Ruth Rendell was best known for her Inspector Wexford novels, but she also (as Barbara Vine) wrote several somewhat darker psychological thrillers. One of the most successful of these was Gallowglass, which has now been adapted for the stage by Margaret May Hobbs.
In medieval times a ‘gallowglass’ was a warrior in the service of a Celtic chieftain. The gallowglass here is the unfortunate Joe, a disturbed youth who’s about to throw himself under a London tube train when he’s pulled back to safety by Sandor Wincanton. His rescuer may have saved Joe’s life but he wants something in return, telling him ‘Your life belongs to me now’. With a mixture of oddball charm and menace, Sandor is soon exercising a sinister level of control over naïve and easily manipulated Joe. He enlists him in a scheme to kidnap Nina, a glamorous and fabulously wealthy ex-model who lives with her businessman husband Ralph in a Suffolk country mansion. She has her own gallowglass: Paul, who’s employed as Nina’s driver and bodyguard, and whose relationship with her seems to be becoming more than just professional. And as the plot thickens Sandor’s motives for the planned kidnapping prove to be rather more complex than they may at first appear.
We also encounter Joe’s foster sister Tilly, Sandor’s mother Diana and Paul’s young daughter Jessica. Sandor and Joe are the most fully developed characters, but while the others are generally quite thinly drawn the contrasts between them enliven the play and the actors give strong performances. Diana (Karen Drury), who likes a glass of wine or two, and the loud, extrovert Tilly (Rachael Hart) both add humour to the evening, while Paul Opacic’s Paul is equally convincing as Nina’s sturdy protector and Jessica’s doting father. Joe Eyre excellently captures Sandor’s arrogance and coldblooded contempt for others, while Dean Smith is a very believable Joe. Several of the cast are familiar faces from their roles in TV series including Last Tango In Halifax, London’s Burning and Brookside.
One or two of the scenes are perhaps overlong, but things speed up in the second half and the many twists and turns of the plot – while occasionally stretching one’s credibility – hold your attention and keep the audience entertained. Clever changes of set evoke well the play’s numerous locations. The number of crime dramas currently on television testifies to the public’s enthusiasm for them, so if you’re a fan of the genre why not leave the sofa behind and enjoy a chilling tale of villainous obsession performed live on stage instead?
*** A dark, unsettling thriller
Gallowglass continues at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton until Saturday 17 February 2018.