DramaLondonReview

Tumulus – Soho Theatre, London

Writer: Christopher Adams 

Director: Matt Steinberg 

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

The chemsex party scene – combinations of drug-taking and sex, which can go on for days at a time – is a growing problem among some sections of London’s gay male subculture.

As a result, a number of fringe plays have set themselves in and around such a scene. For the most part, though, such productions do little to indicate what the allure might be, often unintentionally presenting the chemsex world as one so tedious and banal that it beggars belief anyone would even be tempted into that circle, let alone struggle to escape it.

Christopher Adams’s Tumulus does attempt to portray the chemsex world as a believable one. Through Adams’s eye, we are shown an environment where the addictive qualities of the drugs used extend to the life around them. Ciaran Owens’s Anthony, a hardened partygoer, is surrounded by characters who blend into one another, Ian Hallard and Harry Lister Smith playing everybody else as well as providing many onstage foley effects.

What perhaps ensures that Tumulus portrays this world better than most is that, for Adams, the chemsex party scene is not the direct subject of his writing, but the setting for a murder mystery. As Anthony is haunted by the ghost of an ex-lover – a man who the police have given up on, assuming his was just another overdose – his quest to find out the truth also exposes some rather more personal realities.

While dressing Owens in a trenchcoat and fedora rather unsubtly emphasises the dues Adams’s structure owes to film noir, the writer’s clear knowledge of the genre produces a taut hour of mystery. Dialogue lines which, early on, seem to be mere character embellishment later resurface as clues. Christopher Nairne’s simple but effective lighting design, and an ambitious sound design by Nick Manning, create an effective arena for the murder investigation to unfold.

Hallard and Smith succeed in imbuing each of their multiple roles with enough distinctiveness to be discrete, believable characters, something Owens, even with his single character, finds more of a struggle.

But the real star is Adams’s narrative: never so judgemental that it stops being critical, and confident enough so that its social commentary — including a direct line between the hostility gay men faced at the height of the 1980s AIDS crisis and the indifference to the victims of chemsex — resonates.

Runs until 4 May 2019 | Image: Darren Bell

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A taut murder mystery

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