Fierce, dangerous, nimble and physically unsettling. The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, which sees a man toss out his conscience and soar to terrifying heights, will make you feel sick. I felt a rumble in the pit of my stomach throughout Vicky Featherstone’s enthralling production; I cannot wait to go again.
Dennis Kelly has let the leash off his snarling writing and created a wild beast of a show. This play has chops! Kelly wrote the book for Matilda and there’s a wide-eyed cynicism about this work, as well as a glinting humour, that feels Dahl-esque. With the help of a friendly chorus of actors, we are drawn in close and then slowly squeezed until we can barely breathe.
Things kick off with a low-key and light-hearted introduction, which takes us whizzing through the early years of Gorge Mastromas (Tom Brooke, all bulging eyes and hollow cheeks). The cast sits on crappy plastic chairs and the years fly by, painted with great flourishes from Kelly. We listen as Gorge repeatedly chooses goodness over personal gain and paints his life grey. The blue night-sky backdrop is lit up by a few solitary stars, Tom Scutt’s intelligent set gently introducing the themes of fate, design and choice.
Featherstone shades this opening brilliantly, using the actor’s different accents and intonations to lend great colour to Kelly’s beautifully written opening gambit. The tone undulates constantly and fluidly. We laugh at Gorge’s fumbling attempts with the ladies, his struggles to impress at school and his passive acceptance of a mediocre life.
Then, one day, Gorge is presented with a way out. The set opens out into a damp squib of on office, with beige walls and washed out colleagues. Within this faded setting, Gorge is offered a chance to change; to join a private club full of life’s winners. All he has to do is lie, damn the consequences and never regret. Gorge accepts.
The production changes gear. The scenes become punchier, weirder and laced with threat. It is not that danger rumbles beneath the dialogue – that would be too obvious and too easy to adjust to. Instead, danger lurks around the corner, peaking in and waiting to pounce. The skin begins to tingle, as Gorge’s lust for success builds and builds, grabbing at everything, crushing anything and steadily, stealthily eating up his soul.
Tom Brooke is exceptionally good. By the end of the play, Gorge Mastromas has been eaten up by evil. He is a crust of a man. But the journey up to this point is taken with small, tiptoe steps. We watch Gorge become possessed by his own desire. It is frightening believable everything is – how reachable and logical every step Gorge takes is, despite the horror he enacts. There are such blasts of darkness from Gorge – moments of liquid evil that threaten to engulf. Despite this, Gorge is never out of reach. He is always human.
Even writing about it now, the stomach clenches. Once one realises the lengths Gorge will go, the scenes crackle even more ferociously, always on the verge of exploding. The cast plays each scene at face value, never anticipating the end point and allowing moments of great calm and humour along the way. Kate O’Flynn finds incredible lightness in her role as Gorge’s love interest, only embracing the depths of her sadness in the play’s dying moments.
Tom Scutt’s thoughtful set plays an important role, dancing teasingly about the edges of Kelly’s script. A red line motif builds throughout the production. At first this red line is contained within the set; an oddly glowing strip in Gorge’s hotel room. But as Gorge sheds his skin, money rising and morals falling over the decades, this red line – reminiscent of the stock market - rises with him. In the last scene, set in the present day, the red line has fallen and spilled out onto the stage; a devastating descent that has touched us all.