the Brighton Fringe, Roger Kay’s production of the Patrick Hamilton classic Rope is admirably slick and well-performed.
Inspired by the real-life case of ‘thrill killers’ Leopold and Loeb, Rope is the story of two university friends who decide to murder a fellow student, seemingly without any motive beyond proving that they can. Then, in an exercise in daring and cruelty, they host a dinner party where the invitees include the dead boy’s father, who is painfully unaware that his son’s body is in the very wooden chest the party is dining off.
The production handles the set up well and manoeuvres the limitations of the Rialto’s compact space cleverly. At times the stage feels cluttered with guests, but that adds to the mounting claustrophobia, as what starts off as one of the guests light-heartedly joking that the locked chest must hide a corpse begins to feel like a tightening net. Although the piece takes a little while to hit its stride, once it does so there are some moments of genuine tension and unease, and though the script is occasionally a little too in love with its own eloquence, a stripped-down running time trims much of the fat.
As the smoothly manipulative Brandon, Graeme Dalling is compelling: suave, mercurial, and charismatic. John Black as his disintegrating co-conspirator Granillo (“Granno”) has a slightly more difficult sell, his character fighting hysteria throughout, but pulls out a couple of lovely moments towards the end, when some spikes of petulant defiance start to break through, too late. The pair have pleasing chemistry, even if it is never quite as compelling as you want it to be – there isn’t quite enough there to make it convincing that Granno would capitulate so easily to Brandon’s plans. Neil James’ world-weary guest is hampered a little by his character’s speechifying, but his portrayal nicely hints at the ruined idealist beneath his cynical veneer – an idealism that Brandon, fatally, fails to recognise.
The supporting cast do well in smaller roles: Karina Mills as Brandon’s maid, who you sense knows more than she lets on, Kitty Newbury as the sly sophisticate whose jesting may see the pair undone, and Rick Yale as the nice-but-dim student she has her eye on. Robert Cohen starts off as comedy bumbling professor – his enthusiasm for Brandon’s inheritance of old books the supposed reason for his presence at the meal – but later brings a nice touch of pathos as a father who starts to fret at his usually reliable son’s reported absence from home.
The production also smartly touches on class. There are hints that the ‘fagging’ at public school that Brandon undertook so enthusiastically (with Yale as his put-upon fag) was a cauldron for cruelty; that when you are raised to see others as mere tools for your convenience – in school, in the home, at war – that perhaps murder isn’t really that far of a stretch.
Rope was on until 12 May 2018, as part of the Brighton Fringe. Click here for more details.