After its run at the National Theatre in 2003 (which starred David Tennant), The Pillowman returns to the more intimate Duke of York’s theatre, with an all-star cast featuring Lily Allen (playing Katurian) and Steve Pemberton (Playing Tupolski). Matthew Dunster directs the first major revival of Martin McDonagh’s Olivier award-winning black comedy which features endless twists and turns, The Pillowman leans on the power of persuasion and the longing for hope.

Credit: Johan Persson

Upon entering the space, the stage is flooded in darkness with a flickering light illuminating a closed area in small intermissions. This soon is revealed to be the set of an office space where we are introduced to a writer, Katurian, being interrogated. The reason for this is not immediately apparent, perhaps due to her books having an unknown political connection or with many of her stories focused on the torture and murder of children, perhaps they are unliked. Although writing is Katurian life work, having compiled 400 stories, only one of these has been published. Yet some of the stories have uncanny connections with recent crimes… is this life imitating art or is there a deeper, more disturbing truth?

Sound (designed by Ian Dickinson) and lighting (designed by Neil Austin) is used to create a very naturalistic setting and is added in a minimal and cliche sense. As this is a play which emphasises imagination, the production could have used more of these elements; however, the emphasis seemed very centred on the ‘wow factor’ of the set. This being said, the design by Anna Fleischle is impressive and takes into account the space of the venue, it felt as though some of the transitions should be impossible! The use of projections (designed by Dick Straker) at the beginning of Act 2 takes the audience straight into the realm of imagination and how this intertwines with the realities of the characters’ lives, and transpires the struggles of individuals that shaped their current choices.

Credit: Johan Persson

McDonagh’s writing ironically leaves nothing to the imagination with so much depth and emphasis by using repetition, which begins to feel mechanical in support of comedic value. The script consists of long chunks of dialogue, which retells stories that are easy to follow; but Allen lacks nuance in her narration, although she is well supported by the visually compelling set. Undeniably, the text is well written and it is no surprise that this is regarded as one of the greatest plays in recent years, yet I feel the importance of delivery is highlighted in this current production.

Although Allen performs with confidence and clear dialect, the sense of emotion is not convincing enough to allow for any emotional connection. Pemberton brings humour to the play with great timing and Tupolski’s telling of a story which he wrote that he feels is better than any of Katurian’s is engaging, displaying his acting ability well. Paul Kaye playing Ariel has the best arc and evokes an interesting feeling of sudden sympathy for someone that appears so sadistic, with a keen use of torture methods to get the answers he needs.

For a show based so heavily on imagination, this retelling lacks the emotional impact it could have achieved.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Pillowman is on at the Duke of York’s Theatre until September 2nd – tickets and info here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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