Executioner Number One at Soho Theatre
With a recent YouGov poll – so maybe take it with a pinch of salt – showing that 53% of Leave voters want to bring back the death penalty, the arrival of Toby Whithouse’s Executioner Number One feels prescient. The play is set in an alternative present, 40 years after capital punishment was reinstated by public vote following the Guildford and Birmingham bombings. Whithouse filters this dystopia through Ian, a weaselly little man (with a weaselly little moustache) eager to become the country’s number one executioner after the death of his mentor.
The low ceilings and black walls of the Soho Theatre’s upstairs space are an apt choice for a hangman’s lair. Designer Andrew Purcell has used the back wall to produce a collage of the man’s home and work life, where dusty TVs and CCTV cameras merge with the halogen lights of a fishmongers (Ian’s day job) and the cosy twee-ness of the Little Englander’s front room. The level of detail is delightful, with books like Yesterday’s Britain and jigsaws of some ill-defined “Halcyon Days” tucked away in the corner.
That detail extends to the narrative, for Executioner Number One packs a startling number of ideas into 60 or so minutes. The historic vote that provides the seed of the story captures the dangers of running a referendum when tensions and emotions are running high. This leads to a disastrous, throwback parallel present that skews the retrograde opinions that have gained prevalence in the last few years. There are flirtations with the adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, with “prohibited literature” and arrests for “distributing leaflets”, while the backbone of workplace drama even manages to touch upon the march of modernisation and what that means for “traditional” jobs.
Despite its grim resonance, where a Brexit/Trump-adjacent mindset is taken to its warped extreme, Whithouse never belabours his point. The piece works just as well as a character study about the weight of inhumane power as it does a social commentary. Ian is basically the Daily Mail incarnate, exhibiting the insecure mannerisms of Alan Partridge but with an extra injection of patriotic fervour. Initially, the comedy isn’t quite macabre enough, causing Whithouse’s performance to err towards broadness. Yet it is gradually revealed that beneath his chummy exterior Ian quietly seethes – one can almost see the rage and regret ripple under his skin. The final 15 minutes or so are particularly galling, the actor eliciting repulsion and pity as he unveils a distressing tale of an execution gone wrong.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Executioner Number One is at Soho Theatre from 29th March until 15th April 2017, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Executioner Number One here: