A tense and claustrophobic thriller which explores the dangers of unrequited love when left to fester for years, Gallowglass, by Ruth Rendell, takes the audience into the mind of a deranged lover who has spent years plotting how to be reunited with his supposed betrothed.
A chance meeting in exceptional circumstances on a railway platform between recently released mental patient Joe (Dean Smith) and erudite (but somewhat psychotic) Sandor (Joe Eyre) leads to an unlikely relationship. Eyre plays Sandor as a controlling, highly functioning sociopath whose knife-edge personality disorders make for very uncomfortable viewing, never letting the audience relax into believing they know him. Smith’s Joe grows in confidence, never more so than when he recognises that he is Sandor’s ‘Gallowglass’ – a Chiefs Servant – and is happy to have a definition.
Between them, they explore Sandor’s past life in Italy, his appreciation of fine wine and his recounting of tales of kidnap and mystery, yet all the while there is an under-current that he has been planning something for many years and just needed a stooge to trigger him into action. Very quickly, he convinces Joe to undertake surveillance on a rich couple’s luxury home, with the initial suggestion that they are going to burgle the property. In truth, Sandor has designs to recreate a kidnap/ransom that he had ‘heard’ about whilst living in Italy.
The rich couple, Ralph (London’s Burning’s Richard Walsh) and Nina (the stunningly beautiful Florence Cady), are very security conscious, driven by the fact that they live in a remote country house but in truth there is something else giving them cause to be overly cautious. They employ Paul Garnett (Emmerdale’s Steve Marchant, Paul Opacic) to be their driver, support and additional help, mainly to look after the young and attractive Nina. Paul, and his daughter Jess move into the converted barn and begin to settle into village life, but when trips to the coast and confiding conversations become the norm, he and Nina find themselves being drawn towards one another. It is this compromise that creates a dilemma for Paul and ultimately a decision for Nina.
It is now that all paths seem to cross – Sandor recreates his past, Paul finds his future being put in doubt and Joe is left being swept along with twisted loyalties. The ending, though not entirely surprising, was still enough of a twist to leave some in the audience thinking “ah, now I see”.
This is most certainly a tale of two halves – the first act is very deliberate, slow at times in creating the foundation for the characters, almost like being dealt a hand of cards, then having them taken back and the same ones dealt again. (The cast did very well not to be upstaged by a rogue pigeon who had taken to perching up in the flies) The second plots a pretty predictable path through to the crescendo which, although quicker in pace, just doesn’t quite have the urgency needed to grab the audience and whisk them to the final ‘reveal’.
There are some plot holes and inconsistencies, especially around Paul’s previous job(s) and his ‘reactions’ which, given the amount of time on stage, could have been easily filled, or it could be better suited to being an hour long single act play with more even pacing throughout, but on the whole this is a well performed thriller.