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Conversation with an acid bath murderer
Published on Wednesday, 18 May 2011
3

3 stars

Old Ship Hotel (venue website)
Theatre
16-19, 23-26 May, 8:00pm-9:00pm; 20-21, 27-28 May, 8:00pm-9:00pm, 10:00pm-11:00pm
Reviewed by Mathilda Gregory

 Suitable for age 15+ only.

In the creepy, cramped confines of the Old Ship Hotel Wine Cellars, a disturbing story unfolds: John Haigh killed six people in London and Sussex and disposed of their bodies – thinking this meant he could never be convicted – in oil drums of sulphuric acid. In this intimate and atmospheric play, a convivial and charming Haigh tells his own version of the story.

What could have driven such an upstanding and proper man to such stomach-churning crimes? Childhood traumas, financial gain and even a blood-drinking fetish are proposed. But then, towards the end of the piece, Haigh seems to be telling us that he will simply remain inscrutable, enjoying the power he has from keeping his secrets. These ever-changing messages – bearing in mind this whole story is coming from the man himself – feel muddied.

The plot jumps also around in time, ending up feeling unstructured. The spooky space of the wine cellars is awkwardly shaped (with terrible sight lines), adding to a sense that this production is a bit confused and under-thought.

Haig's relationship with his naïve young girlfriend is a sweet counterpoint to his dastardly dealings, and has more than a suggestion of Brighton Rock's Rose and Pinkie about it. But in the end, she feels under-used.  Her devastated reaction to his trial and sentencing seems just a little trite; her only revelation that she doesn't trust men now. Um… really?

Murder and the psychology of murders has proved itself to be endlessly fascinating and popular as a subject for drama. The depths of human depravity invite speculation, and this particular tale has been adapted many times. The description of the process Haigh goes through to turn a human body into 'sludge' is grotesque and morbidly satisfying in its explanatory detailing, but, in the end, we gain little more insight into this case than learning the bare facts. And a 'conversation with…' should perhaps be more revealing.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2011.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.