Murder they wrote

Theatre - A witty, gory Jacobean thriller offers titillating entertainment

<strong>The Changeli

The Changeling has something for all the family: three murders, a brutal rape, the amputation of a finger from a corpse, self-inflicted castration, lunacy (real and feigned) and more deceit than you will find even in a dodgy dossier. It is also, intentionally, very funny.

The piece, therefore, seems like a mishmash. The strong principal storyline coexists with a counter-plot that goes nowhere very much. Beatrice-Joanna is a lustful woman who, although betrothed, allows her eye to wander during Mass and rest upon a handsome stranger, Alsemero. Most girls might just sigh with regret, or try a one-night stand, or at the very most break off their engagement, but not Joanna. She decides to resolve her predi-cament by commissioning an ugly and despised servant, De Flores, to bump off the fiancé.

That might have worked nicely, except that the assassin decides that he wants to be remunerated in a currency other than money, and he is none too gentle about extracting his payment from her. That in turn causes Joanna a problem. She has by then become engaged to Alsemero but he, being a good 17th-century Spanish Catholic, expects his bride to be intact on the wedding night. Joanna devises a way of fooling him on that score, but with each deception the penalty rises.

In the counter-plot, two seducers independently have the bright idea of posing as a madman in order to gain access to the asylum, where they can try their luck with the beautiful wife of the presiding doctor.

Not surprisingly, this piece is the work of more than one pen: a collaboration between Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, possibly first performed at the court of King James I in 1624. Tastes have changed since Stuart times, yet the play holds up well, with many quotable lines and fine comedy writing.

This production is early fruit from a three-year collaboration between the Cheek by Jowl company and the Barbican Centre, and is brought to the stage by the familiar partnership of Declan Donnellan as director and Nick Ormerod as designer. The most striking feature of their mise en scène is that they abandon the seating area of the auditorium, opting instead for a makeshift grandstand, built over the stage, which leaves a strip along the back wall. The breadth of the stage allows Donnellan to create highly dynamic action, especially when the lunatics run amok.

The eyesore fire exit becomes the focus of the action. Behind that door Alsemero takes to his bed a veiled virgin, a coun- terfeit bride. On to that door's slim strip of fire-resistant glass sprays the blood of the guilty, for naturally lust does not go unpunished ("'Tis time to die when 'tis shame to live").

The price for this unusual staging is paid by the audience, which has to endure unforgiving plastic seats. As we made our way to the bar after the lengthy first act, we could catch a wistful glimpse in the gloaming of a whole auditorium of un-used, comfortable seating.

The best comedy roles are filled by Phil Cheadle as Antonio, one of those simulating insanity, and Jennifer Kidd as Joanna's virginal maid Diaphanta. Alsemero (Tom Hiddleston) believes that he has a drug which distinguishes maidens from maids. Its three-stage effects produce gawping, sneezing and laughter. Joanna uses Diaphanta as her guinea pig, and Kidd milks the laughs superbly. Cheadle is wonderfully unkempt and ungainly, and moves like a badly wired automaton. Jodie McNee is also amusing as the doctor's tarty wife.

Will Keen brings plenty of menace to the part of the villain De Flores. He is not as ugly as the text demands, but a few red carbuncles help us to understand why Joanna, at least at first, might not be anxious to receive his attentions. Olivia Williams is a pretty and engaging Joanna, while Laurence Spellman has little time to develop the character of her doomed fiancé Piracquo, but makes up for it by strutting around as his blood-stained ghost.

Middleton and Rowley were apparently inspired by two works: John Reynolds's snappily titled The Triumphs of God's Revenge against the Crying and Execrable Sin of Wilful and Premeditated Murder, published in 1621, and Leonard Digges's translation of Gonzalo de Céspedes's Gerardo, the Unfortunate Spaniard (a title that your soon-to-depart theatre critic may adapt for his auto- biography). Such morbid source material was invaluable to Middleton and Rowley as they competed to write plays that were gory, titillating and sensational.

This revival, with its shocking scenes of sex, violence and lunacy, evokes the spirit of that age. It makes a splendid evening of quasi-pornographic entertainment.

Booking on 020 7638 8891 to 10 June