Review: Tumulus, VAULT Festival

“I’ve never had a lover die on me before”

Chemsex is one of those subjects that always seems to pop up at festivals and sure enough, in week 1 of the VAULT we find a new play on the very subject by Christopher Adams. But with a sparkingly fresh and darkly witty take and some intelligent and imaginative direction from Matt Steinberg, Tumulus emerges as a cracking piece of theatre, a “chilling queer noir” that entertains as much as it elucidates.

Anthony is well and truly addicted to the chemsex scene in London. He’s holding down his job as an assistant curator at the British Museum just about fine, though that promotion always seems to elude him, as his evenings and weekends are taken up with chasing the next amazing high, the next unmissable party, the next insatiable guy. This high-functioning addict has his certainties shaken though when his one of his latest hook-ups turns up dead on Hampstead Heath.

Adams’ masterstroke is to filter his story through a noir crime genre that never takes itself too seriously. So in Ciarán Owens’ hands, Anthony’s investigations take on a faintly hilarious quality (“with a swish of my raincoat, I left the police station”, “I am myself not yet 33”) even though the appearance of a second body twists the plot into darker, more murderous territory. It also provides much needed occasional lightness as Owens’ spares us nothing of the underlying anguish of this addict.

Steinberg’s direction takes Tumulus to further interesting places in a number of ways. A refusal to use sex to sell the production (either in the publicity or in the production itself) is hugely refreshing and focuses the attention away from the salacious. And having co-stars Ian Hallard and Tom Rhys Harries be foley artists as well as playing all the supporting parts adds to the atmosphere in the creation of an increasingly unnerving soundscape, keeping audiences on their toes as much as the twisting mystery that unfolds. Recommended.

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 28th January


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