Gallowglass – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

Writer: Margaret May Hobbs from the book by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

Director: Michael Lunney

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

It’s 1990. Five years ago, Nina was kidnapped in Italy and successfully held to ransom. Now, two rich husbands later, she is a virtual prisoner in the marital home, Jareds, a lavish Suffolk country estate, living her life in perpetual fear of a repeat. Her husband, Ralph, has all the latest security and even procures the services of Paul Garnett as live-in driver, whose main rôle is to drive Nina wherever she might want to go and to “look after her”.

Meanwhile, Sandor Wincanton is plotting a repeat kidnapping. His plans accelerate after he prevents Joe from falling (or jumping, maybe?) in front of a tube train. The impressionable Joe clearly has learning difficulties, exacerbated by having been fostered in a cold home. Sonder explains that Joe’s life now belongs to him and Joe welcomes the attention he receives from Sonder. The men move to Suffolk and put Nina and her home under surveillance. Joe’s brash foster-sister Tilley arrives and is inducted into the plan.

This is an unwieldy piece that moves between multiple locations with a large cast. Michael Lunney’s design splits the stage in half so as to include two detailed sets at any one time – Sonder’s flats, the converted barn that Garnett shares with his daughter, Jessica, in the grounds of Jareds for example. To facilitate scene changes, a gauze and projections are used effectively as backdrops for exteriors. While the transitions are pretty slick, they do interrupt the pace and only occasionally is the set used to its full advantage allowing the audience the dramatic irony to see action in two different locations: typically, action takes place in one half only. The sound design is effective, placing us on train platforms, in woods or in flats above pubs with ease.

However, the pace is never more than steady with twists being leaden rather than breath-taking. There is no sense of mounting tension as the story unfolds, moving from an apparent fantasy in Sonder’s head to, maybe, becoming some sort of reality. The development of the rather abusive relationship between Sonder and Joe is well-captured, as is the changing relationship between Nina and Garnett. But overall, we fail to care very much about any of the characters, even after spending almost three hours in their company, although the ensemble all do a good job with the material at their disposal.

At the centre is the relationship between Sonder (Joe Eyre) and Joe (Dean Smith). Eyre captures Sonder’s single-mindedness and casual cruelty well, while Smith brings to life the rather needy Joe, grateful for any attention. Rachael Hart’s Tilley fills the stage with life as she chivvies the boys along in their plan, even improving it so that it might just work. The father-daughter relationship between Garnett (Paul Opacic) and Jessica (Eva Sayer) is sweetly portrayed, with Sayer just about believable as the eleven-year-old girl. The changing relationship between Nina (Florence Cady) and Garnett is sketched in and well-telegraphed, but we don’t feel it as much as it lumbers on.

Lunney’s direction seeks to gradually ramp up tension as we learn more about the characters. But somehow, we don’t invest emotionally in the characters, taking the edge off some of the dénouements. The whole is overlong and underpaced to make for the twisty, gripping story it is trying to tell. While the pace does pick up after the interval, it still lacks urgency.

A diverting night out, but one that doesn’t do full justice to Rendell’s writing.

Runs until 20 January 2018 and on tour | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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