Rope, written by Patrick Hamilton, debuted on the London stage in 1929 and this revival at The Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch transports the audience back to those hedonistic days with verve. It is based on the real-life case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy American students whose aspirations to prove their intellectual superiority executed what they hoped would be ‘the perfect murder’. Hamilton’s version transports the duo across the pond, becoming Brendan and Granillo, two Oxford undergraduate students driven by the same Nietzschean ideals to ‘live dangerously’. The arrogant swagger of privileged Oxford by-way-of public school boys portrayed here will be familiar to those who have seen Posh or it’s cinematic adaptation, The Riot Club, highlighting the enduring fascination of playwrights and audiences with this sect.
George Kemp is entrancing as the amoral, braggadocious Brendan, revelling in the feat he’s masterminded. His reluctant accomplice Granillo (played by James Sutton) is much less excited by it all, drinking to excess to calm the nerve he often comes close to losing. Rather than following the machinations leading to the murder, the audience instead meet the pair stuffing the body into a chest in Brandon’s Mayfair apartment as they discuss that night’s dinner party which will use the same chest as a buffet table. Guests include the murdered boy’s mother and aunt; two vacuous friends representing the average man and woman; and an artist friend, Rupert Cadell, played with gusto by Sam Jenkins-Shaw, who Brandon sees as his intellectual equal and therefore the most thrilling to evade.
The divide between what the audience and the guests know keeps tensions high and is enhanced by the clever lighting, designed by Mark Dymock, that’s opening red glow conveys the mood and enables just enough light to observe the murderous pair.
At times, some of the dialogue feels clumsy and lacking sophistication for contemporary audiences – particularly when Brandon tells the audience via Granillo the ‘facts’ of the murder they’ve just committed. There are also jokes which belabour the gag so as to feel like filler. However, this is all delivered with style by the cast and is a fault of Hamilton’s script, rather than this production. There was, however, an unfortunate technical issue which spoilt the final moments of the piece, resulting in ripples of laughter from the audience which can only be assumed not to have been the desired effect. Despite this damp squib, the skillful exploitation of dramatic irony and resulting macabre humour, makes for a thoroughly gripping night of theatre.