Christie in Love is not a play that you are supposed to enjoy: intended as part of a play cycle exposing a society in decline, Howard Brenton instructed that his compact piece be performed ‘very slowly’, each jerky disjunction in chronology and setting amplifying the sense of Christie’s disturbing sexual kinks.
Over a period of 10 years, John Reginald Christie murdered 8 women, including his wife, strangling them and then hiding the bodies around his property at 10 Rillington Place. The sexual nature of the murders, Christie’s semen was found inside some of the bodies and he kept the pubic hair of his victims as mementos, fuelled the already hysterical uproar that followed after his exposure. He quickly gained a sensationalist reputation as a necrophiliac.
This production meditates on the media frenzy that followed. The set consists of a large chicken wire cage that is half filled with scrunched up newspapers, the semi-visible headlines suggesting a world full of secrets and headlines to be unearthed. From this paper soil rises the haunting spectre of Christie (Rory Grant), born from this mass of media gossip and bearing his own body of secrets. He wears a huge, bulbous papier mache mask on his head that is only made visible to the audience through flashing lights, creating a truly fearful and unnerving atmosphere. Past productions have played on Christie’s asphyxiation fantasies and hypochondriacal delusions which occurred following a gas attack when serving in the First World War. They have had Christie arising in a gas mask charade and I think that this would have made for a more thematically cohesive entrance. Nevertheless, the enlarged head worked well at the moment of unveiling, when the spectral giant of Christie became no more than a frail body, swathed in oversized clothes, with a sinister preoccupation with his own presentation. Grant is a particularly physical actor, expressing the sinisterly twisted, labyrinthine workings of a murderer’s mind not merely through enunciation and facial expression, but through every last gesture, look and twitch.
I have very ambivalent feelings about the material the cast and crew were working with.
The production works through the interplay between alienation and attraction, repulsion and fascination. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to feel in each moment, and I think it is this emotional ambiguity and tonal complexity underpinning the play that makes up for occasional moments of cliché and clumsy, gratuitous handling in Brenton’s script. Yet again, Joe Peden’s performance (as the Constable) is exceptional. His versatility as an actor is a major gift to this production, and one which Sam Luker Brown fully makes use of, in a partnership that produces a truly remarkable piece of acting in its transitions between disguised fear, dark humour, tragedy and sheer despair. Amelia Cohen makes a thoughtful, considered performance as the Inspector, perhaps the most difficult character to play out of the three. Her interpretation is strong, leading the audience to contemplate Christie’s heinous deeds alongside the intense, aggressive and physically imposing inspector.
I have very ambivalent feelings about the material the cast and crew were working with. Christie in Love invites the audience to think deeply; it is a play that is unafraid to ask important questions about sexuality, misogyny and community, and suggests that in order to solve a crime, you must first solve the society that created it. But, in its own way, it sensationalises and plays upon the audience’s gory fascination with sexual murder and that makes me uncomfortable. There are moments of real poetry, and the production is extremely stylish, owing mostly to a clever and thoughtfully artistic sound and lighting crew. The production is in its element when evoking subtle changes in atmosphere and mood.
Christie in Love is a very difficult play to perform. It is hard to bring to stage a play that is not supposed to be enjoyed, that makes the audience think a little bit too hard and a little bit too much on topics normally unthinkable. The script itself is flawed, a piece of Brenton’s early work that lacks the incision and finesse of his mature plays. The achievement of this production is to give you a space in which you can fully digest and revel in thinking the unthinkable. It does great work with material that can at times be flat, distasteful, and uncomfortable. Christie in Love is a play for the fearless, for those who want to think without bounds, for those who want to experience something experimental and different, but it is definitely not for the faint hearted.