Howard Brenton

Murder, Mayhem, Banal Evil

Howard Brenton’s Christie in Love, now playing at The Yale Cabaret, seems to aim at being an examination of the social aspects of crime.  John Reginald Halliday Christie was a soldier in both World Wars, suffered from being gassed in WWI, and served as a constable between the wars, who, in the post-WWII period, took to killing women, beginning with his wife and seemingly including his upstairs neighbor’s wife and child (the neighbor was actually hung for the killings, then posthumously exonerated), and encompassing at least five other women, their remains found by a subletter of Christie’s apartment in 1953. For most of the play we are entertained by the search for forensic evidence by a somewhat squeamish Constable (Lucas Dixon) and a more seasoned Inspector (Rob Grant).  We first meet the Constable as he shovels about in the garden (represented by mounds of newspaper), reciting dirty limericks to keep his mind off his grisly task.  It’s an effective opening because the limericks’ mockery of taste and decency set up the social aspects of sex as somewhat unsavory and laughable.  Later, after they discover the remains of a victim, the Inspector warns the Constable not “to brood” on their findings, or on how the victims were killed.  But his warning concedes that sometimes these “pervvy cases” yield details that one may find somewhat appealing, that, indeed, a certain human awareness of cruelty, of sadism and masochism, and of the dark side of human nature can’t help but be fascinated.

This, it seems, is Brenton’s main theme, so that the play wants to fascinate us and make us fascinated by our own—and our fellow audience members’—fascination.  The Cabaret is the perfect space for the production since one can’t help but be aware of the others in the audience.  Indeed, in addition to tables where many had dined before being invited by the Inspector to “spew” if necessary, there are two rows of single seats arranged in a V where members of the audience sat almost like a jury or audience at a trial.

Brenton’s play is just nimble enough to keep the scenic elements shifting: we get an effective soliloquy by the baffled Constable about how his wife can smell the dead women on him, after a day spent exhuming corpses; and we get the Constable enacting, with a wonderful puppet seemingly made of newspapers, the part of a “tart” agreeable, after a fashion, to Christie’s propositions.  And we get the Inspector’s disagreeable and hard-edged interrogation of Christie (Max Roll) which amounts to little more than badgering, and which Christie sustains through a surprising show of dignity.

The three parts are well-cast: as the Constable, Lucas Dixon gets most of our sympathy, his limericks seeming almost benign and his morose considerations of the case, as he says, “too deep” for his understanding; as the Inspector, Rob Grant has the requisite manner of one who expects to be obeyed and whose unpleasant tasks make him impatient with the more humanitarian aspects of policing—he sees himself as society’s avenging arm in such cases; as Christie, Max Roll looks unassuming enough, almost timid, but has enough strength of what can only be called “character” to make us believe Christie was once a cop and a soldier.

Lighting is used dramatically in the piece to mark shifts in tone and scene.  In visual design, the newspaper roses that climb from the heap of newspapers (under which Christie himself is buried until rising for a posthumous interrogation) are a subtle reminder that the play, as the choice of songs also suggests, is supposedly about love.

You must learn to restrain your love, the Inspector tells us, you can’t go letting it take what shape it please.   Such are the lessons of the play, I suppose, but I still found myself somewhat disappointed that Brenton didn’t do more with these characters, their exchanges never cut quite as sharply as I would’ve liked and, though short even by Cab standards, the play felt a bit flabby in its pacing—though that might be simply an after-effect of having spiralled down the corkscrew of Belleville the night before.

Christie in Love written by Howard Brenton; directed by Katie McGeer The Yale Cabaret October 27-29, 2011