Before being closed completely the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds used to contain wax models of some of the most notorious serial killers in history. In amongst this motley group was a figure of a non-descript balding man who looked as if he wouldn’t hurt a fly. But looks can be deceptive although often overlooked in the quest for more well-known murderers, this model had earned its place in the chamber for a series of murders over a 10 year period. But, what of the man himself, what was the ‘Rillington Strangler’ like as a person and what drove him to do the things he did? Well, Howard Brenton’s 1969 play Christie in Love currently undergoing a revival at the King’s Head Theatre, attempts to answer some of those questions
In March 1953, a young, possibly green police constable (Daniel Buckley) is gently digging in the back garden of 10 Rillington Place. The constable is obviously not happy with the task in hand and, to take his mind off it, he makes up and recites obscene limericks. The constable is joined by a Detective Inspector (Jake Curran). The Inspector reminds the constable of what he is looking for – human bones, probably female – and encourages him to get on with the job and not to dwell on the details too much or let himself be overwhelmed by the scale of the discoveries so far in the property. Later, the Inspector is interviewing the former tenant of the property – one John Reginald Halliday Christie (Murray Taylor) – about the various dead bodies found in his old home. The detective and Christie seem to almost spar with each other, although Christie is not showing any emotions as he answers the questions thrown, sometimes virtually spat, at him by the Inspector who is obviously trying to goad him into losing control. When Christie does, he reveals more about his modus operandi and gives a small insight into his reasoning.
There is often a problem when reviewing a show that has been around as long as Christie in Love in that it was written at a certain time, in this case, in 1969, and the writing itself should not really be criticised. However, away with the unwritten rules I say. Although only one act and lasting roughly an hour, the play is really split into four segments. The first is between the constable and inspector and I have to be honest and say I didn’t enjoy their ‘banter’ at all. It seemed inappropriate to the job they were doing and, to my mind went on a bit long. But, then I thought about it a bit more. This story took place in a different time and, in many ways a different world. In the 1950s the police were not as well organised or professional as they are today and the reality is that, whilst the ‘gallows humour’ the two cops expressed would probably happen nowadays, it would have been more controlled and the frankly misogynistic comments they made about some of Christie’s victims would never be heard in public as they were. The second and third segments – involving Christie directly – were really strong, in fact I would have liked them, particularly the interview with the inspector, to have lasted longer. The final segment was similar to the first in tone and layout and, again reflected the time of the story.
Moving on from the writing, the staging of the play was excellent. The set, designed by Christopher Hone, is a deceptively simple wire pit filled with crumpled newspapers totally dominates the performance area and, rather like Christie himself, contains a mass of hidden secrets. It is however, the three actors, under the, sometimes subtle, sometimes brutal, direction of Mary Franklin, who really make the play. And here, I will have to single out Murray Taylor who brought Christie to life in a genuinely believable and quite horrifying way. Like the man himself, Murray’s Christie is very nondescript. The kind of chap that you probably wouldn’t even notice as he wandered through the streets. In fact, if there was ever a personification of the song Mr Cellophane, then this is it. And then, suddenly Mr Nondescript changes and there were moments when Christie was making eye contact with members of the audience as he talked and, I have to say, it was extremely unnerving. Both of the other actors were great in their roles and although I didn’t necessarily like their characters they felt like a pretty authentic representation of the police force of the time.
Overall then, Christie in Love was a difficult play to watch at times. Personally I don’t think the writing worked well all the time but I cannot fault the execution of the show which was disturbing and at the same time really spiked my interest in this horrific story of this man and his truly terrible crimes.
Review by Terry Eastham
Before Myra Hindley, the Yorkshire ripper, Fred and Rosemary West, there was John Christie. During a decade of horror Christie murdered eight women, and hid their bodies around a Notting Hill boarding-house, 10 Rillington Place. By day he was a prissy-looking post office clerk: by night a modern Bluebeard.
Howard Brenton’s 1969 award-winning and shockingly funny play uncovers the crime which changed British society and triggered the abolition of capital punishment.
A bungled and corrupt police investigation. An innocent man hanged. A serial killer in plimsolls on the loose.
Rough Haired Pointer’s past work includes NOONDAY DEMONS by Peter Barnes, George and Weedon Grossmith’s THE DIARY OF A NOBODY, Joe Orton’s FRED & MADGE, THE YOUNG VISITERS by Daisy Ashford and THE BOY WHO CRIED by Matt Osman.
25th May to 18th June 2016