Chests are handy items of furniture. You can keep anything in them; books, old clothes, or, in the case of Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope, a newly strangled murder victim.
But it is not enough for the student killers in Hamilton’s 1920s yarn to hide the body; they invite the boy’s father and friends over for a party and serve canapés from the cadaver-concealing chest.
Played straight through without interval in the rearranged in-the-round Almeida auditorium, there is nowhere for the murderers to hide from the prying eyes of the audience; the Mark Thompson-designed sitting room, dominated by the body-hiding box and a luxuriant chandelier, is open to all sides as the killers play their dangerous game with the gathered guests. As they dance around the subject of murder the tension rises and falls like waves breaking on a midnight beach. Do the guests suspect? Will the secret slip out?
Roger Michell’s production is full of brave choices; the in-the-round setting, the lack of interval to hold the tension, the first 15 minutes being played to only the light of a flickering fire which on another winter’s day could have seemed comforting, but in this situation resembles more the flames of hell celebrating the murderers’ lack of morality.
Blake Ritson, as the Nietzsche-inspired dominant half of the felonious friends, plays a confident, arrogant, excited Wyndham Brandon, who concocts this Grand Guignol game for no other reason than because he could. Alex Waldmann, as his accomplice Granillo, has the nervousness, wide eyes and flushed cheeks of a 12-year-old out of his depth and doing exactly what his best friend tells him.
Most of the cast revel in their characters, from Ritson’s deliciously deviant Brandon, to the vacuous party guests Leila (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Kenneth (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) whose dim, naive prattling is played up, and the mouse-like Mrs Debenham (Emma Dewhurst) for whom just speaking is an effort. Bertie Carvel nearly steals the show with his cynical, limping, lisping poet Rupert Cadell, the one guest who might have enough gumption to see what is right under his nose.
Though the piece has a clunky start as the previous actions of the murderous mates are explained, there is devilish fun to be had from seeing how far the plot can be pushed before the cat is let out of the bag… or the corpse is let out of the chest.