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Review: The Pillowman (Duke Of York's Theatre)

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Review by Daz Gale

If you walk the streets of LDN at the moment, you will see Lily Allen’s name next to a smile at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a residency for her own music – it is in fact the long-awaited West End premiere of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman of which she stars in, following her well-received turn in the premiere cast of the West Ends favourite travelling show 2.22. Where her turn in that show generated buzz and awards, will this hotly anticipated play have the same success or will it put audiences to sleep?

Premiering in London in 2003, The Pillowman has since been seen on Broadway and in multiple countries around the world but it has taken 20 years for it to hit the West End. Set in a totalitarian state, it tells the story of Katurian who is being interrogated by police alongside her brother after it transpires her dark short stories which always result in the murder of children have had real world similarities. What follows is a mix of storytelling using her own stories to further the narrative and understand the plot alongside a more linear approach as we try to find out exactly what happened.

If that doesn’t sound like the lightest of watches, it is and it isn’t. This black comedy gets very very dark with some near-the-knuckle dialogue and certain language that can only be described as extremely politically incorrect. Discussing the gruesome murders of children may not sound like the kind of play that will be laugh a minute but, strangely enough, it is.

Martin McDonagh’s writing is consistent in its approach and, more often than not, is wickedly funny. Often the kind of humour you can’t believe you’re laughing at, there’s no denying the wit that is crammed in to the story. The writing is more than simply funny though and carries with it a weight that, as uncomfortable as it may be at times, proves itself to be extremely intelligent and thought-provoking. Questioning the responsibility of an artist and what role they have in society, it poses some interesting questions in an intriguing premise.

Matthew Dunsters direction takes Martin McDonagh’s writing and runs with it to create something visually stimulating with some well-thought-out and perfectly executed (not the best word to use) choices. There have been at times at late where the direction doesn’t quite meld with the writing, feeling like they are telling different stories. However, they come together seamlessly in The Pillowman with inspired choices that challenge the cast but are paid off in the end.

The production design by Anna Fleischle is glorious to behold. Perfectly painting the picture of a different world while staying inside one building, it uses every tool at its disposal to paint the picture and build the world described in The Pillowman, beautifully adding an extra level to the storytelling aspect of the show. A clever use of video design from Dick Straker and truly exceptional lighting from Neil Austin makes this a visual feast and something that remains exciting and unpredictable due to some incredibly clever staging.

Lily Allen might be better known for her music career but she well and truly proved her acting talents when she was in 2.22. If she was good in that role, she’s phenomenal here. Leading the show as Katurian, she delivers a masterclass performance as she channels a character on the brink of desperation, trying to come to terms with her fate. In doing this, Lily effortlessly lets us in on the backstory of Katurian showcasing a range of emotions in a truly impressive feat of acting. Remaining on stage for the majority of the play, she takes on the role of storyteller perfectly, adding a sense of narration into the mix in an eclectic and diverse turn whose only similarity is in the high standard of performance.

Steve Pemberton is a comic highlight as Tupolski, a larger-than-life detective who quite often comes out with the most cringeworthily inappropriate lines you have ever heard. Boasting the majority of the funniest lines of the play, Steve’s performance is effortless and always gets the desired response from the audience. His own attempt at storytelling in act two leads to one of the greatest and most memorable sequences in the play. Steve forms a double act with Paul Kaye as Ariel – the bad cop to his good cop. Paul’s over the top performance is a joy to watch – comedic and aggressive, he possesses a real sense of danger in a commanding turn. There is also a surprising range to his character as we find out more about him, with Paul fabulously managing to humanise a character the audience had despised from the get-go.

While his stage time is comparatively limited, Matthew Tennyson gives a standout performance as Katurian’s brother Michal. While elements of his character are played for laughs, his own backstory and medical condition makes a lot of his story have more of a poignance than might have been expected. Matthew knows exactly how to channel the complexities of his character in a performance full of authenticity. The heartbreak and tragedy that comes with the revelations during his time stage provide some of the most shocking moments of the play but are played out perfectly thanks to Matthew’s own awe-inspiring abilities.

While it may not be the easiest of watches and the plot points discussed may leave a bitter taste in some people’s mouths, The Pillowman is a brave and bold piece of theatre. Markedly different from anything that has been seen in the West End for quite a while, its uniqueness is what makes it such an intriguing and consistently captivating watch. Importantly, this show knows exactly what it is and aims to challenge perceptions to create an experience that may not always be comfortable, but shows what theatre at its best can achieve – and that is a memorable experience that stays in your head long after you leave the theatre.

The incredible writing and immaculate direction of The Pillowman are matched by some stunning production elements. Factor in a truly wonderful cast, led by a sensational performance from Lily Allen in a turn I wouldn’t be surprised to see her get award nominations for, this truly is a show like no other. I have no doubt that a show as out there as this may prove divisive to some, but there is no denying the quality of the production. For me, I was wowed by every aspect of this production and admired its aspiration to push the envelope to create something risky but ultimately rewarding. A fascinating show from start to finish, The Pillowman is undoubtedly one of the best plays of the year.


The Pillowman plays at Duke of York's Theatre until September 2nd. Click here for tickets.

Photos by Johan Persson



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