Writer: Rachel Garnet
Director: Natasha Rickman
In 19th century York, a prison cell holds two prisoners who have been condemned to death by hanging, but with no idea when that will be.
The older of the two, Alistair (Kevin Wathen), keeps a calm head, writes letters and reads newspapers smuggled in and out of the cell’s tiny window and talks in long, considered sentences to help pass the time. His younger cellmate, Per Carminger’s Ludley, is his opposite – restless, jumpy, and most certainly not at peace with his fate.
Playwright Rachel Garnet uses the pair’s plight and enforced discussion to examine social pressures of the time that are still prescient today, from the exploitation of unskilled labour by employers to a societal underclass hammered so hard by poverty that criminality seems the only option. In both men’s cases, the justice system appears to be geared against them, designed to fuel the rich-poor divide and ensure it thrives.
What is already a tense situation intensifies as Ludley – who maintains that his only crime was stealing a horse – is offered a deal: the commutation of his sentence if he agrees to become Alistair’s hangman.
Carminger is an engaging presence as his character begins to spiral, stuck in a scenario where his freedom is contingent upon killing the man he has grown to think of as a friend. His caged energy is contrasted nicely with Wathen’s stoic, fatherly figure. The touching relationship between the two is cemented when Alistair manages to receive a copy of James Barr’s The Mechanics of Hanging, a treatise on the best methods of execution, to assist Ludley in his task – but as the younger man cannot read, Alistair must help him, becoming complicit in his own execution.
As the hour draws near, the taciturn Alistair opens up about the circumstances that led to his sentencing, allowing Ludley to allude to his crimes being something more fatal than horse rustling. There is a sense that it is in these moments where Garnet’s work, which ran under an hour during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but now plays for 90 minutes in its London version, has been expanded. As Wathen describes Alistair’s struggles within the labour movement, its effect on his family and the reasons that led to his incarceration, some of the exposition feels less polished and drier than most of Garnet’s script.
But with a heartfelt script peppered by wry humour – essential even, especially in the bleakest of times – Garnet constructs a simultaneously historical and contemporary tale. Like the best of historical fiction, it helps us see that sometimes, when we learn from history, we can’t help but repeat it.
Continues until 22 October 2023