Blackmail review – the play that brought Hitchcock a hit is revamped for today | Theater

AAn artist has died in his Chelsea studio, stabbed in the throat, blood everywhere. But this scene is not a crime scene: the only red material is the strawberry jam that the policeman Harold Webber spreads on his bread. That’s because Mark Ravenhill cut the first act of Charles Bennett’s thriller, best known for becoming Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie in 1929.

We do not see the artist’s attack on a young woman, Alice, who kills him in self-defense. In Ravenhill’s version – half his dialogue, half Bennett’s – we hear about it in grim detail instead. Alice (Jessie Hills) first relates to Harold (Gabriel Akuwudike), to whom she is engaged, and later her mother, Ada (Lucy Speed).

Gabriel Akuwudike and Jessie Hills in Blackmail, choreographed by Arielle Smith. Photography: Pamela Raith

Harold has been given the murder case, which could result in a promotion, and the conflict between public duty and personal loyalty to his fiancée gives Bennett’s play the suspenseful momentum of a cooking pot (enhanced by the arrival of a blackmailer).

Ravenhill’s version includes a wealth of social context. It’s the summer of 1928: a kitchen radio reports Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral and the Equal Franchise Act giving women over 21 the right to vote, but in the back room of their corner shop , Ada talks about Alice’s boyish style and narrows her daughter’s horizons. Fear of a higher social class is presented as one of the reasons why Alice accompanied the artist home, while Ravenhill’s added emphasis on abuse of power and its complicity resonates in an age of #MeToo.

There are also other major issues in 2022, such as cronyism and wavering trust in the police to protect women. The challenge, most of the time but not always achieved, is to treat them seriously while oiling the wheels of a thriller at the edge of your seat. “Everybody loves a kill,” Ada says, anticipating additional newspaper sales in the shop. This applies to theatergoers who might expect a certain kind of old-school mystery, but also get some added realism, which can sometimes be a jarring combination.

Like Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, there is a keen awareness of the theatricality inherent in the process of justice, and as I admit, there are compelling moral dilemmas. However, some of the characterizations require greater complexity, and Anthony Banks’ sleek production could ratchet up the tension and pacing.

Patrick Walshe McBride, as blackmailer, excels at reflecting on the hidden life of gay men in the 1920s. couple and there’s a little too much humor in the mix – especially in the scene where the word “knife” is repeated, more comedic than scary. effect.

Gabriel Akuwudike and Lucy Speed ​​in Blackmail, designed by David Woodhead.
Gabriel Akuwudike and Lucy Speed ​​in Blackmail, designed by David Woodhead. Photography: Pamela Raith

Arielle Smith’s choreography turns a rumba between Alice and Harold into a traumatic line, but this sequence still doesn’t surprise as it could. David Woodhead’s handsome projecting design gives a striking cross-sectional view of the corner building, with lamplighters, stray dogs and cyclists bustling around the edges. There’s pulsating spectral sound design by Ben and Max Ringham while Howard Hudson’s lighting of the boutique’s latticework glass creates a palpable sense of confinement.

One clever design touch among many is the silhouette of a ghostly nightgown hanging from a window, evoking the image of Anny Ondra in the movie. Hitchcock throws all the shade but in the end Ravenhill emerges as a master of moral suspense.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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