What exactly is it, in that west country air, which makes it England’s unacknowledged murder capital? As Sherlock Holmes put it, "The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside". It must be all that massive, maddening moorland. It’ll turn a man wild, M’lord; into a killer, even. To the evidence stand, we call the Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles, ITV ratings-spinner Midsomer Murders, filmic spoof Hot Fuzz – and Anthony Shaffer’s black comedy play Murderer.
A tale of a fiendish murder plot in a sleepy rural locale, the path that Shaffer’s play rambles down is one well-trodden since the production first opened three decades ago. As if nodding to the (probably spurious) Jack the Ripper rumours that once lingered around artist Walter Sickert, it tells of a suave but murderous painter Norman Bartholomew (Bradley Clarkson), who believes killing can be an exhilarating artistic statement. He has a ghoulish obsession with history’s most conniving murderers, and plots to bump off his wife in an inspired, artful fashion that is full of metaphysical profundity. He also hates her, and wants to run off with his sultry mistress (Abby Forknall).
They say evil is banal. Bartholomew’s fantasies are plotted and executed against an intensely plain, unchanging backdrop of a 1970's house — much like Shaffer’s play-turned-film Sleuth, a cat-and-mouse story with a similarly urbane villain in Laurence Olivier. Also calling to mind Hitchcock’s Rope or Dial M for Murder, the claustrophobic stage setup quickly maps onto the anti-hero’s closed-off, maniacal mind.
During a dialogue-less opening 25 minutes, we witness Bartholomew honing his technique; methodically extracting diverse utensils from his tool cupboard to seemingly go off and dismember a body; all fastidiously choreographed to classical music for macabre effect. Imagine American Psycho adapted for Brits: murder most mundane as Bartholomew pauses for a cuppa and wipes down the worksurfaces. There should probably be more blood, but we will see all is not as it seems.
Bradley Clarkson plays Bartholomew with gusto, blending plummy old-school with the complex insecurities that would doubtless befit a modern murderer. And, particularly in that opening slasher scene, director Tim Frost does well to elicit from us laughter, which is decidedly uncomfortable laughter. The script is, after all, loveable but twee; replete with an ‘ello ‘ello ‘ello-ing Slow-Witted Policeman (Andrew Ashford), who has a helmet and a moustache. In one excellent scene, Bartholomew is in Breaking Bad territory, with an inconvenient corpse stewing in his bathtub just waiting to be discovered. Slow-Witted Policeman pops by for a beer, and necks not one but two Newcastle Brown Ales. "It goes in one end and out the other", chortles Slow-Witted Policeman, eyeing up Bartholomew’s bathroom. Uh-oh!
For all its bright 70's aesthetics, the play is an earthy thing, full of this ‘in one end and out the other’ colour. The eroticism is unmissable: Bartholomew’s despised wife (Zoe Teverson) practices gynaecological surgery, which is something he has a stab at as well, attempting to dissect women so as to explore that elusive feminine mystique. There’s a lot of still-relevant gender commentary in there; Bartholomew looking for total exploitation of the women in his life but in fact appearing as a domesticated Dracula, baking practice body parts in the oven. The Upstairs at the Gatehouse production has an antiquated, gothic pleasure about it, and all the characters have their perverse charms.
Murderer, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate until 20 April.
By James FitzGerald