Blackmail review – play that brought Hitchcock a hit is retooled for today | Theatre


An artist is dead in his Chelsea studio, stabbed in the throat, blood everywhere. But this stage is no crime scene: the only red stuff is the strawberry jam that policeman Harold Webber spreads on his bread. That’s because Mark Ravenhill has sliced off the first act from Charles Bennett’s thriller, best known for becoming Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie in 1929.

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

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

Harold has been assigned the murder case, which could bring about promotion, and the conflict between public duty and personal loyalty to his fiancee gives Bennett’s play the suspenseful momentum of a potboiler (further boosted by the arrival of a blackmailer).

Ravenhill’s version includes a wealth of social context. It’s the summer of 1928: a kitchen radio tells of Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral and the Equal Franchise Act giving women over 21 the right to vote, but in the backroom of their cornershop, Ada tuts about Alice’s flapper style and narrows her daughter’s horizons. Awe of a higher social class is shown as one reason why Alice accompanied the artist back to his home, while Ravenhill’s extra emphasis on the abuse of power, and its attendant complicity, resonate in the age of #MeToo.

There are other headline 2022 issues, too, such as cronyism and wavering trust in the police to protect women. The challenge, mostly but not always achieved, is to treat these seriously while also oiling the wheels of an edge-of-your-seat thriller. “Everyone loves a murder,” says Ada, anticipating extra newspaper sales in the shop. That applies to theatregoers who might expect a certain sort of old-fashioned mystery but get some extra queasy realism too, which can sometimes prove a jarring combination.

Like Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, there’s an acute awareness of the inherent theatricality of the justice process, and like I Confess there are compelling moral quandaries. Some of the characterisations need further complexity, however, and Anthony Banks’s stylish production could do with ratcheting up the tension and pace.

Patrick Walshe McBride, as the blackmailer, excels when reflecting on the hidden lives of gay men in the 20s. Though languidly sly, like Donald Calthrop in the film, he seems more irritant than menace to the couple and there is a little too much humour in the mix – especially in the scene where the word “knife” is repeated, to comic rather than chilling effect.

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

Arielle Smith’s choreography turns a rumba between Alice and Harold into an aftershock of trauma but that sequence doesn’t yet startle as it might. David Woodhead’s handsome, jutting design gives a striking cutaway of the corner building, with lamp-lighters, stray dogs and cyclists bustling around the edges. There’s a pulsing, spectral sound design from Ben and Max Ringham while Howard Hudson’s lighting of the shop’s latticed glass creates a palpable sense of confinement.

One smart design touch among many is the silhouette of a ghostly nightdress hanging in a window, evoking the image of Anny Ondra in the film. Hitchcock casts quite the shadow but by the end Ravenhill emerges as a master of moral suspense.

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