The Pillowman review – Lyric Theatre, Belfast ★★★★★

Photo: Melissa Gordon

Review by Orla Keaveney

A year on from the success of the Lyric Theatre and Prime Cut Productions’ co-production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, this dynamic pairing presents McDonagh’s The Pillowman on the Lyric’s main stage. The play tells the story of a writer, Katurian (Keith Singleton), living in a totalitarian state, who is interrogated by two cops (Steven Calvert and Abigail McGibbon) about his stories and the resemblance they bear to child murders happening in town. Entering the auditorium, the audience encounter a stage in darkness, before a dull spotlight focuses on the middle of the stage revealing a person seated at a table, head covered by black cloth and nervously waiting, leg shaking and displaying unsettled movements, giving us a glimpse of the unnerving world the audience are about to delve into.

The cast is led by the outstanding Singleton, a natural and skilled storyteller, much like his weighted role as Katurian. Even in the darkest moments of interrogation, Katurian’s passion for his stories shines through his physicality, as he breathes life into each story. His desperation to save his stories and protect his brother creates a realness in the character that is believable and relatable. David Murphy as Michal brings across a gorgeous innocence. His emotional outburst about his ‘itchy arse’ and his interruptions in Katurian’s storytelling creates comic relief, breaking the tension and unease built by the dark themes. Despite their childhood trauma and the anguish and frustration of the ongoing interrogation, there is a tenderness between the two brothers who connect through their love of Katurian’s stories.

Calvert brought the perfect level of anger and aggression to the ‘good cop’ Ariel, challenging Katurian through physical threat and torture. Ariel’s quest to protect children from abuse through his job as a policeman reveals a gentler, human element and is empathised in his final decisions on whether to save Katurian’s stories. I enjoyed the move away from set gender roles, with McGibbon taking on the role of Tupolski, ‘the bad cop’, a typically male part. McGibbon shines in the role – she uses a frank tone and calm body language while interrogating Katurian, which allows for her sudden threatening actions of shouting and physically standing over him to become even more powerful. Yet, there is a quiet honesty in Tupolski when speaking directly to Katurian about the idea of The Pillowman.

Photo: Melissa Gordon

Director Emma Jordan is a force to be reckoned with in theatre. Every movement, every look, every line has meaning. Ciarán Bagnall’s set and lighting are unique, and the concrete set works flawlessly within the totalitarian world of The Pillowman. The use of levelled staging allows space for present-day scenes and Katurian’s stories to be brought to life. Rosie McClelland’s costume design subtly mirrors the themes of the play. A particular highlight was the juxtaposition of the parents’ (played by McClelland alongside Jude Quinn) costumes, which, combined with their mirrored movements and sinister facial expressions, visually represent an unnerving element within each story. The use and timing of increasingly unsettling music further enhanced the feeling of anticipation and dread.

We experienced a show stop during the first half of the performance due to a medical emergency, which was handled well by both staff and cast. When the performance resumed, the play did not lose momentum, which is a testament to the talent and professionalism of the cast. The final moments of the play are moving and heartbreaking, concluding a story that will stay with you long after you have left the theatre. While the dark themes of brutality, child abuse and murder are not for the faint-hearted, what stands strong in The Pillowman is the tenderness and heartache of the lengths someone would go to protect what they love.

The Pillowman is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until 15 June