MADF Review of The Pillowman

A thought-provoking and transfixing performance from Peterborough Mask Theatre

Last night (17 April 2017) Peterborough Mask Theatre Company brought to us an unsettling and richly dark performance of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman; a gruesome and deeply disturbing, but intelligent play dealing with child abuse, torture and murder. McDonagh brings the audience into a dystopian and menacing world contending with themes such as a writer’s responsibility for their work and its readership, unjust punishment and the effects of mental illness. Peterborough Mask Theatre Company portrayed these issues with great skill resulting in a heart-wrenching, albeit a blackly humorous and imaginative production of The Pillowman.

This very complex play begins with a writer, Katurian (Pete Unwin) being interrogated by two police officers, Tupolski (Phil Lewis) and Ariel (Matt Robertson). Katurian is being interrogated about a series of child murders that mirror his short stories, which he argues has nothing to do with him, but who unbeknownst to him seem to have something to do with his mentally disabled brother, Michal (Carl Perkins), who waits in the cell next door.

Unwin’s Katurian was completely captivating. The relationship between himself and his brother was very carefully developed, with the care for his brother clearly portrayed and the horror of his brother’s actions was very effectively and powerfully communicated to the audience. Unwin had great comedic timing and good clarity at times of quick pace, but even more eye contact during the brother’s revelation could have been favoured to further connect to the audience. He was a very strong lead and delivered his monstrous speeches extremely well and entranced the audience. Another brilliant performance was that of Perkins in his role as Michal. Perkins had great childlike characterisation, all his actions and behaviour were fully believable endearing himself to the audience. You felt a weird and unexpected warmth towards this character, truly sympathising with him when his brother was being mean, and this was down to Perkins’ clever portrayal with such an innocent confession, lovely, menacing laugh and a sing-song tone to his voice. Perkins really understood his character and the playwright’s humour delivering an outstanding supporting role. The two officers, Lewis and Robertson, worked brilliantly together both holding the upper hand well during the times of interrogation. Lewis had a consistently great physicality throughout, strong posture and tone of voice. Robertson’s Ariel really connected with the audience even in times of anger, especially in the revelation of his own abuse. At times he lacked motivation in his movement but delivered his speech about children with great passion.

Overall, the cast worked extremely well together. The physical encounters between Ariel and Katurian in the first scene were handled expertly, very believable and fantastically timed. At times the action needed to be more centrally located because the times with central focus were the obvious highlights of the performance. Good oppositions were created throughout and in the final scene there was very natural and comedic discourse and interactions between the three characters, especially that of Ariel and Tupolski with the snappy comedic timings and reactions. Peterborough Mask Theatre Company delivered a team of actors who really inhabited their roles and understood the lyricism of the writing, very cleverly crafted by director Helen McCay.

There was an inventive and imaginative use of lighting effects, specifically during the times of storytelling which were cleverly used to signify the change in worlds. This was supported by the garish costume of the parents followed by the great dance movements and haunting, atmospheric underscoring music. These details really brought the stories alive and accentuated Katurian’s strange world.

The adjudicator Robert Meadows said that “Peterborough Mask Theatre Company rose to the challenge of making this dark and unsettling play come to life through effective and engaging performances. They also understood how to bring out the grim humour. It was another strong night of theatre.”

Peterborough Mask Theatre Company fully mesmerised the audience last night with their production of The Pillowman demonstrating a clear understanding of the playwright’s vision.  This made for a very thought-provoking and transfixing performance entirely emphasising the dark humour of the play.

  • Megan Rossiter, MADF Roving Reporter