reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 20 February

Gallowglass is one of the psychological crime novels which Ruth Rendell wrote under the name of Barbara Vine. It weaves numerous threads into the web of its story. It is a tale about the effect of the past on the present and adapter Margaret May Hobbs is skillful in the way she draws us into the mystery.

We begin on one of Paddington Station’s Underground platforms. Joe Herbert, a young drifter is about to thrown himself under an incoming train but is prevented by Sandor Wincanton. He’s a young man on the graft in more ways than one, with a moneyed as well as troubled background.

The developing relationship of dependency between these two opposites is well brought out by Joe Eyre (Sandor), all black-clad educated arrogance, and Dean Smith (Joe), one of life’s malleable nonentities. Smith has the more difficult of the two rôles to sustain and gathers our sympathy as Joe is swept ever deeper into Sandor’s plans.

Central to these is former model Nina Abbott (Florence Cady). Nina is now the wife of an older wealthy East Anglian landowner, the second such match she has made. In the course of her previous marriage she had suffered a horrendous kidnapping; the fear that history might repeat itself sears both herself and her husband Ralph Apsoland (Richard Walsh).

As protection for her he hires Paul Garnett (Paul Opacic), a man who has to make a stable home for his young daughter Jessica (Eva Sayer) while sorting out the fallout from his failed marriage. Then there’s another appointee to the Apsoland staff – Colombo (Matthew Wellman) who doesn’t quite to fit in.

Sandor’s doting mother Diana is also on the periphery; Karen Drury gives her gullibility pathos in her two scenes. Joe’s foster-sister Tilley is a far more lively and brash personality; Rachael Hart gives this young woman in a camper-van a sharp edge, of the sort born from experience.

Director-designer Michael Lunney sprawls the fast-moving action through fast-changing locations with a judicious use of scenes played in front of projected backgrounds with appropriate sound effects (White Tip Media) alternating with realistic room settings split across the stage.

It does keep the action – and therefore the tension – fast-flowing but perhaps inevitably never quite allows the fullness of the characterisations to mature. For example, Cady’s Nina seems almost a shadow in her own drama and Walsh’s Ralph remains a conventional two-dimensional country toff. Opacic and Eyre break out of this mist, perhaps because their parts have more of an extended edge.

Four star rating.

Gallowglass runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 24 February with matinées on 22 and 24 February. The Middle Ground Theatre Company tour is also at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (Southend) between 24 and 28 April.

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