We meet Anthony (Ciarán Owens), a man just shy of thirty-three (as he fond of telling us) at his arrival at a chemsex party. He is a seasoned pro, bantering with Ian Hallard’s accountant who is in charge of metering out the GBL doses mixed in with apple juice or lucozade. Just when he is about to chat up a potential hook-up, Anthony’s night is interrupted by the ghost of George (Harry Lister Smith), a past fling. George, barely twenty and was infatuated with Anthony, has recently died of a purported overdose on Tumulus, a hill on Hampstead Heath. Only, there is more to his death than the Ham&High would care to report; George reveals to Anthony that he was murdered, and implores his ex-lover to find his killer. Thus begins Anthony’s quest through North London to find a missing necklace and justice for a man, for whom, despite himself, he was beginning to develop feelings.
As Anthony meets with exes, police officers, potential love interests, and Scottish aunts who know more than they seem, Hallard and Lister Smith zoom around the stage playing dozens of roles each. They are also the special effects crew: as Anthony suffers withdrawal symptoms and crippling anxiety, Owens; supporting castmates create great clangings of metal against metal by banging scissor blades together. When Anthony stumbles through the Heath, pursued by an assailant, Hallard sprays smoke at his feet. In the intimate Soho Theatre, where the audience sits mere inches from the action, this staging feels electrifyingly visceral.
Christopher Adams’s script is arch; taking particular aim at the hypocrisies of well-to-do of the North London gay society. At a birthday gathering that Anthony attends at his ex-boyfriend’s house, the well-heeled guests take swipes at each other over painfully middle-class food (“lozenges of champagne jelly” feature). For all the play’s fizzing humour, Adams has much to say about the darker aspects of these men’s lives. None of his characters are happy, all are seeking intimacy with other men in ways that don’t involve drugs and sex, yet none can really get there, all live in world where no one really cares about boys dying alone in the middle of the night in a London park. Even for a self proclaimed noir, it is unusually bleak.
Tumulus’ grittiness makes for an engaging thriller, but it is also its undoing. This is a play almost entirely devoid of tenderness; while it’s one-liners were barbed enough to deliver laughs and polished performances from all three of its actors, I was never fully able to fully emotionally invest in any of the characters. With an ending that is mechanical in tying up the mystery but does little to provide character growth or any redemptive arc. The darkness in which Tumulus revels, feels less hard-hitting than more and more banal with every snarky, unhappy line.
- 3 stars