★★★★

Right at the start of this play by Patrick Hamilton, the two central characters admit to murdering a fellow student, Ronald Kentley.

It’s not, then, a thriller that asks us to identify culprits, but rather poses the question of whether they can get away with their crime.

Patrick Hamilton’s concept is (loosely) based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924 (you can read more about that here).

The two conniving students are Wyndham Brandon (played by George Kemp) and Charles Granillo (James Sutton).

Set in a house in the swanky London district of Mayfair, the murderers have invited guests to a party where the body of the victim lies in a locked wooden box from which supper is, rather gruesomely, served.

And if that weren’t grisly enough, they have invited the deceased’s mother to dine with them – and she doesn’t even know that her son is missing!

I’m not sure that, having been exposed to ever-more horrific stories from the media, we’re as shocked these days as might have been the case when audiences took their seats when the play premiered back in 1929, but there’s still something unpleasantly ghoulish about this play, even for the most hardened.

And that provides the essential appeal, leaving little to wonder about why the venue’s artistic director, Douglas Rintoul, took the opportunity to revive and direct this rather macabre and, in many ways, unsettling piece.

Of course I’m not about to give away the ending, but it’s relatively easy to predict given the marriage of the circumstances depicted and the morality of the times in which the play is set, as well as our own, present-day attitudes to murder.

Even so, the plot is sufficiently well-constructed to leave some doubt about the outcome, even up to the final moments of the action.

And under the surface lurk some grim, but intriguing issues to wrestle with.

On one level, these are audacious killers driven by intellectual vanity to try to ‘get away with’ a heinous, unjustifiable crime.

But the clinical, murderous audacity demonstrated by the young men’s actions is exactly the kind which society is able to sanction and condone in other circumstances – times of war, for example.

That leaves us pondering the morality of killing human beings in any context.

Moreover, the murderers demonstrate hugely disturbing psychological qualities by inviting their guests to supper with the corpse in their midst – suggesting that there’s more to their ambitions than merely getting away with murder.

In fact, the two murderers are not equally responsible or culpable.

Jame’s Sutton’s well-described Granillo ultimately can’t cope with his complicity, seeking escape from guilt though alcohol.

So it’s actually in George Kemp’s powerfully unnerving portrayal of Wyndham Brandon that we find a sinister and brazen controlling mind that challenges the moral foundations of society and our understanding of the human psyche.

Douglas Rintoul’s meticulous direction here not only provides an authentic atmosphere, but evokes wholly satisfying and well-judged performances from the fine cast, with Sam Jenkins-Shaw particularly impressive as the cynical but highly observant Rupert Cadell.

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