“Why can’t a mass murderer be just a bit diabolical?” screams Jake Curran’s powerfully intense police inspector at a cowering John Christie. “Why can’t a pervert like you have fangs or something?”
A newscast-style voiceover reminds us, on a loop, of the roll call of his tragic victims in this engrossing revival of Howard Brenton’s early play, Christie In Love, which opened last night at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre. It makes for chilling drama.
Christie’s childhood was normal. Everything about him seemed ordinary. We picture John Reginald Halliday Christie in plimsolls and bottle-bottom glasses, an insignificant little man with a disappointing life, who made himself feel powerful by killing women who probably wouldn’t be missed.
The Rillington Place Strangler – a far grander posthumous title than his schoolyard nickname “Reggie-No-Dick” – was unable to perform, so to speak, unless his victim was unconscious, or dead, or definitely not his wife.
He made a half-hearted, indecisive, job of corpse disposal, and snipped off pubic hair to keep in a tobacco tin as a souvenir. In Christie In Love we see him nervously preparing a cup of tea to drink once he’s done with the rape and murder of a faceless “tart” – heartbreakingly portrayed by Daniel Buckley with a stuffed-stocking and wooden life-sized doll.
Absent for the first half, in a blaze of nightmarish music and atmospheric lighting, Murray Taylor’s recently-arrested killer emerges from designer Christopher Hone’s simple but imaginative pit of chicken wire and balls of newspaper, representing Christie’s grisly garden.
His face obscured by a monstrous mask, Murray unzips his trousers, and pulls… something… out. And keeps pulling, and pulling, the insecurity over his inadequacies transformed into an all-powerful fantasy: the John Christie he sees in his head, no doubt, as he squeezes the life out of a Ruth or Rita or Beryl.
Murray – a new face in London theatre and, I understand, a Royal Navy veteran – is astonishingly creepy. The heavy breathing, repulsive glistening saliva on his bottom lip, and occasional stares directly into the eyes of anxious audience members, is even more unnerving than the imagined horror of the previous scene.
He thinks he’s a master manipulator, but Christie’s hunched posture, nervous demeanour and requests to send for an asthma inhaler, don’t come close to fooling us or the inspector. The man’s quite clearly a bit more than a “queer fish”.
It’s no slur on Daniel Buckley’s daft constable, who entertains us, and himself, with a series of vulgar limericks as he combs Christie’s back yard for dead women, but the first half of Christie In Love drags a little for a play barely more than an hour long.
But the tension picks up in second act with unsettling scenes of violent masturbation, exhaustive interrogation, and a reconstruction of Christie’s attempts at seduction.
“Society can not allow the f**king of handbags, pussy cats, or dead women,” booms Curran’s absolute bastard of a cop – in a line I’d never imagine was written nearly half a century ago.
Christie’s sadism, to him, seems nothing exceptional in a society rife with it. Loud, vicious, macho and aggressively dominant, the superb Curran plays Christie’s nemesis, delivering even the sickest lines with perfectly timed black humour.
The guy’s got zero tolerance for society’s moral decline but displays even more misogynistic contempt for Christie’s victims than the killer has.
This was only Brenton’s second play, written for the Royal Court in 1969, yet Christie In Love’s bleak, fantastically vile dialogue, its gallows humour, imaginative use of the King’s Head snug performance space, and faultless performances from its exceptionally talented cast of three, make this an unforgettable play about the most pitiful of British monsters.
Christie In Love runs at the King’s Head Theatre until June 18.
Christie In Love’s bleak, fantastically vile dialogue, its gallows humour and faultless performances from its talented cast of three, make this an unforgettable play.