Rope

Patrick Hamilton

OutFox Productions

Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley, London

From 09 April 2013 to 27 April 2013

Review by Gill Stoker

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OutFox scores a hat trick.

This is the third show from OutFox Productions, again at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, south-east London, where the company has recently been awarded Associate Company status.

Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962) wrote Rope in 1929—it was his first successful work, opening with stage productions in London and New York. Before long it was appearing in other media, including a BBC TV version in 1939 and the Hitchcock film version of 1948. There has been a recent revival of interest in Hamilton's works, with a BBC TV dramatisation of his novel trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky in 2005 and a revival of Rope itself at the Almeida Theatre in 2009.

Rope is a psychologically tense melodrama taking place within the space of one evening in a smart London house. It opens just after a murder has been committed by two privileged young Oxford University students, Wyndham Brandon (Joe Sowerbutts) and Charles Granillo (Christopher Walsh), with apparently no motive (except perhaps that of vanity, as another character later suggests).

There is a clear contrast between their characters: Brandon, the instigator, is cold but occasionally panic-stricken, while Granillo, his accomplice, is painfully conscience-stricken and terrified of being found out. They place the body of their victim, fellow-student Ronald Kentley, inside a wooden chest in the middle of the room, and lock it. A party then takes place, with plates of sandwiches set out on the chest for guests to help themselves, not knowing that a dead body is concealed below. To make matters worse, the unsuspecting father of the victim is one of the guests.

The play, like much of Hamilton's writing, exudes a sense of cynicism and postwar disillusionment, with morality and amorality struggling for the upper hand. One of the characters, Rupert Cadell (Will Bryant), served in the First World War. He is an irritable man with an injured leg, and also a writer—a representative of Hamilton himself in terms of profession and personality. He speaks of war as licensed murder, but at the same time shows a clear sense of the value of individual human life, thereby representing the moral conscience of the play.

Cadell gradually comes to realise that a murder has been committed, pulls out a gun, and forces Brandon to produce the key to the chest. The clear moral of the play is that 'murder will out'. Rope is used to strangle the victim, and rope will be used in due course to hang the criminals.

The set is designed by Andy Robinson, with a classically-styled sitting room, fireplace, full-length windows, Chippendale furniture and an authentic four-panel Victorian door. The colour scheme of dark wood, cream walls and bright turquoise curtains and upholstery is stunning. Parts of the usual theatre seating have been blocked off, so that the audience looks straight down into a three-sided room, giving a slightly claustrophobic effect.

Lighting designer William Ingham gives us some changing atmospheric effects, including some convincing flashes of lightning. A working clock ticks on the mantelpiece, and the actual time is referred to on several occasions. After the interval the clock seems to tick more loudly, no doubt to build up a stronger sense of tension as the murderers are about to be exposed.

The dialogue, as one might expect for the 1920s, is 'wordier' than we are used to nowadays, but the characters work well within the twenties idiom, with only a couple of stumbles in their speech. Ana Luderowski (playing Leila Arden) and Marco Petrucco (playing Kenneth Raglan) are entertaining, offering welcome comic relief as foolish upper class types similar to those found in P G Wodehouse.

Of the older generation, Alec Gray is a lively and interesting Sir Johnstone Kentley, and Jean Apps is a wonderfully dotty and conversationless Mrs Debenham. The self-contained, foreign-accented manservant, Sabot (Ben Peterson), was also fight director for a brief struggle between Brandon and Raglan.

Having seen all three shows, what stands out for me most is the sheer variety of OutFox's output—from Spring Awakening (angst-ridden, fin de siècle German tragedy), to Carbon Dating (witty, contemporary Australian social comedy), to Rope (upper-class 1920s English murder melodrama). And alongside this variety is a consistently high standard of production and performance.