“This tiny production has no business being as good as it is and, the cherry on the cake, it is perfectly succinct”
The King’s Head brings to life Edgar Allan Poe’s short horror story in vivid brutal detail.
With no props, no stage design, the story is left entirely in the bloody hands of our anti-hero, played by Keaton Guimarães-Tolley, and multi-instrumentalist Catherine Warnock.
The story is a simple one, as with all great horror stories: a man, once tender of heart, grows restless and morose over the years, and in a drunken stupor murders his beloved cat. Henceforth he is plagued by guilt and eventually driven to madness.
Where some might have felt the need to add fuss and embellishment, this production understands that the story is made all the more affective by its plain telling. The narrator’s cravat, removed from his neck and tied into a small red noose, is plenty enough to make the audience gasp and shudder as an invisible cat hangs slack in its knot.
That being said, there is nothing plain about Catherine Warnock’s instrumentation. Moving easily and swiftly between clarinet, flute and violin to suit the scene, it’s really her presence that allows the King’s Head such a spartan design. Not only does she contribute the entire fraught soundtrack, but she also acts as wordless long-suffering wife, and silent jury to the narrator’s crimes. An ingenious addition to an otherwise one-man play, giving depth and true terror to this small tale.
Keaton Guimarães-Tolley shows fantastic range, beginning as a sweet, gangly goof, and morphing into a monstrous wreck. A perfect casting.
This tiny production has no business being as good as it is and, the cherry on the cake, it is perfectly succinct. There’s no need for an interval to break the building tension, because it’s all over in 45 minutes, and the audience is left reeling out of the auditorium, wanting only to go home and hold their cats lovingly and whisper, “I would never.”
“Above all, this is a comedy showcase with plenty to laugh at”
We start with a few basic rules of dating. But, despite their comic value, not ones that we really want to take on board. The protagonist – a character called ‘The Manny’ – is supposedly enjoying his lifestyle. By day he looks after posh kids and his nights are filled with casual dates. The lack of joy or purpose is unconcealed. Deliberate even. He won’t allow himself to feel anything substantial or lasting. “I’m falling for her – I’m going to get hurt” encapsulates an attitude borne of some deep-seated wound, or fear. The reasons behind this are not explored, which makes Sam McArdle’s job of winning the audience over that much harder.
But he succeeds. McArdle, the actor and writer who has brought this one-hander to the stage, also brings the required self-deprecation, initially, for the audience to root for such a self-destructive character. And more than the required amount of humour, albeit of the darker variety. The obvious comparison is ‘Fleabag’, but there are also definite shades of Nick Hornby’s ‘About A Boy’. “The Manny” is inspired by McArdle’s personal experience of being a male nanny, working for rich single mums in West London. Early drafts were written during lockdown, so it is inevitable that the themes of loneliness and detachment are going to rise to the surface.
Just as he is resigning himself to a life passing by without any real purpose, the Manny meets Molly, a once-hopeful actress who is now just as disillusioned with her life as he is with his. She sells beetroot brownies in Borough market, as opposed to playing Cleopatra on Broadway. The two are drawn to each other. Meanwhile, in his parallel existence, he meets Michael, a precocious seven-year-old Right-Wing child with no father figure. Until the Manny comes along, that is, and they both have lessons in life to deal to each other. Mel Fullbrook’s sharp direction shifts the action between the two scenarios with the seamless precision of a film editor.
The show runs into difficulties, however, when the character of the Manny truly starts to unravel, and the premise of the comedy becomes muddied. As McArdle digs deeper, he exposes fragments of the subtext, but doesn’t pull them up to the surface. It is clear that the Manny has ‘issues’ and although it’s not explicit, the term ‘mental health’ is never far from his lips. And it is not clear whether societal pressure or the increasing use of dating apps is being blamed for the characters’ lack of connection. These people are hurting in some way, and while we can relate to the situations, it’s not easy to relate to the characters. The ‘Manny’ himself comes full circle – which is a touch unsatisfying as it offsets any sense of self-realisation, redemption or of a journey we can empathise with or connect to.
But maybe we aren’t supposed to over analyse. Above all, this is a comedy showcase with plenty to laugh at. McArdle has the art of entertainment off to a tee. With his comic timing and easy demeanour with his audience, he has the expressiveness of a true raconteur; which is a precious gift in itself.