The beauty of fringe theatre in London is that on any given evening, in unassuming backrooms, in attics high above pubs, or in dank basements below them, all manner of stories are being told. Often I pass these venues and wonder what magic is being unfurled for the audience right now; sometimes I glimpse them during the day, where they silently wait for their storied nights. Quiet character studies, absurdist comedies, musical farces – they’re all taking place every day some metres above (or below) unwitting punters enjoying a drink. A Butcher of Distinction doesn’t need to transport us too far, however, aptly set as it is: in a London pub basement.
But, oh boy, is this pub basement transformed. The Barons Court Theatre is a close venue, the audience all around you and tight to the stage, so every aspect of the staging comes under the microscope. Laura Mugford’s set is therefore all the more impressive. Twin brothers Hartley (an authoritative Connor McCrory) and Hugo (played submissively by Joseph Ryan-Hughes) arrive in London to clear out their late father’s possessions from this cellar – and it’s a mess. There’s a long pre-set, but the carefully curated clutter means the actors never run out of detail and intrigue to interact with. Forgotten boxes overflow, dusty drawers are rammed with trinkets; the whole place feels properly lived in. The look is a real strength, and there are a lot of impressive, visually striking moments. The arrival of Teddy (Ethan Reid), his looming figure filling the fire escape, feels particularly cinematic.
The writing, however, is very mixed. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments, and the play is strongest at these points. Beyond this, though, the script careers wildly from brooding gangster, to farce, to camp slasher horror. Along the way there are scenes where the dissonance between the subject matter and the script’s self-indulgent dependence on ‘gags’ is jarring. Hugo returns to the stage having been abused. Ryan-Hughes is acting his heart out with a pitch-perfect portrayal of fragility and shock. I feel my sympathies rise. And then, a joke! Any emotional investment is lost. There also feels to be a number of logical fallacies in Rob Hayes’ text (why, for instance, can Hartley leave and return to the basement so freely if the brothers are ‘trapped’?). These further prevent the narrative from drawing me in.
Despite this, the actors do a reasonably solid job of keeping the performance interesting. Reid’s portrayal of Teddy is most interesting to watch, infused with a kind of laconic, Western vibe: think a powerful, insidious Super Hans. In long asides between the brothers, I found myself drawn to Teddy’s relaxed but menacing demeanour. The Barons Court is a wonderful example of fringe pub theatre, with a ready-made atmosphere just waiting for a story to be told. A Butcher of Distinction, however, is a piece that has yet to make up its mind on what sort of play it is, or what story it’s trying to tell.
Written by Rob Hayes
Directed by Macadie Amoroso
Design by Laura Mugford
Produced by Just A Regular House
A Butcher of Distinction plays at Barons Court Theatre until 12 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.