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Review: Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. Royal Court - the highs and lows of Caryl Churchill's sketch plays

Caryl Churchill's new work is a series of four plays linked thematically by their examination of human narrative and understanding of violence through storytelling and myths.

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Rebekah Murrell in Glass (Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp) Royal Court. Photo Johan Persson.

The plays which get increasingly longer as the evening progressing start with Glass, a metaphorical story of a glass girl and her teenage friends one of whom she forms a close relationship. 

It is a tale of abusive relationships in some shape or form - whether it is the overprotective, overbearing parents or the boy who is abused by his father.

There is an amusing interlude where they are all ornaments on a shelf but ultimately it is the piece that is most difficult to pin down.

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Tom Mothersdale in Kill (Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp) Royal Court. Photo Johan Persson.

Kill sees Tom Mothersdale sitting on a cloud above the stage, an open-necked shirt god who smokes while he recites a potted history of the Greek myths focusing on the violence and death.

Mothersdale delivery is rapid bursts, peppered with wry comments about his purpose as a god:

"We can't do everything, we don't exist."

Churchill's script delivered with a hint of ambivalence turns the epic into the ordinary, all the time a boy, representing 'people' sits on the stage scribbling more and more angrily as if feeding off the violence of the stories.

The human fascination with the macabre is plainly laid bare, the problem is that its point is made early, the joke repeated and it almost outstays its welcome. 

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Toby Jones, Deborah Findlay and Sule Rimi in Bluebeard's Friends (Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp) Royal Court. Photo Johan Persson.

Bluebeard's Friends, the third play, imagines the friends of the serial wife murderer from French folklore have discovered his crimes:

"I'm not saying anything. I'm in shock. Should we have noticed."

Of course, the four friends (curiously the playtext doesn't indicate the number of characters or ascribe lines) played by Deborah Findlay, Toby Jones, Sarah Niles and Sule Rimi, go on to talk about it a great deal.

Shock is soon replaced with a morbid fascination and gossipy character assessment that includes his wives - which of them they liked and disliked.

Talents and hobbies

They recall his charm, how he played the piano well and collected porcelain.

The wives blood-soaked dresses hang in the background not so much a reminder of the brutal crimes but a symbol of the fickleness of mankind and what will ultimately become a money-making exercise.

Churchill's script is precis and the cast don't waste a word of it turning macabre into the mundane and exposing the brutal fickleness of human nature.

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Toby Jones, Louisa Harland and Deborah Findlay in Imp (Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp) Royal Court. Photo Johan Persson.

The final, longest piece Imp follows the interval and feels the most like a fully-formed play rather than a sketch.

In a living room, cousins Dot (Deborah Findlay) and Jimmy (Toby Jones) talk about nothing and everything, their nervous young niece Niamh (Louisa Harland) drops by periodically as does Rob (Tom Mothersdale), a homeless man Jimmy has befriended.

Their chat mixes the mundane, ordinary, serious and tragic with the same level of interest and commentary.

Shakespeare references

Jimmy recalls snippets of stories he's heard while out that all have curiously similar plots to Shakespeare plays.

"I saw and old guy this morning when it was raining, used to have his own business and he gave it all over to his daughters, I suppose it was a tax thing and their treating him so badly."

Dot has an 'imp' in a bottle that she believes might grant wishes. Combined with Jimmy's stories it becomes a metaphor for the darkness and danger in the world with little way of controlling it.

Run out of steam

Again there is precision in Churchill's writing, delivered with layered meaning but the piece starts to run out of steam about three-quarters of the way through.

This quartet of plays, at their best, are clever and amusing, throwing a spotlight on the human fickleness and a fascination with the morbid but some feel like overly extended sketches, their ideas, jokes and tropes too frequently repeated. 

I'm giving them three and a half stars.

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. is two and a half hours with an interval and is at the Royal Court until 12 October.

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