Pros: An energetic cast turns mass extermination into comedy. The tight direction uses a variety of lighting and sound techniques
Cons: With few real characters, it’s hard to empathise fully with any of the cast and some scenes are too opaque
“This is a story of a town. It’s not about what we did, it’s about how we did it.” So begins the convoluted tale of an unnamed town brought to life by a young cast of three men and five women, in which the men are bullies and the women are submissive. “You can’t argue with something that works,” says one of the men for whom this status quo is just fine.
The women, though, have had enough. We see why after a scene of notable violence in which the men take it in turns to slam three women’s heads into the table tops that make up the stage scenery. It’s all rather stylised, as is all the action and dialogue in this interwoven piece, but it’s no less shocking for that.
And so the women set about the process of extracting poison from flypaper, which they feed to the men in their food and their beer. As one woman begins the process to the sound of flies buzzing around her, she explains: “The more they struggle, the more stuck they’re going to get. They drink, and then they die.” And she’s only partly referring to the flies.
As the women form a syndicate, a secret killing club, they set about the process of disposing of their unwanted, unloved, brutish husbands. The men’s aggression continues, as they taunt the women: “Your mouth forms this tight little lie. It’s like a smile, but it’s not a smile.” But this time, they barely get to finish the sentence.
“We’ve crossed through the looking glass into the wonderland,” say the women as the bodies begin to pile up, but our sympathy for the ladies starts to become strained. As we see a woman sitting astride a motionless, poisoned figure, writhing in pain, we start to sense the more sadistic side of their actions. “It’s no longer just husbands,” they exclaim gleefully, emptying bags full of plastic bottles onto the stage; one for each victim. “It’s in-laws, children. Little Susie, one less mouth to feed.”
This stylised performance holds no real-world grounding, so the prospect of legal retribution is never raised. And yet what seems like an allegorical fantasy, does in fact turn out to have its roots in the real world. In the small town of Nagyrév in Hungary in 1914, the men went to war. When they returned, the women found they had got used to life without them, finding satisfaction instead with prisoners of war. In turn, they set about distilling arsenic by boiling flypaper, disposing of 300 men and other family members in the following 15 years.
The play makes no reference to the fact that it’s based on a true story, which is perhaps an oversight; it would have added some real gravitas to the production. Nevertheless, this is a lively, energetic and well-written piece; at times deliberately opaque; treading a fine line between comedy and tragedy. The ensemble cast play a multitude of roles with vigour and enthusiasm, and the tight direction, from the rearranging of tables to mark scene changes, to the performer zooming about the stage on roller skates, makes for an intriguing and entertaining hour of black comedy.