The Standard Short Long Drop

Reviewer's Rating

One of the luxuries of reviewing in London is that shows that have enjoyed success in Edinburgh over the summer often receive a follow-up run in London. One such is Rachel Garnet’s new play, which I was particularly keen to catch given the outstanding quality of ‘Starcrossed’ her blank-verse riffing off ‘Romeo & Juliet’ which did so well at Wilton’s last year. I was not disappointed.

This is a very different kind of play, though also focused on the bonding in stressful circumstances of two contrasted male characters. We find ourselves in York Jail in 1885, in a cell shared by two prisoners. One, Alistair, is an older man of some education, who is busy writing various messages which he posts through the bars of the cell in case they are picked up and acted upon. We do not know why he is in prison, and he – at least initially – is not telling. Alongside him is a much younger man, ‘Ludley’, all jittery anxiety and palpable fears, who is in prison for stealing horses, and who cannot read or write.

Gradually, as the sequence of short scenes progresses we learn more about them. Garnet has a great gift for naturalistic dialogue, both poignant and humorous and for the most part the exposition of information is dramatically integrated and thoroughly absorbing. We learn that both men are awaiting execution, but in very different circumstances. Alistair, we finally discover, has been the leader of a strike who became involved in violence and arson, after an attack on his daughter by a foreman. We also discover that Ludley is apparently taking the blame for his brother’s murder of a woman who observed their horse-rustling. An extra twist is added once the prison authorities inform Ludly that he will be given a stay of execution if he contrives the hanging of his cell mate. Thus a thriller element is added to the equation too.

These are dark and heavy themes, but that should not put off potential audiences. The eloquence of the writing and the delicacy and variety of the acting ensures that a lively dramatic impulse with a light touch runs through the whole. There is no trace of didacticism or preachiness or morbidity. We do learn quite a lot about techniques of hanging and about the iniquities of labour relations in this era; but the author and actors find plenty of quirky humour with which to punctuate things. There are also contemporary echoes to be found, whether of the desperate lengths to which deprivation reduces people or the brutalities of the justice system; but this is all subtly done, and remains there simply for those who want to find it over and above the narrative flow.

The two actors are outstanding in every way, in roles that must be draining to perform, both physically and mentally. Credit should also go to the designer and director for placing the action in the former horse hospital of Camden Market, now the Vanguard Theatre. This rough-and-ready period venue hardly needs any adaptation as a prison, and the intimacy and simplicity of the set (a bed, a stool and a prison wall, with the audience in the round) contributes a rare intensity to an experience that deserves the attention of every regular theatre-goer.