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Christie in Love

Howard Brenton
Thrill Seeker and Cheekish Productions
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

In March 1953 a West Indian who had moved into the ground-floor flat at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill Gate found a door in the kitchen that had been papered over. In the pantry behind it were the bodies of three women. Police found another under the floorboards and two more were dug up in the back garden.

Three and a half years earlier an upstairs tenant, a young, semi-literate van-driver called Timothy Evans, had walked into a police station and reported finding his wife dead. Later he made a statement confessing to killing her and her body and that of their baby were discovered strangled in the washhouse in the back garden. Evans was convicted and executed but he had not been the killer. That was John Reginald Christie who had been the previous downstairs tenant, a man who had been a Special Constable in the wartime Reserve Police. The body under the floor was Christie's wife; the rest were prostitutes all in their twenties, and there were two other women he confessed to murdering back in 1943 and 1944.

It is a notorious case of serial murder and miscarriage of justice, that became the subject of the movie 10 Rillington Place, but that came after this play which was written for Portable Theatre by Howard Brenton in 1969 and, after a short tour, came into the Royal Court in 1970. It was a remarkable debut for a new dramatist and now, forty years later and, just sixty years after Geraldine Evans and her baby were killed, it is stunningly revived in this production directed by Dan Ayling.

Sitting on a single row of benches around a low and battered fence surrounding a mound of newsprint that is a reminder of the enormous coverage this case had, in close proximity to the actors who play behind as well as in front of you, this is not a piece for the faint-hearted. It presents a psychopath's warped sexuality, a man gassed in the First World War which he seems to offer as an explanation of his deviancy, though even in his teens he seems to have been mocked by his peers for his erotic inadequacy, but this is no bio-drama.

In a succession of intensely theatrical scenes we meet a constable digging for bodies and the inspector who is his superior. Phillip Whiteman's eyes lose their natural sparkle of intelligence as the copper. He doesn't make him a gormless caricature but a PC Plod who follows orders and is clearly uncomfortable with this particular duty, the scabrous limericks which he recites may perhaps be to relieve his tension: they certainly to wind up the audience, while at the same time as making them laugh, and launch the play into a broad style of music hall double act which Mike Aherne's heavyweight Inspector interprets slightly differently when facing Christie who is resurrected from the sea of tabloid journalism to face interrogation.

Against the bombast of the Inspector and his constable Peter Henderson's John Reginald Christie is a meek little man. First seen in a gasmask and trouserless, when he has pulled up his pants and donned a jacket and glasses he looks so respectable - designer Rhiannon Newman Brown gets character and period exactly right with a Fair Isle pullover, but under pressure can turn quiveringly paranoid. You might almost feel sorry for him were not his crimes being acted out in the most graphic manner with Whiteman's constable operating a life size doll that represents the women.

This sixty minute play packs considerable punch; it presents a succession of theatrical surprises that are executed with skill. The quality of the work is underlined by the fact that an (almost) uncredited voice that opens the play is recognizable as that of Giles Havergal. This is a production that deserves much more exposure than a short run in Kentish Town but meanwhile catch it if you can.

Until 22nd November 2009
Playing at 9pm it is sharing the theatre (but not the set) with "Bedbound" which plays at 7.30pm. If you book for both shows and you can get one of them at half price.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton