Review: Children of Darkness, Leicester Square Theatre

“Why should I hang when the Prime Minister is spared?”

There’s no two ways about it, this is an odd little number. Written by an American in the late 1920s trying to recreate a European theatre style of the mid 1700s, Edwin Justus Mayer’s
Children of Darkness is set in the infamous Newgate Prison ostensibly in 1725, on the eve of the execution of Jonathan Wild, a notorious crime lord. In the gaoler’s domain, we see a range of prisoners from the higher level of society willing and able to purchase anything at a price, but given the dark forces of power, greed, lust and corruption are much in evidence, even within the authorities, this is a look at the less palatable way in which society can develop.

However, the plotting and characters take the backseat to Mayer’s use of overly florid and often amusing (though not always for the right reason) vocabulary. There’s an overreliance on period slang, to the extent that a glossary is provided in the programme: who knew ‘buttock and files’ meant a thieving whore or a bridle-cull was a highwayman?! One is often left chuckling at the use of language here, I’m determined to use the phrase ‘I abominate you!’ at some point this week along with ‘Harken to me madam’, but it does get distracting especially as the development of this language has been done at the expense of any careful plotting or character progression.
As the evil gaoler Snap, Don Cotter was quite convincing in his manipulation of his charges and he was more than matched by a sadly under-used Joe Shefer as the poisoner Lord Wainwright, a great study in controlled madness and unapologetic evil. Cary Crankson was also good as Wild, hoodwinked into believing he might escape being hanged, and it is these supporting characters that provide the most fun for the evening. David Eaton as the poet Cartwright and Ashley Gunstock as the mysterious Count La Ruse suffer by comparison as they are saddled with Meyer’s clumsy attempts at creating more complex characters, the latter’s final coup de grace striking an uncomfortable note despite Gunstock’s best efforts.

As the daughter, Kirsty Neilson is the one character in more modern dress and possessed of an anachronistic haircut, presumably trying to draw the conclusions that this is a timeless set of characters, but it doesn’t really pay off. Neilson does well but is a tad too young and fresh-faced to play the lascivious Laetitia. And having her sing nursery rhymes (Oranges & Lemons and Ring-a-ring-a-roses) was a staging choice which puzzled more than anything, I couldn’t see what it added or indeed what the connection was to the material.

In the tiny space of the Leicester Square Theatre basement, the general staging is well executed for the most part: the play is performed basically in the round, with some seats for the actors amongst the audience, bringing us even closer into the action which was a nice touch. However, I spent much of the second half looking at one or other of the actors’ backs up close so some care does need to be taken to rework the blocking so it is more balanced.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval)

So an intriguing play and quite unlike anything else on in London at the moment: this has both its plusses and its minuses so could be worth a punt.

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

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